World 250cc Champion in 1969, and a major factor in the World 500cc titles for Kenny Roberts Senior and Eddie Lawson, Kel Carruthers has a CV matched by very few Australians. A resident of the USA for 39 years, Kel returned to Australia in 2009 for the annual Broadford Bike Bonanza.
When Kelvin Carruthers packed up his family and his racing kit and headed for Europe in 1966, it was not altogether a bad thing for the local scene, for his dominance in the previous five years had been absolute. Certainly, the was great anticipation that his stellar career would continue abroad as it had left off in Australia, but local riders breathed a collective sigh of relief that number 6 would no longer be on the starting grids at home.
There was little doubt that young Kelvin would follow his father jack into the motorcycle world. Jack was an Australian Speedway Sidecar Champion and indelibly associated with the trade, the sport and just about anything else to do with bikes. He ran a dealership and workshop at Victoria Road, Gladesville – one of his contracts being to repair machines used by the armed forces; Harleys and later BSAs. He was also closely associated with the Vincent marque. Young Kel was a familiar face in the workshop for years before he finally joined the business fulltime in 1953 at the age of 15, and at this stage already had three years experience competing in club-level sporting trials and dirt track races. Jack’s contacts allowed him to obtain a restricted road licence so Kel could test the Army bikes, and from there, gaining a competition licence wasn’t that difficult. His first priority though, was the family business, and racing had to be slotted in where time and resources allowed.
It was at Bathurst, Easter 1955 that the general public first noticed Kelvin Carruthers. Barely 17 years of age, Kel lined up at the country’s biggest race meeting and made a dream debut, winning the Junior B Grade race on a BSA B31-powered special constructed in the Gladesville workshop. That BSA was one of a stable of similar machines that did service in scrambles and short circuit as well as the odd road race, which in NSW meant Bathurst once a year and the regular meetings at Mount Druitt. Gradually the stable grew to include a scaled down 250cc Manx Norton, a Vincent Comet-engined AJS 7R and a 350 Manx, with occasional rides on the Clem Daniels’ Bantams and 125 MV Agusta.
But the real turning point in Kel’s career came towards the end of 1960, when Bennett & Wood, the NSW distributors for Honda, obtained one of the six replicas of the works 250cc 4 cylinder racers, and installed Kel on it. The RC161, for all its exotic specifications, was not the rocket ship it was cracked up to be, at least not as supplied. Then engine was fitted with low-compression pistons, with the frame and wheels virtually identical to the road going CB160. The handling left a lot to be desired, while the brakes were almost non-existent under racing conditions. The Honda’s first appearance was at Bathurst in 1961, where it completed only two laps in practice before shearing a locking nut on the vernier coupling driving the two exhaust camshafts. An overnight repair had Kel on the grid on Saturday, where he destroyed the opposition to win the Lightweight GP, slicing seven seconds off the lap record. He made it a double in the Junior GP, but only after the leader Eric Hinton retired when the spark plug of his Norton fell out.
It was the pattern of things to come. With modifications to the Honda’s frame the handling became acceptable, a Fontana front brake fixed the stopping problem, and a rise in compression provided more urge to the point that the machine became unbeatable – it suffered only four mechanical stoppages in the entire time it was raced in Australia, including that first day at Bathurst. In 1963 Kel added a rapid 500cc Manx Norton – the machine that had taken Chris Conn to runner up position in the Isle of Man Senior TT – and with the addition of the 125cc CR93 Honda owned by Jack Gates, he had a machine for every class. In 161 starts from 1961 to 1965, Kel achieved 115 wins, 27 seconds and 7 thirds.
The all-conquering Honda stayed behind when the Carruthers clan – including father Jack and mother Lil – left for Europe. The sale of the family business provided sufficient funds to finance the fares and freighting of three machine (a 350 and 500 Manx Norton, plus the CR93 Honda) and a full season on The Continent. They had plenty of Aussies for company, with Jack Findlay, John Dodds, Malcolm Stanton, Jack Saunders, Len Atlee, Barry Smith, Kevin Cass and sidecar racer Barry Thompson all there.
