Keith Campbell: A candle in the wind

Rider Profile

Keith aboard the V8 Moto Guzzi at Monza, 1957.

From our Old Bike Archives – Issue 69 – first published in 2017.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Byron Gunther, Keith Bryen collection, Leigh Ward.

August 9th, 2022 marks sixty-five years since Keith Campbell won the 1957 350cc  World Championship on a works Moto Guzzi – Australia’s first world title in any form of motorsport except speedway.

Perhaps being born in the Depression years gave Keith Campbell a greater sense of determination, because he certainly did not lack in courage or fortitude. When Keith came into the world in October 1931, he already had a brother, George, who was three years older and who would be the first of the family to try his hand at motorcycle sport. Originally from Mildura, the Campbell family moved to Prahran in Melbourne, and George began racing while still a teenager. Young Keith, meanwhile, began his motorcycling experience as an apprentice mechanic with one of the numerous shops in the city’s bike hub, Elizabeth Street, but quit the lowly-paid apprenticeship in favour of working as a welder, where he could earn sufficient money to allow him to follow his brother into racing. Until he was old enough to gain a licence himself, Keith accompanied George to race meetings and kept his eyes and ears open.

In his first appearance at Bathurst in 1949, 17 year old Keith Campbell dives inside Jack Curtis at Hell Corner. Following are Jack Forrest (26) and Art Senior (3).

By mid-1948 Keith was on the track himself, riding his road-registered AJS in scrambles events, which he quickly decided were not for him. In late 1948 and into 1949, the AJS was converted to road race trim and Keith competed at the Gilles Road/Victoria Park circuit at Ballarat, at Fishermen’s Bend in Melbourne, and at the unsealed track at the ex-wartime POW camp at Rowville. Despite his tender years, Keith reckoned he needed better equipment with which to display his talents, and he managed to buy a brand new Mk8 KTT Velocette in early 1949 – the same tackle used by top line riders like Maurie Quincey, Sid Willis, Ernie Ring and Les Diener.

Classic Byron Gunther shot of Jack Ahearn leading Keith Campbell and Col Walker through McPhillamy Park in the NSW Junior GP at Bathurst in 1950.

Jumping in at the deep end, Keith, still only 17 years of age, entered the Australian Grand Prix at Mount Panorama over the Easter weekend in April, 1949. In the ballot for starting positions for the Junior (350cc) Australian Grand Prix, to be held over 15 laps, Keith drew pole position. He was up against the cream of Australia’s riders but failed to make it through practice after a crash. Twelve months later he was back at Bathurst, where he finished 15th in the Junior NSW Grand Prix, before hot-footing it back to Melbourne for the Darley meeting on Easter Monday. Here young Keith scored his first significant result, with a win in the Junior race, after which he sold his Velocette to brother George and purchased South Australian Les Diener’s well-sorted similar model.

Keith (24) leading his future Moto Guzzi team mate Keith Bryen at Bathurst, 1951.

1951 began badly when he crashed at Ballarat on New Year’s Day and sustained a leg injury that kept him out of the saddle until the Easter Bathurst meeting. The Jubilee TT was the biggest-yet meeting at Mount Panorama, and every star rider was there. This time, Keith showed his growing maturity with 5th in the Junior TT behind Quincey, Ring, Harry Hinton and Keith Bryen, then went one place better in the Senior TT, held over 100 miles. The performance may have surprised some, but not Keith, who had already decided to travel to Europe after Easter. Three weeks after the Bathurst meeting, Keith and his KTT Velocette were aboard ship, sailing from Melbourne for England. Although he did not qualify for the licence necessary to contest the Isle of Man TT in June, he was able to gain a start at the Manx Grand Prix in September over the same 61km course. Following the TT, Keith spent time with Harry Hinton, who was still on the island recovering from injuries he sustained in the Junior TT. Hinton tutored the youngster on the intricacies of the demanding circuit, and it worked, because come September, Keith, the youngest rider in the event, was on the leader board throughout the practice sessions. In the 350cc GP, Keith held third place until the thick fog caused him to misjudge a corner and crash heavily. After eight weeks in hospital, he cancelled his original plan to stay in Europe for two or three years, loaded up the wrecked Velocette and sailed for home.

