What better way to explore the remains of Phillip Island’s giant rectangular Grand Prix venue than in a 1928 Lombard which once raced there
by Jim Scaysbrook
Victoria, in the 1920s, was about as British as it got out in the colonies. Melbourne was the financial hub of Australia with fine shops, theatres and restaurants. Then, as today, Melburnians were besotted with sport, notably cricket and football. But while motor sport, and road racing in particular, had been enjoyed for many years in other states, Victoria clung to the belief that racing cars and motorcycles should be confined to purpose-built speedways, be they made from concrete, or serving dual purposes with the equestrian fraternity.
The state’s first motor race meeting had taken place back in 1904 at Aspendale Racecourse on the site of the present-day Sandown Park circuit. The main event was won by Harry James, the great-great-uncle of touring car superstar Peter Brock.
But apart from rushing around in circles, or flouting the law in the popular but incredibly dangerous ‘time trials’ between cities, there was no outlet for organised racing in Victoria. Racing on the roads was specifically forbidden, and this was rigidly enforced under the Highways and Vehicles Act. Then in 1927 the tiny Phillip Island community in Westernport Bay, controlled by the Phillip Island and Woolamai Shire, voted to sever the island’s local government from that of the mainland. This raised the possibility that motor racing could be legally conducted on the island, and a delegation from the Victorian Motor Cycle Union (which was later joined by the Light Car Club of Victoria) tabled a proposal to stage events in March 1928. The new shire’s head councillor, Mr Sambell, had little difficulty in convincing the residents of the economic benefits that motor racing could bring to the island. They voted overwhelmingly to defy the existing law and announced that a 100-mile race for cars would take place on March 26, 1928.
With the ink hardly dry on the letter of agreement, a group of enthusiasts set out for the island to survey the proposed track, taking Jack Day’s Grand Prix Bugatti with them.
The seven-strong group included Day, Bill Scott and the president of the LCCA, Arthur Terdich. After several reconnaissance runs, the group retired to the Isle of Wight hotel to discuss the project, which seemed at first to be totally unworkable, given the state of the roads and the short time available before the scheduled running of the first event on the Eight Hours’ Day holiday. It was Scott who suggested the names for the corners; he said that the luncheon gathering reminded him of Young and Jackson’s, the famous pub in Melbourne. Gentle Annie was named after a country maid of British folklore, the following narrow cutting christened Needle’s Eye, Devil’s Slide likened to falling into hell, which then became the name for the third corner. Scott admitted to heaving a huge sigh of relief at negotiating the narrow bridge halfway along the next straight, so this became the Bridge of Sighs, and the final bend reminding him of peace after torment became Heaven Corner.
Scott also undertook to measure the circuit. Borrowing a horse and cart, he nailed a strip of rubber to the inside of the wheel and counted the number of times it flicked his boot. Multiplying this by the wheel circumference produced the figure of 6.569 miles per lap.
Despite the quaint corner names, the circuit itself presented far more serious problems. The road was very narrow, with a high crown, and extremely dusty. The surface was partially consolidated by blue metal rolled into the gravel, but mostly was entirely unsealed.
The feature event was to be The 100 Mile Road Race, but when it was discovered that the rights to stage the Australian Grand Prix – which had been held for the first time at Goulburn in New South Wales in 1927 – had not been taken up for 1928 the organisers began to apply the AGP term to Phillip Island, and it stuck.
Setting a precedent which would become all too familiar at Phillip Island, the original date was washed out by a huge downpour that turned the circuit into a quagmire and forced a one-week delay. When the field assembled on March 26, 1928, it was without Ed Hussey-Cooper’s Frazer Nash, which burst into flames while parked in the main street of Cowes, and utterly destroyed itself despite attempts to extinguish the blaze. The three Bugattis in the field, belonging to Jack Day (Type 37), Sid Cox (Type 39) and Arthur Terdich (Type 40), looked to be the class of the field, although Arthur Waite’s supercharged Austin Seven could not be discounted. The field was split into four classes: A – for cars up to 750cc, B – 750-1100cc, C – 1100-1500 and D for 1500-2000. One stipulation was that all competitors were required to race on Australian-made tyres.
