Getting Home Safely Part II

Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

SOME TIME ago, I wrote a yarn for Ozbike relating the trials and tribulations of transporting a racing motorcycle back from Bathurst at Easter in a hopelessly outdated shit-box of a Morris J Van. That hungover trip home was made more interesting with the inclusion of a breakdown with a failing fuel pump that finally failed on the worst and dirtiest bend on Scenic Hill, Lithgow. Being a sucker for punishment, the same shit-box Morris van was used to convey another, different race-bike to the same Mountain at Bathurst the very next Easter. If the first attempt was interesting, the second was a ripper.

I’d entered my 650 Triton in the Historic Machine Event at Mt Panorama and would see no problem with driving over the Blue Mountains in an old and decrepit Morris J Van. The Mighty Triton was strapped in nicely, I had my best girl at the time, The Goog, as passenger, plus The Goog’s little custom Triumph Speed Twin strapped in as well. It was a cunning plan, because The Goog only had a Learner’s Permit, so was technically not allowed to ride her own bike as the new 250 cc learner laws had recently been introduced and anywhere near Bathurst was no place to be unless all licences and registrations were in order. But we figured we’d at least have a motorsickle to ride around that Mecca of Motorsickklin’—Bathurst.

Now, the Morris J Van, when new (fine machine that it was) was known as a 10 cwt (hundredweight) ‘Light Delivery Vehicle’, a code for a nippy half-tonner which zips around the narrow lanes of a big, dirty city easily, but utterly crap for blasting across the huge wastelands of our great country. Two Trumpies, toolboxes, leathers, food and grog, plus all the usual etc’s were putting this half-ton van close to its strongly suggested max payload.

All the excitement was all saved for the trip home

Because I remember nothing of the trip up to Bathurst with The Goog in the almost overloaded van—that suggests that it all went like a charm, so it must have! No news is good news, eh what? And there was nothing newsworthy on the run up; oh, no, that excitement was all saved for the trip home.

But before that return trip could happen, The Goog and I had a lot of duties to perform at Bathurst. Let’s see, umm, there was drinking, there was standing around a campfire talking bullshit, more drinking, some fightin’, more drinkin’ and even some rootin’! There were more desperate beer runs into town, more drinking, collecting firewood, some donut demos in the ring events on The Goog’s rigid Speed Twin custom; and some romantic rides around Bathurst and environs, just me and The Goog on her little rigid Triumph—the one with the world’s most uncomfortable pillion pad ever. Oh, and there was also the racing part, flinging a classic Triton 650 around Mount Panorama.

…as you go over Skyline is like no other experience anywhere

And what a fantastic racetrack Mount Panorama is. Everyone raves about Bathurst, the entire experience, but when you actually get to ride flat-knacker around that hallowed piece of bitumen, you’ll understand. The climb up the hill is special, across the top of the mountain is even more special, but man-oh-man—flying off into the unknown as you go over Skyline is like no other experience anywhere. You approach Skyline from a really, really fast, downhill left-hander, then a short straight with little time to grow your testicles to the required XXXXL size, and you’re never prepared for the sheer exhilaration of it all. Then it’s down the mountain, right, left, right and so on, all the while going against hard-wired survival instincts by squirting the throttle between each bout of heavy braking. At the base of that fretful downhill run, it’s time to get the head down and into Conrod Straight… whoops, no—that’s right; there’s still Forrest’s Elbow sneaking right up you. It does that every time!

Forrest’s Elbow is a deceptive bend that’s brought many a bike racer down and even scared the bejaysus out of lots of car racers. Although it’s recently been amended to the correct historical spelling, for many decades the car race brigade at Bathurst erroneously called it ‘The Forest Elbow’. I suppose there’s a bit of a forest nearby and yeah, it does look a bit like an elbow, but the most notable bike racer to come a gutza at the last big corner before Conrod Straight was Jack Forrest. It was on this bend in the early 1950s that Jack crashed his bike and completely shredded his elbow—which is how the bend got its name.

It’s a funny thing, but there were so many good Aussie bike racers in the ’50s and ’60s named Jack. Let’s see, there was Jack Hogan, Jack Saunders, Jack Ahearn, Jack Ehret and Jack Forrest, and spookily I have tenuous links to all of them. True—I was one of Jack Hogan’s neighbours; I’ve raced against Jack Saunders; the Jakeman fairing on my Norton once graced Jack Ahearn’s Norton; the full dustbin fairing on my sidecar outfit was bought from Jack Ehret; and decades after Jack Forrest painfully claimed naming rights to the left-hander at Bathurst, I actually saw Jack Forrest’s elbow!

