One such was Peter Nicol, born in South Fremantle in 1931, and still fit, healthy and active today. Peter’s father, Alf, acted as mechanic to leading solo speedway rider Jack Sharp, so it was not surprising that a teenage Peter joined the team at Claremont Speedway, where he acted as Sharp’s “pitboy”, cleaning and refuelling the bike between races. Peter wanted to take up motorcycle racing to follow his dream of emulating his racing heroes, however his mother refused to sign his licence application for speedway and he was forced towards scrambles and road racing. He joined the Coastal MCC at 16 years and was elevated to Club Captain at 20 – a rare honour for one so young. His association with the club continued over many years and it was no surprise when he was elected a life member. Peter’s first bike was an ancient 1928 AJS. At age 17 Peter gained his competition licence and immediately showed his class, riding the AJS stripped of its road gear. So impressive was he that he soon found himself under the attention of sponsors, one being the Royal Enfield distributor Carlyle and Co. Not only did they supply a new
350 Enfield competition model, they paid a handsome bonus for race wins. His other sponsor was the Castrol Oil Co. 1951 saw Peter take out both 350cc and 500cc West Australian Scrambles Championships, as well as the highly prestigious and extremely rugged Harley Scramble run over a huge circuit at Mosman Park, now one of Perth’s most prestigious suburbs. He was the youngest-ever winner of the event and would go on to win it a total of five times. The Enfield did service both on and off road, and as well as numerous scrambles, he competed at round-the-houses races like Yanchep Park and Kalamunda. His growing stature soon attracted the attention of Mortlock’s who were the Matchless and BSA agents and importantly, the support of Australian Land Speed Record Holder Harry Gibson. Peter freely admits that being involved with the Gibsons was a golden opportunity, a case of “being in the right place at the right time.”
“I rode for Carlyle’s for two and half years in mainly scrambles until I really got the road racing bug, then the Gibson brothers took me under their wing into their race team. Harry coached me in road racing, and I was riding in scrambles for Mortlock’s. I wouldn’t have attained the successes in road racing without Harry Gibson’s coaching, but whatever he said I had to do it, he was a tough bugger, dry as you like, but he was smart. He was one of three brothers who built their business in Perth called Gibson’s Confectionary. They were second only to Plaistowe’s (founded in 1895 in Perth and now part of Nestle). He was great mates with Clem Dwyer and they used to race cars together before they got into bikes. Harry bought me a 350cc MK8 KTT Velocette – he actually bought it from a farmer who had hardly used it, and I paid him back, he financed me and on it I finished second in the Australian TT at Longford, Tasmania in 1953. I finished second to Victorian Maurie Quincey. That was the first success I had interstate, and George Lynn (founder and editor of the Victorian Motor Cycle News, also known as the “Green Horror”) wrote me up as a young rider from Perth that was going places. Mortlock’s had ordered one of the new Matchless G45 twin road racers, with the arrangement that Harry Gibson would tune it and look after it if I rode it. That was another big break for me at the time. “Harry owned an old model Vincent stock standard Rapide that he planned to develop into a speed record breaker. He had a large workshop where he and Clem kept their race team bikes, cars and race toys. From the age of 18 to 24 that was where I spent most of my spare time. Harry and Clem had previously built a 500cc Triumph twin bike with a supercharger fitted, to set a WA speed record of 126 mph. In 1953 Jack Ehret of NSW set a new Australian record of 141.5 mph riding a Vincent Black Lightning and Harry, after some discussion with his friend and Vincent Designer Phil Irving decided to attempt to better that speed. Harry then totally stripped the old Rapide and completely rebuilt the frame, suspension and modified the engine to increase the power required. He then set up a road testing program over 3 months. Fortunately, we were able to use a section of a little used narrow country road called the Muchea 6 mile straight, part of the old Geraldton Highway, now replaced by the then-new Brand Highway. We conducted several test days there, before the attempt. I’m not sure how Harry arranged this, he must have had a friend in high places. On test days we would set up the timing equipment. I would do most of the riding and Harry and helpers would change and set carburation, exhaust systems, tyres and aerodynamics. I would do a run and come in for Harry to record results. After adjustments were made I would set off again for the next run. When things were working well Harry would take over and test run the bike to check the improvements. On an average test day, I would do approximately eight
or 10 runs between 140 and 150 mph up wind and downwind to record an accurate average speed. The official record attempt took place in April 1953 on the Muchea straight. Harry Gibson set a new Australian speed record for motorcycles at 144.9 mph and Clem Dwyer set an Australian standing start ¼ mile record of 12.5 sec on the Vincent.
