Jack Brabham thrilled a crowd of over 12000 with his Cooper Bristol’s speed during the inaugural car meeting of the new Altona circuit in Melbourne’s inner west on 9 March 1954…
Brabham made the switch from speedway to circuit racing in, one of the characteristics of his driving style was the ‘Brabham Crouch’ over the wheel, its much in evidence down the years and very much present at the 2 1/4 mile Altona track.
Jack set a lap record of 1:50, an average speed of 73.5 mph, the Cooper was timed at nearly 130 mph. Stan Jones won the F Libre open event after Jack’s Cooper sheared the magneto drive of its Bristol engine. ‘The duels between Brabham and Jones Cooper 1100 were a feature of the meeting, the brilliant cornering of the latter helping him hold the bigger faster car’ The Age newspaper reported.
Many of the noted racers of the day entered the meeting; Jones, Reg Smith, John O’Dea and Lex Davison in 1100 Coopers and Bill Patterson in a 500. Cec Warren’s Maserati 4CLT, Ted Gray’s Alta Ford, Tom Hawkes Allard, Doug Whieford in his Ford Spl ‘Black Bess’ as well as Lex Davison’s HWM Jaguar, it won the AGP at Southport on Queensland’s Gold Coast, later in the year completed a strong line-up
Over the years there was motor racing at Point Cook (one race only, the 1948 AGP on the airforce base) Fishermans Bend and Altona, they are all in the ‘same part of the world’, respectively 26/6/16 Km from Melbourne’s CBD. Of the three, Altona was the least successful, only six meetings were held.
Well known Melbourne racer/businessmen Stewart and Neil Charge invested between 35000-40000 pounds in the venture. They acquired land on the west side of Millers Road transforming ‘ a swamp into a GP track…they formed the Altona Motor Racing Co with preliminary work to commence in two weeks’ the ‘Williamstown Chronicle’ reported on 2 April 1953.
Neil Charge took leave from the family trucking business to pull the enormous project of creating the facility, ‘the track was built from fly-ash from the South Melbourne gasworks’
The swamp was converted into ‘Cherry Lake’, later reports suggested the promoters intention to ‘dredge the lake (deeper) to form a speedboat circuit’. Six meetings year were planned with local charities to benefit to the tune of about 4000 pounds per year.
Somewhat prophetically ‘The Chronicle’ noted the circuit may pose new problems for the promoters of Phillip Island, the expectation that Altona because of its close proximity to Melbourne may draw larger crowds. In the event, Phillip Island is still with us, despite a few ups and downs over the decades and Altona is long gone and largely forgotten!
Altona was completed on time, its first meeting, for bikes, was opened by former Australian Olympic cyclist, Federal Parliamentarian, Sir Hubert Opperman on 21 February 1954…
Before the opening meeting the Williamstown Chronicle described the circuit as the first of its type in Australia, the Charges ‘have laid more than 2 1/4 miles of all weather bitumen fully enclosed by a steel safety fence…future plans provide for stands, changing rooms, fully equipped racing pits and permanent refreshment rooms’. The opening included a novelty match race between Jones Cooper and F Sinclair’s Vincent Spl sidecar, its not reported who won!
Car racing events were promoted by the Victorian Sporting Car Club, there were problems with the surface from the start. The track was ‘re-surfaced and built up where necessary after the recent ‘consolidation’ meeting. The track surround is safer with the removal of boulders and an encircling safety fence’. Edges were levelled to give a safe emergency run-off area. The Argus reported the improvements cost 4000 pounds with speeds expected to be higher by 20% compared with the first meeting.
In a 2013 interview Altona owner Neil Charge said that had the investors in the consortium, (there were 6 he said, not just he and his brother as reported by the media at the time) known that Albert Park was to be used for motor racing they would not have proceeded with their investment. International readers will understand the inherent beauty of Albert Park and its proximity to Melbourne’s CBD. Imagine the exact visual opposite; what was then flat, featureless, muddy or dusty, industrial land on the cities outskirts. In short, in a popularity contest close to Melbourne’s CBD, Albert Park wins hands down every time from a spectators perspective.
