Bringing the J Van Home from Mount Panorama Bathurst

Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

NOW, I KNOW this is a bike mag, and any Road Tale should be about bikes, and the riding thereof, but this yarn involves cars; two of them in fact, both owned by me and, yes, the story also involves a shitload of motorbikes.

It was Easter, 1980, and I was preparing my AJS 500 single for the Historic Machine Race around the legendary Mount Panorama, Bathurst. To my way of thinking back then, like most of my mob, cars were something girls drove: Men rode Motorbikes. But I didn’t fancy riding a race-prepared 30-year-old motorbike from Sydney to Bathurst, around the track four times then back to Sydney. I needed a car to go bike racing.

Also, like most of my mob back then, the cars we did own usually came from somewhere in the $0—$200 price range. (three months rego, engine starts—you little beauty!)

A mate of mine, Davo, was carting out a girl called Carole. Davo, 30 years ago, would change his bikes almost as often as he changed his underpants. To this day, he still changes motorbikes regularly, but is still married to the same Carole. A few weeks before Easter three decades ago, Carole had just traded up in the four wheeler department, replacing an old Fairlane Ford of 1959 vintage with a much more modern 1968 Fairmont.

“What are you doing with the old Tank Fairlane?” I gingerly enquired.

“Driving it to the tip and leaving it there,” came the straight-faced reply. “If you want it, it’s yours,” my new favourite girl generously added.

Yahoo! I now had some way of getting my racer to Bathurst without riding it there!

There was a catch; I had to take the chromed 12-slotter wheels off the Fairlane and put them on the new Fairmont, drag out the 15-inch chromies from under her house and refit them to the Tank, unbolt the airhorns and organise the switching of her personalised plates which cost bugger-all or less.

With a grin as wide as Oprah Winfrey’s arse, I drove the flash new motor from Carole’s dead-end street in the back-blocks of Brookvale a full km around to the main drag, where I parked it proudly outside Spooner’s Motor Cycles, to pick up stuff for the Ajay’s upcoming race meeting.

Fate stepped in as a mate, Rocky, stepped out of Spooner’s doorway.

I hadn’t seen Rocky for a while, even though he was a good mate. See, Rocky had worked at Spooner’s up until about a year before, when he’d left the Big Smoke to try his hand at living in a tin shed halfway between Sofala and Hill End in the NSW goldfields. His plan was to weld up rusty cars, build custom bikes, service farm machinery, or do anything a bloke could do to keep himself and his new bride in food and lodgings. Reading between the lines, there simply wasn’t the call for a city slicker to do what most country lads were quite happy to do themselves. The only money he could make was de-knackering sheep, and that was seasonal, and I’ve seen the photo of his wild grin and blood-spattered face and… yeah, I won’t go into details of the process, but let’s just say it would leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth and he’d made the decision to move back to Sydney. Rocky probably still won’t admit it, but I think he was sniffing around Spooner’s to see if they’d forgotten about the ‘Get fucked, arseholes’ parting shots and ‘could he have his old job back?’

“G’day, Rocky,” I shouted like a long lost mate.

“G’day, Kel… far out! Check out the Tank Fairlane; I’ve always wanted a Tank Fairlane to cut the roof off, weld up the back doors and lengthen the fronts to make a convertible—I wonder who owns it?”

“Me,” I replied proudly. “Just picked it up two minutes ago; cost me nothing.”

“It’s mine now,” Rocky insisted. “I’ll swap my Morris ‘J’ Van for it—straight swap!”

I felt a bit strange about the value disparity, but what the hey—“Deal!” I shouted.

The Morris ‘J’ Van, for those young whippersnippers out there, was a horrible old Pommy delivery van. It was so goddamned ugly it was beautiful; when first unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1948, it featured a gutless, 1476 cc, side-valve, four-cylinder donk and a three-speed gearbox. Its final hurrah was in 1961, and while it looked no different from the outside, it had a slightly more powerful overhead-valve, 1500 cc motor with a four—count ’em—FOUR speed gearbox.

