The Classic Motorcycle Rally
DONALDSON “DON” HALL
The Quiet Man - Don Hall
by Jock Leyden
Rain dripped from my hair and trickled down the back of my collar. My feet were wet and muddy, but in the excitement of watching my first motorcycle race, I didn't worry about such minor discomforts. I was one among hundreds standing on the high side of Suzor's corner waiting for the riders in the 1927 Natal “100” to pass on their homeward journey. Big crowds always collected at this sharp-angled horizon bend for this race as well as the great Durban-Jo'burg classic. Suzor's had been so named after Ralph Suzor had collided with a Zulu woman in the 1924 Jo'burg race (It is the right hand sweep immediately after leaving the Durban City Boundary).
After the riders had gone through on the upward journey, the spectators whiled away the time discussing the handicaps and assessing the race prospects. From time to time a race rider would be seen touring back home, a bent handlebar telling its own story of a crash that had put an end to his day's racing. Maybe it was as a pillion passenger that he returned, his helmet swinging from his arm. Another retirement. Suddenly the sound of a two-stroke on full song alerted the crowd. We craned our necks to see a mud-spattered rider swing round the curves below. “Who is it?" “Don Hall” says my friend Les Turner. “He won last year's race too with an AJS and sidecar”.
Somebody shouted “Don Hall's won!” A gruff voice countered, “No! He can't have got to ‘Maritzburg and back in that time: two hours eight minutes! Not on your life!” Hall was by now on his way up 45th Cutting, and while the wise guys watched for their “winner”, the Dunelt was getting the chequered flag at the bottom of Black Hill, for he had indeed won, confounding everybody by his great ride. He had reached the city in 1 hour 1 minute, knocking 15 minutes off his class record.
On the homeward leg we did not know, however that the fiery John Storrie was man-handling his Norton outfit with a skill that verged on abandon in a desperate effort to overhaul him. The gap between the solo and the chair narrowed, and going up the notorious Inchanga bank, “Bungy” Mius, the sidecar passenger, who had acted in the same capacity in Don's winning AJS outfit the previous year, excitedly signalled that the Dunelt was being pulled in. This was enough for Big John, who now diced his skittering chariot as he'd never done before.
With the smell of the solo's exhaust in his nostrils he took up the chase round the succession of tortuous corners on old Inchanga, but, in a moment of exuberance he overdid things and the Norton slithered off a loose-surfaced bend and plunged of the road, hurtling end over end down the precipitous slopes many feet below. Miraculously, neither rider nor passenger was seriously injured, but, for them, the race was over. But for the rain on the way back which caused him to spill on Fields Hill, where he tobogganed down on his broad body belt, he might have done the double journey in two hours! Fantastic! No wonder everybody gasped.
But Donaldson Hall, to give him his full name, had a reputation even in 1927 for making his fans gasp. Hadn't he done it in the very first event he entered in 1922 when, holidaying in Cape Town, he decided just for the fun of it to enter his 500 cc Brough in a knockout hillclimb at Mossel Bank Bridge, and ranged alongside him was the then fabulous “Big Bill” du Toit on the first 10-12 V twin Harley-Davidson. The 19-year-old Brough rider shook things considerably by beating all the opposition, but being a non-club member couldn't win the prize! Although this was his first solo attempt at competitive riding, he had been riding from the age of 15, mostly on older brother Frank's V twin Humber - a 1914 Isle of Man TT job fitted with a 3-speed hub gear (top was on overdrive and direct drive was in second).
This enthusiasm encouraged Leightley, the rider of an Indian Powerplus outfit to offer the lad the pleasure of acting as his passenger in the notorious 300-mile Durban - Ladysmith - Durban race. Young Don set out on a practice run and near Cato Ridge got his foot jammed between the tyre and the loop of the rear springing, scrubbing off the tips of his toes. After medical attention, most folks would have returned home. Not the daring young man on the flying trapeze. He carried on and going down the crashing drop of old Karkloof saw the rear wheel disintegrate before his eyes. That was the end of the practice run and the race as far as Don was concerned. Despite having to walk back with a bandaged foot all the way to Mooi River, his enthusiasm was not blunted - even if his toes were!
