The Classic Motorcycle Rally
The Longest DJ – Fritz Zurcher.
by Jock Leyden.
"Where have you come from, Jock?" asked Big John Storrie, our star sidecar tamer. "From Zurchers." Big John looked down at me from his great height "Bet he didn't show you anything!" "He showed me his 350 ohv the one he calls 'Buzz-Box. The one with a twist grip that looks just like an ordinary dummy grip. It was ridden at Brooklands by one of that famous trio of record-breakers, Judd, Pullin or Bailey, before it was sent out here. He also showed me the big 596 ohv goose-necked Douglas, the one he calls “Kookity”. It's got a friction type steering damper that works like an external-contracting brake”.
"Where did you see these?" quizzed John. "In the workshop that's locked up - where the racing machines are perched on stands, so that they can be worked on easily. He unlocked it and took me in." John's eyebrows lowered. His eyes narrowed. Then he pushed his cloth cap back on his head and whistled. "Fritz must like you! Not many people have ever been inside that place."
Possibly I stuck my chest out a bit too, knowing I had been in the holy of holies in Alexandra Street. I could have told John a lot more, but he kicked his 596 cc Norton into life, and departed towards the Berea. I could have told him the story Fritz told me then, in 1928, the tale of the most controversial Jo'burg race of all time — the fabled "Snowstorm Derby." This is how I heard it from the man who won it — and who should know the story better?
For the 1920 race the Douglas factory had sent him out a rather special job. It was a 500 cc side valve, SPRING-FRAME machine. To familiarise himself with the worst sections (the only way a rider could "learn" a course of over 400 miles) he did a couple of practice runs on the road before the race, and noted the new ones since the previous year when he had finished 6th (after being 2nd at the half-way stage). But all his preparation went for nothing, because torrential rain fell on the day before the race, turning the roads (if they could truthfully be called such) into oceans of mud, miles and miles of it, and it all looked the same - bad.
All control points to the Natal border reported near-impossible conditions, and, at a pre-race meeting of the riders, some refused point-blank to start. The riders of the small machines, like Jack Booth on the baby (225 cc) Triumph, however, thought the conditions were made (mud?) to measure for them, and voted on starting to schedule - no postponement for them. So, 42 of the 51 entries weatherproofed themselves as well as possible, and set off. Pete Lawrence, the scratch marker on an Indian Chief, pulled out, but Bobby Blackburn on the big Harley was despatched on time.
Zurcher, who was No 15, didn't go very fast early on because of grit and mud which got in his eyes, forcing him to stop at spruits and wash them out. The muddy roads were simply appalling, and riders rode, fell, re-mounted, carried on, fell again. On and on, on and off, the nightmare ride continued for all, without exception - early starters and backmarkers. But, to their chagrin, the former had the added misery of seeing themselves passed, after only 30 miles, by riders who had conceded them 45 minutes start!
At Standerton, Zurcher was still 15th, while away up in front were Flook, the 1919 winner, on a 350 Douglas, and Reg Witherspoon of Durban on a 400 cc transverse twin ABC. Beyond Standerton the roads were worse! No matter which one of the twenty or thirty tracks which stretched side by side across the veld, was chosen, it was an agony. Riders battled through the mud till they fell off too exhausted to continue. Bobby Blackburn gave up the unequal struggle, as did Charlie Young, Chick Harris and many more. As he slithered and skidded, Zurcher must have been reminded of the days in his youth when he played hockey on roller skates in London. This was powered roller-skating with a vengeance. Because of the retirements, few riders were to be seen as Fritz plugged manfully southwards through the bleak day. Then in the late afternoon, nearing Volksrust he spied a welcome motorist.
Stopping, he asked, with chattering teeth, if he could drape himself over the radiator to thaw himself out. Mr Lyons, for that was the motorist's name, was only too happy to help the stiffly frozen young man, massaging his hands to bring back the circulation! After this welcome break he continued on to Volksrust. There he was told he was eleventh. It was then about 5 pm and some of the competitors who had had enough wanted to turn the race up there and then, swearing it was impossible for anyone to cross the berg in such weather in daylight, much less than in the dark. Zurcher considered the prospects which were hardly inviting, and was told that Percy Flook on a Douglas, Fletcher Owen on a big Indian and Ted Murray on a Harley had gone through. So what was there to do? Press on, regardless? He did, but it was mudguardless.
