After becoming fascinated by the legend of the Brisbane-made Spencer motorcycles, Cath Charlton began delving into the myths and facts about this important Brisbane story.
David Spencer (1870-1958) crafted a distinctly Australian racing bike by hand from locally cast parts in the first decade of the twentieth century. It is believed that the Spencer Motorcycles made in Brisbane were the first wholly Australian designed and made motorcycle, if not the first, they are as far we know the earliest surviving examples.
Spencer’s fully restored 475cc number 3 engine motorcycle is on display in the major summer exhibition ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’ opening at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) from 28 November 2020, featuring 100 examples spanning more than a century of excellence and eccentricity, with a glimpse into the future with current technological innovations.
Tickets to ‘The Motorcycle’ now on sale
From 1905 until 1911, Spencer utilised his highly developed and specialised mechanical engineering skills and set about designing, building and racing his very own motorcycles.
These unique skills are confirmed by the quality of cedar and bronze patterns for casting crankcases, flywheels, cylinders and heads, carburetors and frame lungs that survive to this day. Spencer, also made from scratch his own control levers, petrol taps and oil pumps, machining and assembling the motorcycles himself. He took pride in his work with all Spencer parts numbered and stamped with his name.
Spencer is known to have built at least 10 numbered motorcycle engines, with two complete motorcycles surviving to this day, the restored 475cc number 3 engine and an unrestored 380cc number 8 engine.
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There are accounts that the Spencer motorcycles had so impressed the local constabulary that Spencer was invited to tender for the contract to produce 50 motorcycles for the Queensland Police Service but declined the offer as he did not have the facilities to manufacture those quantities1.
Little is known as to exactly when and why Spencer stopped racing but he sure made his mark in the very earliest years of motorcycle racing in Brisbane.
Spencer’s fourth son Bill (William Thomas) followed his father into motorcycle racing during the 1920’s, with Spencer continuing to prepare and tune the racing bikes at their Haig Street workshop. Spencer was always busy tinkering on machines of every kind and in later years built and repaired clocks in his verandah workshop.
The first ‘motor bicycle’ in Australia
Brisbane has a very early connection to the ‘motor cycle’ or ‘motor bicycle’ as it was first known. The first attempt at building a motor bicycle in Australia is believed to have been in Brisbane by Mr Knight Eaton, manager of the Brisbane office of the Austral Cycle Agency in 1893. By all accounts it was not a very successful attempt, with the motor attached to the back of a bicycle behind the rear wheel2.
The very first motor bicycle brought into Australia arrived in Brisbane in late 1895 3, imported by the Austral Cycle Agency for Mr. J. C. Brunnich of Mackay, (Mackay is located about 970 kilometres north of Brisbane). The machine was on display in their Queen Street shop window until February 1896 when enough benzol (a by product of coal tar) was acquired from Sydney to power the bicycle. This new acquisition created quite a scene when ridden around the streets of Brisbane before it left to tour the rest of the country 4.
Who is David Spencer?
David Spencer was born in England in 18705, the eighth and youngest child of George and Mary Ann Spencer. On 8 February 1890, Spencer at the age of 19, boarded the British India Steam Navigation Company’s R.M.S. Tara, destined for Australia, and is recorded in the ships log as disembarking in Cairns (March 1890)6. But why Cairns remains a mystery.
We next pick up the trail of Spencer in 1892, now in Melbourne he marries Alice Maud Paull a local girl born in Vaughan. The marriage certificate tells us that at the time Spencer was employed as an ‘Engine Fitter’, a position that maintained or built engines. It is the families’ belief that between the years of 1892 and 1895 David and Alice lived in Fiji, while David worked for Fiji Sugar7, returning to Alice’s hometown in Victoria for the birth of their first child in 1895, before the young family moved to Queensland the following year8.
