Len Atlee: Quite a career

Rider Profile

OBA Issue 45
Len Atlee with his 500 Norton and 250 Cotton at a British meeting in 1966.

Towards the end of the 1960s, a group of callow youths from the south of Sydney, though somewhat intimidated by the stories they’d heard, decided to take the plunge and ride their shiny new Japanese 250s to the Bathurst motorcycle races.

Although somewhat unsettled by lurid mainstream press reports of off-track activities at the event, they nonetheless gingerly entered the wider world of motorcycling. They quickly learnt that the stories of rampaging bikies were somewhat exaggerated, and by far the most riveting experience was the sight and sound of racing motorcycles haring down the mountain, accelerating out of the Dipper and then braking hard for Forrest’s Elbow. Two machines stood out for their sound, the high-revving 125cc Honda CR93 DOHC twin of John Warrian and a much bigger machine which bore the mysterious name of Eelta. This was a 4 cylinder Mazda 800 car-engined special conceived and constructed by a bloke named Len Atlee, and the four-piped Eelta (the reverse of Atlee) was anticipated and savoured each lap it came by.

The lads were to see a lot more of Len in the ensuing years, racing all manner of bikes, large and small, at racetracks around the country, usually contesting the lead with the likes of Ron Toombs, Bryan Hindle, Jack Ahearn, Bill Horsman, Ken Blake, Kevin Cass, John Warrian, the Hinton brothers, Gregg Hansford, Warren Willing, the Sayle brothers, Keo and Rob Madden, Les Kenny, Garry Thomas, Tony Hatton and others. The Eelta didn’t ultimately prove to be a giant killer, and like many antipodean specials, it was killed off by the arrival of over-the-counter pukka racing models from Japan capable of winning Open class events; the likes of the 350cc TR2 Yamaha and its ever-improving derivatives, or the H1R Kawasaki.

OBA Issue 45
Recently returned from a two-year stint in Europe, Len resumed winning ways at home, seen here on his Cotton at Amaroo Park in 1967.

Len quickly obtained a TR2, and with several years of two stroke racing under his belt in the 125 and 250 classes, on Clem Daniel’s CSD and a Cotton respectively, had no trouble adapting to the larger two strokes. One notable result on the Cotton was a 6th in the Ulster GP, during Len’s 1966 and 1967 campaigns contesting the Continental Circus, the trail of World Championship Grands Prix and other money-spinning events around Europe.

An accomplished A grade dirt-tracker before concentrating on road racing from the early 1960s, Len was born in 1943 and spent his childhood in Sydney’s south western suburb of Canley Vale, near Liverpool, where paddocks and open spaces abounded in an area yet to undergo the waves of immigration, urbanisation, and social changes that were to follow. Back then, Len and his neighbourhood friends made tracks in the ample vacant land, initially modifying their bicycles for jumping and sliding, popularly known as `skid-kids`, before graduating to old unregistered motorbikes as they hit their teens.

OBA Issue 45
Len Atlee with Jill at the Muswellbrook Short Circuit.

Twelve-year-old Len had a seminal experience in 1955 when he travelled with his father and uncles to Bathurst in an old Wolseley, where they witnessed Harry Hinton Senior’s last hurrah, beating New Zealand international Rod Coleman in the Australian Senior TT. Young Len dreamed of trying his hand at racing one day, and as soon as he was old enough in 1959, joined Southern Districts Motorcycle Club and obtained his competition licence. He began dirt-tracking, then called short circuit racing, on his converted paddock bike, a BSA single. Early experience was gained at the Southern Districts Club’s practice track near Crossroads Hotel, a watering hole which later became popular with punters returning from Oran Park when it opened in 1962. As an aside, the first Oran Park meeting for bikes was 17th Feb 1963, memorable for Len as he finished third in the feature race on his Norton, the winner being no less than multi world champion Jim Redman on a works Honda.

