From our Old Bike Archives – Issue 64 – first published in 2017.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Rob Lewis, Phil Hall, Stan Shephard.
Christchurch-born Stu Avant had talent to burn, but having a good time was equally as important to him.
On a blisteringly hot day in January 1976 at Laverton Air Force base, west of Melbourne, a young Kiwi was writing himself into the history books. Aboard a new Suzuki RG500 Mk1 owned by his employer Tommy McCleary, 20-year-old Stu had 15-times World Champion Giacomo Agostini, works Harley-Davidson/Aermacchi rider Gianfranco Bonera, and virtually every top line Australian behind him until the closing stages of the blue ribbon Senior TT. Avant had audaciously ridden around the outside of Agostini’s MV Agusta to take the lead on the second lap, and then just steamed away with the race seemingly in his pocket. Then, in a split second, it was all over, the Suzuki seizing at the hairpin and casting him unceremoniously down the road.
But that race was to prove the turning point in his motorcycle racing career, which had begun on a worn out Yamaha 100 twin five years earlier. Stu was part of a bunch of bike-mad youngsters that included future GP engineer Mike Sinclair, John Boote and several others, who spent every available moment tearing around the twists and turns of the dangerous Port Hill roads, and spending every cent they earned on their bikes. The bug had bitten early, while Stu was still attending school. “I found an old Francis Barnett lying somewhere and I painted ‘Yamaha TD1C’ on the side of the tank because we used to get the motorcycle magazines from England every six weeks by sea and read them from cover to cover. My dad used to go up to (the road circuit) Cust and he’d take us out to the dirt tracks when we were small but he was always sick and died when I was 15. We were skint, we were on food parcels, but a strange thing happened when my dad died. My mother was working in a Manchester shop selling drapery and the lady that owned the shop asked if she would decorate a cake for a bloke called Warren Guy from the Canterbury Motorcycle Club – his ex-wife Wendy still runs the club. The deal was my mum did a design of a YDS5 Yamaha on the cake and in return, I got to go to Waimate for the street races in the back of a J2 Morris van. I have a picture of me sitting on the gutter cleaning Warren Guy’s bike which was a YDS3 with expansion chambers, and from then I was just hooked and I would ride my push bike round to his house. He’d be in bed with some bird and I’d be knocking on the window and he’d call out ‘go and clean the bike’ so I spent all this time when I was 14 polishing aluminium and cleaning.”
Despite getting good results at school and showing promise as a rugby player, motorcycles were all that mattered to Stu, and he got an after-school job with local Suzuki agent Tommy McCleary, where his mate Mike Sinclair also worked. “I would hold the exhaust pipes while he welded, but everything I did to help him I was hopeless at – I used to have all my fingertips burnt off from Sinclair welding around them. He lived just around the corner and was from the same socio-economic background – we were like, grafters – and the more I worked the more bikes I could buy on hire purchase. When we got to 15 we figured we could go to (local circuit) Ruapuna because that’s what Warren Guy did, so I got a Suzuki A100 and we would go to the jam factory near the track and for $5 they would give you the key to the gate and you could beat round and round all day. In the morning we would go in one direction, and the opposite way in the afternoon.”
With help from McCleary and later from Yamaha agents White’s, Stu progressed through the ranks. “Along the way I’d ridden Pat Hennen’s Rickman TR750 and broke my ankle on that, and I had a Norton Commando FIM, just different things for a kid with long hair and no money, going to meetings with whoever would give you a trip. I was just a long haired dickhead, everyone tells me I was arrogant so I guess I was. We were just scraping around wishing we could be like Trevor Discombe or Ginger Molloy or Keith Turner. I came over to Australia in 1974 on a TZ700 Yamaha that belonged to Whites, to do Bathurst. My mechanic had an opium overdose on Cronulla beach so we lost him for a while. Lionel Angel had been with us in Christchurch and had raced in Europe, so he rescued us and worked on the TZ700 which was crap when we sent it over. The chain kept snapping at Bathurst because we couldn’t afford a new one so I went home with my tail between my legs.”
