Len Atlee

Quite a ca­reer

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS - Story Chris Sim Pho­tos Atlee ar­chives, OBA ar­chives, Rob Lewis, Bill Forsyth

Al­though some­what un­set­tled by lurid main­stream press re­ports of off-track ac­tiv­i­ties at the event, they nonethe­less gin­gerly en­tered the wider world of mo­tor­cy­cling. They quickly learnt that the sto­ries of ram­pag­ing bikies were some­what ex­ag­ger­ated, and by far the most riv­et­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was the sight and sound of rac­ing mo­tor­cy­cles har­ing down the moun­tain, ac­cel­er­at­ing out of the Dip­per and then brak­ing hard for For­rest’s El­bow. Two ma­chines stood out for their sound, the high-revving 125cc Honda CR93 DOHC twin of John War­rian and a much big­ger ma­chine which bore the mys­te­ri­ous name of Eelta. This was a 4 cylin­der Mazda 800 car-en­gined spe­cial con­ceived and con­structed by a bloke named Len Atlee, and the four-piped Eelta (the re­verse of Atlee) was an­tic­i­pated and savoured each lap it came by. The lads were to see a lot more of Len in the en­su­ing years, rac­ing all man­ner of bikes, large and small, at race­tracks around the coun­try, usu­ally con­test­ing the lead with the likes of Ron Toombs, Bryan Hin­dle, Jack Ahearn, Bill Hors­man, Ken Blake, Kevin Cass, John War­rian, the Hin­ton broth­ers, Gregg Hans­ford, War­ren Will­ing, the Sayle broth­ers, Keo and Rob Mad­den, Les Kenny, Garry Thomas, Tony Hat­ton and oth­ers. The Eelta didn’t ul­ti­mately prove to be a gi­ant killer, and like many an­tipodean spe­cials, it was killed off by the ar­rival of over-the-counter pukka rac­ing mod­els from Ja­pan ca­pa­ble of win­ning Open class events; the likes of the 350cc TR2 Yamaha and its ever-im­prov­ing de­riv­a­tives, or the H1R Kawasaki. Len quickly ob­tained a TR2, and with sev­eral years of two stroke rac­ing un­der his belt in the 125 and 250 classes, on Clem Daniel’s CSD and a Cot­ton re­spec­tively, had no trou­ble adapt­ing to the larger two strokes. One no­table re­sult on the Cot­ton was a 6th in the Ul­ster GP, dur­ing Len’s 1966 and 1967 cam­paigns con­test­ing the Con­ti­nen­tal Cir­cus, the trail of World

To­wards the end of the 1960s, a group of cal­low youths from the south of Syd­ney, though some­what in­tim­i­dated by the sto­ries they’d heard, de­cided to take the plunge and ride their shiny new Ja­panese 250s to the Bathurst mo­tor­cy­cle races.

Cham­pi­onship Grands Prix and other money-spin­ning events around Europe. An ac­com­plished A grade dirt-tracker be­fore con­cen­trat­ing on road rac­ing from the early 1960s, Len was born in 1943 and spent his child­hood in Syd­ney’s south western sub­urb of Can­ley Vale, near Liver­pool, where pad­docks and open spa­ces abounded in an area yet to un­dergo the waves of im­mi­gra­tion, ur­ban­i­sa­tion, and so­cial changes that were to fol­low. Back then, Len and his neigh­bour­hood friends made tracks in the am­ple va­cant land, ini­tially mod­i­fy­ing their bi­cy­cles for jump­ing and slid­ing, pop­u­larly known as `skid-kids`, be­fore grad­u­at­ing to old un­reg­is­tered mo­tor­bikes as they hit their teens. Twelve-year-old Len had a sem­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence in 1955 when he trav­elled with his fa­ther and un­cles to Bathurst in an old Wolse­ley, where they wit­nessed Harry Hin­ton Se­nior’s last hur­rah, beat­ing New Zealand in­ter­na­tional Rod Cole­man in the Aus­tralian Se­nior TT. Young Len dreamed of try­ing his hand at rac­ing one

