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Indian Speed King | Columns | Gassit Garage

An era when the US built V-twins proved indomitable

Half-way through the bloody campaign that would later define the ANZAC tradition, the curtain of censorship denied Australians any real means of understanding the real state of affairs in Çanakkale. Australian newspapers blithely reported that “Great Britain is fortunate, having come through the first and most critical year of the war without any increase in petrol prices. This despite the fact that the Dardanelles operations have taken incomparably longer than was ever anticipated.”

Sadly the tragedy of Gallipoli had yet to hit home when the only conflict Australian newspapers could accurately report on was the interstate battle between Victorian Jack Booth and South Australian Ed Ferguson. Booth, who held both the one- and five-mile motorcycle records at 84mph (135km/h) and 76mph (122km/h), knew he could do better, and in August 1916 upped the two records to 96mph (154km/h) and 88mph (142km/h): only to be protested by Ferguson whose contention was, “Booth had only applied for permission to attack the 10-mile record; and not the one and five miles.” It was ratified by the committee – Ferguson got him on a technicality.

Only two months later, Booth and Ferguson met head to head at isolated Gepps Crossing north of Adelaide. This time it was Ferguson in strife when he ‘broke’ at the electric timing start. He was granted a second start but neither the ACU officials nor his Indian motorcycle crew were given a time, so no official record was set. It also proved impossible to prevent the crowd from encroaching on the a stretch of public road which curtailed Booth from attempting to better his flying half-mile record. So both riders left disappointed, only to regroup for a second duel at dawn a few days later; and a few miles further north at Dry Creek.

That very evening the Adelaide Mail claimed a world record of 103mph (166km/h) for Booth’s Indian over the measured mile, the excited scribe reporting “Booth was cool, confident and calculating. He knew what was in his machine and meant to have it out. With set face, tightly clutched handlebars and slightly advanced form, the rider pressed his machine forward like a shot from a gun, leaving behind considerable dust and blue smoke from the exhaust. He is Australia’s Indian Speed King.”

Booth’s accomplishment fully eclipsed Ferguson’s efforts, though the latter’s Indian was credited with a ‘local’ record, for which Booth was ineligible. And while Ferguson never managed to challenge Booth for the title of Indian Speed King he developed into South Australia’s most prolific road racer, winning the gruelling annual 200-mile epic on Yorke Peninsula in 1917. Ferguson backed up the following year, setting a lap record with an average speed of 52.61mph (84.66km/h) for the 61km circuit; on the way to victory in 3h48.06s, to beat his Indian sponsored teammate Carl Korner by almost 20 minutes.

Ferguson enjoyed a long career under the management of former racer Norm Torode which culminated in the pair winning the sidecar division of the inaugural 24 Hour Trial in 1924 – then a repeat in 1925. It’s possible these victories prompted Ferguson, in partnership with Wal Murphy – South Australian Motor Cycle Club President – to take over Adelaide’s Indian and BSA distributorship. A good each-way bet as, by that time, British production was back on full strength after the Great War. With import tariffs favouring the mother country, American-built motorcycles became prohibitively expensive; so ending the Indian wars down under.

Words Peter Whitaker