The Classic Motorcycle Rally
CHARLES HERBERT "CHARLIE" YOUNG
Young Man in a Hurry – Charlie Young.
By Jock Leyden.
"Pas op! Charlie's got his chin out!" shouted big Bunny Loader as he leaned over the competitors' enclosure fence and watched the white-jerseyed rider on the big 596 cc Douglas whip past four riders and, heeled well over, rush into the Isipingo Bend at Clairwood race course. Charlie Young had a characteristic crouch which could be spotted a mile off, but when he was up against it, he had his chin and jaw set in an aggressively defiant manner which told all those with eyes to see that here was a man in a hurry.
Gobbling up three more grass-trackers on the big sweep, he accelerated down the back stretch with a spine-tingling burst of acceleration that brought shouts from the crowded stand. Then, pulling right up on the leader as they braked for the town bend, he cut inside, and held the screaming Douglas close in all the way round, to go into the finishing straight with a clear lead, and take the chequered flag for another victory.
Bunny looked at me, laughed his deep throaty laugh and shook his head, his big eyes shining in unfeigned admiration. Yes, it was all so typically "Charlie"! Nobody gave the crowds a thrill as Charlie Young did. Nobody was more loved by race followers in South Africa, wherever he rode, for, wherever he appeared, he rode with a dash and a fire that was obvious to anyone. His style was relaxed but aggressive. If anything, he belonged to the Jimmy Guthrie, Beppo Castellani school of machine-gaffers! All looked quick. They were, too. But they all knew what they were doing.
Since Charlie was a back-marker, on possibly more than any other rider (and how race crowds love the scratch man!) he had sufficient reasons for his look of determination, and he could be relied upon to produce racing worthy of the expectant shouts which greeted his appearance on the starting line, or his disappearance at speed on the road or track. Thus, it is somewhat strange to find his entry in the 1919 Johannesburg to Durban race as Young (Triumph). The reporter of that day did not know his initials! C H, for these were the then unknown initials, stood for Charles Herbert, the Christian names of the young man called Young. Charlie, for that is all he was ever called, was born in Maritzburg in 1896 and went to the Boys' Model School where he met a bigger lad named Bunny Loader. Little did they know then that they were to make racing history together in later years, and have the honour of representing South Africa in those greatest of all races— the famous Isle of Man Tourist Trophy events.
But, at that time, Charlie's main interest was in the bicycles which he rode for fun and repaired to make some extra pocket money. From school it was but a short ride to Shimwell Brothers, cycle and motorcycle agents where he was apprenticed. He learnt the business from the spokes up, and he learnt well, for there never was a better wheel-builder than Charlie. Till the last Durban - Johannesburg race in 1936, riders who wanted super-strong Harley Davidson rims re-spoked for their race machines, came to Charlie to get them done. But many miles of dirt roads passed under his wheels before 1936. Let's recap.
From Maritzburg the young man went to German East Africa with the SA Forces in World War I and there, as a despatch rider, he learnt how to handle motorcycles on the rough stuff which was the only kind of road there was. On demobilisation back in Durban, he rejoined his old firm and after putting up second fastest time in a hill-climb up old Inchanga Bank, he entered his first road race, the Durban - Ladysmith - Durban 300-mile grind. In this he had no luck, but it whetted his appetite for the game and when the competitors lined up at City Deep for the first post-war Johannesburg to Durban 400 miler, there he was on the starting line rarin' to go.
Favourites for this were SA’s No 1, Percy Flook, the Transvaal holder of the Rand-Coast record, on a Triumph, but this time on a 2¾ hp Douglas, Alf Long and Dave Owen—a powerful Rand trio. Durban was also well represented. The main coastal challengers being headed by the new sensation, Bobby Blackburn, an 18-year-old, on his Ladysmith Race-winning 998 cc big twin Harley and Ralph Suzor, captain of the NMCC on a speedy Norton. There was great interest in this race and crowds gathered at the City Deep and all along the fringes of towns en route to see the riders pass on their long, and for most, momentous journey.
Roads were dry and dusty and casualties among the machines, heavy because of the badly corrugated sections which abounded. One described it as "a lot of potholes held together with dust." Many of the competing machines were ex-army surplus stock. Flook's Douglas had been built from spare parts. It was not surprising, therefore when 20 of the original 46 starters failed to reach the overnight control at Newcastle.