day, and as soon as he was old enough in 1959, joined South­ern Districts Mo­tor­cy­cle Club and ob­tained his com­pe­ti­tion li­cence. He be­gan dirt-track­ing, then called short cir­cuit rac­ing, on his con­verted pad­dock bike, a BSA sin­gle. Early ex­pe­ri­ence was gained at the South­ern Districts Club’s prac­tice track near Cross­roads Ho­tel, a wa­ter­ing hole which later be­came pop­u­lar with pun­ters re­turn­ing from Oran Park when it opened in 1962. As an aside, the first Oran Park meet­ing for bikes was 17th Feb 1963, mem­o­rable for Len as he fin­ished third in the fea­ture race on his Nor­ton, the win­ner be­ing no less than multi world cham­pion Jim Red­man on a works Honda. An­other dirt venue young Len tried was at Boss­ley Park, but it and the Cross­roads track were closed by the po­lice un­der the in­fa­mous NSW Speed­ways Act. This meant that for a short time un­til the Ne­pean track opened in Syd­ney’s north west, Len and new club­mates like Jim Airey, Gor­don Guasco (both on BSA sin­gles) and John Dodds (Ve­lo­cette) had to travel fur­ther afield, to Hunter district cir­cuits at Hed­don Greta, Salty Creek and Muswell­brook, or to the south, at Goul­burn’s Box­ers Creek and Can­berra’s Mount Ginn. Small won­der Len ended up one of the quick boys with club­mates of that cal­i­bre to keep up with! Len’s mount at this time was a 350cc B31 BSA, ini­tially mod­i­fied with as­sis­tance from his fa­ther, but as Len pro­gressed through his mo­tor me­chan­ics ap­pren­tice­ship with McGrath Holden Liver­pool, he be­came in­creas­ingly more adept with mat­ters me­chan­i­cal. He pur­chased the nec­es­sary sec­ond hand parts from Jack Adams Mo­tor­cy­cles Liver­pool to con­vert the BSA to a swing­ing arm rear end. He also de­vel­oped a 350 racer us­ing a two stroke Jawa mo­tor. Len be­came an A grade dirt-tracker by the age of 18, the state’s youngest at the time.

When Ne­pean short cir­cuit track opened, the well thought out mix of left and right bends of vary­ing radii proved an ex­cel­lent train­ing ground for count­less fu­ture A grade dirt rid­ers, many of whom ap­plied these skills to road rac­ing. When Jim and Gor­don started speed­way, Len also tried his hand at the Kem­bla Grange cir­cuit, and re­calls be­ing on the track at the same time as Aub Law­son, then well into his 40s but still rid­ing as if in his prime. Len’s girl­friend Jill talked him out of pur­su­ing speed­way, but Len en­joyed watch­ing his pals Jim and Gor­don de­velop glit­ter­ing ca­reers, first lo­cally, then in­ter­na­tion­ally. Len and John Dodds fo­cussed their at­ten­tion on achiev­ing sim­i­lar recog­ni­tion at road rac­ing. Len worked his way through the ranks at McGraths to ser­vice ad­min­is­tra­tion, then branched into sales. In 1964 the com­pany lent him a new EH Holden for his hon­ey­moon get­away with Jill. He parted com­pany with the firm af­ter a 1965 Catalina Park ac­ci­dent saw him laid up for a time, but this didn’t re­tard his progress through the road-rac­ing ranks for long. He was by now mak­ing his mark on a brace of Manx Nor­tons, 350 and 500, and ob­tained spon­sor­ship from Don McMil­lan who was also a spon­sor of Jack Ahearn. One of the Nor­tons ended up in a sorry state af­ter catch­ing fire fol­low­ing a crash at Bathurst’s McPhillamy Park. Len re­ceived a 250 Cot­ton from Barry Ryan, a mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing stal­wart who greatly as­sisted Len (and many oth­ers) through­out his

