Conoulty Article - From the Australian Wheels Magazine 1955
Conoulty - From Trials To Dirt Tracks
From Wheels Magazine (Australia), December, 1955
Bill Conoulty's hectic motor sport career ranged from racing motor cycles at Maroubra Speedway to plunging into the shattering round of pre-war car trials.
By John D. Dukes
Conoulty on his racing Douglas. With it he became the undisputed top dog of bike racing in the 20's
Bill Conoulty and his mechanic Les Sales stood back to back beside their racing motor cycle as the four toughs closed in on them, intent on putting Conoulty out of a coming race-and in hospital.Sales, six feet two and sixteen stone, shuffled forward and swung. The closest basher fell back, clutching his nose. Conoulty ducked a wild swing by another, lashed out with his gauntleted fist-and the fight was on.
As the two ducked and weaved under the blows the first tough scrambled to his feet with a wrench in his gnarled fist. Seeing it coming, Les Sales made a sweep with his left and paralysed the arm that held the wrench. He sank his ham fist into the other's throat and turned to the remaining two as Conoulty sparred for an opening with his opponent.
Then the five feet six lightweight Conoulty was floored by a punch, and his attacker leaped for the cycle, tearing the ignition wires from the machine in the same movement. Sales gripped his shoulder and threw him backwards over the cycle.
Sales turned into the thick of punches thrown by the other two men as Conoulty got to his feet. A left rip that belonged to no boxing ring floored the first assailant and a right swing from the ground kayoed the last.
Bill Conoulty and Les Sales stood among the prone bodies of the four men who tried to put the rider out of the Newcastle Championship race. They were four common toughs whose business was to protect the bets of their boss.
Sales picked up two of the unconscious men by the scruffs of their necks and hurled them out of the pit enclosure as interested spectators started to gather. In a moment the other two men followed their cronies, and Conoulty and Sales bent desperately over the cycle to repair the torn-out ignition.
Two minutes before the riders were called to the starting line, Les Sales gripped the heavy machine bodily in his arms and lifted it around to get more light from the track on to work.
The warning signal sounded as the last wire was clipped into place, and Conoulty walked beside the machine as Sales wheeled it on to the track. Minutes later another episode in Bill Conoulty's career as champion motor cycle rider and car driver came to a climax as he flashed over the finishing line with the checkered flag proclaiming his victory. His average of 72.3 mph equalled the world's record for a half mile track up to 1922.
The concern of the dishonest fixer had been well founded when he told four of his men to "get" Conoulty.
This was not the first time that Bill Conoulty had had to contend with toughs and urgers. Without Les Sales to guard his machines any of them could have been last, for motor cycle racing in the twenties was a cut-throat sport. Even cycle distributors were inclined to shut their eyes to skullduggery if an outstanding rider was racing a rival machine.
But Bill was brought up the hard way. Dirty riding and other tricks were easily recognised - and defeated as soon as they arose.
Bill Conoulty was born in Newtown, Sydney, in 1899. His father, a butcher, wanted Bill in the family business, but the smell of petrol claimed him instead. At sixteen he was apprenticed to the well-known motoring family, the Howarths, in their firm, Petrol Economics Co.
Bill's idol was Harry Howarth, a racing cyclist; and soon, in emulation, he bought his first machine, an old 1908 Norton.
His career was almost cut short when he made a total wreck of boss "Fred" Howarth's cycle, but he tried again, on his own.
He entered a strong field of factory-sponsored cycles and experienced riders on a thousand yard hill climb at Bondi, in 1917. A crowd of five thousand saw Bill easily win his heat, and defeat a works Sunbeam by two yards at an average of sixty miles an hour in the final.
Fired by the newspaper write-ups, Bill entered and won several more hill climbs on an old Douglas. Then he bought himself an ancient Indian Scout and began his climb to championship class with victory after victory under the semi sponsorship of the Howarths.
The Howarth family gave him the run of their machine shop at night, and later, after leaving the Howarths to join Biden and Roberts, the Indian distributors, the same help was extended. Like the Howarths, Biden and Roberts already had their own racing team and would not fully sponsor Conoulty. So he beat his employers' team time after time in handicap and scratch races at Victoria Park.
By then he was regarded as a genuine demon rider to whom the rails were merely an obstruction to stop others getting past on the inside.
