Total Recall Motorbikes

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton

THROUGHOUT life, certain events occur that you remember with crystal clarity—you know you’ll remember them forever. Here are some experiences I’ll never forget.

I had a mate from the Sidecar Racing crowd named Terry, although he was known around the pits as Mr Sheen. True, after every race, his sidecar outfit would be lifted onto three fuel drums and gone over with a fastidious spray of Mr Sheen. As a result, his sidecar outfit always looked immaculate.

Terry’s sidecar was based around a much-modified Norton Featherbed frame, and early in its career, was powered by a 4B Speedway JAP motor punched out to 580 cc. This was eventually changed to a snortin’ 750 Norton Atlas donk which really made it get up and go.

Terry had invited me to pilot the new Norton-powered machine and I agreed. Naturally, the deal included helping with the installation of the new motor and many a day and late-night session was spent at Terry’s garage in North Ryde transforming the grunty single into a gruntier twin.

When the up-rated machine hit the track, it was one of the quickest outfits out there and running at the pointy end of the pack.

I certainly had some gold-standard memorable events during that period of my life. For instance, on the start line in its very first race as a 750, the electronic ignition played up by ‘fluttering’ (if that’s a techo ignition term) at precisely the correct rev range for speedy take-offs, and we bogged down and flubbed it. From a front row grid position, we got away last out of 16 or 17 outfits.

Team Owner Terry, watching from the rooftop of Eastern Creek Raceway’s Pit building, saw us enter Turn One dead last, then trudged dejectedly across to the other viewing point and nearly burst a fooffer valve when his new team and new baby blasted into the lead before Turn Three—we’d passed the entire field in just two corners!

Terry Wright’s Norton Outfit was one of the quickest outfits out there and running at the pointy end of the pack.

Memorable, sure, but later on in that first meeting, I was treated to the unforgettable sight of Metho Tom on the big Blacktown Harley Panhead spinning out right beside us after a back brake malfunction, then slithering backwards down Corporate Hill to Turn Nine. That was even more memorable.

But you know what? The most mind-fryingly memorable event from that happy time in my life occurred before Terry’s Norton even hit the track, during the Norton’s build process. Yep, it was a fine day and progress was being made. Slaving away in his garage, cutting out and lining up engine plates and the like, we broke for lunch.

Terry’s Good Lady Wife had just presented us with tasty roast beef sangers and a ‘loovely cuppa tea’ when my attention was turned to another blue three-wheeler parked in his garage. This was not a sidecar, but a cyclecar; a rare and delectable Three Wheel Morgan.

Ever since I was about 14-years-old I had harboured dreams of owning a Three Wheel Morgan. The entire concept of a Three Wheel Morgan was ridiculous when they were new, and the intervening years haven’t made them any more sensible. Picture this: a body that could be mistaken for a stubby fuselage of a mid-1920s biplane, tapering back down to enclose a single, motorcycle-style wheel at the rear; an open cockpit, barely room enough to carry two people uncomfortably is just aft of the snub-nosed grille, is flanked by two motorcycle-style wheels carried on spindly, sliding plunger-style front suspension. And between those wheels was the object of much desire: a massive JAP V-twin motor sitting proudly traverse out in the breeze and driving through a rudimentary two-speed gearbox.

The Super Aero Sports must have been the most exhilarating, best-bang-for-your-bucks machine in the 1930s and I always wanted one.

Most of the 1970s for me was spent fruitlessly searching for a Three Wheeler Morgan, but the closest I came to owning one was locating one hanging from the ceiling of a BP servo in Malabar, NSW, and it wasn’t really for sale and the price quoted was outrageous even back then.

Somewhere in-between the covers being dragged from Terry’s Three Wheeled Morgan, and my lust being totally re-kindled for these magnificent machines, the proud owner suggested we take it for a spin. At that point, I’d realised I had never even touched a Morgan, let alone ridden in one.

The lusty V-twin JAP motor coughed and clattered into brawny life, its exposed valve-gear letting you know this engine was designed in the very early days of engineering. Then we used the time-honoured and mystical method of feeding two people into a cabin which seemed like it was designed for a crew some 30-percent smaller than us.

I was finally getting my first taste of travelling in a ‘Moggie’ and knew I’d remember it well. Little did I know just how well I would remember it—sheer terror comes to mind as an apt description!

As Terry threw the little blue Moggie harder and harder through curves and corners of suburban North Ryde, the tall and skinny tyres were screeching in protest as they threatened to roll off their rims. More to the point, the whole vehicle felt like it was threatening to perform a savage barrel-roll on every bend.

I kept recalling a mate’s dad telling us wide-eyed teenagers a tale about a mate of his—way back in the 1950s—had hit a ‘silent cop’ on the road in Mosman while pushing a Morgan to its limits, then did a complete roll—right over and back onto its three wheels. The mate and his passenger were left stunned while checking themselves out for any fractures to spines or skulls. They were okay.

