Posts Tagged ‘Lionel Van Praag’

Lionel Van Praag, Wembley, London 10 September 1936…

Its amazing what you don’t know, in fact I’m never surprised at my own ignorance. I reckon I know a bit about my interest and hobby, but really I’m only scratching the surface of motor racing history in Australia.

Australian topics are hard too, the research that is- pre-War there was little in the way of local magazines, post war it becomes a bit more straight forward from the time of the publication of ‘Australian Motor Sports’ magazine and the relatively large number of publications which followed it. What is fascinating in the research adventure is the stuff you find looking for something else.

In this case it was randomly coming upon this image of Lionel Maurice Van Praag (1908-1987) after winning the inaugural World Speedway Championship at Wembley on 10 September 1936.

An Australian World Motor Racing champion pre-war, wow! And not without some controversy too. And I had never heard of the Redfern lad despite his admission to the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in recent times.

L>R- Charlie Spinks, Arthur Atkinson and Lionel Van Praag, First Test England/Australia at Belle Vue in 1938 (defunctspeedway.co.uk)

Graham Howard wrote that ‘Van Praag was a speedway rider and aviator, born on 17 December 1908 at Redfern, Sydney. The only child of Sydney-born Louis Van Praag, tram conductor, and Mozelle May. A bright student and an all-round athlete, he was educated at Cleveland Street Intermediate High and Redfern Junior Technical schools, both in inner Sydney. He was apprenticed as a typewriter mechanic, he had a natural feel for machinery that was useful all his life’.

image

LVP, middle of shot at Speedway Royal, Wayville, Adelaide in 1928. Bike is an Ariel ‘3 and a half’ (M Gray)

Lionel began riding motorcycles at 15. After a number of novice races at the Olympia Speedway at Maroubra he concentrated on the Speedway Royal in Sydney from July 1926, almost instantly he became a senior competitor. He then had an outstanding 1926-27 season in Brisbane. He was successful in the eastern mainland Australian States and in New Zealand. In 1931 after years of rejecting offers, he followed other Australian riders who competed in England and joined the Wembley Team, riding in both the UK and Europe during the Australian off season.

Lionel Van Praag aboard a Harley Davidson ‘Pea Shooter’ in 1927, 19 years old. Factory 1926  racer designed for US AMA races- devoid of brakes, clutch and transmission. Frame shortened, weight 215 pounds, 350cc OHV, circa 100mph (unattributed)

The first World Speedway Championship, at Wembley, London 1936…

The event was a strange one as riders carried into the meeting a score of bonus points amassed in the qualifying rounds. It was possible that the rider who scored best on the night would still not be world champion because of his qualifying record- and such was the case.

‘Bluey’ Wilkinson scored a maximum but Langton had more bonus points than Van Praag. In a night of excitement and controversy, Eric Langton and Van Praag lined up for a match race but Eric broke the tapes. Van Praag declared he would not be champion by default and sportingly demanded a re-run! Langton gated ahead and led until the final bend when leaving the smallest of gaps and he was unable to hold the dashing Australian, the Hall of Fame entry says.

LVP on a mini-bike at Wembley in 1932 (Getty)

Further ‘Langton’s near miss …assumed a degree of controversy in later years. The deciding match race with ‘Praagy’ was ‘fixed’ between the pair according to sources close to the action. It was alleged that Eric and Lionel agreed that whoever got to the first corner in front would go on to win and they would split the prizemoney between them. It almost worked out, Langton was ahead until the final corner when he left a small gap which Van Praag couldn’t resist going for. The first ever world final was won by about a wheel width and the Australian took the title’.

Van Praag also qualified for the finals in 1937-7th, 1938-4th and 1939. In 1931-39, and again in 1947, he represented Australia in Tests against England.

He learned to fly in the UK at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire in 1931, it was a capability he put to good use throughout the rest of his life.

Graham Howard wrote that ‘Van Praag was a non-drinker and a heavy smoker, and he had a short temper if provoked. At around 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) he was taller than most of his rivals; he was dashingly handsome, with dark curly hair and notable physical strength. He had a minor role in the British film Money for Speed (1933), but an envisaged cinema career did not materialise’.

LVP on a 1930’s JAP, date and place unknown (defunctspeedway.co.uk)

On 11 August 1941 Van Praag enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and was appointed to No.2 Wireless Air Gunners School, Parkes, New South Wales with the rank of acting sergeant.

Engaged on flying duties, he was promoted to probationary pilot officer in October 1942 and flight lieutenant in October 1944.