After the successful record attempt, Harry decided to convert the Vincent to road racing specs for me to race after minor changes to the frame, suspension and brakes. Harry and Clem had redesigned the rear suspension to swinging arm previously. I started to road race the Vincent and after a few meetings we were able to improve the handling except for the Vincent brakes. They were just not good enough for a 140mph road racer and I regularly ended up down the escape roads during practice. Harry then decided to fit a pair of Manx wheels and brakes that he was able to acquire from a contact in Sydney. I think we set lap records at all the WA circuits we raced the Vincent during the 1954 season; Caversham, Mooliabeenie, Bunbury and Kalgoorlie. In one meeting in Bunbury I crashed in practice. I took off over a hump bridge and because of my scrambles experience those sort of jumps did not worry me but on this occasion I landed heavily and when I arrived at the next bend the steering locked and I went down. What had happened was that when I jumped and landed, the bottom alloy damper casting on the Girdraulic fork had cracked and broken. Harry took the broken parts into Bunbury where an engineer friend opened up his factory and made up a steel bracket to hold the broken parts together and the bike was ready to race that afternoon. In 1954, the plan was to take the new G45 Matchless to Bathurst for the Australian TT but the machine failed to arrive from England in time. Nevertheless, Peter was determined to compete at the National Championship with the hope that he could go one better than the previous year’s result in Tasmania. He still had his trusty KTT Velocette, on which he had scored numerous successes, but Harry Gibson vetoed that plan. “Harry did not want me to ride the KTT Velo at the challenging Bathurst circuit for my first ride there. He suggested we should try to get a Featherbed frame Manx Norton that would handle better and have better braking. The KTT Velo engine was faster, but the frame design and brakes were older. So, I ended up going to Bathurst with a 350 cc Manx that Harry borrowed from a friend. Harry knew where all these good bikes were. The deal was he would rebuild the engine with modifications before returning it to the owner.” For the Bathurst meeting, Peter decided the best means of getting there was by sea as he was able to arrange a special freight cost through contacts in Fremantle.” Getting two bikes to Bathurst was very difficult and expensive, so I decided to go by ship. George Lynn used to keep in touch and ring me occasionally; he was a real character and enthusiast. When the ship docked in Melbourne, we’d only been there about 15 minutes when there was a call for me to go to the Purser’s Office and there’s George Lynn. He said ‘How about you jump into the car and come up to Bathurst with me? You don’t know your way around up there and I can show you some of the towns on the way’. I wasn’t too sure, but he insisted so I packed my bags, told the Purser I was leaving the ship and stayed at George’s home in Melbourne that night. Next morning at daybreak we were about to set off and he jumped into the passenger’s seat and suggested I drive because his eyesight was so bad he could not see well enough, so the penny dropped, but it was an enjoyable trip, he was a great guy.” In Sydney, Eric McPherson, who was a good friend of Harry Gibson introduced me to Rod Coleman from New Zealand, who was an I.O.M. T.T. winner the previous year. Eric and Rod had met when we were racing on the continent and both rode for the AJS works team, so they became good friends. Eric invited me to stay with him and his wife Ruby in Sydney and I found Rod was staying with them as well. So, we went to Bathurst and I shared a hotel room with Rod and he helped me so much to learn the circuit. For three days we went out on the circuit