Another dirt venue young Len tried was at Bossley Park, but it and the Crossroads track were closed by the police under the infamous NSW Speedways Act. This meant that for a short time until the Nepean track opened in Sydney’s north west, Len and new clubmates like Jim Airey, Gordon Guasco (both on BSA singles) and John Dodds (Velocette) had to travel further afield, to Hunter district circuits at Heddon Greta, Salty Creek and Muswellbrook, or to the south, at Goulburn’s Boxers Creek and Canberra’s Mount Ginn. Small wonder Len ended up one of the quick boys with clubmates of that calibre to keep up with! Len’s mount at this time was a 350cc B31 BSA, initially modified with assistance from his father, but as Len progressed through his motor mechanics apprenticeship with McGrath Holden Liverpool, he became increasingly more adept with matters mechanical. He purchased the necessary second hand parts from Jack Adams Motorcycles Liverpool to convert the BSA to a swinging arm rear end. He also developed a 350 racer using a two stroke Jawa motor. Len became an A grade dirt-tracker by the age of 18, the state’s youngest at the time.

OBA Issue 45
Dicing with Ron Angel (5) at Oran Park in 1968, both Manx Norton mounted.

When Nepean short circuit track opened, the well thought out mix of left and right bends of varying radii proved an excellent training ground for countless future A grade dirt riders, many of whom applied these skills to road racing. When Jim and Gordon started speedway, Len also tried his hand at the Kembla Grange circuit, and recalls being on the track at the same time as Aub Lawson, then well into his 40s but still riding as if in his prime. Len’s girlfriend Jill talked him out of pursuing speedway, but Len enjoyed watching his pals Jim and Gordon develop glittering careers, first locally, then internationally. Len and John Dodds focussed their attention on achieving similar recognition at road racing.

Len worked his way through the ranks at McGraths to service administration, then branched into sales. In 1964 the company lent him a new EH Holden for his honeymoon getaway with Jill. He parted company with the firm after a 1965 Catalina Park accident saw him laid up for a time, but this didn’t retard his progress through the road-racing ranks for long. He was by now making his mark on a brace of Manx Nortons, 350 and 500, and obtained sponsorship from Don McMillan who was also a sponsor of Jack Ahearn. One of the Nortons ended up in a sorry state after catching fire following a crash at Bathurst’s McPhillamy Park. Len received a 250 Cotton from Barry Ryan, a motorcycle racing stalwart who greatly assisted Len (and many others) throughout his career. Good mate John Dodds also rode a Cotton owned by Wollongong’s Jeff Martin. They had no chance against Kel Carruthers’ ex-works 250 Honda 4 but they scored a number of good results scrapping with other A graders for the runner-up spot. Len’s progress through the ranks is reflected in his Bathurst results – 3rd Junior B and 1st Unlimited B 1963 on a Norton purchased from MCRC’s Bruce Rands, 2nd Unlimited B 1964 on Don McMillan’s Norton (which was timed at 135mph down Conrod, the fastest for the meeting), 5th Unlimited TT at Bathurst 1965 on the Norton.

Now both A grade in road racing, Len and John set their sights on Europe for the 1966 season. On arrival in London, Len and Jill initially stayed with Kevin and Virginia Cass. The newcomers had arrived smack in the middle of a golden era of world championship rivalry among Japanese and European manufacturers, with works exotica like twin cylinder 50s from Honda and Suzuki, four and five cylinder 125s from Yamaha and Honda against the rapid Suzuki twin, four and six cylinder Yamaha and Honda 250s, as well as factory MVs, MZs and Benellis. Riding a 500 Norton and a 250 Cotton, Len witnessed the sights and sounds of the Grand Prix circus up close. A highlight for Len was 6th in the 250 Ulster GP on the Cotton, a race which saw an unusual trifecta of Bultacos on the rostrum after the works Hondas and Yamahas all failed to finish. Kiwi Ginger Molloy won and Len’s old sparring partner from Aussie racing Kevin Cass was third. Len missed a certain 4th in the Belgian 500 GP at Spa when his Norton faltered and dropped him to tenth in a race won by Agostini, with Jack Ahearn in 3rd. Len recalls Kel Carruthers retiring from this race after hitting a bird at full speed.

