In one of the sport’s greatest ironies, Ron Toombs lost his life on the very circuit where he was the acknowledged master.
Had Ronald Arthur Toombs still been with us, he would have turned 80 on February 7th this year. Shortly after his 46th birthday, Ron died in his comeback ride at Mount Panorama on Easter Sunday 1979. He had not raced for four years, and the idea of a return was only sparked by a conversation with Jack Davies at the long-gone Sydney Showground Speedway one Saturday night in January 1979. At that time, former Australian Dirt Track Champion Davies was manager of Fraser’s Motorcycles in Sydney. When Toombs mentioned a slight interest in having a ride at the up-coming Easter Bathurst meeting, Davies offered to provide a new Yamaha TZ350.
At the peak of his form and still more than a match for the younger stars, Toombs’ career had seemingly ended after a crash at Amaroo Park in 1975 left him with a badly-broken elbow. He was the racers’ racer; tough, brave, and hugely versatile. Ron was one of the few riders in the world who had successfully made the transition from the ‘classic’ era of the fifties to the super-scene that was road racing in the 1970s. He had ridden, and won on everything from traditional big British ‘bangers’ to the slick-tyred hyper-horsepower 750 2-strokes, and was equally competitive on a screaming 125 as a clumsy 1000cc production bike. But it had been no meteoric rise to the top for the wire-haired builder.
All at sea
Ron Toombs was born in the Sydney suburb of West Ryde, the son of English immigrants. His mother died when the three Toombs boys were still young, leaving Bob, Keith and Ron in the care of his father who worked as a builder. His early interest was not motorcycles but soccer, and he excelled to the point that he was among those selected to train for the State squad. However a broken leg, collected while playing for his local church team, set him back somewhat. Ron’s widow Mavis recalls that the most distressing aspect of this on-field injury was the red faces caused by Ron’s torrent of colourful language as he lay on the pitch! When Australia re-introduced military conscription in the early 1950s, Ron’s number came up and he was drafted into the Royal Australian Navy, where he spent two years. The highlight of his service was when his ship formed part of the escort for The Britannia, carrying the recently crowned Queen Elizabeth on an incredibly rough crossing from New Zealand to Australia.
On his discharge he was apprenticed to the building firm of A.W. Edwards. Naturally money was tight, but he managed to scrape together enough to buy a well-used BSA Bantam as road transport. In his spare time, Ron and his mate Ken Nicholls used to hang around the local motorcycle shop, Ryde Motorcycles that was managed by Les Rudd, where the head mechanic, Ernie Dal Santo was a well known figure on the spanner side of the sport. The bug was beginning to bite, and Ron joined Epping District MCC – the first step to a racing licence. Buying any sort of pukka racing bike was out of the question, so Ron and Ken began collecting whatever bits they could lay their hands on to construct a ‘special’. The main components of the machine were a 350cc overhead camshaft AJS R7 engine of 1935 vintage, and an Ariel frame of even earlier manufacture. Hardly a thing of beauty, this ponderous creation nevertheless provided an entry into the sport, usually at the dirt tracks like Wallacia, Vineyards, Landsdowne and Terrey Hills – most of which were little more than grass tracks in large paddocks. The only tar-sealed venue around Sydney was Castlereagh airstrip, and this was merely a blast up and down, rounding 44-gallon drums at each end.
The AJS soon gave way for a G9 Matchless twin, which did double duty as road transport as well as the occasional club race day. The big event of the year was always Bathurst at Easter, but initially for Ron it was only as a spectator. Along with clubmates and wives/girlfriends, the group would rent a cottage at Katoomba and ride into Bathurst for the bikes on Easter Saturday and the cars on Monday. A combination of fog on the mountains and an over-supply of bravery induced from watching the racing meant that these trips were rarely completed without some form of prang. When the Epping MCC folded in 1953, Ron and Ken joined Western Suburbs – home to many of the big name riders like Ron Kessing, Allen Burt and Bob Brown. Here the activities were much more racing-focussed, and Ron was itching to have a crack at road racing on the newly-opened Mount Druitt circuit. His chance came when the Auto Cycle Union organised a Two Hour Race for Production motorcycles and Ken decided to enter his 500 G80 Matchless with Ron as co-rider. The pair was delighted to even finish the race, many laps down on the leaders.
