A BLOKE I used to ride with was known as Rumball of the Baileys, a humorous play on the title of an old Pommy TV show ‘Rumpole of the Bailey.’ Not because he was a cantankerous old barrister, like actor Leo McKern played in the show, but more so that Rumball never drank beer, preferring to alternate between OP rum and Baileys Irish Cream. That meant that depending on the night, he was either a cheerfully tipsy drinker with sweet-smelling breath, or aww… you know what rum drinkers are like. Many years later, we discovered he was an undiagnosed manic-depressive — bipolar as it’s called today. Back then, we all just thought he was fucking crazy. Many years later he ended his life in tragic circumstances.
As a young bloke, Rumball appeared no saner or crazier than the next bloke on the next barstool, but the signs were definitely there. I sorta knew him from a very young age — pre-motorbikes as he was related to my neighbours.
I met up with him again when he rode a Benelli 650S Tornado Twin. On paper, the Benelli looked a good bike, a viable alternative to going Japanese at the time when most blokes my age bought Honda Fours or Kwakka Nines in hire purchase and most of the British brands were either gone or sliding away. I supposed the Benellis couldn’t have been all that good, otherwise there would be still heaps of them around now, but that’s not the case. The Benelli ownership period set the scene for most of Rumball’s biking career in that he never kept ’em long; he just traded up and moved on, sometimes after only a few months.
Thinking back, he displayed some classic bipolar symptoms, especially with the way he rode. Bipolar people swing from manic, euphoric bliss way up here to all the way down there in the dungeons of despair. Sort of like when someone’s hitting the ‘Go-ey’ real hard — manic-depressives behave the same as speed-freaks, just without the assistance of gnarly drugs.
We only ever saw him on the manic ‘upswings’; he’d be partying and riding his bike like he was mad — capital ‘M’, capital ‘A’, capital ‘D’. We only found out later about the dark and lonely desperation he’d mope around in the times we never saw him.
For reasons I’ll elaborate on later in this yarn, Rumball flicked the Benelli and became a Ducati owner. Not just any old Duke, but one of those sexy, sexy 750 Sport V-Twin with the single seat, racing clip-on handlebars, rear-set footpegs and the stunning orange paint job; he promptly ripped it apart and repainted the lot in gloss black (another hint, I suppose; out with old and in with the new) but he soon traded up to what I thought was the pinnacle of coolness for a road bike at the time: a 1975 Ducati 750-SS, the famed Super Sport model, the one that was so much better than the legendary ‘Green Frame’ Super Sport that preceded it. The most knowledgeable of Ducati freaks will proclaim the 1975 750-SS to be the most desirable of all the early Duke hotrods. Only 249 were made that year, all hand-built in the race shop and no-one in Australia knew just how rare they were as Oz got almost half the production run according to Ian Falloon’s Super Sport Restoration Guide/Bible.
And Rumball would’ve been one of the very few Ducati Super Sport owners to fit a pillion seat to his balls-out racer on the road. A dual seat from a 450 Duke didn’t spoil the looks anywhere near the way it improved the chances of picking up a stray root with a Ducati-loving chickie babe. That’s the thing: it’s no good having a he-man, muscular bike that makes all the girls moist and friendly if there’s nowhere to put ’em when you take them home for a bit of horizontal folk dancing.
He loved that Duke and was always bragging about how good it went, and how its motor was hand-built and bullet-proof. One incident I recall covered all aspects of Rumball’s mad impulsiveness, the Duke’s unburstable motor and my own belief in the invincibility of youth.
Rumball had his usual triple OP rum and Coke in a schooner glass, I had a fresh schooey of Toohey’s Old and we were standing around, admiring the Duke at the Frenchs Forest Antler Hotel — the fountain on the mountain.
“Hold my drink for a minute,” Rumball ordered as he kicked the Duke in rorty, thundering life. “Jump on,” he added. “I want to show you something.”
We both had helmet exemptions so it was all systems go and Rumball got his motor running and headed out on the highway. We turned left out of the pub and left again onto the Wakehurst Parkway where the motor was given full rein and I was sipping beer and minding rum.
