Retro Review: Opperman’s 1937 Malvern Star
Recently a contributor called to enquire about a bike featured in RIDE #36 (published in April 2007). The ‘Retro Review’ from that issue was about a replica of Sir Hubert Opperman’s bike from a record breaking ride across Australia in 1937; it will feature in a display at an event in Adelaide in conjunction with the 2016 Tour Down Under and it’s bound to attract plenty of attention.
Opperman achieved a great deal during his days as a racing cyclist and his name is synonymous with the Malvern Star brand.
Here is the feature written by Warren Meade about the style of bike Opperman used for a special ride 13-day ride in 1937…
– Photos: Andrew McDowell
Opperman’s Malvern Star
– By Warren Meade (published April 2007)
At a time when dirt tracks made up 1,600km of the 4,402km route from Fremantle to Sydney one rider without peer established a record of 13 days, 10 hours and 11 minutes for the journey. Sir Hubert Opperman’s career had many other highlights but this was a ride that captured the imagination of a nation. We look at a replica of the bike he used for the epic adventure in 1937.
In the Australia of the 1930s, bike racing was a big sport. Enough of the general public were still using bikes as their main means of transport for them to be able to identify with the superhuman feats of the top racing cyclists. Prominent bike manufacturers competed for space in newspapers, and most companies sponsored top riders in the hope that they would make the headlines. Malvern Star was the largest bicycle firm in Australia by the late ’30s and its biggest ‘name’ amongst a star studded cast of riders was Hubert Opperman.
‘Oppy’, as he became known, won his first big road race in 1922, the 200km Launceston to Hobart. He was 18 years old. Over the next 15 years his sponsor, Malvern Star, grew from a small suburban bike shop to a public company with branches and agents in every town in Australia.
Prior to 1937, Oppy had competed in two Tour de France campaigns, won or gained fastest time in virtually every road race in Australia, and excelled in long distance and motorpaced track events. He won the Paris-Brest-Paris race over a staggering 1,162km in 1931, beating the best endurance riders in Europe in a time of 49 hours, 21 minutes.
His list of world records included the 1,000 miles (74 hours), 12 hour (243 miles) and 24 hour (466 miles). Also in his collection were the Lands End to John O’Groats record – England’s ‘end to end’ – and most of the Australian point to point records. To say his list of performances was too long to mention is an understatement. In his autobiography, Oppy devotes 180 pages to the bike racing period of his life, and even then only touches briefly on many of his achievements.
Our feature bike this issue is a replica of the one Opperman rode in his record breaking trek from Fremantle to Sydney in 1937. Having held virtually every endurance cycling record in the world, he and his backers planned the ultimate feat of endurance. The west to east crossing of Australia had been tackled before, most recently in 1935 when Bill Read had covered the 4,402km journey in just under 19 days.
The roads were quite different in 1937 to those that traverse the Nullarbor Plain today. Back then there was 1,600km of unmade road – that is unmade, not unsealed. It was little more than a track between the trees, where camel and bullock teams had found their way through over the years. Construction of this road didn’t actually begin until army and civil engineers started working on it during 1941. The Western Australian section was not sealed until 1969, and the South Australian portion was finally completed in 1976.
I drove from Melbourne to Perth in 1978 in an old Holden, curing me forever of any ambition to ride across.
Oppy knew riding across the Nullarbor wasn’t going to be easy. He was well equipped with a back-up crew, scrutineers, a following car and caravan and, of course, the best bike that could be built by the nation’s foremost manufacturer.
The actual bike was a modified 1937 Oppy Cyclo Model, so named because it came equipped with the English made Cyclo Standard three-speed derailleur.
If anything, the bike was more suitable for the unmade track than the car and caravan; that outfit had to be jacked over rocks and winched out of innumerable bogs.
The derailleur was bullet proof and worked very well in all conditions. Unlike today’s gear changers, which are typically spring loaded in one direction and pulled by a cable to oppose this spring tension, the Cyclo was characterised by a double cable system. The cable is, in fact, one long length wrapped around the lever at one end and the derailleur at the other, holding the chain exactly below the cog you want it on. As it is not spring loaded, it’s not affected at all by the constant jarring of rough roads.
