Friday, January 16, 2009

KEITH HAMILTON

A great fellow, true Vintagent, and source of marvelous stories, Keith Hamilton has moved on to the big motorbike workshop in the sky. I have had the great pleasure of corresponding with Keith for many years, and every email or phone call would meander in the best possible ways, to his adventures during WW2, or building the first radio-equipped civilian motorcycle, or tales of hobnobbing with Les Diener (constructor of the Eldee dohc racing Velocette). He served in the RAAF for 5 years during the War, as a flight engineer on Catalinas, later on B24 Liberators. He held the attention of one motorcycle email forum as he worked to locate one 'ditched' WW2 Catalina in the South Sea, from notes he kept on the day!

Keith was soaked through with Velocette, although he wasn't exclusive in his affections; two Pioneer Rex's and a watercooled 1912 model (for which he wove his own cane sidecar body) and the odd 'other' machine passed through his prolific workshop. He is perhaps best remembered for specializing in the nearly forgotten 1920's Velocette two-strokes, especially the Ladies' Model (above), often seen with the man at some antique rally or other. He was great friends with both Les Diener and Phil Irving, and wrote about both men extensively.

While in Sydney three years ago, I had the chance to visit with Keith and his wife Barbara, and ride the famed 'Ladies' Model' around the dirt parking lot of the Zig Zag Railway. It was an acquired taste, certainly, and one which Keith was increasingly unable to savor as his health declined. Always practical, he continued motorcycling in later years on a newish v-twin with an electric leg, stretching his riding days well into his twilight years.

Born in Glenelg, South Australia, in 1921, and was apprenticed as a youth to his uncle, Clarence Darwin Sweet, at his small garage workshop in the backyard of his home in Warradale, SA. Keith spent much of his life far away from motorcycle dealers, and became a past master at 'bush maintenance'.

Not to denigrate his work, for it was always first-class, and never bodged - rather he was just as likely to make a part, small or large, as to buy one from the factory. I think that after keeping an early KSS Velo running daily with little spares support in the 1940's, restoring obscure 1920's motorcycles held no terrors for him, and he was quite capable of fabricating just about anything needed, from a cylinder muff to a petrol tank. He saved quite a few old bikes in this manner, a testament to his boundless energy - he seemed indestructible!

Last year he completed a book on his 'Other Love', motorcycles (as wife Barbara was the first great love of his life), with the help of his daughter Glenda. It chronicles a life of buying, repairing, racing, and restoring a long string of very interesting bikes, from his first KSS mk1 onwards. You can download the book in pdf form here.

I was particularly fond of his tale of creating the first 'civvy' radio set on his trusty KSS. He had purchased a surplus radio after WW2 and managed to rearrange its contents into a compact box, barring the speaker. This he worked into a large decorative motorcycle horn, which he turned to face himself (see pic below). A slightly larger battery helped with the sound, and voila, he could listen to the radio while riding, about 30 years before touring Gold Wings and Harleys had such equipment. Stylishly done, too, as ever with Keith.

He loved to pen his thoughts, and wrote four books of prose/poetry, including his work experiences in Australia and abroad, and of course his motorcycles. Keith, his wife Barbara, and his daughter Glenda created a website for all of his books, which can be found here. The following is an example of his storytelling, from his book 'When God Created Woman'.

The Old A.J.S.

'Daaad!' The two brothers had been whispering together as their elder sister and mother cleared away the dishes of the midday meal, while their father ran his eye over the Sunday Mail. Dad lowered the newspaper and knew immediately that the boys had something serious on their ten year old minds. 'Yes?' 'It's that old motorbike in the garden shed, could we pull it out and get it going?'
'Well, you had better ask your mother about that', said Dad, as he and his wife of fifteen years exchanged glances. This stumped the boys a bit; they were used to having requests referreed to Mum, but on the subject of an old bike, a bit strange! Dad when on, 'It's really your Mum's bike - it's a long story'.

'You see, back in the depression before the war, I was working up on the Murray with a mate. we both owned pretty beat up old bikes, mine a Norton, his a Triumph, we were cutting wood at the time, and 'batching ' in a shed on the property owned by a widow woman with a young sheila that we took to be her daughter.

