Brian Collins Speedway and business
For Brian Collins, now a fit and healthy 83 year old, the path to becoming Sydney’s largest motorcycle dealer began with a simple decision. “I was 34, I was earning $100 a week and paying $21 in tax, and with eight children, we were living on the smell of
Brian was called up for National Service while still in his teens. “I was part of the 8th Intake for the RAF, stationed in Canberra. I can still remember riding a Triumph down there (from Sydney) on a Sunday night in the middle of winter. It was cold as hell”. After completing his service, Brian’s working life commenced behind the counter with Woolworths, but it was a very short space of time before he began a rapid climb up the company ladder to become a store manager at just 22 years of age. “To become a manager, it was necessary to
undertake a training scheme, and usually it took two years for juniors to complete the course and six months for seniors. I was 20 but I got onto the seniors course and by the time I was 22 I was managing a store. I’ve always maintained that Woolworths didn’t teach me anything, but I learned a bloody lot off Woolworths. At the time, every hundred potential managers they put on the scheme, 96 fell by the wayside. It was a tough, tough place. They had this mentality that the harder they thumped you, the better you are. It was their way of forcing you to be a company man.” He took up the first of six store manager positions with the company in Mosman (on Sydney’s lower north shore), although he lived clear across the other side of town at Sefton.
Backtracking just a little, there was one other interest in Brian’s life, or two actually; speedway and his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Betty. The interest in speedway stemmed from a visit around Christmas in 1946 to Cumberland Oval, which now lays beneath the behemoth that is Parramatta Football Stadium. He was immediately hooked, and began an achingly slow process to save the price of a speedway JAP, which he eventually purchased in 1952 for £125 from Dick Seers. At the age of 18, Brian made his speedway debut on 14th February 1953 at the Sydney Sports Ground, but it was a tough school and the machine was tired. Eventually he purchased a new frame from the 1952 Australian champion Keith Ryan and this turned his fortunes around – his first win came in December 1954. He never missed a meeting, riding at both the
Sydney Sports Ground and the neighbouring Showground as well as Cumberland Oval and Westmead, both at Parramatta, but he and Betty did find time to get married and escape for a short honeymoon aboard a Vincent Rapide with a Tilbrook sidecar, which was sold soon after. “I was madly trying to sell the bike, with babies coming and all that sort of thing, but got no takers, so I sold the Vincent to Col Crothers, who had several dealerships at Parramatta, for one hundred pounds. I think he sold it within a couple of days for one hundred and fifty pounds. I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I do that? This dealership idea must be a good idea’, so I stuck that in the back of my head.” In 1956 Brian took out the NSW Junior Championship – ‘Junior’ in the sense that it was a second-tier division and ferociously competitive. An invitation to join the London club Wimbledon followed but Brian was not tempted, preferring to continue his career with Woolworths and look after his increasing family commitments. In the Senior ranks, he racked up a string of top placings in the 3-lap NSW Championships and finally stood on the top step of the rostrum in 1960 when he defeated Scot Ken McKinlay at the Showground. Later in the season he also won the 4-lap Championship at Westmead. Such was his form at the big Sydney Showground, Brian was a regular member of the Australian side in the annual test matches against England, and in 1961 defeated former World Champion Jack Young and emerging New Zealander star Ivan Mauger to take a third NSW title. On his home track in 1965, he finished second to his close friend Bob Sharp in the Australian Championship. Amazingly, in a speedway career that spanned 15 years, he never raced outside New South Wales, and in an era of the sport that was desperately dangerous, he suffered no injuries, apart from bruised ribs when he was hit by a riderless bike. “I worked six days a week and had a large family to support – I couldn’t afford to hurt myself. I never had a day off work or a ride in an ambulance from speedway racing or motorcycling generally.” On 10th February, 1968, Brian had his last ride at the Sydney Showground. It was the end of a long and successful career, but the beginning of a whole new chapter in his life. “I wanted to get into a business of my own of some sort, and the Japanese bikes were coming in and there was this company in South Granville, McCulloch, so I went and saw them and said, ‘What’s the chance of getting a franchise?’. They asked where, and I said Parramatta. They replied, ‘Thank God for that. We’ve been trying to get into Parramatta but no one will go there because of Barry Ryan (the long established family business Ryan’s of Parramatta). So I found an ex-butcher’s shop at 8486 Church Street, just down the road from Ryan’s. There had been a fire and it was gutted, so I got into it with a few blokes and we did it all up and painted it and put mirrors on the walls, new lights and put carpet on the floor with a new shop front. The little
