From backyard to the Isle of Man
Born in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah on June 10, 1915, Sid Willis overcame serious leg injuries received in a bicycle accident, to become one of Australia’s most successful rider/tuners. Barely 152cm tall and weighing just 45 kilos, he was the ideal jockey for a “Lightweight” as the racing 250cc class was then known.
The Second World War put paid to any racing plans for almost six years, but it did give Sid the chance to put together a potent racer using the skills he had learned as a moulder in the army. Into a rolling chassis from a 1936 250cc MOV Velocette, Sid installed an overhead camshaft KSS Velocette 350 engine that he had sleeved back to 250cc. His first opportunity to try the machine was at the 1946 Victory TT at Bathurst, where he was beaten for the Lightweight (250cc) honour by Ted Carey, a contemporary in more ways than one. Ted was also an expert in casting and made patterns to cast his own pistons, DOHC heads and camboxes. Carey’s form of heat treatment was to place the finished article over a saucepan of boiling water and allow the whole plot to cool slowly. Crude, but demonstrably effective!
Sid went searching for more speed. Although perennially short of money, he arranged to buy an ex-works DOHC head and cambox from Frank Mussett, which he fitted to his own engine. The completed Velo was then loaded onto the Harley outfit and off they trundled to the Heathcote Road – Sydney’s unofficial tuning strip. To his delight, he saw an extra 1000 rpm on the rev-counter, which he reckoned equated to ten miles per hour down Conrod Straight at Mount Panorama. Sure enough, Sid trounced his rivals at Bathurst in 1947 to take the first of his four victories there. He repeated the feat the following year. But if Sid’s stature as a rider was growing rapidly, so was his reputation as a tuner. By now he was working for himself, producing a constantly increasing array of racing engine components from his minuscule workshop behind his parents’ house.
This tiny structure housed a small lathe and a home-made furnace, where he cast not only his pistons (many of which still pound up and down in Historic racers today), but carburettor bodies, crankcases, barrels, heads…and even a set of teeth! Dismissing a local orthodontist’s quote as outrageous, Sid fashioned his own fangs to fit his gums, and polished them to a mirror shine. Unfortunately the combination of aluminium and human saliva resulted in a mouthful of black goo, sothe teeth were soon discarded for factory jobs. It showed that Sid would never buy anything until satisfied that he couldn’t make it better himself. In the early 1950s, he even constructed his own desmodromic cylinder head. Starting with a SOHC KSS head, he machined off the cambox and cast his own to house the desmo valve gear. With no facilities to forge rocker arms, Sid applied his usual ingenuity and fabricated his own, using pieces of Sidchrome spanners silver-soldered together! Despite spinning to 10,000 rpm, the springless engine was no faster than his own DOHC model, and the homespun rocker arms were prone to breakage, so the project was abandoned.
In 1953, at 38 years of age, Sid took the biggest decision of his life – to take the plunge in Europe. He packed up his DOHC 250 which looked decidedly pre-war with its rigid frame and girder forks. The first outing was on the fast and notoriously rough Mettet public roads circuit in Belgium, where Sid’s machine literally fell apart beneath him. A few weeks later at Zandvoort in Holland he impressed by finishing third in the 250 race behind two ex-works Moto Guzzis, but it was by now obvious that the Velo was seriously deficient in the handling department. The big one, the Isle of Man TT, was next on the schedule, but beforehand Sid arranged to part with what was left of his savings to buy a new frame from Doug Beasley. These frames were lightweight twin-cradle affairs using Velocette telescopic forks and Armstrong rear dampers. Into the new frame, Sid installed the engine, gearbox and wheels from his own machine, and set sail across the Irish Sea.
Sid managed just nine laps of the daunting 60 – kilometre course on a road bike before official practice began. The 250 TT was to be held over four laps of the full Mountain circuit and had attracted 38 entries – including works Moto Guzzis for Fergus Anderson, Tommy Wood and the Italian Lorenzetti, and three in private Guzzis. There was also a pair of works DOHC NSU twins for Bill Lomas and Werner Haas, two works triple-cylinder DKW two-strokes, and a big private entry mainly aboard Velocettes, Excelsiors and Nortons.
The race start was postponed because of thick mist and it was still far from clear when the race finally got under way. Sid lay eighth after an impressive first lap of 76 mph (122 km/h. By the third lap, visibility across Snaefell Mountain was down to 100 yards, but Anderson pressed on, barely lowering his speed as he had Haas just seconds behind him. And at the end of the lap, Sid’s name crept onto the hallowed Leader Board opposite the grandstand – 6th place at an average of 76.26 mph. On the final lap Anderson held off Haas to win by 17 seconds, but Sid was putting in a big finish as well. In the closing miles he urged his Velocette in front of Wood’s works Guzzi to come home a gallant fifth in 2 hours 0 minutes 8 seconds, the second private owner to finish after Arthur Wheeler’s Guzzi.
Sid’s last scheduled start in Europe was at the notorious Freiburg Hill Climb in Germany; a frightening and lethal course of 177 bends and corners lined by trees and sheer drops. In practice Sid fell off in a big way and knocked himself about quite badly. He also severely bent his new Beasley frame, rendering it unrideable. Nevertheless, there was $120 starting money waiting and Sid needed it, so he managed to borrow a 7R AJS to complete his runs.
He arrived back in Australia with $30 in his pocket and slipped naturally back into his former lifestyle. Although he never won again at his beloved Bathurst, Sid remained a formidable competitor to the end of his racing days in 1961. Eventually he sold the last of his special engines, a 74mm x 58mm double knocker, to buy a television set!
Sid Willis died on May 10, 1984, aged 69. He had been diagnosed as suffering from cancer, and an operation on this condition resulted in a fatal heart attack. In Sid, Australian motorcycling lost one of its all-time greats, not just in riding ability, but as one of the last of the home tuners that produced such remarkable machinery