Eric McPherson became the first Australian to gain a works ride when he saddled up for AJS and went on to third place in the inaugural 350cc title at the age of 38.
Eric’s foray into the big time had started a year earlier, when he was selected to represent his country at the Isle of Man TT. His effort ended 500 yards short of the third lap of official practice, when he hit oil exiting Governor’s Bridge and crashed heavily, putting himself out of the races. But more of that later.
One of seven children, Eric William Charles McPherson was born, raised and educated in the inner-Sydney suburb of Glebe. From early youth, he was known to all as ‘The Mouse’, or ‘Mousey’, due not only to his chronic dread of mice but also his own sharp features. In later life, his racing helmet was usually adorned with a Mickey Mouse emblem, while the sobriquet could also have aptly described his quiet nature. Leaving school at 14, he became a trainee clerk with the Department of Main Roads, but his heart was never in the job. Within weeks, he had taken an apprenticeship with a nearby motorcycle dealership. Eric was totally consumed by racing, and he had his first taste of it in 1926 at age 15 when he rode at Pratten Park speedway, only a few miles from his home.
From that inauspicious start he progressed to rides on the big oiled-dirt surface tracks, called Miniature TT, which abounded in and around Sydney, as well as the few tar-surfaced events on the calendar. By the early 1930s he was working for the biggest motorcycle firm in the country, Bennett & Wood, who were the BSA agents. Working alongside him was another young man with a passion for racing – Harry Hinton. The pair became lifelong friends and soon teamed up on BSAs supplied by the company. Eric rode in everything that was going; scrambles, trials, hill climbs, gymkhanas – usually on the same 250cc Empire Star BSA.
In 1937 Eric married his greatest fan, Ruby; a woman of incredible charm and character who became almost as identifiable with the sport as he did.
Like many a sportsman of the time, Eric’s career was suddenly interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He was rejected for military service due to knee injuries sustained, naturally, in motorcycle accidents, and served the war years repairing Army bikes. Just months after the war finished, Eric was back in the saddle intent on competing in every event possible.
His big break came in 1947 at the annual Easter races at Mount Panorama. Eric had been entered in the Senior NSW GP on his BSA, but stepped onto Harry Hinton’s 350 Manx Norton at the last minute. Hinton had already won the Junior GP on the same machine earlier in the day and had a 500 waiting for the Senior, and Eric wasted no time in accepting the offer. Ironically, Hinton’s magneto failed early in the race, while McPherson, revelling in the handling and speed of the Norton, was making spectacular progress through the field. By half distance he held a secure second place behind Jack Forrest, and inherited the lead when Forrest suffered engine failure. The win, in Australia’s most important event, elevated him into the star league.
After the war, the Auto Cycle Council of Australia introduced a levy on all race meetings in order to build a fund to send an official Australian team to the Isle of Man TT. By 1948 the fund was sufficiently liquid to put the plan into action, and each state controlling body was asked to nominate one or two riders for consideration. It eventually came down to three: Victorian Frank Mussett (who had raced in the TT in 1938), Harry Hinton and McPherson. Mussett declined the nomination to concentrate on his Velocette distributorship, and Hinton was unable to secure machinery from Nortons. That left Eric, and with the help of NSW AJS and Velocette agents P&R Williams (owner Stuart Williams was also a pre-war TT rider), a 7R AJS and a KTT Velocette were made available for him in England. The ACCA grant paid for his boat passage and a modest living allowance.
HEADING FOR HEARTACHE
For a 37 year old who had never travelled further than Melbourne before, the experience of sailing 13,000 miles to mix it with the big boys was the stuff dreams are made of. Determined to spend as much time as possible on the island before racing started, Eric booked his passage to leave Sydney in early March. But delays in issuing his passport and receiving the necessary inoculations meant he missed the boat and finally sailed out on April 3rd.