That the Charge brothers didn’t know about Albert Park as a racing possibility is a little hard to fathom, they were well connected Melbourne businessmen and stalwarts of the local racing community, which was even more incestuous then than now.
Other issues which inhibited the circuits success was the converted swamp land upon which it was built, land consolidation not understood as well then as now. The land continually subsided making the track difficult to maintain and dangerous, which is the reputation it gained from competitors. Entry numbers suffered as a consequence. If you can’t attract the cars, the ‘punters’ don’t come to watch and so a bit of a downward spiral started.
The Phillip Island Auto Racing Club in its own history relating the trials and tribulations of getting their circuit running have this to say; ‘ One example of a circuit hurriedly built and opened was Altona in 1954. With sharp corners, narrow straights and a dangerous lack of shoulders running along the edge of the circuit the track started to deteriorate from the very first (motor cycle) race. With four cars rolling over the same spot and several parts of the track crumbling to powder, it was clear the track was doomed from the beginning. This was despite an average lap speed of below 65mph’
Ultimately the Altona investors made the commercial decision to sell the land, the acquirer, local authorities who used it as parkland. Charge said the transaction resulted in a small profit which must have been some kind of miracle given the sum invested and paucity of spectator numbers in the 6 meetings run. Now the area is a residential one, the local amenity very much enhanced by Cherry Lake!
There are few photos to be easily found of this interesting track, if any Australian readers have an image or three you would like to share I am sure we would all like to see them! Please get in touch.
Jack’s Cooper T23 Bristol…
I have done the ‘Cooper Bristol to death’ in terms of articles written, check these links out for information and photos about these important, wonderful cars, rather than me repeat it all again;
The shots of Jack’s car do beg the question about its history though, important as it was in his development as a driver. His success in it directly lead to his decision to try his hand in England in 1955, in fact he regretted selling the car in Oz, carefully developed as it was. Peter Whitehead’s Cooper Alta, the car he bought and raced when he first arrived in the UK was not a patch on the car he left behind.
The summary of the car is based on an article from John Blanden’s book, that research largely based on Doug Nye’s Cooper tome albeit its somewhat truncated. The best source of information on Jack’s formative years is the biography he wrote with Doug Nye, picking that book up always brings a smile to my face.
JB publicised ‘The Jack Brabham Story’ in Melbourne shortly after it was published and in the Friday before the 2004 AGP. He spoke at a function at the Windsor Hotel, the book was sold after the event and autographed by the champ for those prepared to stand in a long queue. My youngest son was 8, the only kid amongst 300 businessmen at the breakfast.
Local ‘motor-noter’ and TV commentator Will Hagon was MC for the event, they used a question and answer format which worked well. Hagon was a great choice as the ‘right questions’ were asked rather than the crap someone with no knowledge of the sport, ‘how fast did she go Jack?’ ask.
Brabham was an absolute prince in the way he dealt with Nick when we collected his signature. ‘Bic’ still remembers that gig, Jack and the long day we had together strolling the wide open spaces of Albert Park. We still do the wide open spaces of Albert Park but all three sons are as interested in the beers on dad as much as the racing! You would think I would get one racer outta them given the number of events they did with me racing my Historic FF!? (Lola T342 at that time)
Brabham cut his racing teeth in the immediate post-war years on Sydney Speedways. By the early fifties he was essentially making his living on his prizemoney, racing three times a week made it difficult to keep up with the workload of his machine shop as well. He ran his Speedcar in some hillclimbs, and, fitted with front brakes won the 1951 Australian Hillclimb Championship at Rob Roy in outer Melbourne.
Beating the road racers with his Speedway car caused quite a stir, but also ‘put his name and capabilities up in lights’. He was effectively a professional in an amateur sport (road racing in Oz) well before he left for the UK. It was during these years he met Ron and Austin Tauranac who were racing their Ralts at the time, RT of course the other half of the ‘BT’ partnership.