Terry Wright’s Three Wheeler Morgan

Because your left arm is naturally hanging outside the cockpit, and the bitumen is so close and closer on bends, it was a temptation to stick that arm out as a prop—like a skateboarder pushing off through a turn—but I knew it would only end in tears.

I also sort of knew Terry had it all under control—he wasn’t a total maddie or anything like that—but Jeez, I was scared. I’ve been in control of many fearsome beasts on road and race track, and I’ve been a passenger in or on almost as many out-of control vehicles from two to 18 wheels, but this instance, in that Morgan, it was just an experience I knew I’d keep for ever.

An interesting postscript occurred some months later, at the main gates of the old Amaroo Park at the end of a race meeting. I bumped into Terry who was parked there in his Three Wheel Morgan.

“Take it for a spin if you want,” he said cheerily.

“If I want?” I asked, as if I needed to think about. I had soon fed myself into the little beast and after a bare-basics tutorial was away in a blue flash down Annangrove Road not believing my good fortune.

The lever throttle on the steering wheel, plus the advance/retard lever for the ignition, were easy to learn, as were the rest of the cramped controls, but what troubled me most was the last minute advice to use a combination of the hand and footbrakes. Huh? I soon found out why: the bloody thing had NO brakes! The only way either system worked at all was when used in conjunction with each other, and that only produced a minor washing off of speed. It was only then I realised that my previous ‘Death Race’ around North Ryde was even more frightening and memorable than before. The brakes were probably barely adequate in the early 1930s and they certainly hadn’t got any better in the intervening decades. As far as stamping indelible memories into the brain-box goes, it was worth it, though…

Team Tankslappers

There was another time, another place that another memory was seared into my consciousness in much the same way as noted in the previous yarn. And once more, it came about through my fine friends in the sidecar racing crowd. Throughout the glory days of Classic Racing, a mob from down Camden way were known as Team Tankslappers, and while they were all good blokes, they were also slightly mad in the good old ‘country boy’ style.

The Tankslappers raced anything and everything, and one of the classes they regularly rode in was the sidecar class. There was even a pair of twin brothers, Rex and Kev, who raced sidecars and I competed against them regularly. I spent so much time out their way, building race bikes and having fun, that between race meetings, it was like a home away from home. Their stomping ground south west of Sydney, and my area on the Northern Beaches were almost at the opposite ends of the big city of Sydney. One Sunday arvo was turning into a Sunday night when I was invited around to Rex and Kev’s ancestral family home, a large dairy farm even further out than Camden. The twins’ father was named Vic, and he was what some people would call ‘eccentric’, but in truth, was just an old fella who refused to grow old.

Now, Vic had a huge amount of vintage motorbikes, cars and memorabilia; the collection was so large it was organised like a private museum in which many vintage clubs would hold functions. It was simply amazing, the amount of stuff there, most dragged in from around the area in the decades when this valuable stuff was just junk. While the dairy farm was still functioning, the entire property was littered with vintage vehicles awaiting restoration and inclusion in the museum, a massive, modern barn that looked out of place among the ancient, wooden farm buildings.

As I was a first time visitor, I was treated to a comprehensive tour by the old man. He was still dressed in his 1920s period clothing because he’d been at some function that day, most likely chauffeuring a wedding couple in his 1927 Chevrolet Tourer.

The tour was amazing; you’d be directed to step up on a large, wooden railway sleeper for a closer look at a large and fascinating photograph of an old Camden railway bridge being rebuilt early in the twentieth century. Vic would count along the sleepers of the railway bridge in the photo, point one out and say, “That one there is the one you are standing on at the moment…”

A little further down the tour, past Vincent Black Shadows and FJ Holdens and vintage Chevs, Vic would direct you to a piece of timber, a rafter from a church the pioneer Australian pastoralist John MacArthur built. Although the church was mostly destroyed by fire, the salvaged rafter, plus a large biscuit of the tree it came from, showed growth rings to the tune of 400-odd years. That means the tree which supplied the rafter had been growing in the Camden area a few centuries before Captain Cook arrived on the East Coast of Australia!

But all that interesting stuff paled into insignificance when the tour got to one of Vic’s favourite vehicles, the aforementioned 1927 Chev Tourer.

“Grab hold of the crank-handle and start it,” said Vic, climbing into the Tourer.

So I did and it started easily. Then the passenger’s door was flung open and I was ordered to jump in and ‘go for a test ride,’ which I did. 

Vic steered the old Chev out between the rows of gleaming machines, past the huddle of Team Tankslappers members (who were all smirking or grinning at what they knew was about to happen) and out into the crisp darkness of an early winter evening.

