Flashy cars, glamorous women, and a string of the best racing motorcycles money could buy. But Jack Forrest was no dilettante – he was an accomplished, brave and dedicated racer who mixed it with the best in a long and distinguished career.
They don’t make ‘em like Arthur Ronald ‘Jack’ Forrest any more. At the memorial service for Jack in August 2002, his daughter Melina described her father as ‘ an Aussie larrikin’ and ‘a risk taker’. A colourful character to be sure; blond-haired and handsome, and a hugely talented motorcycle racer. His name will forever be immortalised at Forrest’s Elbow, Mount Panorama, but more of that later.
Born in the outback NSW town of Wellington in 1920, Jack’s adolescent years coincided with the Great Depression, when if things were tough in the city, they were nigh on hopeless in the bush. Jack’s father, a horse dealer and trainer, cobbled enough money to shift his family to Sydney, where Jack worked at various jobs. It seemed his luck had changed, and there was even enough money to consider the rather risky and expensive business of racing a motorcycle for pure pleasure. But the dream went little further than being a dream when the Second World War intervened, and Jack became part of the Royal Australian Air Force, ground-based as an engine fitter.
With the cessation of hostilities, it took the Australian motorcycling scene only weeks to regroup and announce race meetings for 1946. One of the first was the NSW Victory TT at Mount Panorama, Bathurst, at Easter 1946, and every keen rider who could find a machine and the fuel to run it was on the entry list. Jack fronted on a 500 Norton and made the most of a favourable starting position to win the program-closing Bathurst Handicap over ten laps. But this Bathurst win would go un-repeated for ten years, despite Jack’s obvious brilliance in the saddle. Unquestionably, Jack crashed too often, and in these most dangerous of times as far as circuit safety went, he was lucky to emerge relatively unscathed. His most famous prang gave to him the eponymous corner at Australia’s most famous circuit – Forrest’s Elbow on Mount Panorama. It happened in 1947, when Jack crashed on the first day of practice at the severely downhill and adverse camber left hander leading onto Conrod Straight, known variously as The Elbow, or Devil’s Elbow. His left elbow was badly mashed, but after receiving medical clearance and having the handlebars of his Norton specially bent so he could reach the controls, Jack started in the title races on Easter Saturday. In the meantime, Harry Hinton had dubbed the corner “Forrest’s Elbow”, much to the amusement of everyone (except Jack) in the pits. In the Senior TT, Jack was soon into the lead and pulling away until his Norton expired – a heartbreaking finale to a painful weekend. But at least the name stuck, and ‘The Elbow’ has been Forrest’s Elbow ever since.
Back at Bathurst a year later, Jack was still hunting that elusive second win, but in the Senior TT was up against Victorian international Frank Mussett, armed with an ex-works Velocette. Nevertheless, Jack clung to the back of the Velo for the first half of the 20-lap race, the pair smashing the lap record on almost every circuit. But at the halfway mark, Jack overstepped it again, tumbling on the mountain at high speed. Regaining his feet, he collected his damaged Norton and made it back to the pits, but his race was over.
Trading in used cars from a base in Tempe, a southern suburb of Sydney, provided Jack with the wherewithal to indulge in his passion for speed, and unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not confine himself to the home tracks, which were few and far between in NSW. He journeyed often to interstate circuits; Marion and Woodside in South Australia, Fishermen’s Bend in Melbourne and the Queensland airfield circuits at Strathpine and Lowood. He had good machinery, and he used it to good effect, and he was also known for his generosity in helping to provide motorcycles for other aspiring riders. Whenever there was a benefit fund set up for the family of a deceased or badly injured rider (and there were quite a few), Jack was always among the first to contribute.
An official Australian title finally came Jack’s way in 1951 at the Australian TT held at the Lowood circuit, near Mount Tarampa 70km west of Brisbane. After finishing second to Maurie Quincey in the 350cc race on a Velocette KTT, Jack switched to his 500 Norton and lapped the entire field twice! He then hopped aboard the 1000cc Vincent Black Lightning he had bought from Tony McAlpine and was comfortably ahead in the Unlimited TT when a split petrol tank sprayed fuel onto the rear tyre and once again dumped him on the tarmac.
Whether it was the frequent loss of skin, the travelling, the pressure of business or his healthy social life, Forrest announced his retirement from the sport and sat out the 1953 season, seemingly content with his decision. He was still a regular at the major meetings at Mount Druitt and at the big Easter weekends at Bathurst, and turned up at Mount Panorama to watch practice and lend a hand in 1954. It was billed to be a repeat of the 1953 ‘international’ clash between Harry Hinton and New Zealand AJS works rider Rod Coleman, but veteran Hinton inexplicably crashed in the opening practice session, breaking his collarbone and three ribs. One of the first visitors to Hinton’s bedside in Bathurst hospital was Forrest, and Harry immediately suggested that Jack take over his ex-works 350 Norton (the 500 had been badly damaged in the spill) for the Junior TT. Jack didn’t even have his leathers or helmet with him, so he borrowed Harry’s gear as well (confusing many spectators), and despite only one short practice session was in the leading bunch as soon as the Junior TT got under way. Coleman surged to the front and stayed there, chased by Bob Brown’s Velocette, but Jack forced his way into third and looked comfortable until the right footrest fell off, forcing him to make several gear changes by hand. By the finish he had slipped back to fourth, but it was still a superb performance after nearly two years out of the saddle, and the experience whetted his appetite for racing once again.