It is believed that Spencer began designing and building his first motorcycles while working in the new foundry of the Ipswich Railway Workshops. There is no employee record for Spencer ever actually working for Queensland Rail so it is thought that he was most likely employed by one of the contractors carrying out the building work on the site.
There was a great deal of construction work at the Workshops between the years of 1901-1905, when the Spencer family were living in Ipswich. During these years a powerhouse — which provided electricity to the whole site long before the town of Ipswich had electricity — the new foundry, a boiler room, and a revolutionary overhead travelling crane/gantry where constructed.
Now a family of eight, in 1906 the family moved to Brisbane where they stayed for a short time at Annie Street, Torwood9, and Copeland Street, Milton10, moving finally to Heussler Terrace, Torwood (which in part later become Haig Road, Torwood11). Spencer lived in the Haig Road house from 1909 until his death in 1958. By 1913 the Spencer’s had nine children, six boys and three girls.
David Spencer’s involvement with the League of Queensland Wheelmen is recorded from July 1905, with a rider D. Harris competing on a 2 horsepower ‘Krown and Spencer’ motorcycle, in the Motor Bicycle Handicap, 3 miles and 45 yard event at the Brisbane Cricket Ground, Woollongabba12. This perhaps could be Spencer’s first foray into motorcycles, with a Spencer modified Krown. Jack Krown had a Cycle Works on the corner of Elizabeth and Albert Street in Brisbane13. Krown was a competitive cyclist in the late 1800’s and had been riding a motorcycle since 190014, when motor cycles were introduced as pace makers on the Brisbane cycle track15 and was competing as a motorcyclist from the first Brisbane ‘novelty roadster motor-cycle race’ in September 190416. The Krown motorcycle was locally manufactured from imported parts with a Minerva engine17.
The Queensland Motor Cycle Club was formed in June 1906 with Spencer a founding member, the Club’s two objectives were:
firstly the bringing together of motor cyclists for protection against any undue severity in traffic laws and regulations arranging outings where members can exchange experiences and thereby gain knowledge (for it is never too late to learn when you ride a motor cycle), secondly to take control of motor racing and records and to keep an official register of all records made.
By August Spencer was officiating at racing events and setting the handicaps for upcoming race meets18, then Spencer is reported in The Queenslander as winning a motor race in Boohah on the 17 November 190619. Later the same year Spencer ‘on a machine every part of which is of his own make, has made some tests as to the consumption of petrol, and has ridden ninety miles on a consumption of one gallon’20.
Between 1907-1911 Spencer regularly competes in local events on his 2 or 2 ¾ horsepower ‘Spencer’ motorcycle, with reports showing he often placed in the top three with these notable first place wins:
- 3-mile event at the Ambulance Sports Carnival held at the Brisbane Cricket Ground 25 April 1908 21. Winning by a lap and a length with a time of 4 minutes 16 seconds.
- 3-mile event Queensland Cyclists Union, Australasian Championship Carnival at the Brisbane Cricket Ground 19 September 1908 with a time of 6 minutes 5 seconds 22.
- Queensland Motor Cycle Club’s run to Toowoomba and back (but they didn’t actually race back as the weather go to bad and the return trip cancelled), with 3 riders starting in Brisbane at 3 pm on 7 November 1908, after some minor delays the riders reached Laidley by 9 pm where they stayed the night. Starting again the next morning at 10 am they reached the foot of the range by 2 pm. The ascent proved too difficult for the other riders with only Spencer reaching to top without having to push his machine. The Queenslander reported that Spencer ‘by changing to a lower gear, managed to ride up the greater part of the range’, with local residents in Toowoomba claiming, ‘he is the first to have done so on a motor bike’23.
- 3-mile motor cycle handicap event Queensland Cyclists Union, Summer Cycling Carnival at the Brisbane Cricket Ground 19 December 190824.
- 3-mile Grand International Cycling Carnival at the Brisbane Cricket Ground, 13 August 1910 with a time of 4.24 3/525.
