Here’s a car that fits perfectly with this issue’s horse theme. Mobile barriers were all part of the spectacle of trotting at a time when crowds of 30,000 regularly attended meetings at city tracks.
An imported Cadillac was used in Melbourne, while at Sydney’s Harold Park venue a custom-made mobile was built, based on a stretched HQ one-tonne chassis and cab. It was powered by the 253ci (4.2-litre) V8, initially with manual gearbox, but later changed to an automatic. A set of white mag wheels was added in the early 1980s.
This impressive unit was built in 1973 by W.G. Smith and Sons. It was used at Harold Park for over 30 years then placed in storage when the NSW Harness Racing Club relocated to the new Tabcorp complex at Menangle in 2010.
Last year the club decided to restore the old workhorse as part of their museum project. Appropriately this project was done by Mark Smith, a son of W.G. Smith who now specialises in building hot rods.
The restoration was largely instigated by Owen Mulligan, now Tabcorp Track Manager, who has driven the HQ on and off since 1982. Jimmy Chang has been the other driver. Both men consider this special Kingswood a significant part of Sydney’s sporting history.
They named it ‘Black Thunder’ when it was painted in the JPS colours of John Player cigarettes. It has also been sponsored by Commodore (the cigarette brand, not the car) and radio station 2UE.
The car is still in working condition but no longer suitable for modern race starts. They run 10 horses wide these days and the HQ can only accommodate eight pacers. Still, Mulligan has suggested that it should be used for special demonstration races on big race nights.
He says that without power-steering driving Black Thunder was pretty hard work, especially on wet tracks.
It was originally road-registered so it could be taken to other metropolitan tracks during the week. On the highway it would cruise comfortably at 90mph and, as you can imagine, attracted a lot of attention from other motorists.
On the dolomite track, V8 power was necessary to accelerate quickly after the race start. There’s an art to driving these things, especially with a row of very expensive horseflesh running at full speed just a metre behind the gates.
The driver would receive instructions by two-way radio from the race starter who sits facing backwards under the canopy. When he told you to go you had to flatten it, get well ahead of the pack then swing back the gates and steer to the outside fence.
These days, computerised mobile barriers make the job a whole lot easier, but they probably take away some of the old excitement.