Australian motor racing heritage is often overlooked
in the shadow of European and American legends. Words
like Rosemeyer, Nuvolari, Brooklands, Nurburgring, Fangio,
and Auto Union, can be the ingredient to make any motorsport
recollection take on mythical proportions.
of it like this; it's 1935, and you're a young German
peasant who's father has finally agreed to take you
to Berlin to watch automobile racing for the first time.
arrive at the huge gates at AVUS. There's 300,000 people.
You stand at the kink into the massive North Loop, which
stands at the end of 8 miles of straight track. Appearing
out of nowhere is the sleek, metallic Auto Union Streamliner.
It is violently loud, and it is moving at almost 200
miles per hour. You can't believe there's a human being
don't think we have the capacity to know how that would
have felt. But for
the "backwards little Colonials" down under,
would it have been much different? Hardly. At Lobethal,
the Australian public would have been treated to an
experience much the same
is a pleasant little hamlet nestled in the Eastern
Adelaide Hills, a leisurely 20 minute drive off
the South Eastern Freeway at the exit for heavily-touristed
Hahndorf. Like many SA regional areas it was settled
by Prussians and Germans in the mid 1800's. The
name "Lobethal" translates as "Valley
with many major racing venues, it all began with
a community used to dabbling in small time motorsport
pursuits- there had been hillclimbs on the outskirts
of town in the 1930's- and they wanted more.
suggestion was to utilize the public roads as Australia's
first fully sealed public road circuit.
There had been Vale in the 1920's, a massive 10km complex
of mostly dirt roads, adjacent to what is now Mount
Panorama. Indeed they also used the now-famous Bathurst
layout, but unsealed. This would be bigger, longer,
1937 Victor Harbor, on the South Australian coast, had
hosted the Grand Prix and this prompted the formation
of the Lobethal Carnival Group later that year. Along
with the Sporting Car Club of SA, and Motorcycle clubs,
plans were hatched to launch a golden era of motorsport
on these majestic roads. The plans came to bear in 1938
with the South Australian Grand Prix and with it the
Curlewis in yet another MG T special, heading up the
hill from Kayannie corner to Lobethal town. He finished
9th in the 1939 AGP (photo courtesy pre-war MG Register)
was Colin Dunne, Frank Klenig, Britain's Alan Sinclair,
and later, Doug Whiteford. There were amazing cars,
signature cars for the era- the mighty MG K3's, MG T
specials, Alfas, Morrises, Hudsons, Singers, and weird,
hybrid specials. In that race, on those roads, these
heroes cracked 6 minutes around the 13.8km, brushing
on 90mph average. Average.
1938 Australian Tourist Trophy for bikes was also held
there, with hordes of BSA's, Nortons and Velocette's
creating Australian motorcycle racing's own legends
and folkloric stories.
it's no Nurburgring. The land is not as dramatic as
the Eiffel Mountains in Western Germany. It is undulating,
by no means featureless. It's uniquely Australian. Perhaps
Spa Francorchamps from the same era draws the closest
comparison. Today you can drive the 14 km Lobethal circuit,
exactly as it was, save for some newer tarmac. Despite
the stupifyingly slow nanny-state speed limits this,
surely, is the only way you can appreciate it. This
will explain why it holds, or should hold, the same
mythical status as the more famous and notorious European
the old start-finish and grandstand area north of Charleston
you could be forgiven for thinking it's nothing special.
No really challenging corners, just sweeping curves.
But put it into context; these cars had spindly wires
and tyres, cart springs and beam axles, and near useless
drum brakes. These "curves" are all blind.
There are crests preceding all of them, particularly
the bridges, which funnel into chutes. Think of these
machines dropping on to their suspension, in mid-air,
whilst turning, at 100mph.
the little town of Charleston, with it's pub (still
there) the crowds were thick. Stories abound of drivers
stopping, mid practice sessions, for a pint or two.Out
past here are frightening kinks, all blind, all crests
and dips. Then a blind right hand kink sucks you into
Kayannie corner, the tight right hander leaving the
Woodside Road and heading towards the township of Lobethal.
