Not forgotten – Kevin Rohrlach | Columns | Gassit Garage
Faster, harder, longer and further was Big Rev Kev’s way of life
At the outbreak of World War II, Kevin Rohrlach was of an age where he was mesmerised by machinery and was already recycling; disused farm implements, wire, leather strapping, bolts, pipe and other rubbish. Whilst other lads haunted the Meccano hobby shop, Rohrlach collected enough detritus to build a wind-powered electric motor.
An old ‘Redbird’ pushie soon taught him that pedalling around the back blocks of Angaston with a can of milk hanging from the bars was hard yakka. Already making a good quid from rabbit, fox and water-rat pelts, Rohrlach agreed that seventh grade was enough for a farmer’s boy and, at war’s end, secured a job as an apprentice mason. As expected, he quickly progressed from shovelling sand to the finer points of brickwork.
In his travels he acquired the bits and pieces of a Harley-Davidson WLA, rebuilt it at a profit and bought a 1948 Indian Scout which – because of petrol rationing – he converted to run on kerosene. By the time he’d reached his majority he’d built his own home – mostly from scrap and scroungings – all while supplementing his income from the proceeds of local woodchopping contests.
Even so, the 249 pounds ten shillings they were asking for a new 1949 Triumph – roughly what had paid for his house and land – seemed out of reach; but with the introduction of ‘hire-purchase’ he was soon off on a ride to Surfers Paradise.
Time trials, scrambles and road racing were fun, but adventure beckoned. Kev discovered no one had attempted to reach Lake Eyre on a motorcycle and had little trouble convincing a couple of mates to join him. When they arrived at Muloorina homestead, the station’s owner wasn’t ruffled about their mission; figuring that as they’d made it this far they were probably up to it. And 30km later they’d finally lay claim to being the first motorcyclists to reach Lake Eyre.
Now more than ever enamoured with motorcycles, Rohrlach and his close mate Joe Doddridge founded the Keyneton Motorcycle Club at the aptly named Temperance Hotel. In competition, Rohrlach’s Triumph proved more than adequate at local reliability trials, scrambles and some serious road racing at Woodside, Port Wakefield and Sellicks Beach; while his kerosene-powered Indian proved a worthy contender at Kilburn Speedway. And h never-say-die riding style assured that promoters always looked forward to seeing his name on the entry lists.
Race winnings were slim but, supplemented by fees from his trick riding at local shows, he made ends meet, though his schedule often kept him from his proper day job. It was time to strike out on his own and soon the ‘Kev Rohrlach: Builder’ sign became ubiquitous across the Barossa.
With an unofficial endorsement from the Auto Cycle Council of Australia, Rohrlach set about fettling his Triumph for a shot at the Perth to Adelaide record. Howard White was an enthusiastic pillion and a five-day ride westward showed what they were up against; the endless waste of the Nullarbor and the notorious Pardoo sands. However with a nod from the Perth timekeepers they headed east.
Once they hit open country the bulldust proved intolerable, particularly when they’d brake for gates. With no air cleaner the Triumph was sucking in the dust, causing the throttle to jam; a problem cured only by hitting the kill switch. For the best part of three days it was only the continuous vibration that immunised them from sleep and when they rolled into Adelaide the record was theirs – at two days 20 hours.
Then Rohrlach was offered the first racing Benly Honda 125 Twin and decided to return to Lake Eyre and challenge a few Australian Speed Records. The campaign proved a logistical nightmare but Rohrlach returned with 27 Australian Speed Records. More importantly he proved the impossible was possible, which convinced Sir Donald Campbell to use Lake Eyre for his successful attempt at the World Land Speed Record in 1964.
At 56, Rohrlach took up ultralights and crossed the Simpson Desert but decided that wasn’t quite the thrill he was seeking, and became one of only a handful of people to successfully navigate the Warburton River. Then one of even less who’d walked across the Simpson, climbed Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina or Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Rohrlach simply kept going harder, faster and longer until he was T-boned in a road accident that left him a quadriplegic.
Sadly Kevin Rohrlach is no longer with us, but somewhere, someone is enjoying a kero-powered Indian Scout, a record-setting Triumph and a Historic Benly Honda. All part of big ‘Rev’ Kev’s legacy.
- Kevin and Howard take on the Nullarbor in 1952
- Refuelling the Benly Honda 125 on Lake Eyre 1961
- Trick riding in Sunday best
- Perfect balance
- Racing at Woodside
- Racing at Woodside
- With Sir Donald Campbell in 1963
Words Peter Whitaker Photography Kevin Rohrlach archives