Bill Wigzell with "Suddenly 88"
To the real Speedway enthusiast the word
"Suddenly" really means a lot. The word describes what it did, it moved
For those that didn’t know, “Suddenly” is what
was known as a “Super Modified” speedway car that was owned and sponsored by
Kevin Fischer of Murray Bridge, who bought it from
Graeme McCubbin of Victoria and was driven by Bill
The name “Suddenly” was inherited from
Graeme McCubbin who named the
chassis before Kevin bought and completely rebuilt it, replacing the normal
bodywork with a radical new design.
From its first outing in its new guise it was obvious that
the name had to stay because everything happened very suddenly when it started.
Suddenly 88 with its purple coat gleaming in the midday sun, was a legendary wild monster which was famous in Speedway, Australia wide had stuck fear into hearts of opponents and thrilled thousands of spectators.
This amazing machine, together with its talented team and celebrated chauffeur, struck a chord everywhere it went and its spectacular sideways progress endeared itself to a legion of fans.
Indeed you only have to utter the words ‘ Suddenly’ or ‘Wizard’ to revive fond memories for any one privileged enough to have seen the combination in the 1960’s-70’s.
In its prime, ‘Suddenly’ was unstoppable; a potent spectacle of wheel-hiking, dirt-spewing, flame-bleaching, fire breathing, eye-watering action.
Viewed up close what strikes you first is its bulk, seemingly as wide as the Queen Mary (with turning circle to match), the massive 427ci Chevrolet dominating any frontal or sideways angle. This hand-built Australian icon, constructed by Ian Theil for car-owner Kevin Fischer, is superbly crafted right down to the absolutely brilliant upholstery lining in the cockpit. Everywhere you look the attention to detail is outstanding given that the machine is still original in every respect.
A closer view of the machinery
Its very stance is squat and aggressive yet its wheelbase is remarkably short making it twitchy and hard to tame and a quick measurement of ‘Suddenly’s’ wheelbase is identical to that of a modern day Toyota Sarlet! Just image how hard it would have been to control all that oomph with a less than sophisticated suspension, no aerodynamic aids and long (40 laps plus) races run on ever slicker dolomite surfaces.
The affection and reverence with which ‘ Suddenly’ is held is evident when talking to former driver Bill Wigzell and Ian ‘Zeke’ Agars. These two men had the pleasure of manhandling the monster that thrilled patrons on the oval between Claremont and the ‘Ekka’.
In the landscape of Australian Speedway there have been some truly remarkable machines that have made a significant impact upon the sport.
Imports such as the Anderson Sprinter and the Sid Hopping ‘ Batmobile’ spring to mind as the altering the shape of our sport. Insofar as historic as Australian-made machines, you’d have to nominate the likes of Jack Brabham’s self-constructed V-twin Speedcar as equally momentous, but our money is on this famous purple Super Modified ‘Suddenly’ for having the most dramatic effect of all.
The original Super Modified campaigned by Murray Bridge-based car dealer Kevin Fischer was purchased from Graeme McCubbin of Victoria where motivation was from a slant-six Valiant.
A brand new ‘Suddenly’ was however then meticulously and painstakingly constructed by Fischer Ford employee and chief mechanic Ian Theil. The Valiant was in turn superseded by a Cadillac V8 followed by a 361ci ‘B’ series Dodge engine bored to 4 3/16”.
After Theil broke his kneecap against the steering box in a accident, Ian ‘Zeke’ Agars took over driving for a season and three quarters whilst completing construction of one of his own lightweight Holden-powered creations.
The Dodge’s internals comprised Forge true pistons, an isky cam and roller kit and the cylinder heads were ported and all parts balanced. The compression ration was 1:14.1 while Algon fuel injection was employed along with a Scintilla Vertex Magneto , Borg & Beck triple plate clutch, alloy lightweight flywheel, cross flow cooling, Halibrand quick rear end and Ross steering box. The Dodge would rev to 5,000 rpm with a 4.8 gear.
The super modified is suspended by a rear cross torsion bar and front transversive leaf axle; all of which, including the body work, was hand made. Fitted with ‘Suburbanite’ tyres on the front and huge ‘Bucks’ retreads (a rear wheel and tyre weighed 90 pounds!) on the back, they were ultimately replaced with more modern firestone racing tyres. Inside the cockpit there was a bewildering array of eight switches alone to turn it off!
When Zeke departed, he actually recommended to car-owner Fischer a driver by the name of Bill Wigzell, who was working at South Road Marine at the time and driving the Alex Rowe Speedcar, hence the ultimate union with the ‘Wizard’ taking control.
