The original green machine
Kel Carruthers had utterly dominated the local scene for five years until he left for Europe in 1966. The man who assumed the role of top resident rider was Ron Toombs, who had begun his career 14 years earlier and progressed steadily if not spectacularly through the ranks on his own 350 BSA and later a 1961-model 350 7R AJS.
But it was a meeting at the Arcadia dirt track north of Sydney that forged the relationship between Toombs and Tony Henderson, a railway engineer who owned a 500 BSA Gold Star that changed the face of local racing. Toombs took over the 500 BSA to score his first win at Bathurst in 1961, but crashed later in the program, severely damaging the bike. With the BSA frame a write-off, Henderson acquired a Norton Dominator 99 frame and forks, into which he built AJS 7R wheels and an AMC close-ratio gearbox. But the pushrod BSA motor was clearly outgunned, so Henderson depleted his finances by £150 ($300) to purchase a 1961 Matchless G50 engine from Geoff Monty in England to replace the BSA unit. The motor was delivered with cracked crankcases, and a replacement set from UK arrived with a hole in the front where the cod rod had departed. These were welded at the de Havilland aircraft factory at Bankstown and re-machined. At the same time Henderson produced his own flywheels with a differentially-threaded crankpin – the system used on Moto Guzzi singles with 20-tpi on one side of the crankpin and 18 tpi on the other. “ I did them up with a three-pronged spanner and they never moved,” recalls Tony. Meanwhile, Ray Corlett, who worked at chemical giant ICI, got his hands on a billet of titanium, which Charlie Ogden machined to produce a connecting rod 5/8 inch shorter, and considerably lighter than the original. To complete the plot, the G50 head was fitted with twin spark plugs.
With a battered lime-green fairing in place, the Henderson hybrid was no raving beauty, but an early outing in December 1964 resulted in Toombs equalling the Oran Park lap record. Results were scarce in 1965, with Toombs badly tearing a shoulder muscle early in the season, but at the Australian TT at Bathurst at Easter 1966, Toombs convincingly won the Senior TT, as well as the Unlimited title which was run concurrently. At the opening meeting of the new Surfers Paradise track in August, Ron and the Matchless were untouchable, taking the honours in all three major races.
The Victorian Grand Prix at Winton ushered in the 1967 season, and Toombs again took the G50 to the Senior title, repeating the feat one month later in the Victorian TT at Calder. Then at Bathurst’s Easter meet he scored his second-consecutive 500cc victory with veteran GP campaigner Jack Ahearn second. The 1968 Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst is an event still talked about. Toombs disappeared into the distance to make it three Senior Bathurst wins in a row, and had the Unlimited GP shot to pieces as well until he fell on an oil patch on the final lap. As he struggled to right the G50, second placed Bill Horsman stopped and waited for Ron to remount, still holding the lead! Bill reckons the race was morally Ron’s, but his sportsmanship almost backfired when his own Norton ran out of fuel on the last corner. To complete a remarkable series of events, Jack Ahearn, in third place, idled along behind Horsman until he had pushed over the line to claim the runner up spot! It wouldn’t happen today.
In a bid to remain competitive against the 350 Yamahas, Henderson embarked on a new project to build a four-valve 500 from scratch in 1969. The old warrior, stripped of a few bits and with the 2-valve engine blown up, was shoved under a sheet of corrugated iron in Henderson’s back yard and forgotten. Thankfully, it was rescued by former sidecar champion Peter Campbell, who “hassled Hendo every week for 25 years until he finally fixed the (2-valve) engine.” Campbell rebuilt the historic motorcycle in the form of its 1967 Bathurst win, when it wore a full ‘dustbin’ front fairing and a fully-faired rear end.
In 2004, a quarter of a century since it last raced, the original Henderson Matchless was delivered to the National Motor Racing Museum, where it is now on permanent display with its later 4-valve brother.