ca­reer. Good mate John Dodds also rode a Cot­ton owned by Wol­lon­gong’s Jeff Martin. They had no chance against Kel Car­ruthers’ ex-works 250 Honda 4 but they scored a num­ber of good re­sults scrap­ping with other A graders for the run­ner-up spot. Len’s progress through the ranks is re­flected in his Bathurst re­sults – 3rd Ju­nior B and 1st Un­lim­ited B 1963 on a Nor­ton pur­chased from MCRC’s Bruce Rands, 2nd Un­lim­ited B 1964 on Don McMil­lan’s Nor­ton (which was timed at 135mph down Con­rod, the fastest for the meet­ing), 5th Un­lim­ited TT at Bathurst 1965 on the Nor­ton. Now both A grade in road rac­ing, Len and John set their sights on Europe for the 1966 sea­son. On ar­rival in Lon­don, Len and Jill ini­tially stayed with Kevin and Vir­ginia Cass. The new­com­ers had ar­rived smack in the mid­dle of a golden era of world cham­pi­onship ri­valry among Ja­panese and Euro­pean man­u­fac­tur­ers, with works ex­ot­ica like twin cylin­der 50s from Honda and Suzuki, four and five cylin­der 125s from Yamaha and Honda against the rapid Suzuki twin, four and six cylin­der Yamaha and Honda 250s, as well as fac­tory MVs, MZs and Benel­lis. Rid­ing a 500 Nor­ton and a 250 Cot­ton, Len wit­nessed the sights and sounds of the Grand Prix cir­cus up close. A high­light for Len was 6th in the 250 Ul­ster GP on the Cot­ton, a race which saw an un­usual tri­fecta of Bul­ta­cos on the ros­trum af­ter the works Hon­das and Yama­has all failed to fin­ish. Kiwi Gin­ger Molloy won and Len’s old spar­ring part­ner from Aussie rac­ing Kevin Cass was third. Len missed a cer­tain 4th in the Bel­gian 500 GP at Spa when his Nor­ton fal­tered and dropped him to tenth in a race won by Agostini, with Jack Ahearn in 3rd. Len re­calls Kel Car­ruthers re­tir­ing from this race af­ter hit­ting a bird at full speed.

The Isle of Man was a must-try ex­pe­ri­ence for an Aussie abroad in that era, and was then the Bri­tish round of the world cham­pi­onship. Len gained a bronze replica that year, fin­ish­ing 21st in his de­but on the 500 Nor­ton. The fol­low­ing year he fin­ished 25th but gained a sil­ver replica due to the higher aver­age speed. He fol­lowed the ad­vice of old hands like Jack Ahearn on the long and de­mand­ing cir­cuit – “just ride it like you’re run­ning late for work”. This didn’t pre­vent him from be­ing elec­tron­i­cally timed at 137mph on the fastest part of the cir­cuit, a tidy speed for a Nor­ton. An­other high­light was leading the Hutchin­son 100, the fa­mous re­verse di­rec­tion race at Brands Hatch against all the crack Bri­tish short cir­cuit scratch­ers un­til side­lined by me­chan­i­cal trou­ble.

Af­ter a year sam­pling the sights and race cir­cuits of Europe, Len and Jill de­cided to set­tle back in Syd­ney in late 1966, while John Dodds stayed be­hind to en­joy an ever-bur­geon­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a top-line cam­paigner. Back home, Len re­newed his re­la­tion­ship with Clem Daniel, hav­ing tried Clem’s MV four stroke sin­gle be­fore he went away. In the in­terim, Clem’s CSD two stroke had be­come very com­pet­i­tive and Len was of­fered the ride. Not a small bloke, Len did not have the ideal build for 125 rac­ing, but he was im­me­di­ately com­pet­i­tive on the CSD in a class that was then a hot­bed of tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion con­tested by many of the leading rid­ers from the larger ca­pac­ity classes, very dif­fer­ent to to­day. For the big­ger classes, Len felt the Manx Nor­ton was get­ting a bit long in the tooth and took a step into left field with his home-built Eelta, though not be­fore hav­ing a one-off ride at Oran Park on the leg­endary Hen­der­son Match­less, af­ter reg­u­lar rider Ron Toombs dis­lo­cated his shoul­der at Lake­side. Per­haps in­spired by the au­ral de­lights of the pre­mier class multi cylin­der four strokes he’d wit­nessed in Europe, Len built the Eelta af­ter he’d no­ticed the com­pact­ness of the 800cc Mazda `blue mo­tor’ that pow­ered the Bongo van and a small sedan dur­ing his work in the auto in­dus­try. At the time, mass-pro­duced four-cylin­der mo­tor­cy­cle en­gines like that of the forth­com­ing Honda CB750 were un­known. Len’s me­chan­i­cal trade back­ground en­abled him to in­stall the mo­tor east-west in the Featherbed frame of the Manx Nor­ton he’d been cam­paign­ing. He fab­ri­cated suit­able mount­ing plates and ran a Manx Nor­ton gear­box chain-driven from the Mazda jack-shaft. While it didn’t be­come a world beater, with Len ex­pe­ri­enc­ing var­i­ous teething trou­bles such as oil feed is­sues with the crankshaft, it was an in­ter­est­ing en­gi­neer­ing chal­lenge and cer­tainly en­ter­tained the crowds at Bathurst, Catalina Park, Oran Park and Phillip Is­land with its four sep­a­rate mega­phone ex­hausts. The Eelta was one of the last in a long line of An­tipodean spe­cials trac­ing back to the likes of Art Se­nior’s Ariel, var­i­ous Vin­cent spe­cials such as that cam­paigned by Eric Debenham, the Hen­der­son Match­less, Mark Walker’s MW Spe­cial, and John