Heading the arrivals was Percy Flook. This was not unexpected. Then came Zurcher on another Douglas, Young and Blackburn, and the fellow without the initials had made fastest time — 5 minutes faster than Blackburn who was conceding him a start of 63 minutes! The Triumph had gained 22 mins on Flook, and 48 minutes on Zurcher's 2¾ Douglas. It was obvious that, with normal luck Young was in a strong winning position and started favourite next morning; but on the dreaded Biggarsberg, which was in a worse state than ever (if that was possible), misfortune struck the flying Triumph rider. Desperately trying to make up time on a road he had never seen before, first the two upper back fork stays snapped, and Charlie slewed in a stop. Away out on that desolate 66-mile stretch he sought something with which to do a bit of jury-rigging. A fencing stanchion was requisitioned and feverishly wired into place, then, believe it or not, he continued, not to limp into Ladysmith to retire, as most would have done, but to race on with a determination that was incredible for those who knew not C H Young.
Some miles later, misfortune struck again, when the pin through the barrel fork spring snapped, allowing the front wheel to sag forward and the crankcase almost to foul the ground - but did he give up? - he did not. Instead he edged his weight off the back wheel, sat forward on the tank and, believe it or not, continued racing on. Through Ladysmith, across Colenso Heights, down the boulder-strewn hill into Estcourt he clattered. How he held the wrecked Triumph together is a mystery. On and on through Willow Grange, up the mountain and down to Mooi River, through Curries Post and its back-breaking ruts - he must have suffered agonies, but he knew he still lay high up for he had started fifth from Newcastle (after the handicaps had been adjusted) and Flook and Booth alone were still ahead. The descent of Maritzburg's Town Hill was desperate but there were only 56 miles to go, and the engine was still healthy, if the "rest of the machine" was in extremis. Charlie's chin must have been jutting out as it never did before (or since) for miraculously that bundle of broken ironmongery held together, and, against all the odds, roared over the line at Toll Gate to take second place behind Percy Flook.
Immediately he was surrounded by an admiring and gawking crowd which just couldn't believe its eyes, for when the Triumph was examined it was seen to be fit only for the junkyard, yet the gallant Charlie had nursed this crazy wreck for two hundred miles, and not only did it finish the course, it did so at a speed faster than any machine had done so before - 11 hrs 25 mins 43 secs, was the official time - nearly 5 minutes faster than Adams race-winning Rudge had done the trip in 1914.
Fifty minutes later a roar heralded the arrival of the third man, Blackburn, on the big twin Harley, who was clocked in with a time nearly ten minutes faster than the Triumph bone-shaker. Flook had won, Blackburn had made fastest time, but the honours were all to Charlie Young. For months afterwards the main topic of conversation was Charlie's great ride. And no wonder, for, in the history of this classic race, Charlie's 1919 ride stands forever as the most courageous and fantastic performance in all those 24 years.
In 1920 there was talk of holding a South African TT and eventually it was decided to stage the event on a circuit near Maritzburg. Charlie won the Intermediate class (Hamerton on an Indian, the Junior) and repeated his performance the next year, winning the Junior (up to 500 cc) and Intermediate (up to 750 cc) classes on his Triumph. Between races he swopped his cylinder barrel to increase the capacity of his side-valve motor for the larger cc category. By his three wins in a row he won the trophy outright.
It is of more than passing interest to record this fact, because subsequently the venue was changed, owing to the unsuitability of the circuit. The East London, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria Clubs tried to get the races,the EPMCC offering their Kragga Kamma Circuit, some six miles outside PE, and there the races were held till 1934.
Most people (myself included) regarded the 1924 PE race as the FIRST SA TT. That was not so. The honour of organising the first SA TT belongs to the NMCC though it was not a TT such as we know it today, being a handicap event. In the Junior race the 500's gave starts up to 1 hr 12 mins to the 225 two-strokes. In the Inter¬mediate, the 750's gave the 500's 17min. The first TT under present-day conditions, however, was that in PE in 1925 which Don Hall won on an AJS Later the race around the Griffins Hill-Thornville triangular course was resurrected and was named the Natal TT.
Charlie was always a bit vague about what happened in the 1920 race - "The Snowstorm Derby" - after leaving Standerton anyway. There he must have been met by a good Samaritan (or was it Publican?) who was handing out hefty dollops from a bottle to help thaw the frozen warriors. It helped do that all right, but from then on the road wouldn't stay still and kept on coming up to meet him. After that everything just blanked out for him, as it did for others unused to a glass of neat liquor on an empty and revolving stomach.
An official's mistake in sending him off at the start of the 1921 Ladysmith race robbed him of victory. The re¬doubtable Percy Flook, on a 2¾ hp Douglas, won, Charlie was second on a Triumph which finished with half a handlebar, due to a crash and "Strangler" Dick Donaldson man-handled a Norton into the third berth. G Smith took the sidecar class from Bobby Blackburn, both on Harley outfits.