Here the spectators got off the train from Adelaide
straight into spectator areas at the side of the track,
climb up the hill is significant, mostly straight for
almost two km, but at the top, this track steals straight
from the soul of Nurburgring. Lined by trees, the blind
crest plummets away left, bottoms out, right, drops
away again, into a rollercoaster left. Then it flattens,
raises slightly, then another drop into the braking
area for the hard right hander (Mill corner) into Lobethal's
main street. Even the main street isn't straight. Past
the pub on the right, there's now a little ribbon of
paving (Indianapolis-style) across the road and a plaque
to commemorate the racing era.
famous esses photo courtesy of www.tasman-series.com
the hill it funnels between shops and houses and then
there is the blind, off-camber Gumeracha Corner, which
claimed lives. The stretch from here to the start-finish
hairpin has to be experienced. 5 km of crests, blind
curves, feature changes and major undulation. Here is
where the truly great drivers would have made up time
on nothing more than sheer bravery. Indeed they did,
and one in particular.
2 Reg Nutt in a Day Special lines up alongside eventual
winner Colin Dunne in the dominant MG K3, at the 1938
SA GP (photo courtesy of www.lobethalgrandcarnival.com.au)
big event, one the eve of WWII, was the 1939 Australian
Grand Prix, held on the new years' weekend. It was the
early years of the event becoming nationally rotated,
having been at Phillip Island on unsealed public roads
(long before the current circuit was built) from 1928
to 1935. In 1937 the AGP was at Victor Harbor, also
on public roads, also still there today. In 1938 the
event was run at Bathurst, and won by Briton Peter Whitehead
in an ERA. Whitehead went on to win Le Mans in 1951,
but died in a crash a few years later.
are countless stories from the 1939 event to tantalise
the nostalgic amongst us. However, the most charming
and inspiring tales surround the eventual race winner,
The little West Aussie came over on a ship, with his
car. It was an MG T special, supercharged. Evidently
Tomlinson's engineering capabilities, at a mere 22 years
old, were exceptional. This is hard for us to imagine,
in an era long before one of kids racing karts to learn
vehicle dynamics. His preparation was more befitting
of a modern F1 star, without the minders and PR people.
He walked the circuit in the weeks prior to the event.
and drove a spare MG T around it, practising section
by section. He paid particular attention to that 5km
stretch from the perilous Gumeracha corner to the Start-Finish
hairpin. He knew that this section would be the key
for a driver in an outclassed car, if you were brave
Start of the 1939 AGP. Leading
is Russell Bowes in the Magnette (#24). Behind in third
is the Morgan Monoposto of Jack Boughton, the car which
eventual race winner Tomlinson tangled with the following
lap went to Alf Barrett with 5min 40sec. Barrett caught
the Lobethal bug at the SA GP the previous year in a
Morris Special, but fronted up to the 1939 AGP in the
fancied Alfa Monza. He flooded at the start and never
featured, coming home 8th. During the race Jack Saywell,
also in a very quick 2.9L Alfa, would blast past Tomlinson's
little MG in the straight sections. But, as they were
blasting along that 5km stretch from Gumeracha Corner
to the Start-Finish hairpin, Saywell was "in my
way" according to Tomlinson. He owned that piece
won by over 2 minutes from
Bob Lea-Wright in a Terraplane Special. Lea-Wright had
won the 1934 AGP at Phillip Island in a Singer. In third
was Jack Phillips in a Ford V8 Special.
A typical stretch of Adelaide Hills road- except this
one taken full throttle at 130mp/h...in 1939!
1940-1946 the AGP was not officially run but many of
the same racers returned to Lobethal on New Years' day
1940 for the SA trophy- it was won by Jack Phillips
in his Ford Special but more significantly, the event
almost claimed the life of the 1939 winner:
Tomlinson... was in a handy sixth place at the end of
the tenth lap when his MG Special touched the rear wheel
of (Jack Boughton's Morgan monoposto, going in to the
esses). The MG swerved violently and careered across
the road, hurtled down a five foot bank, passed narrowly
between a guide post and a light pole, broke through
the fence, and struck a tree stump in the camping reserve.
