It was time for a change, and that came in the form of a call from Cornell, the South Australian distributor for Suzuki. “Cornells got in touch and asked me if I’d be interested in riding a TR500 that they were getting. They’d bought a TR1 from Western Australia, one of the very early ones, which was virtually a water cooled Titan, but otherwise it was the full racing chassis, forks and wheels. A bloke by the name of Watanabe from Japan came out and I had to do a demo at AIR, so I rode this thing around and around and he was suitably impressed and said, ‘OK, a new one’s on its way’. Within a few weeks we had a Mk3 TR2 twin, a beautiful motorbike. When you pulled it apart it was basically a big Yamaha, the difference was it had an extremely wide inlet port, with a very broad bridge in the middle with another boost port in the centre. It just pulled like a truck. It was the nicest motorbike I’d ever ridden, and I still say that today. It did everything a Manx Norton did, but it did it 50mph quicker. It was comfortable – you could have lain down and gone to sleep on it. We had a bit of trouble to start with because the crankcases had been bored crooked, and we broke two or three cranks. Then they sent me a set of new crankcases, plus another engine which was an ex-John Newbold engine from Suzuki UK, off one of the works bikes, that was to get us by until another Mk3 engine came, so we finished up with two engines which was brilliant because we had one to experiment with and play around with. I had different engines for different circuits. Different pipes, different carburettors, different compressions, we could virtually build an engine for a circuit.”
1975 turned out to be a stellar year for Bill and the Suzuki – so good in fact that he decided to turn professional. For the first – and only – time, he contested the full six rounds of the Australian Road Racing Championship, and was virtually unbeatable. By just the fourth round, he had amassed a maximum score to secure the 500cc Championship. Round Two of the ARRC was conducted at Bathurst, and Bill had trouble push starting the water-cooled Suzuki into life, by which time most of the field had disappeared. Over the next eight laps he carved through the field and managed to hold off Murray Sayle to take the win. Late in the year, he received an invitation to ride in the Indonesian Grand Prix in Jakarta – only his third start outside Australia. He took the proven TR500 twin with him but ended up racing one of the brand new and quite revolutionary RG500 square fours. “There was a spare RG500 and Stu Avant and myself were vying for it. The factory in its infinite wisdom had decided that we would both go out on a TR3 (twin) and whoever got the quickest time would get the RG. Fortunately I was quick enough to get it (Stu later got another one from a local rider who had decided to withdraw from the race). I didn’t really do it justice because on the third lap I went round what they called the Tennis Court and I threw it away. I was in the same team as Dave Aldana and he had a stack of tyres you couldn’t have jumped over. I had Yokohamas and I asked Yoshi Itoh (the Japanese rider who had won the Isle of Man 50cc TT) the manager of the team if I could have a couple of tyres and the answer was just a flat no, so I was walking around the pits trying to buy tyres but no one would sell me any. So the back broke away in the race and down I went, and in behind the fence was Ginger Molloy who wasn’t riding because he had trouble with his bike. When I crashed he scaled up this wire fence and jumped down the other side, grabbed the bike, grabbed me, gave me a push and off we went again. We weren’t in contention but we were going, but the front mount on the fairing had broken away. Going down the straights was all right because the wind would hold it up, but when it came to slower corners I had to let go and grab the front bar of the streamlining with my left hand to get it off the front wheel. They were a funny mob, I never really understood them, but because I finished and the other Suzukis had finished we won the team prize, albeit I got lapped. But you’d have thought I’d won the race afterwards, they couldn’t do enough for me. For quite a few years I used to get Christmas cards from this Yoshi Itoh bloke, but I kept thinking to myself, now why wouldn’t they give me a couple of tyres? I could have done so much better.”
The RG500 was sent to Cornell Suzuki for Bill to ride – the first one in Australia – but its local debut at Mount Gambier’s McNamara Park began in the worst possible way. “Going through the Esses it goes up a little rise and then down the hill. You couldn’t keep the front wheel on the ground so you’d go over the rise and you’d be looking out the corner of your eye at the edge of the road and lean a little bit this way or that way to keep it travelling parallel with the edge of the road. The pits used to be on the inside of the circuit and on this particular lap Bob Jolly was travelling down the right hand side of the road on a 350 Yamaha and was going to go into the pits. I couldn’t see him because I’d come over the hill with the front wheel in the air, but he changed his mind and thought he’d do another lap so he swung left and came out onto the racing line. When the front wheel came down Bob was about 20 feet in front of me and I’m doing 100 mph. I slammed everything on and they said smoke was pouring off the tyres, it sounded like a shotgun going off and that was me going through the screen and I remember seeing blue, black, blue black – the road and the sky – as I cartwheeled through the air. All I did was bust four ribs off the backbone and they can’t do anything about that, they just say to take it easy and not cough too much. The bike was a wreck, the front end broken off.” There was only one month before the muchpublicised Australian TT at Laverton Air Base near Melbourne – a lavishly promoted affair featuring Giacomo Agostini and a host of other top Italian riders. There were also eleven RG500s on the grid, including Bill’s hastily rebuilt model. But it transpired to be a total disappointment as he struggled to complete the race. “I should never have done that. It wasn’t a bright thing to do for other riders or myself because I was suffering badly from double vision. As long as I stayed on the petrol tank and looked out the top of my eyes everything was all right but as soon as I sat up to look at a corner, there was three of them.” A couple of weeks later, after talks with Cornell Suzuki, Bill announced his retirement from racing.
