This Collingwood Life – Max Kirwan

02 May 2022

Max Kirwan Mazda. It’s a business name that seems to have been around forever. And it’s one particularly well known to the Magpie family, because the man behind the name, Max Kirwan, has been part of the Collingwood fabric for decades.

Max’s extraordinary life ended recently at the age of 96. And while he was a giant in the automotive industry and a celebrated administrator in water skiing, Collingwood was also a lifelong love affair.

Appropriately enough, Max’s story began in the back streets of Collingwood. His parents were born there, and his grandparents had seen some of the football club’s earliest games back in the 1890s. The working class family took to football, and to Collingwood, and the club became a huge part of their lives.

Max arrived on the scene in 1925: his dad John would soon be joking that Max would have to leave home if he did not support the Pies. But there was no chance of that, and they quickly became regular footy-goers. They went to the famous 1937 Grand Final together, but they became separated in the standing room area and then John became so engrossed in the game that he forgot about his son! The family were living in Ivanhoe by this stage, and when Max eventually made his way home – under his own steam – his mum gave John a fearful ear-bashing.

By the time the Second World War ended, Max was a young man with a plan. Owning your own home was a core part of the ‘Australian Dream’, but Max thought building and owning your own business was a part of that too: he’d seen so much hardship through the Depression and the War, and wanted to build something of value for his family.

So he used his Army severance pay to purchase a handful of ex-army trucks at an auction in Darwin in 1946. At the time there was a shortage of trucks in Melbourne – most had been moved north to support the war effort – and Max had correctly identified a gap in the market. But getting them down from Darwin was hell. Still, Max was nothing if not determined, and after bringing the trucks through the desert he made enough money to open a used car and truck yard. Max Kirwan Motors had been born.

In the years that followed, Max Kirwan became one of the best known names in the automotive industry, especially once he became a Mazda dealer in the 1960s. But his success as a businessman just seemed to fuel his support for the things he loved – especially Collingwood.

In the mid-late 1950s, club secretary Gordon Carlyon approached Max, concerned that the club’s rigid pay structures weren’t going to be enough to keep star players Murray Weideman and Ray Gabelich out of the clutches of better-paying rivals. So Max employed both players as salesmen, and while Max would later recall that ‘The Weed’ didn’t sell a single car for him while working there, he didn’t care because he’d been able to help the club keep two of its biggest stars.

That was the start of a beautiful relationship between Max and Collingwood. He was a central figure in the Magpies’ first coterie, The Floreats, and later again The Woodsmen, the Coventry Club and the Gold Patrons, helping to raise massive amounts of funding. He became a business mentor to dozens of players, and would look after them with car deals. He was a keen and regular bidder at club auction nights, and even a seller of ‘first goal’ raffle tickets on match days. He would also often interview players at functions, using his well-honed media skills (he would go on to be a presenter on radio 3AW for a staggering 23 years)

The club regularly leaned on his business acumen. In the 1980s he helped arrange the purchase of what became Coventry House, the terrace where country and interstate recruits would board during their early days in Melbourne (famously run by Gavin Crosisca’s mum). He was even approached to run as President in the early 1980s, but decided he could probably do more for the club by continuing to support them away from Board level. Still, the club recognised his ongoing importance to them by giving him his own car parking space at Victoria Park, which was a major perk.

But at heart Max was always just a fan. He had seats in the Ryder Stand behind the race, which he cherished. He was a regular at training on Thursday nights or Sunday mornings, and he was a member for 68 years. He once explained his support and largesse this way: “I would do anything for Collingwood. I just enjoyed the relationships and loved the club and the players. I used to nearly cry after we would lose sometimes. I’m very emotional about Collingwood.”

He took a similar approach with his other great sporting love, water skiing. He spent 40 years in the administration of the sport in Australia, for which he was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1989. He was also the first person to receive the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to water skiing.

He was also the chairman of fundraising for the Australian Paralympic team for 13 years, and was one of the torch bearers for the Sydney 2000 Olympics and Athens in 2004, as well as the Paralympics and the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Today, the Max Kirwan name is being carried on – both literally and in a business sense – by his son Max Jnr. And it is to him that the final word belongs. Asked why his father had been such a generous supporter of Collingwood over so many years, he replied simply: “He never once asked ‘what’s in it for me?’ He just did it because he loved the club.”