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Not Forgotten – Tony McAlpine | COLUMNS | GASSIT GARAGE

An amalgam of enduro and motard, his riding technique proved perfect for the times

Barely two weeks after his 16th birthday, Tony McAlpine wrapped up the 1937 NSW Motor Cycling Championship on a BSA 500. It is therefore logical to contemplate how a 15-year-old acquired an expensive motorcycle, a full set of leathers and managed to obtain his racing licence, particularly when his conservative ‘working class’ parents were hardly supportive.

The picture becomes clearer when you learn that Tony’s grandfather was for 13 years Mayor of Fairfield, which was then a small agricultural community 30km west of Sydney, and that Tony’s second motorcycle was a brand new BSA Gold Star – a gift from Mayor Anthony McAlpine.

IOM 1951 on the AJS 350 ‘Boy Racer’

According to local newspaper The Biz, Tony junior was a strong, good-looking young bloke, alternately known as ‘The Boy Wonder’ and ‘The Handicapper’s Nightmare’.

He had already built a fan base at the local Whynstanes circuit with riding that demonstrated a “magnificent turn of speed and cornering”.

His style caused one journo to report: “Never have I seen a TT rider ‘dirt tracking’ corners as McAlpine did… scorning the use of brakes and on a full lock slide using first one footrest then the other to slacken his speed…”

McAlpine displays his dirt track style

Regardless of surface, McAlpine was the master of rear-wheel steer and the two-wheel drift.

The Boy Wonder tag stuck. Though the handicappers often placed him in a position where, according to The Biz, his chances were “Buckleys and none”, he was soon mixing it with established stars such as Art Senior and Harry Hinton.

Only speedway racing survived during the war years and Tony had a few tentative outings before taking up duties with the Australian Air Force. His experience fettling race machines secured the position of Sergeant in command of the motorcycle workshop, though by 1945, when he made his first race appearance in four years at the Sydney Sportsground, the Sergeant’s stripes had been replaced by three Captain’s pips on each epaulet.

At the Nurburgring in 1955 on a Rennsport BMW

Demobbed, Tony was quick to return to the track and in 1949 he imported a Vincent Black Shadow, a V-twin ideally suited to his considerable bulk. In short order he won both the NSW and Queensland Unlimited TT events and the Victorian Grand Prix, then on Boxing Day Tony and his Vincent outpowered Hinton’s Norton to win the Australian TT.

Tony continued to prove indomitable with wins at Ballarat, Mount Druitt, Fishermans Bend and Lowood. With the exception of Bathurst, where the Vincent threw its chain, Tony won every unlimited event during 1950 and was acknowledged as Australia’s champion road racer.

It was therefore Tony who promoters turned to when seeking a headline spectacle. First he was pitted against Frank Kleinig’s Hudson Hornet in a bike-versus-car match race at Mount Druitt. In a similar event later that year at Ballarat, the press reported how Tony had the “40,000 spectators on their toes as he leapt out of the treacherous corners with his Black Shadow snaking down the gruelling track at well over 100mph” while champion driver Lex Davison in his
2.9-litre Alfa Romeo “retaliated with bursts of speed up to 144mph down the straights”. Tony won, though only by half a wheel.

With nothing left to prove at home and a nomination as Australia’s representative to the Isle of Man, Tony headed to Europe. As track surfaces improved, so did Tony’s speed, and his pace on a newly acquired AJS Boy Racer was noted favourably by the local press: “McAlpine was one of the surprises as, despite the critics’ opinion that his style of riding would not be successful on the difficult TT course, he gained a Silver Replica and lapped at 85mph (137km/h).”

While victories at English venues such as Boreham and Warminster would never provide the glamour of the Grand Prix circus, Tony discovered non-title events paid well enough to supplement his income from Vincent. Enough at least to purchase the Black Lightning he had built in Vincent’s Stevenage race shop – and the Gilera Saturno ‘Sanremo’ that now resides in Motorcycling Australia’s museum.

TT week group in 1953 featuring McAlpine (floral shirt) and Keith Bryen taking centre stage

Tony returned to Europe with his wife Vivian for the 1952 season as by now he was a regular on starting lists across Europe.

A pair of new Manx Nortons brought a double in the 350 and 500 classes at Etten in Holland and, over the course of the season, Tony’s winnings proved enough for the couple to enjoy an extended European summer. So much so that Tony purchased a second set of Nortons for the following season, the highlight of which was his only world championship point, scored at Monza.

McAlpine’s world famous Black Lightning will be auctioned in Las Vegas in January.

After a year layoff, Tony returned to Europe for the 1955 season, having acquired a rare BMW Rennsport. However, a dispute over starting money at the Dutch TT progressed to the Commission Sportif in Paris, where Tony (along with such luminaries as Geoff Duke
and fellow Aussies Jack Ahearn and Keith Campbell) had his licence suspended for six months.

Disgusted, McAlpine returned to Australia and put his considerable skills to work building a successful business empire. He eventually settled with second wife Judith at Runaway Bay in Queensland, where he passed away in September 2005 at 84.