His ambitions had not been abandoned, just set back, and back in Melbourne he worked several jobs to save the fare for a return trip to the Manx GP. This time he took a well-used 500 Norton, partly financed by his father Evelyn, as well as the repaired Velocette. Despite magneto trouble late in the race he finished 6th in the Junior, and 14th on the Norton in the Senior after the petrol tank split. As the year drew to a close, Keith hatched plans with fellow Victorian Gordon Laing to embark on a full international season – the “Continental Circus” – for 1953. Laing had a job at the Norton factory in Birmingham, and arranged a position there for Campbell, which meant spending the winter in England instead of sunny Australia. It was not an experience that Keith enjoyed, but it did give him an early start to what was to be his biggest season yet – a year when racing became a business.

Keith and Gordon Laing, with their battered ex-ambulance and the tools of their trade.

Gordon and Keith purchased a well-worn ex-RAAF ambulance which they fitted out to house their four motorcycles and provide rudimentary accommodation. With all the spares, fuel drums, and tools, there was not a square inch unoccupied. Before the season was half over, Keith had scored several victories at non-championship ‘Internationals’ in France and Holland, but suffered a painful crash that left him with back injuries that required a substantial plaster cast. He had been accepted for the Dutch TT and desperately needed the start money, so he cut the cast off with a hacksaw in order to take his place on the grid in Holland, as well as at the following Belgian GP at Spa, where he finished a fine 12th in the Junior event.

At the Boxing Day, 1954 meeting at Mildura, Keith and Maurie Quincey battled throughout, Keith narrowly winning the Junior and Quincey the Senior.

There were more successes in Europe before the season ended and Keith sailed for home – but not before placing an order for two new Manx Nortons which would replace his well-used tackle for the 1954 season. Early in the season, Keith’s run of success at the Internationals continued, and unlike 1953, he decided to enter the Isle of Man TT, an expensive proposition for privateers. He failed to make it through practice week at the TT, crashing on oil spilled by an early faller, and breaking several bones in his left hand. The injuries ruled him out of not just the TT, but the Ulster Grand Prix three weeks later. With the coffers empty, Keith was determined to race at the Belgian GP, despite the fact that his hand was far from back to full strength. He rode with his wrist still in plaster, and as he had done the previous year, finished 12th in the Junior GP. But there were no celebrations, because once back in the pits, he received the news that Laing, who had been drafted into the Norton works team for the race, had been killed when he crashed after encountering a section of the vast track that was still damp from a shower. Despite the tragedy, Keith had no option but to start in the Senior GP later in the day, and ironically it was to be the race that broadcast his talent far and wide. Keith was the first private entrant home, in fifth place, behind two works Gileras, Ken Kavanagh’s works Moto Guzzi, and the works AJS of Bob McIntyre.

Keith leads Maurie Quincey at Ballarat in 1955.

Back in Melbourne, Keith prepared his Nortons for the string of meetings that were to be conducted over the summer with the 500cc World Champion Geoff Duke as the star competitor. On a scorching summer’s day at the disintegrating runways of Gawler Airfield outside Adelaide, Keith won the 350cc race and kept Duke’s works Gilera at bay for most of the 500cc race until his gear linkage came apart. One week later, at the Bandiana Army Camp near Albury, he finished third in the 500cc race behind Duke and Maurie Quincey, before setting sail once again for Europe.

Keith Campbell in France, 1955.

