Alexandra Report - Classic motorcycles galore and one lonely Vespa

When re-fuelling my scooter at Alexandra last year on my way to Queensland, a man rushed across the road and thrust a poster into my hand. The Red Gate Classic Motorcycle Club of Alexandra was having a ‘do’ and old Vespas were welcome. There was to be a breakfast, the chance to admire classic and veteran motorcycles, a ride out to Eildon Lake and across the dam wall to be followed by a ’show-n-shine’ and BBQ lunch at the town’s showground. Apparently these motorcyclists love mixing it with scooters, so I decided to attend. I put this up as an impromptu event on our club’s web site but the weather forecast was dire, thunderstorms and a tempest, so there were no takers. Perhaps next year our club can join in and we can organise a weekend away. Anyway this is my belated report on that event.

I rode up on Saturday and stayed the night. You may recall that huge dump of rain we had last weekend (24-25 March actually so you’d need to have a very good memory). Well, that weather front chased me all the way to Alexandra. Keeping an eye on the threatening purple-black clouds, I briefly stopped by at Taggerty to photograph an old motor garage and to pop into the general store which I had by-passed many times. It has a fantastically busy interior full of nick-nacks and behind all the greenery along the front fence, there is a little oasis of a cafe. Very pretty. We should stop by here for a break on a club ride one day. I took a back road into Alexandra and discovered a fantastic old wooden bridge (of course you did David) with it's wood decking still intact on Breakaway Road. I later learnt that the locals had to fight hard to have this bridge restored rather than replaced by a concrete one as is so often the case. I managed to get to Alexandra without putting my waterproofs on. Just as I parked my scooter under the veranda of the Shamrock Hotel, my overnight stay, it bucketed down. The townsfolk whooped and hollered with joy as the gutters overflowed, the first rain in many months.

My great grandfather was once a doctor in Alexandra so I also decided to use the occasion as an excuse to research some family history. I heard many stories about the family from my grandmother and had inherited a collection of old family photographs of the area. Between showers I wandered down to the town's information centre with the Dr Joseph Johnson family album I had brought with me. It had a picture of the family home in it which I hoped to track down. The lady at the centre called a member of the local historical society and within minutes he was on the doorstep. Hans drove me back to his place via the old Johnson home which I was delighted to see is still standing albeit missing some ornamental decoration on the verandah posts. He made me a cup of peppermint tea and put milk in it thinking it was English Breakfast. Hans fired up his computer and soon I was looking at pictures he had collected of my grandparents as young children and my great grandparents. Wow!  Hans was grateful that I could put names to some of those faces. Dr Johnson was playing around with the relatively new process of photography in the 1880s. I believe he prepared his own glass plates. I was always struck by the informality and warmth of my great grandfather’s photographs of his children. Clearly he adored his daughters. Hans also had a picture of Dr Johnson on a motorcycle. Snap! It was the same photograph as in the album. How did that come about? Furthermore, I have the original glass plate negative of that particular photo. More about this motorcycle later.

Hans is 76 but he knows how to get around a computer. He wanted to scan everything I had with me. I stayed with him for a couple of hours as he showed me all sorts of stuff about the district. Alexandra was originally named Redgate as there was once a red gate between two pastoral properties in the region. Gold was discovered here in 1866 and the town quickly sprung up. There were photographs of the great flood of 1916, Dr Johnson's banged up car after an accident, oh and many pictures of various wooden bridges in the area. He was excited that I had a photo of the Alexandra Shire Hall taken at a particular point in time which was unlike anything they had in their collection. My tummy was rumbling so I said my goodbye and walked back to town to have dinner leaving Hans to scan the rest of the photo album. The sun broke through the clouds an hour before sunset so I took some pictures of the town. 

