I’VE HAD some narrow scrapes in my time: crashed and fallen off a lot of motorbikes, endured petrol fires and shoddy building collapses, got into some serious blues with some serious people, and did all the hang-gliding and jumping off cliffs that a fairly young and totally dumb bloke does when young and dumb enough to do such things. But with all that shit I did, I never once thought I would die. And then came along an incident which didn’t just make me think I was going to die—for a split second, I knew I was going to die!
In late 1988, as part of our nation’s Bicentennial celebrations, the Festival of Sydney Trophy Races were held at Oran Park, a great race circuit which used to be south west of Sydney and now long gone. The Historic Racing Register thought the best way to celebrate 200 years of the Australia we all know and love was to get a whole lot of weird people onto old race bikes and hammer around the track. It was a good plan, which sadly, didn’t include me, as I never made it.
The near-death experience happened in the van on the way to the track. It was a pearler of a prang for sure—rooted my AC (acromio-clavicular) joint, completely rooted my old van, and only slightly rooted the old Triumph sidecar inside. And they reckon sidecar racing is dangerous! Let me tell you, there’s a long and illustrious list of motorcycle racers who became very dead in car accidents travelling to or from racetracks.
Dangerous though it might be, sidecar racing is as good as sex—sidecar racing in the rain is much better than sex—but the average person won’t believe it until they’ve tried it.
My regular passenger at the time, The Goog, wasn’t travelling too well health-wise, so the call went out for a stand-in passenger. I was sharing a house with a girl named Wendy; she rode her own motorbike and was generally good fun. She was also game to give this sidecar passengering gig a burl, so a competition licence was quickly arranged. The standard test for prospective passengers was performed—the head is shaken violently on the neck and if the brain rattles around, they’re in!
The old Morris J Van race transporter was loaded up with sidecar, tools, leathers, hats, gloves and boots… and a 20 litre drum of Avgas for the thirsty sidecar. We were on our way across beautiful Sydney town. As a race transporter, the old J Van was adequate. It could take two solo race bikes comfortably, each bike is tied to the inside wall and the respective front wheels tuck into the driver’s and passenger’s step wells. That system, while good, means there’s no room for the passenger seat, so any hapless passenger must sit on the engine cover facing backwards. Yeah, not ideal, but it worked. However, when the sidecar was being transported, it would be lifted in backwards, so the van’s passenger could sit on the handy sidecar platform and at least face the correct way.
We’d left the Northern Beaches, scooted across the top of Sydney and were now flying along the straight and narrow roads of south western Sydney. Elizabeth Drive drags itself from the guts of Liverpool then turns into a nice, rural road, zipping through acres of farmland before ending at the Northern Road; itself a major rural link that allows Camden people to go and visit their mates at Penrith with relative ease and Penrith people to get to Oran Park.
“Giz a drive of this Morris J Van,” Wendy asked politely.
“Sure,” I said, pulling to the side of Elizabeth Drive and swapping the driver’s seat for a sidecar platform.
‘What could possibly go wrong?’ I remember thinking. I mean, she was a courier driver in a van delivering Ford parts all over Sydney all day long. And she rode a motorbike. No worries, mate. So off we choofed, with Wendy at the wheel and the J Van darting back into the fray, zapping along Elizabeth Drive with the speed of a thousand gazelles.
Now, there’s no point staying on Elizabeth until she’s totally exhausted, especially when a sharp left turn at Badgery’s Creek Road crops off a large triangle of distance bringing you out a lot closer to Oran Park. Heading towards Badgery’s intersection, Elizabeth Drive is still sign posted 80 km/h, so like a patient father teaching a kid to drive, I pointed out to Wendy that it might be best if she slows down somewhat from the speed she was travelling, in order to negotiate the left turn without tipping the van arse-over-Charlie.
“Don’t panic,” she chided. “I drive a van every day.”
“Yeah, got that, girlie,” I replied, “but we’re about to turn a very slow corner in a very old van, so slow it down.”