By the time the racing actually started, eight more cars had been withdrawn, including Cox’s Bugatti which ran its main bearings in practice. The morning’s race, for Classes B and D, got under way at 11am, with a maximum of two hours 30 minutes allowed to complete the 16 laps. John McCutcheon’s Morris Cowley ran out the winner from a fast-finishing Cyril Dickason’s Austin 12 in a time of 1hr50min10sec – the mark that the afternoon cars would have to beat. The second heat, for Classes A and C, left the line at 3pm, with Waite making the early running. Gradually the Bugattis of Day and Terdich got into their stride, with the latter drawing out a lead of nine minutes as it entered the 15th lap, only for the car to stop on the course seemingly out of fuel. A frantic Terdich hitched a ride to the pits, returning to the track soon after with tins of fuel only to find that his mechanics had retrieved the car and coaxed it back into the pits! Finally Terdich and his car were reunited and refuelled, and sped off in pursuit of Waite having lost 20 minutes. Day too was really motoring after an excursion early in the race had put him through a hedge, but time ran out for the Bugattis.
Waite took the flag in 1hr46min40sec and was chaired from his vehicle to the victory dais by jubilant supporters.
Five thousand spectators went home covered in dust but happy – the largest influx of people in the island’s history. Amid the celebrations plans were laid for a bigger and better meeting in 1929, with the race distance doubled to 200 miles. Significant changes to the circuit, reflected in the lap times, were made by rounding off the corners at Gentle Annie, Hell and Heaven, while the Bridge of Sighs and most of the back straight was widened. The narrow Needle’s Eye was still deemed a no-passing section. The previous 12 months had been exceptionally dry and the road surface simply broke up into loose sandy patches after the first few practice sessions. Thousands of gallons of oil were sprayed around the track to quell the dust menace and this seemed to help until, right on cue, the heavens opened on Saturday afternoon. By race day on Monday morning great pools of oily water lay around the track, but blue skies opened up with a strong wind that soon dried the circuit.The Class B cars got away at 12.30 pm, followed 30 seconds later by Class A, with a further four-minute gap to Class C and D. The lap scorers and course commentators faced a difficult time in sorting out who was in what position, but gradually Terdich established himself at the head of the field, 15 minutes ahead of Reg Brearley to make it a 1-2 for Bugatti.
The Victorian Police were increasingly incensed by what they saw as flagrant flouting of the road laws, and threatened legal action against the organisers should any member of the public be injured. Luckily, the 1930 AGP went off without a hitch and was convincingly won by the man who would become the circuit’s master, Sydney driver Bill Thompson in a supercharged Type 37A Bugatti. The 1931 event was run as a handicap for the first time, although the Australian Grand Prix trophy was still awarded to the fastest car to complete the 31-lap distance. Roads had been widened and graded, spectator areas enlarged, and the whole place generally spruced up in an effort to enlighten the overall gloomy economic mood as the Depression bit hard. Cyril Dickason’s supercharged Austin Seven made the most of six laps’ start to win on handicap, while Carl Junker’s Type 39 Bugatti won the GP trophy with a time of 2hr54min50sec. It was a curious situation, and destined to become a one-off. From 1932, the GP would be decided on handicap alone.
The 1932 race started in the most dramatic fashion. With the scratch men still in the pitlane and the majority of the field hard at it on the track, Carl Junker (off four minutes) shot out of the pits to begin his race just as Drake-Richmond’s Bugatti and Albert Edwards’ front-wheel-drive Alvis shot past. Catching a glimpse of Junker through the dust, Edwards swerved, hit a bank and rolled several times, throwing the driver and mechanic out and ending up in a prohibited area where LCCA official Dick Wilkinson was standing. The impact virtually severed one of Wilkinson’s legs, which was amputated on the spot by medical staff. Bill Thompson controlled the race in his 37A, winning easily in 2hr40min.
By 1933 the annual Grand Prix was the feature event on the national calendar, attracting competitors and spectators from far and wide. A contingent of 12 racing identities set out from Sydney to drive to the island for the race, among them John Sherwood in a Bugatti and Mrs J Jones in her supercharged Alfa Romeo. With apparently little regard to the job the cars were required to do later on, a private race developed, and one by one the cars blew up or crashed. Mrs Jones and her daughter careered off the road near Euroa, the Alfa somersaulting five times before bursting into flames, miraculously leaving the two ladies unhurt. Only one car made it – Sherwood’s. Thompson abandoned his Bugatti for a bright red ex-works Brooklands Riley, which was having one Australian outing, tended by factory mechanics, before being shipped to its new owner in New Zealand. In conditions that included heavy rain and hail, Thompson hunted down 68-year-old Harold Drake-Richmond, who spun under pressure and left the Riley with a comfortable lead. Thompson set the fastest race time as well as winning on handicap, but it had been a lucky result. Just past the finish line the car stopped, out of fuel and with all the bearings gone. On New Year’s Day 1934 another race was held, the Phillip Island 100, and Thompson won that as well setting a new lap record of 4min42sec.