old lady that I rented it off, Mrs Snape, who lived in an old place a few doors away, was really worried and I promised her that if it didn’t work I would put it back the way it was! I had a few Woolies’ shares, sold them, got my holiday pay and my severance pay and went to the bank and borrowed $2,000 against our house. When I opened the shop in 1968 we were $300 in the red, we had eight kids, and I’d never sold a bike in my life. “As much as I had raced speedway and had motor bikes I am not a mechanic and really don’t know much about motorcycles. So we opened up and I sold 30 new Bridgestones in the first month, 29 the second month and 43 the third and 32 the fourth, so by the end of the first quarter I was the biggest Bridgestone dealer in the country and out-selling Barry Ryan two-to-one. McCulloch were very good to me, and they said to help me get started they would give me three months credit free, and on day 90 I walked in with a cheque for $17,193 and plonked it on the desk of Mr Ricks (McCulloch MD). We had been selling bikes through CAGA (Commercial and General Acceptance) finance for about four months and one day this bloke walks through the door and says ‘I’m sorry for being so late with this,’ and dumps this cheque on my desk for two or three thousand dollars. I said, ‘What’s this?’ and he said it was commission for all the business we had been putting through CAGA – I didn’t know we were getting commission! Then another bloke walked in the door – amazingly enough – the store manager at Woolworths in Mosman who had left when I took over – who was now working for Western Insurance, with a cheque for two or three grand for commission on the insurance policies we’d sold. I’d made more money in those six months than I did at Woolies in two years – I had money sticking out of my ears!” Then we dealers went to a meeting at the Sydney Showground, of all places, in the Rothmans Pavilion. McCullochs told us that Bridgestone was going out of the motorcycle business, and we’d only been in the game for seven or eight months so I thought, ‘Here we go’. But then they wheeled this Bridgestone out the door and wheeled this Yamaha in and said, ‘As of now you’re Yamaha dealers’. Sensing the Bridgestone move, McCulloch had gained the NSW Yamaha franchise from Tom Byrne, with an efficient dealer network already in place. So with a simple change of signage, Brian Collins Yamaha opened its doors in Parramatta and typically became a major player in a much larger and more competitive dealer network. So competitive, that soon Yamaha’s main rival was knocking on the door. “Honda weren’t going very well at all. Their dealer in Parramatta was Rolls Motors, a car dealer, and one day Stan Buckingham from (NSW Distributor) Bennett Honda walked in our door and said hello to everyone in his usual happy-go-lucky way, and after a bit of small talk he sat down and offered us the Honda dealership. In those days you couldn’t have Honda and Yamaha together, but fortunately Mrs Snape had an empty shop next door, so we rented that, renovated it and put Honda in there under the name of Parramatta Motor Cycles. My brother Dennis, who was also a Woolworths manager, left them and came to work for me.” With the two top brands, the sky was the limit for Brian Collins and his ever-expanding team. Brian formed a sponsorship alliance with Brian Hindle and with assistance from Yamaha, supplied him with a fleet of racers from 125 to 700cc on which the quiet Sydney chemist scored innumerable victories, including a famous win over Giacomo Agostini’s works MV Agusta at Oran Park. With the acquisition of the Honda franchise, Brian and Dennis entered a CB750K2 in the 1971 Castrol Six Hour Race, which was being broadcast live on ABC television for the first time. Riders Hindle and Clive Knight practiced at Amaroo Park almost daily in the lead up to the race, working out exactly how fast they would need to lap to reach the finish line first. It was a typically thorough operation, both in the pits and on the track. By half distance the team was two laps in front, with Hindle circulating with metronomic precision, conserving fuel and crucially, the rear tyre. At the chequered flag, the winning margin was three laps.