War­rian’s Transac, which were made re­dun­dant by the ready avail­abil­ity of over-the-counter larger ca­pac­ity racers from Ja­pan, cul­mi­nat­ing in the TZ700/750 Yamaha and RG500 Suzuki mod­els. Dur­ing this pe­riod Len also dab­bled in car rac­ing, while he was work­ing for Louie’s Mo­tors who were Chrysler agents.

Len’s se­quence of 350 Yamaha twins, first the air­cooled TR2 and TR3, then the wa­ter-cooled TZ mod­els, were mostly self-bought, though he did, how­ever, re­ceive spon­sor­ships from Pye Elec­tri­cal on the sug­ges­tion of the Blanco broth­ers, Alan and Emanuel, as well as from ra­dio sta­tion 2SM and Stud Cola. Len con­tin­ued to be a force on Clem Daniel’s 125, but the sin­gle be­gan to be out­paced by the new Yamaha twin rid­den by Ron Toombs. Thus Clem de­vel­oped his own twin, based on the AS1 Yamaha, for which he even­tu­ally cast his own wa­ter-cooled cylin­ders. Clem also con­structed an amaz­ing dou­bled-up (air-cooled) ver­sion, a 250/4! Len had one win on it, at Calder, on what was cer­tainly a fas­ci­nat­ing en­gi­neer­ing ex­er­cise if not an ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful jig­ger. Through­out this pe­riod, Len was in­volved with the A Grade Rid­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, which en­deav­oured to im­prove the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of road rac­ing to the point of boy­cotting cer­tain meet­ings that didn’t come up to scratch in terms of prize money, safety, and other is­sues. Len and oth­ers had lob­bied for a mul­tiround Aus­tralian cham­pi­onship se­ries and when this came to fruition in 1973, Len won the 125 ti­tle on the CSD, to go with the pre­vi­ous year’s Aus­tralian 125 ti­tle cap­tured at Bathurst, and the Un­lim­ited and 250 na­tional ti­tles of 1971. An­other in­no­va­tion at this time was the Trans-Tas­man match races, pit­ting the best rid­ers from New Zealand against an Aus­tralian team at Ama­roo Park on more than one oc­ca­sion in the early 1970s. Len was one of the first picked in the home team, against the likes of Ge­off Perry, Gin­ger Molloy, Dale Wylie, Trevor Dis­combe and Neville Lan­drebe from across the ditch. When For­mula 750 rac­ing ar­rived, Len once again used his en­gi­neer­ing skills to build a fully-faired Kawasaki racer based on the H2 three cylin­der two stroke, sup­plied by Ryans of Par­ra­matta. Vi­bra­tion was coun­tered by rub­ber-mount­ing the en­gine. Sub­se­quently Len ob­tained a ride on a class-leading TZ700 four cylin­der Yamaha, later con­verted to a 750. He also threw his leg over a Nor­ton Com­mando Su­per­bike and won a heav­ily pro­moted Ch­ester­field Su­per­bike Se­ries con­ducted over sev­eral rounds at Ama­roo Park. Len proved a dab hand at en­durance rac­ing, first tast­ing this form of com­pe­ti­tion in the six hour dirt race at Ne­pean on a Bridge­stone 90 shared with Perce Howard. Al­though Len won the Ade­laide Ad­ver­tiser Three Hour race at Vir­ginia Race­way on a Du­cati shared with Tony Hat­ton, it was at Ama­roo Park’s Cas­trol Six hour Race that he left his mark. Len and Bryan Hin­dle won the ini­tial run­ning of the leg­endary event on a Tri­umph Bon­neville which had not been ex­pected to de­feat the all-con­quer­ing Honda CB750 of the time. Over the next decade, Len rode quite a va­ri­ety of ma­chines in the Six Hour, stay­ing Bri­tish in the years 1971-1973 on the Ryan’s Mo­tor­cy­cles Nor­ton Com­mando, and was un­lucky not to win in 1972 shar­ing with Bill Dil­low. For 1974, Len went with the strength on a Kawasaki 900 shared with Ken Blake and pulled off his sec­ond out­right win. In 1975 he re­verted to Bri­tish iron again, team­ing with Rob Hin­ton on a 750 Tri­umph Tri­dent but struck trou­ble and fin­ished down the field. Len fin­ished 7th in 1976 rid­ing a 900 Kawasaki with Garry Thomas, 9th in the 750 class on an XS750 Yamaha with Michael Streeter in 1977, 9th with Garry Thomas in 1978 on an XS1100 Yamaha, and 3rd with Gary Cole­man in 1979 on the XS1100 again. In his last Six Hour, 1980, again on the XS1100 Yamaha, Len fin­ished third with all-rounder Steve Gall, only to be disqual­i­fied when it was dis­cov­ered Gall had en­tered an in­ter­state mo­tocross event on the same day. Len also rode en­durance races in New Zealand, at Man­field and Pukekoe, win­ning the 750 class of the NZ Six Hour, with Mike Steele. Af­ter twenty years of rac­ing on dirt and tar on a va­ri­ety of ma­chin­ery few rid­ers could match, Len hung up his leathers, age 37. For a while, he tried his hand at run­ning a mo­tor­cy­cle rid­ing school at Ama­roo Park, aimed at im­prov­ing road safety for beginners and ex­pe­ri­enced rid­ers alike, with star rider Paul Feeney a no­table grad­u­ate. The ap­ple didn’t fall far from the tree when Len’s son Marty be­came a leading rider in the 1990s. To­day Marty works with Len in the fam­ily’s flour­ish­ing fi­bre­glass busi­ness at Moore­bank, one of their spe­cial­i­ties be­ing Zo­diac ship-to-shore land­ing craft as seen in the Pa­trol Boat tele­vi­sion se­ries. At Easter 2014, Len pulled on his leathers again (ac­tu­ally those of his son, Marty) to ride a replica of the 1970 Cas­trol Six Hour-win­ning Tri­umph Bon­neville at the Pen­rite Broad­ford Bo­nanza – the first time he had been on a mo­tor­cy­cle in more than 30 years.