A benefit of this system is that if the cable breaks, you can just place the derailleur below the cog you need and it will sit there indefinitely, not requiring a cable and lever to hold it in gear. The two jockey wheels have adjustable cup and cone type bearings, and lasted tens of thousands of kilometres.
The Cyclo clutch hub was available in one-, two- and three-speed versions. Like today’s cassette hubs, it had inboard bearings to support the freewheel body giving three sets of bearings instead of the standard hub’s two. The cogs could be interchanged readily although they were screwed on rather than being mounted on a spline like modern versions. It was a simple matter to change one or more of the cogs to suit the conditions.
The bike used for the record attempt differed from the standard Oppy Cyclo Model by using Monitor Super Cam brakes, instead of the Monitor Speedster versions, adopting the 90 degree fixed stem, rather than an adjustable diamond stem, and using a Cyclo Rosa double chainwheel, instead of the standard BSA item. He also used Conloy alloy single rims (for tubular tyres) rather than 27 inch steel clinchers.
The Monitor Super Cam brakes first appeared in 1935. They were high tech and expensive. Attached to the frame via special brackets right at the level of the brake blocks, they allowed minimal flex even when applied hard. The complicated linkages actuated the blocks in a straight line to the rims, instead of the usual arc motion. Combined with the lack of flex they produced braking performance previously undreamt of. They weighed more than the standard bike’s Monitor Speedster brakes, but Opperman must have valued performance over weight for the arduous record ride.
The double chainring was a rarity on competition bikes. Front derailleurs were available but usually only seen on touring bikes; racing cyclists chose to use their fingers to ‘knock’ the chain from one sprocket to the next. The Cyclo Company was owned by Albert Raimond and he named his front derailleurs and double chainwheels Rosa, after his wife.
Opperman’s use of derailleurs for his record rides from 1934 onwards helped expedite their acceptance by racers all over the world. The Cyclo Standard derailleur, as used on our feature bike, was replaced with an improved version in 1938. The new design was officially called the Oppy, his name heavily stamped in the mounting plate of every unit sold globally.
Bearing in mind that the Cyclo Oppy derailleur was one of the best selling derailleurs in the world from 1938 to 1940, it gives some idea of Opperman’s stature in the public’s eye at the time. It also gives us some idea of how much store the Cyclo company put in his endorsement of its product, that it would brand its most important product, simply, Oppy.
Those who read the Retro Review in issue #35 (published in January 2007) will notice the great leap forward from Les Einsedel’s 1926 Malvern Star to this one, just 10 years on. The 1926 road bike had hardly advanced at all from the earliest safety bikes of the 1880s – no brakes, fixed wheel, 28” clinchers – while the 1937 model has many of the hallmarks of racing bikes right through until the 1980s.
The alloy ‘single’ rims first appeared in the early 1930s and while expensive at the time (much like carbon rims are today), they were much more durable than the wooden ones they replaced. The Conloy rims on our feature bike weigh a mere 390g each, as light as many modern versions.
Malvern Star had special ‘big’ tubular tyres made for the record ride, knowing the rough conditions Oppy was to encounter. He would require plenty of cushioning but also still need the speed of a lightweight tyre and rim combination. These tyres are no longer available, so I built the bike up with normal section tyres, as he used on the good sealed sections of the route. Malvern Star ensured it got maximum exposure from all facts relating to the ride. Publicity after the ride stated proudly that Oppy had only four punctures for the entire 4,402km journey, and that the bike had performed above and beyond all expectations. Well, the company behind the epic adventure would say that, wouldn’t it!
The rims and tyres were light, about the same weight as a standard set of handbuilt 32 spoke race wheels today, but the complete bike is a rather hefty 11.8kg.