On his dual-purpose Matchless twin, Ron raced as often as funds would allow at Mount Druitt and Parramatta Park, and the more he raced the more he hankered for better equipment. His choice was a 350cc DBD32 Gold Star BSA, and it immediately hoisted him a fair way up the grid. By 1958 he was into the A division in the Junior Clubman’s class, but it was when he met and formed a friendship with Tony Henderson, a railway fitter, that things really started to click. Henderson bought a 500cc DBD34 Gold Star in 1959, but after only a couple of rides wisely decided that his forte was in the workshop, not on the circuit. For the 1961 Bathurst meeting, Tony offered the 500 to Ron, who repaid the favour by winning the Senior Non Experts Final. Later in the meeting however, in the main 500cc Grand Prix, the rear brake anchor broke just as Ron crested Skyline on top of the mountain, sending Toombs to Bathurst Hospital for three days and the BSA back to the pits in a sorry state.
While Ron recuperated from torn neck muscles, a broken jaw and elbow and multiple abrasions, Henderson pondered a change of direction. With help from legendary tuner Charlie Ogden, the BSA was not just rebuilt, but totally re-engineered. The standard frame was scrapped in favour of a Norton ‘featherbed’, magnesium hubs from an 7R AJS acquired, and a severe lightening process begun. Ron, in the meantime, sold his 350 BSA and bought a 1961 model 7R AJS from England that took nearly twelve months to arrive but which he campaigned with immediate success. Even with the mods, the pushrod Henderson BSA was outgunned in the Senior GP ranks, so Henderson forked out $300 to buy a Matchless G50 engine from English sponsor Geoff Monty. When the motor arrived it was a wreck, so Ogden and Henderson once again set about a rebuild, making their own titanium con-rod and converting the ignition to fire two spark plugs. Thus the Henderson Matchless was born.
Hitting the top
To supplement his starts (and prizemoney) Ron also began riding in the 250 cc Lightweight class for Malcolm Sullivan, initially on a very nicely prepared MOV Velocette in a frame built by Stan ‘Nuge’ Smith, and later on an Aermacchi. Easter 1966 was the date when ‘Toombsie” took over at Bathurst. Kel Carruthers had departed for overseas, and Ron was the man who filled his place. On the AJS, he won the Junior 350cc GP, then took out the combined Senior and Unlimited GP on the Matchless. The following year he again won the Unlimited TT, and made it three in a row in 1968. Showing that he was not afraid to move with the times, he switched to a TD-1C Yamaha owned by Perc Howard and also won the 250cc TT, beating rising star Bill Horsman in the process. He also briefly led the 350cc GP but his 7R AJS was comprehensively outpaced by Dick Reid’s new Kawasaki twin, and he sold the AJS soon after.
Shortly before Easter 1969, Ron managed to purchase two of the so-called ‘Daytona’ Yamahas – a 250cc TD2 and a 350cc TR2, at a cost of $2,900 each. The bikes caused a sensation when unloaded in the Bathurst pits, as there had been very little publicity preceding their arrival. Resplendent in new lime-green leathers (but still wearing his old white ‘pudding basin’ helmet), Ron simply thrashed everyone to win the Junior GP by over one minute. After setting a new lap record in the Lightweight GP, the 250 let him down and he coasted home fourth with a gearbox full of neutrals. Back on the Matchless, he had the Unlimited GP shot to bits when the engine seized. His performances had not gone unnoticed by Yamaha, who provided a semi-works 125 for him at Bathurst in 1970. Taking to the screaming tiddler with ease he duly won the race, as well as the 250 GP on his own Yamaha. His 350 oiled a plug on the line, but undaunted, he climbed back on the Matchless and yet again blitzed the field to win the Unlimited – this in his 20th season of racing.
