When it comes to road circuits, Lobethal had it all. Bumps, jumps, bridges and unforgiving corners through the hills east of Adelaide.
Lobethal, in the Adelaide Hills, is half a world away from the former Prussia (now Germany), but the two are inexorably linked. The religious persecution of Lutherans by Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia forced many Lutherans to flee to places like America and Canada, but one 166-strong congregation, including its pastor A.L.C. Kavel, set sail from Hamburg for the newly-proclaimed colony of South Australia in 1838, followed by another group – pastor Fritzsche’s congregation, in 1841. This second group found it tough to be accepted within the new community and struck it out on their own to settle in a valley on the Onkaparinga River, purchasing 168 acres for £1 per acre. The village was named Lobethal, which in German means ‘Valley of praise’. In 1845 St John’s at Lobethal became the first permanent Lutheran Church to be built in Australia. Gold prospecting briefly caught on, but it was the wool industry upon which the new town’s fortunes were originally based, along with a small business producing cricket bats from locally grown willow.
Germans were not exactly flavour of the month during the Great War, and in 1917 Lobethal was renamed Tweedvale, but was changed back in 1935. It was about this time that Lobethal began to host motor sport events; initially hill climbs. Following the successful South Australian Centenary Grand Prix at Victor Harbor in 1936 (where TT legend Stanley Woods was the star attraction), the state began to embrace motor sport in a big way, and potential circuits were examined in several locations. At Lobethal, a lap of 8.65 miles (13.92 km) was achievable on a roughly triangular circuit that ran through the main street to a hairpin corner where the start and finish was located, then south alongside the Onkaparinga River through Charleston before a right angle turn back to Lobethal. As circuits went, this was a whopper, and easily the fastest in the country. As momentum gathered to stage a race around the ‘circuit’, a company called Lobethal Carnivals was created by the town’s business leaders. Two groups, the Sporting Car Club of SA and the Motor Cycle Club of SA, were co-opted to organise what was called Lobethal Carnival Week, which ran from December 27th, 1937 to January 3rd 1938, with the bikes occupying the first section of the program for the South Australian TT, followed by the South Australian Grand Prix for cars.
The roads were fully sealed – a first for a major motor sport event in Australia. The starting area was at the junction of the Charleston and Mount Torrens roads and the lap began with the very fast and fairly flat section that took competitors through the little village of Charleston, just after which the road bent to the left – a flat out swerve that really tested the nerves. From there it was slightly downhill to the acute Kayannie Corner, then a downhill blast over the river with the road swooping up and over low rises until a series of very testing downhill corners leading past the hospital into Lobethal itself. The main street was approached via a right angle right hander, exhaust notes bouncing off the buildings as vehicles shot up the hill, through another dip before a very challenging right hander that led out into the country. This was the most demanding section of the track as the road blasted up, down and around a series of bends and sweepers before it was time to anchor up for the hairpin at the start/finish area.
Star attraction for the 1937 SA TT was German champion and future Isle of Man winner Ewald Kluge with his eardrum-splitting works DKW accompanied by his wife and the team’s interpreter, Erna. The motorcycle program began with the combined Lightweight and Junior TT’s which brought ten riders to the line. Victorian Frank Mussett and his ex-works 350 Velocette made the early running until Frank’s engine expired, leaving Kluge and his screeching supercharged two-stroke to take the flag, delighting the big German spectator contingent, ahead of Clem Foster’s R7 AJS and the second DKW which had been loaned to local star Les Fredricks.
The winner’s trophy was donated by Kluge’s companion Baron Von Oertzen, who was officially the DKW factory’s representative but in fact held German government portfolios as well. Australian intelligence believed the baron to be number three in the Goebbels’ propaganda ministry. Von Oertzen had visited Australia in 1937 to open a DKW car assembly plant in Melbourne, and had held discussions with government officials regarding plans to assemble motorcycles, cars and light aircraft in Australia. After the races, Kluge and his entourage were besieged by German speaking fans, and a local newspaper reported that a delivery van with Nazi Swazstikas painted on it was seen in Lobethal after the races, where a street party was in full swing with many of the 20,000 spectators enjoying themselves at the German Bier Garten. Another newspaper report claims that Kluge was ordered to remove the swastika he intended to wear at the presentation ceremony. Baron Von Oertzen, accompanied by his beautiful wife who reportedly carried a pearl-handled pistol in her handbag, were under the watchful eye of an Englishman entered for the car racer, Alan Sinclair. It transpired that Sinclair, a noted bon vivant and playboy, was actually a British MI5 operative, whose cover was to race at the meeting in an Alta.
Probably the race of the meeting was the 50-mile Sidecar TT, which pitted Bruce Rehn’s Norton against Ron Badger’s Ariel outfit. The pair staged a wheel-to-wheel battle for almost the entire race, Rehn pulling out a slight advantage towards the finish, aided by the energetic efforts of his passenger Barney Hughes. The 100-mile Senior TT brought together a tasty line up including the ex-works 500 Velocette of Victorian George Hannaford, who led from the start, only to hit the deck at Kayannie Corner on the sixth lap after his brakes failed. Local Clem Foster accepted the lead on his Norton and held on to finish ahead of the remounted Hannaford who had lost more than five minutes making repairs. Riding without brakes, Hannaford’s method of negotiating the corners was to slide into the sandbags! Prior to his accident, Hannaford’s lap average exceed 88 mph. Locals Ray Williams and Trav Burford finished third and fourth. After a few days of celebrations, an even larger crowd flocked into watch the car races, and Lobethal’s future as a racing centre seemed assured.
