The Classic Motorcycle Rally
WILLIAM REDVERS “CHICK” HARRIS
A Tough Chick – Chick Harris
By Jock Leyden
"What do you want?" barked the sergeant at the Recruiting Office door.
"To join the army," piped up the two schoolboys with the shy grins and great expectations.
"Can you drive a motor car"
"Yes," they replied together trying to sound as convincing as possible, for their working knowledge of motor vehicles was confined to the old Minerva which young Harris had bought for a pound cash and his old push cycle. True, they had learned plenty from making that old wreck go for the only thing that was "in running order", when it was purchased, was Chick! Of course.
15-year-old William Redvers Harris, one of the lads, and the subject of this story, did not feel he was telling an untruth about his ability to drive a car for he had watched others do it, and, after all if they could do it, he was sure he could do likewise. It wasn't really much different from steering his old soapbox, he reasoned. Fortunately, too, he was the last of half a dozen volunteers about to be tested in the big Napier car standing nearby and he watched their every move as they moved off on test. In his favour, too, was the more important fact that, in 1914 people who knew anything about mechanically-propelled vehicles were not so common as they are today.
Thus it was that a couple of hours later W R was saying "Good-bye" to his parents before leaving to join the South African forces at Upington en route to the South-West theatre of war. Mother didn't relish the idea of her little boy - for he was just a little boy - going off to war. Pa Harris, however, thought the experience would do him no harm - and, no doubt, kept his fingers crossed when he said so.
When the German West campaign ended, your W R returned to his home in Jo'burg and got a job as apprentice to an optician, but two months, and six rises (!) later, he was off again in khaki, this time headed for German East Africa, where he joined the 2nd SAR as a despatch rider. On the elephant tracks around Lake Nyasa he learned how to ride on the scramble-type going that passed as "roads" in those parts, and in the process, but without realising it, started a career as a rough-stuff rider that was to be equalled by few of his fellows in the next 20 years.
Douglas machines were the army issue when he arrived, but these were later replaced by hub-geared Triumphs and then BSAs. "Don Rs” had to be mechanics capable of doing all sorts of running repairs far from any service depots, but most troubles came from belt breakages which occurred so frequently that the riders quickly became expert at these repairs. This facility he put to the test one day when, soon after passing a lion in the bush, his BSA's belt parted company. Chick reckons he broke all speed records for that repair job, but didn't stop to "await official confirmation” of the time taken. The 17-year-old's exploits on the rough stuff did not pass unnoticed either, for he was mentioned in despatches by General Northey. The official citation reads: "I have it in command from the King to record His Majesty's high appreciation of the services rendered by Despatch Rider W R Harris." and it is signed by none other than "Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War."
When hostilities ceased he came back to Durban - where he had been born in 1899 - and joined Tyson & Jackson, the engineers in Smith Street. There he met Ralph Suzor, captain of NMCC, who cajoled him into joining the Club. The first race coming up was the Durban-Ladysmith-Durban 300-miler, a really murderous ride, for the journey was done in one day. Only those who knew the conditions of the old main road can really appreciate just what that meant. Potholes by the million, corrugations by the mile, sand inches deep which raised blinding dust clouds trailing hundreds of yards behind every road user. That was to be expected when the weather was good. Of course, after rain, the so-called roads were impassable, and mud was hub-deep in places.
When this dried, there were sharp-sided ruts cut by cars and ox-wagons; on the mountains cross-gullies where the rain had washed away the road surface and for good measure, boulders and rocks which tumbled down from the heights above, to trap the unwary.
Is it to be wondered, therefore, that the complete entry list numbered a mere 14 - seven solos and the same number of sidecars. Included in the solo class were such famous names as the great Bobby Blackburn on a 7-9 Harley, Ralph Suzor on a 3˝ hp Indian, and an unknown newcomer by the name of Young. (A Durban newspaper didn't know his initials and substituted a dash!) This was the same C H Young whose name was later to be known throughout South Africa and in all the countries where motor cycles were raced.
