I always enjoy a good cemetery tour. Many Sydney cemeteries such as Rookwood, Waverley and Macquarie Park hold regular tours. There are the fascinating and stunningly designed headstones, intriguing stories of pioneering families or local eccentric personalities and rogues. And so it was, on a tour of my local cemetery at Liverpool organised by the local historical society, that I discovered the story of a long forgotten Australian sports star.
My ears couldn't believe what the guide was telling the group; "racing car driver", "raced in the Indianapolis 500", "buried in a pauper's grave", "two American enthusiasts came to visit his grave and paid for this plaque". What the? I had to find out more.
The simple plaque we were looking at is inscribed with the name Rupert Jeffkins who died a lonely broken man in 1954 after spending his final months in the Liverpool home for destitute old men.
Back in 1911 however, Jeffkins was an Australian racing car trailblazer in the USA. Jeffkins left Australia in 1901 and by 1904 was driving in some of the first professional competitive track races. Jeffkins was billed as a "daredevil driver", who raced with "cleverness and daring". In May 1911, Jeffkins participated in the first Indianapolis 500 and finished a credible 17th.
Jeffkins most famous race and the one that cemented his name in motor racing legend was the second running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1912. The Mercedes team two car entry consisted of Ralph DePalma in a grey vehicle and Spencer Wishart in the grey, black and red. DePalma chose Jeffkins as his mechanic and team mate.
After the third lap, the de Palma/Jeffkins team hit the lead. After 450 miles, the team was leading by five laps. However on lap 197 of 200, the victory that seemed so assured suddenly started to evaporate. Their engine started to fail them; the car slowed and began to trail smoke. The car finally came to stop with a broken piston. With cars now passing them, De Palma and Jeffkins got out and started to push the car to the finishing line. From there, they watched the eventual winner Joe Dawson roar past to complete the 500 miles and claim victory in front of over 80,000 spectators.
After this race, Jeffkins toured the U.S with a film of the first two Indianapolis 500 races entitled 'The Toll of the Speedway'. He returned home to Australia later in 1912 to tour the eastern states and New Zealand with the film. He also staged several races promoting himself as 'America's Greatest Thrill Provider".
In 1917, Jeffkins became involved in a project that would be the beginning of his downfall, 'The Roo Motor Car Manufacturing Company', where he was the designer and General Manger. The plan was to build just one two seater model that would sell for the same price as a model T Ford, 190 pounds but the project came unstuck when the financial backers withdrew citing war shortages. By August 1918, the Roo was extinct.
Little is known of Jeffkins life after this apart from his sad lonely demise in Liverpool Hospital just short of his 73rd birthday in 1954.
Rupert Jeffkins was a true pioneer and adventurer who like many Australians after him, bravely headed overseas to make his mark and compete at the highest level. Every cemetery tour will probably throw up a Rupert Jeffkins type story. One of long forgotten people and long forgotten achievements. Their names are rarely if ever uttered except by cemetery tours guides and until someone gets around to making the movie, few people ever will.
Moorebank is named after early settler Thomas Moore and wife Rachel.
Liverpool and District Historical Society run ad-hoc tours of Liverpool's historical sites including the cemetery tour. The tour incorperates all three Liverpool cemeteries including the abandoned St. Luke's cemetery, Liverpool Pioneer Cemetery and the current Liverpool General Cemetery.
Contact society president Judy Pack on 9605 1341 for future tour dates.
Source: Brian Leer: Rupert Jeffkins, Our first International Aussie Racing Car Driver.