The Mawson Matchless

Bike Profile

The Matchless and sidecar at midwinter 1970. Photo from Malcolm Robertson.

From our Old Bike Archives – Issue 67 – first published in 2017.

Story: George Cresswell and Malcolm Robertson (George Cresswell and Malcolm Robertson wintered at Mawson, Antarctica in 1960 and 1970 respectively).

In 2013 George Cresswell set out to collect information on the motorcycles that had been taken to Antarctica by Australian Antarctic station members. He had taken a motorcycle to Mawson station in 1960 and expected that maybe three or four others had been taken south over the half century. This proved to be an underestimate by a factor of ten; the number was 35 between 1960 and 1980. Concerns about safety probably brought the motorcycle era to an end at the Australian Antarctic stations. Most motorcycles were taken down unofficially thanks to kind-hearted coxswains on the Danish and other icebreakers used over that time. One of them, a 500 cc single cylinder Matchless stood out because of its long life there, from 1968 to 1977. 

Malcolm Robertson, it’s fair to say, had a love affair with the Matchless during his year as geophysicist at Mawson in 1970. He had published an account of a hair-raising journey on the Matchless and had collected photos of it from other years, as well as a few emails with yarns about its use. All proved valuable when George tried to put together a history on the Matchless. 

But the story was difficult to unravel. For a while it seemed as if there were three Matchlesses over that interval, variously because of a yellow paint job on the petrol tank, because of the fitting of an exhaust muffler from another motorbike, and because sidecars were fitted and removed quite often. 

Mawson 1968. The Matchless with its upswept exhaust and muffler and South Australian number plate. Bruce McDonald is believed to be the rider. Photo from Malcolm Robertson.

But now, this might be the story….

Three years ago I received four excellent photos of a single cylinder Matchless: one, a black and white from Robert Walch, and three in colour taken in 1968 sent by Malcolm. The photos show the Matchless with a South Australian number plate, “SA 4728”.  Robert identified the motorbike as a Matchless G80S from about 1953. But who was the rider? Malcolm sent me a copy of an email from the late “Narra” Johnson to a “Bruce” dated July 2005 and it implied that the Matchless was Bruce’s and that it was taken down in 1968. In February 2015, cosmic ray scientist Attila Vrana and Doctor Don McKenzie, both at Mawson in 1968, identified the “mystery rider” as their fellow winterer, electronics engineer Bruce McDonald. 

Glaciologist Ian Allison, who wintered at Mawson in 1969, sent me three black and white photos of the Matchless from that year. One of them showed the Matchless with its distinctive upswept exhaust and muffler and in another it had a sidecar that included a wheel scrounged from another motorbike. The South Australian number plate had been removed, possibly to become a souvenir.

The Matchless in original form with SA registration.

When the 1970 expeditioners arrived at the station they found that it was littered with all sorts of interesting relics, including, as Malcolm wrote, “a 500 cc single cylinder Matchless motorcycle of indeterminate age that still ran.  I claimed this immediately as a geophysics field vehicle and registered it MC01.” The photo of Malcolm on the Matchless during the 1969/70 changeover shows him wearing a colourful Canadian jacket, while on the sidecar is one of the ubiquitous wooden crates, in this case a small one, used to transfer supplies south from Australia. 

Malcolm wrote that “the Matchless provided much entertainment and was used around the station as a bit of a trail bike, clawing its way to the remote corners of the boulder-strewn site and occasionally onto the lower reaches of the ice plateau. “One of its uses was to tow intrepid skiers and the photo shows it speeding towards an equally intrepid photographer, David Parer, who, thankfully, was not decapitated.  Close inspection shows a rope wrapped around the front wheel, an attempt to improve traction.

Mawson vicinity 1968. Two riders, the Matchless and a dog sled on the sea ice near an offshore island. The riders were identified by Don McKenzie, the doctor at Mawson in 1968, as surveyor Max Rubeli and Bruce McDonald. Antarctic Division photo D1010001 140703 – provided by Malcolm Robertson.

Some time into 1970 Malcolm painted the petrol tank yellow and fitted a horizontal exhaust muffler from the Triumph Thunderbird that “Snow” Williams had taken down in 1962 and which operated until 1967. The yellow petrol tank, the horizontal exhaust and the sidecar made the Matchless distinctive, to the extent that it could be identified in photos from seven years later.

In March 2017 I was fortunate enough to talk on the phone with Trevor Luff, diesel mechanic at Mawson in 1970. Trevor said that it was he who moved the easy chair from the recreation room to the sidecar of the Matchless and that when the Matchless engine seized up he turned down a piston from the Snow Trac spares and got the Matchless running again.

Malcolm had taken a Super8 movie camera to Mawson in 1970 and in 2016 we had it transcribed to digital. The camera had been passed from person to person during the year and there is good footage of the struggle to get around the station in strong winds, a dog team on the harbour, the annual race around the harbour of all vehicles deemed light enough not to break through the sea ice, and other items. Malcolm taught himself to do a pirouette on the Matchless on the sea ice and there are some stills of that grabbed from the movie, as well as Malcolm at speed in the annual race.