Oh, and by the way, if you don’t know what a dustbin fairing is, there’s no point elaborating, but let’s just say that fairing would be good for extra 10 or 15 miles per hour on a long straight like Conrod.

Ah, Conrod Straight, one of the most interesting straight bits of road in Australia. Conrod was named Conrod because just before the War, Frank Kleinig blew the motor of his racing car to smithereens when one of the connecting rods broke. Yeah, not a lot of thought was put into the naming of corners and straights at Mount Panorama.

…it’s like the rushing wind is trying to rip you from the bike…

On an unfaired, hotrod motorbike, once you get up near 130 miles per freakin’ hour, it’s like the rushing wind is trying to rip you from the bike, even though you’re clinging like a limpet, laying on the tank and trying to get your head down behind the top of the race plate. I don’t know whether it’s the wind trying to give you wings, or just the result of industrial-strength arse-puckering stretching all the sinews of your legs, but your backside seems to rise off the seat, and a conscious effort is required to get back down to business.

And just when you’re marvelling at the utter joy of travelling very fast on two wheels, Billy Forbes on a 998 Vincent goes motoring past some 15 miles per hour faster. Drat and curses upon old codgers on faster bikes; I was wishing I had a dustbin fairing.

With four laps of high speed delight stamping brilliant new memories into the brain box, the only way to come down from that euphoria is to have some beer. Sadly, with the Bathurst Easter races being what they were, it was impossible to have some beer; naw, you had to have much beer. I mean, it was tradition, man… tradition!

So that’s how I came to be completely maggotted by Sunday morning, still kicking on while lesser humans were waking up, dragging themselves from their fart-sacks and generally complaining about the terrible night’s sleep they had. Hah! You never have a bad night’s sleep if you don’t go to sleep. Fools.

…you’re on the run from the Sleep Police…

Yes, well, that theory works sometimes, but as the next day develops into a normal day for normal people and you’re on the run from the Sleep Police, you never look or feel your best.

But being young and beautiful does have its advantages. One of the top advantages is that you don’t seem to smell as bad after doing the stuff you’ve gotta do at that age. And if you’re young, you can get through an entire long weekend of living rough without so much as shower or a shave and no-one gives a rat’s. Or they don’t complain, not that you’d listen or care anyway.

Seriously, the older you get, the smellier you get. These days, one short Nanna nap in the afternoon is enough to produce obnoxious odours and objectionable secretions from a worn-out old body. Everything is better when you’re young.

But on that Easter weekend back then, even with the restriction of excessive alcohol on the Sunday night, I knew I was feeling and looking far from my best. Monday lunchtime and it was time to leave the glorious temple of Mount Panorama and head for Sydney Town. 

Stepping up into the driver’s seat of the Morris J Van Race Transporter, I took stock of the situation. There was no cheap wine but definitely a three-day-growth. Although I had no idea of how bad I smelled, it didn’t take much imagination to fill in the blanks; the smells of campfire, methanol, petrol, grease, oil, chain-lube, dirt, sausage, beer, sex and BO were cloying, and that’s a word that only gets used at places like Bathurst Bike Races.

Visually and spiritually, I was a mess. The main problem with my Levi jeans was not that they were those horrible brown-coloured ones, nor even that they were filthy with numerous vile known and unknown pollutants and stank like two shits. No, the main problem with these Levi Strauss jeans was the giant rip from knee-to-cuff down the front of the right leg. It was not an attractive look, and I had no idea of when they became ripped but knew there were many possible explanations, all related to the excessive consumption of alcohol. I could only recall one fight from the previous night, plus a few ‘incidents’ that may have been construed as fights.

… it was time to leave the magic of Bathurst behind…

But, sartorial splendour aside, it was time to leave the magic of Bathurst behind and begin the gruelling trip home. Kelso, Mt Lambie, Lithgow—must have been a breeze as I have no recollections good or otherwise of my autopilot drive, even the massive climb out of Lithgow, up Scenic Hill—the scene of the previous year’s easily-fixed breakdown—passed without any need to worry. Along the fabulous Bell’s Line of Road gave no lasting memories; must’ve been cool as, dude.