MAIN Dic­ing with Ron An­gel (5) at Oran Park in 1968, both Manx Nor­ton mounted. TOP LEFT While work­ing for Chrysler agents Louie’s Mo­tors, Len got the op­por­tu­nity to try car rac­ing in a Hill­man Hunter, seen here at Oran Park. TOP CEN­TRE At Sandown Park...

ABOVE Bryan Hin­dle, Barry Ryan and Len af­ter win­ning the in­au­gu­ral Cas­trol 1000 (Six Hour) in 1970. LEFT On the Nor­ton Com­mando he shared with Mike Steele in the 1971 Cas­trol Six Hour.

A fa­mous photo by Rob Lewis show­ing Len ex­it­ing the sad­dle of his 350 Yamaha in 1971, much to the an­guish of closely-fol­low­ing John Ma­her.

Learn­ing the hard way. Len bites the dust at a Short Cir­cuit meet­ing at Hed­don Greta.

TOP With Jill at the Muswell­brook Short Cir­cuit. ABOVE Len (left) with great mate Gor­don Gausco at a ‘six­ties Short Cir­cuit meet­ing. BE­LOW Re­cently re­turned from a two-year stint in Europe, Len re­sumed win­ning ways at home, seen here on his Cot­ton at...

ABOVE Cap­ping a great year in 1973, Len with the spoils af­ter win­ning the Oran Park round of the Pan Pa­cific Tro­phy. ABOVE RIGHT Len with his 500 Nor­ton and 250 Cot­ton at a Bri­tish meet­ing in 1966. RIGHT Con­test­ing the 1975 Ch­ester­field Su­per­bike...

FAR RIGHT Back on the track. Len rides a replica of his win­ning Bon­neville in the Cas­trol Six Hour Trib­ute at the 2014 Pen­rite Broad­ford Bo­nanza. BE­LOW Al­though not the ideal build for a 125, Len scored plenty of wins on Clem Daniel’s CSD, seen here at...

LEFT On the 850 Nor­ton he shared with Bill Dil­low in the 1972 Cas­trol Six Hour. BE­LOW LEFT Fi­nal fling. Len in his last race, the 1980 Cas­trol Six Hour where he teamed with Stephen Gall to fin­ish third. BOT­TOM LEFT With friend and of­ten team mate Mike...

Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Fraser greets Len at the Aus­tralian TT at Laver­ton Air Base in 1976.

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