OBA Issue 45
Bryan Hindle, Barry Ryan and Len Atlee after winning the inaugural Castrol 1000 (Six Hour) in 1970.

The Isle of Man was a must-try experience for an Aussie abroad in that era, and was then the British round of the world championship. Len gained a bronze replica that year, finishing 21st in his debut on the 500 Norton. The following year he finished 25th but gained a silver replica due to the higher average speed. He followed the advice of old hands like Jack Ahearn on the long and demanding circuit – “just ride it like you’re running late for work”. This didn’t prevent him from being electronically timed at 137mph on the fastest part of the circuit, a tidy speed for a Norton. Another highlight was leading the Hutchinson 100, the famous reverse direction race at Brands Hatch against all the crack British short circuit scratchers until sidelined by mechanical trouble.

After a year sampling the sights and race circuits of Europe, Len and Jill decided to settle back in Sydney in late 1966, while John Dodds stayed behind to enjoy an ever-burgeoning reputation as a top-line campaigner. Back home, Len renewed his relationship with Clem Daniel, having tried Clem’s MV four stroke single before he went away. In the interim, Clem’s CSD two stroke had become very competitive and Len was offered the ride. Not a small bloke, Len did not have the ideal build for 125 racing, but he was immediately competitive on the CSD in a class that was then a hotbed of technical innovation contested by many of the leading riders from the larger capacity classes, very different to today. For the bigger classes, Len felt the Manx Norton was getting a bit long in the tooth and took a step into left field with his home-built Eelta, though not before having a one-off ride at Oran Park on the legendary Henderson Matchless, after regular rider Ron Toombs dislocated his shoulder at Lakeside.

OBA Issue 45
A famous photo by Rob Lewis showing Len exiting the saddle of his 350 Yamaha in 1971, much to the anguish of closely-following John Maher.

Perhaps inspired by the aural delights of the premier class multi cylinder four strokes he’d witnessed in Europe, Len built the Eelta after he’d noticed the compactness of the 800cc Mazda `blue motor’ that powered the Bongo van and a small sedan during his work in the auto industry. At the time, mass-produced four-cylinder motorcycle engines like that of the forthcoming Honda CB750 were unknown. Len’s mechanical trade background enabled him to install the motor east-west in the Featherbed frame of the Manx Norton he’d been campaigning. He fabricated suitable mounting plates and ran a Manx Norton gearbox chain-driven from the Mazda jack-shaft. While it didn’t become a world beater, with Len experiencing various teething troubles such as oil feed issues with the crankshaft, it was an interesting engineering challenge and certainly entertained the crowds at Bathurst, Catalina Park, Oran Park and Phillip Island with its four separate megaphone exhausts. The Eelta was one of the last in a long line of Antipodean specials tracing back to the likes of Art Senior’s Ariel, various Vincent specials such as that campaigned by Eric Debenham, the Henderson Matchless, Mark Walker’s MW Special, and John Warrian’s Transac, which were made redundant by the ready availability of over-the-counter larger capacity racers from Japan, culminating in the TZ700/750 Yamaha and RG500 Suzuki models. During this period Len also dabbled in car racing, while he was working for Louie’s Motors who were Chrysler agents.

OBA Issue 45
Capping a great year in 1973, Len with the spoils after winning the Oran Park round of the Pan Pacific Trophy.

Len’s sequence of 350 Yamaha twins, first the air-cooled TR2 and TR3, then the water-cooled TZ models, were mostly self-bought, though he did, however, receive sponsorships from Pye Electrical on the suggestion of the Blanco brothers, Alan and Emanuel, as well as from radio station 2SM and Stud Cola. Len continued to be a force on Clem Daniel’s 125, but the single began to be outpaced by the new Yamaha twin ridden by Ron Toombs. Thus Clem developed his own twin, based on the AS1 Yamaha, for which he eventually cast his own water-cooled cylinders. Clem also constructed an amazing doubled-up (air-cooled) version, a 250/4! Len had one win on it, at Calder, on what was certainly a fascinating engineering exercise if not an ultimately successful jigger.