In 1975 Stu was invited to the Indonesian Grand Prix, which that year had attracted a top class entry including Warren Willing, who was to become a close friend in later years. McCleary had provided a new TR500 Suzuki twin, but the meeting marked the release of the stunning new RG500 square four, of which four examples were entered. “I went pretty quick in qualifying and the local rider (Bambang Soedarsono) decided the new RG500 was too quick for him so they offered it to me. In the race I was about 3rd or 4th, and the tank sat down on the spark plug leads and gave me a complete zap because I was soaked with sweat. I went down the end of the straight, hit the brakes and the bike went alive and I jumped off. But it was a good meeting for me because some of the Japanese mechanics became friends later on in Europe. It was a great opportunity because Dave Aldana was there and I spent a lot of time with him, causing absolute mayhem.” Mayhem and Stu were to become synonymous as his career unfolded. “By then I was working fulltime with Tommy. I had qualified for university entrance but I decided I wanted to muck around with my bikes more and more. We had the Marlboro Series in NZ that year and we got a new RG500 by Christmas. We did the series and Pat Hennen was there and giving me lectures about life, how stupid I was. He said, ‘Why are you on a mini bike? Not to do wheelies. You ride them to see what the lap time is by riding up to the start/finish, or going out and looking at the opposition to see how you can go faster’. Looking back on it, they were thinkers and I was the exact opposite. But I was what I was.”
Following the 75/76 Marlboro Series, where Stu put in some notable performances, came Laverton, and despite the disappointment of losing his first big win, he had made a real impression with the visiting Italian Diemme team. “We came back to NZ and a blue telegram came though from Diemme which said to come to Italy next month. That’s easier said than done when you don’t have any money, so I found Michael (Sinclair, who was working in Melbourne) and said, “Do you want to come to Italy?” and he said, “Might as well, my partner doesn’t like me.” So he came home to NZ and we packed the bike and sent it to Milan, not knowing where that was. We built a toolbox out of wood and it was 36 kg loaded up, and we had to carry it everywhere on the plane. We had absolutely no money, so we bought a cheap ticket to London – we knew the plane went via Singapore and then Rome before London. So we just jumped off in Rome and we walked out with the box. It was odd because we were in t-shirts and everyone had big jackets on and it was snowing, but it had been hot in Christchurch and I didn’t realise there was a difference. That’s how dumb I was. We just decided we were going to do the World Championship, Michael bought a phrase book so we were right. They picked us up and they said, ‘Where’s the bike?’ and we said ‘In Milan,’ and they said, ‘Well, we’re in Rome.’ So we drove up to Bologna in this old truck in the snow to where the team was based and they put us in this tiny little hotel room with Sinclair playing Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ over and over again until it drove me nuts. We went to the workshop where they had a water brake dyno, and Mike just lit up. He just loved it. When they realised we had no money they downgraded us to a hotel that had no hot water and that’s where we stayed. History showed that we did well but after their two other riders got killed at Mugello the team said, “We just don’t want to do this any more, but you can keep the truck.”
Stu’s GP career got off to a great start with seventh place at the season-opening French Grand Prix at Le Mans, with five works bikes ahead of him and only half a second separating him from sixth placed Victor Palomo. At the Austrian Grand Prix at Salzburg, it was commonly held that most of the 500s could not complete the race on a tank of fuel, so Sinclair chopped up a metal tool box and made a four-litre auxiliary tank which he fitted into the rear of the seat. Stu raced with Agostini for the entire distance, then passed him on the final lap to take fifth place – with six litres left. He still claims this was the “ride of my life”. “I was 20 years old, fresh out of New Zealand, racing against my heroes on a bike my best mate had built for me.” Another fifth in Sweden and more top ten places meant he ended up 12th in the 1976 500cc World Championship despite missing the final three rounds after crashing heavily in Finland. During the season he had formed a friendship with Barry Sheene and Phil Read, both noted party animals, and Stu fell into their hedonistic ways. “At the end of 1976 I got 695 quid start money for the Hutchinson 100 at Brands Hatch. It was my 21st birthday and Readie took me to Tramp’s nightclub in London. They had a birthday cake for me and Mick Jagger and Noddy Holder from Slade sang me happy birthday. Then Readie disappeared and left me with the bill – 640 quid – so I was back to being broke again.”
By year’s end Stu and Mike were back in New Zealand, where McCleary had arranged a 750 Yamaha that was built into a Dutch Nico Bakker chassis. “Mike built that bike up for me for the 76/77 Marlboro Series and that was a really good bike but halfway through the series Mike got the shits with me because I’d bought a girl home with me and I was fooling around and getting myself into a lot of trouble. He just said, ‘You’re not serious enough.’ Pat Hennen had offered him a job so he went onto to greener fields and better days but he still helped me a lot over the years. Even when he was a factory Suzuki mechanic he’d arrive at night and say something like, ‘I see your ignition is playing up so here’s one, or here’s a set of shocks that they would have thrown out’. The Yamaha was good and Vince French came over and worked on it as my mechanic for the series, and Warren Willing was there with little George Vukmanovich so he helped too, as he always did. I won one of the rounds at Pukekohe and was going really good and I was second in the series behind Pat Hennen when we went to Levels (Timaru). But I crashed coming onto the back straight and launched over the barbed wire fence and into a ditch and tore all the ligaments off my hip, so that was the end of me for series.”