The bike in our shed now, was at that time sitting in the shed where we slept, with one tire missing, and a homemade sidecar shassis topped with a shallow box attached, and it was on a Sunday such as this, that this sheila walked down from the farmhouse and found us checking out the old A.J.S. For that's what it was, and in the course of convesation she said, "I'll bet you boys could get that bike going, and teach me to ride!"
Such a challenge was soon acted upon, and with the widow's permission (it wasn't her mother) the side car was detached and it's good tire went on the bare rim of the bike, and we soon had it running around the paddock, with the girl showing that she would soon ride as well as we did!
A couple of weeks passed, and we paid the widow 2 pounds 10 shillings for the outfit. We had spent some time fitting the 'sidebox' to my 16H Norton, and it was time to head back to Adelaide. I guess you could say that we had become pretty chummy with the sheila and it came as no surprise when she said that she was heaading home to Adlaide also. She pointed out hat she could ride the A.J. S. which I intended to partly dismantle and take home in the 'box'.

So it was, that soon after we all headed off at daybreak and had a good run, until we were almost to my home town of Crafers in the Adelaide hills, at which point the back tire on the Norton went flat. While the mate and I sat on the side of the road and repaired the puncture, we sent the sheila on with instructions to call in to the house with the white picket fence on the edge of town and inform my family of our impending arrival.

We made it home and I was surprised to find that the shiela and the A.J.S. were gone! "She just gave us the message and rode off on her bike", said Mum. 'Her bloody bike!' I exploded. 'It's mine!' seeing my thoughts of a 'prettied up bike putting a few quid in my pocket disappear. However a couple of beers at the pub with some old mates had everyone laughing at how we had been taken by a bit of 'fluff'! Then for the first time I had a strange feeling that my loss wasn't all to do with the A.J.S.

I busied myself doing a bit of part time work in the local market gardens and was surprised to come home one afternoon and see the old A.J.S. leaning on the front fence, and inside the sheila happily chatting to Mum and Dad over a cup of tea!

I stood there like a stunned mullet as she got up from the table, and gave me a big hug and immediately the tears and words began to fall out. "I stopped as you asked and gave your Mum the message but I was all mixed up inside. You never took any notice of me you sod - all you and your mate thought about was bikes! Somehow I couldn't face you again and, anyhohw the AJ was really sort of mine! I guess I intended to return it as soon as i sorteed myself out, and so - here's your bike back. I've looked after it."

'So boys - that's the story - and yes, you really will have to ask your Mother about this one!'

I won't lament Keith's passing, he lived well and long, so it's simply, Godspeed Keith!

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

That your blog has been running since 2006 and I only found out about it when Ed Youngblood did a feature on you last month amazes me. As a web-enabled vintage motorcycle buff of some years standing I like to think there aren’t any sites of value and interest that I don’t know about. Or did, until I found yours! Let’s not spend any time discussing whether you should have tried to publicise more (looking at your visitor counter suggests you don’t) or I that I have been complacent and should have looked harder. Instead let me congratulate you on a great blog that I’ve been reading non-stop for the last couple of weeks and for some time to come. And also thanks again to Ed for pointing me in the direction of something good as he has done in the past and will hopefully continue to do into the future.

So that’s one thing to thank you for but I have another.

I have had BSA related web sites running for about 5 years now and I’ve wanted to re-model these for the last 3 because a) I have a lot more stuff to add and b( I wanted to re-design it so that it was easier to add all the stuff. But I’ve had problems choosing a web authoring tool and have managed to waste the last 2 years trying lots of things but not doing anything other than fret. All that while I didn’t notice that my local hosting company had gone bust, forgotten to renew my domain www.restorenik.com and that this had been ‘acquired’ by a company that specialises in snapping-up domains that people forgot to renew – for what good it will do them. In haste I re-published what I had to www.beezanet.com and started fretting about the re-modelling again.

At about this time I came across your blog and thought that I could use this either as a way to publish information easily now and ease my pent-up publishing frustration or if all went well to use this instead of a website. I’m not decided yet but I’m publishing something every couple of nights now at htt://beezagent.blogspot.com. I’m a BSA nut, of course.