His 1955 season began in spectacular fashion with a string of International victories, plus a superb third place in the 350cc Belgian GP where his private Norton split six works bikes from Moto Guzzi and DKW. His season’s tally included wins in the non-championship 350cc Grand Prix of Finland in May and the 500cc Czechoslovakian Grand Prix in August, but Keith, along with a string of other privateers, was facing the prospect of sitting out the 1956 season as punishment for taking part in the now-famous ‘Riders Strike’ at the Dutch TT. His racing licence was cancelled for the first six months of the new year, ruling him out of the Isle of Man and the Dutch TT. By April, the FIM’s ‘ban’ had been relaxed to allow the privateers a dispensation to compete in non-championship events, and Keith once again plied his trade around Europe, travelling in his new ‘toy’ a black 1952 model Cadillac, which he reckoned was very attractive to the fairer sex.

Keith at Phillip Island, 1955, where he crashed and dislocated a shoulder.
Keith and George at Mildura, 1956.

With his full FIM licence returned in July, Keith travelled to the non-championship Swedish Grand Prix at Hedemora and thrashed six works bikes to win the 350cc race, and finished second to Duke’s Gilera in the 500cc event. That performance finally attracted the attention of a works team, and two weeks later he lined up for an International at Senigalla in Italy on a factory 350cc Moto Guzzi single. Keith was not going to waste the opportunity and duly won the race from his two Guzzi team mates, Ken Kavanagh and Dickie Dale. His next outing on the green machine came at the final Grand Prix of the season at Monza in September, and although his 350 Guzzi broke down in the race, he was given an outing on the 500cc V8 model for the Senior race. By the time he managed to push start the V8, the leaders were almost a complete lap ahead, but Keith carved through the field to be placed as high as seventh before the engine snapped its crankshaft. One month later he signed a full factory contract with Moto Guzzi for 1957, and as a bonus was permitted to take a 350 and a 500 home to Australia for the summer season.

The field gets away for the start of the 1957 Junior Dutch TT: Campbell (56), Surtees (51), Liberati (60), Dale (55) and McIntyre (59) to the fore.
Awaiting the flag drop for the 1957 Belgian GP at Spa; Campbell (28) in front of new team mate Bryen, Liberati (26), Brown (8), Dale (68) Surtees (20) and Wheeler (38).
Heading for a 1-2 finish in the 350cc Ulster GP of 1957, Campbell (23) and Bryen (22).

There were no star imports for the Australian season this time, so Keith and the Guzzis were seen as a shoe-in for the major meetings that included the 1956 Australian TT at the very fast public road circuit at Mildura on Boxing Day. But it got off to a bad start at the opening (motorcycle) meeting at the wet Phillip Island circuit on December 15. With his goggles fogged up, Keith misjudged a corner and crashed, dislocating his shoulder and breaking a thumb. However he was determined to ride at Mildura; the prospect of capturing his first Australian title too great to ignore, despite the pain. There were also great expectations that the meeting would produce the first 100 mph lap for a motorcycle race in Australia. The 350 Guzzi was still damaged from the Phillip Island crash, but Campbell won both the 500 and Unlimited TTs, each time from Eric Hinton. Strong cross winds prevented him notching the 100 mph lap, but he came tantalizingly close at 99.52 mph. Although his shoulder stood up well, he aggravated his thumb injury and chose to sit out the Australia Grand Prix one month later at Bandiana.

Preparing to push start in the 1957 TT.

Back in Europe, Keith now concentrated his efforts on the World Championship, but failed to finish the opening 350cc round in Germany with gearbox problems. Round Two was the Isle of Man TT mountain circuit, where Keith had not raced since the Manx GP of 1953. Although Bob McIntyre and the works Gileras cleaned up, Keith was an excellent second in the 350 TT, beating Bob Brown on the second Gilera and John Surtees’ MV Agusta. He finished fifth in the Senior TT despite a low-speed crash. Next came the Dutch TT, and Campbell’s World Championship aspirations received an unexpected boost when Guzzi team leader Lomas crashed in practice, sustaining multiple injuries. When Dale crashed the other Guzzi during the race, Keith rose to the occasion to win from McIntyre’s Gilera – only the second Australian (after Ken Kavanagh) to win a World Championship event.

Keith and his fiancé Geraldine, with Gwen and Keith Bryen.

