Few Australians tried to make a living racing motocross in Europe in the 1960s – and even fewer succeeded. Among those who plied the tracks of England, France, Belgium, Germany, Holland and the Iron Curtain countries was Sydney’s Roy East.
As Paul Reed noted in his feature story on Ken Rumble (OBA 10), those who truly excel in several different branches of motorcycle sport are rare. Of course, it’s harder these days when such specialised tackle is required, but when one machine could be pressed into service for on or off-road competition with little more than a change of tyres, this was the done thing. But it still came down to ‘the nut that holds the handlebars’ to make the real difference, and one such gifted man in the saddle was Roy East, who passed away in Sydney in April, 2002, aged 73. Nobody likes to see a great bloke like Roy pass away, however in this case, it was a blessing, because he had been seriously ill for years, and in great pain for a lot longer than that.
Born of English parents on 9th June, 1929 in Sydney, Roy showed no interest in motorcycle sport until his late ‘teens, when, with a few mates, he became a regular spectator at Parramatta Speedway. But once the bug had bitten, it bit hard. Roy got his hands on a 1939 model BSA Gold Star and entered for one of the popular ‘round the 44-gallon drums’ airstrip events at Castlereagh. In his first race he finished last, something that simply steeled his resolve to improve both his machine’s speed and his own ability. He joined Blacktown MCC and clocked up countless laps of the Bungarribie dirt track near Prospect, then entered for Bathurst in 1949, again without success. Always short of money, he found road racing cut savagely into his budget, and concentrated on the numerous dirt circuits around NSW. It was at the final meeting at Wallacia, where, still graded C Grade, he enjoyed his first win, and really turned some heads by placing second to Jack Dravine in the Junior race. The performance attracted welcome assistance from Wollongong rider/dealer Bill Morris, and at Mittagong Roy won his Senior race and was placed in B grade races, resulting in a grading upgrade. Further success came his way at Wentworth Park in Orange and at Mudgee. Before 1956 was out he was an A Grader on dirt.
Racing was now almost a fulltime occupation, not just on dirt but at road races like Parramatta Park and Mount Druitt, and also at the only scrambles circuit in NSW, Moorebank. For the second and final 24 Hour Road Race at Mount Druitt in 1955, Roy landed a ride on a 250cc Puch along with Tom Phillis and Frank Sullivan. The bike was extensively damaged in the mid-race pile up in which Don Blackburn lost his life, but was rebuilt in the pits and staged a remarkable comeback to finish fourth in its class. Roy’s determined style impressed pre-war star Ron Kessing, who provided a well-tuned but basically standard Velocette Venom, and Roy used it to good effect to win both his graded races. ‘Kesso’ also prepared a MAC Velo for scrambles, and at Moorebank in late 1956 Roy blasted the established stars to win the Junior, as well as the Ultra Lightweight on his own BSA Bantam.
It was about this time that Les Fisher, another well established dirt track and scrambles rider, began to talk of a season in Europe, after some prompting from Tim Gibbes. It sounded good to Roy too, and in early 1957 the pair sailed out of Sydney, bound for Britain. Although Australian and New Zealand road racers had blazed a trail going back prior to WW1, the off-road scene was largely virgin territory, save for the efforts of Les Sheehan and Gibbes. Fisher and East ordered new 500cc AJS 18CS scramblers and after collecting their machines from Plumstead and were soon competing in scrambles and grass tracks across Britain. Then it was off to the really serious competition in Europe, where against seasoned scramblers of the calibre of Geoff Ward, Bill Nilsson, Les Archer, Eric Cheney, Phil Nex and Rene Baeten, they were soon regularly finishing in the top ten. Travelling with Gibbes and Western Australian John Rock, they decided to form a team for the 32nd International Six Days Trail in Northern Bohemia and managed a degree of support from the Jawa/CZ concern. It was an incredibly wet, cold and miserable event, and due to a shortage of spare parts, there were only three machines available. Roy drew the short straw, and became team manager, which, given the atrocious conditions, was probably a lucky break. Fisher’s mount failed on the first day, but Rock and Gibbes soldiered on for bronze medals. It was Australia’s first team effort in what was known as ‘The Olympics of Motorcycling’.
Sydney-born and Adelaide-raised Tim Gibbes was already a season European veteran when Les and Roy arrived. “I don’t know whether they made any money from racing, but fortunately they were able to eek out a living by taking on a job occasionally, and living in their van most of the time. The one I remember most was a box-like ex-Post Office Morris Commercial with the 4 cylinder Oxford engine. However he and Les rode a very well known East German Grass Track called Teterow for many years – an enormous event with 120,000 spectators; a grass track circuit like a road race. I only rode there once, but both, especially Roy was able to get some very much top end places amongst the 2 speed JAP and ESO-powered grass track bikes. They certainly turned a few heads when they wheeled out on MX bikes then turned even more when they were very competitive. As I travelled mainly alone in those days, I’d see them from time to time at events or back in UK at their “digs” – certainly not first class accommodation but what all we Colonials could afford. Roy’s nature was fairly passive as a person and he understood and related to people well, trying his very best to create a good PR atmosphere amongst riders and spectators at events wherever he rode. He certainly brought me to heel a few times with my pushy nature.”
