Little River – A little bit of history

Tracks in Time

Start of the Victorian Lightweight TT in 1954. From left Sid Willis (Velocette 45), Harry Rosenthal (Triumph 37), Bob Brown (Velocette 17), Don Cameron (Velocette 58) and Roger Barker (Velocette 75).

Like its more famous counterpart in the Irish Sea, the Australian TT was the biggest thing in motorcycling Down Under, and so there would be no squabbling over where the annual event that carried the status of the official Australian Championship would be held, the Auto Cycle Council of Australia decreed that, in post WW2 years, the TT would be rotated between states. Thus Mount Panorama, Bathurst was granted the first event in 1948, with Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley the following year, Albany, WA in 1950 and Lowood, Queensland in 1951. So for 1952 it was Victoria’s turn, and while enthusiasm was rampant, identifying a suitable venue was a more difficult proposition.

At the time, Victoria had only the little track at Darley, Victoria Park at Ballarat, and the Fishermen’s Bend airstrip as motorcycle racing venues, and none was deemed appropriate for such a prestigious event. Out near Werribee, roughly halfway between Melbourne and Geelong, a network of roads ran around the township of Little River. These had been the scene of frequent, if unofficial, ‘testing’ and a few club-based speed trials on closed sections. It was a picturesque setting, with quaint country cottages, farms and churches, where a loop of approximately four miles was possible. The ‘circuit’, although basically dead flat, contained an interesting variety of corners including some fast swoops, and a hairpin which became Matchless Corner.

Turn 7 is a right hairpin into Old Melbourne Road. This turn later featured at the start of the original Mad Max movie, with the first car crash scene.
Turn 8 curves to the left on Old Melbourne Road; the exit from the pits is at the intersection of Devines Road. (There is still some dispute about whether the start/finish line was before or after the pit exit.)

Little River’s case in pitching for the TT was championed by Reg Bennett, the president of the Auto Cycle Union of Victoria, and Norm McCubbin, former president of the powerful Harley Club. The circuit, although narrow, was at least fully sealed, but had substantial gravel shoulders and was lined with trees, stone walls and the occasional ditch, making the task of keeping the machine “on the black stuff’ even more important. Predictions of a lap average of 85 mph were made, and if fulfilled, would have made the circuit the fastest motorcycle track in Australia. In his opening address in the official programme for the Australian TT, Harley Club president Frank Sinclair said “This course is ideal for our sport, in that it lends itself to both speed and skill, with its two long straights, five right hand and two left hand bends. It is the intention of the (Harley) Club and The Little River Development League to improve the course during the next year to make it second to none in Australia.”

Rising NSW star Alan Boyle, who convincingly won the 1952 Junior TT, lost his life at Orange just two months later.

The Australian TT was set down for Boxing Day, Friday December 26, and Saturday December 27, 1952. While it attracted a classy line up of competitors, the spectator turnout was disappointing, due most likely to the curious choice of date, right in the middle of the festive season. The entry list was also missing some of the big NSW names, notably Harry Hinton. Commencing at 12 noon, the very first race held on the circuit was the Australian Ultra Lightweight TT which attracted a healthy grid of 37, the vast majority being BSA Bantam-mounted. From the moment the flag dropped, Maurie Quincey and Ken Rumble on the Walsh Bantams simply disappeared, and the 5-lap race became even more processional when Rumble retired. Most other races were over-subscribed, although the Reserves generally got a start after the practice sessions had taken their toll. Sid Willis did a similar disappearing act to win the 250 from fellow Sydney star Alan Boyle and Ray Owen’s ancient Triumph, recording a lap at 70.42 mph along the way. Quincey’s ex-Ken Kavanagh Norton was expected the set the pace in the Junior TT, but Boyle’s KTT Velocette streaked away and was never headed, while Maurie had his hands full with WA’s George Scott and had to settle for third after a spill at the hairpin.

Quincey’s problems continued in the Senior TT when his Norton refused to fire from the push start, but once under way he carved through the field, recording a lap of 80.20 mph in the process. A fine ride by Ray Owen ended when his clutch packed up and he lost his second place to Queenslander Bill Anderson and South Australian Laurie Boulter. Quincey made no mistakes to lead the 12-lap Unlimited TT from start to finish, with Jack Ehret’s Vincent Black Lightning and Scott’s GP Triumph taking the placings. Sidecar honours went to Bob Mitchell (Junior) and Frank Sinclair (Senior). Also on the programme were Clubmen races for Junior A, and B and Senior A, B and C. These were won respectively by NSW rider Stuart Simpson (Velocette), Frank Juniper (Velocette), Col Brown (Triumph), T. Clegg (Triumph) and K. Noall (Ariel).

