Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, Norman Leslie (1890–1958)

by E. D. Daw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Norman Leslie Smith (1890-1958), racing motorist, was born on 13 July 1890 at Enfield, Sydney, ninth child of native-born parents William Smith, labourer and later carpenter, and his wife Cecilia, née Kennedy. Brought up on a farm at Richmond, he was apprenticed as a mechanic to I. Phizackerley, motor car importer, and on 15 April 1911 married Harriett Ann Russ, with Salvation Army forms. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 25 September 1916, he embarked for overseas, but was invalided home from Cape Town, and discharged on 7 June 1917. He worked as a salesman for the Queensland Motor Agency before joining Dalgety & Co., Sydney, agents for Hudson and Essex cars, about 1920.

To promote his employers' cars, Smith began entering races and rallies. In 1919 he had won a hill climb at (Royal) National Park. Unbeaten in all the State's major motoring trials in 1922 and winner of the Victorian alpine contest, he became known as 'Wizard'. Next year he set inter-city records between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston, Auckland and Wellington. Appointed motoring editor of the Sunday Times and the Referee in 1924, he performed stunt-driving feats in American cars, often wearing his business suit and Homburg hat. In 1926 he set a twenty-four hour record at the Maroubra Speedway and regained the Brisbane-Sydney record. Two years later he created Australian records for distances covered in six, twelve and twenty-four hours, and broke the long distance record held by John 'Iron Man' Burton, when he drove from Fremantle to Brisbane.

Determined to contest the world land speed record, Smith asked racing driver and engineer Donald Harkness to design and build a racing car, the 'Anzac', using a Rolls-Royce aero engine and a Cadillac chassis. Aware of its inadequacies, he concentrated on Australasian records and, while searching for a suitable site for his speed runs, set new inter-city records in New Zealand. When testing it at Gerringong, New South Wales, on 1 December 1929, he created an Australian record of 128.571 miles (206.909 km) per hour. Next month, at Ninety Mile Beach, north of Auckland, he set an unofficial Australasian ten-mile record at an average speed of over 148 miles (238 km) per hour.

Using a borrowed Napier seaplane engine, Smith and Harkness began building a better racer, the (Sir) Fred. H. Stewart 'Enterprise', named in honour of their sponsor. Delays occurred when they disagreed about its design and Harkness became ill. Their differences came to a head in New Zealand in December 1931, when Smith altered the car. Harkness began legal proceedings in Sydney, but later settled out of court.

On 26 January 1932, on a wet and bumpy surface, 'Wizard' Smith set an official world speed record of 164.084 miles (264.06 km) per hour. Although intending to challenge Sir Malcolm Campbell's mile and five mile records, months of inactivity followed, amid adverse publicity. His challenge on 1 May 1932 failed when the 'Enterprise' broke down. Returning to Sydney, he sued Smith's Weekly for alleging that he was a coward. Although he was awarded damages, his public standing remained low and, with insufficient funds, he abandoned plans for further challenges.

In 1933 Smith twice reduced the Brisbane-Sydney record and, surveying the route for a contest in 1936, drove around the continent in 45 days. That year he joined Stack & Co. (Pty) Ltd, motor dealers; he retired as their import representative in 1957. He enjoyed golf and fishing. A perservering man, his short and plain physical appearance did little to offset his enigmatic, introspective personality and, paying insufficient attention to publicity, he was denied the rewards which his skills and achievements should have brought. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died at Kogarah on 1 October 1958 and was cremated with Church of England rites.

Select Bibliography

  • S. G. Simpson, ‘Wizard’ Smith (Syd, 1977)
  • P. Davis, Australians on the Road (Adel, 1979)
  • People (Sydney), 31 Jan 1951
  • Sports Car World, Apr 1964
  • Parade (Sydney), Feb 1972
  • Referee (Sydney), 4 Dec 1929, 29 Jan 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan, 11 Oct 1932, 21 Dec 1957, 2 Oct 1958
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 29 Nov 1982.

Citation details

E. D. Daw, 'Smith, Norman Leslie (1890–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-norman-leslie-8481/text14917, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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