The term ‘Continental Circus’ has long held a certain magic. But what was the gypsy travelling life really like for Australian racers in the free-wheeling, 1950s European scene? Who forged the Australian ‘can-do’ tradition in Europe? Who were our leading private entrants and early stars in the world championships? Why did they go and how did they afford to travel half way around the world, buy two Manx Nortons and race every weekend for six months?
Those were the key questions behind my book, Circus Life.
The 1950s were very different times. A successful private entrant could earn 10 times the wage he pocketed at home as a mechanic or toolmaker. It was considered un-Australian to big-note or chase publicity. Travel behind the Iron Curtain meant a three-hour encounter with Russian border guards who would turn your van inside out. Circuit safety was an oxymoron and the standard of local medical assistance varied wildly.
This is generations away from modern motorcycle grand prix racing and, indeed, from the experience of most Australians born after the 1950s – amazing tales of daring, humour, ingenuity and tragedy. It was time these stories were told: the exploits of our 1950s racers and those who travelled with them have remained largely invisible for six decades.
However, some things do not change. Racers have the same DNA and similar likes – women, flash cars and model aircraft to identify three. They’re at their best and happiest on the bike, goggles or visor down. Australian racers and mechanics are still resourceful.
ON THE EDGE
Don’t ever think this was gentile racing. They might have only had 50hp at their disposal from single-cylinder British racers but on the narrow, rock-hard tyres, the best 1950s guys were drifting and sliding from corner to corner.
Here’s a description from Melburnian Bob West after a pit stop left him a lap behind the leaders in the 1960 Belgian 500 GP…
“Bob Brown and John Hartle came past on their Nortons. As we came to the section we called the Cocoa Bends, I decided to tack onto them and see how they did it. The Cocoas was really three apexes in one big bend and the bike felt like it was sliding the whole way around. It was a revelation to sit behind them and see how fast they went. The bike felt light in the steering, sliding with them. I realised then how hard they rode at the front.”
When leading 1950s sidecar exponent, Bob Mitchell, returned to Australia at the end of 1956, many would happily pay the admission price at local meetings just to watch him. He was our Sultan of Slide, four decades before Garry McCoy.
Some of the 1950s characters simply could not be reproduced today. Jack Ahearn and Tony McAlpine could peel paint with their swearing but also charm their way out of a tight spot with the police. You cannot imagine Ahearn in today’s GP paddock: too outspoken, too ready to stand up for the little guy and never one for a glib PR quote. He’d served in World War II, retrained as a carpenter and didn’t head to Europe until he was 29. Once there, he famously held a promoter out of an office window for reneging on a deal and was in the thick of the 1955 Dutch TT riders’ strike.
But what of the others? There was Eric Hinton curing an electrical problem with his teeth; McAlpine donning a white coat and pretending to be a doctor to spirit Ernie Ring from an Isle of Man hospital; Maurie Quincey face down on the tank across the Mountain section of the Isle of Man TT course, judging the distance to the next corner by counting the road-side drainage culverts; Keith Campbell racing on slippery cobblestones at St Wendel, bouncing his Norton off the kerbs; Jack Forrest upending a trailer-load of bikes while trying to impress some local frauliens; and Bob Brown over-sleeping and almost missing his first practice session on a works Gilera at the Isle of Man.
The lure of the Continental Circus attracted all kinds. Mitchell and Quincey, determined to make their mark; West, who just loved riding his bikes; Jack Findlay, who realised he would never make it as a racer contesting half-a-dozen meetings a year at home; Ahearn, reasoning that racing in Europe beat working for a living.
One factor united these men. Until they sailed to Europe, they had never owned a brand-new racing motorcycle. They’d learned to tune, maintain and race hand-me-down equipment. Riding a brace of new Nortons, or the AMC combination of an AJS 7R 350 and a Matchless G45 twin, was a revelation.
The Manx Norton was the machine of choice. Riders didn’t buy them for their looks. They bought them to survive the rigours of the Isle of Man and, after a rebuild, do an 80-minute race every Sunday for the remainder of the European season.
The same machines made an important contribution to the local scene. Returning internationals brought them home, raced them over the Australian summer and sold them to the next crop of ambitious locals.
Once in Europe, the Australians raced and won at all points of the compass, almost exclusively on long-forgotten public road circuits. In 14 days they might ride at Hedemora in the heart of Sweden, Solitude near Stuttgart and Senigallia on the Italian Adriatic Coast. Or they might trek from central France to Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Most of this happened with no recognition in the general media at home. Today, an Australian tennis player will rate an ABC radio news mention for a first-round loss in a minor European tournament. In 1957, a Keith Campbell grand prix victory in Belgium did not rate a mention in the Melbourne media but the death of compatriot Roger Barker the same day in ‘occupied’ East Germany did.
Some saddled up for the Continental Circus year after year, making it their profession. Others were content to do just one season with their new bride. Either way, travelling Europe in the 1950s was far cry from life in Sydney or Melbourne suburbia. It marked a racing motorcyclist as someone special and provided a lifetime of memories.
Very few men today can look at the prices Manx Nortons fetch and say: “Oh, I had two of those!”
ABOUT THE BOOK
The use of ‘circus’ in Circus Life’s title was deliberate. For towns across Europe, the annual motorcycle race was the equivalent of the carnival arriving or the annual show.
The races provided entertainment, excitement for the young men and women of the town, a sense of community as people pitched in to build the infrastructure and money to support a local charity from the influx of visitors. Riders were the high-wire act.
At the end of the meeting, riders and locals gathered at the prize-giving dinner dance, which might last until dawn.
Circus Life has an RRP of $99 plus $12 postage within Australia. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.circuslifebook.com.
The book is also available at selected bookshops and motorcycle dealerships.