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THE BIGGEST CROWD ever to attend an Australian road race saw the Centenary Grand Prix won by Les Murphy (Victoria) over the Victor Harbor Port Elliot circuit this afternoon.

From the Special Staff of Adelaide’s ‘The Mail’ Writers at the Course…as they saw the race in the beautiful, descriptive language of the day, Saturday 26 December 1936.

victor

‘Aerial view of Victor Harbour and Port Elliott for the South Australian Centenary Road Race’. Victor is in the lower right corner, Port Elliott is the smaller hamlet, the headland sticking out, above it. Using the diagram/map of the circuit below,taking the coast and the 2 settlements as reference points, you can see the roads used during the race. (State Library of SA)

victor circuit

Event Background…

It was the first AGP held outside Victoria and has been known over time as the 1937 AGP despite being held on Saturday 26 December 1936 and named then as the ‘South Australian Centenary Grand Prix’. It seems this ‘corruption of history’ as historian John Medley called it, commenced in the 1950’s, whence it originated nobody seems to know.

The Sporting Car Club of South Australia was formed in 1934 and played an active part in the celebration of 100 Years of European settlement of South Australia, the piece de resistance of the organising committee of the South Australian Centenary Committee was SA’s first real road race held 50 miles from Adelaide on the Fleurieu Peninsula, only a few miles from the mouth of the mighty Murray River on public roads between Port Elliott and Victor Harbor, then as now a summer playground. The event was run over 32 laps, 240 miles in total.

The race attracted the best cars and drivers from all around Australia, the limit men of the handicap race drove MG K3’s and Bugatti Types 37 and 43 and over 50000 paying customers came to an event then a long way from Adelaide.

paddock

Victor paddock. #1 is the Fagan MG K3, #2 the Peters Bugatti T37. (Norman Howard)

‘VICTOR HARBOR, Saturday 26 December 1936. ‘The Mails’ contemporary report of the event…

Before the biggest crowd ever seen at an Australian road race, the South Australian centenary Grand Prix and sidecar tourist trophy races on the Port Elliot-Victor Harbor racing circuit filled the quiet country air with a thunder of power. Les Murphy, winner of the ‘Victorian Centenary 300′ in 1934, the Australian Grand Prix at Cowes, (Vic) in 1935, and one of the best known motor speed men in Australia, ran away with the Grand Prix after 250 miles of supremely consistent driving, while opponents in faster cars failed when the final test of endurance was applied. He averaged 68 1/2 miles an hour to win the first prize of £200 and a £50 gold cup.

The first of the long stream of cars, charabancs, motor cycles, and bicycles which conveyed the invading army of 45,000 to 50,000 spectators to the course left Adelaide at dawn, (Victor Harbor is 85 Km from Adelaide) and long before the start of the sidecar tourist trophy, vantage points on each of the five corners of the circuit were taken up. The crowd seethed with excitement from the moment when the 12 riders in the opening race roared away in a massed start to the fall of the checkered flag until the winner of the Grand Prix flashed past the finishing line. Paling into comparative insignificance when seen against the sustained thrill of the motor event, the motor cycles prepared the onlookers for the motor racing spectacle...There were no serious accidents, but many narrow escapes in the Grand Prix kept the crowd on its toes throughout the day. At several points the efforts of police and race officials were unavailing when the spectators broke through the barriers to watch the cars flash past.’

victor 2

This State Library of SA shot does not record the competitors but shows the dirt/gravel road and the flat, scrubby terrain between Victor Harbor and Port Elliott. Popular summer playgrounds not far from Adelaide then as now. (RP Nicholas/State Library of SA)

‘Narrow Escapes’ ‘A thousand people at the Grandstand Bend had their hearts in their mouths when the Bugatti of Hylton Dale (Vic) went into the corner too fast, skidded wildly round with screaming tyres, and regained its course with the driver fighting for control. Nearly an hour elapsed between the starting times of the limit men, E. M. Winter (SA) and R. S. Uffindel (SA) and the virtual scratch men Lyster Jackson (Vic), Jim Fagan (NSW). T. Peters and Lord Waleran. To make up this leeway the fast men attained speeds of more than 100 m.p.h. on the straights and made unbelievable speeds on corners.’

‘The demand for speed sapped the strength of the motors in the fastest cars, however, and it was a middle marker who took the honors of the day. Each of the virtual scratch men struck trouble while the excitement was at fever pitch, but Peters had established the lap record of 81 miles an hour before he dropped out of the running.’

