group of motoring enthusiasts headed by the inventor Henry Sutton
(1856-1912), returned to Melbourne after a morning’s motoring to Mordialloc
on 9 December 1903, they had in mind more than just an idea of forming a
“social organisation and club composed mainly of persons owning
self-propelled vehicles or motor cycles”. Indeed, the real reason the
(Royal) Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) was formed was to organise
“events such as motor car races, motor gymkhanas and other contests” to
satisfy an emerging group of adventurous thrill seekers. After all, it would
be many decades before the motor vehicle revolutionised transportation and
transform the character of the city.
Aspendale Park, the private playground of James Robert Crooke adjoining the
bayside suburb of Mordialloc would stage the RACV’s first car rally in 1904,
suggests Crooke was not only a racing enthusiast, but possibly one of the
fifty-five men who attended the inaugural meeting at the Port Phillip Club
in Flinders Street, Melbourne. As Veronica Hahn notes, Crooke “fulfilled his
dream and established a racecourse and pleasure ground” when the Aspendale
Racecourse (1891-1931), named after his champion horse Aspen, held its first
meeting on 14 April 1891 during the 1890s’ depression. By 1906, Crooke’s
dream was complete with the construction of a motor raceway, acknowledged as
Australia’s “first commercial track”.
The Argus newspaper reported that Crooke, “encouraged by the success of
motor-cycle racing on the grass track”, had decided to construct a banked
speedway. The track, probably made of bitumen according to Ron Jacobs,
consisted of two straight runs, each about a quarter of a mile long with a
width of 60ft and “banked on the outside to a height of 27 feet” permitting
competitors to travel at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour.
German-born William (Wilhelm) Lehmann (c1882-1924) was described as
“Australia’s foremost motor-cycle rider...credited with having driven tens
of thousands of miles in competitive events alone”. An esteemed and well
respected member of the Victorian Motor Cycle Club, he was “one of the
pioneer motorcyclists of the world” and arguably the oldest in Victoria. The
son of Frederick William Lehmann, horse driver and Helena née Wills, he came
to Australia in 1902 with the champion pace cyclists Thaddäus Robl and
Pieter Dickentman acting as their mechanic and motor-pacer. It was Lehmann’s
“intimate knowledge of motors [that] materially contributed to their
success” during the duo’s enthralling performances throughout Australia.
Around 1904, he married Parramatta-born Frances Amy née Bell (1882-1968) in
Richmond, Victoria a marriage which produced twins, Charles William (Carl)
(1905-96) and Ella. The family resided at 6 Ellis Street, South Yarra.
improvements to the motor track, the 1924 season of racing at Aspendale was
largely anticipated and produced some capital sport throughout. From the
opening meeting in February to the enthralling concluding carnival in June,
five meetings and 97 events had been contested, but never had a fatality
occurred at the raceway. That was until Fate could no longer wait and sadly
for Bill Lehmann, his time had come to go where we all must go.
June 1924 was the King’s birthday holiday in Melbourne and if not for the
“unpromising weather in the morning” the day was ideal for racing. The
Sporting Globe captured the mood of the event;
of spectators at the concluding motor carnival at Aspendale were thrilled to
the marrow of their bones. Old and young women, youthful motorists, and
seasoned and indifferent sportsmen, stood on their tiptoes with excitement
as the speed kings dashed along between 70 and 90 miles an hour…It was
without doubt the most sensational carnival ever held on the new Aspendale
had been out of competitive racing for some years and had only recently
began to compete again. Whether or not he had ridden on the new Aspendale
track is not known, and perhaps it was for this reason that he decided on
the day not to allow his son Carl to ride together in Race 2, the 10 lap
Senior Sidecar Handicap. Instead, while a disappointed Carl Lehmann had to
contend with being a spectator amongst the crowd, 16-year-old Ainslie Robert
Irving, a member of the Richmond Amateur Cycling Club instead accompanied
Bill Lehmann in his Invincible J.A.P combination.
first heat of the race involving five competitors, Lehmann and Irving
started off the 35 second mark of the scratch event. The first lap saw the
speed kings roar around the track at an average of 60 miles per hour. Then
on the first turn of the second lap, Lehmann and several others took the
bend at a slightly increased speed in the hope of gaining the advantage, but
the first signs of mishap occurred when the Invincible misfired. With only a
few yards of straight track separating the first and second turns at the
back of the course, suddenly Lehmann’s speed dropped to about 40 miles an
hour. Before long, the other competitors had sped away and Lehmann was now
100 yards in the distant when without warning his front tyre blew and the
machine skidded along the track out of control for some 40 yards distance.