Malcolm Robertson on the Matchless with sidecar competing in the 1970 race around the frozen harbour. From a Super8 movie shot by David Parer and transcribed to digital in 2016.

In 2010 for the 40th anniversary of wintering at Mawson, Malcolm wrote an exciting yarn, “The Day the Ice Turned Black”, for the ANARE Club journal “Aurora” about an adventure that he had with Dave Parer. In early November 1970 Dave suggested that they take the Matchless twelve miles out to Rookery Island “so that he could photograph the Giant Petrels on their nests.” 

“Although we had been having twenty-four hours daylight for some time and summer was just around the corner, we didn’t give the state of the ice a second thought.  Even as we motored past patches of seaweed floating in black holes in the ice, we didn’t think that the roadway we had been safely riding along for the past months might be wearing a little thin as the warmer ocean currents swirled around underneath…”

“How wrong we were! Before long, as we approached the rookeries, the ice became noticeably darker.  From experience we knew that at thicknesses quite safe for man, beast or machine, it was either a pale blue or white, yet stretching out in front of us was an expanse of quite black ice…we could feel the ice moving and creaking as we covered the final metres from the Matchless to the island.”

Dave Parer’s photo of the Matchless towing a skier on fast ice, circa 1970.

Dave “shot off several rolls of expensive ANARE film” and Malcolm looked down from the island and could see that they had crossed quite a dark patch from where they’d parked the Matchless. He decided that they should go around it on the way back. But Dave “headed straight back the way we had come, while I started out on the circuitous route…”

“Suddenly there was a cry from Dave and I turned to see him disappear into the icy waters through the ice.  He quickly hauled himself out only to find that the ice would break under his weight.  I raced over and lay on my stomach reaching out a hand but I couldn’t see how that would help.  Dave hauled himself up again, but again the ice broke and he fell back in.  We both saw the problem:

“Swing the cameras around to your back,” I screamed.  “They’re breaking the ice when you haul yourself up and lie on them!”

“He hauled himself out again, and this time the ice held.  He slithered towards me and I pulled him to firmer ice and helped him to his feet.  We staggered back to dry land to review the situation.  One expeditioner soaking wet, two cameras and lenses soaked in sea water, twelve miles from base, temperature below freezing…”

“We rationalised our clothing – Dave took my windproofs and turned himself into a walking wet-suit, I steeled myself for a chilly return trip with only jumper and strides to keep the wind out.”

“They kept well away from any darker sections of ice, and especially away from floating seaweed… and drove slowly to reduce the wind chill, but it didn’t seem to help much.  On arrival, both freezing cold, we sheepishly slunk into our dongas to change and warm up.”

“I don’t think we ever told anyone about that little adventure, but I can assure you we both had nightmares for several weeks afterwards.  These days we might even be seeking post-traumatic stress compensation!”

Malcolm Robertson, looking deliriously happy, astride the Matchless and sidecar that he claimed during the 1969/70 changeover. Photo David Parer.

No yarns or photographs have come in about the Matchless from 1971 to 1973, but Narra Johnson, in the aforementioned 2005 email to Bruce McDonald said that in 1974 the winterers were “spoilt as far as transport was concerned – we had a fleet of the jazzy and nifty skidoos”. He checked the Matchless during changeover and found that it only had two gears that worked, “2nd and 3rd if memory serves me correctly”.

More than half a year later, with summer approaching, Narra went on a trip towards Welch Island “with Feathers Walters in the armchair and Marko Oliver on the pillion seat”. It was 11 pm and the sun was behind them, visibility was good, but black ice encouraged Narra to be prudent and turn for home.

They got up to a good speed as they rode into the low setting sun reflecting off the ice. All was good until they hit a pile of snow and the bike stopped dead. “Marko went hurtling over my shoulders accompanied by Feathers from his armchair and landed on the softish snowdrift.” Narra landed upside down on the front wheel still hanging on to the handlebars. But it all ended well. The stalled engine started and they returned to the station to live happily ever after.

Malcolm Robertson on the Matchless with its MC01 number plate near Mawson in 1970. Photo Allan Foster.

A 1975 photo from Jonothan Davis at the Antarctic Division can be zoomed to show the Matchless, easily identified by its yellow tank, horizontal muffler and sidecar. The seat had been upgraded, possibly taken from the Triumph Thunderbird. But there were no yarns or further photos from 1975 – and nothing from 1976. A 1977 photo from Jonothan Davis’ archive shows a mini-bike (homemade according to Dave McCormack) and the Matchless with sidecar and yellow petrol tank. 

Mini-bike and Matchless with sidecar and passenger near Mawson in 1977; a beautiful twilight sky. This is in Jonothan Davis’ archive as “1776D4 Men and machines on sea ice, Mawson.” Photograph by John Tann, Australian Antarctic Division © Commonwealth of Australia

The last gasp of the Matchless seems to be at the 1977 mid-winter race around Horseshoe Harbour. According to the station report (“Aurora”, Spring 1977), “the red hot favourites with the bookies were Des Williams and Col King on the motorbike… The race began ten minutes late, with a fast track and threatening drift conditions. The red hot favourites suffered major mechanical breakdowns with the collapse of their back wheel and withdrew”… RIP Matchless.

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 67.