There were plenty of thrills but no serious mishaps at the most difficult of corners. Hell Bend. Many drivers had narrow escapes, but only one, Jack Phillips, came to grief there. Taking the turn at too great a speed, he ran into an embankment and badly buckled the rear off wheel of his car.’

‘The crowd became out of hand at Hell Bend, and it was fortunate that the drivers showed such skill in regaining control of their skidding machines. Nearing the end of his race A. Barrett almost turned round just past the corner, but he managed to switch his car away from the crowd. The thousands of spectators at the bend spent an exciting afternoon. All eyes turned towards the Chilton Straight, when roaring engines warned of the approach of cars. As they quickly neared the bend the crowd was on tip-toes. Engines were throttled down, and the cars skidded and screamed round the corner, sweeping across the road, and sending up clouds of dust from the base of the embankment. Then engines roared again, and with a deafening noise the machines disappeared. Often spectators scampered for safety as the cars skidded out of control.’

Determined efforts were made by the police to keep the corners clear, but soon the crowds took charge, and they swarmed everywhere, even over the grounds of a private residence. Nangawooka Hairpin, which was expected to provide many thrills, was surprisingly uneventful. The crowd at the corner was raised to heights of expectancy several times as the snarl of hard applied brakes and screaming tyres told of the drivers’ fight to get their cars round the corners safely. But apart from the unfortunate skid by G. C. Martin’s AC, which put him out of the race when in a handy position, and two or three cars which took the escape road, the bend was singularly free from incident.

lea wright

Bob Lea-Wright’s Terraplane Spl takes Nangawooka Hairpin. Victor Harbor 1936. (State Library of SA)

The day of speed was remarkable for the precision and orderliness with which the arrangements for the drivers’ safety and the convenience and comfort of spectators were carried out. The huge crowd was handled well by the large contingent of police and special constables who were on duty at the course. With the cars careering into corners to the very limit of safe speed, and often just a little more, the highlights of the day were seen by those who had secured corner positions.

Martin had bad lack when he skidded at the Nangawooka Hairpin, while challenging Murphy for the lead in the concluding laps. He was driving with the throttle flat on the floor, but on this corner he skidded and straddled the sandbag safety bank. Immediately dozens of spectators prepared to go to his help, but officials called them back, warning them that Martin would be disqualified if he received any help.

After several attempts to free his car, Martin gave up and two men helped him away. The spectators cheered sympathetically as he left. 

Crowd at Victor Biggest in History. Although in peak times the estimated floating population of Victor Harbor was about 40,000, never in the history of the town has there been such a crowd as there was tonight. Motor cars were parked everywhere, even down side lanes and blind alleys. Nevertheless, no accidents were reported to the police. Streets were gay tonight and many of the buildings had colored lights.’

victor race coverage

Race Report…’The Mail’ then published a full account of the race in its Sports Section…

How Murphy Won Grand Prix: Brilliant Victory In 250-Mile Race.VICTORIANS FILL FIRST THREE PLACES VICTOR HARBOR. Saturday.

Driving a perfectly judged race, Les Murphy, of Victoria, sped to brilliant victory in the 250-mile Centenary Grand Prix car race this afternoon. He finished about a third of a lap ahead of Tim Joshua, another Victorian. Lea-Wright (Victoria) was third and A. E. Poole (SA) fourth.

START OF GRAND PRIX. Uffindell (Austin) and Winter (Vauxhall) were first away off the limit mark in the Grand Prix. McDonald (Amilcar), who crashed in the practice trials this week, was a last-minute starter. It had been thought that the damage to his car would not be repaired in time. He went off 8 min. later. The next away were Gullan (Hornet Special), Anderson (Morris), and Tim Joshua (MG). Then followed at intervals Summers (MG), Moulden (Sunbeam), Dutton (MG), Barrett (Lombard), and Dale (Bugatti). The machines away were by this time well warmed, and the lap speeds began to soar. The next batch away comprised Poole (Oldsmobile), Lea-Wright (Terraplane), Beith (Terraplane). Anderson pulled into the pits with water streaming from his radiator and Barrett followed with his Lombard to change a wheel.