Her Majesty requests

Apart from the poor spectator turnout the meeting was an outstanding success, the circuit and organization drawing high praise from the entry of almost 400 competitors. A second meeting, carrying the prestigious Victorian TT title, was scheduled for the 6th and 8th March, 1954, but when HRH Queen Elizabeth II announced she would be visiting Geelong on 6th March, that put paid to all thoughts of motorcycle racing. An alternative date of Monday 14th June, on the Queen’s Birthday weekend, was finally accepted, but it took the intervention of the Chief Secretary of the Victorian Parliament to overcome opposition from several sources – one being the Poultrymen and Farmers Association who expressed their reluctance to provide the 600 straw bales required for rider protection. Eventually, the offer of the donation of all proceeds from the meeting to the Werribee Hospital and the Little River Baby Health Centre silenced the dissenters.

Bernie Mack accelerates out of Matchless Corner in 1954.

In direct contrast to the perfect weather at the first meeting, conditions in June were cold and windy. An enormous entry was a mixed blessing, as the narrow confines of the grid area meant push starting was a hazardous affair. In the Senior TT, Owen Archibald was struck from behind and received a broken leg in one of several starting line melees. Being only a one-day race meeting, several events were combined, with the 125 and 250 title events run concurrently. Sid Willis again dominated the 250s, while Ken Rumble did likewise in the 125 event. With Quincey away racing in Europe, rising NSW star Bob Brown ran away with the Junior TT. Doug Fugger from Albury beat Tasmanian Max Stephens in the Senior, although George Slaughter had the event in the bag with a new outright record lap of 2.55 until his Vincent expired. After an easy win the Junior Sidecar TT, Bernie Mack and Ray Kelly made it a double in the Senior after the leading Vincent exponents George Slaughter, Frank Sinclair and George Murphy all dropped out. Once again, Slaughter established a new lap record of 3.17; surely a unique achievement to hold both solo and sidecar marks at the one circuit. As usual, the Clubmen’s races were fiercely contested, with the honours in the Junior events going to Bob West (A) and W. Bennett (B), while in the Senior George Campbell took the A, Jack Hunnam the B and J. Sanderson the C Division.

Wes Brown and Jack Casey hard at work on their BSA outfit in 1954.

There were high hopes that visiting World Champion Geoff Duke could be persuaded to extend his Down Under tour to take in the third Little River meeting, staged on Monday 14th March, and his entry was included in the official programme. But a decree from the Italian Gilera factory saw his pair of 4-cylinder 500s shipped out of Melbourne on March 9th, and the meeting, again titled the Victorian TT, went ahead without its major drawcard.

Quincey was briefly back in his home state before once again sailing for a European season, and with a pair of new Nortons, was a cut above everyone else. Even without serious opposition, Quincey lowered the outright record to 2.50.6. in the course of a triple Junior, Senior, and unlimited clean sweep.

Ken Rumble did, however, manage to defeat Quincey in the Ultra Lightweight, while Don Cameron ended Sid Willis’ winning streak in the Lightweight TT. With only one Senior class entry – Keith Johnson’s HRD – both Senior and Junior Sidecar titles were run concurrently, with Johnson and Bernie Mack taking the respective honours.

At the conclusion of the meeting Quincey’s Nortons both went to new owners – the 350 to Ray Watson and the 500 to Tasmanian Dave Powell.

Noel Cheney on his way to 5th place in the 1955 Senior TT.

It was, sadly, Little River’s swansong as a racing circuit. Not far away, the new if ultimately short-lived Altona circuit was in full swing, while the new Phillip Island track was shortly to come on stream. Both were purpose-built, permanent tracks on private land, so the considerable work and expense of setting up a public roads course like Little River was deemed too difficult. It was a shame to see the circuit disappear, as the very essence of so-called TT-racing had always been to attract visitors to a community, with benefits for both competitors and locals. Little River slipped back into its peaceful existence as a backwater on the way to Geelong. It later became even more peaceful with the opening of the new freeway, just a few kilometres to the south east.