The Charioteers had the famed Pete Lawrence and Rosenthal on Twin Indians. C C Smith and Tom Spargo on Harleys. and Jack Booth, who had a reputation as a specialist in the 225 two-stroke field, was down to handle a big 8 hp Twin Royal Enfield outfit. The start was at 4 am, a compromise between those wanting a 3 and others a 5 am start, so it was in the dark when young Chick started off and headed his 4 hp Triumph for Mayville and the great beyond. It was still pitch dark when the Triumph's puny acetylene light snuffed out as Chick was negotiating the bends near Old Botha's Hill, and in the blackness the bike left the road, clouted the bank and Chick was out in more ways than one. That was the end of his road racing baptism, but the race went on, and was won by the 18-year-old Blackburn, who did the journey in 8 hours 42 minutes, with Wilson, on an Indian, the only other solo finisher in 10 hours 5 minutes. (The previous year there were no finishers in this class.) Lawrence won the sidecar trophy in 10 hrs 2 mins with Booth second and Penfold third. (The 1918 race provided one finisher.)
The following year the 'indomitable Chick was back to ride in his first Durban-Johannesburg race or, more accurately, Johannesburg to Durban race, for this was a "down" year. The last, in fact before the change in directions from the coast to the Reef. Because of reports of appalling weather down-country making the roads nearly impassable all the way to the Natal border, RMCC officials called an emergency meeting of riders to decide whether the race should go on or be postponed. Several riders of small machines who saw in the '"impossible" conditions their heaven-sent opportunity for pulling off a win, were all for holding the race, so the riders lined up and were despatched at intervals on their miserable journey.
Cold, mud, rain, slides, skids, crashes, on they went - hating every minute of it. Starting 48th "Chick" (a nickname given by his brother, Stanley) was 9th into Standerton, the first control.
Here a kindly (we hope) spectator gave the half-frozen lad a tot of brandy to warm him up. The tot, which must have been a generous one, did more than that, because, for some reason, possibly also connected with the tot. Chick thereafter kept falling off with monotonous irregularity! He had passed Zurcher, the eventual winner, only to be passed again by the Douglas rider who won in 23 hrs 18mins 20 secs, an incredible feat of endurance in the near-impossible conditions.
For the next two years Chick followed the Johannesburg races from the Hotel which he opened in Durban after his marriage, but he was back in leathers again astride a little 225 cc. two-stroke 2-speed Enfield, when the flag fell at the start of the 1923 DJ. He had lost his money in the hostelry adventure, but life was really worth living again when the little two-stroke was on full song again like a bomb headed for the Transvaal.
All was well till his almost non-existing brakes ceased to exist when approaching a gate beyond Volksrust. After a considerable delay spent straightening forks and front wheel, he got going again even if not as smooth-running as before. He motored to such purpose that he was only caught by Percy Flook who snatched the lead from him about 8 miles from the finish. Despite his spill, he finished second, taking 13 hrs 33 mins 31 secs for the journey, and two hours (yes hours) and nearly ten minutes, off the old 225 cc record, set up by Jack Booth, then regarded as the King-Pin in the small machine category. Switching to a side-valve motor, he entered a 349 cc. in the 1924 race and finished fourth behind Alf Long (Sunbeam), Eddie Bagley (Norton) and R L Evans on another 'Beam.
It was now obvious to anyone with eyes to see that here was one of the shrewdest campaigners on roughery. Chick had an uncanny knack of knowing just how fast to go without smashing up his machines. He also knew what many never learned - that the race is not just to the swift, it is also the man who finishes the race. Spectacular intermediate times were no use whatsoever if the machine broke a frame or wrecked an engine or a wheel, through overdoing things on the appalling roads. There was a limit. Chick must have been born with a built-in metal-fatigue and speed calculator in his brain and he knew when to shut off which is just as important as knowing when to hold the throttle lever wide open.
On this same side-valver he bagged a sixth place in the 1925 race, won by "Ginger" Bower on a 350 s/v Douglas, in 10 hrs 34 mins 13 secs, with Alf Long second on a 350 s/v Indian Prince, who belted that class a wallop, returning 10 hrs 6 mins 13 secs for the run.
