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Van Praag, Lionel Maurice (Van) (1908–1987)

by Graham Howard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Lionel Maurice Van Praag (1908-1987), speedway motorcycle rider and aviator, was born on 17 December 1908 at Redfern, Sydney, only child of Sydney-born Louis Van Praag, tram conductor, and his wife Mozelle May, née Isaacs, born in India. A bright student and an all-round athlete, Lionel was educated at Cleveland Street Intermediate High and Redfern Junior Technical schools. He was apprenticed as a typewriter mechanic; he had a natural feel for machinery that was useful all his life.

Within months of the opening of the Speedway Royal in Sydney in July 1926, Van Praag began racing speedway motorcycles and had an outstanding 1926-27 season in Brisbane. He was successful in the eastern mainland States and in New Zealand. In 1931 he followed other Australian riders who competed in England and Europe during the Australian off season, riding for the London club Wembley. In 1936 he won the first world speedway championship in London, qualifying for the finals in 1937, 1938 and 1939. In 1931-39, and again in 1947, he represented Australia in Tests against England. He learned to fly at Broxbourne in 1931.

Van Praag was a non-drinker and a heavy smoker, and he had a short temper if provoked. At around 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) he was taller than most of his rivals; he was dashingly handsome, with dark curly hair and notable physical strength. He had a minor role in the British film Money for Speed (1933), but an envisaged cinema career did not materialise.

On 11 August 1941 Van Praag enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and was appointed to No.2 Wireless Air Gunners School, Parkes, with the rank of acting sergeant. Engaged on flying duties, he was promoted to probationary pilot officer in October 1942 and flight lieutenant in October 1944. In January 1942 his transport plane was shot down over the Sumba Strait and for thirty hours, while subject to shark attacks, he supported one of the crew, an act for which he was subsequently awarded the George Medal. His appointment terminated on 27 July 1945.

Resuming motorcycle racing, Van Praag headed a riders’ consortium that promoted speedway at the Sydney Sports Ground in 1945-48. He rode for the English team New Cross in 1947. After 1948 he effectively retired from racing, although in the early 1950s he briefly raced self-built small speedboats at Manly. In his new career as a commercial pilot, he flew charter, crop-duster and freight planes before becoming chief pilot for Adastra Aerial Surveys. Although he had two well-publicised crashes, people who flew with him valued his informality and his resourceful flying ability.

In adult life Van, as he was known, turned away from his Jewish upbringing. On 25 February 1929 at the district registrar’s office, Redfern, he had married Elizabeth Margaret Pearl Cosgrove, a machinist; they divorced in April 1937. On 1 October that year at the register office, Hendon, England, he married Gwendoline Iris Hipkin, a dressmaker. He died on 19 May 1987 at Greenslopes, Brisbane, and was cremated. His wife, their daughter and two sons and the daughter of his first marriage survived him. He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1990.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Brasch, Australian Jews of Today (1977)
  • J. Shepherd, A History of Australian Speedway (2003)
  • People (Sydney), 5 July 1950, p 51
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, item VAN PRAAG L M
  • Adastra website (http://www.adastra.adastron.com), accessed on 29 April 2010, copy held on ADB file
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graham Howard, 'Van Praag, Lionel Maurice (Van) (1908–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/van-praag-lionel-maurice-van-15894/text27095, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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