Tracks in Time: Flinders Naval Depot

Tracks in Time

Clubmen’s dice between the Triumph twins of R.Price (11) and R. Hansen (5) with J. Edmonds in close attendance.

As post-war public road closures for racing became more and more difficult, the search was on for suitable stretches of tarmac where motorcycles could be raced in anger. East of Melbourne, the bike brigade found an ally in an unusual area – the navy.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Charles Rice, John Atherton, Bob Johnson, Bernie Mack Jnr, Dennis Quinlan

The establishment of HMAS Cerberus at Crib Point, near Hastings on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula, was a key to the future development of the district as Australia struggled back onto its feet following the Great War. Commissioned as a training depot, the 1500 hectare (3600 acre) site became known as Finders Naval Depot, the name Cerberus being the ‘ship’ name and the name inscribed on sailors’ cap ribbons. Many of the Navy’s training schools were established, such as gunnery, supply and engineering, and a full-scale hospital built. The Depot opened for business in September 1920 and was a self-supporting township, with its own power station, bakery and other small industries. The site however, which had been selected by Admiral Sir Reginal Henderson, was isolated and fairly dismal, according to early reports. Henderson’s original idea of using it as a Fleet Base was scrapped almost immediately, and the name Flinders Naval Depot adopted in 1921. It was commissioned HMAS Cerberus on April 1 of that year. Officially located on Hanns Inlet, between Sandy Point and Stony Point on Westernport Bay, the depot saw major building activity, both temporary and permanent, with the onset of World War Two, with new buildings constructed to house the influx of recruits which ran at around 400 per month. Postwar, the handsome and distinctive Roman Catholic Chapel, Our Lady Star of the Sea (also known as Flinders Naval Depot Memorial Chapel) was opened in 1948, followed by St Mark’s Chapel in 1954. The Chapel became the beneficiary of the motorcycle race meetings that would follow.

From the beginning, the preferred form of transport within the base was the bicycle, for officers and sailors alike. A vast, if narrow network of flat roads ran throughout the base, a point not lost on the members of the Harley Club of Victoria. After a number of discussions between the RAN, The Harley Club and the Light Car Club of Australia, it was announced that a two-day race meeting would be held on Saturday September 30 and Sunday October 1, 1950, using a circuit measuring approximately 1.55 miles per lap. Shortly before the meeting, the car club pulled out, saying they preferred to concentrate on their meeting at Ballarat Airfield the following month. The Harley club was no overly fussed, having received a strong entry of over 100 Victorians, plus riders from NSW, Tasmania and South Australia. To aid in identification, different coloured armband were issued to the visitors; yellow for NSW, blue for South Australia and red for Tasmania.

Left: Map of the Flinders Naval Base 1.55 mile circuit. Right: Aerial shot of HMAS Cerberus today.

The circuit layout was hardly breathtaking stuff, being composed of five right angle right hand corners and one left, with kerbstones on both sides of the road for the entire distance. The main straight measured half a mile and included two railway crossings. Inside the circuit lay the Naval Parade Grounds, which were turned over to catering tents for the occasion. Crowd control was handled by scores of sailors in uniform, making for a unique spectacle at a motor racing venue. Practice for the meeting was held on the previous Sunday for Victorian riders, something that did not impress the interstate visitors. At precisely 1.30 pm, the opening race, the Ultra Lightweight over four laps, got under way, with Bert Flood taking the win on his Bantam BSA from Ballarat’s George Morrison riding the Dutch Eysink he had brought back after his European campaign the previous year. Ted McGan on another BSA was third. The following Junior Clubman’s B Grade over ten laps was an all-Victoria affair, resulting in an easy with for Velocette-mounted P. England. The Lightweight, also over ten laps, was also dominated by locals, save for the entries of South Australians Les Denier (Velocette) and Laurie Fox (Triumph) who finish first and third, with Gil Steele (Velo) between them. 