It was a learning year for Kel, not pushing his luck or risking his machines, but he impressed with 11th Position in the Senior TT and plenty of top-ten placings in International events the length and breadth of Europe. He learned the circuits well and adapted to the nomadic lifestyle, and for 1967 bought a 350 Aermacchi engine which he installed in a Metisse chassis. He finished the year as the top privateer in the 350cc World Championship, and Aermacchi supplied him with a special 350 engine for 1968, which was built into an Italian Drixl frame. On its first GP outing, in the West German GP at the daunting Nurburgring, Kel finished a superb third to the works machines of Giacomo Agostini (MV Agusta) and Renzo Pasolini (Benelli). Although he failed to finish the final race at Monza, he claimed third place in the 350 title. He also finished a brilliant third on the venerable CR93 at the Isle of Man, beaten only by the works Yamahas.
At the end of the year he made a trip home for a holiday, and was persuaded to race at the Australian Grand prix at Phillip Island. The trusty old Honda 250-4 was dusted off, and despite the presence of Alan Osborne on the factory-supplied Yamaha RD56 and Dick Reid on the works-spec Kawasaki twins, Kel cleaned up both 250 and 350 races and finished second to the late Graeme Smith (both on Bultacos) in a blanket finish in the 125 GP. After a ding-dong battle with Ron Toombs on the Henderson Matchless G50, Kel won the Unlimited GP as well on a borrowed 500cc Manx Norton.
Kel’s results during the 1968 season prompted Aermacchi to offer him full works support for 1969, riding in three classes. He had the all-new 125cc two-stroke, a short-stroke 350, and a 382cc machine for the 500 class. Results came instantly, with second to Agostini in the opening 350cc GP at Jarama in Spain. In the Isle of Man, he caused a sensation by recording a 100 mph lap in practice on the 350 – a feat that caught the attention of the Benelli team, who were in disarray with their lead rider, Renzo Pasolini, out through injury. Benelli had already recruited Phil Read to ride Pasolini’s 4-valve 250-4, and offered the second string 2-valve model to Carruthers. His role was to support Read, but from the start, the plans went out the window. Kel started number 1 and had a 12-second lead at the end of the opening lap, with Rod Gould ahead of Read in second place. When Gould ran out of fuel, Kel dutifully slowed but Read was out soon after with a dropped valve. From there, it was a stroll to the finish, with three minutes in hand over Frank Perris’ Suzuki – the second Australian TT victory. To cap a great week, Kel finished second in the 125cc TT and had a secure second in the Junior 350cc event until his Aermacchi broke a rocker arm on the final lap. Benelli were ecstatic and offered Kel a contract for the remainder of the season, with the stipulation that he help Pasolini win the title. Things went according to plan at the next World Championship round in Holland, with Pasolini first and Carruthers second, but the Italian failed to finish in Belgium while Kel’s machine suffered problems which dropped him to third. More engine trouble in East Germany resulted in a fifth place finish, with Pasolini winning. In Czechoslovakia Pasolini won again with Kel third, but the whole equation changed at the next round in Finland, where the volatile Italian crashed heavily, putting himself out for the rest of the year. Suddenly, Kel was team leader, with the daunting task of pegging back points leaders Spanish star Santiago Herrero and Swede Ken Andersson. Under the scoring system, the seven best results from the 12 rounds counted for the title, and Kel went to Ulster with a mathematical chance. He delivered in the best possible way, streaking to an emphatic win, while Herrero crashed and broke an arm, keeping him out of the penultimate round at Imola, where Kel diced furiously with Phil Read’s Yamaha and missed victory by just 0.2 seconds.
It all came down to the final race at the rather frightening seaside course at Opatija in Yugoslavia, where Herrero returned to the fray – just one point separated the three title aspirants. In the race, Herrero sealed his fate by crashing his OSSA, but Andersson looked to have the race under control until the second last lap, only to almost lose his Yamaha on the heart-stopping plunge down to the start area. The slide dropped him to third, letting Kel and his new team mate Gilberto Parlotti through for a brilliant 1-2 and the championship win. He returned to Australia at the end of the European season as the country’s third World Champion, after Keith Campbell (350cc 1957) and Tom Phillis (125cc 1961), but there were major changes ahead for the 1970 season.
