Harley Davidson motorcycles didn't gain a reputation for endurance and reliability just on the battlefields of World War Two or in the minds of Milwaukee copywriters. When roads were merely rutted, pot-holed bush tracks, fuel stops were far apart and repairs were carried out by blacksmiths, the Harley Davidson was the choice of serious motorcycle travellers in the Australian bush. Nothing else had the durability and sheer grunt nor offered the carrying capacity or comfort of the big Harley twin. In America the Harley flag in the 20's and 30's was carried by the likes of Floyd Clymer, Joe Petrali and the infamous "Wrecking Crew". Similar feats were carried out in Australia where the definitive American V-twin was a huge favourite. Few feats; however, anywhere in the world, could compare favourably with the exceptional endurance of the Western Australian Harley Club in 1926.
In one of the greatest reliability trials of all time eight Harley outfits were ridden from Perth to Sydney and back in forbidding conditions that would test modern machinery, never mind the rigid rear ends, pneumatic tyres and comparatively primitive equipment of the mid 20's.
To the best of everyone's knowledge no-one else had ever undertaken such a long tour, on motorcycles, under such arduous conditions and with such a large party. The conditions were clear: no sealed roads outside of Perth City limits, corrugated roads at best and sandy bush tracks across the Nullarbor with no ready source of fuel, food or repair until Port Augusta was reached. The Harley boys had no doubts about the machine for the trip, only the reliable Harley V-twin was employed.
The Overland touring party departed from Forrest Place, Perth on Saturday, December 4th 1926 spot on 9.30 a.m. after a tremendous send- off from a crowd of well-wishers including the mayor of Perth. They made Kalgoorlie after three days with only one machine suffering minor damage because of the road conditions. The road South to Norseman was badly washed out and several machines experienced punctures in the bad conditions. To add to their difficulties, near Widgiemooltha, one rider, Len Dean, had to take to the bush to avoid a Camel train encountered on a bad curve and he narrowly avoided rolling the outfit in the process. There was much relief among the Overlanders when they finally reached Norseman.
The next morning, Tuesday 7th of December, after taking on further supplies of petrol, oil, water and food, the party headed out into the heart of the "unknown". Near Fraser Range the Overlanders came upon a nasty patch of sand which was so loose and caused so much drag that several of the machines stalled. As Club Secretary Norm Cunningham described it, "Keith Wood was driving a somewhat battered Harley and sidecar, and we were informed that they had capsized. Percy Swain was slightly bruised and shaken up and as Keith wasn't feeling too energetic, I took Percy in our sidecar while Bob drove their machine with Keith as passenger." It was ironic that Percy was the party's First Aid Officer and now he was the tour's first injury. The Overlanders had bashed their way from Norseman to Balladonia across 136 miles of mulga in 10 hours, an indication of the terrible conditions they had encountered.
The next day delivered more bad going, amazingly even worse than the day before. The track wound in and out of the line of telegraph poles for some 45 miles and the heat of the day was devastating. Descending Madura Pass the party came upon Garnett Williams' outfit deserted as the result of a smashed back wheel.
Upon arriving at Madura Station Keith Wood began to rebuild Williams' wheel which had actually broken its rim in two. Rivetting several strips of metal to the inside and outside of the rim with considerable skill, he effected such a strong repair that the wheel was good for another seven hundred miles.
Sighting the sand dunes of Eucla, they pushed on to the telegraph station where the station-master made them most welcome. The party experienced "two minutes" gloom when someone retrieved a label from amidst a pile of rubbish. The label read "Swan Bitter"! They rode on into the dark keeping an eye out for Dingoes. The Overlanders camped out at a water tank after finally calling it a day at 11 p.m. Rising early they tried to make up for lost time pressing hard across the Nullarbor Plain proper. After leaving White Wells Station they headed into the Nanwarra Sand Hills.
As Norm related it, "the Nanwarra Sands were very difficult for over twelve miles" and "although it was heavy pulling for the heavily loaded outfits and hard pushing for the sidecar passengers, we didn't complain - much! It was yet another test for the durability of the Harley engine, the quality of the Castrol oil and the stamina of the boys." Reaching Penong after dark they found to their disappointment that South Australian Hotels were not permitted to serve "refreshments" after 6 p.m. - so much for civilisation! "Mick" Williams reportedly said to the publican; "but we're travellers, we've just travelled a thousand bloomin' miles!" It was to no avail, the publican remained unmoved.
The next day they travelled through fairly thick scrub for over 100 miles before reaching the small town of Wirrulla. Here they enquired about the condition of the road and were discouraged to hear that it was practically impassable. As Len Dean rather scathingly recorded, "a local Indian rider caused consternation among our ranks by warning us not to attempt to negotiate the Yardea Sands. However, we were not to be discouraged at this stage of our journey, so we decided to push on and risk the consequences. The twenty mile stretch of sand hills was passed in good time despite the pessimistic warnings of our friend, the Indian rider." ,p> After a long arduous day the party reached Port Augusta at 5 p.m. The next day Len Dean recorded their arrival at Adelaide on Wednesday 15th December 1926, we "were escorted through the streets by many motorcyclists. We were entertained at Glenelg by the members of the S.A. Harley-Davidson Club. They provided motor cars and motorcycles and side-cars to take us to the beach and `shouted' us to the various side shows."