For the Belgian GP, Guzzi hired another Australian, Keith Bryen, and Campbell qualified fastest for both the 350cc race, and for the 500cc where he was mounted on the V8. Both Duke and McIntyre were now out through injury, so Keith’s main title rival looked to be Gilera’s Libero Liberati. Keith rode superbly to beat Liberati home, with Bryen an excellent third, in the 350 race. In the 500, the downhill push start helped get the V8 firing quickly and, setting a new lap record of 190 km/h, he streaked away until the V8 suffered yet another crank failure. Victory in the Swedish GP a week later, where he rode his 350 to win both 350 and 500 classes, cemented his scintillating form as the championship moved to the Ulster GP at Dunrod. It was a virtuoso display as Campbell and Bryen finished 1-2 in the 350cc race, sealing the title for Keith. It was the first world championship in any form of motor sport except speedway for an Australian. There was still one Grand Prix to go, the prestigious GP des Nations at Monza, but he was injured after crashing the V8 at 225 km/h in practice and failed to make the start.

Keith with new bride Geraldine in the pits at Phillip Island, 1957.

It was an ignominious end to a stellar season, but with his wrist in plaster, Keith stepped up to the altar on September 18 to marry Geraldine Reid (whose sister Pat was married to Geoff Duke) on the Isle of Man. But a week later, the Italian factories (with the exception of MV Agusta) dropped a bombshell by announcing they were quitting GP racing in the face of the near-collapse of motorcycle sales in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

From the lofty heights of World Champion, Keith faced up to the reality of once again becoming a privateer, which he did for the 1958 season. As champion, he would command the top start money, so financially he was secure, even if it meant being back on the same Nortons as the majority of the grid. He even dabbled in car racing, driving a Maserati 250F leased from Ken Kavanagh, in some early-season 1958 Italian races. After securing support from prominent British sponsor Reg Dearden, Keith and a van-full of Nortons were once again traversing Europe, and he picked up right where he had left off. There were International victories in Germany and France before he contested the Dutch TT, where he rode superbly to finish third in the 350 race and even better to second in the 500 where he split the works MVs of Surtees and John Hartle. At the Isle of Man he finished 7th in the Junior TT but retired in the Senior, then it was back to France for an International meeting at what was called Circuit de Cadours – a fast 4-kilomtre public roads circuit at Tarn-et-Garonne near Toulouse. There was a very strong entry, with a swag of Australians including Jack Ahearn, Bob Brown, Eric and Harry Hinton Jnr, Tom Phillis, Len and Neil Tinker and Kiwis John Hempleman and Noel McCutcheon. It was an all-Australian podium in the 350 race, Campbell winning from Ahearn and Brown. Prior to the 500 race, for which Campbell had qualified fastest, there was a Sidecar event. Keith, in a determined mood, shot into the lead on his 500, but failed to complete the first lap. On a fast right-hand bend known as Cox’s Corner near the end of the lap, he struck a patch of oil left by the sidecars and shot off the road, crashing heavily into a wooded embankment. He died immediately from a fractured skull.

Keith celebrates his World Championship with Guzzi mechanics in the factory’s trophy room.

And so the short life of Keith Ronald Campbell was over, just 27 years after it began. His body was taken to the Isle of Man where he lies in the cemetery opposite the starting area of the TT course on Glencrutchery Road, Douglas. Other Australians are there as well; Ken Blake, Les Kenny, and the first Australian to die in the TT, Tasmanian Geoff Walker. In the Australian media of the day, where cricket, football and horse racing dominated the sports pages, it was Campbell’s death, not his achievement in winning the World Championship, that made the news, and then only in perfunctory fashion. And yet not only was he World Champion, Keith was easily the most successful of our international riders in the post-war years. In addition to his three championship Grand Prix wins, he won over 20 of the lucrative international races on the Continental Circus.

Today, the Campbell name lives on in local Historic Racing, with George’s son Keith one of the leading lights, riding a string of machines prepared by his father.

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 69. You can still purchase this issue by clicking on the cover.