The Classic Motorcycle Rally
First impressions, they say, are lasting. That certainly is true of Bunny Loader, now a somewhat weighty gentleman of nearly 70. But for me, Bunny will always stay in my mind as I first saw him in 1927 in the paddock at Clairwood Racecourse where a grass track meeting was being held. Bunny was the type of man who commanded attention. Big, powerfully built, head erect, eyes, eyebrows and mouth all combining to give him a face full of vitality and character. If that was not enough, his dress stamped him as a personality, for he wore a Sidcot flying suit, nipped in at the waist by a deep body belt which gave him a figure that Charles Atlas would have been proud to show in his bodybuilding adverts. That was Bunny.
‘Maritzburg was the birthplace of Harry Bernard Loader, in the year 1895, which a quick calculation places him now in his 69th year, and makes him the oldest living member of South Africa’s famous road race men. Apprenticed to Barfield's Engineering Co in Longmarket Street, the lad first sampled the pleasures of riding customers’ motorcycles and cars in for repair. But World War I broke out, and away Bunny went to South West Africa as a gunlayer with the Natal Field Artillery.
HARRY BERNARD “BUNNY” LOADER
Personal Angle - Bunny Loader.
By Jock Leyden.
That campaign over, he was hustled up to East Africa, but all he can remember worth recording there was a bout of blackwater fever that, in a lesser man would have ended his story there. But you can't keep a young soldier down and soon he had recovered sufficiently to go overseas with the SA Signal Corps as an Artificer Don-R (dispatch rider). After training in England, he went to France and learned something about mudplugging on Douglas and BSA machines on the Western Front. In typical fashion he dismisses all the excitement of that campaign with a grin, though his eyes light up and his eyebrows jump to attention when he recalls the day he was shaving in his trench and a shell went off a few feet behind him. For once he did get a fright - not from the shell, but from the fact that he nearly cut his head off with his cut-throat razor. He hasn't used one since.
You'll have to probe a long time before he'll tell you he was also wounded in the leg and it was feared for the second time in his young life that he wouldn't live. Not only was his life saved, so was his leg, which was another stroke of good fortune for all concerned, because, before returning to the Union when hostilities were over, he got in with a lively set of Bohemians in London who taught him many things, including the then new dance called the Tango. Bunny brought the Tango to South Africa and this started him off as a ballroom dancer, at which he was for many years a star performer, winning many championships and trophies.
His next peacetime job was at the Woodmilne Rubber Factory in Howick, so, to enable him to make the daily trip from Maritzburg he bought a little 2-speed Enfield. The lessons he learned in the mud on the Arras fronts were found to be mighty handy on the notorious pot-holed Town Hill for months to come.
To African Motors, the Harley-Davidson agents in Maritzburg, he offered his services, and when Russell, the Manager there, asked him to race the big American machines he was reluctant to accept, for he had never thought of racing, and besides, the "Geoff Duke" of South Africa in those days was Durban's young Bobby Blackburn who was hitting the headlines in every race in which he competed. Bunny didn't see himself as a possible challenger, but Russell wanted a Maritzburg boy to show Durban a thing or two, but he had to talk a long time before the reluctant Bunny agreed.
The first event in which the two Harley riders clashed was a speed burst at Ordnance Road. Nobody was more surprised than the new boy from PMB when the time-keepers' watches showed he'd made fastest time. Maybe that's not quite accurate though, for Bobby Blackburn was also surprised, maybe more so, for he called for an extra private competition - both to start off the mark together at the drop of the flag. The starting line was moved right back to the brewery, but Bunny still got to the Beach end before Bobby.
Came the 1922 Durban-Ladysmith-Durban 300 mile race. Bobby held the record with a time of 8 hrs 42 mins which he had put up in 1919. But this year, as in the previous year, he elected to ride a sidecar machine, going off 1 hr 26 mins before the solo Harley. There was a tremendous race between the two, however; intertown records fell all the way to this pair as they fought for the lead, and it was not till Field's Hill that Bunny nosed ahead and came home to win in 7 hrs 10 mins chopping over 1½ hours off Blackburn’s solo record. Just how tremendous the race must have been will be seen when we note that the sidecar man collected second place, and his time was 1 minute outside his own previous solo record!