In the late ‘seventies, Bill took a break from the motorcycle industry, where he had been all his working life, to become a maintenance fitter at the Molly Hill Mine. “I realised it was going to take 30 years to pay off our house, so I needed to earn some decent money. Maybe ten years passed, and I heard about this historic motorcycle club and they used to meet at a hotel in Adelaide and a few people suggested I go, so I went along and there were a couple of lads that were copping a bit of a hard time about Hondas – because they weren’t British. I didn’t know who they were but it turned out to be Jerry Kooistra and Graham Besson, they went out to the front bar and I felt a bit sorry for them.” Jerry, born in the Dutch East Indies and a successful businessman in Adelaide had been working with Besson on a series on CB72/77-based racers that were going indecently quick. Besson, Adelaide born, had spent quite a while in Sydney where he helped Terry Dennehy on a similar CB72 project, resulting in a bike that, in Dennehy’s capable hands, was as quick as most 500s. Eventually, Jerry and Graham stretched the internal dimensions to 66mm x 64.8mm bore and stroke to produce a 443cc version – but it needed a capable rider. “I said to Jerry, ‘What are you doing with your Hondas? If you’re looking for someone to have a gallop on them I’d be interested’. He said ‘You would? And I said, ‘Yeah, too right’, and a few days later they said ‘Let’s go up to AIR and you can have a test ride’. So that’s what we did and we went from there.” Once again, number 29 was out on the tracks – and winning. Armed with one of the 350s and the larger bike, which grew into a full 500, the team competed in the booming Historic Racing scene far and wide, including at Bathurst in 1987. As part of the 50th anniversary of the races at Mount Panorama, the organisers had slotted an Invitation event for Historic machines into the program as the final event on Easter Saturday. Riding as if he’d never been away, Bill beat everyone except the TZ750 Yamahas of Lee Roebuck and Duncan Read, recording a 2.36.09 lap in the process and being electronically timed at 156 mph (251 km/h) on Conrod Straight. It was the beginning of a spree that saw the Horsman/Honda combination score an unbeaten string of 22 wins. But there were bigger things afoot – events that would kick start an international career for Bill as he approached his own half century. Doing the rounds of the Historic meetings, Bill met up with Ken Lucas, evergreen competitor and collector of racing motorcycles from Wangaratta, Victoria. A plan was soon hatched for Bill to compete in the Classic Manx Grand Prix on the Isle of Man in 1989. “(English rider and sponsor) Brian Richards used to come out to Australia and stay with Ken Lucas and they’d come over to Mallala for a meeting. Ken had obviously built me up to something and I was riding the Honda and had a good day and Ken came up to me afterwards and said, ‘How would you like to ride a G50 at the IOM?’ I said, ‘Is the Pope a catholic?’ He said if I could get myself over there Brian will supply the bike and I can stay with him. That’s how it came about. The first time I went was 1989. They named the old bike Myrtle, a Mk3 Seeley. He had two of them and he gave me the choice, one was the early small valve motor which was Myrtle, and the other had a big valve motor. I rode both and I said to Brian the big valve’s quicker so I’ll go for that. He said ‘It’s up to you. But if I were you I’d go for the small valve because it’s ultra reliable and has never let me down, but I’m not too sure about the big valve motor’. So I said ‘OK, I’ll be guided by your advice’. This Mk3 didn’t have any down bars at the front of the frame and going through Quarry Bends you could see the forks flexing sideways. All the top part of the engine was rubber mounted with silent block bushes with nothing going down to the bottom. The forks would flick sideways.” It had been a sensational debut by Bill on the world’s most infamous circuit, finishing in fifth place in the Senior Classic at an average of
“... smoke was pouring off the tyres, it sounded like a shotgun going off... that was me going through the screen.”