It was after this merger that the original Dodge motor was replaced with a427ci Chevrolet engine (designated L88 and hence its famous racing number) which produced 650hp and 600ft/lb of torque. For comparison, the premier V8 Supercars
of the day, such as the Falcon GTHO Phase 3, were good for about 350 bhp at the
crank, maybe 400 in race trim! 650 bhp powering through massive rear wheels to a
dirt track made for a very exciting piece of machinery! Choose the wrong tyre
for the track conditions and they were ripped to shreds before you realised it. Back in those days of the late 1960’s the cost of importing this motor – configured with all alloy block and cylinder heads – from America was an incredible $10,000.
“Suddenly” in a full 4 wheel slide, flat strap with no
wheels pointing the way it was going and taking the high line around Rowley Park
is a sight that can be remembered by many who saw it race.
Still running a hand-activated clutch mated to an Armstrong Siddeley Selectamatice gearbox, ‘Suddenly’ now employed a dry sump, Enderle fuel injection and a CAE (Culbert Automotive Engineering) quick change rear end. Suspension modifications were effected to improve handling from the former high mounted torsion bars sitting atop big birdcages with radius arms mounted below whilst conversely employing a Volkswagen front end.
With its improved handling mated to monster torque and horsepower from the big Chev, ‘Suddenly’ and the ‘Wizard’ became a potent combination.
Over its glittering career this famous duo of the purple L88 and its gifted driver won many titles. The Fischer Ford team won 3 straight Craven A titles (the real Australian championship) from 1972- 74. For example at Rowley Park the team won 37 feature races and held every track record over 1,4,6,8,10,12,15,20,25 and 30 laps! In season, 1973-74, ‘Suddenly’ and Wigzell won 18 out of 21 feature races at Rowley Park, including nine in a row. Just to prove their potency at Virginia Fairgrounds together they won four feature races and held track records over 6, 15 and 20 lap distances. Not bad for a car and a group of guys
from little-old’ Murray Bridge (Wigzell excepted).
The major results of Bill & Suddenly
Mention the notorious Super Modified ‘Suddenly 88’ and you have to intrinsically link it with its equally famous chauffer Bill ‘ Wizard’ Wigzell. The Pair proved such a potent combination on oval throughout Australia that you can’t talk about one without connecting the other. Aficionados of the sport old enough to remember the halcyon period of the 1960-70’s fondly recall the sight of the lurid metallic purple L88 broad sliding its way around bends with its left front wheel hiked way into the air.
Even more infamous however is the occasion when Wigzell actually drove the monster around Warnambool with its right rear rubber alight, literally fire from flame belching from its exhausts!
Back in that era, after a successful Solo career, Wigzell was linked with Speedcar owner Alex Rowe, although the tale of these two is yet another story. Bill only became involved with ‘Suddenly’s’ owner Kevin Fischer after Ian ‘Zeke’ Agars left to pursue driving and developing his own car.
Wigzell’s eyes light up when he recalls this momentous merger, explaining, “you know, ‘Suddenly’ had such a presence, everybody went straight to wherever it arrived. The finish and detail and the way they presented it was just immaculate. The car was made in Murray Bridge by Ian Theil and Roy Bretag who designed the body and constructed the whole thing”.
“It actually started its life in Victoria where Graeme McCubbin and Bill Willis used to come to Rowley Park for demonstration runs organized by promoter Kym Bonython. It had a slant-six Valiant in it when Kevin and Ian drove it then that was replaced by a Cadillac V8 and then a Dodge. Ian (Agars) had a drive for a while then Kevin asked me to it after that. I didn’t come into the car until it had a big thumping V8 in it.
Bill said “Alex Rowe was building me a new supercharged Speedcar when Kevin asked me to drive ‘Suddenly’ and had to become conversant with it. From that moment on I was forever linked with ‘Suddenly’.”
He elaborates, “We won our first Australian championship with the Dodge before Kevin looked around and found the L88 designation 427ci Chevrolet that had aluminium cylinder heads. Because all the car’s components were fabricated here, any accident was a major issue to fix. Ian (Theil) was a fanatic and everything had to be right. I had that much confidence in him that if anything happened the week before, the first race back I’d try to break the track record. We had plenty of wheels and tyres but had to hand-make any thing that was broken. For example, we never used to carry spare front ends like they do now. Strangely enough though we only ever had one really bad accident.”
