Palmerston North Speedway in the Manawatu area of New Zealand.
The heyday of the Roman war chariot was about 1,500 years ago, but they may be coming back. Hopefully they won’t be used to subjugate neighboring nations. But the excitement of careening around a dirt track in a flimsy looking, two-wheeled cart a la Ben Hur, sans biological horses, seems to be calling to some modern gear heads. A company called RomanX is trying to bring back the excitement of bread and circuses, ancient Rome style. It’s just replaced the hay burners with gas burners. Specialized quad machines are harnessed to the front of the ancient-styled chariot, driven by a racer dressed as an ancient Roman warrior. RomanX hopes to bring this to life as a commercial venture with television contracts. Who knows? There are certainly stranger shows on the air.
The people at RomanX aren’t the only ones with this idea. A quick Web search gave several hits of variations on the theme. Most of the other sites and videos I found used standard motorcycles as the “beasts” of burden. Some had riders on the bikes, other modified the bikes to be controlled from the chariot. One group even put plastic horses over the top of the motorcycles. Some of these folks just seemed to be having fun, while others are looking toward some sort of business venture. It’s an interesting idea, but it turns out that it’s not a new idea.
I recently ran across a post of old photos featuring old motorcycles. There were several interesting photos, including extended-fork, chopper-styled bikes going back as far as 1917. But what caught my eye were the old Roman chariots being pulled by motorcycles. I was able to track one of the photos to a 1939 event at Palmerston North Speedway at the A & P show grounds in the Manawatu area of New Zealand. Apparently the show grounds had fallen on hard times and was looking at various new attractions to bolster attendance. It had two “chariots” built by a local company that used two, nine-horsepower, Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The history of the speedway site says that one of the riders, Murray Andrews, attended the 75th Jubilee. It didn’t mention whether he showed up on the chariot. The site says there are no accounts of how the machines performed. But I can see a good bit of dirt being spit from the wheels in the old photo. My guess is they were pretty exciting. I’d have bought a ticket. Ancient Romans captured nations with chariots pulled by one and two horses. I’d imagine that Mr. Andrews and companion were able to capture and audience with their chariots pulled by 18 horses.
－ Guy Wheatley
Editors note: I originally had the location of the A&P Speedway as Takaro, New Zeland. Thanks to Max Rutherford, Secretary/webmaster, Historic Speedway Ass. for setting me straight.