Several weeks on the island before the start of official practice made him anxious to get aboard the new 7R, but team manager Jock West told him to do the first official lap in ‘no less than 40 minutes’. Eric duly obeyed, then cut his second lap at 32 minutes and was looking for a sub-30 minute tour on the third time round. Then, exiting Governor’s Bridge, his front wheel struck the oil patch, dumping him unceremoniously on his backside and into the gutter with a sickening thud. The AJS was virtually unmarked, and although he walked dejectedly to the pits, he soon began to experience severe spinal pain and was admitted to Nobles Hospital. His injuries, which included a hairline fracture of the pelvis and severe bruising to his lower back were severe enough to keep him out of the races, and this hurt even more. Still, Eric’s easygoing and polite nature endeared him to officials and the star riders, and he made valuable contacts.
With his injuries almost healed, he was able to gain a start at Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough on the English east coast, six weeks after the TT, where he rode the KTT. A heat win in the 350 and third place in the final impressed many and gave him a fine silver trophy to bring home. In fact, the trophy was a perpetual one, so several of the riders chipped in and presented Eric with a replica. The British motorcycling press commented not just on Eric’s speed, but his ‘unusual upright riding style”. Eric’s explanation was that his backside was till so sore that he could hardly sit down.
When his return sailing to Sydney was delayed, it enabled Eric to start in the Ulster Grand Prix. Run in atrocious conditions which Stanley Woods described as the worst he had ever encountered, Eric was up to fourth place in the Junior and dicing with Bill Doran’s works AJS when a gust of wind caught him out at the fast right hander at Ballyhill and he crashed heavily. With a black eye and his facial injuries covered in sticking plaster and bandages, a stiff and sore McPherson boarded the boat for home, much wiser for the experience. His slightly battered 7R came with him, where it’s owners P&R Williams had a buyer anxiously waiting – the young up and comer Jack Ahearn.
His progress overseas had been well reported in the Australian press – almost unheard of for a motorcyclist – and shortly after his return Eric was nominated for the annual ‘Kings of Sport’ competition by the Daily Telegraph newspaper. The results were determined by readers’ votes, and Eric did his sport proud to come home second to the cricketing legend Don Bradman.
IN AT THE DEEP END
In 1949, Hinton and McPherson were again nominated by the ACCA for the TT, and this time both were able to accept. In addition, Victorian rider George Morrison went along as a privateer. It was all a far cry from the superstars of today. Hinton and Morrison purchased an ex-War Department two-ton van for £75 and loaded it with four Nortons and spare parts, while Eric and his wife Ruby travelled in convoy on an AJS outfit (loaned by Jock West) with the new 7R AJS in the box sidecar.
The Australian contingent arrived early in the Isle of Man and managed to complete around 20 sighting laps before official practice began. This time there were no dramas for Eric (nor for Hinton and Morrison) and he lined up number 86 for the Junior TT. His starting companion, Ben Drinkwater at number 87, would not survive the race. While Freddie Frith ran away with the race, Eric’s pit signals told him that he was circulating in Silver Replica time. Holding station, he went on to finish the race in 11th position at an average of 79.5 mph.
After post-race scrutineering, Eric rode his AJS down the hill into the AJS garage in Douglas, where the barrel and piston were changed to boost the capacity to 358cc – the Senior limit was a minimum 351cc. After snatching a few hours sleep, Eric and Ruby presented themselves for the prizegiving ceremony where he proudly received his replica along with Hinton (15th) and Morrison (27th). Two days later Eric lined up for the Senior, finishing a very creditable 14th for another Silver Replica. The only other ‘350’ in the results was Reg Armstrong in 7th.
