George Bolton Snr | Columns | Gassit Garage
The bloke who established Adelaide as the motorcycle metropolis of Australia
George Bolton was introduced to motorcycles and machinery at an age when steam still powered industry, and aspiring engineers learnt on the tools by day and by textbook at night.
He moved in 1924 to Adelaide, where he rapidly became motorcycling’s Mr Fix-it and, as his reputation grew, was appointed agent for Indian, A.J.S. and Raleigh.
Not long after, George purchased a derelict tar yard on the corner of Greenhill and Fullerton Roads and established ‘Bolton’s Corner’ as one of Adelaide’s most prominent landmarks, the perfect location for the country’s first drive-through service station.
It was this establishment that greeted Ariel motorcycle supremo Harvey Sangster when he visited Adelaide in 1927, appointing George as the Ariel distributor for South Australia, the Northern Territory and Broken Hill – an empire 10 times larger than Ariel’s mother country.
However, it was necessities such as petrol and repairs that provided essential cash-flow through the Great Depression.
Throughout the 1930s, motorcycles provided the only form of transport for many people. Sidecars were a common sight and were standard fare for the Police and the Royal Automobile Association. The industry was booming, and each weekend enthusiasts convened at the motorcycling mecca in which the distributors were located; J. N. Taylor, Lenrocs, Elliots, Borgelts and, of course, Boltons – now with two large showrooms.
By this time the Motorcycle Club of South Australia, headed by Wal Murphy, was part of the establishment.
Seldom did a weekend pass without one of the affiliated clubs organising some form of contest – sprints at Sellicks Beach, scrambles at Steppes Hill, speedway at Kilburn and road racing on ‘closed roads’ at Victor Harbour, Lobethal and Woodside. But it was marquee events such as The Advertiser 24 Hour Reliability Trial that took racing to the public. ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ is now no more than a cliché, but contemporary sales did truly reflect the machines that survived 24 hours of torture.
George devised the far more spectator-friendly Ariel 6 Hour Trial, with both the start and the finish directly in front of his Pirie Street showroom, providing the perfect showcase for his wares – particularly when champions such as Ron Badger and Ern Routley ensured an Ariel figured in the finish.
Wherever two or more motorcyclists challenged one another, George would be there to ensure the rider of an Ariel or Royal Enfield was provided every opportunity to climb on to the podium.
Intercity records, particularly between Melbourne and Adelaide, always attracted the public’s interest and, while such attempts weren’t officially recognised, the remarkable efforts of the protagonists didn’t pass unnoticed.
The record had long been held by a Harley-Davidson – eight years in fact – until George put George Stapleton aboard a 3½hp 500cc Ariel dry-sump Charger – with Horrie Merritt in the Goulding sidecar – to make front page news in January 1930. This sparked a battle right up until WWII was declared.
After the war came the problem of how to reduce stockpiles of unwanted war surplus, including 10,000 motorcycles, some requiring no more than a quick valve grind, others total basket cases. The government placed an embargo on motorcycle imports until the distributors unloaded the defence surplus.
As President of the Federation of Motorcycle Importers and Distributors, George used his wiles to negotiate a settlement and soon both imports and sales were booming. While the future was not in motorcycles – certainly not British-built models – the war had created new markets, and George began importing BMW, Jawa, CZ and Adler, plus Rabbit and Diana scooters.
But by the late 1950s, sales of two-wheelers were mostly confined to the police force and the bodgies they were chasing, with the true enthusiasts trying not to become collateral damage. By the time Ariel released the Leader and Arrow models, it was too late and too expensive to match the Japanese.
This proved the only time in George’s career he had let the competition get ahead – with JN Taylor already signed up with Suzuki, Cornell’s with Honda, and Pitmans with Yamaha – but George believed they’d saved the best till last when he signed on as Kawasaki distributor.
The green machines provided the passport to the company’s future, and George took every opportunity to promote the new cause, including capping Bolton’s Corner – now a splendid chrome and glass showroom – with a neon Kawasaki logo that turned Adelaide’s night sky a ghostly shade of radioactive green.
The origin of the machinery may have changed, but George continued the tradition that whenever competitors took to the track, be it motocross or road racing, there was at least one competitive machine on the grid in Bolton’s colours – now green and white.
Words Peter Whitaker Photography SOURCE BOLTON’S ARCHIVES