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Mystery of missing silver steel helmet solved after 40 years

From left, Bob Trevan of Lismore, Bob Pilling of East Ballina, and Darcy Neill of Sydney. Mr Neill wears a helmet won by his father racing motorbikes at the Lismore Speedway, made by Mr Pilling's father, and commisioned by Mr Trevan's father.
From left, Bob Trevan of Lismore, Bob Pilling of East Ballina, and Darcy Neill of Sydney. Mr Neill wears a helmet won by his father racing motorbikes at the Lismore Speedway, made by Mr Pilling's father, and commisioned by Mr Trevan's father. Cathy Adams

IT'S A RELIC of a bygone era - an 80-year-old stainless steel helmet trophy from the heyday of Lismore's legendary 1930s speedway scene, which turned up last month in a dusty Sydney garage after going missing for four decades.

Speedway daredevil Jack Neill was awarded the trophy in 1933 after he triumphed over then English world champion Vic Huxley in a best of three at the old Colemans Point speedway - where the greyhound track is today.

Back then the speedway scene in Lismore was famous, with touring riders coming from Sydney, Brisbane, and overseas.

The area produced mechanics whose speedway bikes were sent all over Australia, and top competitors.

Jack Neill was one of the fiercest.

When his son Darcy Neill was given the helmet after it turned up in his sister's Sydney garage a few weeks ago - missing for 40 years - he recognised it immediately.

File photo of Jack Neill on his motorbike, wearing the silver helmet. Photo Contributed
File photo of Jack Neill on his motorbike, wearing the silver helmet. Photo Contributed Contributed

Mr Neill remembered his mother talking about the wooden helmet his father used while racing, which famously split in two and saved his life in a death-defying crash.

"I recall my mum used to say if Dad couldn't get past a guy he'd try to run over the top of him... he was mad, insane," he laughed.

"He tried to get round this bunch, but the bike flicked and he was catapulted. He went headfirst and hit the telegraph pole with the lights, and blacked out the whole speedway.

"It split the (wooden) helmet straight down the middle."

After triumphing over Huxley in 1933, the silver trophy helmet sat pride of place on the mantelpiece in the lounge room of the Station Hotel in South Lismore, then run by Mr Neill.

Darcy Neill remembered it going missing few years later when his father, a lifetime publican, was shifting from the Illawong in Evans Head to the Charcoal Inn in South Casino.

A few weeks ago it mysteriously turned up in an old tea chest in his sister's garage after changing hands randomly through the years. It was renowned Lismore Ford dealer Dick Trevan who commissioned the trophy in the 1930s.

"The old man had a mania for sponsoring sporting events and this was one of many," his son Bob Trevan recalled.

"The unique part about it was the silver helmet was made piece by piece out of metal by Bob Pilling at dad's panel shop," Mr Trevan said.

The Trevan silver speedway helmet, given to Jack Neill for winning a speedway series in the 1930s. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star
The Trevan silver speedway helmet, given to Jack Neill for winning a speedway series in the 1930s. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star Cathy Adams

How the silver steel helmet was made

THE STORY behind the making of the silver steel helmet started with a disastrous fire in 1933.

As son Bob Pilling tells it, his father's Lismore panel beating and welding shop went up in flames that year and he had no insurance.

As Bob the elder was standing in tears outside his shop, thinking about his young baby and his wife's new pregnancy, Dick Trevan walked up.

"Dick asked 'how you doing' and Dad said 'not very good Dick', and then Dick said 'you start at my shop tomorrow'," Mr Pilling said.

"He lost everything, went bankrupt, and the next day got a job with Dick Trevan.

"Dad was forever grateful and held him in highest respect. He thought the world of RH (Dick) Trevan."

It was not long after that that Mr Pilling, known as being particularly "apt with a hammer and dolly", started work on the famed silver helmet.

"He was a highly skilled sheet metal worker; a master hand planisher," Mr Pilling said.

"He just had a knack for it; he was a coppersmith in the Air Force and worked with some wonderful tradesmen there."

"To make that helmet out of a sheet of steel you need some skill; he was pretty good."

Mr Pilling was also a "bit of a fanatic" for motorbikes and speedway.

In later years Dick Trevan had a British Ford Pilot and no one could fix the radiator grill on properly.

"Dad said 'bring it around here and I'll fix it for you', and he soldered it up."

"Dad knew how to do it. No one else seemed to know how to solder up that stainless steel."

Mr Pilling and Jack Neil also became good friends, they were both publicans in the 1960s and Mr Neil looked after Mr Pilling's pub while he was on holidays.

Topics:  lismore speedway



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