Now two rival factions sprang up among race followers - the pro-American and the pro-British contingents. Each side claimed that machines from these countries were the only race-wear for S Africa. Heroes of these groups were Bobby Blackburn and Charlie Young. To the one, the big twin Harleys with the "cowboy" handlebars, were the ideal for our roads (such as they were). The opposing faction was as vehemently eloquent in singing the praises of the lighter, handier single-cylinder British machines. To them this new star on the Triumph was the answer to anyone on a "big hulking lump of Yankee ironmongery."
Amid all the controversy, no doubt the two riders just smiled in a disinterested way though they were probably less disinterested when various large sums of money were mentioned as a "sidestakes" for a match race between the stars of the rival factions. For some time Natal newspapers carried stories of the possible two-man race. Durban-Maritzburg was suggested as well as Durban-Ladysmith - 300 miles and the full 400 mile Johannesburg distance as being suitable distances over which to settle the arguments.
Be it noted that Blackburn's record was quite stupendous. Although then only 21 years old, he had won the Natal "100" and the Ladysmith race in 1919 (with a time of 8 hrs 42 mins for the latter) and the same year finished third with fastest time (11 hrs 15 mins) in the DJ. In 1921 he was second in the chair class of the Ladysmith, and won the Johannesburg race from the scratch mark (the only rider ever to do so) in 10 hrs 12 mins. In 1922 he was second again in the Ladysmith, his time with a side-wagon being a new class record.
If this match race had taken place, it would have been a real "race of the century" but the fates decreed otherwise, for young Bobbie was severely injured when returning from Maritzburg one week-end, his outfit crashing at the old Botha's Hill railway crossing and he died a few days later. Motor-cyclists everywhere mourned the passing of this brilliant rider and the sport was poorer for his loss, for he was the Geoff Duke of his day.
On one of the most advanced designed motors of that period, a Ricardo Triumph, Charlie entered for the 1922 DJ. This revolutionary new engine was the talk of motor-cycle racing for years. It had four valves - the cylinder barrel was steel, spigotted into the cast-iron head, and the piston was the first of the slipper type. He showed that he meant business right from the start by clocking fastest time to Maritzburg and again to Estcourt. Before Ladysmith a buckled back wheel cost him 30 minutes. He stopped to put in a new tube and attend a broken saddle, but Scott, on a snappy 350 AJS, was race leader here, with Jack Booth and Doug Scott second and third respectively.
The Young chin was out again. Up Inchanga, down to Drummond, left, left, left, away through the cars parked close by the Hotel with the crowds thick on the banks. Up old Alverstone. If ever Charlie rode on the border line, this was the day. The old Douglas was a bit of a snake at the best of times, but now it was a handful even for Charlie, who was recognised as the strongest man for his size in the country. Away up the cutting howled the twin, the back wheel slithering about from side to side like a dog wagging its tail.
The road surface was choppy and to make matters even worse, oil smothered the whole rear end of the machine. Well banked over, the inevitable happened and machine and rider parted company in a mighty spark-raising slide. Picking himself up, Charlie made a hasty examination of the damage, then leapt off in fast pursuit. What a race between these two great riders this was to be sure. Charlie knew that oil had got into his brakes, making the chase doubly dangerous, but he stuck to it and brought forth all his skill to try to catch the flying AJS.
Imagine the duel, if you can, on the old, narrow winding Main Road! Wow! It takes my breath away to think of it now! So they came on down the drop from Kloof to Pinetown, the Douglas chasing the AJS across the flats, zooming up the rise to Cowie's and swooping down the breathtaking drop to the serpentine bends below. Then up Westermeyers, with the crowds craning their neck to see the race masters flash past. Who was leading? At Huntley's, Charlie's low slung blue and silver machine nosed past the big bellowing black AJS What a race!
Suzors was gone in a flash. Up 45th Cutting they roared as if the devil was at their heels. Over the top, and now for the rush down Blackhill to the finish. Charlie knew he had to get round the frightsome crick-in-the-neck corner half-way down, ahead of Len, he also knew his rear brake was useless, drenched in oil. It was now or never and he laid it over. In a flash the rear wheel slid away from him and the wily Len nipped smartly through to take the chequered flag in the closest finish since Len Gray had done exactly the same thing at the same corner to win from Norman Brockwell in 1928. And the first to congratulate Len on his victory was Charlie himself, with a big broad grin and a hearty handshake. It was all so typical of the man.