Prior to the start of the Sidecar race, the meeting was officially opened by Commodore Herbert James Buchanan, who was a keen supporter of the idea of racing motorcycles invading the base and smoothed out much of the red tape associated with using the military establishment. Buchanan had been Commanding Officer of the Gunnery School at HMAS Cerberus in the early ‘thirties and had returned there following the war when he served as Commanding Officer of HMAS Norman and HMAS Dampier. He was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, where another notable old boy was future Norton works rider Gordon Laing. Buchanan made sure every recruit had a job to do, from crowd control to cleaning up the inevitable oil spills. Consequently the very large spectator turn out was looked after by a team of immaculately presented young men and women in uniform, and everything ran like clockwork, to the point that the opening race started precisely on time, before some track officials were actually in place. 

George Murphy and Frank Goodwin pilot their HRD between the gutters. Note the rather relaxed crowd control!

The Sidecar event was divided into Under 600cc and Over 600cc, run conjointly and starting 30 seconds apart. The big bikes were away first and as expected a ding-dong battle quickly developed between the big HRDs of George Skinner and Frank Sinclair, with speedway star Keith Ratten’s JAP 880 and Keith Johnson’s HRD in close attendance. Les Warton’s Vincent was slow to fire and he eventually got away with the smaller machines and set about hunting down the leaders. Victory went to Skinner after machine troubles accounted for both Sinclair and Warton, with Bernie Mack taking out the smaller class from Tasmanian Dave Powell.  The Junior Clubmen’s A proved to be the race of the day and featured a blanket finish with victory going to ex-Tasmanian Geoff Walker after first-across-the line Reg Curley was disqualified for illegal fuel. Rounding out the opening day was the 16-lap Senior, featuring a class line up including NSW stars Jack Forrest, Jack Ahearn, Sid Willis, Art Senior, Tony McAlpine and Ernie Ring, but it was local man Ken Kavangh who led home fellow Victorians Maurie Quincey and Joe Donovan, the latter defeating Willis by mere inches. 

George Campbell, KTT Velocette, in 1951.

The following day the action commenced again at 1.30pm, with Matchless G9-mounted H. Henely an all-the-way winner in the Senior Clubman’s B, while George Campbell won the A division. The crowd was on the fence for the Sidecar handicap, with George Skinner starting from scratch. Limit man George Rooney led for half the ten-lap race before being swamped by Johnson, Harold Braund, Mack, Powell and Skinner, who was forced to make a 20-second pit stop for repairs. Heading to the chequered flag, the determined Mack forced his 600 Norton past Braund’s HRD, much to the delight of the crowd, with the flying Skinner making it back into third place after his stop. All the solo stars were out for the Junior Road Race, and this time the NSW riders trounced the locals, with Willis, Ahearn and Ring on the KTT Velos finishing in that order. George Campbell claimed his second win of the weekend in the Unlimited Clubman’s, then it was time for the main solo event, the Unlimited Road Race. Quincey’s Shelsley Matchless was off-colour so he borrowed Dave Powell’s Grand Prix Triumph, but the race belonged to Tony McAlpine, who powered his Vincent into the lead at the start and stayed there, setting the fastest lap of the meeting at 1 minute 33 seconds, and averaged 58 mph for the race. Forrest lost his second place when he crashed on the fourth lap, letting Quincey through for a gallant second with Ahearn’s 350 Velocette third.  

On his trusty LC21 Triumph, Ray Owen finished second in the 250 race in January, 1951.

The circuit was certainly not without its shortcomings, but officials, riders and spectators alike were grateful of another venue with more character than the airfield strips, and plans were laid for another meeting on Monday, January 29th, 1951. This was a restricted affair, and so devoid of the top interstaters seen at the opening meeting, and was run in stifling heat, with the mercury hovering around the old century level all weekend. Practice was held on the Sunday of the holiday weekend with the Monday race program getting under way at 11am with the Ultra Lightweight, won in convincing style by Bert Flood. Jack Rudd, who began his career on the Melbourne Motordrome in the 1920s, was a popular winner of the 250 class on his Velocette, defeating Ray Owen’s LC21 Triumph and Gil Steele’s Velo. After two heats of the Junior Clubmen’s won by Col Brown and John Rowland, these two fought out the final with Ivan Tighe, the result going to Velo-mounted Rowland. Ken Rumble and Owen Tyler were the winners of the Senior Clubmen’s heats, but it was Owen Archibald and Alan Hopkins who made the running in the 10 lap final. Ken Rumble was flying through the field on his Matchless, but was still half the length of the straight behind Archibald’s Ariel when the chequered flag came out. The Junior TT was a doddle for Maurie Quincey on his KTT, with Cec Prior’s 7R and George Campbell’s KTT taking the placings. The sparsely contested Sidecar event went to George Skinner’s HRD in the Over 600 class, with Bernie Mack leading home Keith Johnson and George Murphy in an all-Norton result in the Under 600s. The temperature had dropped a little by the time the field assembled for the final event, the Senior TT, and again Maurie Quincey, this time aboard his Shelsley Walsh Matchless, took command from the start to win from George Campbell’s Matchless and Eric Jones’ Triumph. 