The impact threw Tomlinson clear as the car stood on
its nose, turned over several times and came to rest
embedded in the three-foot bole of a gum tree. Tomlinson
was rushed to the Lobethal Hospital and later to Royal
Adelaide with fractured ribs, possible internal injuries
and severe shock. He had been lucky that the fence had
not decapitated him". (Courtesy Jasper Peterson,
www.mgnuts.com. original source unknown)
Tomlinson's MG after the 1940 accident
good news is, not only did Alan survive, he is still
with us today, a spritely 91 year old who is still regularly
involved in his consultancy business in WA. When asked
about what terminal speed they actually reached in that
1939 event, he will tell you 130-140mph. It's hard to
believe. But the figures don't lie. 13.8 kilometres,
lap times below 6 minutes, 89mph average. When you drive
the circuit, it's even harder to imagine. If you want
to know how on earth did they take those blind corners
with such dramatic crests before the apexes- Tomlinson
will tell you "we turned the cars before they were
airborne". Brave doesn't begin to describe
Whiteford raced here, ten years before his triplet of
AGP wins at Nuriootpa, Bathurst and Albert Park. He
even continued into the Trans-Tasman series in the 1960's
and came out of retirement to race at Bathurst in the
touring car event. Despite all this, he regarded Lobethal,
without doubt, as the greatest track.
engulfed Australia, and stifled the momentum of the
AGP. It also claimed the lives of some of it's faithful,
including Russel Bowes and Raymond Curlewis, both of
the RAAF (pictured in this article). However, race meetings
were held there again in 1940 and 1948. But already
the spectre of crowd control, safety and general administration
contstraints was closing in on these majestic big tracks.
Some events were held down the road at Woodside, on
a shorter track, still wonderful roads, but not the
amazing Alan Tomlinson in 2008, next to a picture
of him taking victory in the 1939 AGP. Photo courtesy
of the Vintage Sports Car Club of Western Australia
Lobethal brought the best from all over, such
was the lure of the place regardless of the status
of the event. Later multiple AGP winner Lex Davison
raced in the final event in 1948, crashing his
MG TC and earning himself a stint in hospital.
that was it. In the early 50's, state governments
banned public road racing. The irony of that-
when you consider the street race revenue greedily
chased by modern promoters today.
Motor racing journalist Ray Bell wrote of the
place in words that I quote here because I relate;
It's still there...Daunting, charming the enthusiast,
whispering into your mind the thought that some
brave men raced here, what it might have been
like to have been there. Lobethal sleeps today...It
s like a grave that has been visited by a doting
family a thousand times, getting older ... The
coming of each New Year adds another year since
its quiet end"
words to a true enthusiast. I lived close to this place
for most of my life. I'd heard echoes of the era mentioned,
I remember when the plaque was laid in the main street,
but I never fully appreciated the depth of it's history.
Perhaps I didn't have much time for those really
old race cars. But growing older does funny things
to you. At my most recent visit to the beautiful Adelaide
Hills, I drove Lobethal with a new outlook, and it changed
everything. It was 1939, and they took these curves
before we mourn too much, it may yet be awoken from
it's 70 year slumber.
Adelaide is often the butt of many an eastern states'
joke, but there's no denying it has an active motorsport
spirit which is sorely absent elsewhere. From the highly
popular Clipsal 500 to the internationally-renowned
Classic Adelaide tarmac rally, South Australia is not
backwards in honouring motorsport heritage, despite
modern trends toward green fanaticism and frenzied speed-kills
The "Lobethal Carnival Group" has been resurrected,
in principal at least, by motorsport enthusiasts and
locals. In October 2008, those very roads will be closed
to allow historic race cars to play again. It will not,
as far as is known, be a full speed event, but we have
been assured of "spirited demonstrations".
And attending the event, as official patron- Alan Tomlinson
himself. It will be worth a visit just to see this underrated
hero, and to
hear those engines sing again in the Valley of Praise.
Grand Carnival 2008