Official records show his first essay into club competition in 1922 when his Brough was timed at 60 mph in a speed trial at Ordnance Road. In those days “60” was a magical, almost mythical figure. The speed bug had truly bitten and he sought more suitable machinery, buying one of the then highly potent 350 ohv “Big Port” AJS models. With this he entered his first road race, the 1924 Natal “100”. He was leading the field at Pinetown's Rugby Hotel on the return trip when the float chamber came loose, and he finished second to Bert Commons, with Bert Kirkland in his Indian sidecar. Don had a hectic dice with the late Eric Gibson on another AJS and beat him to the post.
Towards the end of the year Don's father who was chief engineer on a ship returning up the coast saw in the window of Fisher Simmonds showroom in PE the magnificent Woolavington Trophy to be won by the 350 class winner of the S African TT. “Old Man” Hall, as all the old club members called him, was the 100 mile cycle champion of the North of England in his youth, and his enthusiasm for road racing was unbounded. Back in Durban he raved about this magnificent trophy, the finest he had ever seen, and told Don to have a try at winning it.
Unfortunately, finance was short, as it always has been amongst youngsters keen on the racing game, and it looked as if there was little likelihood of a trip to PE, till the local agents, S and W Killerby came to the rescue, and Don packed his bag of tools, his leathers and his AJS on the mailboat. That TT initiation was memorable for several reasons. On his first early morning practice he took care, knowing that the roads were open to normal traffic, and the danger of meeting another road-user head-on was not unusual. He was considerably shaken, however, to meet a flock of ostriches promenading on the course! Those were the days! He might have been forgiven for thinking this circuit was for the birds, but he pressed on, having more important problems to solve than the answer to why these chicken had crossed the road.
Port Elizabeth is famous as the windy city, but it exceeded all its best efforts on January 1st, 1925, by blowing a gale which averaged 60 mph and gusted up to 80 mph. No wonder the riders' progress as they headed down the 6-mile flat-out section from the deviation to Greenbushes was reported to be “snaky”. Despite the gale and the fact that he was pitted against the best speedmen in the Union, it was the youngster from Durban who got the chequered flag after 200 miles to clock up his first classic victory, and a proud father saw his son presented with the great silver trophy almost as big as himself.
Handicap races bring forth all the schemers hoping to cater the handicapper on the hop. Motorcycle racing has produced a goodly crop of specialists in this noble art. Thus it was that Don entered a 350 AJS outfit in the 1925 Natal “I00” as well as a solo, and waited to see how well the slide-rule specialists would treat him, but when he accepted on the sidecar there was general amusement, if not astonishment, for nobody thought a 350 was capable of hauling a chair all the way to 'Maritzburg and back at racing speeds. Remember, of course, that Old Main Road was tarred only as far as Kloof and from there on it was a narrow, bumpy, dusty, cut-up serpentine red road.
The AJ was not the "Big Port' but a K7 which had been raced by the well-known AJS specialist, Len Cohen. It was in pieces when Don collected it and set about re-assembly. All the care and attention he put into this was amply repaid when, with the late “Bungy” Mills in the sidecar, he staggered everybody by doing the return trip in 2 hrs 27 mins. This time, believe it or not, included a stop at Botha's Hill crossing on the return journey to put in a new butt-ended tube.
It was in 1926 that he had his first ride in the famous Durban-Jo'burg race entering a 500 “Sloper” BSA, which old men, like this writer, remember as one of the earliest saddle-tank machines, as opposed to the old top-tube models. The BSA was regarded as a good-looker in those days. Unfortunately, its performance did not live up to its looks. The Sloper had a bad habit of lying down when least expected, as Don found on his practice run and he decided to ride the old 350 top-tube in the race instead off 500 handicap mark.
The next three years were lean years as far as big money prizes were concerned but this did not mean he was inactive. Far from it, he rode in all types of events, hillclimbs, speed trials, dirt tracks as well as in road races. At Kings Park (now the site of the rugby ground) there was a dirt track. (Speedways they call them nowadays!) A second lay behind what is now the City Council Engineers Block in Ordnance Road. These were small - about 300 - 400 yards, while inside the Clairwood Race track, a 1 mile speedway was constructed. The latter was flat and loose surfaced, but 60 mph laps were common by the faster boys who had the courage to wind it up when the dicers got lost in the thick clouds of choking yellow dust on the bends. This place was called Brooklands though it bore not the slightest resemblance to the world-famous banked concrete track of the same name at Weybridge in Surrey, England.