For 1977, Stu was offered a spot in the team owned by British construction magnate Sid Griffith. “We couldn’t get a new Suzuki so we ended getting Jeff Sayle’s old Mk1 from the previous year from Australia and bought a Nico Bakker chassis for it, which was crap. Our TZ750 wouldn’t keep running for more than five minutes, we had a terrible time. We were at Paul Ricard and it seized that hard that we had to take the cylinders off by cutting the conrods. Then we had our carbs stolen out of the pits and Kel Carruthers lent us some carbs. At Silverstone I crashed on the straight in the rain, then I crashed at the Ulster GP at Deers’ Leap at 120mph which was horrendous, I should have been killed – I went 200 metres along a stone wall. When I got back to the pits there’s Steve Parrish going through my pockets. ‘He said, I thought you were dead and I haven’t paid for my boat trip home.’ So I just bundled up all the wreckage and sent it home and when I got home Tommy had me arrested and put in gaol for wilful damage to his equipment. My sister bailed me out, and the Bramwell family, who were great people and always helping everyone out, bought me an RG500 Mk3 so I started off again. Then Dick Hunter got hold of me and asked if I wanted to come to Australia to race for him, so I came over in 1978 and stayed with Warren Willing’s mum, and Warren sat me down and gave me the big lecture about life and when was I going to get serious. We travelled together and had some great times. Warren helped me pull Dick’s RG apart and set it up properly, and after that it went perfectly and we won everything. Dick had an old caravan outside his house at Elanora Heights where I used to stay occasionally. That year sort of morphed into nothingness so I went up to Queensland and worked for Donny Pask. I went to Indonesia and won the GP because it was raining. That got me back on my feet and the next year Annand and Thompson said I could ride their TZ750 so I lived on the Gold Coast which is where I met Pat – we were married in 1982.”
For 1980, Stu and Pat decided on a move back to England. “I got hold of Steve Ellis who I’d lived with for a while back in ‘77. He had been out to NZ for the Marlboro Series with Piers Forrester, he had been a good continental circus rider himself in the ‘sixties and he said he’d buy me a bike and a transit van. So we got a Mk4 RG500 from Australia and Dudley Lister came over with me, Dudley was great. Our first meeting was at Cadwell Park but the van broke down, which it did all year. We built a little bed behind the seat and went to all the internationals we could afford. We had some good results and at that stage you had 50 or 60 people trying to qualify for a GP. At Hockenheim I beat Barry Sheene so Dieter Braun came up and said he wanted to sponsor me, so I ran in his colours for the rest of the year. I rode the factory TTF1 Yoshimura Suzuki with Croz at Silverstone and Cadwell. Later that year I went to Malaysia. John Woodley had been riding for the Suzuki importers Guan Ho but was pulling out so I got a Mk6 RG500 from Guan Ho for 1981. I had a pretty good year, running fifth or sixth in most of the internationals, then went back to Malaysia again and got the new Mk7 for 1982 which was a fantastic motorcycle. Suzuki gave us some good bits so we had the right wheels and so on, and that year we could run in the top 10 anywhere in the world. I think my best was 7th but we only did the races we could afford. In 82 they paid me 7000 quid to do the TT and I really needed the money but I just couldn’t get on with the place. But I won the Jody Schecketer World Cup and then won the North West 200 where I won 5000 quid, which was enough to buy my house in England.”
After contesting the Swann International Series in Australia it was back to UK, but the winds of change were in the air. “I worked right through the UK winter painting houses just so we could pay the mortgage. I had an Aussie bloke, Mike Lawson working with me, who was a real fitness nut so I started to train for the first time in my life. We built an aluminium chassis because we couldn’t get a new Mk8 but it was shit and I crashed at the first meeting at Donington – it wasn’t a great year. I got invited to Macau at the end of the year and Padgett’s showed me a pile of parts and said if you build two bikes out of that we’ll give you one so I did that, took it to Macau at the end of ‘83 and got fifth. I thought, “What am I doing? I was 30 and BP had been helping me but they came to me and said they were going to put all their money into Ayrton Senna so there’s none for you. Then Suzuki Malaysia pulled out and I thought things are going to go backwards from here. I stuck around in ‘84 wondering what to do and did a stint with Garry Taylor testing monocoque chassis, carbon fibre and aluminium honeycomb, started doing road tests for Motorcycle Mechanics, tested bikes for Steve Wynne at Sports Motorcycles, and wrote articles. Then in ‘84 I was asked to come down and do Bathurst and I had a Suzuki with Mick Smith as mechanic. I said to my wife, ‘We need to change our life. I’m getting older and I’m not getting any better. You can only pick yourself up so many times’.”
