Saying goodbye, again.. – By Phil Hall
It’s been said that one of the sure sign of advancing years is that we start attending more funerals than weddings. If this is true, and I’m sure that it is, then I am well and truly in the “advancing years” category.
In the last five years, oddly the span of time since my accident on the Pass in October 2010, I have attended at least seven funerals and, had the budget been available to travel more, I could easily have doubled that figure. Sadly, three of these funerals were for members of my wife’s family and they were within three years of each other. One of them was for a nine year old boy, cruelly taken from his family by cancer. The others are nearly all for various motorcycling identities with whom I have come in contact over the years.
Recently, I again had the sombre duty to mark the departure of yet another motorcycling personality. Coming so soon after the double blow of Warren Willing’s and Dennis Neill’s death, at least this one was expected, though that rarely lessens the blow.
Kevin Cass was Wollongong’s motorcycling royalty. His name is spoken of in the same revered tones as those of Clem Daniel, Bill Morris, Geoff Sim, Dave Durgess and the younger “guns” who have passed on, such as Alan Simpson and the genial Johnny Zammit. Born in 1938, Kevin did his trade at the Steelworks as most young Wollongong boys did but soon became infatuated with motorcycles. Tinkering with them and bashing them around the paddocks around here was all could do for a while since his parents had strictly forbidden him from getting a road bike licence until he turned 21.
Once the age of adulthood was attained, Kevin threw himself into motorcycling with increased vigour. Using all of his trade skills, he soon became known as a brilliant mechanic, designer and fabricator. In the day, you didn’t take your bike to a mechanic, you fixed it yourself and, if parts were not available, you made another similar part fit, or, in Kevin’s case, you MADE the part yourself.
Soon he was not only fixing and tuning his own bikes but he was keeping his friends’ unreliable old Pommie bikes on the road as well.
Fast is never fast enough when you are young so it was no surprise when Kevin decided to go racing. Soon he was paying his own way to Europe where he did the traditional privateer’s apprenticeship, travelling from meeting to meeting in an old van that also served as accommodation and begging for start money from tight-fisted promoters who always had more starters for their meetings than they needed so could be choosy about who they accepted and who they didn’t. He raced at the Isle of Man and acquitted himself well and, somewhere in the journey, he had that one encounter that was to change his motorcycling in a significant way.
He met the famous scientist, Walter Kaaden. Kaaden, who had worked for Hitler during WWII, developing the famous V1 flying bomb, was a man in demand because he held in his head the secret of using back pressure to get performance and reliability out of a two stroke engine. After all, the V1 pulse jet was really just a rudimentary expansion chamber. Kaaden, an East German, worked for the MZ factory whose star rider was Ernst Degner, the man who had defected to the West and brought with him Kaaden’s secrets. As detailed in Mat Oxley’s definitive book, “Stealing Speed”, this knowledge revolutionised Grand Prix racing and ensured the domination of the sport by two stroke engines for the next three decades.
Kevin’s association with Kaaden meant that, when he returned from Europe, he brought with him tuning skills that nobody in Australia possessed at the time. Local racing was dominated by the relatively cheap Yamaha two strokes and Kevin knew how to tune them.
He also opened his own business, originally as an offshoot from his tuning and engineering workshop but also to cash in on the motorcycling boom of the 70’s. Firstly in Dennison Street, just across from the Piccadilly Centre at the top of town and then, as the business expanded, in his new premises in Keira Street where the shop still cooperates to this day.
I met Kevin in 1973 when I first got interested in bikes. As a callow youth, desperate to absorb all that this new obsession offered, I haunted all of Wollongong’s bike shops, buying when the budget allowed but mostly browsing and bench racing. I saw my first Z1 in the Piccadilly shop and, as I threw my leg over the wide saddle, I wondered how anybody could ride a bike that big. “Warren Willing’s only a little bloke and he doesn’t seem to have any trouble” was Kevin’s laconic reply.
Kevin was a legend and an institution in Wollongong motorcycling. It was Kevin who provided Wayne Gardner with his first ever race bike, a little blue and white TZ250 and the list of local motorcyclists whose careers in racing he fostered over the decades would fill a book to say nothing of what he did for the everyday motorcyclist.
In retirement Kevin maintained an impressive workshop at his home and was always in demand by the vintage bike fraternity, his expertise in keeping these old chuffers going and his ability to MAKE parts where none were available anywhere made him the go-to man, not just in the Illawarra but much further afield as well. His own personal choice of motorcycling pleasure seemed at odds with the fast-paced world of Grand Prix racing, preferring the older, much older two wheel conveyances.
In 1995, at the young age of 57, Kevin decided to duplicate the epic ride by Arthur Grady who, in 1925, had ridden his Douglas twin cylinder motorcycle around Australia in five and a half months. Using a bike that was as close to identical to the original as he could, Kevin completed the same loop in just 10 weeks.
Kevin also had time to indulge in his other passion, his beloved Alvis motor car. He continued to attend rallies and long distance rides and drives will well into his 60’s being an integral part of the local vintage scene on both two and four wheels.
The premature death of his son seemed to deal an even more harsh blow than would normally be expected according to his family and they mark the onset of the dementia from which he increasingly suffered from that time. Kevin battled the condition for longer than most do and finally passed away on the 12th of October, aged 77 a much too young age by anybody’s measure.
When, or if, the history of Australian and Wollongong motoring is recorded, a chapter will probably be devoted to the smiling little genius called Kevin Cass. “Cassie” as we all knew him, was the sort of person that all of us hoped we could have been. A life filled with the pursuit of his passion while being surrounded with his devoted family and his legion of mates and admirers.
RIP Kevin Cass.