Ray Owen – The complete motorcyclist

Rider Profile

Ray Owen dicing with Gary Flood in the Victorian Grass Track Championships at Romsey.

You could reasonably assume that there are a few OBA readers out there who started racing more than 60 years ago – not many, perhaps, but a few. But how many of them still own the bike that they raced successfully in the late forties? Ray Owen does, and he has an impressive array of State and National titles, on grass, dirt, and bitumen that he won on this machine, a 1936 250cc L 2/1 Triumph. But that is not where the Ray Owen story starts.

Ray was born in 1928, the eldest of 10 children. Early days were spent on a farm in northern Victoria, but Ray’s dad was more interested in gold prospecting than farming. Ray either inherited or acquired a passion for gold while still a primary school student, a passion that has rivaled his passion for racing throughout his life, a passion that he still indulges at 81 years of age.

Money was scarce in the early days, and it was deemed more important for Ray to contribute to the family income than to acquire an education, so he left school at 13 and took his first job, burning charcoal for gas-producer units. Gas producers were popular during the war years, and later, as a substitute for petrol, which was strictly rationed and extremely scarce. After a couple of years at this trade, Ray applied for a position as a rigger with Wirth’s Circus, and spent a further couple of years erecting the big-top marquees all over New Zealand. It was a hard life but it helped build character, independence, and self-belief in the young Ray.

Ray’s next move was to Nunawading, where he met his life-time best friend, Bert Flood. Together, they joined the newly formed Nunawading Motor Cycle Club. As a 17 year old, he could not wait to get into racing, and built up a rigid framed, girder-forked scrambler with a mid-twenties 350 OHV Blackburne motor, complete with outside flywheel. Believe it or not, Ray won the first race he entered on this bike, at Baxter in 1947. He recalls that this was the only time that he finished a race on this bike due to a long list of mechanical failures.

Speedway racing was just getting going again in Melbourne after a lull during the war, so Ray bought the only speedway bike he could afford, a twenty year old Harley Peashooter. It was hardly a match for a Rotrax-JAP, but it was a start. The pattern was set – load the Peashooter onto the platform of an old Super-X sidecar outfit and off to Kirjon Speedway every Saturday night, then take the motor out and put it in a road frame for the week days. He was also sidecar passenger for Howard Uren at Kirjon (later to become Tracey’s Speedway) at Maribyrnong. As time progressed and Ray’s skill improved, he moved on to a Speedway Rudge, and finally a JAP.

Ray found out early on that if you wanted to win races, even at club level, you had to ride “bloody hard”. There was no shortage of hard men in Nunawading club, men like Neil and Leon Street, Ivan Tighe, Harold Tapscott, Johnny Board, and of course his old mate Bert. Ray proved he was up to the task by winning the Club Championship in 1947 at the club’s Donvale track.

In 1949, Ray decided to buy the L 2/1 Triumph. It was a fully registered touring bike, with lights, and full road gear, and the price was 60 pounds. Ray was quite disgusted to find, on the way home with Jock Board on the pillion the little Triumph could only manage 60 mph downhill! Later, thanks to Jock’s tuning wizardry, it was to become one of the fastest 250s in the country, finishing third at Bathurst in 1952 behind Sid Willis and Ted Carey on their DOHC Velocettes.

In the early post war years in Victoria, the 250 class in road racing was dominated by pre-war MOV Velocettes, ridden by top riders like Bob Elsbury, Joe Donovan, Les Diener and Gil Steel. The MOV lent itself to tuning because of its square 68 X 68 bore and stroke, steel flywheels in narrow rigid crankcases, high camshaft with bell-crank followers and short, lightweight pushrods. On paper, it had all the advantages over the more conventional Triumph, but Ray and Jock set out to exploit the characteristics of the longstroke Triumph, namely its ability to pull a higher gear than the Velocettes, and its extra torque out of slow corners to at least equal the performance of the MOVs. Other leading riders on 250 Triumphs were Harry Rosenthal, Neville Doyle, Laurie Fox and Ron Clark. Most of them favoured the earlier Val Page designed L 2/1 over the Edward Turner’s later Tiger 70 because the L 2/1 was generally stronger with through-bolted barrel and head. Jock Board cast up some heavier ribbed crankcases with double drive-side main bearings, and a Velocette gear-type oil pump, enabling it to rev safely to 7,500 rpm. Ray’s first road race on the Triumph was in the Australian TT at Nuriootpa, S.A. in 1950, where he finished third.

The Triumph was a very versatile racer, winning races at Victoria Park, Ballarat, Flinders Naval Depot, and Puckapunyal army camp, as well as grass track, short circuit and scramble events with nothing more than a change of tyres and gearing. Ray would ride in whatever was going, and enjoyed all branches of the sport equally. He even found time to passenger for Fred Thatcher on his Garden Gate Manx in road races, before buying the bike from Fred and racing it himself, with his younger brother Ron as passenger. Ray would arrive at a road race with the Manx outfit and the Triumph, ride the Triumph in the 250 and 350 events, the Manx in the 500 and Unlimited solos, and then attach the sidecar for the Junior and Unlimited sidecar events. Later, the Garden Gate Manx was sold and replaced with a Featherbed Manx.

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Early days on the Manx at Darley.