Now when this particular Morrie J Van was produced, it was before direction indicators were a compulsory fitment. There’s no point loving everything about the good old days so blinkers had been retrofitted. They worked great, but the blinker switching arrangement was a bit, er… rudimentary. None of this flash and fancy blinker stalk, with automatic shut-off and stuff. No, this system consisted of a simple toggle switch attached to the body panel just under the quarter window. Push the switch forward for right, pull backwards for left turns and don’t forget to switch it back to the middle position for off. I’d explained that part to Wendy; maybe she understood, maybe she didn’t. But what happened next proved she didn’t understand shit about old vans on unassisted drum brakes and barely adequate suspension. She took a big, wide swing, almost to the centreline of the road and swooped left in a vain attempt to turn into Badgery’s. Wendy’s red-hot cornering might’ve been successful, and maybe it wouldn’t have been, but we never got the chance to find out, as that was the time when some poor bugger in a four-wheel drive attempted to overtake us on the nearside.
I was already bracing myself for a potential roll-over, when I heard the unmistakeable sound of two-tonne of brand-new, white Toyota Landcruiser with a thousand-dollar bullbar trying for an emergency stop after a largely unsuccessful attempt at overtaking a Morris J Van on the nearside. On the driver’s side of the Cruiser, the big off-road tyres (the ones on the bitumen) were making that horrible sound an inappropriate tyre makes when forced to perform. It sorta sounds like ‘Skworreech!’ The passenger side tyres were making that graunching sound that only tyres on gravel can make.
We were well and truly committed to the corner and halfway round when the Cruiser became a Bruiser and walloped the J Van just in front of the left rear wheel—smack bang on the fuel tank filler cap!
The hit was a biggie. A huge, big, large biggie. Monster prang.
See, from my position on the sidecar platform, I had a view through the split windscreen, straight down Badgery’s Creek Road. When the Cruiser hit, it hit so hard the entire van was catapaulted sideways, up and over. It was like watching a slide show on an old projector, and the slide was slid out sideways. The entire view of Badgery’s Creek Road was jerking sideways like someone pulled it. The poor old J Van went right over. Probably as good a time as any to mention that the J Van was made before seatbelts were even thought of and safety features were for poofters.
The van did a highside, almost rolling right over in a barrel roll. But then, it fell back on its side, still sliding.
I landed shoulder first on what would be the roadway if it wasn’t for a fairly expansive sheet metal van side between me and gravel rash. But here’s the funny thing, with the van sliding on its side, I could feel every single pebbles and stone of the bitumen rippling through the 18-gauge steel of the van body. And then an amazing thing happened. Red-hot spots started appearing in the steel, then, even more amazingly, great big showers of sparks began pouring into the car—the metal was ground through in parts!
While I’ve been accused of being a bit of a slow bowler from time to time, I instantly knew that this wasn’t good. Especially since the sidecar was also upended, the stout rubber bands securing the petrol tank had been breached and the cool little tank was busy spraying Avgas via the breather to everywhere. I hadn’t even thought of the Avgas in the 20 litre drum or the petrol spraying out of the J Van’s damaged tank.
When we stopped sliding, we were still on our side in a drainage ditch way past the intersection. But our worries were only just beginning! The Morris J Van, being a very clever design, has cool sliding doors. While the passenger side was closed at the time of impact, the driver’s side was open, so Wendy could get the full benefit of ’50s style flow-through ventilation. With the big hit, the passenger side door was whacked forward so hard, it jumped off its tracks, then the chromed, outside door handle got jammed in front of the jamb, effectively locking it closed, never to be opened except by a panelbeater. As the driver’s door was locked open, Wendy was having her own problems, clinging onto the steering wheel and trying not to let her cute arse drag along the bitumen. She was largely unsuccessful, copping a bit of motorcycle-style road rash while still inside a vehicle in a car accident. Something even worse had happened to Wendy, but more on that later, as by the time we stopped sliding, we were in more strife than Speed Gordon.
With the van on its side in a drainage ditch, the passenger door locked closed forever and the sidecar swinging around upside and spraying Avgas, held up only by a couple of tie-downs, we were trapped. And this whole thing was going to blow up in an horrific petrol and Avgas fire!
And then it got worse.
In normal circumstances, it was a full time job just keeping a vintage Morris J Van’s engine running, but, with the van lying on its side, the 1500 cc BMC ‘B’ Series motor was still chugging away merrily. Sure, with both engine mounts broken, it was only hanging by cables but the bloody thing wouldn’t stall; the fan was busy chewing through radiator cores and hoses, adding steaming water to the dangerous mix; and worse still, the SU electric fuel pump was still pumping fresh petrol to a carburettor which didn’t recognise its new, horizontal orientation and refused to shut the petrol off at the float needle and seat. (It’s probably not the best time to mention it, but did you know that the SU stands for Skinner’s Union? Naw, didn’t think so).