Ferguson, my 1979 P200E spent the night on the footpath protected from the rain beneath the pub's veranda. My pub accommodation consisted of a comfortable bed with crisp clean sheets, a sink in the corner, a fridge, TV and a kettle to make tea or coffee. Unfortunately my window overlooked the beer garden and the loud drunken swearing from the lost local lads seemed to continue well beyond midnight. Sunday morning was the day of the ride out. It dawned very gloomy and the ground was sodden with overnight rain. Now the Shamrock Hotel is the first pub I'd ever stayed at that I couldn't get out of. I was instructed to exit via the rear fire escape, but the backyard gate was locked. Just as well I didn’t park my scooter in the beer garden as my host suggested. The interior door that led to the bar was also locked. One usually exits a pub via the front door after an overnight stay. Perhaps my hosts had forgotten that the hotel had a guest. I ended up having to scramble over a high steel fence in the backyard using a bar stool to help get a leg over. The last part of this manoeuvre resulted in a fall from high to the ground rather than the graceful descent I had planned. As no bones were broken, I decided I was fit enough to attend the rally and collected Ferguson from the main street footpath.

I was a bit nervous arriving at the meeting point with all the other motorcycles but the bikies didn't seem to mind having one Vespa amongst them. People were curious about the Vespa. In fact some of them had admired our scooters when the club participated in the Lygon Street Italian festival. Breakfast was a cooked snag between bread with tea or coffee served up at the door of Davenport Auto Electrics. When I spotted a heap of classic 2-stroke dirt bikes from the 1970-80s I couldn’t resist poking around the workshop. Steve Davenport said he could restore my 1973 dirt bike. Hmm, do I really need another set of two wheels? Out the front there were some beautiful classic motorcycles to admire, British, Italian and the Harleys. There was a spindly 1926 Velocette recently restored after being totally burnt back to bare metal in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. One bike that caught my eye was a Ural with a sidecar that carried a complete spare wheel. It had unusual leading link front suspension. The Ural is a Russian motorcycle that has been in production for 75 years. It was based on the German BMW R71 and considered to be a very rugged machine. It has a shaft drive to the sidecar wheel for off-road conditions. I think my favourite motorcycle was a 1959, 650cc Triumph T110, very classic lines in black and cream. 

I was fourth in line as we rode out of the town and up along Skyline Road where you get some great views over Eildon Weir. The club will have to ride here one day. Ferguson was able to keep up with the big bikes just fine as the heavy Harleys motorcycles took the corners somewhat cautiously on roads that were still damp from all night rain. Ferguson had one back wheel slip which was rather unusual for him. We rode across the dam wall then had coffee and donuts at the Eildon Bakery. Wet gear was needed for the ride back to Alexandra as it started to rain. Once again I was near the front of the pack and maintained this position throughout the fast ride back along Goulburn Valley Highway. In fact the motorcyclist behind me said later that he clocked me doing 110 kms/hour. That can't be right David. It would be breaking the law. Perhaps motorcycle speedometers are 10% out just like Vespa ones. Anyway the bikers were rather impressed by the little red Vespa that could, with an engine 1/3 to 1/4 the size of the big motorcycles. Back at the show-n-shine we all had a yarn and a BBQ lunch. One middle-aged lady motorcyclist from Echua way mentioned that they had bumped into a group of Vespas last year around Tolmie on the way to Mansfield. Perhaps it was us on the Ned Kelly Ride. She recalled that we were all riding very safely but lamented that we didn't move over to the left so that they could pass within the double lines and enjoy the curves. She said that later in Mansfield her group tried to coin a name for us. Not a swarm of Vespas, nor a gaggle of Vespas. The term they came up with was an "inconvenience" of Vespas. Humpff! 

I had that photo of my great grandfather on his motorcycle. My grandmother often told me that it was the first such machine in the district. I guess Dr Johnson was entering an era where it made more sense to do the rounds on a motorcycle rather than harness up a horse and buggy as his practice covered Gobur, Terip Terip, the Black Range, Buxton, Eildon and Alexandra. I hoped these classic motorcycle enthusiasts might be able to identify it for me. Some thought it was an early French machine.