And then, I disengaged autopilot and began to sweat; we were nearing the top of Bellbird Hill at Kurrajong Heights. And that meant it was time to wake up. We had whizzed clean up the same hill outbound a few days previous in the fully laden van because the motor worked well. My concern about descending the Bellbird Hill was that the now-overloaded van’s brakes were not good. When the Morris J Van first hit the world stage in 1949, the unboosted braking system was as modern as tomorrow—twin leading shoe drums on the front and hydraulically operated; some Pommy vans still had cable-operated brakes. But that was then and this was now. The brakes felt like they had shoes made of wood—plenty of pedal pressure but no braking ability.

And, of course, I was the good bloke who said ‘yeah’ every time one of my dufus mates asked if I could take some crap home for them. You know how it is—big tough bikies ride hard-arsed to Bathurst, but they had their Eskies and tents and other assorted shit arrive by some other mate’s car. Then, the other mate leaves Bathurst early and dufus mate doesn’t want to cart an Esky on a bike, so Muggins gets lumbered with it. If the Van wasn’t overloaded on the way up, it certainly was on the way home.

I was so concerned about the approaching ‘Devil’s Own Descent’, that I idled down the first part of the grade—the one where the speed camera sits now—in third gear and I can tell you now, we had a snaking tail of frothing-at-the-mouth motorists lined up behind us. I then did the logical thing and put it down into second gear, in readiness for the serious part of the hill.

You must understand that 1950s British car gearboxes seemed to have a set system with the ratios; First and second gears were close together, then a huge gap to third and fourth which were close together too. That was for cars, the commercial vans had an even ridiculously lower first gear. Seriously, a comical trick you could play on your friends would be to idle along in first gear in your Morris J Van, leap out of the always-open driver’s door, jog on ahead then whistle to the van to follow you. Always raised a giggle, and if YouTube had been around back then, it would have had a million hits.

So it was into second gear for the treacherous descent…

So you could imagine that first gear was too low to travel down Bellbird Hill. Besides, the horrid graunching sounds from a rooted gear-set would’ve really annoyed. So it was into second gear for the treacherous descent of deadly Bellbird Hill and bugger the lengthening conga line of suck-holes in the cars behind.

The other trouble we faced were the worn-out dogs and selectors on the second gear-set, which caused the gear lever to be violently spat out of mesh on the over-run.

I put on my serious voice. “Listen, Goog,” I intoned. “This is very important—you must brace yourself and try to keep the gearstick back in second gear. It will try to fight you and spit it out of gear and you can’t let that happen. I will be busy operating the hand and foot brakes simultaneously.”

“Yep, gotcha,” was all she spoke.

“I mean it,” I added for effect. “If you let it come out of gear, it will never go back in again and we will freewheel down one of the most dangerous descents and end up over the cliff and dying in a horrible conflagration…”

“Yair, check!” she replied a little too confidently, but I decided to trust her anyway.

Approaching the first serious left-hander in the dangerous set of six or so bends, The Goog let the gearbox spit itself out of second!

Now, it may sound like I’m harping on it, but she let the gearbox spit itself out of second gear, and no amount of capital letters and exclamation marks could convey the sheer terror I experienced. The look on my face was the same as the one on the face of General George Custer when he asked his lookout, “How many Indians?” I was on the cusp of realising something terrible was about to happen.

The Goog, while not that good at holding gearsticks home, was fantastic at making split-second decisions. G-r-r-u-u-n-n-n-t CRUNCH SLAM! was all I heard as The Goog rammed that bitch back into second and held on tighter this time.

It was ‘Phews’ all round and we didn’t die; no, we gracefully motored down that evil grade at a leisurely eleven or twelve kilometres per hour and the brakes became irrelevant.

What happened next was totally uncalled for but right hilarious for some. Around about the time the really dangerous and twisty descent ceases, and becomes a straighter and less deadly drop, some of the cast of thousands behind us became anxious to overtake. Now, this is still a reasonably steep downgrade, just near where the old kiosk with the Quinn Leathers sign still hung; it’s a straight hill with plenty of vision but still with double, unbroken lines.

One car pulled out to overtake us, then another…

One car pulled out to overtake us, then another, then the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh all crossing very unbroken lines and speeding off into happiness. A couple of more attempted, but bottled and slid back in because they obviously noticed a cluster of Highway Patrol cars and officers a few hundred meters down the grade.

Seven impatient motorists, who now hated my slimy guts, were being corralled into the limited space the coppers had allowed for double line-crossing speeders.

As I passed the scene of financial and licencial carnage, one of the coppers was nodding at me, smiling broadly and giving two thumbs up. Another was beaming a big, cheesy grin and holding up all five digits of one hand, and two on the other, then mouthing, “Thanks, matey!” They were probably wondering where all the traffic had been hiding for the last 15 minutes or so.

