Malvern Star – a Legend born locally

Tom Finnigan 1898 Austral Wheel Race winner.
Tom Finnigan 1898 Austral Wheel Race winner.

WHEN I had a Malvern Star bicycle as a boy I never considered it anything more than just “my bike”. It was there so I could ride with my friends; we all learnt by experience of gears, clusters, chains, brakes, derailleurs etc., and helping each other through various breakdowns was part of growing up.

But had I bothered to research my steed I would have found out that, far from being “just a bike”, the Malvern Star had a history of which to be proud. And that history began not far from where I lived.

In 1898 cyclist and bicycle mechanic Tom Finnigan entered the Austral Wheel Race, the highly prized twomile handicap at the MCG which had a First Prize of 240 gold sovereigns – a sizeable amount in those days, easily enough to start a business on; but I’m getting ahead of myself. Finnigan won the fifth of the 11 heats easily by a margin of five lengths. Only heat winners and some fastest seconds qualified for the final, so he was in.

The Argus newspaper declared of the day: “The meeting was one of the most pleasant that had yet been held by the Melbourne Bicycle Club” and … “the best day ever known … fast and brilliant.” Finnigan won the race with a time of 4 minutes 30.8 seconds. In possession of the prize money he set up his own bike shop at 58 Glenferrie Road, Malvern and in 1903 began building and selling his own brand of bikes. The Malvern Star was born, its logo featuring a six-pointed star which matched a tattoo on his forearm.

Opperman UK event poster 1934
Opperman UK event poster 1934

In 1920, due to failing health, Finnigan sold his shop to Bruce Small, who at once set about growing the business with a vengeance. Within five years the number of staff had grown to 13. Small kept the name Malvern Star and in 1921 awarded a new bike as third prize in a race to a young 17-year-old racer, Hubert Opperman. He at once recognised Opperman’s potential and thus began a relationship which would see rider and brand catapulted onto the world stage.

The Australian team for the 1928 Tour De France, managed by Small, comprised three Australians, Opperman, Percy Osborn and Ernest Bainbridge and one New Zealander, Harry Watson. The team did well competing amongst the Europeans. Opperman finished in 18th place but went on to win the Bol d’Or endurance event, riding 17 hours without dismounting, in front of a cheering crowd of 50 000.

By 1933 Malvern Star employed 100 personnel and in that year introduced its fork with a star embedded on each side of the fork crown. It released its new prime racer, the Malvern Star Opperman. The “Oppy” embodied the best features of the Tour de France model and for the first time represented the identical machine ridden by “Oppy”.

In January 1940, to publicise the introduction of new Five Star models, Hubert Opperman rode the last major endurance ride of his career at the Sydney Arena velodrome. In a 24-hour ride he broke 101 world, national and state records. At this time Malvern Star had become the largest manufacturing plant in the southern hemisphere with thousands of bicycles built annually – more than any other manufacturer.

To continue the story of Malvern Star’s rise in adequate detail would take far more space than I have; suffice it to say that the brand continued to be an ubiquitous part of the cycling landscape. Who can forget the success, for example, of the Dragster bikes during the 1970s? Having only now looked into the history of the brand, I recall the bike of my own childhood with new respect. It never let me down – and now I know why.

About Chris Gray 7 Articles
Chris’s first opus: ‘I must not throw stones at the teacher’ won the Miles Franklin Award for Excellence. In 2006 ‘The Runes of Arkhan’ was published. He now writes regularly for The Burwood Bulletin.