So pints of petrol were now squirting into a smoke-and spark-filled cabin of a sad Morris J Van. I quickly shut the engine off with the key and at least the petrol stopped squirting
Now, we were in dire straits. The van was little more than a toxic time bomb with multiple possible ignition points; although the back doors had burst open, our escape was blocked by the swinging sidecar. We were in deep shit and about to die Kemosabe. Even though I remained calm-headed, with enough nous to shut off the ignition, I was in the process of conjuring up horrible visions of a Kelly and Wendy barbeque, experiencing our last terror-filled seconds on earth, when the flying, fickle finger of fate stepped in to provide the only worthwhile and funny segment of this entire horrendous tale: With all the upending and being-flung-about occurring, and watching the world turn upside down while Wendy clung to the steering wheel with her bum dragging along the roadway through the open sliding door, I hadn’t noticed that her pants were down. The lycra bicycle shorts she was wearing before the crash had been ripped down, along with her red knickers, and were rolled in a tangled mess down near her ankles. I proved my heterosexuality beyond doubt when, with destruction and imminent fiery death all around us, all I could say was, “Hey, hey, hey, check it out!”
Wendy and I shared a house for a fair while. I’d be lying if I said I’d never seen it, but this was, bad circumstances notwithstanding, definitely the first time I’d ‘seen’ it. And it was great.
Was it chivalry, or was it selfishness? Who knows, but I just knew the poor girl couldn’t emerge from the wreckage bare-arsed for all the rescuers and bystanders to cop a good gawk. Although probably only 20 or 30 seconds had elapsed since the initial impact, there was bound to be at least two or three towies already on the scene, so the evacuation/survival plan had to be put on hold for a moment why I laborious pulled Wendy’s bicycle shorts up to restore her dignity. Dammit! I was being frustrated the whole way trying to unravel the tangled-up red knickers every few inches. It wasn’t easy, I can tell ya, and a Morris J Van the right way up doesn’t have a lot of swinging space, let alone a J Van lying on its side. But fair dinkum, even though it was taking a lot of time, I wasn’t dilly-dallying on purpose. I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, but these bloody lycra shorts and red knickers just weren’t playing the game.
I know the human race will survive when a red-blooded male, while staring death in the face, can still get gristle over an unexpected but tasteful minge glimpse.
With Wendy’s shorts back up where they belonged, it was time to get out of this steel coffin. With the sidecar blocking the rear exit, the driver’s door showing ground and passenger’s door locked solid, I tried to kick one of the windscreens out. With the steering wheel and the dislodged motor blocking a really good roost of the boot, I began searching other options. There was only one—out through the sliding window of the passenger’s door, all 11 inches square of it. And that’s when Wendy started freaking out. “No, I’m not going through that hole,” she wailed. “I’ll get stuck by the hips!”
Wendy wasn’t anorexic, but she was no tubster either. “Come on, Wen,” I pleaded. “My chest and gut are bigger than your hips, and I’m going through.”
“You go first,” she said irrationally. God bless the girl for offering the captain of the doomed ship the first seat in the lifeboat, but only a true prick would take up the offer and run like a chicken.
“Listen, my little spunk-bubble,” I spoke in a most condescending manner, “you are going through that window NOW, and I’ll follow you.”
“Nooooooo,” she wailed, as I grabbed her and tried to feed her up through the open window. The crazy woman fought me all the way, punching and kicking like a crazy woman. I had to abort mission and try to reason with her, but she wouldn’t listen. Great, I survived a roll-over, wasn’t yet incinerated and now I was going to be beaten to death by Psycho Girl.
As if God wasn’t content with what he’d thrown at us so far, he had one little practical joke to play.
A Morris J Van has a wooden load area floor (true) and the driver’s cabin floor is made of plywood as well. There is (or should be) a little swivelling metal disc allowing access to the gearbox dipstick.
Right in the middle of the Wendy stand-off, when it appears the Wenster was almost ready to see reason, the dipstick went: ‘pop’ as it spat out and allowed hot gearbox oil to spurt over Wendy’s legs. Now, it couldn’t have been as hot as engine oil, and I figure it was a lot hotter than massage oil (there was steam coming off it) and it left no burn mark on Wendy’s legs, but it did manage to tip her back over the edge; she collapsed in a blubbering heap and gave up. “Please, you go first,” she sobbed. “I don’t want to get stuck and I don’t want to die.”
