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Not forgotten – Harold ‘Ranji’ Parsons | Columns | Gassit Garage

A truly national sporting hero cut short in his ascendency

As was the practice prior to World War II, testing road racing machinery was often conducted on public roads. This as much for the convenience of the participants as the delight of incidental bystanders.

So when Rhodes Motors, the Australian Indian motorcycle agent, imported a pair of Power Plus ‘works’ engines from the US in May 1921, their ace racer and spannerman, Harold ‘Ranji’ Parsons, was keen to get some immediate seat time. But the bloody things wouldn’t kick over. A tow behind the company Cleveland sorted the problem and soon the crew were on their regular ‘test track’ – a measured quarter-mile section of Epping Rd just north of Melbourne.

Parsons made several flying passes, but the powerplant was not firing to his satisfaction. The six-man crew, including John Herbert Rhodes himself, were all for calling it a day but Parsons decided on a final run to give it his all.

Baden Wilding, Parsons’ workmate, was the starting timer and later recalled that the finishing timers were all focused on the oncoming Parsons and were seemingly unaware of a number of horses being close to their timing point. At an improvident moment, two horses broke from the bunch, one of them bolting onto the ‘course’.

Parsons was immediately out of his crouch and on the brakes, but too late to avoid the animal.

Parsons later died in Royal Melbourne Hospital and, later still, more than one thousand motorcyclists paid their respects at his funeral.

Parsons and his well-dressed crew show off the latest fashion in hats

A similar crowd attended the unveiling of a monument erected by the Victorian Motor Cycle Club at Yarra Park in Melbourne in 1923; it was reportedly the first monument erected to a motorcyclist anywhere in the world.

Born in March 1891, Parsons attended Yarra Park State School and later became an apprentice pastry cook. But this was upended in a single year when he scored a job as a mechanic at Turner Brothers – the Harley Davidson importer – won a Victorian Motor Cycle Club hillclimb and rounded out 1914 by setting an Australian Record for a 500cc machine to cover the flying mile, with a time of 58.6sec.

Parsons further established his credentials and, when his entry for the 1916 Mortlake 200-mile road race was accepted, he received a handicap that befitted his growing reputation. Nevertheless he set about the 33-mile circuit at a speed that would have seen him lapping several of the favoured contestants had not the Harley dropped a valve midway through the fourth lap.

Such was Parsons’ pace that he’d ridden 101 miles in 97.16 minutes. His sponsors, Turner Brothers and Barnett Glass Tyres, were quick to realise – and even quicker to publicise – that Parsons had set a world record for the 100 miles.

The medal for this achievement is now in the proud possession of the Maffra Sale Motorcycle Club.

About this time John Rhodes convinced Parsons to swing his allegiance behind the Indian marque. No doubt the presentation of a brand new Indian Scout, which carried the Victorian rego number 3,
helped swing the deal. As would a lifetime supply of Dunlop Rubber, Castrol Oil and Shell Motor Spirit. Parsons had it made.

Ranji was a pioneer of the sport and helped give it a considerable following

Over the following five years Parsons’ name was seldom out of the newspapers.

In 1916 he cut the first 60mph lap of the Mortlake circuit, then set a world record for the mile at 46.4sec. In 1917 he won his first sidecar race and followed with a victory in the Marysville 24 Hour Reliability Trial. In 1918 it was the prestigious AMC Hill Climb and, after a number of failed attempts, the Melbourne to Sydney record – 575 miles in under 24 hours. The following year he rode a 7hp Indian Outfit 589 miles from Adelaide to Melbourne, taking 15 minutes off the existing solo record. Nothing escaped his notice.

Parsons was the winner of the 1920 NSW Peace Loan Championship and the Australian 200, the premier road race in Victoria. This was followed by the fastest five laps of the Moonee Valley track.

Parsons was one of 52 Australian and international motorcycle riders featured in a series of trading cards produced by Allen’s Sweets in the late 1920s

However, this was merely a preamble to an attempt to better Cannonball Baker’s 24-hour record on a Harley Davidson (AMCN 66-12).

The team elected for the smaller 600cc Scout as they agreed it would be less of a handful on the loose gravel surface. Fog aborted Parsons’ first attempt (AMCN 66-13) but on his second he completed 48 laps of the 23-mile circuit (1104 miles in total, or 1775km), averaging 26 minutes per lap during the day and only two minutes slower overnight. By utilising the smaller-capacity machine, Parsons actually broke 24 records, a feat almost unimaginable today.

Just before Parsons’ tragic death, Harry Gordon, the doyen of motorcycle journalists, writing for AMCN’s predecessor The Motor Cycle News and comparing the champions of the day – such as Carl Korner, Les Bailey, Tom Benstead and Jack Booth – ranked Harold ‘Ranji’ Parsons the greatest of all. Yet, unlike the aforementioned, Parsons’ career lasted but seven years.

By Peter Whitaker