However the win that changed Jack’s career came not on the ‘classic’ circuit, but at the first (of two) 24 Hour races for Production Motorcycles at Mount Druitt, west of Sydney. Jack was good friends with Tom Byrne, the NSW BMW agent, and when plans for the 24 Hour Race were announced he had no troubling convincing Byrne of the value of entering in both the 250cc and the Outright classes. Aboard his own 600cc R68 BMW which he shared with Don Flynn and Len Roberts, the team scored BMW’s first post-war success, covering 648 laps of the 2.2 mile track. The win attracted the attention of the BMW factory, who invited Jack to call upon them should he care to chance his hand in Europe. Needing no further incentive, Jack packed his bags and headed for the 1955 European season. Collecting a production BMW Rennsport racer from the factory, he made his Continental debut at Imola, Italy, where he finished a very creditable fifth behind works Gileras and Moto Guzzis. Soon after he managed to purchase a 250cc NSU Sportmax, which he used to good effect in some non-international German meetings before setting off to contest the Isle of Man TT races. Alas, he got no further than a few laps of practice before crashing his 250 NSU and breaking his collarbone. The NSU factory rebuilt the bike and Jack saw the season out before sailing for home, bringing the BMW and the NSU with him.
Shortly after his return he was back in Queensland to contest the Australian TT at a road circuit at Southport. He won the 250 TT with ease but the NSU expired in the Junior. With assistance from Tom Byrne, he also brought back to Australia a BMW R69 with which to contest the second running of the Mt Druitt 24 Hour. But during a night-time practice session in the week prior to the event, a horse wandered onto the circuit and was rammed at high speed by his co-rider Len Roberts. Roberts died shortly afterwards in hospital and the BMW was withdrawn.
The following Easter, Forrest finally broke his Bathurst jinx, winning the 250cc TT on the NSU and taking a superb win in the Senior on Tony McAlpine’s OHC Rennsport BMW. It was the Senior win that showed just what gritty stuff Forrest was made of. During his 250cc ride, he struck a large hare on Conrod Straight, breaking several bones in his ankle (and one can only assume, in the hare). He stayed aboard to win the race, then fronted for the 350cc event and was leading when the sump plug dropped out of the NSU, tossing him down the road at the flat-out McPhillamy Park bend. Battered but undaunted, and with his swollen ankle heavily strapped inside his boot, he fronted for the Senior TT. Unable to push start the BMW himself, he successfully petitioned officials to allow him to start from the rear of the grid with the aid of a ‘pusher’ – his entrant Tony McAlpine. In treacherous conditions and with rain falling steadily, Forrest blasted through the field and hit the lead on only the second lap, pulling out a big lead, which was fortunate because he dropped the BMW in the muddy water flowing across Hell Corner. Remounting without losing the lead, he continued on to win from Maurie Quincey and Gordon Hunt, both on Nortons. An idea of how bad conditions were can be seen by Forrest’s fastest lap of 3 minutes 12 seconds – ten seconds slower than Quincey’s fastest lap in the Junior TT. It was a memorable victory, and one that did much to dispel Forrest’s image of a playboy racer and to establish him as a serious and very talented competitor.
He began 1957 in a very positive fashion, winning both the 250cc and 500cc Australian Grands Prix at Bandiana, defeating a classy field on a very fast circuit laid out inside the army base. For the 1957 Bathurst meeting, Jack had his own BMW Rennsport, clothed in the fashionable fully enclosing ‘dustbin’ fairing. From the start he shot into the lead and pulled away, but on lap three the whole picture changed. With the front wheel of the BMW pawing the air over the final hump, Forrest locked the front brake as the wheel bit the track surface, snapping one of the brake shoes and rendering the brake virtually useless. Forrest took to the escape road, scattering spectators who had congregated at the barriers at the end of the road. The BMW’s front brake was now out of commission, but this was not obvious to the crowd as he tore back through the field. Forrest’s performance was remarkable as he stalked then passed Maurie Quincey for second, although by now Jack Ahearn was well in front. In his furious chase and despite his brake problems, Forrest clipped a second from the outright lap record to set a new mark of 2.54.