- Queensland Motor Cycle Club’s Hill Climb 19 August 191126.
It is impossible to tell the Spencer story without mentioning the two Queensland Historical Motorcycle Club members Paul Reed and Dave Dettmar who acquired the two surviving Spencer Motorcycles from the Spencer family in 1986 with the promise to ensure that they survived for future generations.
Cath Charlton is Librarian, Research Library, QAGOMA
1 There are no surviving records of this account but we do know that the first record of Police Motor-Cycles Corps was in Victoria in 1914 and NSW in 1916 (‘Cycle And Motor’ The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld: 1866 – 1939) 27 May 1916: 17 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23605783). In 1923 there was an article published calling for ‘Police motor-cycles for the Queensland bush’. (‘Queensland Police’ The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872 – 1947) 8 October 1923 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article180011248).
2 Scaysbrook, Jim. Riding through time: A century of Australian motorcycling. Focus Publishing. Bondi Junction, N.S.W.. 2005, pp.74-75.
3 ‘A Motor Cycle: Coming mode of travel’. The Brisbane Courier (Qld: 1864 – 1933) 8 February 1896 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3618719.; ‘The Motocycle’. Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld: 1861 – 1908) 2 April 1896 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article123358926.
4 ‘A Motor Cycle: Coming mode of travel’ The Brisbane Courier (Qld. 1864-1933) 8 February 1896 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3618719
5 David Spencer was born in January 1870 in Nottinghamshire, England. [England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915]. The family lived in The Vicarage, Egmanton between the 1871-1881 [1871 United Kingdom Census & 1881 United Kingdom Census]. By the 1891 census the children had all left home, and George, and Mary Ann Spencer had moved to Gunthorpe, Owston, Lincolnshire, England. [1891 United Kingdom Census].
6 Queensland State Archives; Registers of Immigrant Ships’ Arrivals; Series: Series ID 13086; Roll: M1704. It is possible that it was from Cairns that David Spencer worked for Fiji Sugar, but there are no records to verify this part of the story. . It is unclear why Spencer disembarked in Cairns, but it has been suggested that there was a cousin who lived in Eidsvold, Queensland at the time. The arrival of the Tara in Brisbane appeared the local paper ‘Tara’s Immigrants’. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947) 31 March 1890 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172116444.
7 There has been no paper trail found for Spencer’s employment with Fiji Sugar or the families travel between the Australia and Fiji.
8 Their first child Geo was born in 1895, by 1896 their next son David James (Jim) was born at North Pole, Gladstone-Rosedale Railway Line. On Jim’s birth certificate, David Spencer’s occupation is listed as ‘Engine Driver’, a term used at this time for someone that operated an engine of any kind. The location of Jim’s birth suggests that Spencer could have been working at the Harper’s Creek quarry during the construction of the Gladstone to Bundaberg railway line.
The North Pole was ‘A quarry at Harper’s Creek, otherwise known as the North Pole’ (‘Bundaberg-Gladstone Railway’. The Bundaberg Mail and Burnett Advertiser (Qld: 1892 – 1917) 21 June 1897 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article215634962). This quarry supplied the ballast for the construction of the Bundaberg to Gladstone Railway line. ‘Examination of Engine Drivers’. The West Australian (Perth, WA: 1879-1954) 9 May 1896 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3089039. A further link to Spencer possibly being in the employment of G.C.Willcock. (‘The North Rockhampton Railway’. The Capricornian (Rockhampton, Qld: 1875-1929) 3 September 1898: 43 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article68207630)
Spencer’s third son Frank was born in Rockhampton in 1898. On Frank’s birth certificate, Spencer is listed as a Fitter. By 1900 when Spencer’s fourth son William (Bill) was born the family were living in Cania, Queensland and Spencer is listed now as an Engineer.