When you look at this you’ll see that it has not only just been thrown together and needs work but also that it is very like your own in title and layout. I don’t have a creative bone in my body so I hope you’ll forgive this and consider it the most sincere and well meant from of flattery.

Once again thanks for a great blog. Really, really, great!

Best,

Myles

Anonymous said...

Hi

Just wanted to thank you for the blog you keep. I read it everyday.

Best wishes

Jorge

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

A couple of days ago I came across you blog " the vintagent".
Amazing Stuff!

There is one picture that I fall in love with. the first image of you blog entry June 3, 2008. " dirt track mystery portrait.
I was wondering where that amazing picture came from?
And if you perhaps could sent it to me in a high resolution Image? I would love to print it out on photopaper?


Thanks,

kind regards,

Sabine Castelein
Ghent, Belgium

vintagent said...

Sabine,
click on the photo; you will be redirected to the full-resolution scan I uploaded. That's the best I've got!
yours, Paul

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Paul,
Thank you for the article on Keith,it's a very good read and I agree with you Godspeed Keith.I will miss his posts on the Velo chatroom very much but I won't be saddened by his passing.The man lived a long life his way and seemed to enjoy every day.
My condolences to you for the recent loss of your good friend Jim.I read your blog 2/3 times a week looking forward to my lunchtime escapes into motorcycle history and 1920's Sunbeam roadtests!Your site draws a few over the shoulder "what's that?" comments from my coworkers,makes for good conversation in the office.I guess my point is your blog takes me into a place I really appreciate being midday/midweek. Thank you for that!
Here's to a better rest of 2009 (raising my Georgia Pacific "Dixie" cup full of coffee at my Weyerhaeuser paper mill job-go figure)
Best wishes,
Tim Moulton

Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul,

I was a little worried about asking you, your blog is always a great source of interest to me and I felt somewhat overawed to to suggest even a slight change but the spirit of Keith lives on.

Best Regards,

John

Anonymous said...

Hard to believe I did two trips to Victoria in January. In the first week of
the New Year, Barbara rang to say that Keith was fading fast. Their home has
been my half-way motel for longer than I care to remember, so I jumped in the
car and went straight down. I was able to have several hours at his bedside,
and he was lucid enough to discuss the gearbox problem I still have. Later that
evening and unable to sleep, I spotted an unusual title on his bookshelf called
“Lake Boga at War” which tells the story of how our Catalina force re-grouped
after being destroyed at Broome in 1942. Following day the palliative care guy
arrived to prepare Barb for the probability that Keith would not last till his
88th birthday in March. Family members were starting to arrive and set up tents
and caravans by the creek, so I made my goodbyes. Only a week or so later, news
came through of his passing, so I thought it proper to attend his funeral on the
bike.

South from Canberra to Cooma is pretty busy, but once you turn towards
Nimmitabel and Bombala the road empties and police are scarce. The down hill
run to Cann River is every motorcyclist’s dream. Over 100 miles through the
bush of smooth road surfaces and mixed corners, with the constant ringing of
bellbirds making you wonder if your timing has slipped. It’s much the same all
the way to Bairnsdale, then it’s the last hour on back roads to the little
village of Briagolong. The service was in the nearby Maffra motorcycle
clubhouse, and was so much better than the average church alternative, with some
dreary priest rattling his beads. The celebrant was a well known local
identity, and made much of Keith’s early life on Kangaroo Island and his wartime
exploits in Catalinas. Glenda and Shelley gave moving tributes to their dad and
read out many of the e-mails received from all corners of the globe. Then
followed a slide show, which started
with the stiff pose of the early twenties and worked through all the facets of
the full and rewarding life he and his family were fortunate to enjoy.

True enthusiast to the end, Keith's passing was just a few days before the
Classic Races at Phillip Island on the Australia Day long weekend. I was able
to say goodbye to Keith, drop in on Geoff Fullard at Traralgon and then take in
the racing. I'm sure Keith would have approved. I’m home less than a
fortnight, and already several of the towns and beautiful countryside I passed
through on those two trips are now totally destroyed in these devastating fires.
Makes you realise we’re here today and gone tomorrow.

Regards…Tom Battisson Canberra