When we came to Bathurst we had a look around and talked to a few people. Ron Boulden knew some people from Bob Jane, Ron was really good to me at that point. My wife’s son was living in Australia by now, so we decided to do the same. NZ was too far away – a good place to visit but not where we wanted to end up. It was just a thought bubble as to what to do, so we sold off everything, not that we had anything really. We sold the house in UK and we had $26,000 when we got back to Australia. We stayed with Ron and Melanie Boulden and he gave me a Honda 100 two stroke to run around on. We rented a place in North Ryde but we couldn’t get any credit to get a TV or any furniture. Richard Scott’s sponsor Peter Addison gave us a bed, for which we were very grateful because we were sleeping on the floor. I had bought some titanium pipes from UK for Richard but it was four months before I was paid, by which time the dollar had changed against the pound so it just cleaned me out totally. I thought, “Do I really want to ride bikes? There’s nothing in the future that I haven’t already done.” I was a founding member of IRTA and had friends there, always been friends with Garry Taylor, Steve Harris the frame guy, and because of that I have never really lost touch but I realised that I had to work because I had a family to support. So I had some meetings with Bob Jane dealing with a guy named Lynton Wettome – a friend of Ron’s – who was going through a divorce and half the time his wife wouldn’t pass the messages on. So Jane’s said, ‘We’ll put you down at Brookvale because they need some help down there,” so I went and worked at Brookvale for a while with the Honda 100 being my only means of transport. When I was working at Brookvale I could have bought the franchise but they wanted $150,000 security and I didn’t have it. So they said, ‘We’ve got one at Bankstown and it’s bankrupt but we think it could be good, but it doesn’t do any business and it is owned by the D’albora family, the marina people and they’re not interested, but if you go there we’ll guarantee a loan and you can work off some credit. So I went there to work and I’ve been there ever since and it’s worked out well for me. It’s unrelenting, it’s difficult, it’s painful, you see everything good and bad in life.”
For a self-confessed dilettante, this was a complete role reversal, but by sheer hard work and long hours, Stu built the business into the most successful Bob Jane T-Marts franchise in Australia. He worked non-stop until 1997, when Suzuki UK offered him a role looking after wild child Anthony Gobert in the works 500cc team. “So I took a year off but it almost cost me the business because while I was away it just fell apart.” It was back to the grindstone, at least until 2015.
“I’d got right out of bikes, didn’t attend events any more, although I followed GP racing very closely, then my brother-in-law in NZ sent me this ad that was on TradeMe – an RGB500 Suzuki that was on a farm. I’d known Tom Dermody for years, he used to work at Padstow near me, and he had no money then but that’s all changed now. So I said to him that I’d found this RGB but I didn’t want to own it outright because I had nowhere to keep it, so we shared it. I went over to NZ and Rod Price lent us his Transit van, I loved that, driving a Transit again – so we went up to Whakatane up on the top of this mountain with goats everywhere and there’s this bike sitting there. The guy that owned it is a genius, he was building a V6 two stroke that’s why he wanted the money. His brother’s got a foundry and they make all sorts of stuff. So we bought it for $50K NZ and flew it over to Brisbane where Tom is. Then we got hold of the YZR500 Yamaha that Kevin Magee used to race in Japan – a really beautiful bike – and I asked Magee if he wanted to ride it. He still has his original leathers and boots and he said, “Yeah sure”. So that’s given me a new lease of life, just something to do every six months or so. I’m back into bikes and really loving it.
Tom Dermody and Stu organised to take the YZR500 and the RGB to the recent Southern Classic races at Levels, in Stu’s old stomping ground at Timaru, where they were ridden by Magee and Graeme Crosby respectively. All weekend, Stu looked like the cat that got the cream, chatting with old mates, telling stories, and laughing a lot. He’s come a long way from the lad that learned his race craft chasing John Boote and Mike Sinclair around the hills of Christchurch, and after more than a few ups and downs, it seems he has rediscovered his first love – motorcycles.