A big day at Little River

In 2005, Jenny Martinez from the recently-formed Little River Historical Society hit upon the idea of a reunion to celebrate the three events that made up the town’s contribution to motorcycle racing history. The idea was slow to gain traction but gradually the plan fell into place, or rather, was bulldozed into place, as Jenny uncovered more and more memorabilia, made contact with former competitors and officials, and received encouragement and help from many sources. Photographs, programmes, race reports, trophies and souvenirs came out of the woodwork on an increasingly frequent basis, and a date was set for the Little River TT Reunion – Sunday 22nd June, 2008.

STANDING AT REAR (L-R): George Huse, Charles Booth, Ron Ryan, Jim Law, Maurie Quincey, Noel Cheney, John Humphries. SEATED ON STAGE (L-R): Ray Lander, Tom Abraham, Mick Dillon, Hugh Waring, Gilbert McDougall, Ian Isbister, Brian Beasy. STANDING FLOOR (L-R): Tony Street, Bob West, Ray Kelly, John Atherton, Brendan Thomas, Ned Caddy, Jack Casey, Laurie Saunders. SEATED FRONT (L-R): Ray Wason, Kevin McIntyre, Ron Read, Ray Stone, John Bartlett, Gordon Rumble, Doug Russell, Bert Flood.

The various community groups within the township were all allocated their tasks; program sales were handled by the Little River Kindergarten, the local CFA had a stall selling soft drinks and sweets, BBQ lunches were served by members of the Historical Society, and the local Primary School sold souvenirs. Australian Sidecar Champion Shane Soutar produced a handsome souvenir program from his Adams Print business in Geelong.

Things were meant to get under way at 9.30 am, but by 8am there was already a steady stream of motorcycles, cars and foot traffic into the village centre, where the display would be based around the Mechanics Institute Hall. By 10am the place was packed; the streets lined with parked bikes and the paddock allocated to car parking already full to overflowing. The weather in Melbourne was typically damp and winterish, but out at Little River the sun shone brightly all day.

The display of motorcycles was truly eclectic, with everything from Soutar’s modern road racing outfit to 100-year-old veteran machines. The Irving Vincent clan was there in force with the Daytona-winning solo and Barry Horner’s mouth-watering Period Four racing outfit. Former sidecar star Lindsay Urquhart displayed his glorious restoration of the 8-valve Indian raced in the 1920s by Jack Booth and Harold Parsons, Frank Trento from Eurobrit brought along a trio of Vincents including the Black Lightning raced at the 1952 Little River TT by Jack Ehret, and Ken Lucas arrived from Wangaratta with a truckload of rare racers including the ex-Frank Mussett 500cc KTT Velocette. But not all of the 200-odd machines on display were of such pedigree. Many old warriors, particularly Clubmen machines that had not seen the light of day for years, were dragged out of the shed in the same condition as they had last raced. There were racing Bantams, lots of original Norton and Triumph outfits, a Shelsley Matchless, Gold Stars, and the G Special – a ferocious looking device with an AJS Twin engine on which the cylinder heads had been reversed, with open megaphones protruding from the rear like twin cannons.

Maurie Quincey unveiled a plaque commemorating the motorcycle racing history at Little River.

Famous faces were everywhere, with scores of former Little River competitors assembled on stage in the hall for commemorative photographs. Maurie Quincey, winner of six races at the circuit, was invited to unveil a special bronze plaque that will be situated in the main street as a permanent reminder of the district’s racing heritage.

Just how many people came to the TT Reunion is hard to gauge, but it numbered in the thousands – far exceeding the expectations of the organisers. Jenny Martinez, flashing between duties all day, was overwhelmed by the response. ”We began to get some inkling that this would be a big day when the responses and acceptances began to come back from our invitations and letters. It was invariably positive, but even so, I don’t think any of us thought the day would turn out like this.”

At 2pm, racing engines were fired up and a steady stream of bikes set out for a brisk parade lap around the circuit, which was lined with locals and well wishers waving Australian flags and cheering. It was clearly the biggest day in Little River for many years, perhaps since 1955!

The most oft-asked question, particularly as the day drew to a close, was whether there would be a return match. Jenny and her exhausted team would not be drawn into this discussion, but don’t be surprised…

Story: Jim Scaysbrook with assistance from Jenny Martinez.Photographs: Ray Kelly, Wes Brown, Noel Cheney, Ross Martin and other private collections.

OBA Issue 9
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 9.