Handlebars The Bike Copper

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton

ONE OF the more interesting people I have met was a copper. Mind you, most of the times we met weren’t that pleasant: those meetings were of the scumbag bikie/motorcycle cop variety and those encounters rarely end happily for the scumbag bikie.

If you rode a bike anywhere on the Northern Beaches in the 1970s and ’80s, it was highly likely you’ve been pulled over and booked by a bike copper nicknamed Handlebars; a.k.a. Toes Down; a.k.a. Helmet Head. Although a select group of Beaches bikers (the habitual offenders) knew the copper’s real name, everybody knew him by his nicknames—and he had a few.

The Handlebars tag came about from his massive handlebar moustache, waxed to perfection and its tips teetering out in the breeze, past the confines of the police-issue, half-faced helmet he chose to wear, even though most of the bike coppers by then had converted to the full-face variety of helmet. And that half-face bash hat stayed on his melon for the entire time he was on duty. Never left his bonce, it seemed, which gave credence to another nickname—Helmet Head; those privileged few who witnessed a bare-headed Handlebars were treated to the sight of a hairstyle permanently shaped by the confines of an apparently one-size-too-small half-face helmet.

Handlebars was rather a large chap; he even dwarfed the Honda Fours (later on, Kwakka 9s and still later BMW Bricks) he rode while on duty. And his style of riding was unusual in that rather than resting the foot on the footrest and having the boot sole parallel to the direction of travel, he would hook his heels onto the footrests and let his feet dangle in the breeze; coming or going, if you spotted a bike copper with his enormous size 12 boots hanging down from the pegs, you’d know it was Toes Down and you’d better watch out—there was a booking about.

Funnily enough, I held just one sneaky Ace card over Handlebars/Toes Down/etc: I was the keeper of a funny story about him from his days as a young copper years before. I must admit, I had no qualms about trotting out the yarn to him which sometimes worked and you’d get some rare leniency from the big fella.

It happened like this, see… when I left school and began a career in the Graphic Arts Industry, all the new apprentices had to do a stint riding shotgun in the delivery cars. The corporation I worked for dealt in all aspects of newspaper and magazine production and would daily deliver hundreds of parcels involving printing, photography, printing plate, photo-engraving, typesetting and advertising copy to and from all over the city. The theory was that the delivery driver would scream to a halt at the address, then the young, would-be apprentice could dash up to the ad agency while the driver moped about outside in the No Standing zone, bus stop or whatever—trying not to be moved on by the feral coppers who loved their job of booking bastard delivery drivers.

By the early 1970s, the NSW Police were phasing out the Triumph 650s and replacing them with Honda Fours. But, and here’s the funny part, some bright spark in Cop Management had decided that Vespa scooters would be ideal for the traffic cops patrolling Sydney’s clogged inner-city streets. Yep—Vespas!

Sure, they were very regal in their shiny black paint scheme, but… bloody VESPAS!

My first introduction to Handlebars was in 1972 while he was riding a shiny, black Vespa; the combination of a large policeman on a tiny Vespa looked like a pumpkin on a pimple. In the early 1970s, the inner city was a mish-mash of construction zones frantically pushing the skyline towards Heaven and, as a result, parking spaces were rare.

It was in a bus stop on Castlereagh Street that our delivery car was parked, and I was tasked to dash into the large building and pick up the parcel; the driver’s task was to prop there and not get booked. By the time I got back, Handlebars on his Vespa had pulled alongside and blocked the driver from moving.

The driver’s name was Darkie, a nickname that wouldn’t sit too well in this day and age, but back in the early 1970s, Darkie was proud of his nickname and his heritage and he was arguing the toss with Handlebars over the impending ticket.

“Aww, come on, mate, the boy’s here now, we can go,” he pleaded with Handlebars through the open driver’s window.

“Engine off, licence please,” was the curt reply.

“Please…” was all Darkie could muster before Handlebars grabbed the licence, looked down at him, shook his head from side to side and made that clicking, disapproving sound that I think is represented in writing as “Tsk, tsk, tsk!”

Darkie railed on and Handlebars just held his superior stance. “Tsk, tsk, tsk!” he repeated as he pulled his infringement notice book out and proceeded to write up one of biggest-dollar parking fines from that era.

The mood in the car was toxic, with Darkie glowering, ready to explode, as Handlebars replaced his book into his jacket pocket, kickstarted the Vespa, looked over his shoulder and took off as fast as a Vespa could. And that’s when it happened, the funniest sight in the world: Handlebars rode straight into the back of the Government bus double-parked a few yards past the bus stop which was occupied by a delivery car and a Vespa.

Bang! Handlebars hit the deck, tucked, rolled and quickly leapt back to his feet in what may well have been the most embarrassing incident to occur in his career.

The bus driver had sauntered down to see what the commotion was as Handlebars began picking up broken mirrors, broken headlight glass and blinker plastic. Darkie pulled out onto Castlereagh Street, triple parked alongside a red-face Handlebars, leaned across as close to the passenger’s window as possible, shook his head, put on a great big shit-eating grinned, and said, “Tsk, tsk, tsk!”

Darkie’s mood improved.

The funny thing about Handlebars and his merciless attitude to young and dumb bikers is that he seemed to soften as he got older. I suppose that lightening-up had a lot to do with the scumbag bikie’s attitude too; maybe he was so strict with the really young and dangerous screw-ups that he helped them stay alive on two wheels longer than most people predicted. Perhaps he figured, “Shit, this one has made it to his mid-to-late twenties and hasn’t killed himself yet, so maybe he’s learning something.”

