The real thing
It is rare to find a racing motorcycle preserved in such utterly original condition as the TZ350 Yamaha raced during the 1973 season by the legendary Kenny Blake.
Born in Strathalbyn in the Adelaide Hills in 1948, Kenny swapped his push bike for a Honda 125 Benly as soon as he turned 16. To pay for it, he worked odd jobs in addition to his apprenticeship as a panelbeater; picking grapes, tossing hay, whatever was going. With his mates, Ken used to thrash the Honda around a 322 kilometre circuit of public roads, but it wasn’t long before he was hankering for more power.
A series of Triumph Bonnevilles followed (he had four in all) and the road runs grew to the point that the local police used to escort the rides. In time the group formalised itself into the Phoenix Motorcycle Club. He soon developed a yearning to go racing, so with clip-on handlebars and rear set footrests fitted to the Triumph, he headed to Mallala. In his first race, in early 1966, he fell off on the second lap.
Without allowing him time to grope with his misery, Ken’s mates straightened out the Triumph and he was back on track later in the day for his second-ever race, the South Australian Unlimited TT. He finished third! The near standard Triumph contested seven meetings that year, four at Mallala and three at McNamara Park in Mount Gambier. By the year’s end he was an A-grader.
In 1969, Ken and his home-brewed Triumph blew away the nation’s best riders to win the Australian TT at Surfers Paradise, then repeated the feat the following year at Phillip Island. Soon after, Ken moved to Melbourne where he found lodgings at Ron Angel’s house, as well as a ride on the new 500cc H1R Kawasaki, which arrived just in time for the Easter meeting at Bathurst. The triple had a reputation for evil handling but Kenny refused to be intimidated.
From the push-start in the Unlimited Grand Prix, Blake simply streaked away, setting a new outright lap record of 2.38.0. The 10-lap Bathurst Bi-Centenary GP, held later in the day, looked certain to be a Blake benefit, and another lap record – a sensational 2.35.0 (143.35 km/h) – went into the books as he rocketed away. But with the race in the bag, the Kawasaki snapped its rear chain.
The following year, Ken struck up a friendship with Jack Walters, the wealthy motel owner and arch-enthusiast from Bendigo. A former racer of some note, Walters had sponsored a long line of riders on quality machinery, and provided Ken with a new 250 and 350 Yamaha for the 1972 season.
The new machinery gave Ken an equal footing with all the other stars of the day, and with a small amount of support from Coca Cola, Ken began to add consistency to his undoubted speed. The result was victory in the 1973 250cc Australian Road Racing Championship – the title being decided for the first time over a six-round series rather than as a single race at the annual Australian TT.
The following year was even better, with Ken winning both 350 and 500 titles on the Yamaha twin, and winning the 350, 500cc and Unlimited titles at the Australian TT at Wanneroo Park in Perth in October 1974.
The simple but highly effective Yamaha TZ350s revolutionised road racing, not just in Australia but around the world. Introduced as the TR350 in air-cooled form in 1969, the Yamaha quickly took over even the Senior and Unlimited classes, consigning the old British bangers to the museums (or later, Historic Racing). The addition of water cooling in 1973 added a further dimension, as the power was now consistent for a race’s duration, and seizures became rare rather than commonplace.
Like many others, Blake switched to a TZ700 Yamaha in 1975 – effectively two TZ350 top ends on a common crankcase – and later to a Suzuki RG500 square-four, on which he famously defeated World Champion Giacomo Agostini in the Australian TT at Laverton in 1976.
When Kenny decided to try his luck in Europe in 1978, he bought his own Yamaha TZ250, plus a set of 350cc and barrels and another set bored to 352cc to allow him entry to the 500 class. He packed 32 meetings into the year and was back for the 1979 season with a new TZ350. At the Isle of Man he finished all three classes he entered, recording 8th place in both the 500 and Unlimited TTs. The same kit served him well for 1980, but in the 1981 Isle of Man Senior TT, Kenny’s luck ran out. On a damp track, Kenny crashed on the final lap and was killed instantly.
His body was cremated on the Isle of Man and the ashes flown back to Australia for a service in Melbourne on June 24, 1981. It was an occasion of a massive outpouring of grief. Always a gentleman, lover of a good party, and a brilliant sportsman who never gave less than 100 per cent, Blakey’s passing left a huge void in the ranks of Australia’s motorcycle fraternity. The Kenny Blake Foundation was set up to assist young riders, and even now, a quarter of a century on, fans gather in Melbourne on June 9th, the anniversary of his death, to share memories and celebrate the short life of one of the most popular riders in Australia’s history.
Kenny’s red Coca Cola Yamaha TZ350, still with its scrutineering stickers attached, is a fond reminder of a golden era in Australian racing, and of one of its true greats. Motorcycling Australia is indebted to Ian Hopkins for the loan of this highly significant machine.