96.26 mph. With his appetite more than whetted, Bill was back the following year, but failed to finish in the Senior and managed only 34th in the Junior after many problems, including a broken frame. “I used to do two years then miss one to get my finances together, but it wasn’t just the Isle of Man, I rode in all the Irish races, we were going across there every week. Ulster, Mid Antrim, Castletown, Skerries – brilliant. I’ve often said to people that have asked me about it; ride the IOM by all means, but for Gods sake go and ride the Irish road races. They wonder why the Irish road racers are so good, the IOM is like a freeway to them. At a place called Bugle Lane, I stood on the edge of the road, put my heel in the grass, took two large steps and my foot was in the grass on the other side of the road. The next day there were 750 triples going through there 3 abreast. The Temple 100 is the oldest road race in the British Isles and in the 7 mile lap there are nine jumps – a bitumen scramble track. I rode in the Irish races every year, I really looked forward to them. We never raced on Sunday, only Saturday; practice in the morning and racing until about 9 at night. They welcome you with open arms, the most likeable people, and the circuits are mind blowing.”
Back home, Graham Besson had decided to build a replica Matchless G50, and Jerry Kooistra was the man entrusted with the engineering. Besson purchased a new G50 engine from Rutter Engineering in the UK, but Kooistra totally redesigned and reengineered it in Adelaide. The frame was made by the late Brian Payne in Queensland. It was completed in time for Bill to win the Australian Historic Championship at Phillip Island in 1992, and win the Historic TT at Bathurst the following year, before the bike was shipped to UK and on to the Isle of Man. In its Australian Period 3 form, the G50 was almost 20 kg heavier than the British bikes, which used disc brakes and many lightweight parts. For the Manx GP, the G50 was fitted with a seven gallon (31.5 litre) fuel tank which further added to the weight. In practice for the 1993 Senior Manx Grand Prix, the engine broke a crankpin, but Kooistra had brought a complete spare crank assembly and stripped the engine before the race. In that race, Bill turned in a typically gritty performance, averaging an incredible 102.34 mph, with a fastest lap of 103.04 mph, to finish second to Bill Swallow’s Seeley, then fitted a 350cc 7R engine and finished sixth in the Junior race.
Prior to Bill’s next IOM trip in 1995, the G50 was sold to prolific New York collector Robert Iannucci, so it was back to bikes sourced from the UK and entered by Brian Richards. Aboard a Seeley for the 1995 Senior, Bill averaged 102.55 mph to take fourth place. In 1996, Brian organised an Aermacchi from Dick Linton for the 350cc Junior and Bill took to it immediately, averaging a sensational 101.07 mph to finish in second place. Back on the Seeley for the Senior, he finished in third place at 102.11 mph. Under his race/finances plan, Bill would normally have skipped the 1997 meeting, but he had been so close to a win and realised time was running out as he neared his sixtieth birthday, which was at that time the cut-off age. So he was back for 1997, again with the Aermacchi and for the Senior, a Manx Norton supplied by Andy Molnar. This time, it all came together, and Bill romped home to win the Junior, then rode to fourth place in the Senior on the Norton, averaging a personal best 103.32 mph. To win at the Isle of Man nearly forty years after he began racing was quite an achievement, but although this marked the end of his annual pilgrimage, it was not the finish of racing for Bill. Back home, he was soon back in the saddle of the Kooistra Hondas, and still winning. It was 2008 before he finally called it a day, fittingly half a century after he started. Bill and Kathy had two sons, David and Peter, neither of whom was tempted to venture into motorcycle racing, although Bill acknowledges the support he received from Kathy. “Over the years of racing, I was extremely fortunate to have complete help and understanding from Kathy. She understood my selfish attitude that racing usually came first, even over the family.” Today, Bill is just as competitive as ever, but in an entirely different field. His new passion is pistol shooting (where he competes with son David) under the auspices of the International Shooting Sport Federation, under whose rules the Olympic Games shooting classes are conducted. Bill competes in two divisions; for Air Pistol and Free Pistol, and practices continuously. He’s no less a dedicated competitor now than he was in his racing days, but Bill has never given less than one hundred per cent.
Typical Phillip Island weather in 1974, with Bill on the TR500.
Bill’s favourite bike; the water-cooled TR500 Suzuki twin. Ready for action in 1974 at Phillip Island.
ABOVE Aftermath of Bill’s huge crash at McNamara Park. The front end of the new RG500 is lying on the left. LEFT Warming up the rebuilt RG500 Suzuki at Laverton in 1976.
Powering the G50 Seeley ‘Myrtle’ through Union Mills in 1989. With sponsor Brian Richards after a successful day’s racing in Ireland. On the new G50 Matchless at the 1993 Australian Historic Championships. All tucked in on the 350 Aermacchi across the mountain in the 1996 Manx GP. Fettling G50 engines in Ireland in 1992.
Last time at the island: Bill on Andy Molnar’s Manx Norton in 1997, taken at Ballacraine. ABOVE In the winner’s enclosure after the 1997 Junior Manx GP with the Lord Mayor of Douglas. Sponsor Dick Linton is on the left in Silkolene jacket.
Bill (4) on his Seeley G50 chasing Bob Jackson on his way to third place in the 1996 Senior Manx GP.
In winning form at the 2007 Australian Historic Championships.