Monday, September 5, 2011

Early Australian automobile rally

Starting next Thursday, Rally Australia will be taking place near my birthplace: more precisely, in several rural zones in the vicinity of the coastal town of Coffs Harbour.

I shall never forget my first contact with an automobile trial in Australia, in 1956, at a time when I was living with my grandparents at Robinson Avenue in Grafton and preparing my final high-school certificate. I am referring to the 1956 Ampol Around Australia Trial. My grandfather was the Ford dealer in Grafton, and his garage had a gasoline pump alongside the roadway in Fitzroy Street, at the spot where the entrance to an automobile business existed up until recently.

This address was indicated as an official refueling station for the Ampol contestants, who had left Sydney during the day. When the vehicles started to arrive in Fitzroy Street, it was late in the evening. I was there, alongside my grandfather's gasoline pump, participating in the excitement. After all, in quiet old Grafton, we had never before seen anything quite like this. I remember in particular the third car to arrive, with its headlights blazing. It was a charming little MG TF sports car (manufactured by Morris), much like this:

On the local radio, I had heard about this vehicle and its occupants, Les Slaughter and Bill Mayes, no doubt because their vehicle was so much more elegant than most of the typical sedans engaged in the trial: bulky Holdens, Peugeots, Fords, Standard Vanguards, etc. I was so close to the car that I had time, while it was being refueled, to gaze down into the cockpit, where I could see clearly the two drivers, both of whom were wearing woolen bonnets (because it must have been quite cool, of an evening, beneath their flimsy canvas hood). To my innocent eyes, unaccustomed to harsh sporting adventures of this kind, there was something unreal about the vision of these two fellows emerging from the darkness, and waiting impatiently to take off once again. As they drove off into the dark, I had the impression that I was watching a pair of daring pioneers, heroes of a new kind.

The next morning, we learned from news bulletins on the radio that Slaughter and Mayes had never reached the next town, up on the Great Dividing Range. They had disappeared mysteriously somewhere along the mountainous Gwydir Highway between South Grafton and Glen Innes. However nobody in any of the other 31 vehicles, racing through that rugged and sparsely-populated region in the middle of the night, had witnessed anything unusual. Later on in the day, an intrigued automobile specialist, Evan Green, came upon telltale tracks in the gravel, indicating that a vehicle had left the dangerous road. Police found the little MG down at the bottom of a gorge. The two drivers had been ejected by the impact, and they were lying face-down in a creek, side-by-side, where they had in fact drowned. I was no doubt one of the last people to see Slaughter and Mayes alive, in the cockpit of their beautiful little automobile. I've never forgotten that tragedy, which marked me enormously. Curiously, though, I felt that it was almost inevitable that such exotic and intrepid heroes should meet their destiny in this dramatic fashion.

Finally, the trial was won by two Australians—Alan Taylor and Wilf Murrell—driving a run-of-the-mill French car: a Peugeot 403.


POST SCRIPTUM: It's quite possible that this archaic gasoline pump, which apparently still exists today at the Fitzroy Street premises, is the place where Slaughter and Mayes fueled up for the last time.

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