In September that year a contingent of riders journeyed to Coonabarabran in western NSW for a series of attempts on the Australian Land Speed Records. Aboard the BMW, Forrest established new records for the 500, 750 and Unlimited classes at 149.068 mph – a figure that would stand until narrowly eclipsed by Bryan Hindle’s 350 Yamaha in 1973 at 150.30 mph. Shortly afterwards, while competing at Lowood in Queensland, Jack once again crashed at high speed and received multiple injuries after hitting a pool of oil, but recovered in time to make one more foray to Europe in 1958. With his NSU and BMW Rennsport, he concentrated mainly on non-championship international meetings, with a best result of third place in the Austrian 500cc Grand Prix at the ultra-fast Salzburgring. Back home, Jack decided he’d had enough of racing and announced his retirement, but he still stayed closely connected to the motorcycle trade, as well as taking a keen interest in the vintage scene that was starting to become established at this time.
By this stage Jack was a successful businessman, running, among other things, used car yards in Sydney’s southern suburbs. He usually gave the salesmen’s jobs to impecunious mates from the racing game. His former BMW team-mate Don Flynn was working for Jack at one stage and recalled an amusing incident that illustrated one aspect of Jack’s personality. “I had sold a pretty ratty Renault to a very attractive young lady during the week. Unfortunately it blew up and she arrived back at the yard on a Saturday with the Renault on the back of a tow truck. Jack had called in to check on sales, just when this lady was giving me a piece of her mind. In a short space of time he sold her another car, arranged a date, and they were married not long after.”
When a race for Unlimited Production machines was staged as part of the 1962 Bathurst Easter programme, Jack came out of retirement to ride one of the new BMW R69S machines. He was clocked at 132 mph (211 km/h) during practice and looked a sure favourite, but the dead-engine start saw him still on the grid struggling to kick start the BMW as the rest of the field streamed away. Once under way, Forrest tore through the field with all his old aggression, but over-revved the BMW along the way and could climb no further than second behind Vince Tierney’s Norton 650SS. Possibly smarting from that defeat, Jack packed the BMW and journeyed south to the little Darley circuit near Bacchus Marsh to contest the Half Hour Race for Production bikes. Again, Tierney made the running, harried by Allan Osborne on another 650SS Norton, with Jack in third place and nearly a lap behind. Then on the final circuit, Tierney collided with a lapped rider on a 250, bringing them both down, and Osborne was forced off the track and into the bush. With all three unable to restart, Jack swept through to be given the chequered flag in what he had declared would be his last race. This result was soon scrapped by the timekeeper, Bob Payne, who claimed that under the race regulations, “ when the 30-minute race distance expired, both Norton riders had covered the most laps,” and Tierney was declared the winner. Forrest vigorously protested the decision but was not successful, denying him a fairy tale ending to his racing career.
In addition to his exploits on two wheels, Forrest competed at the top level in car rallies, including the Redex Round Australia Trial and the Ampol Trial, and the 1968 London to Sydney Rally, where he co-drove a Volvo with Redex winner Ken Tubman.
Once his racing days were over, Jack continued his involvement with the sport as a sponsor of many up and coming riders. When Tom Byrne gained the NSW distributorship for Kawasaki, Jack convinced him to run a couple of the new A1R 250cc production racers in selected events, beginning with the Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst in 1968; one for Jack Ahearn and the other for Ian McLeod, who won the hotly contested Junior B Grade race. In the inaugural Castrol Six Hour Race in 1970 he entered a BMW R75 for Bob Pressley and Geoff Lucas – the bike leading the race at several stages before being crashed by Pressley. Three years later, Tony Hatton was enlisted to ride a BMW R75/5, entered by Amco Bull Denim jeans. The bike was owned by Tom Byrne and prepared by Don Bain, and although the plan was for Hatton to complete the race solo, one of the two reserve riders listed was Forrest himself. Jack completed several laps of practice in wet and treacherous conditions, but was not called upon to take part in the race itself. According to Hatton, Jack bankrolled a major part of the costs of running the bike, which was ridden to an excellent third place outright.
In his latter years, Jack enthusiastically embraced the vintage and veteran scene, travelling to the annual Parkes Rally each year and restoring a number of very fine old motorcycles, as well as a 1926 Rolls Royce. In 1998 Jack, along with many Australian internationals, was invited to the momentous Assen reunion meeting, where he planned (at the age of 78) to ride an NSU alongside his former rivals. But shortly before he was due to depart he was diagnosed with throat cancer and had to cancel the trip. He finally succumbed to the disease on the Gold Coast on August 12th 2002.
With the passing of Jack Forrest, Australian motorcycle sport lost one of the last links to the golden post-war era, when it wasn’t enough to be simply a gifted racer. It helped if you were a bit of a larrikin as well.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook Photos: Frank Shepherd, Brian Greenfield, Keith Ward, Charles Rice, Forrest archives.