His nerve was put to the test when he saw a close friend, Jim Murray, killed in a sidecar race just prior to his own handicap event. He stood the test as he ploughed through straining cycles to overtake the handicap leaders, winning in an exciting finish by three feet.
To the followers of motor cycle racing the twenty-years old Conoulty was the rider of the day, the cleanest, most daring, and most heroic. He was set for the big time.
Soon he learnt the value of a guard in the workshop and pits, and found out how to avoid foul tactics on the track.
He had to sleep with his machine in case somebody slipped pins in the spark plugs to earth the ignition, or water in his petrol tank, petrol in an alcohol engine, or pull off the plug wires.
He learned to avoid the rider who deliberately waited behind the field in a flying start, then jumped the flag and cut in on the field at the first bank.
These dirty riders were invariably visited later by their victims. There was a fight in the pits at almost every meeting.
Conoulty's career took a sharp rise towards the top when Douglas' Mr. Pearce Williams invited him into the Douglas racing team. He became a star under team manager George Nichols.
Bill and his off-sider, Les Sales, met the four toughs shortly afterwards on the Newcastle Championship night.
Not only was he a star on the track-his opinions on racing machines were respected by his sponsors, and it was due to his insistence that the New South Wales distributors asked the English factory to make Isle of Mann racing models especially for the local team.
Douglas sales shot sky high after success on success by Conoulty and his colleagues. Hill climbs, acceleration tests, grass track racing and six day trials saw victories to the Douglas team with clockwork regularity.
It was not accomplished without spills and thrills. In one six-day trial Conoulty, wet to the skin from rain, urged his machine along a rough bush track at dusk as he headed for the cheek point at Lismore.
His acetylene lamp missed a length of barbed wire lying across the cart-wheel tracks. It wound itself around the front hub, jammed the wheel and threw the rider fifteen feet over the handlebars and knocked him out.
A horse and sulky driver found him sprawled on the track and took him to Lismore hospital. He was interned, fuming at the delay, for four hours, while his chances in the trial evaporated.
In another six-day trial, some weeks later, Bill set off with Douglas team-mates Ted and Stuart Williams. Stuart and Conoulty rode stock side valve Douglas cycles. Ted rode a temperamental OHV Douglas called "The Killer."
The three riders struck heavy yellow mud near Kiambra and Ted was dumped into the slime. He gripped the handlebars of "The Killer" and straightened it. He threw his leg over and landed heavily with the bike on top of him on the other side.
He tried again. Once more "The Killer" slide from under him. Finally, covered in yellow mud and snarling at his hilarious team-mates, he dragged the cycle bodily through the mud to firmer ground.
The rain had swollen a creek the team had to ford shortly afterwards. Ted set "The Killer" for the opposite bank, stalling within five yards with wet plugs. So Conoulty rode his cycle to a timber footbridge upstream and started across. It collapsed and dumped cycle and rider eight feet down into the rushing creek.
Ignoring his side-splitting team-mates, Bill wheeled his submerged machine to the ford and climbed out. They lit a fire to dry the plugs, pulled the engine down and cleaned it up.
Bill Conoulty rode second to the outright winner, team-mate Stuart Williams.
Then, with fanfares from America, dirt-track racing began at Penrith in 1924. Bill turned his talents in this new direction with Gus Clifton and Tom O'Dea. Their chief opponent was the American champion, Paul Anderson, sponsored by Indian.
As hard as they rode, as nervelessly as they manoeuvred, Anderson easily outstripped Conoulty and his colleagues in the first day's programme. But the next clash was soon to come.
They gained experience from Anderson's victory and learned the new techniques of dirt-track racing from him. They also made modifications to their own machines after "checking design in Anderson's machine", as Bill blandly said.
At the next meet five thousand people saw Conoulty riding like a demon to roar past the field, one by one, overtaking the flying Anderson on every lap.
With two laps to go Conoulty hit a corner at 85 mph. His front wheel hit a hard patch as he broadsided over the oily, bituminous surface and the rear wheel caught up with the front, sending the Australian broadside at an angle of twenty degrees along the track.
The exhaust scraped the ground as he wrestled the bucking projectile and the crowd screamed as two riders bore down on him.
The seasoned fans gaped in amazement as Bill righted the cycle after a full broadside of 155 feet and sank the driving wheel into the oily dirt as he tore in pursuit, and then defeat, of Anderson.
A stickler for perfection of equipment, Conoulty spent weeks, sometimes months, preparing for races.