Brian kept in close contact with his former speedway rival Bob Sharp, a builder who carried out much of the renovation and construction work on the shops and later built a new house at nearby North Rocks for Brian and Betty and their large family which had reached the round figure of ten children.
“I’d made more money in those six months than I did at Woolies in two years – I had money sticking out of my ears!”
It was Sharp who came up with the idea of attempting an assault on Australian Land Speed Records on Lake Lefroy in Western Australia – a salt flat near Kalgoorlie, 51 kilometres long and 19 km wide. Sharp had his twin-engined Triumph dragster on which he aimed to break 200 mph, and with some support from CAGA, Yamaha and TAA, Collins assembled a squad of three Yamahas for Hindle, plus a 50cc Yamaha built from a JT1 mini bike for himself. Sharp was aiming to better the World Flying Kilometre record of 293.92 km/h, and in the process, beat Jack Forrest’s Australian mark of 238.51 km/h, set on a 500cc BMW way back in 1957 on a narrow, bumpy country road near Coonabarabran. As it turned out, Sharp’s Triumph gave all sorts of trouble and he failed to complete a run. Hindle, on the other hand, gathered records from 125cc up, and in the final moments of the third and final day on the 350, managed to narrowly eclipse Forrest’s time with an average run of 240.48 km/h. Aboard the tiny 50cc streamliner, Collins himself gathered a clutch of new records in the 50, 75 and 100cc classes.
Back in the real world, Collins continued to expand his motorcycle dealership empire, building a new showroom at Kingswood to add to the Parramatta stores, another at Penrith, and a replica of the Parramatta showroom at Blacktown – in motorcycling terms, he controlled the entire western area of Sydney with its burgeoning population. With son Mark at the helm, another store and a wrecking business was established in Dubbo in central western New South Wales. A former Holden showroom at Kingswood was also acquired with a plan to sell Honda cars from the site.
Collins’ approach to selling motorcycles revolutionised the business, at least in New South Wales. For generations, motorcycle shops had been dingy, dirty places with little thought as to presentation, and even less to customer satisfaction. All the Collins dealerships were bright, airy places, with carpeted floors and facilities to encourage customers to relish the experience. An example of his ingenuity and sense of timing was the opening in 1972 of the somewhat curiously named Trail Pad as part of the Parramatta complex. Trail bikes were booming and Collins saw the dual-purpose machines as a segment in its own right, with an identifiable customer profile. For the official opening, he sent invitations to local and state government officials as well as radio and television personalities, with the Mayor of Parramatta present and the NSW Minister for Transport, the Hon. Peter Cox MP performing the opening ceremony. “In our biggest month, we sold around 450 new and used motorcycles from the dealerships. My sons Peter, John and Mark all worked in various shops at some stage, and John moved to Nerang in Queensland where he opened his own Yamaha shop.” But the economic climate was changing, and a defining moment came in 1983 with the devaluation of the Australian dollar by the Hawke Labor government, and the subsequent floating of the currency. Interest rates soared, real wages dropped, and for businesses like the Collins chain of motorcycle dealerships with mortgages and bank loans to service, it was a crippling blow. A major
setback occurred when the promised supply of new Honda cars failed to materialise, forcing Collins into immediate action with his St. Marys site. “I had been promised at least 15 cars a month by Honda and went ahead on this basis. For reasons I won’t go into, all I got was one Honda car a week, and combined with the economic situation it was a disaster. I owed the bank $65o,000. Across the road from our site was a McDonalds which was doing great business, so I rang up Pizza Hut and told them I had the perfect site for them – highway frontage, perfect entry and exit access, an established precinct for fast-food customers and so on. I told