Bill fondly reminisces about racing this awesome machine. There is a twinkle in his eye and laughter when he says, “Bonython promoted a match race once between George Tatnell and myself at Rowley Park and I learned very early on from him as he taught me a few tricks. George said to me, ‘Bill, now lets make this a draw between us for the fan’s sake’ – but as soon as we took off he was flat as a biscuit! I did several match races like that including one with Alan Streader and his Speedcar at Lismore and I also ran ‘Suddenly’ against Gene Welch’s touring USA Sedan team.”
Naturally ‘Suddenly lacked nothing in preparation but there was also stiff competition going around at the time. Wigzell remarks, “Dick Briton was one of the most under rated Super Modified drivers ever in Australia. As far as I am concerned he was ‘top of the props’. Dick was a fantastic driver who didn’t really have the very best equipment. Graeme McCubbin was one of the best I ever drove against then there also were Stevie Braizer, Garry Rush, ‘Tunksy’ – it was a fantastic era actually with lots of top guys just at a time when top equipment was coming in.”
Wherever this fabulous purple beast went, it attracted comment Bill recalls, “when I first went to Morriset one afternoon, there were a whole bunch of Speedcar drivers sitting down having a look. I didn’t pay much attention as I used to treat ‘Suddenly’ as a big Speedcar that you naturally backed her in over the start finish line. After I came in after practice I found out that those Speedcar guys had been cheering and hollering. They were over me like a rash because they’d never seen a Super Modified driven like that before!”
Big and bulky it may have been, but Wigzell and ‘Suddenly’ were successful in whatever state the competed, Bill remembering, “I loved driving at the Sydney Showground's; but then there wasn’t a track you couldn’t slide that car around on back then as they weren’t clay like they are now . I also loved the little track at Murray Bridge too. Once at Redline it got wet and I had monstrous rear tyres on . Old Ron Smith had skinny Suburbanites on his’ Ballarat Tram’ and they were an ideal thing for a wet track so he beat me as I was virtually floating around in his wake”.
The combination in true action
However the really legendary moment when ‘ Suddenly’ was indelibly inducted into Australian Speedway History was the time that Wigzell set tongues wagging when he actually set alight his right rear tyre. Bill recalls, “I remember that I was backing off the throttle as I was backing the car into turns at Premier Speedway one night. As I gunned it coming out of the turns the unborn fuel from the exhaust actually ignited and lit up the rear tyre. So much so that, unfortunately it melted that right rear! “That was a real sensation at the time. The commentator nearly fell out of the box yelling about it.
A few weeks later I went up to Brisbane and all they could talk about was the #88 lighting up its back tyre. It really was a spectacular thing to drive as it was very short wheelbase. But strangely enough, it was quite light with a phenomenal power to weight ratio.”
For a recent (and very rare) out demonstration run, engine builder David Baines gave the old Chevy a birthday and Bill remarks, “He said it would have been putting out 700 hp and could have reached 800! It had amazing torque, just like the Dodge did before it. It really responded when you put the boot in.”
Incredibly Wigzell drove the car purely for pleasure, not monetary reward. He comments, “People don’t know I drove for numerous owners for absolutely nothing in return. I never got any prize money – it didn’t mean a thing to me – as I just enjoyed it as those days I always used to start from the back. The idea was that in a 25-lap feature with 20 cars you had to pass virtually one car per lap. You had to be there at the end to give the spectators something to watch. Particularly if, like ‘Suddenly’, you could do that by going to the outside to overtake all crossed up and slinging dirt over the fence.”
His association with the late Fischer was indeed a mutually rewarding one. Bill explains, “Kevin was a fantastic bloke and he was instrumental in starting up Riverview Speedway. He was so far ahead of his time as I remember we went to America and bought the Edmonds then the next year he went over and got Nance. He new people over there that he could ring up and order things as in the old days everybody respected everyone else.”
Entertainment was the cornerstone to Speedway in that era with corresponding huge audiences. Wigzell credits Bonython for the success of the late, lamented Rowley Park, saying, “It was the best Speedway in Australia without a doubt; even the visiting Americans admitted that. Kym put Speedway on the map as when he took over it was just a track. We didn’t have many Speedcars so he went interstate and bought all the top cars. I was working for him at the time and ended up looking after them as he put drivers in the to boost local numbers. He took Rowley to the best run track in Australia; interstate people would ask if they could come and race there.”
When the suburban Adelaide oval closed for the final time yet another indelible image was burned into the retinas of all present when Wigzell took ace flagman Glen Dix on a wild ride. He explains, “Every time I won a feature race at Rowley Glen would hand me the flag. ‘Suddenly’ had a clutch so one night I beckoned to him to jump onto the side – and from the on I couldn’t keep him off! Glen was just waiting for me to win the next feature.”
