Dirt Demon and frequent flier
Like his contemporary Bert Flood, Charlie Edwards was an innovative engineer as well as a gifted racer, with 13 Australian titles to his credit.
When I was just starting out in racing,
Charlie Edwards was already a legend, but also somewhat of an enigma. Here was this bloke from the bush who made his own carburettors and tuned his engines to fever pitch, then rode them like he was immortal, totally oblivious to the potential for injury from crashing, which he did fairly often.
It’s one thing to be a fast and committed racer, but more often than not, talent behind the handlebars is not enough. In Charlie Edwards’ case, probing for the competitive advantage in the workshop was also paramount; constant experimentation produced successes as well as occasional failures, but his bikes were always fast – very fast. Charlie was born in Sandringham, Melbourne, in 1937, the son of a precision engineer, and with his elder brother Bill, attended Wesley College. It was while at college, aged just 12, that he built his first engine – a 12cc model aircraft motor. The lessons he learnt in constructing that engine were to serve him well. “My first taste of competition was actually not motorcycles,” he recalls, “it was in a rowing eight at Wesley and I was the cox because I was so skinny. When they won, which they did too many times, they used to throw me into the Yarra which was full of broken bottles and rubbish.”
After his secondary education, Charlie found work in the industry he has always loved, aircraft. “I started an apprenticeship at Major Aircraft at Moorabbin Airport and that was going to be my career, but he went broke so I took a job immediately as an apprentice with Stevenson & Jones (SJ Motorcycles) at Dandenong. I was always dead keen on planes, and I got my private pilot’s licence at 16, flying Tiger Moths, Chipmunks and Cessnas. I had to ride my pushbike there because I wasn’t old enough for a driving licence.” Working around motorcycles soon aroused his interest in that sport, but there were two small problems; his age, and his parents’ opposition. “You didn’t have to produce your birth certificate to get a road licence – I think it was 18 you had to be – and I must have gone there at 17 because I needed a motorcycle licence to get a competition licence. So I fibbed about my age but then I hurt myself and there was hell to pay when my father found out. He banned me from racing, but I became great mates with Ken Rumble, and when he didn’t have access to the Eric Walsh Bantam he rode my Bantam – he got an Australian title on it while I was still 17. People didn’t recognise my bike from Eric Walsh’s because we both used what we called a “powderhorn” exhaust which was just a short open megaphone. I got to know Eric Walsh as he would come to SJ Motorcycles to pick up rebores for Finlay Bros. I was young and I annoyed him asking questions of how he got his Bantam going so well. He never helped me in the early days. He was quite rude in a strange way and unfortunately he caused me to become very secretive during my tuning days.” Once Charlie was able to race legally on his Bantam he took to the grass tracks in the Warragul area and to scrambling. The biggest annual scramble was the Mud Battle at Korweinguboora, near Daylesford, and keeping the water out of the electrics was a key to success. “A lot of bikes would hit the cold water and stop because the motor contracted and drew water into the electrics. Most of the bikes were on points, but because I was so keen on model aircraft I designed the Bantam to have a glow plug, not a spark plug. People never realised why I had a 2 volt battery beside the bike to start it, and as soon as it started I took it off and it worked on a platinum coil, the same as a model aircraft motor. You can adjust the advance by the thickness of the platinum wire. I had wire drawn out in Melbourne in all different thicknesses and I just wound it into a normal spark plug. As soon as it heats up you remove the 2 volts and the compression and the methanol keeps it going, and so I never snuffed it in the creek and nobody knew. It wasn’t that I was secretive but it was a
competitive advantage. I went onto twin ignition after that but the glow plug was a really interesting concept.” Life changed slightly when Charlie was called up for National Service and spent six months at Amberley Air Base in Queensland. Being around aircraft suited him fine until it was time to return to normal duties. Following his apprenticeship, Charlie opened his own business, the Dandenong Two Stroke Repair Company, which went well enough to pay for his racing, and to keep his flying hours up. “I was hiring a Cessna 172 belonging to a farmer, who kept it at Moorabbin airport. He wouldn’t take any money for the flying I was doing in it, and I kept saying that I should be paying for it because I was using it and taking my friends up. Then he said, ‘Would you consider coming to work for me?’ because he didn’t have a flying licence but he had two planes. This sounded interesting to me so I put a manager in the Two Stroke Repair business and I went up to his property Burrabogie Station in Hay in 1959, a 46,000 acre sheep property which was very famous for rams, and I liked it. I was more a mechanic because being a private pilot I wasn’t entitled to fly for a living so I just flew him when he needed to go somewhere. It was still a bit illegal but that’s how we got over it.” The station had plenty of sheds and pieces of equipment, one being an old lathe. It was actually a wood lathe but had thread cutting gears, and Charlie began to use it to make parts for his racing Bantam, one such was his own carburettor, the castings for which were made from melted down scrap aluminium obtained from the Ford Motor Company in Melbourne. He eventually made five of the ‘CE’ carbs – one for his great friend Les Lewis, another for Les’ son Leslie, and three for himself. The thinking behind the carb was that conventional racing carbs like the Amal GP and TT were overly long, with the main jet at the bottom of the carb. “You had to put the carb at an angle to miss the crankcase on a Bantam or a Bultaco, and this was wrong because the gas has to come down at an unusual angle and then come up through the transfer ports. So the beauty of this carb was we could get a very low profile by taking the main jet from the bottom and putting it in the side, and it was adjustable with your fingers. This was a bit dangerous because in practice you could just reach down and adjust the main jet as you’re flying down the straight. It was a tapered needle and when you got the right setting I just tied it off with a fine bit of wire and it worked very well and we got the perfect angle for a two stroke. There’s nothing magic in a two stroke, it’s just all the little things that add up, and this is just one of the many things.”
Charlie with Bill Morehouse and the Hagon/Bultaco – the first two-stroke Hagon chassis to be built.
LEFT Charlie in his role as Cox for the Wesley College Eighth Crew, 1951. RIGHT Charlie during his stint at Amberley Air Force base in Queensland.
Charlie on his Hagon Bultaco dicing with Herb Jefferson’s ESO. Salty Creek 1968: Charlie outside Kevin Fraser and Greg Primmer.