By now Ron and wife Mavis (who were married in 1956) had three young children, but between raising a family and sub-contracting his building services to the fledgling Meriton Developments, there was plenty of racing to be done as well. Although he was now the acknowledged master of Mount Panorama, Bathurst was not his only happy hunting ground. Toombs, Henderson and the fleet of bikes travelled up and down the East Coast weekend after weekend – scoring numerous wins at Phillip Island, Calder, Lakeside, Oran Park, Amaroo, Surfers Paradise and Hume Weir. Another 125/250 double at the 1971 Bathurst meeting took Ron’s tally at the circuit to 14, but by now he had his hands full with young Sydney chemist Bryan Hindle. Over the next three years, the two were to become fierce rivals and the two major names on the Australian scene.
Off to the East
Forsaking Bathurst in 1972, Ron accepted a lucrative offer to race his 350 Yamaha in the Singapore GP, and chased Geoff Perry’s works TR500 Suzuki hard until ignition failure put him out. This was the first appearance by an Australian on the booming Asian scene, and Ron’s first trip outside Australia (apart from the New Zealand visit when in the navy). The Yamaha factory thought enough of his ability to supply a water-cooled head and barrel to fit the standard air-cooled crankcases – a forerunner of the production TZ liquid cooled racers.
Although the Yamaha route was clearly the way to go, Ron and Tony persevered with the Matchless. In its final form the bike sported a lightweight frame built by Bob Britten, constructor of the successful Renmax racing cars, and the engine used a four-valve cylinder head that was machined from solid by Henderson. The mods allowed the engine to rev to 9,200 and with a weight of just 110 kilos (less than a 350 Yamaha), it was an absolute rocket – while it hung together. At Amaroo Park in 1973, the rear brake locked at the top of the hill and the Matchless cartwheeled into the scenery for the last time. Covered in dirt and with his already heavily scuffed green leathers ripped to shreds, Ron quickly hitched a ride back to the pits with the Travelling Marshal where Henderson was warming up the Yamaha for the 125cc race. He won, and set a new lap record.
With the G50 mothballed, Toombs accepted a ride on a new TR500 twin Suzuki supplied by Hazell and Moore, but the partnership was short-lived. He reverted to his own Yamahas and in late September headed to Perth for the final round of the Australian Grand Prix Road Racing Championship – the multi-round series that replaced the Australian TT as the official title. Both the 500 and Unlimited titles were within his grasp, but in the 500 race he crashed and broke his right leg, putting himself out and handing both championships to rising star Gregg Hansford.
At an age when most of his contemporaries had given the game away, 1974 marked a major turning point in the now-veteran’s career. Kawasaki Motors Victoria obtained one of the first air-cooled H2R 750 triple cylinder racers built for the F750 formula and installed Neville Doyle as head of a team which was mainly funded by a consortium of Kawasaki dealers. It even had a modest budget and was arguably the plum ride on the local scene. The two hot young names, Warren Willing and Gregg Hansford, were both organised with new TZ700 Yamahas, but there were plenty of other young ‘uns that Doyle could have put in the seat. The truth was that Toombs’ talent and experience were still a match for anyone. Even his leathers were the right colour.
A major carrot in the deal was the chance to contest the 1974 Daytona 200 – at the time probably the most important and prestigious race in the world. Unfazed as usual by the new and daunting circuit, Ron faced the toughest Daytona 200 field in years, led by Giacomo Agostini’s works 700 Yamaha and a stack of other top liners from around the world. In qualifying, his Kawasaki broke a con-rod, splitting the crankcases and setting fire to the bike, necessitating a complete rebuilt overnight. In the race, he had his Kawasaki up to 11th place before it began jumping out of gear, and it finally broke the rear chain on lap 27.