In 1952, Ray travelled to Quorn Hall in Launceston, Tasmania for the Tasmanian TT. He scooped the pool, winning the 125 TT on a CZ supplied by the distributors, Bruce Small, the 250 on his Triumph, and the 500 on his Manx. He also scored a second and a third in the sidecar events. Bruce Small’s manager Keith Holland presented him with a bonus for winning the 125 TT – a second-hand 3.00 X 19 tyre! How things have changed.

When Ray decided to get serious about short circuit and long track racing, he wrote to Neil (Billy) Street in England, and asked him to buy a Hagon-Jap for him. Neil dismantled the bike and packed it in a box, posting it to Ray by parcel-post. Ray was now able to mix it with the best NSW short-circuit riders, with frequent successes at Junee and on the mile tracks at Morgan and Tailem Bend in S.A. Short circuit racing was never a big thing in Victoria, so Ray had to travel to keep his hand in.

He was also successful on the Hagon on Victorian grass tracks (horse racing tracks) – at Drouin, Narre Warren, Myrtleford, Kyneton and others in Victoria, and at Arthur Park in Queensland.

In between all this racing activity, Ray was busy building up his trucking business, running a fleet of five interstate semi-trailers which he built himself. He also found time to indulge in a little car racing in F3 Coopers owned by Vic Robbins and Barry Webster, with 500 JAP and BSA motors. He raced these against Bert Flood and Reg Hunt at Darley and Fisherman’s Bend, and also at the Templestowe Hillclimb. He also built himself a “little” 500 car, much smaller than a Cooper, which he still owns.

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Ray Owen at Templestowe Hillclimb in the little JAP-engined car that he still owns.

Ray continued to campaign the girder forked, rigid framed Triumph in scrambles when it was long past its use-by date. Alan McBeath, an accomplished trials rider, returned from England with a factory Cotton scrambler in time for the Victorian Scramble championships. The Cotton, with leading link forks and twin shock rear end, gave Alan an armchair ride on the rougher sections of the track, compared to Ray’s wildly bucking Triumph. Ray hung on grimly until the last corner when he produced a do-or-die effort to take the lead and win the title.

When Bert Flood started importing Bultacos in the early sixties, Ray was in on the ground floor, ordering a 200cc Sherpa S Scrambler, which must have been a revelation after the Triumph. When the first 4-speed yellow 250 Bultaco Metisses arrived in 1965, Ray had to have one of these too, and sleeved the Sherpa S down to 125cc. The Metisse was an absolute flyer for its day, and rewarded Ray with many successes in scrambles and short circuit, and winning all classes from 125 to 350cc at the 1965 Victorian Hillclimb Championships at Hoddle’s Creek. The 125 Sherpa S motor finished up in a Hagon frame, which Ray still owns.

In 1965, Ray travelled up to Queensland for the Short Circuit Championships at Heit Park near Ipswich. Don Newell was the local BSA distributor, and was top dog in Queensland on a very quick Gold Star. He recalls being flat out down Heit Park’s long main straight when the screaming yellow projectile sizzled past and disappeared into the distance, The writing was on the wall, and Don negotiated for the rights to distribute Bultacos in Queensland. Ray took out the 250 and 350 championships on the Metisse. The following year, the Australian Short Circuit Championships were held at Old Bar, near Taree, and Ray took out the 250 title from Queenslander Matt Daley, and narrowly lost the 125 title to Charlie Edwards.

About this time, Ray realised that the sport in Victoria needed a permanent track, with good facilities, close to Melbourne. He had acquired a 350 acre property at Wallan on the Hume Highway, and set about developing it as a sporting complex with an imaginative motocross track as its focal point. The complex became known as Owen Park and served Victoria’s motorcyclists very well until MV’s Broadford facility took over this role. Ray particularly encouraged juniors on mini bikes, often attracting forty or more starters per event. On one occasion, Ray’s three daughters, Sheryl, Maree and Karen finished first, second and third on their home track, the result of a combination of inherited ability from Dad and an upbringing in a motorcycling environment. Youngest daughter Karen also has a Victorian Mini Bike Championship to her credit.

The Championships kept on coming year after year for Ray, with almost monotonous regularity. Ray has jotted down as many of the tracks he has ridden on that he can remember, and they add up to over 100. At 50 years of age, he won everything on the program in the 1978 Victorian Grass Track Championships at Romsey, and in 1983 he was pronounced “King of Kedron” on the Hagon at the Kedron Classic Short Circuit in Queensland.

For all his racing experience, Ray has had very few falls, and has never broken a bone. He remembers crashing once at Romsey, and says his worst experience was racing the Garden Gate Manx at Bathurst in the rain. Throughout his racing career, Ray’s most dedicated and supportive fans have been his wife Patricia and their three daughters. In 1969, daughter Sheryl compiled a meticulous record of his championship sashes which runs to 16 pages of her school exercise book, and wife Pat continued the list until his retirement from serious racing in 1978.

Nowadays Ray’s main interest is maintaining his extensive collection of bikes which gave him so much success and enjoyment, and restoring the odd interesting veteran or vintage machine. His latest project is a water-cooled Williamson 1000cc flat twin, to which he has attached the wicker sidecar that he “knitted” for his Rudge “Multwin” many years ago. I think you could fairly say that Ray is the complete motorcyclist.

Story: Paul Reed • Photos: Ray Owen, Merv Whitelaw, Keith Ward, Rob Lewis

Sadly, Ray Owen passed away on 29th May 2017 but his legacy continues with the annual Ray Owen Classic Bike Show and Swap Meet. A full report of this year’s show will appear in Old Bike Australasia Issue 74.

OBA Issue 18
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.18