At the conclusion of the European season Les and Roy sailed for home. Les had satisfied his urge to race overseas, but Roy wanted more. First, though, it was time to re-establish the finances, and Roy began a very hectic local season, starting with Bathurst at Easter. On his own 350 Gold Star BSA, he won the Junior Clubmen’s event, and aboard Wollongong tuner Clem Daniel’s MV Agusta, took the Ultra Lightweight as well, defeating a very classy field. It was the beginning of a string of road racing successes, riding in virtually every class, culminating in a triple-triumph at the NSW Grand Prix at Mount Druitt.
In between road racing Roy was on the move virtually every weekend, contesting country dirt track meetings all over NSW and occasionally interstate. Scrambles events were scarce in those days, Moorebank in Sydney’s western suburbs being the only licensed track in the state for several years, but whenever an event was held, Roy was usually there.
At Junee in 1958 Roy took out the 125cc Australian Short Circuit title, although it was a gift as the local star Peter Oehm holed a piston in his BSA when well in the lead.
Travelling with Fisher, Roy made the trek to Royal Park, Adelaide for the 1959 Australian Scrambles Championship. Aboard a hybrid machine comprising an iron BSA engine in an AJS frame, East defeated Ray Fisher and Charlie West to take out the 350cc title – the first time a NSW rider had won an Australian Scrambles Championship. It was his second national title within 12 months, and in two different disciplines of the sport.
Outwardly genial Roy may have been, but there was an abrasive side to his personality, as Ron Kivovitch recalls. “Roy, Les (Fisher) and I drove up to Queensland for the Australian Short Circuit Championships at Heit Park near Ipswich in 1959. It absolutely poured with rain and conditions were so foul that several riders refused to compete. Easty was the favourite for the 125 race but he fell off on the first lap and I ended up winning. On the drive home he wouldn’t say a word to me.”The trio travelled extensively competing in meetings up and down the East Coast. In one three week period in Victoria, East, Fisher and Kivovitch contested a scrambles event at Craigieburn, a grass track at Romsey, and a road race at Phillip Island – using the same machines with only a chance of tyres and gearing.
Eric Debenham also thought Roy pushed the envelope a bit. “When he came back from England the first time, he really rode hard – too hard I thought. And he used to fall off a a lot – he went through three crash helmets in one season!”
The closure of Mount Druitt in November 1958 was a major blow for the state’s road racers, with the Easter Bathurst meeting the only tar fixture on the calendar. The wet 1959 meeting brought Roy and the Daniel MV second place in the Ultra Lightweight TT behind Noel Gardiner’s Walsh Bantam, with an excellent second to Trevor Pound in the Junior GP – the pushrod BSAs leading home the OHC bikes in the treacherous conditions. With no other road races in NSW, Roy concentrated on scrambles and short circuit for the remainder of the year, except for trip to the tight little Darley circuit at Bacchus Marsh west of Melbourne in November, where he rode a 350 Velocette.
But Europe was calling and by early 1960 Roy had enough cash saved to make the trip again. His travelling partner this time was John Hall from Cessnock, a noted short circuit rider who would go on to become the lynch pin of the enduro movement in Australia. This time Roy stayed for the next nine years, but it all began rather badly when he crashed in one of his first rides, in a frozen scramble inside the Brands Hatch road racing circuit, and needed stitches to his head.
He found employment at the BSA factory, working alongside the future world champion Jeff Smith in the competitions department. Roy assembled his own 500cc DBD34 Gold Star scrambler, virtually identical in specification to Smith’s, and used it to good effect on the Continent in everything from motocross to the high-speed German grass track events. But the writing was on the wall for the heavy BSAs, and at the end of 1960 Roy sold the bike to Ron Kivovitch for £300 and shipped it back to Australia to its new owner.
New tackle was required and the choice was obvious; a Rickman Metisse, which he constructed from a kit using lightweight bits like AJS 7R magnesium hubs, Ceriani forks, a Matchless G85CS engine and an AMC gearbox. The winter mud battles televised by the BBC proved a happy hunting ground for Roy and fellow exile Jack Pringle, originally from Newcastle NSW,who had also joined the Metisse ranks. A second 600cc mount joined East’s fleet and the two bikes gave sterling service for the next seven seasons. Even at this stage, Roy had health problems. An arthritic condition in his legs and feet made even walking a chore, and perching on the footrests of a 300-pound scrambler was tough work indeed. Unwilling to suffer another British winter, Roy sailed for home in 1969, shortly after marrying a local lass, Maree.
Back home, he was immediately in demand and accepted rides on a wide variety of machinery; from Ron McKenzie’s 125 Bultaco to the evil TM400 Suzuki, as well as campaigning his faithful Metisse. The advent of the 400 Husqvarna gave his career a temporary extension, but the pain from his illness was getting worse by the month. Still, as late as 1992, Roy would front for the occasional Vintage race, his last appearance being at Mount Kembla.
Apart from racing, Roy returned to the motorcycle trade, opening a successful Honda dealership at Blacktown in partnership with Col Evans, and later joining with Hans Apelgren to form Husky Imports. Their efforts in marketing the Swedish brand moved it from a seldom-seen curio to a major player in the booming of-road scene. As his health deteriorated he tried warmer climates; first Queensland, then Port Stephens, until he finally settled back in Penrith. His wife Maree was also suffering from the cancer that claimed her soon after Roy’s death, so it was a very trying period for both.
With Roy’s passing, we lost one of the last links to the era when big four strokes ruled the roost; when the one bike would suffice for everything from road racing to dirt track and scrambles. Roy East was also one of the few riders who excelled in all three.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Frank Shepherd, Tim Gibbes, Greg Heath