Near Charlestown a lamp swinging in the darkness signalled him to stop. It was a woman. She asked him who he was, and when he told her she implored him to stop, saying he would kill himself if he continued. Then she informed him that four riders were ahead of him. That was enough. He bent over his handlebars and headed into the night. Now and again he could hear engines racing ahead. When he heard them no more, he concluded they had raced away. Displaying all the pugnacity which had taken him through, years before to the feather-weight finals of the ABA boxing championships, he stuck to his task. Countless times he spilled, struggled to his feet again, straddled the mud-caked Douglas and restarted. Going on and on till beyond the stage of feeling any more. All he knew was that if four others could do it, so could he.
Eventually, worn out from taking 1½ hours to surmount the last 2 miles of muddy misery, and weary beyond belief, he tumbled into Ingogo and was astonished to hear he was the first rider there! He did not then know that Flook, Owen and Murray had pulled into Van Niekerk's farm about 100 yards off the road at Laing's Nek, where the farmer had made them comfortable and they settled down secure (so they thought) in the knowledge that no one would be able to go over the mountain massif that night. There, sitting around the cosy warmth of a huge fire, they were rudely disturbed by the arrival of a car. In it was Murray's father who had crossed from Natal looking for his son. There was consternation when he told them Zurcher had gone through, and, even then, was miles away on the road to Newcastle.
Flook, being fittest, and having the lightest machine, was despatched first, to try and catch the race leader, in one of the most unbelievable races of all time - in the dark. Unknowing, Zurcher battled on. 3 miles outside Newcastle a sidecar outfit hove into sight. Some enthusiasts on a Henderson were also fighting an unequal struggle against the glutinous mud. Their brandy Zurcher refused. The knowledge that he was so near to the mid-way control was enough to warm him to his task. He hastened on. They turned to follow, but the return 3 miles took them 14 hrs because they had to take their mudguards off so that their wheels could revolve, and Flook passed them before they reached the town.
Zurcher had clocked in at 12.55 and Flook at 2.11am. Owen followed at 3.30 am. Murray, Jorgensen, then Durban's George Taylor, Cowie and Nicholl who arrived between 7.30 and 10 am. They, of the 42, were the sole survivors. Fortunately the following day was Sunday, so the riders rested and prepared for the morrow.
Zurcher had a 500 cc; Flook a 350 cc, It looked as if the Rand rider had little hope of catching the Natalian, but he rode with such fierce determination that he caught the bigger machine near Estcourt where it was stopped after a concussion burst. Zurcher got his machine started just as Flook came up, and the race was on again. From there on there was a ding-dong battle which finished only when Flook spilled, breaking one handlebar right off. Cutting a branch from a tree, Percy fashioned a makeshift bar, wired it into place and continued the wild chase. At Hillcrest a puncture stopped him again, and he almost retired there, for he was utterly worn out and weary. His hands were blistered, his body aching, and the prospect of repairing a tyre almost too much to contemplate. Luckily there were some spectators who implored him to continue. Only Zurcher was ahead, and a second place was assured. Percy bent to his task with his pulped hands and grimly got on with the job.
Meanwhile the amazing Zurcher was knocking back the miles that separated him from Durban and victory. His new Douglas was running beautifully and he reached Tollgate at 2.30 pm to receive a hero's welcome, the winner of the roughest, toughest road race in motorcycle history. Flook arrived 37 minutes later after a gallant but unavailing chase on a machine which was 150 cc smaller than the winner's. Zurcher was full of praise for Flook, whom he described as a "marvel," and no wonder!
The crowds at the finish got tired of waiting for the arrival of the third place-man, and when they thought there wasn't going to be one, they went off home. Thus there was only a handful of officials at Tollgate to applaud Owen the third finisher, and when the 6th man, Nicholl, arrived, it was 9 pm and pitch dark!
What a race! Those who rode in it never forgot it, and those who didn't never stopped talking about it. Zurcher got the trophy, the bag of gold and a tummy full of amoebic dysentery from drinking polluted water from spruits en route. The dysentery lasted longest, and made his life a misery for years after.
This was the story Zurcher told me that evening in 1928 as we sat in his little office surrounded by pictures of his racing machines, and high on the wall a dirty brown-coloured cloth with the number 15 on it — the one he had worn on his back in that never-to-be-forgotten race. Although the 1920 Jo'burg - Durban was Zurcher's greatest race he had a long history in the game, from the time when he came to Natal in 1915 from Portuguese East Africa.