In the seconds that must have felt like the passing of an eternity, there
was little even a skilful driver as Lehmann could do than hope for a lucky
escape for himself and Irving. It was not to be. At 15 miles per hour and
with just seconds remaining before the out of control cycle was about to
stop, the front tyre got wedged in the forks causing the vehicle to
somersault landing on the top of bank. The occupants landed on the grass
below out of sight of the spectators, many of whom did not see the incident
with eyes on the leading group. A dazed Irving staggered to his feet, but
Lehmann lay motionless, his mouth and nose bleeding. Dr. George
Scantlebury (Old Cheltenham Cemetery), one of the first car owners in the
Cheltenham district was called to the casualty room. When asked by George
McCarey, manager of the Aspendale Racing Club “How is he?”, the reply was “I
think there is no hope” and Lehmann was pronounced dead two minutes later.
inquest into William Lehmann’s death before the City Coroner, Daniel
Berriman on 12 June 1924 was a straight forward matter. Just three witnesses
were called to give evidence - William Henry Perry, Constable 5371 from
Murrumbeena Station; George Malcolm McCarey, of 6 Cunningham Street, South
Yarra; and Charles Harling Parker, motor engineer of Collins Street,
Hawthorn. Parker was to give the following evidence on the circumstances
surrounding Lehmann’s death:
9th inst. I was clerk of the course at the motor racing at Aspendale. The
deceased, William Lehmann was riding a motor cycle with side car and while
taking the bottom bend on the track the front tyre burst. He started off the
mark and during the second round, I was at the back of the course. There
were 5 competitors. The front tyre of his cycle burst which caused the
machine to skid and it seemed to go about 40 yards when the tyre got wedged
inside of the front fork. The machine was then near the top of the banking
and it turned over the top of the bank and the two were thrown out of the
side of the track. I went to the deceased. His head was down the bank and he
was unconscious and he was bleeding from the mouth. He had a helmet on his
head. I conveyed him to the casualty room. Dr. Scantlebury was called on the
scene and he attended to him. When the accident occurred, he was going
between 40 and 45 miles an hour and when he actually turned over he was not
going more than 15 miles an hour. The track is a safe one for racing. The
pace that he was going was not excessive as there were speeds twice as fast
later in the day. I think that 80 miles an hour would be excessive. The
track is well guarded from the public. The spectators were a quarter mile
away from where this happened. There are two fences between where the track
is and where the spectators were. It was a dry day and the time was about
And so Bill Lehmann, the speed king was buried in the Brighton General
Cemetery on 11 June at the age of 42; his wife Frances and son Carl are also
written by Travis M. Sellers and originally published in The Cemetorian -
Brighton Cemetorians Inc.
(above) The Speed King,
Bill Lehmann and his son Carl.
Image from The Herald 9
June 1924 p1,
Monash University Archives courtesy Jenny Coates
The Argus 4 Jul 1923 p12; 10 Jun 1924 p6 &
p11, 13 Jun 1924 p19.
The Herald The Herald 9 Jun 1924 p1, 10 Jun
1924 p7, 12 Jun 1924 p5.
The Age 10 Jun 1924 p6 & p9, 11 Jun 1924 p1.
The Sun News-Pictorial 10 Jun 1924 p2.
The Sporting Globe 11 Jun 1924 p11.
The Australasian 14 Jun 1924 p1279.
Mordialloc-Chelsea News 12 Aug 1998 p2.
Death cert of W. Lehmann 1924 (6493).
ADB Vol 6 R-Z (HS).
Brown-May, A & Swain, S (eds)., “The
Encyclopedia of Melbourne” (2005) p 489-491 & p586.
Hahn, V., “Aspendale Park Racecourse”,
Kingston Historical Website (http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/htm/article/93.htm).
Research by Lois Comeadow.