Hans wandered down to the show-n-shine event to say that he had completed the scanning and that I should pop into a bric-a-brac shop on the way back to his place where the president of the historical society had dug up some history on the Johnsons. By the way, my Vespa won some kind of trophy at the show-n-shine. At the shop Ian Nelson presented me with a Johnson family tree and thanked me for taking the trouble to contact the historical society. He said they had dug up an interview with my grandma recorded in 1988 when she was 95. Hans had made me a copy. I scootered over to Hans' home to review what they had found. One item was a document that appointed Dr Joseph Hilliard Johnson as Alexandra's Officer of Health in 1896 with an annual salary of £10. I learnt that a photo of a shack covered in a climbing rose was actually of his surgery in Green Street. Other information confirmed a story I heard from my grandmother. Dr Johnson had one of the first X-Ray machines to arrive in Australia. It was bought for him by his younger brother who was travelling in Germany at the time. This wondrous machine was demonstrated in the Alexander Shire Hall with doctors from Melbourne and Mansfield in attendance. Finally I got to hear grandma's voice once more after thirty decades. It was a rather emotional moment. She recalled how she used to ride a horse to school and would go to sleep on it's back for the four mile journey home. Taking a horse to school? Gosh, what would helicopter parents think about that? A case containing my great grandfather's doctor's paraphernalia of the era for home visits was donated to the Alexandra Historical Society and had been on display in the town just two weeks before.

The ride back home on Ferguson was fast and pleasant. I had returned to Melbourne with far more than I had ever hoped for as well as a contact in Alexandra for further historical exploration. After hours of internet research I finally managed to identify my great grandfather’s motorcycle. After starting with the early days of French motorcycling, it turned out to be British. It was a 1907 Triumph. 

Only about 1,700 of these models were made that year and one ended up in Alexandra. I reckon it would have arrived in Australia in 1908-09. The Triumph had a 450cc 3.5 HP motor, one fixed gear but no clutch. You started it up with the bicycle pedals provided either by pedalling it along to starting speeds or running alongside it and jumping aboard. You cut the ignition to stop the motor. How interesting that would be in today’s stop-start traffic. Later models had two gears which could only be changed in a stationary position by swapping the belt drive to a different sized pulley. A hand oil pump was used by the rider to occasionally lubricate the motor. The Triumph was sold in the UK for £49 and 17 shillings. The average yearly wage at the time was about £150. Like all early motorcycles, it was really just a bicycle with a motor attached. However I was amazed to learn that it could reach speeds of 100-kms/hour and with just 3.5 HP and one gear too!

I wondered what they used for fuel in the early days of motoring before there were petrol stations. I read somewhere that benzene could be purchased from chemists. It was sold as a stain remover and apparently it was also used in after shave having a pleasant aroma. The highly inflammable liquid proved suitable for the internal combustion engine. The thing probably ran on kero too.

Sixty odd years separate the photograph of my great grandfather on his motorcycle and myself on my Vespa taken somewhere near Daylesford in the late 1960s. It’s amusing that both photographs are taken in profile with our two-wheeled machines facing in the same direction. I wonder if he enjoyed riding as much as I do? I have a physical memento that belonged to my great grandfather too. I carry a pair of his surgical tweezers in my Vespa toolkit. They have travelled far and wide with me.

Will shall not cease from exploration. 

And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started 

and know the place for the first time.

T. S. Elliot

A video of a 1907 Triumph:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4Rhab5AN0U

A video of how to start and ride off on such a machine:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QToxrzV1Ck

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Great story David!

Thanks for sharing these wonderful adventures and the amazing photographs.

That was a wonderful read David. You may well have found an outfit and a machine for the Distinguished Gentleman's Ride.

What a fabulous adventure David and all that family history, so very special... yes definitely a club ride up that way later this year or early next year for that Motorcycle show..

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