But let's go back to the beginning and trace his story, for he didn't start his racing on motorcycles! Racing push bikes was his first - and last - love. London-born Fritz rode on the old Canning Town and Crystal Palace tracks. There too he had the added thrill of careering round and round on a De Dion tri-car belonging to Charlie Rolls (of Rolls-Royce fame). Whether this gave him the taste for mechanised motoring or not, is unknown, but next we hear of him at Brooklands, in Surrey, where he. tried his hand - and his feet - on a motorised monstrosity called an NLG (North London Garage). This was a 15 hp brute twin with ohv cylinders of massive proportions, a belt drive, and a gear ratio of 2¾ to 1, According to Zurcher, the top speed was 72 mph and the starting speed was the same! The latter, of course, had to be attained by the rider and his two pushers-off. Usually it fired on one cylinder, and the colossus then proceeded to hop down the concrete like a galloping kangaroo till it found its second wind.
After a spell as tester for the Clarendon Motor Car and Bicycle Co, Zurcher, who had served his apprenticeship with the John I Thornicroft Co, went to PEA where he was in the Government service looking after a fleet of motor launches at Quelimane. He held the motor boat racing championship there from 1912-1915. Life was exciting in those parts - it was more like the life people in Britain imagine we in South Africa enjoy. Once he hit a crocodile as he sped past on his motor boat. Another time, in the dark, he wrote off a Triumph when it fell into a hole inconveniently dug by an ant-bear in the middle of the bush track. Yet again, he added a Rudge to the scrap yard when he rode into a fallen tree in the fastnesses of the Zambesi Forest. Just to add to the fun, he hunted elephant in the wilds, using a little Calthorpe Junior to get around the shooting grounds. In eight seasons he bagged 27 bulls and a rogue buffalo.
But when he came down to Durban to settle, it was his second visit to Natal, for he had passed this way in 1909, bringing - you'd never guess - a baby elephant which was consigned to some zoo in England. But it died on arrival at Plymouth! As it wasn't under guarantee, he didn't have to replace it, fortunately. After Mocambique, Natal must have felt tame.
Zurcher's first essays in club competitions in Durban were with a big Harley Davidson outfit. And, who was in his chair? You'd never guess! His fiancé - Miss Marjorie Merrin. Together they won numerous hill climbs and flexibility tests. They even set a new Natal speed record of 55 mph in 1917. Today's club members will be interested to know there were climbs having separate competitions for lady passengers. One such event on Mayville Hill shows the pairings thus - Pete Lawrence with Mrs Lawrence (Rudge), C H Wood with Miss Lello (Norton), F Holmes with Mrs Lawrence (Pope), R S Campbell with Miss Campbell (Rudge), F Zurcher with Miss Merrin (HD). And if anyone was stuck for an open class passenger, Marjorie Merrin was always game to occupy the side wagon.
F. A. R. Zurcher, winner of the famous “Snowstorm Derby” -
The 1920 Jo’burg-Durban Race – on his Spring Frame Douglas
From all accounts, it would appear that there was a great deal of unofficial racing going on about this time. Challenges were thrown out readily, and private races to Maritzburg were common. Once, riding a 500 cc Brough, Zurcher caused consternation in various camps by riding from Black Hill to Hill Crest (17 miles) in 30 minutes - an incredibly fast journey for those days. And, to make matters worse (or better, depending on which camp you supported) he'd stopped to mend a puncture on the way. Incidentally this was the same machine on which Don Hall made his entry into the competition world in 1921.
George Taylor, later well-known as a BSA star, held the inter-city record with a time of 1 hr 24½ mins for the 50 mile trek from Toll Gate to Victoria Bridge, with a Harley outfit. To add to the heat in rival camps, Jordan and Hunt, the Indian charioteers held the "down" record with a time of 1 hr 31 mins. Trying to even the score, one day, Zurcher set out with Ricquebourg, another race rider, in the chair of his Harley, but their attempt on the record ended disastrously at Westville when the outfit spilled, and both were knocked unconscious. Zurcher was in a particularly bad way, but he must have made a good recovery, despite all his injuries, for three weeks later he was fit enough to accompany his regular passenger, Miss Merrin, down the aisle, and they started and completed their first marital trip in the Harley combination.
Whether it was the new Mrs F A R Zurcher, or the spill that put the idea into his head is not known, but from this time Fritz started agitating for a 100 mile Durban-Maritzburg-Durban race to be run under the aegis of the D and DMCC (of which he was then a member) or of the NMCC or MMCC. Such a race, he reasoned rightly, would put a stop to all the wild private record-breaking attempts which, apart from being highly dangerous, did nothing to make racers popular with ordinary road users.
Next important date is 13.10.1917, when Zurcher and his partner Lynn Acutt got a sub-agency for Douglas motorcycles and, on his first appearance in a hill climb on one of the little flat twins, a knock-out event on Black Hill, he romped off with the trophy. Another to distinguish himself on this day was Zurcher's protege, the young A J G S R V Ford (perhaps Albert will tell us what these initials mean?). The handicappers were another pair of well-known stalwarts, George Summerfield and Tick Brown.