In January 1942 the transport plane of which he was a co-pilot, an RAAF Douglas DC-2 A30-8, was shot down by a Japanese aircraft over the Sumba Strait, off Indonesia whilst on a flight from Surabaya, Java to Koepang/Kupang Timor. For thirty hours, whilst subject to shark attacks, he and his Captain, Flying Officer Noel Webster, supported the two crew-members, both non-swimmers and secured their survival, acts of bravery for which they were awarded the George Medal.

A full account of the incident appears in the book ‘And Far From Home’, written by John Balfe who flew with Lionel.

Balfe had this to say about Van Praag as a man ‘…in flying with Van I had perceived in his slight wiry form, a man of particular capacity and directness. He cared nothing for false values in anything or anyone and did not hide from the fact. I found him only a week out of hospital after the ditching (of the DC-2) but already back in a comprehensive engineering workshop he had behind his unpretentious home on Botany Bay’s (Sydney) north shore. He had plant and equipment there to wet the appetite of any metal engineer. One of the real Australians, Van had led a hard life racing motorcycles from early manhood and lived to standards he had not relaxed. He was moderate in thought and habit and held in quiet contempt those who were not. He valued his friendships above human faults, but chose his friends carefully and for the most part made them for life. His mind and memory remained sharp and retained an accuracy in detail that I had noted flying with him in 1943’.

After recuperating from the ditching, Lionel returned to flying C-47’s with No 36 Squadron out of Townsville, Far North Queensland. His RAAF appointment ended on 27 July 1945.

LVP aboard a Penny Farthing in 1951, interesting to know the occasion, and place! (Fairfax)

Post war Lionel resumed motorcycle racing and soon developed a career in aviation…

Van Praag headed a riders’ consortium that promoted speedway at the Sydney Sports Ground in 1945-48. He rode for the English team New Cross in 1947. After 1948 he effectively retired from racing, although in the early 1950s he briefly raced self-built small speedboats off Manly on Sydney Harbour.

In his new career as a commercial pilot in 1952 he combined his aviation and speedway interests by contracting with Empire Speedways to carry the Great Britain and Australian competitors, along with their bikes and equipment between the various Australian speedway venues in a Lockheed Lodestar.

He flew charter, and freight planes, did aerial top-dressing or crop-dusting in a Bristol Freighter, this plane was lost in December 1961 when it crashed at Wollongong after an engine failure on a freight flight. Lionel and the rest of the crew escaped injury. He later flew for an airline in Pakistan for a year before returning to Australia.

LVP in his later aviation years (adastron.com)

He joined Adastra Aerial Surveys, a company originally formed as a flying school in 1930 at Mascot, Sydney circa 1962 as a pilot and later became chief pilot. Although he had two well-publicised crashes, including the one described above, people who flew with him valued his informality and his resourceful flying ability.

In adult life, Van, as he was known, turned away from his Jewish upbringing. In 1929 at the district registrar’s office, Redfern, he married Elizabeth Margaret Pearl Cosgrove, a machinist, they divorced in April 1937. On 1 October that year at the register office, Hendon, England, he married Gwendoline Iris Hipkin, a dressmaker.

In 1968 he retired to his own Island, Temple Island, south of Mackay. In 1973, aged 65, he ferried a Hudson VH-AGJ from Sydney to Strathallan Museum in Scotland. Hudson’s were the primary survey aircraft used by Adastra.

He died on 19 May 1987 from emphysema, at Royal Brisbane Hospital. His wife, their daughter and two sons and the daughter of his first marriage survived him.

Post death recognition includes being inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1990. In addition, in 2000, the Government of the Australian Capital Territory decided to honour several Australian sportsmen with the naming of streets, including ‘Van Praag Place’ in the Canberra suburb of Gordon.

Three of my fathers uncles served in World War 2. As I became a teenager and understood, to an extent, what they endured in the Middle East and New Guinea I held these wonderful, private, kind, gentle but strong men in considerable awe. I always called them my ‘Boys Own Heros’ when I saw them at family events. Certainly Lionel Van Praag was a Boys Own Hero- in spades. Truly an amazing, full life of achievement.

Bibliography…

‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ entry by Graham Howard, Australian Sports Hall of Fame, adastron.com

Photo Credits…

Getty Images, Fox Photos, PA Images, , Malcolm F Gray, State Library of South Australia, Fairfax, defunctspeedwaysuk.com

Tailpiece: LVP and friends at the Sydney Sportsground on 4 September 1945, first post-war meeting I wonder?…