The world according to Gyro

Bike Profile

OBA Issue 18
All shining aluminium – the work of craftsman Rod Tingate – the ECCO BMW was an attempt to create a non-Japanese superbike for the fledgling class in Australia, at a time when alcohol fuel was permitted. It looked and sounded superb, but was no match for the power of the four cylinder bikes, despite Blake’s brilliance in the saddle. It ran from 1976 to 1978. It used Moto Mozzi one-piece two piston calipers, brought into Australia by Ron Angel. These pre-dated the Scarab and later Brembo types.

Graeme Carless’ world is black and white – he’s a BMW man through and through.

“I had the usual stuff; Enfields, Nortons, Triumphs, then I got hold of a BM and I thought, this is the way it really works! You get all these things over and done with early. I realised I was heterosexual, then they wanted me to vote, and wanted to send me to Vietnam – so I’m a Labor voter, I drive Fords and I ride BMWs – by the time you’re 19 you need to have it all sorted.” Get the picture? With Mr Carless, what you see is what you get – a straight-talking, no-nonsense, larger-than-life figure that has no truck with pompous officials, zealots of any kind, or by the sound of it, Liberal-voting Holden drivers.

Of course, few people know the man as Graeme Carless. Around the age of 14 his mate Dave Millington branded him Gyro, after the crazy inventor Gyro Gearloose in the Walt Disney comics, and he has been Gyro ever since. He’s still mates with Dave, who has made many of the exquisite exhaust pipes for the seemingly never ending line of ECCO BMW specials that have appeared for decades.

For a while, Gyro worked in Darwin – he made his first trip there in 1969 and is still a regular visitor. He enjoys the lifestyle, and the hunting, and has a lot of friends in the Top End.

Left: Graeme ‘Gyro’ Carless and Bernie Willet. Right: BMWs everywhere. Gyro’s immaculate home workshop with customer bikes as well as his own projects under construction.

Along the way, Gyro opened his own business, ECCO Engineering in Coburg, as a general engineering firm. “I soon found out there was no money in general engineering, after employing nine people for a while. The only ones I was making happy were those nine people, not me, so I built V8 engines for a while – sports car engines and racing engines”. One product that will always be associated with Gyro and his firm are the ECCO cast alloy and magnesium wheels – pioneering efforts in the days when spokes were still king.

In 1977, Gyro built a radical BMW based around a R75/5, punched out to 900 cc with beautiful alloy bodywork by Rod Tingate and with Kenny Blake in the saddle. In Gyro’s words, “It never won a race, but it handled really well and Blakey enjoyed riding it. Without doubt, the spectators enjoyed the sight and sound of the ECCO BMW in its appearances at Hume Weir, Winton, Adelaide Raceway and Calder. In the days of the disappearing two strokes and the howling Japanese fours, the BM made beautiful music and Kenny always got the maximum out of it.

OBA Issue 18
1938 R51SS Race bike
Clearly one of Gyro’s favourites, the prewar racer had an amazing run of success with Greg Johnson aboard. “We were never beaten by a legal bike,” Gyro says, referring to some rather dubious machines that have run in the Pre War class, “and it took lap records at every track we raced on. It took three years and 500 cans (of beer) to build with the help of my crew and my good friends Alex and Bill. Greg Johnson detailed the bike (and the other two racers bearing his number 5) and were a credit to him and a sight to behold. We didn’t have the correct wheels as used on the factory bikes, but we used the full width single or double leading shoe which was legal depending on where you raced.“

In the early eighties Gyro had a brief period away from BMWs, as one third of the famous, or perhaps infamous Syndicate team that built, maintained and ran the fire-breathing Syndicate Kawasaki Superbike with Andrew Johnson at the controls. These were the fledgling days of the local superbike scene, when the big four strokes were in the process of taking over the mantle of the nation’s premier class from the 500 cc GP class and the withering FIM 750 class. The Syndicate Kawasaki locked horns with Robbie Phillis, Mick Hone Suzuki in many memorable battles in the NGK Superbike Series, with Phillis’ smooth style usually getting him the verdict over the hard-riding Johnson.

It was also, sadly, the time when Kenny Blake lost his life in the Isle of Man. Along with Sydney barrister Max Webberly, journalist and publisher Col Murray and photographer Rob Lewis, Gyro formed ‘The friends of Ken Blake’, which became the Ken Blake Foundation, and every year since that day in June, 1981, a large group meets in Carlton, Melbourne to celebrate the life of the little bloke from Strathalbyn. The annual luncheon is not for the faint of liver, but along the way the friends of KB have raised a considerable amount of money to assist young up and comers in the their racing careers.

OBA Issue 18
R51/3 BMW Drag Bike
“I wanted to go drag racing as a kid,” Gyro says of the incredible looking fore-and-aft twin. “It’s only a 500 with a Norton gearbox. We made every mistake, Peter Curran and myself – we poured our own cylinders by melting down old pistons, but we didn’t know about de gassing. We made the frame, used an old JAP fuel tank, through-bolted the motor – it runs on just under 10:1 with 25% nitro, did 13.8 seconds with me on it. I guess it was OK for those days.” The bike was built as a ‘foreign order’ at Stanco in Melbourne in the early 1970s.

The other rider in Gyro’s line up “(“I’ve only ever had three riders – Blakey, Ajay and Johnno”) is Greg Johnson, another name seemingly welded to the Melbourne motorcycle scene through his business, Johnson Cycletune. Greg’s rise to stardom began in the early 1970s with a Kawasaki H1RA, then a series of TZ350 Yamahas, RG500 Suzuki, and the ex-Warren Willing TZ750 Yamaha. On the latter bike, Greg set the all-time motorcycle lap record for the original Phillip Island layout (before it was shortened in the 1988 track rebuild), and is also famous for hurling the 750 into the Phillip Island lake in 1977. When Historic racing began to become established, Gyro had a shed-full of ready made machinery, and a talented jockey in Greg Johnson. The stable included a 1938 R51SS for the pre-war class, a 1960 R50SS, and a 1959 R69 taken out to 680 cc for the Unlimited class.

OBA Issue 18
1971 R7/5 1000cc BEARS racer
One of two similar bikes built (Rob Dunston in Sydney has the other), the BEARS racer is one that Gyro regards as less than successful. “A wicked handling bike”. The last time Ken (Blake) rode it was at Sandown and we were in a lot of trouble with it. In the end we decided to put it away and Kenny was so happy he shouted all of us! We used too much nitro in those days – legally of course – to chase power, and forgo about getting it to handle. The wheels in this bike are the lightest mags we ever made. The front is just six pounds four ounces with bearings. Kenny actually took quite a few sets of these wheels to Europe and sold them – they were used in bikes like the Harris framed Yamahas.”

Nowadays, Gyro is semi-retired, although ECCO Engineering is still very much in operation. He spends much of his time tinkering with his own race bikes and increasingly, undertaking customer work on a wide range of BMW projects. The heavy work is done at the factory in Coburg, and the assembly work in his immaculate and well-appointed workshop at his home in the western extremities of Melbourne.

On the work benches during my visit were a variety of projects, some commissioned by customers, others for Gyro’s own edification. Adjacent to the workshop is a line-up of all the ECCO BMW specials, “I kept all my mistakes, “Gyro says with alarming frankness.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos and technical descriptions: Rob Lewis.

OBA Issue 18
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.18