Club members seemed to be kept busy in those days. What with hill climbs on Mayville, Black Hill and Cowies, as well as flexibility tests on the rise from Overport Drive to Dwarikas Store on Sydenham Road, there were hill climbs in Maritzburg, and speed trials on the Star and Garter flats, Pinetown flats and Merebank. In a speed burst at Star and Garter, Pete Lawrence on a fancy "speedway" Indian set a mark that made history when he was timed to do a fantastic 90 mph - it was the talk of the NMCC for years, and no wonder - for the machine he used was as "hairy" as they come. Pete then clocked 67 mph with a chair attached.
For over a year Zurcher won every hill climb held in Natal. He was absolutely unbeatable in these formula events, so much so, that once a protest was lodged, and his engine measured. To the consternation of the gentlemen who laid the protest, it was 3 cc below the stipulated capacity! This was his first "Buzz-Box" and right merrily it buzzed.
As mentioned earlier, Zurcher finished 6th in the 1919 Jo'burg race, and won the 1920 event. Because of amoebic which he had picked up in that race he missed the 1921 race when he acted as an official at the start, but from that date till 1932, he competed in every event, and gathered 9th place in 1922, 18th in 1924, 15th in 1925, 14th in 1926, 9th in 1930 (tying with Syd Flook for fastest 350 side valve time with 10 hrs 14 mins 37 secs) and 10th in 1932.
In later years he used the Jo'burg race to display the reliability of his "over-the-counter" side-valve twins which he rode to a strict schedule, preferring to finish, rather than to go for fast intermediate times. His tally of 8 gold medals equalled that of Baby Scott and Tommy Owen and was beaten only by Alf Long (14) and Chick Harris (9). Whereas he liked demonstrating his "same as you can buy" wares in the Durban-Jo'burg race, Fritz rode his 350, 500 and 600cc ohv racing jobs in other speed events. He also turned out on a 250 ohv in 1924.
I bet that shakes all those who know something of Douglas history, for to the best of my knowledge (and please correct me if I'm wrong) it was the only 250 cc. ohv. Douglas ever built! If that wasn't a "Special special" I've never heard of one!
Always a schemer, and an astute reader of rules, he put up some fine performances in petrol consumption tests at various times He averaged 232 mpg on an ohv and 230,09 mpg on a 350 side valve EW model. (Between the wars these petrol tests were popular, and some quite phenomenal mileages were recorded. Bert Salmon, who was a successful Norton speedman, got a world record 260 mpg from a Big 4 Norton.
On the Durban-Maritzburg return course Doug Tunmer later got 192 mpg from a 500 ohv Norton, Paul ("Straight Eight") Shekleton 157 from a 600 cc engined P & M outfit, and - wait for it! - Dick Donaldson a quite incredible 367 mpg from a 300 s/v OK. The Aberdonian MCC couldn't have bettered these figures!).
Apart from the Jo'burg races Zurcher competed in the TT at Kragga Kamma from 1924 till 1927 but mechanical troubles caused his retirement in all but the last, when he finished 5th in the Senior. As one keenly interested from the beginning in a Durban-Maritzburg-Durban race it was natural that he should take part in the Natal “100's” which were run. In these he had varied fortunes - or more accurately, misfortunes - but he did take third place in 1927 following Don Hall (Dunelt) and Lionel Findlay (OK) across the finishing line.
When the depression years of the 1930's hit the world, Zurcher retired from the agency business, but he did not give up his interest in sport. He returned to his first love, cycle racing. The sprightly Zurcher with the figure of a young man, dressed in a herringbone sports jacket with a velvet collar, stiff collar with narrow white tie and narrow trousers (who said we were modern with our similar fashions nowadays?) was, for years, a familiar figure as he rode from his home on the Berea, across the race course to the track ground, where he did his daily ten miles "constitutional." He was president of the Albion Harriers Cycling Club and a prominent official at all championship events. Empire champion Jimmy Swift, the evergreen Springbok, who dominated the SA bicycle racing scene for years was one of his protégées.
As Fritz circled the cycle track, I wonder if he thought of the many races he had there in years gone by against Charlie Young, Len Cohen and Tommy Kenyon, or did his mind return to his hill climbing triumphs — or that nightmare ride in "The Snowstorm Derby" - the most controversial race in the whole history of motorcycle sport in South Africa? I wonder.
Copyright - J. LEYDEN 1964.
First published in the 1964 March and April editions of the NMCC magazine Full Throttle.
Fritz and his fiancé won numerous hill-climbs and speed trials in 1917