Riding a 344 ohv, Chick moved up a place to fifth in 1926, losing fastest 350 time to wily old Alf Long, on a Sunbeam, by a mere six seconds. Only Ted Murray on a big 989 s/v Harley-Davidson was faster than the pair on the little singles. Alf finished third in 9 hrs 45 mins 43 secs and Murray 9th in 9 hrs 18 mins 48 secs.
There have been riders who complained about the atrocious condition of the old main road in those early days. Chick was never one of those. Perhaps he judged them by the roads around Lakes Nyasa and Tanganyika on which he learned his rough-riding. Anything better than those bush-tracks were good—and there were no lions here to make him go faster.
Without an exhaust pipe, he battled through to a lowly 20th place in 1926, the lowest of his career, but in the cir-cumstances a most meritorious performance.
Machine failures kept him out of the gold till 1930, when, in another memorable race, A B Browne, Durban rider of a 250 DKW, was disqualified for using a machine which did not comply with official silencer regulations - Chick moved up one place to 3rd on his 488 cc ohv Enfield. Boet Griebenow's 8 hrs 30 mins 28 secs beat the Enfield for the fastest time by 19 minutes.
In the 1931 race the chunky Chick had a never-to-be-forgotten dice with burly Dick Donaldson, the amiable machine-tamer, all the way to Newcastle this pair fought it out neither giving an inch, though they took plenty.
At the half-way stop. Donaldson's Triumph gave up the struggle when his gear-box gnashed its teeth for the last time, and Chick continued to Johannesburg alone. He wasn't without company, however, for near Volksrust he recalls having swiped all the road three other earlier starters were using. As that Enfield had an unhappy desire to lie down on loose corners, and he passed the others in a dirt track slide, they did not dispute Chick's right to the line he took in the process.
At the finish of the race two flattened exhaust pipes bore silent witness to the nuggety little rider's assertion that his mount "didn't steer too well". But for all that he still steered it into 5th place, one behind Griebenow on a model 90 Sunbeam, who was credited with a time of 7 hrs 57 mins for the trip. Two seconds faster than the Enfield. Yes, a mere two seconds difference after 403 miles! Incredible! Even more incredible, in my opinion, was the award of the trophy for fastest time to the Sunbeam rider.
In all fairness, let's state right now that no voice of complaint, or protest, came from the sporting Enfield rider, though the loss of this award made a big difference to him financially. Let's admit, too that I, the writer of this article, wrote to the Johannesburg "Star" at the time, pointing out the "unfairness", in my opinion, of not bracketing the two riders as joint holders of the fastest time award, giving as my reasons the fact that timing arrangements at the intermediate controls were, to put it mildly and kindly, somewhat sketchy. Synchronised watches were not used by officials clocking the competitors in and out of the towns en route, and many competitors can tell of seeing riders who arrived after them being despatched from exit controls before them.
An allowance of 12 minutes was made for traversing the built-up areas of Pietermaritzburg. Estcourt (8 mins). Colenso (2 mins), Ladysmith (8 mins), Volksrust. Standerton and Heidelburg, 6 mins each, making 48 minutes overall in time allowances. Admittedly the conditions in this race were peculiar to it but my opinion then, and now, is that the prize should, because of those very peculiarities, have been shared. The answer came in a very definite form from Chick himself when astride a Standard Four Valve Job which the Redditch Factory had sent out for the 1932 race. Chick settled all arguments by caning his own name on the "Fastest ever" trophy when he carved over 51 minutes off the previous 500 cc record. No arguments about that performance.
After this race he was able to tell the Redditch Factory folk that his mount had given him the most comfortable Johannesburg ride he'd ever had. In their offices 7 000 miles away in England, no doubt they were suitably impressed. One close-up look at the state of the roads that our Chick called good, would, we are sure have shaken their teeth loose!
Imagine the line-up on the scratch mark at the bottom of Mayville Hill when the starter sent off the last four 500 cc riders in the 1933 classic. Cohen (BSA). Sarkis (OK). Scott (James), and Harris (Enfield) in pursuit of the field with Burton Kinsey off 6 mins just ahead. Going into Estcourt a fork shackle broke and the Enfield opened out like a giraffe going down to drink at a water-hole. Fortunately he was unhurt.