Bunny Loader will tell you today that Charlie was the greatest sportsman he ever met in his life, and that's saying something for Bunny is the oldest of the old school of racers still living, and knew them all. What manner of man was this? Of average height, well-built with not an ounce of fat on him anywhere (I have heard him described as "like a camel—all muscle") sharp blue eyes that darted glances from side to side like a hunting bird. The birdlike quality was further heightened by his prominent nose. His mouth would be, one moment set firm, the next broken with a quick smile. Fiery tempered - yes, but he never bore a grudge and quarrels were soon forgotten, for he was kind-hearted to a degree as many fellow competitors could recall. Often in the old Johannesburg race days he had stopped to hand over a spare tube or valve to another in trouble. A spare which he himself might need later on, but never thought of withholding if it could help a rider get back into the race.
From Zurchers he went to Ted Fishers Garage in Umbilo Road and there he rode Panther, Levis and Sunbeam machines in the last of the great DJ Series. His best showing were on "Beams", when in 1935 he put up fastest times to Maritzburg and all the way to Volksrust, before packing up, and in the last race of all, in 1936, when he finished in ninth spot.
Some will remember him for his great rides with his JAP-engined " Grasshopper" on the old Curries Fountain grass-cum-dirt track; some will recall him on his spidery Enfield rushing round the bottom left-hand sweep on Westermeyers; others the crouching white-sweatered figure on the howling Douglas swooping down through the gum-tree lined avenue at Compensation. These sights are as vivid in my photographic mind now as they were years ago. I recall them all. He rode right until the outbreak of World War II when he was among the first to join up and was straightaway put on to requisitioning machines for the army and was later commissioned.
When Lieut C H Young ("our Charlie") died in Springfield Hospital in 1942, the game never seemed to be the same afterwards. Of him it could truly be said, "gone but not forgotten", for the mark he left in the history of racing and in the minds of those who saw him making it, was an indelible one.
Copyright J Leyden 1963
At Volksrust Scott was leading Young, then in fifth place, by 45 minutes. Scott had had more than his share of troubles too, having broken his handlebars in a crash on the forbidding Ingogo and had to pull in to a garage at the Transvaal border to effect a repair. That was not the only trouble he had either. His tank was leaking, but he plugged this with a towel and battled on manfully. But Charlie was in a fighting mood and catching him up as the race progressed. At Greylingstad the margin was 20 minutes. At Balfour only 4 minutes separated the pair. The 500 could not be denied on the flat Transvaal roads and pulled in the 350 just outside Heidelberg, going on to win in 10 hrs 1 min 32 secs. Scott was second and Alf Long third with fastest time (9 hrs 46 min 23 secs) on a big Excelsior.
Successfully baptised in the Johannesburg, the faithful "Ricky" carried Charlie into another second place in the 1923 Ladysmith "do", behind Spargo's Norton, but his luck was out in the Johannesburg of that year, for, after another fast time to Maritzburg, he crashed on the notorious old Karkloof nightmare.
The South African Tourist Trophy races that had been discussed for years became a fact in 1924, but the various capacity classes proposed had to be dropped because of lack of entries. Instead, there were two races—an intermediate and an unlimited class (the ohv's gave the side-valves 20 minutes start). There were 16 in the former class and Charlie was holding third place on his Ricardo behind Hamerton (Indian Scout) and Moore (long stroke Sunbeam) when, with but half a mile to go, the conrod parted company on the Triumph and Charlie had to push his machine to the finish. Bunny Loader (Norton), who had led the race, and put up fastest lap, just pipping him for place money.
This year the MCUSA decided to send representatives to The Isle of Man to compete in the great TT series, and Charlie was chosen to go being joined later by Ian Scott, Bunny Loader and Ted Murray. For the Senior Race, Triumphs had entered C H on a 1923 machine prepared by their great Brooklands tuner and record-breaker, world-famous Victor Horsman.
That Charlie's year-old machine was quick, was obvious from his practice times, and his progress around the tortuous Island course was such that the great J L ("Pa") Norton sent a message to the Springbok contingent on the Island to tell "that mad South African not to lean his machine over so far on the corners." His fiendish riding at Ramsey was scaring the wits out of Pa! A second message from Hassell of Nortons offered one of their race-machines, for no one fancied the chances of the lone Triumph entry when ranged against the might of factory teams riding to orders. But they had underestimated the Horsman-Young combination, for the Triumph finished in fourth place, a truly magnificent performance in the circumstances. Ahead of him were Bennett (Norton) Langman (Scott) and Dixon (Douglas) the classiest trio of their time and the No 1 riders of the three most powerful teams.
Back at Kragga Kamma for the 1925 New Year TT Races, Charlie took the 600 cc class again on a Triumph, after Flook's Douglas, which had led for 7 laps, broke its frame. Loader on a Norton was second.