Again on a 350 BSA, he finished 3rd in the 1927 South African TT Junior Race, and put up a great performance in the Senior class on the same machine when, after losing 16½ mins in the pits replacing a broken chain (and the chain guards!) he was runner-up behind Percy Flook on the Norton. As the wily old winner's machine limped over the line with 10 spokes broken in the back wheel. Who knows what might have happened if Don's chain had not broken?
Don painted his helmet white, and hit the headlines again with a record-breaking win in 1929 when, riding a 350 Velo, whose engine was stamped with the number KRTT. No 1, he chalked up his second SA Junior TT victory. Talking about it now, Don says that this race was the start of a new era in motorcycle racing. Riders, for the first time lay down on their tanks to cut down wind resistance, and some of the older school of sit-up-and-beg racers didn't like this new idea one little bit. The diminutive Velo star - he was now a star in his own right - also saw the writing on the wall for anyone hoping to win a race if he was down on maximum. Given two equal riders, the one whose machine had a few mph in hand would always win. And so it has been ever since.
To the Isle of Man, as South Africa's representative, he went in May to compete in the famed Tourist Trophy races. Velocettes had been chosen as race mounts by competitors from Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Sweden and Japan, and the factory heads, fearing that a host of retirements would have an adverse advertising value, took the precaution of lowering the compression ratio on the visitors' machines to 6½ to 1! Don said nothing, which is not surprising, if you know how little he likes talking about himself, or 'moaning', but “Old Man” Hall, who was there, was cross, and even more so when his son finished on the leader board in 6th place despite the shortage of 'horses'.
The following year, after another win at Kragga Kamma he was back on the grid in the Glencrutchery Road when the maroon signalled the start of the 1930 Junior IOM TT. Don rode like a man possessed and finished in 4th place, beating all but the three experimental Rudges. A mere two minutes covered the first four to complete the race. Writing about this race, the late Graham Walker, the famous rider, editor, broadcaster and motorcycle historian said that the honours for the 1930 Junior must go, not to the Rudges, but to Don Hall for the best performance of the day. That was praise indeed, and the award of the Visitors Cup was well merited.
From this time I took more than a passing interest in Don Hall's racing life for I had bought his ex- IOM 1929 Velo and loaned it to him to ride in the 1931 and '32 SA TT races. As this was always returned to me like new, with new tyres, tubes, chains, and a complete engine and gearbox overhaul, it was no wonder that I agreed with alacrity each time he asked to borrow it! Unfortunately our TT bag for 1931 contained no Woolavington Trophy. Instead a 2nd in the Senior, 3rd in the 100 mile handicap and a 5th in the Junior.
If for no other reason, 1932 will never be forgotten because of the appalling weather conditions in which the Junior race was run. It had rained for a week and Port Elizabeth was cut off from the rest of the Union by road and rail. A riders' meeting was held in the muddy quagmire that was The Deviation finishing straight and, after deliberating, the race went on. Joe Sarkis was in his element - conditions were well-nigh impossible - and couldn't be caught. He just ducked his head and disappeared from sight! That's the kind of rider banana-nosed Joe was!
Before the race Don had loaned a sprocket to a local youngster riding in the handicap race, with the strict injunction that if conditions were not 100% perfect he must return it, as Don's Velo was geared very high. The lad did not put in an appearance and the result was Don rode most of the race in third gear, being unable to use top. When asked by a reporter afterwards why he didn't win he astonished me by saying simply, “We can't win every race” with not a word about being left in the lurch by the inconsiderate youth. If I'd been asked the same question I'd have had plenty to say. But then I'm not Don Hall, and as I've told you, he never sought excuses for his failures.
