AJS 500 Burning Ring Of Fire

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton

MY FAVOURITE bike in history is my own 1950 AJS 500 cc single. I fell in love with that black and silver beastie when I was just 17-years-old in the summer of 1973. After spotting it under a house in Manly Vale (on Sydney’s Northern Beaches) I just knew I had to have it.

The Ajay was owned by a feller named Jack Barnes. Many years before, Jack had converted it to a competition model and raced it at scrambles tracks all over New South Wales. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was—glossy black petrol tank with silver pinstriping and that distinguished AJS logo proudly proclaiming what it was.

Jack allowed me to pay it off over a number of months. The total cost was just $150, but as a poor apprentice on $30 a week, it was still a lot of money.

When the full amount was finally paid, I became only the third person to own it since it left the AJS factory in Woolwich, London, late in 1950. Jack had bought it from the original owner—a mate of his by the name of Bob Docherty—in about 1955. Up until then, the Ajay had served Bob as his only transport. Like most bikes of the times, it was commuter, tourer, Sunday cruiser, and even a sports bike, as Bob would compete in the many road rallies that Aussie bikers had in the 1950s. Even now, the old machine has never lived outside the one area on the Northern Beaches of about five or so square miles.

In 1976, the Ajay and I were involved in a really bad smash—an horrific head-on which trashed the car, the bike and me. Poor old Ajay has its front wheel ripped right off, snapping the fork sliders in two, lunching the petrol tank and tearing the oil tank, carburettor and entire exhaust system from the bike. The funny thing (if there’s anything funny about a head-on) was that the front wheel came through the ordeal virtually unscathed. Maybe there was a minute scratch on the chrome of the otherwise undamaged front wheel.

My leg was broken (femur, fib, tib) and I had bruised kidneys… oh, and I actually died—but thankfully revived—a few weeks into my hospital stay. Those embolisms are bastards, but quick-thinking nurses are great.

As per my request, my Mum took a photo of the Ajay and brought it to the hospital.

“He’ll be right with a bit of work,” I can remember saying as I gazed at the photos of total destruction.

After three months in a hospital bed, I finally got out and got to go home. The first act was to hobble unsteadily on crutches downstairs to my workshop, where the destroyed Ajay sat forlornly on the floor.

I pulled up a methanol drum, sat down, looked at the devastation and began to cry like a girlie sook. Then, I picked up a few spanners and began the rebuild. I even bought a car with which I could ferry various parts around to here and there. The car selection process was easy; the first one I could actually climb into with a full leg plaster on, and drive left-footed, got the gong.

Soon, well before I was ready to ride again, the Ajay was rocking, raring and ready to go. Of course, it wasn’t totally finished; the exhaust system was a very short, very loud and very anti-social reverse-cone racing megaphone. It was noisy alright. Oh, and the petrol tank wasn’t back from the chrome-platers by then so I’d borrowed another AJS tank from my mate Skraps. It didn’t fit real good, as the mounting bolts were different, so it was placed onto the frame, stuffed with rags for cushioning, and only one of the two fuel taps were connected. The other fuel tap just hung there in thin air just waiting to be vibrated on or something.

So the bike was ready for its test run but I was nowhere near ready with my leg still in plaster.

It was early 1977, and my plaster cast was at the forefront of medical technology, having two fibreglass hinges built-in either side of the knee. That allowed me to sit on the bike, but not kickstart it. With the help of my younger brother Greg, I sat on the bike out front of our place, and was given a push down the hill. The motor fired into glorious song and I was away. I was wearing stubbies, as shorts were the only thing I could fit over the plaster, a lone thong on my left foot and a pair of the flash aluminium ‘Canadian crutches’ stuffed down the front of my leather jacket.

I was away and back in the breeze again; the simple test ride around the block saw me heading off to parts unknown, and was soon suburbs away from home. I had no idea of what would happen when I had to come to stop, or if, God forbid, the engine stalled, but I figured I’d work that out if it needed working out.

I was close enough to Skraps’ place so I thought I’d drop in and say g’day. I’d just turned into Skraps’ dead-end street, thundering down the hill and turning the corner, with the noisy megaphone exhaust backfiring and shooting out flames every few seconds. An air leak at the exhaust port will make it do that every time, and it can look great at night.

I had another leak of a different kind I didn’t know about. Skraps’ petrol tank he’d loaned me—the one with two fuel taps, one hanging free—the tank that was loosely mounted with rags and an occky strap—the one which had vibrated enough to turn the defunct fuel tap on—was busily leaking petrol all over my good left leg. We were almost at Skraps’ place when I noticed his younger brother Andy and faithful dog Spike, the white German Shepherd, walking up the drive and into the cul-de-sac.

I was just giving a hearty wave to Andy and Spike when, WHOOSH! The leaking petrol exploded after one backfire too many.

“Ah, well,” I thought to myself, “at least now I’ll know what I have to do if I ever come to a stop.”

The bike was on fire, my bare left leg was on fire, some of my plaster cast was on fire, and there was a veritable river of flame going back up the road from whence I’d came. For a line about 20 or 30 metres back, the flaming road was burning, but that wasn’t my main concern. I’d leapt off the blazing saddle and thrown the bike over on its side. I was hopping around on my one good leg (the one that was unfortunately on fire) and realised quick action was called for.

