7 March 2021
Jim’s sitting on the back of the bench seat of the 1913 Ford Model T Ashton racer, he has one foot on the running board, the other on the floor inside the car. In his left hand is a wooden mallet with a six foot long bamboo handle.
He’s holding on for dear life as I take a sharp turn to the right and start drifting the car sideways, gravel sprays out from under the wheels and now we’re in perfect position to close on the ball.
“His this one hard,” I yell, as he takes his other hand off the car and grabs the mallet, bringing it back and as we reach the ball he gives it a mighty swing. The ball takes off ahead of us as we position ourselves to follow it over the line. Goal!
We toot our horn and our team mates behind us in a 1915 Ford Model T speedster start doing the same.
For the first time in 90 years, we are playing a game of Autopolo. What started as a crazy idea over a Saturday morning cup of coffee is now real.
The first person to come up with the idea of cars instead of horse for polo was an American, Joshua Crane Jnr, in 1902, then in 1913, a ford dealer, Ralph “Pappy” Hankinson arranged a contest with Model Ts and the sport was popularised. Model Ts were stripped, big hoops attached to the chassis and that was just about all which was required. Fairgrounds across America were used to create a new sport.
It was dangerous back then — lots of drivers and jockeys (these are the mallet-wielders, which we call malleteers) lost their lives but it was thrilling entertainment for fair-goers. The sport died out during the depression era but we thought we’d bring it back with a greater emphasis on safety.
We planned a game comprising two teams of three cars. With two cars from each team on the field at the same time, we could recreate the original sport. Mallets were made with laminated bamboo poles and epoxy laminated pine heads. The ball was a small rubber fit-ball of 45cm diameter.
Next challenge: we needed a venue. Simple enough, just borrow a polo ground for an afternoon. But we were told that no way could cars drive on a polo field. It might damage the surface. Never mind that horses have hooves and horseshoes that rip into the ground. So we looked farther afield. No government authority in the city liked the idea — they had enough of a hard time keeping “hoon” drivers off sporting fields. They fact that we had 100 year old cars didn’t matter. Better to go out of the city, so I rang Gary Byfield from the York Motor Museum in the Avon Valley 90 minutes east of Perth.
He said knew a spot owned by a local car club member which may be suitable. It was a private airfield used for skydiving called Brooklands owned by John Seman. No worries about local government authorities, and anyway, autopolo is probably safer than skydiving.
So we gave it a test and it was a fantastic place to play the sport. We learned that longer mallets were necessary to clear the running boards and a bigger fit-ball would make it easier to hit. The gravel surface of the runway looked to be better than grass as we could drift the cars sideways without fear of them digging in and throwing driver or malleteer out — or worse still, rolling the car. Brooklands Airfield was the ideal width and we marked out a 300 metre long rectangular field. The ball had to be hit from the centre to cross the boundary at either end to score a goal.
Autopolo proved to be tough on transmissions. Model Ts only have two forward gears so first was great for dribbling the ball and top gear was ideal for speedy repositioning.
Another rule was necessary. In horse polo one can only hit the ball from the left side of the horse. This avoids collisions so we agreed on that element of traditional polo. Also, drivers could only turn to the right when they were near the ball. Once again, this avoided collisions.
When we began a practice match it was clear that our trusty Ts did not like a long time on the field in the Aussie heat. Original Autopolo had five 10 minute rounds, with substitutions but we decided on our own format. It would be four quarters of 15 minutes with the first two cars from each team on the field to be starters and then the third car substituting after 10 minutes. We soon worked out that a substitute after seven and a half minutes was just fine. We also put some water in the ball to make sure it didn’t get blown away.
It seemed fair to us that since we were the first people in more than half a century to play a proper game of Autopolo then this would be the World Championship. And if we are the only two Australian teams then we are the Australia A and the Australia B team. Australia would win the World Championship! An excellent result!
So we gathered at Brooklands Airport on the eve of the championships to lay out the course, to fire up the barbecue and to open the beers, and later, the port wine. It was appropriate preparation for the world championships in the morning.
Hugh Fryer and Peter Harrold were to be the umpires, ferrying the ball to the centre line and throwing the ball in after it left the field.
Let the game begin with the hoot of a klaxon horn. Tactics soon developed in the heat of battle. One driver would wait back while the other driver had possession and tried to dribble the ball forward. If nobody was ahead to challenge the possession then it was just as well to hit it hard and chase it down. Then, if it went out of control, the driver behind who had dropped back could come forward as the lead drive took a sharp right to then position behind the other driver.
Fine tactics of course unless the ball stopped and a melee ensued. Then the other team would block either car from moving forward. Such ungentlemanly tactics are not fitting of the fine sport of Autopolo but who dares wins. Maybe we should have some more rules next time?
As the game wore on and three fit balls exploded after bring driven over and Shane Burns Paris-Vienna style T lost first gear, it was clear that the game was taking its toll. After about one hour of playing time, scores were tied at five goals apiece. It was the last quarter and Hugh Fryer called the game over as Cam Davey limped off the field with his T’s ignition timer barely holding together.
I think Hugh was probably thinking that the need to win was now causing competition which was just a little too fierce.
It had been a fabulous spectacle with cars diving onto the ball and then careering away after they overshot the target only for other cars to dive in. It was a miracle that no collisions occurred or any malleteers were thrown out. No Model Ts were killed in the conduct of the world championships.
Yes, Australia won. Reputations were intact and the sport of Autopolo was reborn. Everyone will be back next year to challenge for the “Pappy” Trophy which will reside in the York Motor Museum until the next event. And we might have a New Zealand team challenging for the World title, too.
See a book on the event at: https://au.blurb.com/b/10663411