Now I don’t know whether you’ve tried this, but from personal experience, don’t try this at home or anywhere, especially on the Wakehurst Parkway! Over a certain speed, a schooner glass is the perfect apparatus on which to demonstrate the Bernoulli Effect. The Bernoulli Effect is what makes carburettors work, what makes spray painting possible and even aeroplanes to fly. Briefly, putting a fast airflow across the top of a receptacle will put a low pressure system right there. The higher pressure of the fluid inside that receptacle makes the fluid want to jump out into the low-pressure, high-speed airflow — just like the petrol in a fuel bowl wants to jump up into the venturi of the carburettor and into the motor. In the case of the schooner glasses, I can’t recall what road speed was needed, but soon enough, it was fresh, frothy beer trying to drench my right arm, while icky, sticky OP rum and Coke was doing it to my left arm. I tried to drink away my problems, but the faster we went, the bigger the problems became.
Being your average Saturday afternoon, the Parkway was a constant stream of traffic; 50 miles-per-hour southbound vehicles were passing mere feet away from 50 miles-per-hour northbound vehicles. And between all those potential head-on collisions, right down the centreline at one hundred and twenty miles-per-friggin’-hour was a two-up Ducati being driven by a genuine nutcase.
Rumball wasn’t even paying attention, he was looking over his shoulder at me, lips and cheeks flapping, pointing and trying to tell me to look at the speedo and tacho.
“Look, see,” he flapped, trying to get his loose hand back on the left handlebar. “Redline on the tacho, 120 mph on the speedo and still in fourth gear…”
Looking back, I should’ve put my foot down and declared, “That was enough!” I should’ve given him a clip across the ear and told him to wake up to himself. “Bike goes alright,” was all I could say. Who’s the crazy person now?
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t all that comfortable with the sight of 50 mile-per-hour rear bumper bars passing my left leg at a differential speed of 70 miles-per-hour, or all the 50 mile-per-hour-front bumpers skimming past my right leg at meeting speed of 170 miles-per-hour. It’s funny what you think of when in extremely intense situations, my only thought at the time was, ‘What do I hate more — chugging frothy beer or chugging OP rum and Coke?” I finally drank away my problems, producing yet another: what does a pillion passenger do with two empty schooner glasses?
Even back then, I was a bit of an Eco-Warrior, and I was having trouble thinking of anything more dangerous than flinging two empty schooner glasses from a motorcycle at 120 mph. And then it occurred to me: “I know, I can recycle these if I take them back to them the pub. I’ll put them together and stuff them down the front of my T-shirt.”
God, we were stupid when we were young; the useless youth of today have nothing on the baby-boomers in the ‘doin’ stupid things’ caper, that’s for sure! I can just imagine the Coroner’s Report: ‘The deceased survived the high-speed accident but was then glassed by person or persons unknown.’
Somehow, we made it back to the pub in the same number of pieces in which we left it.
Rumball’s Super Sport with the spare seat was the duck’s guts, and he used to insist on me taking it for a ride every so often. There was a method to Rumball’s madness: if ever there was spare cooze hanging around, Rumball thought he could improve his chances of scoring by getting rid of some of the competition (me) while he put the initial groundwork in. He’d throw the key at me and say, “Take the Duke for a good long ride, up to an hour if you want. I should have this sheila fizzing at the bung and ready for a ride by the time you get back.”
It was on those numerous rides on a borrowed Super Sport Duke that I almost convinced myself I needed a better bike than my AJS 500 Single. In a fickle fit of madness, Rumball offered it to me for $1800. It was a bloody reasonably price for the then near-new Duke, and I think new, they were around the $2600 mark if you could get one. As luck would have it, he lunched it big time thrashing into a tight corner in the back of Brookvale and pretty well wrote it off.
With the insurance money in his pocket, Rumball had a lot of trouble buying a replacement. The new Duke Super Sport for 1976 had been partially de-knackered, with an ugly, steel fuel tank, quiet mufflers, air cleaners, blinkers, and a silly left-foot gear change. With typical impulsiveness and a pocket full of cash, he embarked on a feverish campaign to build his ultimate café racer to replace the Duke. I even found him a wrecked $300 Norton Commando that had been quietly rusting away on Manly’s beachfront, then directed him to Allparts and a complete rolling chassis for a Norton Dominator with the Wideline Featherbed frame which only cost him another $400. He commenced building a brilliant hybrid from what he had, but as if to set the scene for the rest of his bike building days, he sold it on just before it was finished. It only needed the stop-light switch wired up, then rego and he could’ve enjoyed riding it.
