Sultan of Slide – A Privateer’s Story: Bob Mitchell, Sidecar Racer
Six weeks before he died of liver cancer in March 2007, Bob Mitchell handed his son, Mark, three small notebooks. “Here, you’d better have these,” Mitchell Snr said.
Mark was gob-smacked. These were his father’s race diaries from the 1954-55-56 seasons on the Continental Circus. Bob had secreted them for 51 years.
The handover was a game changer. Mark had recorded hours of interviews with his father, with the aim of documenting his race career on film. Now, with the diaries and extensive press clippings, he had the building blocks for a book. And then Mark’s mother, Jean Mitchell, produced her own set of documents: love letters Bob had written to her while away racing in 1956 as she nursed six-month-old Mark back home in Birmingham.
The result is Sultan of Slide, a 180-page, large-format and high-quality hardcover book.
Slide in the 1950s with a single-cylinder engine delivering around 37kW? You’d better believe it. Mitchell and his contemporaries raced with narrow, rock-hard tyres. A gifted mechanic, he knew how to wring the most performance possible from a Manx Norton engine. As a rider, his smoothly controlled three-wheel drifts attracted praise from rivals and spectators alike.
The book covers the journey from boyhood in Violet Town, in rural Victoria, to Melbourne, Birmingham and Europe. Along the way he married the best-looking girl from the offices at Norton Motors.
Jean Barton was from Sutton Coldfield, one of Birmingham’s more affluent suburbs. An aunt actually slapped Bob on the face when the engagement was announced! I’d liked to have read more about Jean in the book. She’d grown up though the Depression, World War II and Britain’s post-war austerity period.
Once home from Europe, Mitchell returned to rural Victoria selling bikes and cars, and then moved north to establish businesses on the Gold Coast.
Bob’s candid evaluations of his sidecar rivals are included at the back of the book, along with insights into his hero rider Ken Kavanagh, lost friend Keith Campbell and life-long mate Jack Ahearn.
Mitchell’s was a great story, full of bravery, high drama, gritty determination, romance, tragic loss, elation, disappointment and acts of bastardry. The man was a character; feisty, outspoken, sentimental about his lost mates – especially Campbell – and full of classic terms like “not worth a cracker”. Oh yes, and as competitive in his day as any current racer.
Almost six decades since his European adventure, Bob Mitchell’s record still stands as Australia’s most successful sidecar racer at world championship level. And all with a self-tuned Manx Norton 500 engine. He recorded two world championship Grand Prix podium finishes, fourth place in his Isle of Man TT debut (riding with an injured leg, no less) and fourth place in the 1956 world sidecar championship – behind two works BMWs and Britain’s Pip Harris (Norton).
He was the only post-WWII rider to win the Bathurst Unlimited sidecar race on a single-cylinder machine.
Mitchell was 22 when he and passenger, Max George, left Melbourne for England on a dilapidated ocean liner. But like so many Australians who joined the Continental Circus in the 1950s, they succeeded through a combination ingenuity, mateship and determination.
Remarkably, Mitchell sailed home with Jean and young Mark not long after he turned 25, his international career over. Many think Casey Stoner retired too young at 27.
Having an offer of a BMW outfit fall through was the final straw. He was there to win and if he couldn’t secure the equipment he needed to win, it was time to do something else.
Back home, Mitchell won 21 consecutive races on his Norton outfit. Running on petrol, he defeated rivals using engines twice as large and/or using alcohol fuel. That success divided competitors, fans and journalists. Some wrote Mitchell’s three-wheel drifts were worth the price of admission to local races but some rivals and fans complained he was too good and was actually ruining local sidecar racing. A wounded Mitchell later quit the sport.
Interestingly, local solo racers never seemed to have this problem with returning internationals: they relished the chance to measure their progress against the blokes who’d been racing week in, week out on the Continental Circus. In fact, Mitchell’s time in Europe coincided with a golden period for Australian international racers. His leading solo contemporaries included Kavanagh, Campbell, Ahearn, Bob Brown and Eric Hinton.
They were exciting times: free-wheeling but dangerous with a fine line between making a living and going broke. Sometimes a broken engine could be the difference – one minute enjoying a night out after a win, another time living on canned food until the next payday – and racing on circuits with little concession to safety.
Mitchell used Nortons throughout his international career, refining his machines with smaller wheels, a full fairing and by placing the fuel tank in the sidecar with an electric fuel pump to feed the carburettor.
However, by the mid 1950s, it was clear the engine to have in GP sidecar racing was a works BMW twin. In mid 1956 Mitchell seemed on the cusp of receiving a BMW but a change of company racing policy saw that hope evaporate. Mick Woollett, a journalist and successful GP sidecar passenger, rated Mitchell as a potential world champion in 1957 if he could have obtained a BMW.
It wasn’t to be and Bob Mitchell spent his last 50 years asking himself one question: what if he had stayed in Europe, somehow obtained a BMW engine and chased the world sidecar championship?
– Dox Cox (author of Circus Life – Australian Motorcycle Racers in Europe in the 1950s). Read more here.
The Sultan of Slide (RRP $59.95) is available from bobmitchell.com.au