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The fastest man in Australia. On two wheels or four

Watching his father compete at Penrith Speedway – said to be the fastest mile in Australia – it’s little wonder Col Crothers became fixated on speed at a very early age. Later, during WW2, he learnt the rudimentary principals of what makes a motorcycle tick while assembling Harley-Davidsons for the military, a skill that helped him as a motorcycle dealer in Parramatta.

Post war, Parramatta became one of the hubs of the population boom in Sydney’s west, with road racing in Parramatta Park and Mount Druitt, plus speedway at Cumberland Oval, Liverpool, Penrith and later – thanks to ‘Honest Col’ himself – Westmead, a venue that outlasted them all.

With Ariel, BSA and Royal Enfield in the showroom and the used bike business thriving, Col consolidated premises half the length of the main drag, becoming a local property tycoon.

At 36 years old, Honest Col had it made, and sought to expand his interests beyond speedway. The Australian Land Speed Record had long held his attention and the acquisition of a Vincent HRD Series ‘B’ Rapide was just the weapon to get the job done. At that time, the Vincent was recognised as the fastest motorcycle in the world and Les Warton held the Australian flying mile record just shy of of 140mph (225km/h).

On a machine allegedly prepped by the legendary Phil Irving, West Australian Harry Gibson had gone 5mph (8km/h) faster than Warton – but only through the quarter mile. Col, intent on bettering 150mph (241km/h), entrusted his venerable ‘B’ Series Rapide into the hands of home-grown engineering wizard – and well known AJS racer – Wal Hawtry. The bike was sorted, the problem was now finding a venue.

After the not unexpected problems with the recalcitrant constabulary, the Wagga Wagga Court ruled that the Sturt Highway between Wagga and Narrandera could be closed for precisely one hour on 28 March, 1954. Had the police let the road closure application slide through unchallenged, only a handful of local residents may have learnt about the Australian Land Speed Record attempt. But the well-publicised court case generated a massive spectator turnout. Or, at least as many cars, motorcycles, tractors, horses and carts as it took to clog a two lane road through the isolated backblocks of NSW.

Despite the flocks of galahs that favoured the bitumen warmed by the early-morning sun, Col cruised through the traps at an estimated 160mph (257km/h) on his very first run. That was as good as it got. The ACU’s timing device, consisting of trip wires linked to a recorder, repeatedly failed, except when tripped by wayward spectators. After an hour’s frustration the police took great delight in shutting down the show.

Col remained enthusiastic and set about fine tuning another road-closure application while Wal Hawtry set about slipstreaming the Rapide. After another lengthy legal battle, Col obtained the Court’s judgment allowing several miles of the Narrabri Road to be closed at dawn on 19 December, 1954.

In an attempt to void the ACU’s antiquated timing system, Col organised an ‘Electric Eye’ timing device from J. Farren Price, Australia’s most respected timing experts. Naturally, the ACU stuck to ‘official’ stopwatches linked to their electronic timer.

Col’s first run, delayed by available light, was timed at over 152mph (244km/h) and the return run appeared even faster, but the ACU timing equipment failed. And, of course, failed again on a repeat run.

By now the wind was up and the galahs were reluctant to move, despite Col completing half a dozen unsuccessful runs. The NSW Motorcyclists Newsletter later reported that “At the end of one run, Crothers looked more like a Red Indian than a man attacking a land speed record. He was smothered in feathers from parrots (sic) and one of the dead birds was jammed up into the cowl. No record has been harder won than that of Crothers’.”

And it’s a safe bet that, considering the cost of travel for both attempts, the legal fees and the hire of correct – but inadmissible – timing equipment, no previous record had been more expensive to acquire.

But Crothers and Hawtry got the record they deserved; an average of 147.54mph (233.442km/h) was more than three miles an hour faster than David McKay’s Aston Martin DB3S was able to achieve many years later.

Thanks to Hawtry’s wizardry, ‘Honest Col’ Crothers remained the fastest man in Australia for the following three years.