But one day at Cessnock, he was brought on at the last minute to ride a borrowed Douglas. He was still checking the machine when the riders lined up for the start of his heat. Nervous on a strange machine, he rode to victory and roared hastily back to the pits to continue checking the cycle for the final.
Once again he was bent astride the machine, checking, at the starting line when the race commenced. He opened the throttle, let the front wheel sink back onto the track as it bucked forward, and roared off after the field, bringing the spectators to their feet as he flashed past one rival after another.
He was gaining fast on the leader from second place as he rounded a dangerous corner at 75 mph. Without warning the rear wheel collapsed and he lost control, heading straight for the fence.
The machine splintered the two bottom rails and Conoulty's chest took the full impact of the top rail as he plunged through into the crowd.
The machine careered on, scattering spectators left and right like a scythe while Bill hurtled along the ground twenty yards.
A reluctant doctor brought back from the sixteenth hole of the local golf course diagnosed a broken rib and left collarbone, punctured lung, dislocated right shoulder, sprained right ankle and a fractured left foot.
Bill cursed the golf-minded doctor for his delay; he raised blue murder for the torturous strapping of the bandages; and he stormed unsteadily out of the hospital and had his friends drive him to Sydney next day.
An old doctor, "A proper butcher" says Bill, patched him up and he was riding again nine Week later at Aspendale, Melbourne. He lost every race that day.
Shortly afterwards, at Deagon near Brisbane, Bill showed that nine weeks out of the game meant nothing. He broke the grass track record while winning three out of five races on his Douglas, and later still at Ballina Beach, he was the first Australian to clock over 100 mph solo, doing 101.6 mph.
That record, established in 1925 remained unbroken for eighteen years.
But Conoulty was making another reputation for himself, and it formed the basis of his present-day business policy; he constantly demanded better equipment.
Douglas gave Bill Conoulty his better machines and he gave them the victories on which their sales thrived.
Bill took a Douglas special on to the newly-opened Maroubra track one day for a private trial. Douglas officials clocked the machine as Conoulty pressed his chin on to the tank and opened the throttle wider and wider. He was braking his self-made records.
As Bill swung the bucking bike off a bank at 100 mph a connecting rod snapped, the engine seized and the rear wheel locked.
Swerving crazily from side to side, the cycle got out of control. Conoulty dropped off and hit the track at eighty miles an hour as the machine veered off in a drunken slide.
The track burned a hole in his leather suit, and ground away his flesh like butter for the last thirty yards of the sixty yard slide.
His friends rolled him out of the pool of blood and rushed him to hospital. Doctors patched up a gaping hole, but he raced the same Douglas special a week after-and won his handicap easily. But the wound took six months to heal, and he carries the scar today.
The crash was the price Bill Conoulty paid to discover that the special was unsuitable for the Maroubra track. He had the Douglas firm make the "Pathracing" machine, a cycle with a longer frame and higher centre of gravity, and on it he rode second to team-mate Kev Carmody by one length in an exciting race in the Golden Helmet competition.
His second entry for the coveted Golden Helmet trophy at Maroubra appeared to predict failure again, for his chief opposition was a team of American riders on machines with far more punch in the straights.
Weeks of track study, and experimentation took Bill Conoulty to the starting line with an anxious eye on the Americans and a wink in the other eye to team-mate Kev Carmody.
The two Australians quickly got into the lead with hard-opened throttles right from the start. The Americans could not get around the leaders during their sprints along the straights, and the Australians. With better suited machines, held their leads around the bumpy banks.
The five thousand spectators saw first Carmody and then Conoulty take the lead. The Americans began to trail behind as the two team-mates clashed for the final lap.
The crowd screeched hysterically at the neck and neck struggle Conoulty slammed hard around the throttle for the final bank and took the checkered flag two lengths in front of Carmody at 100 mph.
Bill Conoulty's average on his 500 cc machine was a record 92.6 - class speed which remained unbroken until the track was torn tip.
In 1927 he turned to cars. He got an Austin agency and began competition racing in 1929. From then on he was known as the Austin Seven man. He found cars a lot different. Most of it was for fun.
At Maroubra, where he made some of his early starts, a large and excited crowd yelled, "Look at Conoulty passing all the bigger cars", and cheered him into the front in his little Austin 7.
Their cheers turned to derisive hoots as he pushed his car over the finishing line after the engine blew up. He took fourth place.