At this time 13 competitors were still at the pits waiting to get away on their handicaps. One by one the machines roared down the Brick Kiln Straight until the back markers ; Fagan (MG Magnette), Jackson (MG Magnette), Snow (MG Magnette) and Peters (Bugatti) were on their way. Churning the dirt from the calcium chloride treated track, Peters scattered it all over the spectators as this batch of expert drivers thundered down the straight Peters had a slight advantage.

barrett

Practice or parade lap prior to the race. L>R Lyster Jackson MG K3, winner Les Murphy MG P Type #29 and Alf Barrett Lombard #22. (Alan Griffin Collection)

CARBURETTOR TROUBLE. Uffindell had covered eight laps, while the scratch men had completed only two laps of the circuit. There had been no retirements up to this stage. Winter howled his Vauxhall round the course at a good average speed. At 1.28 Dale drove bis Bugatti into the pit with carburettor trouble. The defect was remedied in three minutes. Trouble began frequently. McDonald had to pull up opposite the grandstand to adjust his goggles. It only took him a minute, and the car bounded off again. Minor mechanical troubles stalked abroad, and the men at the pits worked feverishly to correct them without serious loss of time.

The pace was now on, but with so many laps ahead for the competitors, spectators were unable to anticipate the winner. After several rounds Fagan (MG Magnette) lapped the circuit at 78 mph, while Burrows went round with his Terraplane in 6 min. 15 sec., which was equal to 74 mph Jackson, driving a MG Magnette, went round in the same time. Hylton Dale, driving a Bugatti, tore round the grandstand bend and went wide. His throttle jamming, he swung round and ricochetted into the pit with a side sweep. Diagnosed, his trouble was described as ‘plug.’

Les Burrows, in his flaming Terraplane, had to pull in because of plug trouble. Barney Dentry in his Riley, who has completed many thousands of miles in his little car, also pulled in for a mechanical adjustment. G. C. Smith (NSW) retired. He said that he had been under the impression that the track was smooth, but it was very rough in his opinion. Anderson (Morris Special) had to pull in several times for water. The last time he came into the pit the water belched from the radiator high into the air as the mechanics lifted the radiator cap. Abbott was making good progress in his supercharged Austin. He came into the pit with a loose distributor which was adjusted in three minutes. Gullan (Hornet Special) lost three minutes while he stopped to adjust his helmet.

murphy

Les Murphy on his way to victory, here on West Straight heading to Hell Bend. MG P Type. Additional fuel tank gave him a range of 300 miles per tanks.(Norman Howard)

DRIVERS WITHDRAW. Halfway through the race Joshua was in a strong position. He was driving his MG K3 brilliantly. The Victorian driver Murphy was in second position, but Martin was giving a real fireworks display, lapping at 71 mph He was gradually overhauling Murphy. The South Australian representative, Uffindell, was still maintaining a good speed, and was not far behind, while Phillips, at the wheel of his Ford, was going at 74 mph. There had been no serious accidents up to this stage. Abbott experienced plug trouble, and a few minutes later Barrett and then Lord Waleran came into the pit with similar trouble. Mclntyre retired with his Hudson at 3.05 p.m., and Smith withdrew his Hudson a minute later. Frank Kleinig, who was driving Mclntyre’s entry, was forced to retire because of a broken radiator. Kleinig was one of the most popular and most spectacular drivers during practices.

Lord Waleran, who had relieved J. Snow at the wheel of the K3 Magnette, took Hell Bend too wide in the seventeenth lap. Handling his car skilfully, he headed his car down the Escape road, and a few minutes later joined in the fray again.   With eight laps to go Murphy had taken the lead with Martin, lapping at 73 miles an hour second and Tim Joshua third. Phillips, driving his Ford, crashed into the embankment at Hell Bend through attempting to take the turn too fast, the off rear wheel was bent almost underneath the car. Neither Phillips nor his passenger was hurt. At 3.45 20 cars were left in the race. Shortly before 4 o’clock Murphy (Vic) was leading by six minutes.

poole

Nangawooka hairpin. A Poole Oldsmobile. (State Library of SA)

PETERS’ FAST LAP. Martin set out to catch Murphy with six laps to go and he was reducing the gap at the rate of several miles an hour. There was now only four and a half minutes’ difference between the two speedmen. With an hour’s racing remaining the fastest lap record was put up by Peters, who covered the circuit at 81 mph. Then the whole aspect of the race changed.