Once outside the giant barn, Vic veered right and plunged headlong into the darkness until the ground just seemed to drop away from underneath us. You must picture this: to the right of the museum building was a steep slope, grassed, smooth and very steep. Old Vic proceeded to savagely drift the old Chev down and up the grassy slope. The thing was threatening to roll on every swoop, juddering and jerking as I contemplated the strength of the wooden-spoke wheels that must have been at their limits. I was also musing over the spindly wooden hood bows which were the only things providing any overhead protection; yeah, basically zilch.

I knew there and then I would remember this experience for as long as I lived. I can’t say whether it was the darkness, the age of the stunt vehicle or just the sheer outrageousness of being an unwitting and unwilling passenger in an elderly car, driven by an elderly gentleman in a manner most dangerous. It was a truly terrifying experience made all the worse by the maniacal laughter emanating from Old Vic’s gob as he wrestled the Chev up and down the steep slope.

After about ten or so passes, my terror was finally coming to an end as Vic casually motored back into the shed, back past the huddle of Team Tankslappers. The bastards were all in on the lark; they knew what was in store for me once I’d spun the crank-handle on the old Chev and no doubt they’d all endured the same initiation at some stage of their lives. Mongrels.

The massive V-twin JAP motor shoehorned into a Manx Norton Featherbed chassis. 

There was another experience I’ll always remember because of the awesomeness of it all, and that happened one night in the Nation’s capital, Canberra. This time, I was in control so any terror was self-induced.

I’d headed down to the ACT to see a man about a gearbox; I was in the process of converting my Manx Norton’s gearbox from the original four-speeder to a flash, new Quaife five-speeder. The easy way to do this conversion is to use a later model gearbox casing but I wanted to retain the original 1955 casings to keep it looking period correct. It’s a real tight fit, and a Canberra mate named Chris had recently gone through the same process with his Norton Manx gearbox and knew where to file and where to scrape. 

Some happy hours were spent fettling the box and success was achieved before the long drive home. 

Of course, I couldn’t leave Canberra without dropping in and seeing two old mates, Peter and Paul Dunster. The twin brothers ran a Jaguar workshop in an industrial area, although with the number of delectable classic racebikes present, you’d swear the car repair business was just an inconvenient sideline to the main game of old British bikes. And they had some magic bikes, too—Manx Norton, Velocette and OHC G50 Matchless machines were in various stages of fettling—but the one that stood out was a brilliant special, which featured a massive V-twin JAP motor shoehorned into a Manx Norton Featherbed chassis. 

While I ogled at the brutal-looking machine, one of the twins made a casual comment, “Take it for a ride, if you like…”

Now, that’s the sort of offer that takes about a nanosecond to accept and before long, I found myself outside the workshop, blipping the throttle of a muscular V-twin, at the same time pondering what sort of experience I was letting myself in for. H’mmm, let’s see: pitch black mid-week night, powerful and ornery race motorcycle with no lights, zero knowledge of surrounding streets and intersections… let’s go!

Bikes featuring the legendary Norton Featherbed frame feel best when fitted with a Norton single cylinder motor—preferably of the double-overhead camshaft type—because that’s what they were designed to house. However, over the years, many clever people have fitted many different motors into Featherbeds because there is so much room: twins, triples and four cylinder motors go into Featherbeds; car motors, even V-8s can be squeezed in. And this particular Featherbed had a massive, JAP V-twin with ‘two of everything: two cylinders, two carbs and two magnetos; a proper racing jobbie!

The torque was unbelievable—on the start line of a race track, with other bikes to compare to, it would’ve been impressive. Alone, in the dark, in unfamiliar surroundings, it was mind-blowing. The beast accelerated like a freakin’ missile, a huge shove in the back and a mighty push along until the long, lonely block of a God-forsaken Canberra industrial area was covered in double-quick time.

There are certain times in your life when you just know you’re doing a wrong and stupid thing and this was definitely one of those times. The only reference point available was the faint shimmer of half-light ahead which looked like it could’ve been a cross street, or maybe even a dead-end. I buttoned off anyway. 

A few more runs up and down the by-now slightly familiar block and it was time to gingerly motor back into the workshop and park the evil beast. Like I said, mind-blowing.

That one-off experience, plus the others mentioned previously in this yarn, remain so embedded in the memory banks that still to this day, I need only to close my eyes and the full-throttle visions come flooding back in full sens-surround.

The JAP V-twin and Dunster twins

And at the same time, I feel sad, because as I write this, concentration is shattered as both my young children and a blaring X-Box video game intrudes into my headspace from somewhere outside the office. My nine-year-old son thinks he is controlling a supercharged 1969 Dodge Daytona, racing on a Surfers Paradise Road Course, competing against his older sister, who fully believes she is controlling a 599 GTO Ferrari in a desperate smash-em-up battle. How little they know just how bland the virtual reality is. How sad. Luckily, in the real world, they are both learning how to properly drift a shitbox car around the top paddock so it’s not all bad…

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton

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