To the Isle of Man he went again, riding an Enfield in the Junior Race in which he earned a meritorious seventh place, and despite troubles, 18th in the Senior on a Triumph.
He divided his racing between the TT's in South Africa and Manxland again in 1926, at Port Elizabeth, collecting both Junior and Senior TT's, riding the same 350 Royal Enfield. In the 350 Class, Charlie led from the start, and won, despite a spirited challenge by two very new hot-stuff Indian Princes in the hands of Alf Long and Hamerton. In the bigger class there was another Flook-Young duel, the former on a 500 cc Norton led for two laps and retired to let Charlie through and he was never headed, though "Big Bill" Du Toit, the Cape Town strong man, made a spectacular, but unavailing attempt to close the gap between them. So Charlie walked off with the Woolavington Trophy and the Triumph Shield, the first rider to win the double.
The trip to the Isle of Man in 1926 was one Charlie was not to forget for a long time. He took over a Junior Enfield entry when another rider withdrew, and on this was battling to keep up with the leaders who had miles an hour in hand. Crafty Alec Bennett had the race in his pocket on a Velocette, going on to give that marque its first of many TT victories. Behind him Simpson found himself completely outpaced for a change, and the temperamental Wal Handley was trailing the Wolverhampton Wizard. One can guess just how hard Charlie was trying, when, despite his greatest efforts, the best he could do was to coax his out-speeded mount into 10th place, when he set off on his last lap. Trying to pare of fifths of a second on every corner, the Enfield rider was negotiating the notorious Baaregaroo, a full-throttle approach to the even more notorious 13th milestone, cornering at his maximum speed, his forks broke, and for 60 - 70 breathless, death-defying yards he fought a machine gone beserk. Nothing Charlie could do was any use, and in the resulting pile-up he was lucky to be alive. He was hauled to the side of the road, where, if contemporary Natal newspaper reports are accurate, he lay for two whole hours before he was removed to Noble's Hospital by ambulance.
There he was found to have extensive injuries to his face, hands, knees and back. At first it was feared that his back injuries were more serious, but it takes a lot to shake a Springbok, and Charlie caught his Durban-bound boat on schedule. The IOM excursion had also taught Charlie that JAP motors had been caught up and passed, in the horse-power battles being waged on the race circuits of the world.
So it was in the 1927 PE Race. But he did not give up without a struggle, and worried Len Cohen, the Junior race winner on an AJS, till the Enfield's con-rod broke. In the Senior race he hung on stubbornly, though again well down on maximum, to take third place, Flook and Cohen beating him home. This year, too, saw him bringing a Triumph across the line at City Deep in seventh place in the DJ and putting up fastest 500 cc time.
Over the years he had chalked-up an imposingly long list of successes on Enfields and Triumphs, but, after this, he decided to sever his long and successful period with Shimwells and move up to Alexandra Street to join Zurcher and Acutt, the Douglas Agents. Motor town gasped when the news was made known, for C H Young, Enfields and Triumphs, were almost synonymous.
He rode the famous flat twins till late 1931, in road races, hillclimbs, and speed trials, as well as on the grass at Clairwood Speedway, and he had a fair measure of success. Let us admit, right away, the machines he rode were never the "last word" - indeed they were outdated, but that did not deter Charlie from giving of his best and Charlie's best was nothing if not spectacular. In a speed trial at Compensation Flats he established a South African record when he whipped his goose-neck Douggie through the tapes at 107 mph.
He finished seventh in the 1928 Johannesburg on his 596 cc job after starting No 119 from Durban (Big Bill du Toit was No 120 on a Harley). Just for fun, Zurcher got Charlie to go for a long distance record on the Clairwood Speedway, and Charlie put 57¾ miles into the hour on the one-mile dirt track. The previous record stood to the credit of Alf Long on an Indian Scout, established while attempting a SA double-twelve hour record on the banked Motordrome speedway in Johannesburg. He had covered 1 466 miles in the first twelve, but his chase for records was abruptly halted in the 13th hour when his motor seized.
Quite one of Charlie's greatest efforts, in my opinion, was in the 1930 Natal 100 when he and Len Cohen started together off the scratch mark at the foot of Blackhill. Charlie headed Len by l½ minutes into Maritzburg and turned for home. Oil was everywhere - all over the back wheel - everywhere, except the sump. At Camperdown the Douglas ran short of oil. The garage there had none of the required grade. "Anything will do - mustard oil if you've nothing else", said Charlie. Into the tank went "something" and off he rushed. The race was fast and definitely furious. A 100 mile race is a sprint - and Len Cohen on a 498 cammy AJ was no sluggard.