Martin broadsided, and saddled the sandbags at Hairpin Bend. There he tried to shift his car without success. Martin made desperate efforts but the rear was protruding across the track, to the danger of other competitors. Driving a perfectly judged race, Murphy, the Victorian driver, who was on a 40 minute handicap, maintained the lead and finished about a third of a lap ahead of Tim Joshua, another Victorian, who was driving A. Barrett’s M.G. Lea-Wright (Terraplane) was third, and A. E. Poole (SA) was fourth.

The winner’s time was 3 hr. 39 min. 6 sec. Poole’s actual time was 3 hr. 37 min. 59 sec., and he thus wins the £25 presented by ‘The News’ and ‘The Mail’ for the fastest time for any South Australian competitor. Dentry was fifth and then followed Cranston, Uffindell, Summers, Beith and Dutton. Others to finish were Terdich and Martin. The following competitors retired; Fagan, Peters, Kleinig, Smith, Burrows, Phillips, Dale, Barrett, Gullan, Winter. Fastest time was set up by Cranston of Western Australia, who covered the distance in 3 hr. 20 min. 17 sec. T. Joshua’s time was 3 hr. 56 min. 10 sec., and Lea-Wright’s 3 hr. 26 min. 40 sec. Fastest lap was secured by T. Peters (NSW Bugatti), who went round in 5 min. 47 sec., equal to 81 miles an hour.

olympic ad

‘Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday’ adage started a long time ago! ‘The Mail’ ad the day after the GP.

Circuit Aerial Photographs…

The State Library of SA (attribution of shots in all cases below) have a series of aerial photographs taken during the meeting, unfortunately not during the racing! They are reproduced below in the sequence, by image number published, which may or may not be corners in their order of a lap, there are no captions to assist the historian. I have included fthen for the sake of completeness.

They clearly show the loose nature of the gravel, the dust the drivers and spectators had to contend with as a consequence, the flattish nature of the area and the open, fast corners.

victor

‘Aerial view of Victor Harbor and Port Elliott for the South Australian Centenary race’ is the caption on this series of shots. (State Library of SA)

victor circuit

vic 1

(State Library of SA)

vic 2

Perhaps; the fast LH kink after exiting ‘Nangawooka Hairpin’. The cars heading from top to bottom of this shot. (State Library of SA)

vic 3

Perhaps; The cars race from top left to right, along ‘Brick Kiln Straight’ then the RH tight corner ‘Sea View Corner’, then the RH kink towards the bottom of the photo is the fast RH taking the cars into Port Elliott.(State Library of SA)

vic 4

Port Elliott. The cars raced clockwise, so from left to right. Into the right hander at top left, then the right hand kink depicted in the previous photo,(the point of the track closest to the water)  then another right hander and down ‘Chilton Straight’, thru the town and back towards Victor. (State Library of SA)

vic 5

Perhaps; ‘Hell Bend’, the RH tight corner at the end of ‘Chilton Straight’ which then heads in the direction of the L/R series of corners towards ‘Nangawooka Hairpin’. (State Library of SA)

vic 6

Perhaps; the L/R combination which leads to ‘Nangawooka Hairpin’. Looked at from top to bottom.(State Library of SA)

Bibliography…

‘The Mail’ 26 December 1936, John Medleys chapter on ‘The 1937 Australian Grand Prix’ aka ‘1936 South Australian Centenary Grand Prix’ on 26 December 1936 in Graham Howard’s ‘History of The Australian Grand Prix’

Photo Credits…

State Library of South Australia, ‘History of the AGP’ as above, Norman Howard, RP Nicholas

Finito…

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Comments
  1. Rob says:

    Great article, and great to see an emphasis on the actual “South Australian Centenary Grand Prix” name rather than the “Australian Grand Prix” moniker that was foisted on it by latter day “historians”.

    I understand that Cranston’s fastest time was set with a Ford V8 Special, a sort of V8 Supercar of the thirties perhaps!

    I was surprised to read above that “the limit men of the handicap race drove MG K3’s and Bugatti Types 37 and 43”. Surely this should read “scratch men”, given that the limit starters were the slowest cars, which started first and the scratch starters were the fastest cars, which started last.

    • markbisset says:

      Rob, yep the whole ’36/37 thing is a bit weird. I’ve not had a summer at Victor for 2 years, I’ll be interested to retrace the Victor/Pt Elliott Roads when next I go. What struck me in seeing the shots of the road is just how fast a layout it was. And yes have been loose with the language re scratch men! M

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