Jack enjoyed the hillclimbs which convinced him to give circuits a go. In quick succession he acquired and raced Coopers Mk 4 and 5. To fund his road racing he sold his speedcar, continuing to race on the dirt tracks in a car owned by Spike Jennings with whom he shared the prizemoney.
The big step up was purchase of the Cooper Bristol.
Chassis ‘CB/Mk2/1/53’ was despatched to Australia as a new car to the order of David Chambers, prior to the cars arrival by sea, he committed suicide as a consequence of the financial trauma in which he was engulfed. The car was offered for sale on behalf of his deceased estate, Brabham’s bid of 4250 pounds, supported by some funds from his father and Redex, his sponsor, was the successful one.
Jack recounts how, upon testing the new car at Mt Druitt, an old WW2 emergency landing strip just outside Sydney for the first time, the Bristol engine lost oil pressure within a few laps. A subsequent tear-down revealed a bent crank and badly worn bearings. It soon became apparent that the new car was thoroughly ‘shop-soiled’, it had been raced by its first owner, John Barber in Argentina. Upon return to the UK, it was given a ‘cut and polish’ and then despatched to Chambers as a new car. It was not the first or last time ‘colonials’ were shafted by ‘nasty furriners’ in the UK and Europe a long way from the South Pacific!
When Jack carefully assessed the Bristol engine, having raced the car a few times, he couldn’t believe the hefty flywheel and quickly modified it along the lines of the Harley Davidson clutch assembly used on his Speedcar. He lightened the clutch/flywheel assembly from around 34Kg to 7kg thereby vastly improving the responsiveness of the engine and its reliability. The long, thin crank of the Bristol engine was a weakness because of the vast weight of the flywheel assembly. Further improvements to the engine were made with the assistance of British pre-war racer Frank Ashby who had moved to Sydney’s Whale Beach.
Jack had already replaced the Bristol’s Solex carbs with ex-Holden Stromberg units which were modified further after Ashhby’s suggestion to incorporate smoothly shaped bell mouths to aid air entry with consequent increases in power. Jacks hands-on engineering capabilities were part of his ‘competitive back of tricks and unfair advantage’ which never left him.
Brabham quickly established himself as one of the men to beat with the Cooper winning many events. His battles with the nascent Confederation of Australian Motorsport and their ‘no advertising on cars’ policy became a constant thorn in his side, RedeX’ commercial involvement essential to his ability to run the car.
In Europe and the UK the ‘no advertising thing’ didn’t seem to hold the sport back, there were enough wealthy individuals to make up the numbers and manufacturers to give worthy drivers without wealth a steer. Here in the mid fifties the drivers of ‘ANF1’ cars were either ‘silvertails’ like Lex Davison, mind you he made much more than he inherited or ‘self made’ blokes, a whole swag of whom were motor traders (Mildren, Jones, Stillwell, Patterson, Hunt, Glass and others, I’ve included Patto and Stillwell on this list but they too had family $ behind them from the start). The point is it was RedeX money which helped fund Brabham’s campaign, without it he probably wouldn’t have achieved what he did. What am I saying? The Americans goddit right from the start with a totally commercial approach which allowed those with talent access to sponsors funds to help them progress.
The cars race debut was at Leyburn, Queensland on 23 August, he won the ’53 Qld Road racing Championship. Brabham set quickest time in the NSW GP at Gnoo Blas, Orange but non-started the 1953 AGP at Albert Park after he ran the Bristol’s rear camshaft bearings in practice due to excessive friction.
Brabham contested the 1954 New Zealand Grand Prix, finishing 6th, meeting Tony Gaze, Reg Parnell, Peter Whitehead, Ken Wharton and a VERY young Bruce McLaren. Jack stayed in the McLaren home, Leslie McLaren a local racer and garage owner. The race was won by Stan Jones Maybach .