and he showed me the best lines and so on. We would have dinner at night and talk about it and we’d get in the car and drive around the circuit in the dark. The NSW guys were helpful to me but they all said I’d have to race there a couple of times before I could expect to do any good. After practice I was on the front row and at the start of the Junior GP, Rod leapt away, and I jumped in behind him with Bobby Brown right on my tail. Rod had a works 7R AJS which was much faster than my Norton and I started to drop back and had to deal with Jack Forrest who had taken over Harry Hinton’s bikes after Harry crashed in practice and broke his collarbone. For most of the race, Jack and I diced behind Bobby Brown, but he would always steam away down Conrod Straight and I finished up finishing fourth”. The new G45 Matchless finally arrived in mid 1954 and Peter made good use of it at local meetings. Then in January 1955, World Champion Geoff Duke, the superstar of European motorcycling, arrived in Perth for the first meeting of his Australian Tour. Accompanying Duke was his mechanic Giovanni Fumagali and a pair of the all-conquering works 4- cylinder Gilera racers. George Lynn was very instrumental in managing the tour and also arranged for the Gileras to be accommodated at Harry Gibson’s workshop during their stay in Perth. The race meeting was at Mooliabeenee, about 70km north of Perth, where a disused US-built WW2 airstrip with a 1500 metre main runway existed. Like nearby Caversham, the airstrip had been pressed into service post-war as a motor racing facility but was rudimentary in the extreme, with the only access via a rough gravel road through the scrub. By using the perimeter roads and the main strip, a lap of 2.5 miles had been created, but with a very rough and abrasive surface. Peter had set a new lap record at a previous meeting and was second fastest in practice to Duke. In the race Peter (who Duke described as ‘a promising rider with a nice style’) gave chase to the screaming Gilera but the G45 soon developed a misfire and had to retire. In 1955 the Australian Scramble Championships were allocated to Western Australia and held in conjunction with the Harley Scramble at the Rope Works circuit at Mosman Park. Mortlock’s had ordered a new 500cc Gold Star BSA for Peter to ride in the event, however the bike did not arrive in time and Peter was given a 350cc Gold Star off the showroom floor with the intention of trying to win the 350cc Championship and to gain the best placing possible in the Open Championship by racing the 350cc bike against the 500cc machines. He faced stiff opposition from Les Sheehan, who had ridden for the AJS Works Team in Europe and was riding an ex-works 500cc AJS. Sheehan won the first one-hour leg from 112 starters, with Nicol 22 seconds behind in second place, but the Victorian retired with a broken frame in the second leg leaving Peter to take the win outright by 30 seconds and win both the 350cc and the Open Australian Championship in front of a crowd of 15,000. The following year in 1956 New South Wales hosted the titles at the Moorebank circuit, and a big contingent of West Australians made the long trek across the continent. Peter retained his 350cc Championship with a convincing victory over top Victorian and local riders. Twelve months later he made an even longer journey to contest the Australian Scrambles Championships at Heit Park, Amberley in Queensland. Soon after his arrival he came down with the flu and was unwell for most of the meeting. On a speedway style track with a 110km/h main straight, Peter finished second to Victorian George Bailey in the Unlimited title and third in the 350cc class. While Peter was in Queensland he was contacted by the organisers of the NSW Motocross Championships who offered to transport his bikes to Tamworth the following weekend, to which Peter agreed. The Tamworth circuit was one of the first man-made motocross tracks. Peter won the Senior NSW Championship from local Harry Pyne and George Bailey from Victoria. He won the West Australian 500cc Championship in 1958 and continued to compete in local scrambles until 1959.