I should’ve felt sorry for the seven poor pricks but I was too busy being indignant and pontificating that it was all their fault for rushing on an Easter Weekend.

A short time later, it was my turn

After the thorough thanking the two cops gave me, nothing of note happened for a while; we’d motored down to Kurmond, ducked through the back way to Windsor, saw or noted nothing more; skimmed past the good old Amaroo Park, Pennant Hills Road, then serenely sailed down the Pacific Highway, heading towards leafy Turramurra when I got a real wake up call—the traffic lights at the corner of Pacific Highway and Fox Valley Road turned orange, then red—and I had absolutely no chance of convincing the old bastard of a Morris J Van to stop.

Oh sure, I tried—but no matter how much pressure was applied to the brake pedal, the best the car could come up with was a mournful groan and a very gradual reduction of the road speed. It was a hopeless joke; we were never going to stop. I could see there would be no collision so made a conscious decision to stop pretending we might just have a chance and sailed merrily through the reddest of red, red lights I’d ever seen.

It wasn’t just red, closer to purple, I’d say.

And of course, I made a furtive glimpse in the rear view mirrors and there he was—the copper in the Highway Patrol car right on my hammer!

He didn’t even operate the lights and sirens…

He didn’t even operate the lights and sirens; the death stare he was burning into the rear view mirror was enough to make me indicate left, change lanes and resume the futile attempt to pull the van up. About two ocean liner lengths down the Pacific Highway, the brakes finally completed the task, and I’m sure they were puffing and wheezing.

The fully-marked Highway Patrol car pulled in behind the van and just sat there looking menacing while the copper re-hatted his head and grabbed his booking book and biro.

I know the drill, the whole psychology of the traffic cop/traffic offender interaction and was fully aware that I had to be out of the vehicle and standing. Cops in America want you to ‘stay in the vehicle, Sir’, but the Aussie cops are not so insistent on that score. That’s because Australian traffic offenders are not as ‘shooty’ as our American brothers. From a body language perspective, you should never remain in your car if there’s to be any mutual respect between copper and lawbreaker; standing toe-to-toe on an even playing field is so much better for the driver than staying seated in the vehicle. Rule One: never place yourself in an inferior position if you wish to negotiate with someone standing over you.

I looked up and down at my shabby appearance. Covered in soot, dust, dried mud and other assorted froustiness, plus the totally ripped jeans, and knowing just how staggeringly offensive the collective pong would have been, I walked to the rear of the van and met the copper halfway.

Arms outstretched and palms held submissively upwards, I came out with a very sincere, “Ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-te, I tried to stop but it just wasn’t going to happen—the brakes just weren’t good enough…”

The copper couldn’t believe he was hearing a bloke shop himself so readily. “The brakes don’t work?” he asked incredulously.

“Oh, they work,” I corrected him. “Just not very good…”

The Highway Patrol officer was regarding me in the same way that Milburn Drysdale regarded Jed Clampett when the Beverley Hillbillies first walked into his bank. Derision and pity, all at once.

I then launched into how the van ‘may’ have been loaded past its recommended maximum payload but that was because I was a top Aussie bloke and couldn’t refuse mates’ request for cartage of excess baggage. Fair dinkum, this sob story would’ve been up for a Booker Prize if it got anymore involved. And the cop seemed disinterested. I cleverly worked my last card Louie into the inexcusable excuse I was trying to formulate.

“You know what,” I began hopefully, “right up until just then, I’ve been driving this old bomb so carefully. I haven’t had to use the brakes much. I even came down Bellbird Hill at Kurrajong Heights in the lowest possible gear and never even had to use the brakes. So much so that we ended up with a huge build up of traffic behind us. Now if you want to talk about the really dangerous Easter Weekend drivers, well the seven idiots who pulled out to pass us on unbroken lines and exceeding the speed limit—well, they’re the bad guys. A couple of your mates at the base of the hill got all seven of them, each fine close enough to a ‘hamburger with the lot.’ So I sorta helped the police Easter roads campaign…”

“Seven traffic offenders at once?” the copper asked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

“Yep, seven,” I replied.

“Do you reckon you could make it home to your address with no further red light offences?” he asked.

“SIR, YES SIR!” I shouted with barely contained glee, and maybe even saluted the vaguely amused copper.

“Well then off you go,” he smiled before turning back to his car, the lid still on his Bic Biro and the booking book still unopened.

Three and a half decades later, as I sit here writing this yarn, I still can’t believe that happened.

Show More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button