Chick's luck deserted him the following year too but he showed he had lost none of his old skill by piloting a Mark 10 493 cc Triumph into 8th place of the 1935 classic with another fastest time to his credit - 6 hrs 31 mins 29 secs - which was certainly some tramping on those roads. A pre-race try-out on Harrison Flats had shown a top speed of 110 mph which in those rigid-frame days was enough to satisfy any of the big boys in the business. It seems a pity that in the last race of the series Chick should have had to retire early when his 350 Excelsior Manxman's tank split at Cato Ridge and he was out after 30 miles. Disappointed? Yes, but his ever-ready smile didn't betray it.
There was something romantic about the Durban-Johannesburg race which no other race ever captured, but it had to go when traffic conditions made racing on open roads too dangerous for competitors and non-competitors alike. Speed-men accepted this decision, all be it with regrets, for they knew the "good old days" had gone. Happy they were though, that they had known them and contributed their share to the history of the game in South Africa.
The foregoing may give readers the idea that Chick rode only in the DJ. In fact he competed in all and any club event Reliability and speed trials, dirt track scrambles, grass track, petrol tests, indeed, in anything just for the love of it. One year he look a couple of Triumphs down to Port Elizabeth for the SA TT but mechanical troubles ended his Kragga Kamma hopes. Twice, too he was nominated to represent South Africa in the Isle of Man TT but could not make the trip. As captain of the NMCC he was one of those instrumental in "discovering" Curries Fountain, the popular grass track below Durban's Botanic Gardens.
That, and club events, kept Chick's enthusiasm at engine heat till the outbreak of the second World War and within a week of South Africa's entry into the conflict Chick was back in the Army in company of other NMCC stalwarts, "Old" Charlie Young, John Craven, Jack Rowlands, Harry Adams, Harrington Johnstone and others. Going overland to Kenya by truck, they took their "Don R" Harleys with them and were soon in action on the "rough stuff” of Kenya's Northern Frontier Desert, Somaliland and Abyssinia.
Greatest day in that campaign was not the capture of Addis Ababa, but the capture of a nifty 500 cc Moto-Guzzi which Chick went out into No-man's land to collect after its previous owner had been machine-gunned out of the saddle by the SAAF fighter planes. Retaliatory fire from the enemy after he'd "rescued" it expedited Chick's departure in the reverse direction. He was a happy man and the envy of every "Don R" in Abyssinia when he took his Guzzi with him to Egypt and the Western Desert. But tragedy struck at Sidi Rezegh when, with hundreds of others, he was captured in the bloody battle there and was force-marched for three days, without food, or the Guzzi to Benghazi, to be shipped in the hold of an armed merchantman to Italy.
One night, taking evasive action (so the Captain thought) the ship headed for the coast of Greece where it was rocked by a tremendous explosion. An Allied submarine commander, ignorant of the fact that it was full of prisoners of war, torpedoed it tearing a huge hole in its bows. First to leave the sinking ship were the captain and the officers, who filled the first lifeboat and headed for the nearby shore! For three days the crippled ship swung precariously on the rocks before the POWs were rescued into captivity again and re-shipped to Italy.
The next two years saw Sergeant W R Harris in various POW camps in Italy and in Germany. He doesn't say much about his years in confinement but anyone who saw him as I did when he returned to South Africa would never have recognised the emaciated little fellow they saw as the person who man-handled all those big racing bikes from 1920-39.
In the last stages of the war he escaped with nine others to roam like hunted, haunted men in the dark forests of Bavaria, caught between the pincers of the American and German forces. The Americans reached the fugitives first, and for Chick the war was truly over, and not before time for he had had the last doubtful privilege of being machine-gunned by Allied planes as he lay in a ditch only days before. Was it not enough to have been bombed, shelled, and torpedoed by his own comrades-in-arms? Yes, this time Chick had to admit that he’d had enough to last him for a long time. Now he works at the Rubber Company in Howick and as he looks back on the exciting events of his life he smiles and the twinkle returns into his eyes. Ask him if he has any regrets and he'll tell you "No". But I have my doubts. I'm sure he still thinks of that lovely Moto-Guzzi he got for nothing in Abyssinia and had to leave in a hurry at Sidi Rezegh.
Copyright J. Leyden 1963