His deal with Kawasaki allowed Ron to continue racing his own 250 and 350 Yamahas, and at Easter Bathurst 1974 – his first appearance there for three years – he showed that he was still the bloke to beat. In the Junior GP he comprehensively defeated Hansford and Ginger Molloy, despite coasting to the line with a broken exhaust. Then it was straight onto a Z900 Kawasaki for the Unlimited Production, and back on the 350 for the Senior GP which he won easily over Murray Sayle and Hansford. He even squeezed in a second place in the Historic Machine race on Peter Lane’s Manx Norton between the Junior GP and the Production event! In the Formula Unlimited race, Ron’s H2R struggled away from the line almost last, but while Willing and Hansford disappeared into the distance, he caught and passed third man Pat Hennen on a works Suzuki 750. His 250 failed him in the Lightweight GP, and in the memorable 20-lap Unlimited GP, he once again bested Hennen to claim third place after the race they still talk about today when Warren beat Gregg by just a wheel.
Ups and downs
In 1975, Kawasaki Heavy Industries of Japan officially took over the team to create Team Kawasaki Australia. It swelled to a three-rider operation, with Toombs joined by Hansford and Murray Sayle. Things began badly at Bathurst, when Hansford crashed and broke both wrists, and a mysterious misfire dogged Ron’s new H2R750 all weekend. But it was about to get even worse. One week after winning the Australian Unlimited Tourist Trophy at Lakeside, Ron was at a non-championship Open meeting at Amaroo Park. After setting a new outright lap record of 56.5 seconds in the first round of the Unlimited, he decked the Kawasaki at the fastest corner, the right hand sweeper known as Mazda House and badly smashed his right elbow. It was a serious and complicated injury, requiring the insertion of a steel plate that restricted movement, and although his season was clearly over, Ron refused to rule out retirement. But after months of treatment and physiotherapy failed to return the strength and movement to his arm, Ron had to finally call it a day – nothing official of course, but it was evident the show was over – 25 years after it started.
Which brings us to that discussion at the Sydney Showground in January 1979, and to Mount Panorama a few months later. There were mixed feelings about seeing Number 63 on the grid again, in the same way that Mike Hailwood’s return to the Isle of Man the previous year was viewed with considerable trepidation. Many felt that Ron should have let his legend lie, and few would dispute that he was the King of the Mountain. But nobody could have foreseen what was to happen on that Easter Sunday. His entry also included a ride on the ex-works NCR Ducati in Saturday’s Arai Three Hour Race, teamed with David Robbins. The pair ran strongly until a shambolic fuel stop lost them a lap. In Sunday’s Senior GP, Ron made a modest start, completing the first lap in 15th position. To seasoned on-lookers, Ron looked to be doing it tough, not the inch-perfect master of old, although his best lap of 2.26.3 was certainly competitive for a top-6 finish. By lap 6 he was up to 8th, but that was as far as he got. Exiting the Dipper, his right shoulder glanced the fence, putting him off line on the exit from the downhill corner and over the inside edge of the track. His Yamaha hit a large tree head-on, pitching the rider over the handlebars.
The Coroners report revealed that he had suffered a massive haematoma, with six broken ribs causing severe blood loss. Anyone who was there that day would clearly recall the hush that descended over the Mountain when word came through later in the afternoon that The King was dead. The scene in the pits was truly tragic, with family members and friends aghast with the news from Bathurst Base Hospital.
Clearly, there will never be another rider like Toombsie. On some programs he rode up to five bikes, and openly criticised what he called “high-speed nose-to-tail practice sessions”. His idea of a good race, win or not, was one with plenty of passing and cut and thrust manoeuvres. Truly, Ronald Arthur Toombs was the racers’ racer.
Story Jim Scaysbrook • Photos Bob Toombs, Dick Darby, Jeff Nield, Brier Thomas, Dennis Quinlan, Robin Lewis, Keith Ward, Frank Shepherd