The Cania Gold Dredging Company built a gold dredge in Cania which began operation in 1901. In December 1899 it was reported that ‘Two engines, a boiler, and machinery for a sluicing plant have arrived here, en route for the Cania goldfield, consigned to Mr.G. C. Willcocks. Several waggons and teams, with three families, and a number of men, are accompanying the plant, and give the impression that vigorous operation will be immediately commenced’ (The Capricornian [newspaper]. 2 December 1899, p.28). With Spencer’s occupation now listed as Engineer, it is possible that Spencer and his family were one of the families travelling with the new engine and machinery to the Cania goldfields.
‘Cania Gold Dredging’. The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld: 1866-1939) 3 August 1907 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22272064.
Westwood’. The Capricornian (Rockhampton, Qld: 1875-1929) 2 December 1899: 28 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article68198410.
By the time of the publication of the 1901 Electoral Roll the Spencer family had moved to Canning Street, Ipswich, which is where they stayed until after the 1905 Electoral Roll. During this time, their first daughter Alice was born 6 March 1903, followed in 1905 their son Sam (John Paul).
9 David Spencer’s granddaughter Lyle Gray tells of the families longing to stop moving around so much, after years of living and working around central and northern Queensland, which at the time would have been a difficult environment to raise a young family. It is possible that the families need for a more stable home life that brought on the move, first to Ipswich where the family lived from 1901-1906, and then to Brisbane. The Haig Road house remained in the Spencer family until 1986 after his son Sam (John Paul 1906-1986) passed.
10 Ancestry.com. Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
11 McKellar’s Official Map of Brisbane and Suburbs – Parish of Enoggera, Shire of Toowong, Division of Enoggera, North Ward, Central Ward 1985. Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM618814
12 ‘Cycling Carnival’. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947) 31 July 1905: 4 (Second Edition) http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article174289939.
13 ‘Advertising’ The Brisbane Courier (Qld: 1864 -1933) 14 August 1903 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19225385.
14 ‘The Motor Handicaps’. The Brisbane Courier (Qld: 1864-1933) 14 September 1904 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19319214.
15 ‘Cycling Carnival.” The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947) 16 July 1900 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article174133921.
16 ‘The Motorcycle Handicaps’. The Brisbane Courier (Qld: 1864-1933) 14 September 1904 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19319214.
17 ‘Cycling Carnival’. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947) 19 September 1904: 3 (Second Edition) http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article175215698.
18 ‘The League Carnival’. The Brisbane Courier (Qld: 1864-1933) 1 August 1906 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19462297
19 ‘Cycling’. The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld: 1866-1939) 24 November 1906: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article25972060.
20 Brisbane Courier, 19 January 1907, p.12
21 ‘Ambulance Sports Carnival’. The Brisbane Courier (Qld:1864-1933) 27 April 1908 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19520306.
22 ‘Cycling Carnival’. The Brisbane Courier (Qld: 1864-1933) 21 September 1908 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19541071.
23 ‘Notes’. The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld: 1866-1939) 21 November 1908 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23595370.
24 ‘Amateur Cyclists’. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.: 1872-1947) 21 December 1908 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article174883556.
25 ‘Combined Cycling Carnival’ The Brisbane Courier (Qld: 1864-1933) 15 August 1910 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19650512 .
26 Unidentified article provided by The Australian Motorlife Museum (publication details for this source is unknown) and no newspaper reports have be located for this event.
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With over 320 pages and 400 colour illustrations, The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire showcases 100 superb examples of motorcycle design from the late 19th century to the present day and beyond to the technological innovations of the future. Beautifully illustrated with newly commissioned photography and archival ephemera, this visually arresting survey of the motorcycle’s influence in realms as diverse as film, fashion, sport, advertising, and technology will prove compulsive reading to design lovers and motorcycle fans alike. Available at the QAGOMA Store and online
Featured image: Spencer motorcycle c.1906 / Courtesy The Australian Motorlife Museum: Paul Butler Collection / Photograph: Penelope Clay