As a young fella, I only had bike ‘L’ plates and never really needed a car licence until I saw an old Morris ‘J’ Van and just had to have it. I thought they were ‘cute’ and perfect for carrying two Pommy race bikes in the back, with more than enough room to kip overnight in the back if a mattress was installed.

Rocky had bought his ‘J’ Van off Skraps some time before; Skraps had bought it from a Dutchman with a sexy blonde daughter. Old Hans probably wouldn’t have sold it to Skraps if he knew he was only buying it to have somewhere warm and dry for a bit of horizontal folk dancing with von Blonde Dutch girl. Though Skraps only paid $100 for it, by the time it had served its purpose, it was only worth about $20 that’s all Rocky paid for it. He proceeded to ‘do ’er up’, with a respray and brakes, and got it looking quite flash. It was in that ‘J’ Van that Rocky moved most of his worldly possessions to Sofala and set up home in a tin shed that boiled in summer and froze in winter.

With the Bathurst countdown ticking down rapidly, a plan was hatched to ride my AJS race bike and drive the Tank Fairlane to Bathurst, do the swap and bring the race bike back in my new ‘J’ Van.

We had a plan and it sorta worked.

Lil’ Cathy, a regular pillion on my Norton, was all geared up for another cold ride over the mountains at Easter, and was mightily miffed to learn she’d be a passenger in an old Tank Fairlane but still came along for the ride. In any case, I’d loaned my Commando to Scappo so he could ride to Bathurst. Consequently, I was allowed to borrow my own bike to take Cathy for rides away from the Mountain anyway.

A mate, Howie (short for Howard Hughes the Recluse), came too and you know what? An AJS in race trim with clip-on handlebars, folding rear-set footpegs, no kickstart lever and a tucked-in exhaust system fits into the boot of a 1959 Tank Fairlane if you shuffle the rear seat out of the way. Serious—a short occky strap on the boot lid with only a sliver of front tyre peeking out the crack and that Ajay is in!

Bathurst that year was pretty uneventful, except I got to ride on the race track, was allowed to borrow my own John Player Norton Replica and put it in the Ring Events, did a few more donuts in the Ring on the Ajay racer, and… oh yeah, became involved in a massive, three-bike, all Triumph head-on smash. Other than that—normal Bathurst.

Bathurst Bike Races

On the Sunday arvo, we all, as a motley convoy, adjourned to the Sofala pub. Rocky had planned it so we could all help him move and nobody had a clue what was going on but, what the hey! As we speared left at Kelso aiming for the quaint little gold rush town of Sofala, I got full ‘sensurround’ as Scappo gunned my Commando straight ahead, Sydney-bound. The remaining convoy consisted of Rocky in his new Tank Fairlane; his then wife Sandy on her Honda Four chopper; me on Rocky’s 1951 AJS with a very cute Cathy clinging on the back and not complaining once about the wonders of AMC ‘Jampot’ rear suspension units; Skraps, with a broken collarbone (from the aforementioned three-bike, all Triumph head-on smash) was riding Rocky’s WLA bobber; Howie was steering my new Morris ‘J’ Van with the race Ajay inside; Pommy Roger and his missus Liz, and Roy the Racing Boy and his Liz were bringing up the rear.

Now, a smart bloke would be thinking: Gee whizz, I’ve just spent three days drinkin’, smokin’, rootin’, ridin’ motorbikes and more drinkin’, what do I need to finish off an Easter weekend? “I know!” that smart bloke would shout. “More drinkin’ at the Sofala pub!”

And so we drank some more, bought some takeaway slabs. The plan was to head up to Rocky’s tin shed on the Hill End Road and drink some more, only this time with barbequed snags, potatoes and onions. It was a grand plan right up until I realised that the entire convoy had left for Rocky’s Bar and Grill. No problem in itself, it’s just that I was riding Rocky’s 1951 AJS single, with Lil’ Cathy as pillion. My 1950 AJS single was in the Van and already gone; it had the entire lighting and charging set, plus all the wiring removed, just a magneto to zap the juice.