The FIM’s new rules called for a maximum of two cylinders in the 250cc class, although 350cc and 500cc ‘fours’ were still permitted. To defend his title, Kel obtained a new 250 and a used 350 Yamaha through Don Vesco in California, and recruited the former works Honda mechanic Nobby Clark to wield the spanners. Before shipping the Yamahas to Europe, he lined up for the prestigious Daytona classic in Florida, winning the 250cc race and sensationally leading the main 200-mile race until a broken crankshaft stopped the 350. The American scene was booming, and Kel made some valuable contacts as he prepared for what was to be his final European season. He had signed with Benelli to contest the 350cc class on a newly-developed four cylinder model, but a strike at the factory scuttled these plans and he began the year on the 1969 machine.
The German Grand Prix at Nurburgring opened the season, and Kel stormed away to win the 250 GP, and finish second to Agostini’s MV in the 350 race. His great rival in the 250 class was Briton Rod Gould, who had a works-supplied six-speed engine for his Yamaha, which was fitted with electronic ignition. Kel’s five-speeder retained the standard magneto ignition, and this was to prove the Achilles Heel. In the first eight GPs, Kel retired four times with broken contact breakers, usually when leading, while Gould racked up wins and points. The highlight of the season once again came at the Isle of Man, where Kel beat Gould by over three minutes to claim his second consecutive Lightweight TT win. He also won in Czechoslovakia and at the third-last round in Ulster, where he had fitted a new German-made Krober electronic ignition. The win gave him a remote chance of retaining his title, but he needed to win the GP des Nations at Monza. It was a brilliant race – a three-way battle between Kel, Gould and Phil Read, with Gould taking victory, and the title, but just 0.03 seconds. He also finished runner up to Agostini in the 350 title, where he had quit the Benelli concern mid-way through the season to ride his own Yamaha.
But after five years on the road in Europe, the Carruthers family had had enough of the Gypsy life. The American scene had impressed him, and Don Vesco stepped in with an offer to set up a team that would operate from Vesco’s Yamaha dealership in San Diego.
Initially, the plan was for one year only, before returning to live in Australia, and it began well with another Daytona 250 win, followed by a stellar season that saw him dominate the 250cc class and also give Yamaha its first-ever AMA National Championship class win at Road Atlanta where he beat the factory 750s on his self-tuned 350. Kel says he made more money in the 1971 season than he had in four years in Europe. In 1972 he signed with Yamaha to head their US race team, and to tutor young talent, which included the multi talented Kenny Roberts. His final year as a rider was 1973, where he finished second in the Daytona 200 (to Jarno Saarinen on Kel’s spare 350) and won the AMA National round at Talladaga in Alabama. Yamaha was about to stun the world with its new TZ750, and Kel had his hands full with development work, in addition to his role of team manager.
When Yamaha America decided to send Kenny Roberts to Europe to tackle the World 500cc Championship in 1978, Kel was the man responsible for running the team and supervising the preparation of the YZR500s. Roberts went on to three consecutive titles, and a few years later, Kel took on the same role with Eddie Lawson, who took another three. He stayed with the Grand Prix scene until 1995, when he left motorcycles for two to run the Sea-Doo watercraft racing team, winning another world title. In 1998 he joined Chaparral Motorsports in San Bernardino, one of the biggest dealerships in the world, running their Motocross and Supercross teams and later the company’s AMA Supersport road racing team.
In his entire career, Kel never had a trip to hospital, never broke a bone, other than a wrist when he was sixteen. As part of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1988, Kel was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, and in 1999 received a similar honour from the AMA Hall of Fame. His son Paul has been the editor of Cycle News in California for many years.
At the end of 2008, at 70 years of age and having spent a lifetime with motor sport in various forms, Kel decided it was time to retire and enjoy occasional appearances at Historic Racing festivals around the world such as Spa and the Isle of Man. At Easter in 2009, he returned to Australia to pull on his leathers once again for the Honda Broadford Bike Bonanza, where he demonstrated the 500cc Manx Norton that he raced in Australia in 1964-65 and which was later ridden in Historic events at Amaroo Park and Bathurst by Mike Hailwood. It was the first time he had ridden in his home country since 1989, when he performed some demonstration laps at Phillip Island aboard Niall Mackenzie’s works YZR500 Yamaha at the inaugural world championship Australian Grand Prix.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Carruthers archives, Keith Ward, Dick Darby
Bibliography: Thanks to Brian Greenfield, and to reference from “Australian Motorcycle Heroes” by Don Cox and Will Hagon.