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Hormones to Horsepower - the secret tragedies of Terry Cornelius' life
In 1960, Laurie Knight was someone I had never heard of... Sabrina, however, was someone everyone had heard of. At fourteen years of age, and with my hormones in a tangle, I was lucky enough to be at the pit counter, directly opposite the VIP stand where she was the guest of honour, at Albert Park. I remember being part of the line of binoculars trained in her direction across the track.
I digress. I had never heard of Laurie Knight, who lived in Benalla, but two of my best friends were his cousins, as coincidence would have it. Not that that meant anything then, anyway.
From an early age, my Dad must have taken me to every motor racing fixture within a day's travel - and some beyond. By age 16 I had a very well developed appreciation of mechanical contrivances, and most of my private fantasies dwelt not only on girls, but also the svelte and sexy curves of the Maserati 250F. But here I was at Tarrawingee (history will show that it was November 6, 1960), and I found myself entranced by the sight, the sound and the glory of the nude Sabrina.
Se was everything I desired and I followed her every detail as she moved lithely across the pits and into the dummy grid area. I couldn't take my eyes off her two beautiful big jugs... SUs, of course... mounted on that big supercharger thrusting, phallus-like, in front of the Healey 3000 motor. Minus a body, she might well have been unfinished, but she was a mechanical delight!
After witnessing its hugely successful debut that day, I was part of the large admiring group gathered around Laurie Knight and his creation when someone asked him why he called it 'Sabrina.' Without hesitation he announced that it was because, "She was always so far out in front!"
Unfortunately, Laurie was to crash Sabrina at Hume Weir two months later, putting him and the car out of commission for some time. The story goes that, semi-conscious in the ambulance, Laurie's only concern was... "How is the supercharger?"
* * * * * * * * *
Eskdale is a little town nestled amongst the hills in the Bright district and there Bill Stephens had built himself a nice little motorcycle-engined dirt racer. In 1961 he headed for the nearby dirt tracks - my domain!
He found that his car was also at home on the CAMS circuits, but he was having a lot of fun on the dirt. It wasn't long before he and I, having faced each other on the circuit on many occasions, became firm friends. Me? I was driving a Jeep-engined midget speedcar at the time.
* * * * * * * * *
Winton, 1962 and I again beheld the spectacle of Sabrina, this time making her second debut, and this time with her clothes on. Laurie had repaired the Hume Weir damage and continued the construction process to its logical conclusion.
A smooth and delightful fibreglass body! Now the name matched the body - or did the body match the name? Certainly, both namesakes were very curvy.
The car seemed to be even more desirable because it was road-registered, and I couldn't help conjuring up images of terrorising the neighbourhood with tyres, supercharger, exhaust and passenger screaming in unison!
Back in Eskdale, Bill Stephens' business situation changed and, to my disappointment, he moved from the area about 1963, disappearing from my life. He sold his racer to Harry Lefoe from Albury and Harry drove this nicely-built little job mostly at Hume Weir. I used to see it and him at meetings over the years and I watched bemusedly as it changed like the proverbial chameleon from one thing to another.
It became the Hillman-powered Argit Minx, and I may be wrong, but I seem to remember Harry's fearsome Ford 289-V8-engined Hillman Imp Sports Sedan was contrived using parts from the Argit.
* * * * * * * * *
Laurie Knight soon tired of Sabrina and sold it to John Mahoney of Wangaratta in May, 1963, still road-registered but with the supercharger removed. In its place he took delivery of a Type 43 Cooper which had been fitted with a Peugeot 403 engine, buy it wasn't very long and he tired of that also.
Enter Neville Renshaw from Wahgunyah, across the river from Corowa, an acquaintance of mine. He must have had a rush of blood because, without any history of being terribly interested in car racing, he bought the Cooper from Laurie. To be fair, Neville had previously driven around in an MGA for some years and displayed an interest in cars generally. The fact that I would marry his younger sister ten years later was completely irrelevant at that stage.
He obviously had no plans for the Cooper and it sat in his shed for a long time. When, one day, Neville found himself without transport for various reasons it began, without a doubt, the most bizarre chapter in that car's history.
Picture, if you will, a Type 43 Cooper with cycle guards all round and (probably motorcycle) headlights bolted to the cowl and stop/tail lamp up the back, and a numberplate at each end!