Bert Flood on his Bantam (38) and Laurie Fox on his 250 Triumph (4) hard at it in 1951.

Another Restricted meeting took place on the weekend of October 14/15, 1951, with the host Harley Club inviting Preston, Olympic and East Malvern clubs to the meeting. The organizers praised the continuing efforts of Commodore Buchanan, who organized teams of seamen to sweep the course with brooms between each event. Proceeds of the meeting were donated to the R.A.N. Leave Centre. W.Hartney took out the opening 125 race, and Ken Rumble began a successful day by winning the 250 event. Clubmen classes were split into A and B divisions, with the wins going to L.Willey (Junior B), R.Walsh (Senior B), R.Cameron from a fast-finishing Ken Duperouzel (an honorary Harley club member for the weekend) in the Junior A, and Ken Rumble a predicable winner in the Senior A. Maintaining his record in the main events, Maurie Quincey cleaned up the junior form George Campbell and the Senior from Ray Wason, while Bernie Mack and passenger Frank Goodwin, led home Keith Johnson in the Sidecar event. 

Maurie Quincey on the ex-Kavanagh Norton, crossing the railway lines on the main straight 1952.

After the two Restricted events, there were hopes of a strong interstate entry for the Open meeting held on May 4th, 1952, but after the recent rigours of Bathurst and with several other big meetings in coming weeks, this did not materialise. Quincey had jumped caps from the Milledge Brothers Matchless to ride the Disney Motors ex-Kavanagh Manx Nortons, and was also aboard the Walsh Bantam, on which he won the 125 race without undue difficulty. An innovation was the Clubmen’s Sidecar, for machines on pump petrol, won by Keith Johnson’s HRD, but the Open Sidecar went to the alcohol burning Norton of Bernie Mack, defeating the Vincents of Murphy and Johnson. Ray Owen’s veteran Triumph ran away with the 250 race, and John Board, who had won the Junior Clubmen’s race at Bathurst a few weeks earlier, further added to his trophy cabinet in the same race at Flinders. The Senior Clubmen’s went, once again, to Ken Rumble’s rapid alloy Matchless. Quincey toyed with the opposition to win the Junior TT from Geoff Walker’s 7R AJS, but faced a determined George Campbell in the Senior contest. It all came to nought when Campbell crashed at the first corner, leaving Quincey to cruise home from Ray Owen’s Norton and Ivan Tighe’s 7R. 

Keith Johnston and passenger Bill Murdoch on their 600 Norton at the final meeting in 1952.

And that was it for Crib Point. Despite the cooperation from most sections of the resident naval personnel, there was an undercurrent of discontent that simply eroded the enthusiasm and when Commodore Buchanan was transferred to the post of Commanding Officer of HMAS Sydney in 1953, the venue slipped into history as far as motorcycle racing went. There had been high hopes that Pukapunyal Army camp, near Seymour, 100 kilometres north of Melbourne, would step into the breach as a ‘military’ circuit, and indeed hosted a race meeting in April, 1952, but it too was short-lived. 

Today, HMAS Cerberus at Crib Point is the Royal Australian Navy’s premier training establishment, with around 600 trainees onboard at any one time and training around 6,000 annually. From its original basis of Navy personnel training, it now has four tri-service schools extending to Army and Air Force personnel as well as navy. The base’s history is well documented, but you will trawl through a massive number of words without finding a single mention of the three-year period when the base reverberated to the sound of racing motorcycle engines, for which we have Commodore Buchanan and the Harley Club of Victoria to thank. 

OBA Issue 20
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.20.