Not forgotten – Blair Harley | Columns | Gassit Garage
There actually wasn’t a lot this bloke couldn’t do
Friends reckoned Blair Harley could turn his hand to anything; he would study it and then do it, even yacht building. He competed in scrambles/motocross including a season in Europe, raced dirt track, sold and later imported bikes, co-owned a bike shop, developed a thriving accessories business and restored bikes.
“I was born in Lismore in 1935 and grew up in Macksville and Nambucca Heads, moving to the city at age 19,” he said. “As a kid, I would run down rough tracks in the tropical scrub to reach the beach or tennis courts, picking a line and where to place your feet. As a racer, I liked riding on natural terrain, where choice of line was a challenge.
“My first bike was a new 1951 Triumph Tiger 100 with the alloy engine and Mk II sprung hub from Doug Fugger’s Riverina Motorcycles in Albury, and I thought I was just it!”
“In Sydney, I was a salesman at Tom Byrne, AP North and for Barry Ryan. Later on I imported Maicos, had a bike shop in Gladesville with Jim Scaysbrook and went into the accessories business, importing and then manufacturing Uni Filters.
“I was only five foot seven and a slight build, so I modelled myself as a racer on Roy East, who was of similar build. Two or three nights a week I’d train at Grace Bros gym.”
Blair reckoned he suffered from pre-race nerves and at one venue in the south of France he rode the circuit as soon as he arrived, so he wouldn’t have sleepless night thinking about it.
“Late in 1957, Willoughby club mate Gerry Vial and I sailed to England. I bought an AJS 500 with a short-stroke alloy engine and later on collected a Maico 250 from the factory in Pfaeffingen. When I was at Tom Byrne, the company imported Maico and we received copies of the magazine Das Motorrad. Maicos were always winning the 250 support races, so I figured they must be pretty good and obtained a good price by writing to the factory.
“We had about eight rides in France, one in Belgium and two in Germany, and some events in England. Rather than full international meetings, we only tried to do extra-national events, where the organisers could contract four or six international licence holders to the boost meeting. I was making £5 a week when I left Australia and we never started for less than 3500 French francs, which was £35. My best day was at Clermont-Ferrand, on a circuit that was more grass track than MX, winning the first round, taking second overall and collecting FF13,000 (£130) in starting and prize money.
“On the way home in Fremantle I sold the Maico to Alan Nichol and he won the Australian title on it two months later.”
The season in Europe had sharpened Blair’s riding and maintained his form by riding from his home in Forestville to work six days a week, in all weathers, and he concentrated on dirt-track.
But in 1959 he nearly died when he fell and a rider’s footpeg struck the side of his helmet. “Watching Roy East, I had learned to ride dirt with road-racing lines, sliding into corners on the front brake, not flapping with the back wheel. I was leading the teams when (Australian champion) John Rumford and I touched. I went into a tank slapper and next thing I am sliding face first on my elbows. The last guy’s foot peg hit my helmet, which was only papier-mache and punched a hole in my skull. I was taken to Wallsend hospital, where they drilled holes in my head. I was thinking of settling down by then, so that was my first retirement.”
Harley returned to racing with a Greeves Hawkster and later had a Cotton and a blue-framed BSA 350.
“We did steady development on the BSA for short circuit. Kel Carruthers did a bit of work on the cylinder head and made a little reverse-cone megaphone. We had American cams no-one knew about, good valve springs from the USA, an inch and an eighth dell’Orto carb, a Sid Willis 12.5:1 piston and a Willis-modified Velocette MAC barrel sleeved down to 67mm. It always won the 250 class and would place in the 350 finals.”
Blair Harley’s accessories business saw him import 12 lines and establish a manufacturing factory in Rydalmere, NSW.
“I would attend two major shows per year – Cologne/Milan and the aftermarket show in Las Vegas. I had agencies and did distributor agreements with Ron Angel in Victoria, John Warrian in Queensland and Ross King in NSW.”
Blair Harley died in November 2014 and was survived by wife Pauline.