One year later, the bikes and cars were back, with both events being elevated in stature. The motorcycles now raced for the Australian Tourist Trophy while the cars competed in the Australian Grand Prix – the nation’s two top titles. The prestigious TT attracted a bumper entry of interstate riders; Harry Hinton, Leo Tobin, Jim Madsen, Bert Bartrop and Art Senior from NSW, Hannaford, Mussett and Frank Pratt from Victoria, and Doug Booth, George Best, George Scott and Alan Hopkins from WA to do battle with South Australia’s best. During practice, Bruce Rehn, who had moved from South Australia to Melbourne in the preceding 12 months, overturned his outfit and suffered a fractured arm, but, heavily strapped, he was allowed to start in the program-opening Sidecar TT over 50 miles with the aid of an assistant for the push start. In the race, Rehn and Frank Pratt (BMW) duelled for the lead until Pratt’s engine stopped and he pushed over the line to claim fourth place. The courageous Rehn had more than 11 minutes in hand over R. Newman (Norton) and J. Conquest (Harley-Davidson) at the finish. An innovation for the TT was a handicap event for Stock Motorcycles, won by West Australian Doug Booth from Hinton’s BSA and Pratt’s BMW. The combined Lightweight and Junior TT saw Hinton’s BSA take the smaller title as the only finisher, while Mussett defeated Hannaford and Clem Foster to win the Junior. The premier solo event, the Senior TT over 100 miles promised much and certainly delivered. English star Denis Minett, who held multiple records at Brooklands, was aboard Rehn’s 596 cc Norton, shorn of its sidecar, and from the start was engaged in a furious battle with Art Senior’s Ariel and Hannaford’s Velocette. With his usual bad luck, Senior’s mount cried enough midway through the race, but Minett and Hannaford’s fight went right to the wire (with all three protagonists credited with fastest lap at 91 mph), the Victorian winning by just one second in a controversial result. One their last lap, riders continued on the Mount Torrens Road rather than turning the hairpin onto the Charlestown Road, but in this case the duelling pair, led by Minett, encountered local Jack Brown – one lap behind – who was in the process of turning the corner to start his final lap. Minett, closing rapidly on Brown’s right, was forced to shut off momentarily and later protested that Hannaford had illegally passed him on the outside (left), but the protest was dismissed. Sadly the race claimed the life of popular local George Wade, who crashed on the fast and tricky Schubert’s Corner. After the usual post-event festivities, the huge crowd went home satisfied, and Pratt loaded his racing BMW outfit with all his gear and rode back to Geelong!
For the third successive year, Boxing Day (1939) saw the bikes back at Lobethal, this time for the South Australian Grand Prix, but with war declared, both rider numbers and spectators were down on the previous years. Nevertheless, many top names made the trip from interstate, including the mercurial Doug James from Wollongong. One month later, the 17-year-old would become the youngest ever champion when he won the Australian Lightweight TT at Phillip Island. Tragedy struck in the opening Sidecar TT when 19-year-old passenger Kevin Taylor was killed instantly when the Panther outfit he was sharing with P. Hubbard crashed. NSW star Artie Jones won the race from A.Meville and Frank Cullen. Charlie Walker’s Ariel won the Stock Machine Handicap, before the combined Lightweight/Junior race gridded up for its 75-mile journey. Frank Mussett had little trouble in winning the Junior from Hannaford and Bert Bartrop, while James duly took out the smaller class. The 100 mile Senior completed the programme, with Mussett’s ex-works 500 Velo carrying him to a wheel’s width victory over Hannaford, with local Bruce Hector half a lap back in third.
It was to be eleven years before the streets of Lobethal again echoed to racing engines, on New Year’s Day 1948. The war had taken its toll on men and machines, and the meeting was a combined single-day motorcycle and car meeting. This time the bikes had just two events, but the first, the Sidecar TT, was cancelled due to lack of entries. This left just the six lap Sternol Handicap, where pre-war star Charlie Walker set the fastest time, but was unable to catch local F. Steer (Velocette), K. McKay (BSA) and Mount Gambier’s Laurie Fox (Triumph) taking the placings. The car races were marred by three serious accidents. One of the accidents, where a car lost a wheel and mowed down three policemen and a young boy who were standing at Mill Corner at the entrance to Lobethal’s main street, caused a public outcry which added to the growing clamour for racing on public roads to be banned. It certainly put the final nail in Lobethal’s coffin, although racing continued just down the road at Woodside for three more years. In 1951, a law was finally passed which shut down all road racing in the state, and which was not repealed until the Formula One Grand Prix took place in Adelaide in 1985.
In 2008, racing cars and bikes returned to the grand old Lobethal track as part of a Revival, with strictly monitored parades of historic vehicles behind police ‘safety’ cars. The event was very well received and was repeated on a larger scale in 2009, but has since lapsed due to the extremely high cost of putting it on, the lack of hoped-for financial assistance from government and commercial sponsors, and the stringent rules imposed upon ‘competitors’ which caused unrest at the 2009 event. Nevertheless, key figures behind the Lobethal Revival remain committed to staging another event in the future, although no date has been projected.
In the meantime, Lobethal remains a sleepy town with a couple of pubs and antique shops, but the majestic roads that formed the racing circuit are still there in their entirety. If you’re in the district, it’s an absolute must to take a ride, or drive, around this loop and marvel at the skill and bravery of those who raced there. Just make sure you don’t exceed the speed limit, which is rigidly enforced.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Tony Parkinson, Ray Trevena collection.