The brewer’s wife who instigated the scary Zig Zag hillclimb
Largely funded by the huge brewery he owned in Lithgow, John Jones was a prominent member of the Royal Automobile Club, the NSW Light Car Club and the Sydney Bicycle Club. He was certainly a man-about-town, well versed in motoring matters.
However it was John’s wife, Nina Eva Vida Jones, a strident motorsport competitor, who convinced her husband to establish a competitive hillclimb on their vast Zig Zag Park Estate near Lithgow. In no time at all Nina and John, driving their his-and-hers Darracq open-wheelers, were joined by fellow enthusiasts such as Jimmy O’Rourke in his Brescia Bugatti and Cec Weatherby on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
These social carnivals for Sydney’s motoring gentry soon became the place to be seen, attracting an even bigger crowd of motorists and motorcyclists up the Bells Line of Road just to watch the fun.
There’s no accurate record of how the adjacent “freak” Zig Zag hillclimb came into being, although the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper did provide a description of its features.
“From the bottom of the hill, a path about 10 feet wide had been cleared for perhaps 40 yards. Then, for a further 10 feet, planks have been laid corduroy fashion with a space of natural terrain, no more than a yard wide, beside them.
“The gradient was estimated to be one in three (about 30 degrees), after which, for the following five yards the incline increased to one in one (45 degrees).”
Then, according to the newspaper, “there was only a steep, narrow, faintly defined track, bending around until it disappeared out of sight behind a huge boulder.”
At the meeting in November 1927, having already won the traditional Zig Zag hillclimb on his 7hp Indian, American Speedway star Lloyd “Sprouts” Elder couldn’t comprehend what all the fuss was about; not quite understanding that the term “freak hill” meant no more than absurdly steep.
What his fellow competitors and spectators didn’t realise was that, prior to his Maroubra Speedway fame, Sprouts had successfully ridden some of the most treacherous hillclimbs across the US, including the notorious hillclimb in Berkeley, California. Where they saw a mountain, Sprouts saw a molehill, and as the Herald reported, he made the ascent appear easy.
“Elder shot up the steep, lower portion of the hill and, instead of crossing the planks, rode as wide over the natural surface as he could, then when everybody expected to see him lose speed and succumb to gravitation, his powerful motorcycle suddenly shot forward at increased speed, bounded over the steepest grade, took the narrow winding track to the peak of the hill with a graceful sweep and vanished over the crest.”
Sprouts was the only rider to reach as far as the planked section, after which the incline was so steep it took a dozen spectators with a rope to successfully manage his Indian back down the hill.
While acknowledging that all expenses were defrayed by Nina Jones in aid of the Free Kindergarten Union, the newspaper highlighted that Sprouts was the hero of the occasion. It wasn’t until February 1928 that local Lithgow speedway ace Joe Hutchinson, riding a 595cc Douglas, became the second rider to conquer the peak of Zig Zag hill.
Due to the increasing popularity of the recently opened Lithgow Speedway, in which both John and Nina Jones took a keen interest, the regular celebrations at Zig Zag Park Estate came to an end. Now it’s just the Zig Zag Railway…
WORDS: PETER WHITAKER ILLUSTRATIONS: CRAIG FAIR