Rocky’s Ajay still had all the lights and charging system, but they didn’t work either. Typical bloody AJS or Matchless single.

Joe Lucas gets a bad rap for reliability of electrical components, and I reckon it’s not all deserved. The 12-volt, alternator/bridge rectifier/Zener Diode charging system on most Pommy bikes from the mid 1960s onwards was not really that bad; the 12-volt car generator and regulator served many Aussie cars well right into the mid-’60s worked as well. But the Lucas 6-volt dynamo and regulator charging system was worse than woeful—it rarely worked well when new; make them middle-aged or elderly, and forget having lights at night. On some bikes, the 6-volt Lucas dynamo was almost adequate; pre-unit Triumph and BSA Twins had their pissy little 6-volt Lucas dynamo clamped on the front of the motor, out in the breeze and easy to remove and fix. AJS and Matchless singles had them way down deep in the engine plates, between motor and gearbox and it was a major operation (take off entire primary drive and clutch just to see it) Hate, hate, hate, bastards, kill!

Even BSA singles, with their ‘magdyno’, a specially shaped magneto casing with a 6-volt dynamo clamped to it gave lots of problems, just really easy to remove and repair. The weirdo design with a magdyno was you couldn’t run the bike without the dynamo because it was an integral part of the magneto clamping system. When the BSA Gold Star race boys would remove their dynamos, they would turn up a three-inch diameter wooden dowel to take the place of the removed dynamo. The old joke in those days was that the block of wood could generate the same amount of electricity as the dynamo it replaced; i.e. NOTHING!

All that knowledge wasn’t worth a politician’ promise to Cathy and me. If the situation was turned into a romantic comedy movie, the title would be Lightless in Sofala. The night was totally moonless, as dark as the inside of a Scotsman’s wallet. You dead-set couldn’t see a bloody thing as we thumped the Ajay towards Hill End. Without even the benefit of a slight shimmer of silver to tell me which way the dirt road twisted and turned, I found that by dragging both boots on the ground, I could get a feeling for whereabouts on the road we were; boots slip cleanly over hard packed dirt—she’s all good, mate. Right boot starts kicking up loose sand, veer left back into wheel track, and so on.

But we got there, and partied, and partied and partied.

Kelly And Glenice With 1959 Jb Van And 1949 Speed Twin At Bathurst Easter 1980 Ozbike

The next day, after a bracing skinny dip in the Turon River, the convoy meandered out from Sofala Sydney bound. Everyone had their own problems to contend with. Howie was driving an old van he wasn’t real happy about; Skraps was grimacing from ear to collarbone over every rigid-framed bump; Lil’ Cathy, while not complaining, must have been uncomfortable on the pillion pad of Rocky’s Ajay. I was massively hung-over but enjoying the ride on a nicely restored AJS. It was mid-afternoon on Easter Monday, a crushingly beautiful Autumn day when the spectre of English electrics decided to hover over our hangover convoy.

Just as we hit the highway at Kelso, turning left in the direction of Sydney, Howie pulled the ‘J’ Van to the side of the Great Western Highway, declaring, “She no go, Senor, she cactus.”

If you know what a Morris ‘J’ Van looks like, you’ll know that thanks to very clever (for the immediate Post War era) design, the engine is inside the cabin, accessible through either of the frightfully handy sliding doors. Simply lift a shapely tin cover, and there is the motor in all its gutless glory. A rudimentary check showed the SU (not Lucas, ha, ha!) electric fuel pump wasn’t working. Aw shit! Electric problems while hung-over. The satisfying ‘tick, tick’ sound of a happy SU fuel pump was just not happening. Even if you’re not really enjoying this yarn, at least you can learn something new: The ‘SU’ part of SU carburettors stands for ‘Skinner’s Union’, I just thought you’d like to know that.

I was about to grab the Sidchromes when I accidentally brushed my hand past the pump (okay, I might’ve been slapping the insolence out of it) when, lo and behold, the prick started ticking again. It worked for a while and the donk roared into life. Then it stopped again. I ‘nudged’ it once more and she was away and ticking.