It was a very busy time in Peter’s life, for not only was he racing frequently, he had opened his own shop in Wellington Street Perth selling and servicing BSA, Matchless and Velocette. Sensing a change in the market, he opened a second shop in the city on the corner of Hay and King Street to sell motor
scooters predominantly to female customers. His road racing results had earned him the nomination to be the reserve rider in Australia’s Official Team to the Isle of Man TT but his business commitments, plus his impending marriage to Beatrice led him to decline the nomination.“As it turned out Laurie Boulter, who was one of the nominated team riders, was tragically killed two weeks before the T.T. meeting and I received a telegram from the ACCA asking me if I wanted to take up the position. But I realised that I did not have time to get to England and prepare for the TT and the Continental races, so I had to pass that up and that was as close as I came to racing in Europe. Making a complete break from motorcycling, Peter sold his dealerships and returned to sailing as a sport and as a business, operating a marine brokering business in Fremantle, and built a 34 foot ocean racer that he raced after he retired from bikes. “I was then offered a crew position as relief helmsman on a Sydney-owned yacht in the World One Ton Cup series held in France, followed then by joining the Australian Team competing in the Admiral’s Cup races at Cowes, England on the same trip. Soon after arriving home I was asked if I would sail the 50 foot
Panamuna and I went on to race in ocean and river races in Perth from the Royal Perth Yacht Club. The owner of Panamuna then advised me he had sold the boat to a club member Alan Bond, a well-known property developer”. Peter was introduced to Bond and agreed to teach him the finer points of sailing a big ocean racer and in fairly short order he became part of Bond’s plan to contest the Sydney to Hobart race in a brand new 60 foot yacht designed by Ben Lexcen. Peter skippered the new yacht Apollo. “We were still putting bits on the boat as we went out to the start, but we were second out of the heads behind the big English boat Crusade and by the time we crossed Bass Straight we had about 3 or 4 mile lead but we then hit light winds. Gradually Crusade got into the lead and we ended up abreast as we came into the Derwent in the dark. We then stopped, no wind. We just drifted to the finish line and Crusade crossed the line nine minutes ahead of us for the Line Honours win”. Peter was also involved in Alan Bond’s first challenge for the America’s Cup with the yacht Southern Cross in the 1970s.
Peter looks back on his motorcycle racing career with admiration for the characters involved, but says people today have little appreciation for the difficulties that faced competitors from Western Australia. “We had good talent in the West with riders like George Scott, Jeff Leisk, Charlie West and others, but it was tough to get into the national scene and it was expensive. We’d get one shot a year at it and if you had trouble you’d blow your chances. I was a bit lucky because I used to get financial help from the West Australian Motor Cycling Association for National Championships, but if you wanted to get recognised or achieve your next step you had to do it – race in the Eastern States.” Peter’s son Geoff, born in 1958, moved into motor sports with help from his father via go karts and ended up as a top driver in open wheelers, eventually racing in the USA. Peter is a Life Member of the Coastal MCC and an active member of the Vintage MCC of WA and in 2010 rode in the Annual Hill Climb at Albany. Peter was inducted into the Motor Cycle Racing WA Hall of Fame in 2013 in recognition of his contribution to the sport in WA together with his ability and performance at the highest level. In all Peter amassed 14 State Titles, one NSW title and three National Championships.
Winning the Junior race at Kalamunda on the KTT Velocette. First road race, on the 350 Royal Enfield at Yanchep in 1948. The rush into Hell Corner at the start of the Junior GP at Bathurst in 1954. Winner Rod Coleman on his works AJS heads Peter Nicol (14).
Peter with mentor and sponsor Harry Gibson and Harry’s highly developed Vincent at Caversham in 1953. Note the modified rear suspension. The standard brakes were later swapped for Manx Norton components.
On Harry Gibson’s Vincent. Harry Gibson and Peter about to disturb the peace with the Vincent.
Peter’s G45 leading Jack Rowe’s Norton at Mooliabeenee in 1955.
Gold Star BSA mounted at one of the West Australian roundthe-houses circuits.
ABOVE Peter on the G45 chasing Geoff Duke’s Gilera at Mooliabeenee. LEFT Geoff Duke’s Gilera at Harry Gibson’s home in 1955. Peter (left) next to works mechanic Giovanni Fumagali (overalls) and Harry Gibson (second from right).
Looking completely exhausted after more than an hour’s racing, Peter takes the chequered flag to win the Australian title and the Harley Scramble in 1955. LEFT Peter on his 350 BSA leading Les Sheehan’s 500 AJS in the 1955 Australian Championships in Perth.
Peter Nicol with the editor at the 2018 Phillip Island Classic.
ABOVE Peter Nicol blasts past a very young Kel Carruthers at the 1956 Australian Scrambles Championship at Moorebank, Sydney.
ABOVE After winning the 350 Australian title at Moorebank in 1956.