ROB ROY HILLCLIMB
Essay by Leon Sims
The HILL, the DRIVERS, the CARS
It was October 18th. 1992 when Rob Roy Hillclimb returned to its proper place in motor sport. The MG Car Club of Victoria held its first club event at the historic venue after about five years of negotiation with the Eltham Shire Council and Melbourne Water, who were the owners of the land. 117 MG Car Club members christened the track on that day.
The Light Car Club of Victoria abandoned the Hill after the bush fires of January 1962 had burnt out the access bridge on the property leading to the actual track area. Rather than invest further funds at Rob Roy they established the Lakeland Hillclimb venue that was nestled in the hills just outside Lilydale. For the next thirty years the hill was used for the occasional outing by car and motorcycle clubs, including the Vintage Sports Car Club and Vintage Drivers Club.
From 1979 the MG Car Club was active in promoting historic hillclimbs at nearby Templestowe Hillclimb which had been in a state of decay for many years. They ran these picnic meetings for eight years, until in 1987 they were informed by the owner of the land that sub-division was imminent, so the club hurriedly organized their last ever Templestowe Hillclimb on December 6th. of that year.
A feeling of emptiness after that meeting was felt by many and so the club embarked on a project to establish its own club hillclimb. It was at this time that certain members became aware that the Rob Roy Hillclimb still existed, although in a very run down state. These people saw the potential for its redevelopment, especially members Ian Mawson and Graeme Jackson. Jackson was an employee of Melbourne Water at the time and Mawson's talent as a solicitor was instrumental in the negotiations for the club to take out a long term lease on the property. Early 1992 the club agreed to the submission recommended by the Club Site sub-committee lead by Ian Mawson and redevelopment began in mid 1992.
To fund the redevelopment costs a second sub-committee was formed, chaired by the author, which went under the title of " The Friends Of Rob Roy ". The objective of this group was to offer foundation memberships to 500 enthusiasts, giving them the benefit of certain advantages, including free spectator entry to all events for a period of ten years and a quarterly newsletter called Rob Roy Ramblings.
The Friends Of Rob Roy project exceeded the club's expectations by reaching its goal of 500 members and contributing to 50% of the redevelopment costs, but just as importantly the membership list included many competitors and organizers of events at Rob Roy during its past days under the promotion of the Light Car Club.
February 19/20th. 1993 was the official re-opening of Rob Roy Hillclimb under the title of "Return to Rob Roy" organized and promoted by the MG Car Club of Victoria. The guests of honour were multi-outright record holders, Arthur Wylie and Bruce Walton between them they held seven outright records. Amazingly Bruce Walton had achieved 18 "Fastest Time of the Day" wins at the hill against strong opposition, including Lex Davison, Stan Jones and Bill Patterson. Joining Wylie and Walton as guests were Friends of Rob Roy patrons, Harry Firth and Lou Molina.
On that opening day a "Tribute to Champions" parade was organised by the Friends of Rob Roy and they included Firth, Molina, Wylie and Walton, followed by many great names of motor sport who had come out from hiding due to their enthusiasm to see their old hill once again in action. Three competitors from the first event in January 1937 were invited to the re-opening, those being Bill Leech, Keith Laity and Derry George. George who always entered under the name of D.D. George, not only took his place in the parade, but was entered in competition in his Lotus Super 7. This was a gap of 56 years between his first Rob Roy and this one.
Others to celebrate the re-opening included Tony Gaze, 1948 outright record holder, Diana (Davison) Gaze, Ladies record holder on several occasions and latter personalities, Norm Beechey and Jim McKeown.
It may seem unusual to begin a story with what one would expect to be the end, but to many the resurrection of Rob Roy was in fact the beginning as they would only become aware of its fascinating history as the restoration progressed.
The GENESIS: MR. CLINTON, the LIGHT CAR CLUB of AUSTRALIA AND ROB ROY
The Light Car Club of Australia was founded under the name of the Victorian Light Car Club in 1923. It was formed by a group of fifteen Royal Automobile Club of Victoria members in order to more actively promote competition in motor sport. It's first president was Mr. A.W. Bernadou and it was under his initial leadership that the LCCA was to become the leading organizer of all areas of motor sport in Australia over a sixty-seven year period.
The LCCA ran what has now become accepted as the first Australian Grand Prix in 1928 at Phillip Island. In 1953 and 1956 (the year of the Melbourne Olympics) they brought the Australian Grand Prix to inner suburban Melbourne at Albert Park. 1956 saw such great international drivers as Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Jean Behra, Peter Whitehead, Reg Parnell and Ken Wharton competing with our own locals including Stan Jones, Lex Davison, Bill Patterson, Doug Whiteford, Reg Hunt and Len Lukey. Our locals were to follow in behind the Internationals in the 1956 Australian Grand Prix, not at all disgraced by the eventual victor, Stirling Moss. These drivers' early years of motor sport began through the events organised by the LCCA, in particular with trials, rallies and hillclimbs.