them I wanted $650,000, take it or leave it. They were initially sceptical but came out for a look and decided immediately to buy it. But closing everything down wasn’t easy. I had around one hundred people working for me and I was determined to look after them. They had worked hard for me and had their own families to provide for. So even though I had decided to get out of the business, it took longer than it should have, all of which cost me a considerable amount of money. I was 65 by the time I closed the last shop in 1999, so it was time to go.” When Brian Collins got into the motorcycle game, bikes had no formal organisation in the motor trade. Some retailers were members of the Moto Traders Association, but the wages and conditions awards applied only to the car trade. With prompting from the MTA president Don Holstock, Brian set up the Motorcycle Dealers Section and remained its chairman for 18 years. He eventually became Metropolitan Vice President with a seat on the council, which he held for six years. There were also no rules as to used motorcycle warranties, and when the Federal government created the Consumer Affairs Department, Brian was asked to look after the motorcycle side. He put in place all the systems and infrastructure which served the interests of both consumers and dealers. “I designed it the way I thought it should be, basically for my own business, but I thought if it worked for me then it would work for everyone,” he says on reflection. He was also instrumental in looking after motorcycle interests on the Motor Vehicle Repair Industry Council – all these positions served while he was running his own extensive business chain. Following his retirement, Brian and Betty have busied themselves with their family, which now extends to more than 30 grandchildren. Son Mark also carved out a name for himself in the same field that had made his father famous – speedway. Initially as a solo rider, Mark emulated his father by becoming NSW Junior Champion, as well as NSW Under 21 Champion, both in 1979, and raced in the British League from 1980 to 1982. He later switched to Go Karts, then to Compact Speedcars, winning the state title in 2000, and then to full-on Speedcars, winning a 20-lap Feature at Parramatta City Raceway – a feat not achieved by many drivers in their career. He went on to serve as Chief Steward at Parramatta City Raceway from 2005 – 2007.
Today Brian maintains the active lifestyle that has kept him fit and healthy. “I was 10 stone 2 when I left National Service and I am still ten stone two.” As a competitor he was dedicated and determined, but also conscious of the need to stay injury-free to meet his family and work commitments. As a businessman, he brought a new level of sophistication to the motorcycle industry. And for a man who was for a considerable time the largest motorcycle dealer in Sydney, with a Rolls Royce to get him about, he is remarkably comfortable these days driving a well-travelled Toyota Avalon. “A relative of mine was a cabbie and put 1.7 million kilometres on one of these cars, so I thought that’ll do me. I suppose I should get rid of it and get something else, but it does everything I need very well.”
Bob Sharp on his twin-engined Triumph prior to the Lake Lefroy record attempts. Dennis Collins, Clive Knight and Bryan Hindle after winning the 1971 Castrol Six Hour Race at Amaroo Park.
LEFT On his Brian Collins sponsored Yamahas, Bryan Hindle was the man to beat in the early ‘seventies. ABOVE Bryan Hindle and team at Lake Lefroy, with the TR2-B Yamaha on which he broke Jack Forrest’s Australian Land Speed record.
‘Collins Corner’ the last of the Parramatta showrooms. Inside the Trail Pad – a unique and timely venture opened in 1972.
Brian Collins at the Cumberland Oval track in Parramatta. LEFT Brian receiving the NSW Championship trophy from ACU steward Harry Bartrop.
A formidable trio; Bob Sharp, Brian Collins and Jim Airey, come up to the tapes at the Sydney Showground.
Addressing the fans after another win.
Brian in his Parramatta dealership.
ABOVE A young Brian Collins in his immaculate black leathers. RIGHT A model of concentration at the Sydney Showground, where he won two NSW Championships.
Brian and Betty Collins, 2017.