I ripped the leather jacket off over my head, without undoing the zipper, and of course, the aluminium crutches came up with it, coonking my schnozz on the way over. The leather jacket was quickly wrapped around the leg and that instantly extinguished the flame.

Now, if you’ve ever experienced a petrol fire on a motorcycle (sad to say, I’ve seen a few) you’ll know that the first thing to melt is—you guessed it—the plastic fuel lines! If you were a pyromaniac, you’d stare fascinated at the bubbling torrent of flames that drop from an open petrol tap once the plastic line melts. The secret is to dive your hand into the inferno and try to turn the now-very-hot petrol tap off.

I dunno hows I done it, I just knows I done it and managed to get one tap switched off. The other one, underneath the bike, I couldn’t reach. The tank was a swirling fireball by this time so I unhooked the burning occky strap, grabbed the tank and flung that flamin’ bastard to the shithouse down the road.

While this was going on, Andy and Spike were both doing their bit. Andy had dashed into his front yard at Number 7, grabbed the garden hose, turned it on full blast and ran full pelt up the path towards the disaster scene. Almost within spraying reach, and just like the dog reaching the rope limit in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, Andy ran out of hose, ripped that sucker right off the fitting, bent the garden tap and went Arse Over Charlie onto the bitumen. Spike was doing his bit by leaping about, wagging his tail and barking furiously. I’m not sure whether he was barking out a doggie warning at the extreme danger, or just thought he’d better be in on the game we were playing.

My leather jacket was doing a reasonable job of pegging the flames on the tankless bike, while Andy had dashed into the neighbour’s house at Number 8, grabbed their hose, whacked it on full bore and ran to the scene of the action. This hose was even shorter, and at the hose limit, Andy trained the spout at the almost-extinguished bike, but just missed it. I even attempted to drag the prone Ajay closer to the hose, but with only one good leg, gave it a miss. Spike barked even more.

Andy, Spike and I were just contemplating the futility of the exercise, when we all realised that good old Mrs What’s-her-name at Number 9 was standing in her front yard and yelling out, “Yoo-hoo, Andy…” while holding aloft a hose. The dear old tit must’ve been about 98 in the shade, but obviously, she was still on the ball, had already worked out the dynamics of the crisis we were facing and was a team player with a solution.

“Thanks,” Andy gasped, as he took the hose from her and raced to the bike. Spike barked some more and egged him on. This hose was longer, for sure—even reached the bike, but you wouldn’t believe it—the bloody thing was fitted with a granny-style shower rose, probably to prevent damage to delicate roses or something. The job worked and soon the bike was soon out.

Then we made out way to the still flaming tank, which was upside-down and well alight. Closer and closer we crept (I hopped, but in a creepy sort of way). The tank gave a few grumbling sounds, which blended in with all the whoosing and creaking, and after about the third big ‘phhhh-tttttt, Andy handed the hose to me saying something like, “You’re on your own, Kemosabe,” before retreating.
I reached down into the fiery maelstrom, turned the other petrol tap off, then somehow managed to flip the tank upright again, then fretfully played a piss-weak sprinkle of water on the firebeast. Now, I know fire safety officers will tell you never to put out a petrol fire with water, but I can tell you from experience, that is (in certain circumstances) utter bullshit. See, it’s the heat you’ve got to consider, and when a petrol fire gets hot enough, the 2 ‘O’ parts of H2O gives the fire lots of life-giving oxygen and then it becomes REALLY hot and explodes every-bloody-where.

I estimated the fire hadn’t got hot enough yet, so moved in closer with the granny sprinkler and gradually managed to douse the tank.

Soon it was all over. I was absent-mindedly hopping from one foot to the same foot, and surveying the mess I’d made of the quiet cul-de-sac in Beacon Hill. The excitement, from ignition to extinction, probably only lasted less than 30 seconds, but seemed much longer; long enough to fill two pages of text.

Skraps’ loaned petrol tank came through the ordeal fairly well; it didn’t explode like an atom bomb; the only damage was a number of deep gouges on the paintwork from its wild slide across the bitumen. Jeez, the paint wasn’t even that scorched, which says a lot for good, old-time baked enamelling.

Even the Ajay was mostly unhurt; all petrol and oil lines were melted and six pints of Castrol’s finest 50 weight was oozing its way down through the drainage system towards the Pacific Ocean (this was the 1970s and the only dolphin we cared about was Flipper). Apart from melting the lines and lightly scorching some of the wiring harness, the only damage was when I ripped the seat cover and cushion from the seat base as I tried to drag the bike closer to the water source. My nostrils were covered in blood from having a crutch slammed into it, and even less appetising, all the hair was singed from my left leg. The nearly-new Aero brand leather jacket I’d got for my 21st birthday was fine, though 40 years later, it’s starting to show its age.

With all the ‘woob-woob-woob’ing, and the Nyahh-ah-ah’ing and ‘Oh’ing by Andy, Spike and me, it must’ve sounded like a Three Stooges episode. Soon enough, Skraps sauntered up from his workshop, idly tinkering with a carburettor and casting a jaundiced eye over his trashed street.

I’d picked up the pair of crutches by this time, and quietly watched as Skraps wandered through the wreckage. He came up on his tank, looked closely at the deep scratches then looked back at me. “You can have that tank,” he said finally. “I should have some mounting rubbers and the proper bolts somewhere—I’ll dig them out…”

written by Kelly Ashton

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