The frame tubing is described in the catalogue as “Chrome Molybdenum (Aeroplane Steel) Weldless Tubing”, with no brand name mentioned. Much of the weight is in the robust all-steel gearing and braking components. By 1939, having adopted newfangled aluminium for the cranks, hubs, stems, pedals and brakes, Malvern Star advertised that its top road racing bike (without gears) weighed 8.1kg, while its top track model weighed in at a supermodel-svelte 6.8kg.
While our feature bike is a replica of Oppy’s, it came to me over 20 years ago with many of the modifications that Opperman’s Fremantle bike had. An old mate came into my bike shop in Bairnsdale in 1985 and told me he had bought a couple of bikes at a farm clearing sale near Benambra and asked whether I wanted them He knew I did.
The Oppy model was barely recognisable, as it had been converted to single speed with an ancient Eadie Coaster back pedal brake hub. Not only that, but the back tyre had been fitted with a piece of solid rubber hose, in lieu of a tube, making for an incredibly rough ride. I suspect that this was done as an austerity measure during World War II, as tyres and tubes were hard to get.
The bike had probably not been ridden since the war years. The Super Cam brakes were intact and the bloke had bought a box of bike parts at the same sale and, not surprisingly, it contained the rear derailleur and shift lever in addition to the very derelict remains of the Cyclo clutch hub. The unusual ‘90 degree’ stem was in the bike.
While it is tempting, and a bit of fun, to believe that these are the remains of Oppy’s actual bike, I think it is much more likely that this is a 1937 Oppy Cyclo model, modified by a fan – or an enthusiastic Malvern Star dealer – to resemble the bike Oppy used. There were so many photos published of his progress during this and other record rides that it would have been easy enough to pick out the details of his stead and modify a standard model to that specification.
Some readers may be thinking that the bike should be ‘restored’ with new paint and everything re-plated, but to me it has a certain charm the way it is, with all the scars of age, worn well and well worn as it were.
The bike is now in fine mechanical condition, rideable and safe. I have another Oppy Cyclo Model from 1937, restored to factory specs using mostly ‘new’ stock parts, which looks like a brand new bike. I rode it on the first three days of the Great Victorian Bike Ride a few years ago, and I don’t think a single person noticed. I’m sure if I rode the ‘as found’ version of the same bike it would be an instant conversation starter wherever I went. And the conversations are a large part of the appeal of riding an interesting old bike.
Oppy was so well known by the time he undertook the Fremantle to Sydney record ride that the press coverage was enormous. People throughout the nation followed his progress eagerly, lining the route through country towns and choking the city centres in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney to catch a glimpse of him and urge him on. He arrived in Melbourne almost four days ahead of schedule, and parliament was suspended so that the dignitaries could welcome him.
He rode into Sydney after covering the 4,402km in 13 days, 10 hours and 11 minutes, beating the previous record by over five days. The front pages of the major newspapers in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney were devoted entirely to Opperman’s ride on the day after he passed through each city.
Oppy’s record was not broken until 1969 when Vic Browne staged a serious effort and covered the distance in 11 days, six hours and 47 minutes, over very much improved roads. In 1975, Bruce Hunt knocked a mere six hours off Browne’s time. We can only imagine the anguish he felt as he covered the last 24 hours of his journey, wondering whether the enormous effort would be wasted if the record wasn’t broken.
In 2006, 39-year-old Richard Vollebrecht rode the most direct route from Perth to Sydney (3,960km) in eight days, 10 hours and 57 minutes. By avoiding Melbourne and cutting across NSW, the route was shorter than that taken by the previous record holders. His ride has not been counted as an official record, but was an incredible effort and his 470km per day schedule will take some beating by an official challenger.
After retiring from professional cycling, Hubert Opperman went on to become a member of parliament, holding the seat of Corio in Victoria for 17 years. He served terms as Government Whip, Minister for Shipping and Transport, and Minister for Immigration. He was awarded a knighthood in 1968. Sir Hubert Opperman died in 1996, having suffered a heart attack while exercising on his stationary bike. He was just shy of 92 years old. For anyone interested in cycling history, or the Menzies years of Australian politics, his autobiography Pedals, Politics and People is a must read.
– By Warren Meade