Rumball did much the same for the next few years, creating a series of Triumph oil-frame custom café racers all of which were sold on the 99th stroke just before the dream was realised.
He then found and restored an MV Agusta 750. It wasn’t the beautiful red, white and blue Sport America, but its uglier, even rarer brother, the two-tone brown touring model. It had also been discovered rusting on the balcony of a beachside flat, and Rumball spent a zillion dollars making it brand new again. Same story, but some very rich bike dealer relieved him of it for the right money just before he got to ride it.
A Norvin followed that. Some people say that cutting the gearbox off a 998 cc Vincent V-Twin and shoehorning that and a Norton box into the mighty Norton Featherbed frame produces the ultimate in Café Racers. It was a bit dubious where the donor Vincent came from, but once more, Rumball ‘Hopped off at Redfern’ which is Sydney slang for getting off the train one stop short of Central Station. The Norvin was almost finished when Rumball sold that too.
He never really rode bikes after that. Most of those Rumball-built bikes still exist today in some form or another. He never skimped on quality, spending bulk money on exotic stuff like alloy clutch baskets machined from billets of the good stuff.
But back then, the thing I remember most about Rumball was the story he told with great delight about being chased by the police and evading capture by ruining his bike and nearly drowning in the process.
The cops were pursuing him through Mona Vale, and as he imagined himself as a bit of a ‘boy racer’, he figured he could run the show if he got some bends happening. Right in the guts of Mona Vale (just past the cop shop), a naughty bikie is offered a choice of three roads: spear left onto Mona Vale Road which isn’t a brilliant idea if the cop car on your hammer is a 351 Ford Coupe; the road is lots of long straights which reduce the two-wheeled terror’s handling advantage. Shooting off to the right on Barrenjoey Road produces similar problems, plus the additional hassle of ‘one way in’ and ‘one way out’ of the Palm Beach Peninsula. Rumball choose the best option: staying on Pittwater Road and heading out towards Church Point and some of the most beautiful bike roads in the world. He’d put a small gap between himself and pursuing police, even though the real twisties hadn’t even started.
Almost immediately after you get your first glimpse of the billion dollars’ worth of boats on Pittwater, the road swerves very sharply left around a mountain bluff — a real trap for young players. In today’s safety-Nazi world, they’ve installed an Armco barrier to safely bring any crashing biker to an immediate stop. When Rumball had his ‘Uh-oh’ moment and missed the left-hander completely, he soared gracefully off the embankment and into the very wet waters of Pittwater hitting the drink with an almighty OOF!
He jumped up in the knee-deep water gasping for breath and feeling remarkably refreshed. (It was winter).
He then had to quickly dive back under when the cop car almost performed the same pirouette into the drink. (Make no mistake — it is a very bad corner if you’re not a wake-up to it). Rumball surfaced again to watch the cop car flashing and blaring off around the bay chasing its own tail.
He then began the arduous task of dragging his flooded bike back to the shore, only the handlebar and clutch lever peeped over the surface like a blind periscope.
His huffing and puffing had to stop soon after when the cops returned, slowly burbling along with a spotlight sweeping across driveways and into boat-sheds. They figured he couldn’t possibly have got that far ahead so he must be hiding somewhere around here where they had their last visual. Remembering that these cops were Highway Patrol, and not Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, they shone their light everywhere except where Rumball crouched like a bikie crocodile, with just eyes, nostrils and handlebar breeching the surface. The cops even drove up a tricky private roadway just around the blind bend. Rumball swore he even heard a helpful citizen yelling out, “Behind you, Mr. Policeman!” but didn’t elaborate on whether he also heard the cops reply: “Oh no he isn’t!”
When he finally got the bike back onto dry land, it wasn’t that bent, but just wouldn’t start. It was traded in on the Sport, which was a perfectly rational decision in my book.
Imagine this corner pre Armco at high tide.