Now a smarter, more considerate and less lazy man would’ve gone that inch further, taken the Bakelite cap off the pump and simply tightened the loose terminal inside. No, I had a less considerate, lazier method to get us going again.

With the engine cover left off, my solution was to convince Lil’ Cathy to forgo her bike ride for a lovely, plush ride in a Morris ‘J’ Van to Sydney with no engine cover. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, was to crouch near the opened engine, leaning on the front wheel of the strapped-down Ajay and periodically tap the end of the SU fuel pump with the not-so-vicious end of the large screwdriver I’d handed her.

“Sure,” she chirped, not fully understanding what she’d let herself in for.

J Van

And we were underway again. Cathy was tapping the recalcitrant fuel pump every 200 meters or so, and with only about 60 km to Lithgow, there was only about 300 taps, so that couldn’t be too hard, could it?

Swanning along the Great Western Highway to the melodious thump of a big British single was pure Heaven on that fine Easter Monday, and I shut my mind to how horrible it must have been for the poor lass, her pretty face just inches away from an uncovered motor at about 100 km/h, tap, tap, tapping on a putrid pump.

 I shoulda stopped at Lithgow, but all seemed to be going so well, and Howie didn’t stop in town so onwards it was, until the frighteningly steep climb out of Lithgow known as Scenic Hill. Thumping along behind, I was marvelling at the performance of my new car. It was making its way up that hill in fine style. Sorta. Well, it was only going slightly slower than a couple of fully-laden trucks. I know this, because there were a few fully-laden trucks caught up in the snake’s tail of traffic crawl that stretched from the ‘J’ Van’s road position all the way back into the township.

You must understand that in 1980, the road up Scenic Hill was just one narrow lane going up, and one narrow lane going down. And big, fat wooden guide posts with mesh wire fencing just off the bitumen after a very narrow gravel verge. And right on the worst, most dangerous bend, right up near the top, the ‘J’ Van carked it again. 

It seems it really needed some serious juice so Cathy was giving the fuel pump some extra big whacks. She smashed that Bakelite cover into a tradgedillion pieces and the car—she cactus again. Really cactus this time, virtually as far off the bitumen was Howie could steer it and still half blocking the uphill lane. Shit, we were popular with the crawling mass of cars, trucks and motorbikes that were risking life and limb swinging out on the wrong side on a very blind corner.

I parked the bike and went to see.

“So what are you going to now, Einstein?” Howie spat, in a tone that was definitely in the running for the most sarcastic I’d ever heard. “The handbrake’s not holding and I’m not letting up on the footbrake, so you’ll have to get ‘Little Miss Fuel Pump Smasher’ to be your offsider if you need help.”

I may have been hung-over, but I knew Mr Gravity could help us. Grabbing a ¼ Whitworth spanner, I whipped the fuel tank off the race Ajay in seconds flat, replaced the Van’s engine cover and propped the bike tank on top. After connecting one of the rubber hoses to the car’s fuel line, great gobs of Avgas was gleefully gurgling into the ‘J’ Van’s carburettor. And away we went again. I was so very pleased with myself, and a cocky and self-congratulatory wobble of the head was more than just necessary, it was unavoidable.

Rolling down the mountain at Kurrajong and ambling along to the river crossing that officially puts a weary traveller back in his own home town, Joseph Lucas, the Prince of Darkness, had the last say. As darkness descended on Sydney Town, Rocky’s AJS trip finished as we loaded it into the back of the van and I got to drive my new car for the first time. I slapped the steering wheel and proclaimed: “Isn’t she a beaut?”

Cathy and Howie both glared at me and said nothing.

And you know what? That sucker was so good on fuel consumption, whatever was left in the 3-1/4 gallon AJS tank—after four laps practice and four laps of racing around Mount Panorama, plus the ring events—got us all the way back to Sydney.

Old Cromwell helmet

Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

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