Fortunately, the sun shone on Senior race day, and the foot-deep pool of water running across the road under the willows on the back stretch was reduced to a trickle. But, for other reasons, Don recalled this race as the toughest ride of his career. That year Rudges experimented by putting the magneto behind the engine and the weight disposition was completely upset, resulting in the rider taking a terrific hammering from the now-lightened back wheel. Don't forget that there was no rear springing on motorcycles then, the shock-absorbing being done by the rider's spine! No wonder Rudges went back to the former position for the mag next year.
When he made his third Isle of Man excursion in 1933 I decided to go along for the thrills and when he came back with his inevitable replica I stayed on in England.
Next year he startled everyone by winning the Durban-Jo'burg 400 mile marathon in 6 hrs 42 mins 47 secs. Averaging 60 mph for the first time in the history of the race and giving Nortons their first and only victory in this famous race series. Whereas the 1920 race which FAR Zurcher won in 23 hrs 18 mins 20 secs, was dubbed 'The Snowstorm Race', the 1934 race should have been called 'The Hailstorm Race'. Starting off on the same mark as Burton Kinsey, the 1933 winner, on a BSA, the 350 Norton went ahead of the 500 BSA at the Westville Quarries. It was raining by the time Pietermaritzburg was reached, and he sped on through lowering storm clouds into the heights above Howick. At Karkloof hail was falling and the big jagged ice particles stung his face like lashes forcing him to ride with one hand in front of his face. At Weston the road was blanketed white with hail, but he pressed on in the storm which raged all the way to Estcourt.
He laughs now, as he did then, when he recalls that while waiting with other riders in the Ladysmith control for the “Go” signal a hearse pulled up beside them. But he must have forgotten quickly, for he pulled into Newcastle in 6th position, after having started No 66 from Durban. He pulled all the stops out next day and caught the leader Harold Brooks going into Heidelberg. Poor Harold, whose, performance on a perfectly standard 250 BSA had been nothing short of miraculous, with records all the way, had the bitter experience of packing up only three miles from City Deep when his gallant little motor's big end gave in.
Don's own “narrow squeak” was at Jan Meyers Hill, near the finish, when the over-eager spectators encroached on the road leaving only a “funnel” for the Norton to negotiate.
He made his last IOM excursion in 1936 to add a fourth replica to his bag, and come back to carve his name on the SA Senior TT for the second successive year at East London, hoisting the lap record for the old Prince George circuit to over 80 mph.
The start of Grand Prix racing in East London ushered in a new era in motor racing in South Africa. The interest veered away from motorcycles to cars and it was inevitable that Don's white helmet should be seen leading a field of four-wheelers over the line as it had so often done in the two-wheel class. But it was not in a fancy piece of Grand Prix ironmongery that he faced the starter. Don the schemer, got his greatest thrills from making engines turn over as they'd never turned over before, but nobody expected him to get his race machinery from a car graveyard! Yet it was the engine from a derelict Ford van owned by Francis Freres that he used to power his “Halford”, and so well did it go that it showed a clean pair of wheels - as you'd expect an ex-cleaners van to do - to the fields on the Bluff, and in the Fairfield Handicap held on the Snell Parade circuit.
Then came the war and, as expected, Don joined the SAAF in which he was commissioned and was put on as a specialist trade-testing the recruits. After the war when racing started again just for the fun of it he picked up an old 250 BSA “breathed” on it and won the SA 250 Championship in 1949 on the Alexandra Circuit in 'Maritzburg. The little buzzer fizzled out 100 yards after crossing the line, absolutely out of oil. Don couldn't have judged it neater!
At most meetings he can be seen around the pits with a spanner in his hand helping someone. First it was the meteoric young Roy Hesketh he took under his wing. Then the temperamental Orlando Fregona, and latterly his own son, John. If he isn't thus occupied he usually blends himself into the crowd and like a chameleon is not easily distinguished. That's how he likes it, for he doesn't seek the limelight. But next time you see a 40-year-old man just standing around among the big shots of today's racing, take another look. It may be a 61-year-old racing star who was winning great races before you were born. In my book he is "The man who won everything” one of the neatest, brainiest riders ever to straddle a racing motorcycle. But don't ask him to give you all the details. For if anyone could be called “The Quiet Man” it is Donaldson Hall.
Copyright J. Leyden 1963
This is how Don’s ride on the Rudge must have felt!