For months Neville delighted the residents of the towns (perhaps not all of them!) with the sheer spectacle of this diminutive single-seater dodging and weaving and seemingly streaking here and there. Lex Davison's description of them being 'mechanical mice' took on a whole new meaning! Whenever he needed a push to start there were always plenty of willing helpers available because there was always a crowd around the car wherever it was parked.
All good things come to an end, as they say in the classics, and the last time I saw Neville in the Cooper he had slid an umbrella into the cockpit and set off to a friend's place in Griffith, whereupon some sort of deal was struck and he returned in a Holden or something equally boring. The Cooper adventure became a fading memory.
* * * * * * * * * *
Meanwhile, John Mahoney and Sabrina were being seen here and there on the road and on the track, although their track appearances were becoming scarcer. In a twist of irony, the combination appeared one day at Wahgunyah, my home outlaw dirt track, where at some stage during the day a so-called grudge match was set up between John in Sabrina and myself in my then-current offering an A-model Ford-based 272ci Y-block Ford-powered racer.
Part-way through the event the Healey motor suffered big-end failure, and so ended chapter one in the life and times of Sabrina. John took the car home and immediately advertised it for sale, albeit to no avail. After some time, and when the Healey gearbox was sold to an Austin A95 owner from Wangaratta, it seemed as though Sabrina had hit rock bottom. Especially when I actually bought the motor, complete with run bearings, and had no interest in the rest of the car.
* * * * * * * * * *
So little interest did I have in this Aussie Special that I used to love that I was instrumental in it being sold off to a friend of mine from Yarrawonga. I physically paid over the ten pounds and arranged for Doc to pick it up! Not that I cared what Doc did with it, but he fitted a hotted-up 3.4 Jag engine and gearbox (after all, he had to put something in the hole!) and a Triumph Herald coupe hardtop and registered it once again.
When he sold it some years later, Sabrina became yet another fading memory.
* * * * * * * * * *
I could tell about the Corvette-engined Cooper-Bristol and its owner, Bob Punch, whit whom I had struck up a gread friendship, but suffice to say that Bob had put me in touch with Murray Batson, and there I was one day in 1967 pit crewing at Hume Weir with Murray while he was enjoying himself at the wheel of the Goddard Special.
Now that was a fateful day! On that one day I would rekindle an old friendship, meet up with a significant car from our past, lose that same friend and become involved in a Coroner's inquest.
As Murray and I were unloading and setting up for the day's activities, my interest was casually drawn to the Cooper being unloaded next to us, but the real interest for me was in the identity of the owner. After all this time, there stood Bill Stephens!
We were so pleased to see each other and had so much to talk about that it was some time before we got around to discussing his Racing Car and having a closer look at it. There it sat, 'mechanical mouse' that it was... the lights and mudguards were gone, but there was no mistaking the identity of this Peugeot-powered Cooper!
Once again, refer to history and you will find that on that day in June, at Hume Weir circuit, Bill Stephens clipped a wheel as he was passing a slower car on the left-hand sweep in the main straight and lost his life when his Cooper rolled over into the infield.
His widow, also a friend of mine, subsequently pursued that the flag marshal failed in his duty to show the blue flag to the car being passed, with the result that Murray, who was following Bill at the time, and I became involved in the inquest also. That was a lesson on just how good and bad a person can feel in one day.
Wally Gates was a name I hadn't heard since the first Healey Club Interstate gathering at Albury in 1967, but he contacted me in 1977, looking for bits of the history of his new acquisition... a Jag-engined, fibreglass-bodied car with a Triumph Herald hardtop. Once again, two old acquaintances, on human and one mechanical, in one fell swoop!
To cut to the chase, a year later I became the proud owner of the Sabrina Austin. And the rest, as they say, is history.
During the latter stages of my ownership of Sabrina, which incidentally stretched over nine years, I developed an enthusiast to replace that racer with the same one which had replaced it all those years ago. After all, I reasoned, the two cars had woven a distinctive pattern through the years of my life.
I made many enquiries, but all to no avail, and even now, in 1999, the movements of the Cooper Peugeot, both before Laurie Knight and after Bill Stephens, remain a mystery to me.
* * * * * * * * *
In the period soon after Bill's death, one or both of his two race cars were raffled off in order to raise money for his widow, which brings rise to the possibility that the car may have passed into the hands of a non-enthusiast.