The car continued to do well throughout Australia, his clashes with Davison’s HWM Jag, Dick Cobden’s Ferrari and Jones Maybach were highlights of the period.
At the ’55 NZGP meeting two visitors from the UK, Dunlop Racing Manager Dick Jeffrey and Dean Delamont, Competition Manager of the RAC, convinced him he should try his hand in the UK the following year. By the time he alighted the ship on the journey back to Sydney he determined to do just that, and the rest as they say is history.
Stan Jones was the eager buyer of the Cooper having destroyed his new Maybach 2 whilst leading the 1954 AGP. Stan was lucky to survive a very high speed journey backwards through Southport’s trees. Whilst Charlie Dean and his band of merry, Repco men designed and built Maybach 3, Stan first raced the CB in the Victorian Trophy at Fishermans Bend on 19 February. The nose of the car was slightly modified before his next race at Albert Park in March 1955.
Stan retained ownership and had Ern Seeliger race at Bathurst Easter 1955, Ern was 2nd in the ‘Bathurst 100.’ Jones was forever buying and selling racing cars, ‘moving metal’ was his business after all! Have a read of my article about the champion racer if you are unfamiliar with Alan’s father and his own impressive racing CV;
Later in 1955 Jones sold the car to ‘Ecurie Corio’s’ Tom Hawkes, the Geelong businessman raced the car for 3 years before leaving for Europe.
Hawkes first race was the 1955 AGP at Port Wakefield, winning a heat but DNF in the race itself with fuel feed problems. Tom then modified the car by lengthening the nose, altered the front suspension and most importantly fitted a Holden ‘Grey Motor’ incorporating a Phil Irving Repco ‘Hi-Power’ head. The car raced in this form at Albert Park in March 1956 and over the next 2 years in this spec.
The car was very fast in this form, not quite an outright contender amongst the ‘heavy metal’ of 250F’s, Ferrari 500/625 and Ted Gray’s V8 engined Tornado but still quick enough to finish 2nd in the 1957 Gold Star series to Davison. Those points were amassed by finishing 4th in the Victorian Trophy, 2nd in the Qld Road Racing Championship, 2nd in the NSW Road Racing Championship. He was a terrific 3rd in the 1958 AGP at Bathurst.
Ace historian/researcher Stephen Dalton dates these Phillip Island shots (above and below) of Tom’s T23 as during the October 1957 meeting, note the mixed grid of MG T Spls. The shots show just how sleek the car has become in its ‘definitive’ later Repco headed Holden form. It may not have quite been an outright car in terms of outright performance by then but Hawkes did a mighty fine job of extracting all the car could give.
When Hawkes left for the UK at the end of 1958 he retained the car but tasked Murray Rainey to fit a Chev Corvette 283cid ‘small block’ V8 into the Coopers lissom spaceframe chassis.
This job was completed by Earl Davey Milne who bought the car in April 1962. Gearbox used was Borg Warner T10, a slippery diff was also fitted and the bodywork modified. The car is still retained by his family 50 years later. Because it never raced ‘in period’ in this form the Cooper is ineligible for a CAMS ‘Certificate of Description’ and appropriate logbook.
The car appears in demonstrations from time to time, looking immaculate, its importance as the first Mk2 CB and its role in the ‘Brabham Ascent’ appreciated by all enthusiasts.
Probably too arcane a topic for international readers but some Australian enthusiasts may find this short photo based article about the Charge Brothers on the great ‘Aussie Homestead’ site, of interest. None of the photos of the brothers cars are at their Altona circuit. In fact they are everywhere in Victoria but the place which is not what I wanted at all! Click on this link to have a look;
State Library of Victoria, Stephen Dalton Collection, Fairfax Media, Troy Davey-Milne, Ellis French, Ian McKay Collection, Geoff Chennells
The Age 3/3 and 9/3 ’54, Williamstown Chronicle 2/4/53, 19/2/54, The Argus 17/2/54, 28/4/54
Doug Nye ‘The Jack Brabham Story’