Sun, Sand, & Scramblers: A Brief History of Australia’s Off-Road Motorcycling Obsession
Talk to any biker over a few beers at the end of the day, the same old question comes up. ‘When did you first start riding?’ For myself and many, many other Aussies, the answer is quite different to those that you’d get in Europe, the USA or Asia. For these other countries, the answer will often be ‘motorcross’ or even ‘bombing around a quiet car park on Sundays.’ But for many an Aussie, the answer will almost inevitably be, ‘as a kid on a farm.’
In Farm’s Way
Farming is to Australia as cars are to the US; it’s the industry at the heart of the country and as such, it unavoidably burrows its way into many aspects of the country’s culture and being. So even a Sydney boy like me, born and bred 30 minutes from the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, spent many a school holiday fanging around on a bike in the dusty far western plains of New South Wales.
And while this ‘farm first’ approach to motorcycling does often feed young riders into the typical moto-cross, enduro and even track racing categories, this birth as an off-road rider from nothing but an empty paddock, an ‘ag bike’ and a whole day to waste in the dirt is uniquely Australian. With very little for learners to hit apart from wire fences and the barking Cattle Dog doing fervent loops around you, this approach affords many riders a broad foundation of basic skills that aren’t limited to the requirements of a single racing genre.
Old and Dirty
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The official birth of the Australian off-road scene took place on a warm night at the Maitland showground on the 15th of December, 1923. And while many international pundits from the US and the UK dispute this, it’s widely acknowledged that on this night, the first-ever speedway race in the world took place under the arena’s newly installed electric lights.
And it won’t surprise you to learn that – you guessed it – the local farmers were the ones on the bikes. Johnny Hoskins, the local who organised the yearly Agricultural show was looking for other events to broaden the event’s appeal. He noticed the local farmers on their bikes and speeds at which they were able to get across their paddocks, and the rest is history.
Horses for Courses
By the early 1970s, a full 25% of the 55,000 bikes purchased in Australia weren’t classed or registered as road-going vehicles, which really brings home just how large a part of the market the off-road sector was. Horses had been slowly replaced by farm bikes since the technology had come of age in the 1950s, meaning that it was easier and cheaper to maintain a bike than to pay for a horse’s feed and vet bills.
These ‘Ag’ bikes from the likes of BSA and other overseas firms were specially geared to allow riders to meander along while checking fences, rounding up sheep and to move cross country at the same speed as those on foot.
A ’70s Explosion
Following the global trend captured in Bruce Brown’s now famous ‘On Any Sunday’ starring Steve McQueen, the popularity of off-road riding in Australia exploded around this time, meaning that by the early 1970s, those suitably flush could partake in trail riding, enduro, sporting trials, moto-cross, minibikes and a whole raft of on-road moto pursuits, too.
And as supremely 70s as it may seem now, there was a growing interest in off-road trikes like the American-made ‘Dunecycle.’ Driven through a torque converter and made of lurid fibreglass, their ability to tackle most terrain with even the most basic of riders on board didn’t stop them from disappearing before the end of the decade.
Sand and Deliver
It’s also interesting to note that Sydney and her northern neighbor city, Newcastle, both had large, moto-friendly sand dunes nearby. With Kurnell to Sydney’s south and the Stockton Dunes to Newcastle’s north, the local inhabitants had free and easy access to sand riding right throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
This included a dune buggy contingent that saw a ‘Baja Bug’ scene to rival the best that California or Mexico had to offer. After all, with a plethora of old VW Beetles available for chump change and the aftermarket parts scene booming, who in their right mind wouldn’t consider a little weekend sand sled to attract the opposite sex in their swimmers?
Scrambling for Meaning
But what about scrambling, you ask? Here’s the thing; scramblers weren’t always scramblers. ‘Scramble’ races were a popular event in the UK since the ’20s and ’30s, but in Australia – before the genre was really formalised – it was effectively split into two more discrete sports: trials riding and moto-cross. Australian publications from the ’70s seem to turn up very few, if any, mentions of the word.
Or maybe more to the point, the distinction between the various sports wasn’t completely clear, even to those taking part in them. I found this quote from a 1974 motorcycling publication, stating that ‘It is difficult to make clear distinctions between such events as ‘trials’, ‘sporting trials’, ‘scrambles’, ‘enduros’, ‘moto-cross and ‘cross country racing’ because there are shades of meanings, varying from State to State and even club to club.’
Of course, the last five years have seen a real renaissance of scramblers after the 21st Century cafe racing boom has had its run. This has also seen a crystallisation of the concept where previously there was much assumption, legends and endless photos of a very dusty-looking Steve McQueen. But if you’re anything like me, that’s got to be a good thing. Let’s face it; once you’ve been bitten by the dirt bug, too many moto off-roading options are barely enough.