The Antipodean team took in the Dutch and Belgian classics as the next leg of their brief tour, and every start added to McPherson’s reputation as a fast and consistent rider. At Assen, the team was joined by patron Stuart Williams, who purchased a new MG in England and towed Eric’s AJS to the event. The Junior TT was a milestone, as it marked the first World Championship points scored by an Australian. As Frith and Bob Foster fought out one of the all-time classics at the head of the field, Eric made steady progress from 10th place, entering the last lap in 6th position. This became fourth when the unfortunate Eric Briggs ran out of petrol on the final circuit. Behind him were the works machines of Frend, Bell and Armstrong.
Two weeks later the scene shifted to the Ardennes and the Belgian Grand Prix. In front of 120,000 spectators, Eric again took on the works jobs in the Junior race. After one lap he held 11th place and improved steadily as he tailed Les Graham and Reg Armstrong through the field. When Graham retired, McPherson and Armstrong staged a slipstreaming duel that continued lap after lap, with Eric judging his run to perfection to snatch 5th place by half a bike’s length.
THE CALL UP
On the strength of his performances, Eric received a call up from the AJS factory to ride in their official team in the Junior Ulster Grand Prix on August 21st. It was the first time an Australian rode in a post-war factory team. In 1932, Stuart Williams was selected by New Imperial to ride in their works team, but broke his neck in an Australian event and was unable to take up the position.
The 218-mile Ulster Junior GP would take around 2 1/2 hours to complete, but while the Velocettes needed a refuelling stop, the works AJSs, with their specially enlarged tanks, could go through non-stop. Despite their stops however, Velocette riders Frith and Charlie Salt took out the first two positions, with Armstrong’s AJS third and McPherson a career-best fourth – 82 seconds behind the winner. The result gave Eric 4 more points and third position in the 1949 350cc World Championship.
An early-season accident to Bill Doran left a gap in the 1950 works AJS team, and once again McPherson was the one to fill the position. After again being selected as an official Australian TT representative, Eric stepped into the AJS team alongside Les Graham and Ted Frend. Both Hinton and Morrison found places in the second Norton works squad at the Isle of Man. Eric’s works 7R was fitted with the experimental tail fairing used only at the TT. An opening lap at over 80 mph put Eric into the top ten, but his clutch was on the way out. By lap two the clutch had failed altogether but he still held 12th position. His refuelling stop after lap three was harrowing, a long push required to get the clutchless AJS fired up again, but despite posting a lap at 83.25 mph. The transmission cried enough and he retired on lap five. As in 1949, Eric’s Junior engine was fitted with a 358cc barrel for the Senior, where he finished 14th.
The Dutch brought more glory, with Eric taking over the injured Morrison’s Norton to finish 5th in the 500 TT – a race where Hinton scored Australia’s first-ever ‘podium’ finish with a fighting third place behind the works Gileras. In the Junior, the works 7R faltered in the final stages and Eric limped home 15th. The Belgian brought only 8th place in the Junior but in the Ulster, Eric repeated his 1949 result with an excellent fourth in the Junior GP.
Back home once more, Eric was at the crossroads. With his 40th birthday approaching, he was unsure of his future. It rested on the all-important nomination for TT representation from the ACCA, which carried £100 in expenses, but there were plenty of candidates for the positions. Hinton’s spot was assured, but youngster like Ken Kavanagh and Maurie Quincey had strong claims to the remaining berth.
In the end, fate stepped in to settle the issue. Competing at the Easter Grand Prix meeting at Mount Panorama, Eric stepped off his 7R at high speed and broke a wrist. It was time to hand up the helmet.
Although his racing days were over, Eric slipped straight into an administrative role in the sport. Back in 1941, he and Hinton had formed the Motor Cycle Racing Club of NSW which went on to become a formidable promoter of not just race meetings, but new talent. Eric continued as president of the club, and acted as starter and judge for the annual Bathurst meetings for the next 24 years. Barely a weekend went by where he was not engaged in some official capacity in a race meeting somewhere.
Eric McPherson died in a Sydney Retirement home in July 1997, aged 86. With him went one of the few remaining links to the trailblazing days that laid the foundations for Australian assaults on the World Championship stage.