Bill then entered endless rounds of reliability trial. acceleration test, hill climb and slow-running feats which were the rage in the 30's.
Most of the trials were week-end affairs, with overnight stops in hotels along the way. After an arduous day of competition the competitors had fun at night.
The hostelries rocked to the antics and prantics of the light-hearted motorists. All the well-known names rolled up - Gus McIntyre, Otto Herschel, Jack and Ray Murray, the Jones family, Hope Bartlett, John Sherwood; the list went on for thirty and forty car loads and 80 or 100 people.
There was the time when the local constable, at one overnight stopover, arrived to shut up the bar before the party got out of hand. He left in the dawn, singing happily with the rest. There was the time a frantic manager found his books had been audited overnight; it was followed by gunnery practice at bedroom utensils with a revolver; a competitor's room so filled with bushes he couldn't move; and Jack Murray feeding competitors hot dogs with teeth-breaking sticks cunningly inserted in the middle.
Another time, a noted strong-man and show personality made a cutting remark at Otto Herschel and Conoulty. Herschel picked the strong man up, shook him like a rabbit and threw him the full length of the pub hallway.
Later, in his new reputation of the Aim, Otto roused his fellow competitors from deep sleep with the admonition to let's live a little. Jack Murray reached out, doused him with a jug of water and Herschel decided. against bright living.
Against the razzle-dazzle background, Conoulty snatched the coveted Castrol Trophy, the year round competition which involved all sorts of trials and tests. His win was given added lustre because he took it out in a diminutive Austin Seven.
Next year he won the trophy again, nearly equalling Gus MeIntyre's feat of taking it out three times, although ill-health removed McIrityre during the third series, leaving his navigator, Frank Kleinig, to take the remaining events.
In one event in the year following his second win, Conoulty and his navigator were hurrying along Cleveland Street, Sydney, at a moderate sixty miles an hour to pick up time. They struck a silent cop and the vehicle plunged helter-skelter down the road.
Unhurt, they scrambled out, lost five minutes righting the dented but undamaged car - and lost that year's Castrol by five points.
In 1938 he built a freak for a petrol consumption - the "Hairpin Special". The chassis was barely heavy enough to support two bucket seats and the engine. The inner tubes were tilled with water; there was no grease in the wheel bearing and light oil used in other moving parts. The driver had only to slam down the hand throttle for it to accelerate impressively with a thunderous roar for twenty yards and then coast majestically for hundreds of yards up hills and around curves.
Officials asked him about the large - and illegal - board built up behind the seats. Conoulty hoped it would act like the sail of a yacht. He told them it was to stop children throwing stones at him. The tricks were allowed, but his 134 miles per gallon was beaten.
Officials brought out a "No coasting" ruling next year, but he took an Austin 9 up to 85.34 miles per gallon without tricks.
Ignition trouble ruined his post-war debut in the races at Bathurst, N.S.W., in 1945, and bad luck carne again at a later Bathurst meeting when a magneto became temperamental. He had to borrow another at the last minute, sliding into the starting line as the official was raising his flag.
He was well placed in the field while travelling over the mountain when he hit a corner with a thousand revs more than the corner would allow. The Austin 7 hung dangerously over a precipitous cliff for a fraction of a second as he braked, so he lifted his foot.
He approached a 60 mph corner at 70 a few miles further on and flicked his hand over the gear lever to change down. He missed the gear and the car rocketed off the road, turning over and over down a hundred foot embankment, landing upside down on its stunned driver.
Conoulty groggily inspected the car and found no damage other than a broken steering wheel.
Regulations stated that drivers must report their accidents and get official permission to continue, so, confident of the outcome, Bill drove at breakneck speed to the pits.
He stood by, fuming at the delay while officials went over the car, and then all hell broke loose when they told him he could not continue. But his angry disappointment abated when he later found two rivets which had sheared from the front radius rods which held the wheels in position.
Bill Conoulty's hectic motor sport career ranged from racing motor cycles at Maroubra Speedway to plunging into the shattering round of pre-war car trials.
Since that meeting in 1945, Bill Conoulty has not entered in serious competition. At 56 he is content to call it a younger man's game, and devotes his time to his garage business at Darlinghurst.
It is doubtful if a competition driver will ever be associated with a make of car in the same way again. For, even now, just about anyone in Sydney knows about Conoulty.
"Ah, yes," they say. "He's the Austin Seven man."
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