Rob Roy Hillclimb was first mentioned in the early motoring magazine, “The Car” in the October issue of 1935.
"We have at last discovered a venue for a hillclimb par excellence. I cannot tell you about it in this issue but promise to let you know all about this very interesting proposition later on in the year. This I can promise you; that when the news is released, hillclimb enthusiasts will set to work on their cars with great zest."
Hillclimbs up to this time had been conducted at venues on public roads usually under the patronage of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria at such places as Greensborough, now a suburb of Melbourne. Wheelers Hill, today a major thoroughfare of suburban Melbourne was reopened around the late twenties by the LCCA at about the same time as a new venue at Baccus Marsh, to the west of Melbourne. Mount Tarrengower, near Maldon, an old gold mining town was in operation in those early pre war days and still runs on an annual basis today.
The LCCA had begun negotiations with the owner of a large area of land in the north-eastern hill country only thirty five kilometres outside Melbourne. In late 1935 through the December issue of “The Car” magazine, the LCCA announced the whereabouts of this newly proposed hillclimb venue.
"The site at Christmas Hills which the club has obtained for use in future hillclimbs is being prepared, and improved and will be ready at no very distant date."
A.J. Terdich and O.F. Tough both ex-presidents of the LCCA were well into discussions at this time with the owner, Mr. Bill Clinton. Clinton was a man of competitive spirit and liked the idea of his hill being used for motor sport. His early years were spent in the sport of cycling in which he had achieved some success. Merging his sporting interests with business, Clinton opened a bicycle shop in Burgundy Street, Heidelberg and as he became more successful the business eventually became W. Clinton's Garage, Motor & Engineering Works. Family folklore claims that after making a purchase of land in the north eastern hill country in an area known as Christmas Hills, about thirty miles outside of Melbourne, Clinton would close the doors of his bike shop, then ride his bike out to the land. He would then begin to clear the land under the light of a hurricane lamp until he became too tired to work any longer. After sleeping on the land he would awake next morning to ride his bike back to Heidelberg to open the shop doors for another day's business. Bill Clinton developed into quite an entrepreneur as the years rolled by. He developed his property at Christmas Hills initially as a Shetland pony stud and later, seeing an opportunity to increase his income, installed facilities that organisations could use for picnics. For these purposes his property became known as Clinton's Pleasure Grounds and it boasted a swimming hole, complete with diving board. A tennis court was nearby and up the hill further a large flat area was used for cricket and football matches. Near this area was a tea room and dance hall where many a beer keg was consumed by the visitors to Clinton's Pleasure Grounds. With local businesses and organisations using the property it wasn't long before the occasional motorcycle club would arrange to have runs out to Christmas Hills. Without much effort it is easy to imagine that after a few ales these enthusiasts would challenge each other to a race along the narrow dirt track leading to the top of the hill. It is believed that motorcycle clubs then began to organise regular events during the years of 1930 to1936. During 1935 Clinton invited the LCCA to inspect his property with the intention of developing the hill further for cars. Being the businessman that he was, he probably expected that this partnership would be of financial benefit to him due to the increasing spectator interest in four wheeled motor sport. Descendants of Clinton claim that the name Rob Roy came from Bill Clinton's fascination with the Scot rogue of that name. The name had already become well known through the breeding of the Shetland ponies with which one of the sons, Mac won blue ribbons at the Melbourne Royal Agricultural Show.
Only one month before the LCCA were to conduct their opening meeting, a report was written in The Car, January 15, 1937, telling the public of this new venue specifically designed for hill climbing."The site of the hillclimb has finally been completed, and the first event is to be held there on Foundation Day [February 1. 1937]. This is the first hill in Australia, as far as we know, to be specifically made for hillclimbing. It was cut out of virgin bush to the specifications of the LCCA, and it is its objective to make it the Shelsley Walsh of Australia.
Everything is there that is required, judges box and telephone box at the finish, as well as a telephone box at the start.
The grades of the hill, taken from the start and given for every fifty yards, are as follows.1 in 18, 1 in 8, 1 in 10, 1 in 8, then level crossing the dam, and followed by 1 in 3.75, 1 in 5.5, 1 in 5.75, 1 in 5.75, 1 in 4.75, 1 in 5.75, and to the top 1 in 15. The approximate distance of the climb is half a mile.
Situated on the property of Mr. Clinton at Christmas Hills, the hill can be reached by two routes. It is only 28 miles from Melbourne on the main Yarra Glen road through Eltham and Kangaroo Grounds. The other route is through Panton Hills to Smiths Gully, thence to Yarra Glen road. It is ideally situated for picnicking, even for those not interested in the sport. Accommodation is available for thousands of spectators and their cars, and every inch of the climb is visible from a natural amphitheatre. The tentative programme includes climbs for cars grouped according to capacity, handicap match races, sealed events, open climbs for all classes, probably a race on formula and also an event for the fastest cars of the day. It is very interesting to note that two or even three cars can be sent off together in one climb. Loud speakers will be installed for the benefit of spectators, as well as a scoreboard, and programmes will be on sale. All cars will be catered for -- racing, sports, touring and sedan --so every one can be in the fun.