After three days of sight-seeing the Overlanders left for Melbourne on Sunday the 19th of December. After lunch at Wellington, they crossed the Murray River setting off for the dreaded Coorong desert. Surprisingly the hardy travellers found this to be almost the worst portion of road from Perth to Sydney. The 180 mile run from Adelaide to Kingston had taken an exhausting 15 hours. After a civic reception at Geelong the Overlanders were led into Melbourne by members of the Victorian Harley Club. They delayed their departure from Melbourne, to link up with the Adelaide Harley Club which was on a Gypsy Tour to Melbourne. The resultant procession out of Melbourne, on Tuesday 28 December, was impressive. First there was the Captain of the Victorian Club, next the W.A. Harley Club in full travelling order, and in the rear, headed by their Captain, flying the pennant, the South Australian boys, still dusty and tired from their journey.
On Wednesday the party had lunch at Albury, after which the police station was visited, and permits to travel in NSW issued. Every machine had to have a N.S.W. "Visitor's" number plate fitted over the green W.A. plates. All this delayed them a good deal necessitating another early start in the morning. Len Dean wrote of this day, "after leaving Goulburn the road becomes very hilly and winding. In fact nearly all the N.S.W. country roads have so far been the same......most of the going was atrocious, mile after mile of heart breaking pot-holes and loose ironstone. The last six miles to Camden was very bad and I only just managed to stick it out. Charlie Boyd had been delayed with a broken chassis; but after affecting a very creditable roadside repair, he bowled in about an hour and a half later than the main body."
Next morning they left Camden, escorted by a number of Sydney Harley Davidson riders, and had the pleasure of driving over a good road right into Sydney. As Norm recalled, "we drove through the city streets and stopped outside the National Art Gallery, where press photographers by the dozen and a movie man besieged us. The reproduction of the photographs taken depicted everyone wearing a huge smile, and no wonder; we had worked out a schedule in Perth to arrive in Sydney at 11 o'clock on the morning of New Year's Eve and - we arrived just two minutes late." On Thursday, January 13th, a crowd of 3000 gathered in Martin Place to give the Overlanders a send-off, and the traffic was temporarily suspended until they had made their exit via George Street to the outskirts of town.
The return to Melbourne was via the "Prince's Highway" which they found far more picturesque than the inland route. They relaxed more on the return trip, spending 5 days in Melbourne and extra time in Geelong and Ballarat. Entering South Australia again, Bob Pidgeon, the Club mechanic was driving near Kingston, with Norm Cunningham in the chair, when the out-fit's axle snapped. The stricken out-fit veered off the road and down a hill straight for a fence. Un- injured, the pair had to endure a two hour wait in the dark and bitter cold whilst waiting to be picked up and given a lift into Kingston. Heading down the Lofty Ranges, into Adelaide, Charlie Fudger rode Ted Cracknell's outfit through a fence and smashed the front forks against a rock face. Lifting the bike up the Overlanders took the front wheel and mudguard out and straightened the forks enough for them to get into Adelaide. The City Centre was reached about midnight and the Overlanders were pleasantly surprised to find members of the Adelaide Harley Club still waiting for them despite a 4 hour wait.
On the morning of Friday, 28 January 1927, the Overlanders were farewelled from Adelaide. Port Augusta was reached that evening and Yardea the next. Progress was good this time as they knew the way and were aware of the road conditions. The Yardea Sands were tackled confidently on the return with the only mishap occurring on Sunday morning when Ted Cracknell upset his out-fit. Wednesday, 2 January 1927 found the Overlanders at Madura, Len Dean recorded their departure, "after breakfast we prepared to tackle the Gorge. Only one made the ascent. It was raining heavily at this time and some of the riders had a strenuous time helping their heavily laden outfits up the precipitous `gorge'. " Road very bad, especially passing over Frazer's Range. I broke my sidecar chassis and Mick Williams smashed his front forks by running into a tree. The whole party was delayed and we did not reach Norseman until nearly eight o'clock."
Next morning, rising early yet again, they left Norseman at 5.30 a.m. and reached Coolgardie at 12.30 after one hundred miles of difficult sandy tracks. They were delayed on the way when Percy Swain broke his front axle and several others had tyre troubles due to the numerous stakes and tree roots in the sand.
After a visit to Kalgoorlie the Overlanders headed for Perth. Five miles from Northam they were met excitedly by some Club members, family and friends. On Sunday, February 6th 1927, they rode into Perth and found hundreds of motorcyclists waiting for them at Midland and it wasn't long before a mile long procession had formed to follow them into the City Centre. They were met at the steps of the Perth G.P.O. by the Lord Mayor and a large and enthusiastic welcoming crowd. One of motorcycling's greatest reliability trials, "the Harley Club Overland Tour", was finally over!
Norm Cunningham at the time wrote, "the machines stood the test remarkably well, we certainly had trouble with the side car chassis; but as the side cars were overloaded with luggage, petrol, etc, it is a wonder the chassis stood up as well as they did. The engines themselves gave absolutely no trouble, and at the conclusion of the 7,000 mile journey, they ticked over as easily as if they had just been prepared to commence the tour. As a supreme test, the local agents took one of the overland machines, and used it to break the Albany to Perth Record.
Copyright: Murray Barnard - Perth Western Australia 1990
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