The dust was so severe that Thompson remarked that he navigated by “watching the tree tops”.
MG dominated the 1934 entry list, with eight cars including an ex-works six-cylinder supercharged K3 Magnette for triple champion Bill Thompson. After breaking a con-rod in practice, Bob Lea Wright’s Singer Le Mans was rebuilt overnight in Melbourne. Taking the start with only minutes to spare,
Lea Wright made the most of his 35-minute handicap to run with the leading bunch for the first quarter of the race as Thompson continued his usual charge into second from the back mark. Lea Wright was still ahead going into the final lap, but Thompson swept past, only to overshoot the very last corner and lose the handicap race by 14 seconds. An elated Lea Wright revealed he had driven the last half of the race with only top gear.
In May an extra meeting was scheduled, ‘The Winter 100’, but it was thinly patronised by drivers and spectators. In October, the Australian Racing Drivers Club arranged a race titled the Centenary Grand Prix, won by a standard Ford V8 roadster. Enthusiasm for racing was at an all-time high, so for the second running of the New Year’s Day races in 1935 the Light Car Club arranged what was termed “the longest race ever held in the Southern Hemisphere”, the Centenary 300. It was a day of carnage, as C Graham and his riding mechanic were killed when their car overturned, while star attraction Bill Thompson rolled his K3 at Heaven Corner, fortunately without injury to himself or his regular riding mechanic Bill Bargarnie.
Phillip Island’s eighth and final Australian Grand Prix took place in March 1935. It had been decided to rotate the GP with another state, with the 1936 event moving to Victor Harbour in South Australia. Once again, Lea Wright made the early running until a seizure sidelined him, with Thompson’s K3 MG scything through the field in pursuit of new leader Les Murphy’s P-type MG. Murphy was a narrow winner, but once again the fastest race time belonged to the remarkable Thompson.
The loss of ‘their’ event was seen as a crushing blow by the LCCA, but it was not entirely unexpected. Racing on potholed unsealed roads may have been acceptable in the 1920s, but by 1936 it was out of the question, and so was the prospect of sealing the Phillip Island track.
A new promoter, the Australian Racing Drivers Club, conducted racing on a shorter 3.3-mile circuit that used only the original start/finish straight (Berry’s Beach Road) but by 1938 the cars were gone, although motorcycles ran their annual TT until 1940.
It would be December 1956 before the island saw motor racing action again, this time at a new purpose-built circuit south west of Cowes.
Our test vehicle is a car that has pounded the Phillip Island lap virtually from the moment it left the Paris factory in 1928. From 1927-32, Automobiles Lombard made 132 1093cc DOHC cars, most designed for supercharging. Bill Lowe’s AL.3 (chassis number 34) was the first of two Lombards to come to Australia. The Lombard, in unsupercharged form, made its Phillip Island debut in 1929, finishing third outright and winning Class B (under 1100c). Lowe sold the car in about 1950. Melbourne barrister Neil Murdoch acquired it in 2002 and the old warrior is now regularly used in historic racing, including the annual early-year meeting on Phillip Island’s new Grand Prix circuit.
The roads that made up the Phillip Island road circuit are still substantially intact. The original start/finish area is located on Berry’s Beach Road. The pits used to be located in a large paddock, which today is still a large paddock.
From the start, the road rises slightly to Heaven Corner, the first of the four right-hand, right-angle bends. From here it’s a flat-out blast along the still-narrow undulating high crowned road, past a small monument which has a map of the original track inset to the stone, to Young and Jackson’s Corner, almost two miles away. On your left, a timber plaque displays the corner name, although the original bend is now a large roundabout. Once this is negotiated, another straight (the main road from Cowes back to Melbourne) takes you to within 400m of Gentle Annie Corner.
The highway now swings left, so the approach to Gentle Annie is not the original straightforward 90-degree corner, but is clearly signposted and easily found. From here it’s another two-mile roller-coaster ride over the hillocks and humps, encountering The Needle’s Eye at the halfway point, which is no longer a needle, nor an eye. Hell Corner has recently been obliterated by the rampant local-planning disease that seemingly requires roundabouts on every intersection. Once you’re through the maze the road stretches out ahead over more gentle rises, with the former Bridge of Sighs at about half distance and the old pits on the left. And that’s it. In the 1930s the landscape was more barren, caused by the penchant to denude the landscape to allow the maximum number of sheep per acre. And, of course, the road is fully tar sealed, unlike the days when vast quantities of black sump oil laid the dust.