“I suppose I was in my early twenties, strangely enough I had made a bit of money. I always had a car then – not a flash car – but I got into Hudsons and I used to drive them pretty hard and pretty fast...”
Clem Smith’s memories of his first days in racing are clear and it is here, not in the mundane business world of car dealerships and corporations, where it is obvious his true passion lies. And despite his long attraction to the Chrysler brand, it was in another Detroit-based American marque, Hudson, where Clem truly made his name as a racing driver in his native South Australia. In particular, a unique 1934 Hudson Terraplane Roadster.
“I used to follow the racing, I would go as a spectator,” he remembers. “My father used to go to all of the races, in Nuriootpa and those sorts of places. Even as far back as Lobethal when I was a kid, I went to some of the races there as a spectator. I first went racing competitively when I heard about this new track at Port Wakefield which started on January 1, 1953.”
With the racing bug bit he was in boots and all. First of all there were Hudsons, then Holdens and then, inevitably, the Chryslers further down the track.
“I went to my first race meeting at Port Wakefield in the Terraplane Roadster and did fairly well. We ran against MGs and those other sort of open top production cars, they used to call them. It went on from there: I had car after car, you get hooked on it, don’t you? I went through a series of cars after a while, but I always had the Hudsons there. I used run them at the speedway as well, and trials. I was into everything with the cars in those days.”
The ‘trial’ that Clem casually mentions was no less an event than the original, 1953 Redex Trial, all 10,460 kilometres of it. An adventure and a half, quite literally, as in addition to circumnavigating the continent, he had to get his aging Terraplane Roadster to and from the start/ finish in Sydney.
But the era of the reliability trial soon passed. Besides, he found himself pre-occupied with the rough and tumble of speedway, initially racing a Holden-powered Vauxhall two-door coupe. In the trusty Hudson Terraplane he won Rowley Park’s first 50-lap stock car derby, in the 1959/60 season, before retiring from the ‘skids’ a couple of years later.
It was in circuit racing where he really made a name for himself. He contested the 1955 Australian Grand Prix at Port Wakefield in an Austin-Healey 100, retiring from the event due to
suspension woes. Thereafter, Clem mostly raced tin-tops.
“The FJ Holden was one of the fast cars; we came third at Albert Park in 1958 with it and it went pretty well. Later on we went to the Valiants, in the 1960s. I remember distinctly Allan Moffat and Jimmy McKeown going head-to-head with two Lotus Cortinas and I was following them in the R-Series Valiant. They eventually collided with one another, damaged their cars and left the race open and I won the South Australian Touring Car Championship.”
Smith proved an extremely capable and versatile driver. He finished third in the single-race 1963 Australian Touring Car Championship at Mallala, behind Bob Jane (Mark II Jaguar) and Ern Abbott (Chrysler Valiant) in his own R-Series. However, despite the potential, national success never truly followed.
“I always sponsored myself, did all my own engine work and car, with very little help from the staff, and was trying to run a business at the same time,” he explains, emphasising time and money as the two major factors that went towards limiting his career mainly to South Australia.
“I was paying my own way everywhere and I could not afford to go to places like Bathurst. Calder and Sandown were my favourite tracks because that is where we went to get extra races. We ran at all the local ones, but to go to New South Wales and then Queensland it is extra days away from work: I just couldn’t afford it.”
Nonetheless, he did get to Brisbane’s Lakeside circuit for the 1964 ATCC, but his efforts were in vain as he punched his S-Series ‘Val’ into an earth bank on lap two. He was fourth in the preliminary race to give an indication of his potential.
The following year he made it to Sandown and finished ninth, three laps down on new national champ Norm Beechey’s Mustang.
Sandown was also the scene of Smith’s pioneering role in Pacers, as highlighted last edition. He entered the Datsun Three-Hour in 1969 in the VF’s first endurance race, backing up the following year, for seventh overall and second in class, in the VG model.
His last ATCC start, in 1972, was in an E38 Charger at the Adelaide International Raceway round. Sports Sedans then became his focus (see breakout) and he raced on until he was nearly seventy, having had a tilt at Group N in a Mustang, including in AGP support events in the Adelaide parklands. Heart issues developed and Smith decided it unwise to continue as a driver, though he would continue to put younger drivers in his cars for some time.
He maintains a replica of his Terraplane amongst his collection of classic cars.
Top: Clem Smith was in everything but a bath in the 1950s and 1960 in South Australian motorsport. He entered events as diverse as the 1953 Redex Trial, speedway stock car races and the 1955 Australian Grand Prix at Port Wakefield. Note his Austin-Healey (#18) is about to be lapped in the AGP by Jack Brabham’s Cooper Bristol and Reg Hunt’s Maserati. Left: Clem travelled to Melbourne to race, including to Albert Park, but not much further. He’s in #14. Below: Smith’s Val (#46) on the 1963 ATCC’s grid. Little did he know then he would later own Mallala.