Perhaps I should recall the story “Old Man” Hall (Don's father) told me about this race. He was at Toll Gate where the finishing line was situated and as each of the riders came in they were helped off their machines. Some had to be literally lifted off after the battering they had taken from that awful 300 mile ride. All except one man, who not only got off by himself but then raised a little girl on his one huge hand and started chatting to her. John Hall asked those around who was this rider. “Bunny Loader", they said, “What a man!” he gasped in a wonder that never grew dim with the years.
Readers who never saw the Old Main Road have no conception of the state of the road surface in those days. If the weather was good it was appallingly bumpy and rutted with deep ox-wagon trails all the way. No wonder most riders who finished had to be lifted off their machines at the finish. Bunny recalls that Pinetown Flats was “just deep sea sand from Cowies Hill to Manors crossing, and riders just opened up flat out coming down the hill and hoped that when they went over the crossing the bike was still with them”.
The next race to go to the new star was one from Maritzburg to Camperdown and back. The race, run in heats was for the Mountford Trophy, and severe hailstorms had battered the so-called road into something nearer a quagmire. Zurcher on the Douglas was the one Loader and all the others feared in those days, so it gave Bunny great satisfaction on catching the 1920 Jo’burg "Snowstorm Race" winner as they went up Polly Shorts, to shout “get out of low gear, man!”
A deep gloom was cast over the sport when the 21-year-old Blackburn was killed at Botha's Hill, his outfit overturning when on the way back from a meeting in the City.
African Motors brought Bunny down to work in Durban and race Bobby's ABC and Harley Twins. For the 1922 Natal "100" he tacked on a chair to "Mutt" and with the then young Dick Donaldson as a passenger proceeded to win that race in the time of 2 hrs 15 mins 45 secs - a truly outstanding performance on the old winding Main Road. But for both crew members the most memorable incident that day came after they had crossed the finishing line. Turning abruptly the outfit turned in a non-intentional "victory roll", catapulting both of them through the air. It must have been quite a spectacle to behold for Bunny recalls that Dick left what remained of his breeches, torn from the race acrobatics, dangling on the handlebars. Quite a memorable ending for all concerned.
Just to shake things up a bit the local agents decided to import something special in the way of hot ironmongery. The Milwaukee Factory didn't take long to catch on, and back came a very potent speedway twin belonging to Ralph Hepburn, one of America's all-time greats on motorcycles, and later a race car star at Indianapolis Speedway. If my memory doesn't let me down, I think Hepburn held a motorcycle record for 300 miles on a speedway at over 90 mph.
This Marion-engined Big Twin gave all the other competitors plenty to think about when he rode it. It gave Bunny plenty to think about, too, when it shed a back tyre crossing "The Concrete" at Clairwood during a speed trial. Bunny was lying flat down on the tank with the motor on full song when the 2¼ in. board hard tyre burst and locked the rear end up solid. The subsequent gyrations had to be seen to be believed, but nobody stayed to watch except one poor fellow who was crippled. The others dived off in all directions as the careering bike and rider using both sides of the road disappeared towards Isipingo in a series of wobbles that haven't been equalled since. Fortunately, before reaching the Umlaas Drifts, the chain broke and Bunny was able to pull up.
Putting the engine into his road machine which he called "Mutt", he next hied himself off to East London to compete in another intertown classic of those days. The race to PE, a little 200 mile affair calculated to shake anybody and anything to pieces. Arriving on race day, our hero started off on roads he was seeing for the first time, but, by Grahamstown (110 miles) he was lying handy in second place. The leader, Thompson, was just five minutes ahead. Pressing on regardless, Bunny took the wrong road and a tennis party at Alexandria was as surprised as they'd have been to see a man from Mars, when the dust-covered racer pulled up and asked the way to PE. He was 40 miles off his course. For once Bunny was daunted, but he was back again next year.
