Australian Rally History

by Tom Snooks
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Reflection on Noel Burley

From Maffra – ‘God’s Gift To Victorians’

Died 1980, aged 53

I can’t recall where or under what circumstances I first met Noel but it would have been around 1975, and no doubt at some rally.

What I can recall from the outset was his enthusiasm for the sport and, coupled with my own, we soon became associated with each other, and so started a wonderful number of years during which we enjoyed each other’s company enormously, albeit the period being so sadly short.

I was associated with Total Oil in those days – working on the Southern Cross International Rally (1973 to 1977) and the Total Oil Economy Run (1976 to 1980) – and with Val McKenzie (the Total Oil PR Manager) who also started a promotions company called Vion Pty Ltd (1979 and 1980) – and Noel was closely associated with me in those years.

In the latter years he rented a flat in the North Sydney region to be close to the ‘action’ and he was always the life of the group whenever we gathered for whatever reason – to work or to play.

Time moves on and so does the memory of details, but there are some stories of Noel that I often relate to those who have the kindness to listen to me.


One is about the Southern Cross Rally – this must have been 1976 as it involved my orange Datsun 180B. 1976 was the BIG year of the ‘Cross (of which I was General Manager), with many international drivers coming out for the event. We, Total Oil and the Australian Sporting Car Club (of which I was Secretary), applied for World Rally Championship and the event was being observed by what is now known as the FIA.

The attention was on us, including that of the NSW Police. Speed limits on the open road were introduced in 1973, but old habits die hard and many drivers tore up and down the main roads, including the Pacific Highway and, when caught, claimed that they thought the posted ‘100’ signs meant mph and not km/h. So, we had lectures by the police, and of course, at the pre-event briefing I gave a spiel on the need to stay within the speed limit, based on metric dimensions (km/h).

Now, Noel took on the job of going to the end of the special stages and finding out what the times were for the stages for the top drivers, and well as picking up any news on what happened during the stage, and then finding the nearest telephone (we had them listed for him) and calling us at HQ in Port Macquarie.

I don’t recall the circumstances, but something big happened in one stage, and Noel, using MY orange Datsun 180B, was seen speeding (well above the limit) twice getting to a telephone to report to Max Stahl, who was issuing national radio broadcasts. He reported on the incident within the stage, but NOT on being nabbed for speeding.

Imagine my surprise when I was visited at HQ the next day by a couple of policemen, including a large sergeant, wanting a full explanation from me about MY (excessive) speeding on the Pacific Highway.

I got out of that one, but that bloody Noel ……………………..


Noel didn’t like bundling papers together (he called it ‘bungling’), but it was always all hands on deck to put the road books (and other documents) together.

In the Total Oil Economy Run days we used the Total Oil boardroom on the 17 floor of Total House in North Sydney, on the
weekends, or after working hours.

Noel very reluctantly attended on these occasions (he had to be ‘ordered’ to do so). The lifts were locked and had to be unlocked for our use. When Noel arrived and called in I would put a can of beer in the lift and send it down to him; as he arrived on the 17 floor  there would be another can outside the lift (the number had to increase if it was a few days or nights in succession); then two or three spaced out in the hallway between the lifts and the boardroom, and another alongside the pile of papers on the boardroom table – that’s how I used to get him along to do his share of the bungling!!!!


Stewart McLeod, promoter of the Trial, was at me for months to go across from Sydney to Adelaide to take on the reins of General Manager of the event so that he could get out into the country to find special stages, as those who were appointed to do so couldn’t (at least not to Stewart’s satisfaction).

He became very desperate and about six months prior (the event ran in early August) he finally convinced me to take on the role. Noel, by then a close associate, deciding that I couldn’t possibly do the job on my own, declared he would shadow me, and so we shared a flat for the period.

We did the job, but we also laughed. It is difficult to portray Noel’s dry sense of humour, but when you were ‘locked away’ with him, it was a laugh-a-minute. John Stoneham and I shared a room at the HQ in Adelaide for a time, but John’s constant humour meant I couldn’t get the serious administration work done, so I swapped rooms with Noel. From then on, all day, and sometimes well into the night, there would be peels of laughter and banter coming from those two in THAT room. I used to shut the doors of BOTH rooms and still their sounds boomed into my room, necessitating me to tell them to quieten down – but that lasted for no longer than ten minutes!!

This was climaxed by the cartoon John produced about Niki Lauda (the ‘Louder’ cartoon, which can’t be reproduced here). Noel blew it up to A3 size and put it on the kitchen wall in the flat and used to stand there (tinnie in hand) laughing until tears rolled down his face – EVERY NIGHT – after work!

Sadly, very sadly, it was in this period that Noel didn’t turn up at the office one day (I used to go in very early to get some work done in the peace and quiet); early afternoon I went to the flat to check on him and to find Noel in pain with his back and unable to get up. We sorted it out with a doctor’s help and Noel then sat with a pillow behind him – unbeknown to us at that time this was the first symptoms of the illness that was to take him away from us in the near future.


In April 1980 I moved from Sydney to Melbourne and in May I went to Greece for a break for three months. On my return I found out that Noel was in a serious way in hospital and I made a number of very sad plane trips to Sydney to see him. Then he passed away.


The day of Noel’s service turned out to be a very long one for me.

I was up, after a restless night, at 5am to pick up the Sydney-based Vion girls from Melbourne airport, and we drove to that place that Noel always wanted me to visit – Maffra (‘God’s Gift To Victoria’) – for his community’s service. How sad to visit it for the first time under such circumstances (I have been back there several times since).

From Maffra the entourage travelled to the cemetery at Sandown, and after the service I recall we had a trip down memory’s lane with Noel at the Sandown Hotel, a trip that lasted well into the afternoon.

So back to home and shortly afterwards, a call from Bruce Wilkinson, with whom Noel worked on the Total Oil Economy Run, to say he had a number of ‘Crownies’ that Noel had bought during the Run and hadn’t consumed and left behind in the motel room fridge. Would I like to come around and have a few of Noel’s bottles? WOULD I LIKE TO KNOCK OFF SOME OF BURLEY’S GROG!!! I didn’t need to be asked twice, and so the last toast to a wonderful mate was made at midnight.

I am a better person for having had an association with Noel Burley, albeit sadly for only a few short years and, as I pen this, my mind vividly recalls Noel’s face, together with the cap he so often wore.