Leather versus lace
For many years, riders across Australia had pointed to the overseas example whereby competitors on The Continent could race in rugbystyle jerseys, often in the colour of their country. In the annual Moto Cross des Nations contests, at least from 1951 onwards, Great Britain wore white jerseys, Belgium yellow, France blue and so on. Across in Britain, the favoured garb was ex-army or RAF linen jackets, although others chose rugby tops, gabardine or leather jackets, or even heavy woollen shirts of the type worn by farmers. Motocross, or scrambling on 300lb motorcycles was hard and sweaty work. Out in the Antipodes, the situation was quite different. Pre and post-war, the regulations stated that scrambles riders wear leather jackets and leather britches, regardless of the weather or season. In a climate such as ours, this was not a universally popular ruling, and some riders chose to defy the rule in favour of lighter clothing. Gradually, the rule requiring leather jackets was relaxed – in every state except Victoria. Here, the rules were enforced by the dedicated but exasperatingly punctilious Reginald Bennett, president of the Auto Cycle Union of Victoria.
Despite the fact that many states, notably New South Wales and Queensland, had turned a blind eye to the regulations governing clothing used in scrambles and allowed colourful rugby jerseys to be worn, Victoria stood fast. “If it was good enough for grandad in the ‘thirties, it is good enough for the scrambler of the ‘sixties”, was the prevailing attitude. Things came to a head at the Australian Scrambles Championship held at Arthur’s Creek, Victoria in 1960. Being a national title, the overall control was in the hands of the Auto Cycle Council of Australia (ACCA) rather than the ACU of Victoria, but when the interstate riders turned up in their footie tops they were told by the controlling officials that the outfits were illegal. Cotton, or even worse, man-made fabrics such as nylon, constituted a fire hazard, the ACU argued. Not surprisingly, a standoff developed between competitors and the officials in their universal white dustcoats with felt ACU arm bands. In the end, the visitors raced at Arthur’s Creek in fabric rather than leather, and no one was injured or burned to death. The chances of anything catching fire that day in a thoroughly waterlogged paddock were slim indeed. Certain Victorians implored their controlling body to have the leather-top rule thrown out in favour of more sensible garments, but the top brass was unmoved, and made the statement that anyone breaking the rule would be subject to severe disciplinary action. Things came to a head when Preston Club tabled a motion at the March, 1963 meeting of the ACU of Victoria, moving that “Victorian riders be given the option of using jerseys or leathers as in other states”. In a rowdy discussion, all other delegates voted against the motion, despite evidence being tabled that top riders in UK chose to race in jerseys. Answering that comment, vice president Harry Lowe said, “The Pommies can do what they like; out here we decide for ourselves!” A St. Johns Ambulance representative stated that his organisation treated some 500 racing accident cases per year, but 95 per cent were of a minor nature and the overwhelming majority were hand injuries, yet gloves were not compulsory. The seeds of unrest continued to ferment until the beginning of the 1964 season. At the opening of a new circuit at Eltham, 17 miles from Melbourne, the organising Harley Club was confronted with a delegation of over 50 riders demanding an end to the leather era. A spokesman for the riders stated that “it was the accepted practice in scramble racing overseas and was permitted in every other State of the Commonwealth except Victoria.” It was further pointed out that two weeks prior, at the Grand National Scramble at Christmas Hills, interstate riders Graeme Bartholomew and Paul Spooner (NSW), and South Australians Jim Dowsett, Graham Burford and Dave Basham were permitted to race in rugby tops. “No deal”, said the ACU Stewart, Mr John Thompson. He made the statement that he regarded the meeting (of riders) as a ‘strike’ and that riders would did not start in the races for which they were entered would be fined. Mr Reg Bennett further stated that unless the meeting started on time it would be cancelled, however he conceded that the matter would be debated at the ACU meeting the following month. When the June 10 meeting rolled around, not only did the promised discussion not take place, but the report tabled by Mr Thompson called for five riders to face disciplinary action as a result of their ‘protest’ at Eltham. Meanwhile, the editor of the Australian
Motor Cycle News fortnightly paper, George Lynn, had collected in excess of 100 signatures from riders wanting jerseys to be permitted (as well as two against the move). Soon after, a motion from the ACU of NSW was tabled, requiring the matter to be discussed at the annual ACCA conference, which for 1964 would take place in August in Perth. Just to rub salt into the Victorian wound, the NSW Open Scramble at Moorebank in July featured an ‘Interstate Challenge Round” with teams from Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales, where all riders wore coloured jerseys. Three weeks later, the ACU of Victoria, unmoved by the Moorebank snub, voted to suspend four riders as a result of the Eltham ‘protest’. John Burrows, Keith Stacker, Mark Green and John Stanley all copped three months on the sidelines for “conduct prejudicial to the sport”. Stanley immediately launched an appeal to the ACCA against the suspensions.
It was fuel for anarchy, but fortunately, at the ACCA conference in Perth, common sense finally prevailed. The majority of delegates from the seven states and territories voted in favour (only Victoria voted against) a motion to allow scrambles riders throughout Australia to “wear jumpers if they choose as an alternative to leathers”. The appeal by John Stanley from Hartwell Club was the subject of a three-hour discussion which finally upheld the appeal. It was also decided that the procedure adopted by Victoria in arriving at its decision to suspend the four riders was incorrect. Interestingly, the conference also made the wearing of gloves in road races compulsory, ending a near universal practice (in Australia) of racing in bare hands. And so ended the Great Jumper War, leading to an explosion of colour at Victorian race meetings, with nary an example of spontaneous combustion involving a jersey reported thereafter.
In ex-army top, BSA works rider Phil Nex (who later emigrated to Australia) leads AJS rider Geoff Ward in the 1956 Sunbeam Pointto-Point Scramble in England.
West Australian riders in their matching tops at Moorebabk in 1956. From left, Peter Nicol, Charlie West, Don Russell and Ron Gill.
The British team in their jerseys at the 1956 Moto Cross des Nations at Namur, Belgium.
ABOVE World Champion Geoff Duke (right) sports regulation attire at a scramble at Springvale, Victoria in 1955.
Victorian and Australian Champion George Bailey with the required leather jacket in 1956.
BELOW Reg Bennett (in hat) on the lookout for illegal jerseys at Christmas Hills.
Leather tops finally discarded, happy Victorians line up at Christmas Hills in 1965. Riders include Bob Mitchell (88), Ken Rumble (99), Geoff Taylor (14), John Mapperson (32) and John Burrows (96).
ABOVE Sydney-born Kiwi Tim Gibbes wears an ACU-stamped jersey, while fellow ANZAC Charlie West opts for leathers at a British scramble in 1963. ABOVE CENTRE Bob Mitchell models the Victoria-only leather scrambles garb at Campbellfield in 1962. ABOVE...