Throughout this period, Len was involved with the A Grade Riders Association, which endeavoured to improve the professionalism of road racing to the point of boycotting certain meetings that didn’t come up to scratch in terms of prize money, safety, and other issues. Len and others had lobbied for a multi-round Australian championship series and when this came to fruition in 1973, Len won the 125 title on the CSD, to go with the previous year’s Australian 125 title captured at Bathurst, and the Unlimited and 250 national titles of 1971. Another innovation at this time was the Trans-Tasman match races, pitting the best riders from New Zealand against an Australian team at Amaroo Park on more than one occasion in the early 1970s. Len was one of the first picked in the home team, against the likes of Geoff Perry, Ginger Molloy, Dale Wylie, Trevor Discombe and Neville Landrebe from across the ditch.

OBA Issue 45
Pay day. With sponsor Barry Ryan (left) and the winner’s cheque after the 1973 Chesterfield Superbike Series final.

When Formula 750 racing arrived, Len once again used his engineering skills to build a fully-faired Kawasaki racer based on the H2 three cylinder two stroke, supplied by Ryans of Parramatta. Vibration was countered by rubber-mounting the engine. Subsequently Len obtained a ride on a class-leading TZ700 four cylinder Yamaha, later converted to a 750. He also threw his leg over a Norton Commando Superbike and won a heavily promoted Chesterfield Superbike Series conducted over several rounds at Amaroo Park.

Len proved a dab hand at endurance racing, first tasting this form of competition in the six hour dirt race at Nepean on a Bridgestone 90 shared with Perce Howard. Although Len won the Adelaide Advertiser Three Hour race at Virginia Raceway on a Ducati shared with Tony Hatton, it was at Amaroo Park’s Castrol Six hour Race that he left his mark. Len and Bryan Hindle won the initial running of the legendary event on a Triumph Bonneville which had not been expected to defeat the all-conquering Honda CB750 of the time. Over the next decade, Len rode quite a variety of machines in the Six Hour, staying British in the years 1971-1973 on the Ryan’s Motorcycles Norton Commando, and was unlucky not to win in 1972 sharing with Bill Dillow. For 1974, Len went with the strength on a Kawasaki 900 shared with Ken Blake and pulled off his second outright win. In 1975 he reverted to British iron again, teaming with Rob Hinton on a 750 Triumph Trident but struck trouble and finished down the field. Len finished 7th in 1976 riding a 900 Kawasaki with Garry Thomas, 9th in the 750 class on an XS750 Yamaha with Michael Streeter in 1977, 9th with Garry Thomas in 1978 on an XS1100 Yamaha, and 3rd with Gary Coleman in 1979 on the XS1100 again. In his last Six Hour, 1980, again on the XS1100 Yamaha, Len finished third with all-rounder Steve Gall, only to be disqualified when it was discovered Gall had entered an interstate motocross event on the same day. Len also rode endurance races in New Zealand, at Manfield and Pukekoe, winning the 750 class of the NZ Six Hour, with Mike Steele.

OBA Issue 45
Final fling. Len in his last race, the 1980 Castrol Six Hour where he teamed with Stephen Gall to finish fifth.

After twenty years of racing on dirt and tar on a variety of machinery few riders could match, Len hung up his leathers, age 37. For a while, he tried his hand at running a motorcycle riding school at Amaroo Park, aimed at improving road safety for beginners and experienced riders alike, with star rider Paul Feeney a notable graduate. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree when Len’s son Marty became a leading rider in the 1990s. Today Marty works with Len in the family’s flourishing fibreglass business at Moorebank, one of their specialities being Zodiac ship-to-shore landing craft as seen in the Patrol Boat television series.

At Easter 2014, Len pulled on his leathers again (actually those of his son, Marty) to ride a replica of the 1970 Castrol Six Hour-winning Triumph Bonneville at the Penrite Broadford Bonanza – the first time he had been on a motorcycle in more than 30 years.

Story Chris Sim • Photos Atlee archives, OBA archives, Rob Lewis, Bill Forsyth.

OBA Issue 45
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 45.