From the description so far, it kinda sounds like we’d been trapped for a lazy hour or so, but in reality, it was probably measured in seconds. Being trapped in a space with the constant threat of immolation has a way of making the elapsed time drag on. I knew it couldn’t have been very long, because Land Cruiser Man had only enough time to park his dented Cruiser and race to the lying down J Van and unsuccessfully attempt a rear door rescue, then an even less successful attempt at kicking in the front windscreen. He was soon up on the side of the van and reaching an arm in, urging us to grab on.
When one last bit of Wendy coaxing failed, I agreed to her demands that I go first and through the scary portal I went, discovering the damaged AC joint as I went. Wendy then stood upright, stuck her arms through the hole while Land Cruiser Man and I yanked Wendy upwards and outwards, with nary a hip kiss as she slid through. Adrenaline is a funny thing; we two rescuers didn’t know our own strengths. Wendy (like I said, not skinny, not fat) fairly flew upwards like a skyrocket out of a bottle, going a whole lot higher than was necessary. Shit! We nearly lost her and came so close to dropping her on the ground beside the wrecked van. That would’ve been funnier—surviving the rollover, not being incinerated, and then breaking both legs and an arm in the fall afterwards!
Off we jumped and dashed away from the thrice-cursed and about-to-explode J Van.
Land Cruiser Man suddenly raced back the van and tried to jump up. “I got to check for anyone else,” he yelled.
“Nobody left in there, mate,” I reassured him, but he wasn’t listening. “Only us two were inside, we’re both out—come back here before it explodes!”
He took some convincing, but was finally coaxed back to a safe distance, where someone sat him down and handed him a glass of water. Man, he was wired, asking if I was sure there were no people left inside the van.
“None, it’s all okay,” I answered.
And here’s the funny thing about human nature. When it’s down to YOU, and you’re the only one around to do something heroic, you’ll most likely do it. Once one person takes charge, that person can co-ordinate miracles and move mountains. No-one is sure how they’ll react in an emergency, but once one person steps into the breach, everyone else can relax and become an innocent bystander. Land Cruiser Man was that key man. Full-On Action Guy exactly when he was needed, barking orders and being a certified hero. But once he was convinced everyone was out of danger, he collapsed into a mess, going the blub and falling to pieces. But that often happens just that way. I’m fairly sure I thanked him for dragging us out of danger.
We all stood around waiting for the explosion, but after a while, I came to the crushing realisation that this event, though huge in my life, would never be made into a Hollywood blockbuster because the bloody car just wouldn’t blow up!
Wendy and I had a fun ambulance ride to Liverpool Hospital, I got treatment for my sore shoulder, she got treatment for her sore bum, and the mutilated Van was towed to the Team Tankslappers’ salubrious race HQ at Elderslie near Oran Park.
The walking wounded headed out to Oran Park as spectators for the Sunday’s races and we stopped at Elizabeth and Badgery’s to survey the scene of the crime. In the long grass near the ditch, was a yellow plastic bucket. Scattered all around was a complete, dismantled Triumph four speed gearbox which I’d taken along as a spare. Every single part was retrieved, plus the missing Snap-On spanners that were also flung from the stacked van.
Wendy’s bum got back to top shape in no time and my AC joint got fixed by a little Ching acupuncturist. The van was three-quarter repaired by my mates at Team Tankslappers — good enough to drive home and drive the rego out.
It was a double blow because apart from using the vintage van as a race transporter, I made a bit of money on the side renting it out for movies and TV adverts. It still had one advert left in it, when it went green for a Perrier Water advert, and then some fella hassled me to sell it to him for too much money so it was gone. That was the early 1990s, and now its full restoration is nearly completed.
Wendy felt pretty bad about the whole schemozzle, and thought she should do something nice for me: she hunted down and purchased (in pre-eBay days) a little Corgi model of a Morris J Van, then painted it up in the stunning black and silver paint scheme that my van was and presented it to me. She meant well, but I think I preferred the full sized one.
And now, one final piece of trivia, more useful than SU carbies. Did you know, according to NSW road rules, if you’re driving on a single carriageway with no defined lane markings, and a vehicle ahead is turning or diverging to the right, it is perfectly legal to overtake said vehicle on the left side? Of course you knew that—you do it every bloody day of the week. However, and it’s a huge however, should anything at all go wrong, it’s your fault, baby. No ifs, no buts—your fault. Just remember that the next time you innocently slip up the inside of a right-hand-turning vehicle.
Road Tales By Kelly Ashton