The location is to be known as the Rob Roy Hillclimb. When it was mentioned in October 1935, that the negotiations were first entered into, it was not until recently that these were finalised, it will give some idea of the amount of work that has been done by the club. Before leaving this subject, it is just as well to state that a return road is available, so the climb can be used all day if necessary."
The L.C.C.A. was being a little ambitious with the number of events that they were proposing for their opening meeting and in fact ran only capacity classes and an event for the fastest cars. The track then was different from the one we know today and it was highly possible that they could run two vehicles together. The initial track was a very widely graded dirt road with room for a multiple start event.
1937 - 1940 THE PRE-WAR ERA OF ROB ROY HILLCLIMB : JACK DAY, PETER WHITEHEAD, FRANK KLEINIG and ARTHUR WYLIE
Rob Roy No. 1 1st. February 1937.
Jack Day establishes fastest time.
The first Rob Roy did not have a very auspicious start if the weather conditions were to be any indication. Much the same as Rob Roy's resurrection fifty six years later, the rain clouds loomed over the hill country, but it takes more than rain to dampen the enthusiasm of motor sport enthusiasts regardless of the era. Under the pen name of " Double Valve Spring ", an anonymous scribe reported the LCCA opening meeting of Rob Roy in The Car magazine, February 15th. 1937.
"Nine AM, not quite zero hour, and all's not well. The north side of a monsoonal coastal scud had touched Melbourne, and the anxious hours between 7 and 9 am were bespatted with rain. Not a very bright outlook and one which made soft lips move slightly, nevertheless to some purpose. But 9 am was the last hour mentioned, and so we passed many friends on the way to the hillclimb at Christmas Hills, where the hill is situated in Clinton's Pleasure Grounds. After the two bobs were collected by our secretary at the portcullis, we were regaled by the refreshing sight of a wonderful running water swimming pool, said to be just forty feet deep. What a hill, seen from the control or starting cabin! What a bar, seen from the bar (5, o'clock ). After all the spirit's the thing, plus a goodly sized restaurant to boot. Quite a good crowd had gathered for the start, when the small class cars were having their climbs. The initial runs of this class proved the hill was not an easy one and that the last pinch needed herbs to be vegetated, promising in short, a climb which will become recognised as a championship hill, where from time to time, the record for each class will become harder to break. As this hill is solely in charge of the club, it should come to stand for something in the annals of Australian Hillclimbs. By the luncheon interval, the outing had turned into an assured success. according to the verdicts of both competitors and spectators."
Amongst the entry list for Rob Roy No.1 were many notable drivers of the era including Les Murphy driving the same MG P-type with which he won the 1935 and 1936 Australian Grands Prix. Lyster Jackson in the ex-Eddie Hall MG K3 was also entered but suffered the same fate as in the previous year's Australian Grand Prix when he couldn't get the K3 to perform and consequently didn't offer any competition. MGs were by far the most popular car entered and the most successful in their respective classes with the P-types taking the first three placings in the under 950cc class. Derry George's MG J4 was sandwiched between MG J3's in first and third places in the under 1100cc supercharged class. Bill Lowe however, in his supercharged Lombard came home first ahead of the Bugattis and MG NA Magnettes. Bill Leech was one of the MG drivers and along with Lowe drove many Rob Roy meetings up into the 1950s. Leech was gaining administrative experience in these early years that would eventually see him as the prime negotiator in securing Albert Park Lake circuit for motor racing in Melbourne from 1953 to 1956. Bill's brother Jim Leech was also entered in this first meeting, driving his Singer to second place against a class mainly of Rileys.
Jack Day had entered his Bugatti, which was powered by an American Ford V8 engine. This car already had an illustrious history as had its driver. Day was drawing to the end of his very successful racing career during these embryo years of Rob Roy but he still retained the talent to show the younger drivers the way home, as he did this day, at the same time creating a time of 37.39 to beat. No other driver was able to break 40 seconds which showed the talent and advantage that Day had over his fellow competitors. In later years, Day was described in a motoring publication as "Victoria's original racing car driver." Before becoming one of the founding members of the Victorian Light Car club, he was a member of the R.A.C.V. which then sanctioned and conducted motor racing, later becoming a life member of that organisation. Day raced in the first two Australian Grands Prix in 1928 and 1929, and regularly competed at Aspendale Raceway during its popular period. Before his retirement, Jack Day was to have further success at Rob Roy. Finishing behind Day in the class was Tom Luxton of McEwan's retail stores fame and George Pockett in his Model A Ford. Pockett had some previous successes in the Ford Special before coming to Rob Roy in other hillclimb competitions, one being Fastest Time of the Day at the first Arthur's Seat Hillclimb in 1933.
Excerpted from Leon Sims’ book, A history of Rob Roy Hillclimb - 1937 to 1961 - The Hill, The Drivers, The Cars