“I’ll never forget that closing night. I was racing our new Sprintcar and Speedcar but they brought ‘Suddenly’ down from Murray Bridge for a demonstration run along with quite a few old Modifieds, Speedcars and TQ’s. Glen hopped on for a parade lap then got off so I rolled around with the other cars until I noticed that they had pulled them in. Glen waved a green flag and that only meant one thing to me so I booted it and the mob stood on their feet and applauded. It was very emotional.”
Glen Dix aboard Suddenly with the Chequered Flag after a win
Speaking of which, Wigzell has mixed emotions about contemporary Speedway and Sprintcar racing. He admits, “the biggest difference today is that you can buy everything you want and carry spares. It’s different too with clay tracks compared to the dolomite and dirt. They go a lot quicker now in a straight line but perhaps less passing by starting fastest to the front. It has gone a bit’money-fied’.
But Sprintcars are still the most exciting thing to watch in all of motorsport.” Just like the days of old for anyone lucky enough to see this craftsman at the wheel of ‘Suddenly’ at a time when Super Modifieds were the Predecessor to today’s Sprintcars.
Ian ‘Zeke’ Agars has fond memories of the car in which he drove then later raced against one of his own self-constructed lightweight Holden six-cylinder Super Modifieds. Zeke recalls, “I’d sold my car and was in between building another one when I saw Kevin (Fischer) hot-lapping ‘Suddenly’ one practice night at Rowley Park. I commented upon Kevin’s line and Ian (Theil) replied, ‘I suppose you could do better?’ Within a few laps I was two seconds quicker so they offered me the ride.
“I drove Suddenly for the entire 1969/70 season, gaining the coveted Racing Drivers' Association #1 and three quarters of the next season till my own car was built. ‘Suddenly used to go like a rocket down the straights but couldn’t turn because the suspension where Morris Minor torsion bars were mounted to high atop birdcages with radius arms below. You’d have to float it through a corner as you couldn’t just stand on the gas. “Ian was a perfectionist and all the car was painstakingly oxy welded; it was magnificently made for that era. Bill (Wigzell) took over for the last for or five races then in the off season they put the L88 Chev in and changed the suspension to a cross bar rear.”
Ironically Agars’ intimate knowledge of driving ‘Suddenly’ that worked in favour when he was to become the inaugural winner of the prestigious Grand Annual Sprintcar classic. He chuckles when he remembers, “Bill had just beaten me at the Craven Filter round in Adelaide and at the Ekka in Brisbane. ‘Suddenly’ had this great big oil cooler mounted over your right shoulder which I knew created a big blind spot. So I hid behind him at Warnambool as I followed him for lap after lap. Bill didn’t know that I was there and, when I shot underneath, he was so surprised that he spun out!
“I enjoyed racing against him as I used to drift my lightweight car at a 30 degree angle but ‘Suddenly’ was so big and cumbersome that Bill had to slide his at 45 degrees! We had some memorable races running side-by side with me tucked up under his inside rail. Back then on slick tracks without any clay you could do that but you don’t get to see that type of wheel-to-wheel racing nowadays. We used to start as back markers at Rowley out of positions 17 and 18. After a track grade you only got six or so laps to make your mark from the back because the top became heavy. We had some really terrific races getting through the traffic together to the front.
Perhaps the incident for which Suddenly will forever hold place in the memory banks for long time followers of the sport is the time that the ‘Wizard’ set his tyre on fire. Zeke says, “I still remember following right behind Bill when he set fire to his right rear tyre at the Premier Speedway. ‘Suddenly’ had this huge exhaust pipe so that when you’d back off and it was running rich it would shoot six to eight feet of flame out; which is what set the tyre alight. I got him back though when I began using a John Lewis (Maxwill Motors) developed turbo as I could send longer sheets of flame back at him!
For all its impressive local engineering, the car still had some quirks. Zeke says, “I recall that ‘ Suddenly’ had this very uncomfortable seating position where you were leaning forward in your harness onto a very flat steering wheel. At 17 – inches in diameter it was a heavy sucker to turn! That plus we were lucky to have even three inches of stagger with the tyre choice in those days.
“Ian used to find parts from a wrecker then refine them. He’d go through 100 shockers just to find one that was suitable to modify. Then he used a Morris 1800 universal joint that was re-splined to use a driveshaft he’d mill, still torsion bars arms and dished 12-inch wheels with cutaways. You had to be inventive then because there weren’t any ‘ off the self’ bits to buy.”
Memorable battles in equally memorable machinery.
Suddenly in Fischer Motors showroom