This time the race was in the reverse direction, the start being at PE. Big Bill du Toit another Harley star, was local favourite to win, but at Breakfastvlei (122 miles) Bunny was in 3rd position, the leader being Retief from Bloemfontein, on a Norton. Bunny was giving his machine all it could take in an effort to narrow the gap, and going down Lion's Drift, which was in a shockingly cut-up state, he crashed and broke his collar bone in two places. There were no ambulance men handy to help him so he heaved his heavy machine upright single-handed, and straddled it again placing his useless right hand on the grip with his left. The throttle was twisted full open and using his left hand to operate the exhaust valve lifter, he set off in pursuit.
Imagine, if you can, the agony of racing a bucking American Big Twin on the rough rutted roads of the early '20s. But "The Iron Man” didn’t give up easily, and near King Williams Town (162 miles) he came up on the leader. As Bunny recalls, the ride from King to East London was quite a thing, for between the two towns were nine railway crossings. Neck and neck the two raced to Amalinde and Bunny knew he had to exercise all his cunning to shake Retief off. The Norton rider, sure enough overdid things on a corner and Bunny went on to win. Retief had had to push his battered machine in to the finish. Local papers were wildly enthusiastic about the great ride by the courageous Durban rider, but Bunny didn’t think much of the banner headline next day proclaiming, "Loader's Wonderful Feet”
By this time he had established himself as a top-class rider and in 1924 he went with Charlie Young to represent South Africa in the Isle of Man TT Races. Bunny was Norton-mounted and Charlie had a Triumph with a Ricardo engine specially tuned by famed Brooklands record-breaker Victor Horsman.
Trying to follow the great little Alec Bennett through the mist one morning Bunny crashed into a lamp post and did neither himself, his Norton, or the lamp post any good. Doctors said he'd not be able to race but they reckoned without “The Iron Man", and John (Old Man) Hall massaged him back, more or less into his original shape again for on the Friday there he was at his place on the starting grid for the senior race.
His troubles weren't over though for a rider ahead of him hit the wall at Ballig Bridge and in taking avoiding action over the steeply hump-backed bridge damaged his foot brake. Thereafter his progress was somewhat erratic and he was flagged into the pits where he performed an emergency repair before being allowed to proceed. All in all he was happy to get a silver replica for his eighth place. To this day he gives all the credit for that to Alec Bennett who helped him to qualify by showing him the right line, and to Graham Walker, then a Sunbeam rider, who gave him much useful advice. Both, let it be added, feared the exuberant lad from South Africa might overdo things and not need his return ticket to the Union.
Back in Durban, he was preparing his Norton for the SA TT and somebody pulled across his bows on the Esplanade. Two broken fingers were his reward for that spot of bad luck, but he rigged up a hook arrangement on his handlebar to hang his plaster-bound hand on and in the race he was going great guns till a tappet screwed loose on the last lap and Charlie Young went on to win. Bunny did win a SA TT - the 1928 senior race, which he won on a “Sloper” BSA.
He competed in several Durban-Jo'burg races, finishing 5th in 1923 on a 989 cc Harley which he rode from the scratch mark, and putting up fastest time for the race and new records for all the intermediate intertown distances en route. Talking of the early DJ races it is amusing to hear him recall sitting on the back mark waiting for his turn to go while the leaders with their big starts were already being reported as going through Estcourt. He rode Harley, AJS and BSA machines and, if my memory is correct he made his swan song on a "Pea Shooter" Harley single at the Old Fort dirt track in 1933.
World War II saw him back in uniform again and after service up North he rose from the ranks to be a Captain in the transport services Now he works in the Spares Department of Grosvenor Motors, Durban, and though he no longer has the kind of figure that makes the girls whistle, just talk to him about the "old days" and watch that look come into the "Iron Man's" eyes again!
Copyright J M Leyden 1962