I was actually quite saddened when I heard he died. No matter what went before, no matter how many poor bastards got booked a week’s wages for “doin’ nothin’ wrong, honestly, officer…” the more I reflect on the fact that just about every booking I received from Constable Handlebars was well and truly deserved. Usually, if I’d been booked for speeding, I’d be quietly thanking the Good Lord Above that I wasn’t pinged a short way back down the road, “Exceeding the speed limit by 20 km/h? Phtttt, that’s nothing, you should have pinged me back there and got me 40 kays over the limit!” We only knew two speeds back then—flat out and faster!

There was one time, a really strange, unusual time, when Handlebars did something weird and out of character. I was riding back from a solo run to the fabulous West Head lookout, the point across the water and slightly West of Palm Beach, one of Sydney’s more exclusive suburbs. It wasn’t too late on a Tuesday night but traffic was non-existent. The return run from the National Park to my place needed a decision; turn right on Mona Vale Road for a fast blast along the top of the ranges, through Belrose, then French’s Forest and onto Allambie Heights, OR… Turn left on Mona Vale Road for an even faster blast through Ingleside, turn right to Elanora Heights at the Ba’Hai Temple, down the hill to the beaches roadway then up to good old Allambie. Of course, that route takes in the brilliant Powderworks Road, a sweeping, swooping downhill run which can make a man on a sweet-handling motorbike cry with joy.

I was riding my AJS 500 single and left turn it was.

Technically, it was a bad move. The single headlight I saw in the distance as I turned onto Mona Vale Road was approaching reasonably fast, and by the time I’d reached or exceeded the speed limit, it drew alongside at approximately the same speed. The first problem I noticed was that this headlight was attached to a police motorcycle. The second problem arose when I discovered the police bike was being ridden by one Senior Constable Handlebars/Toes Down/Helmet Head.

I fair near jobbed my rompers when I realised the enormity of my mistake, but the weirdness clicked up a gear and didn’t pull me over; he just rumbled on ahead at what I guessed was a plainly illegal speed. And then he started waving me on, as if he wanted me to catch up or something. Weird!

Naturally, I thought it was a clever trap for dumb bikies, but, as a young man, I was often guilty of nothing more that doing dumb things, so I opened the throttle and almost caught up. Handlebars and I were both hunting along as what could only be described as a ‘Brisk Clip’ and it was a beautiful night for a motorbike ride.

Then, Handlebars’ big, black Kwakka 9 cop bike indicated a right turn onto Powderworks Road, and a pointed finger looked all the world like he wanted me to follow him down that Boy-Racer’s road. I felt the need to play it safe and continue straight down to the end of Mona Vale Road, but instead, followed the signalling finger.

I’m glad I did, because that night I diced with a copper down a hill blessed with a flowing set of twisty bends… and I didn’t get booked!

Down on Pittwater Road, Handlebars veered off into a side street and even flicked a cheery little wave as I rode straight on. Quite frankly, readers, I was shocked. I had just had a positive riding experience with an arch nemesis; scumbag bikie and ruthless copper sharing a ride and nobody got booked.

Many years after that night ride, I was saddened to hear of Handlebar’s death. The news spread like wildfire; I was driving my taxicab at the time, and even heard the chatter on the two-way radio of all the ironic circumstances that lead to his death. See, there was a search and rescue mission going on at one of Sydney’s far Northern Beaches. It seems some irresponsible people, who should’ve known better, had launched a surf lifesaving Rubber Ducky into mountainous seas and quickly disappeared from view between the whitecaps. An emergency call went out and an unsuccessful search and rescue mission was underway. A jet boat was needed but few were available. One was parked at Harbord Beach but conditions were so rough the boat ramp was useless. The radio operator at the cab base was also a volunteer lifesaver, and even left his post to drag the jet boat on a trailer by road to some point further north and closer to the emergency without barging through to stormy seas.

Handlebars had just about finished his shift when the call went out and he responded to act as an escort to get the boat north quicker. Someone I knew was actually speaking with Handlebars at the time he volunteered for emergency escort duty and Handlebars muttered something about, “A copper’s work is never done…”

Handlebars ended up dead under a parked panel van and the really wrong thing was that the irresponsible subjects of the rescue attempt had driven their Rubber Duckie around Palm Beach and were happily having beers at a local hotel in the safety of the bay while the fruitless search for them went on in treacherous conditions. Sometimes, that’s just how things happen, but life goes on for the rest of us.

EARLE, Gregory John, Senior Constable. 1948—1987.

SHORTLY after 5.50 pm on 21 June, 1987, Senior Constable Earle was riding a Police motorcycle towards Palm Beach to assist in an urgent search for three missing lifesavers. While he was riding along The Strand at Dee Why, the Senior Constable began to overtake a number of cars. His lights and siren were activated at the time, and a number of motorists moved over to allow the motorcycle to pass. The motorcycle then hit a damaged part of the road surface causing it to veer to the left where it hit a gravel patch. The motorcycle cart wheeled throwing Senior Constable Earle into a parked car. He sustained severe head and internal injuries and was conveyed to the Mona Vale District Hospital where he was found to be dead on arrival. 

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