How often is it that cars just stop you in your tracks? I mean an eyes-boggled, jaw-dropped metaphorical slap in the face. It doesn’t happen often, right? This Morris J van is a pretty basic and mundane 1950s delivery van and certainly not the type of vehicle that generates that kind of reaction, but when you see the one I saw recently you will know what I mean…
There is nothing like a new riff on an old song, is there? This van was at the Kustom Nationals in January, a car show filled with rockabilly music, hot rods and custom cars of all shapes and sizes, some contrivedly ‘kool’ and some effortlessly so. There was everything from teenagers’ near-standard 1960’s hipstermobile Falcons and Valiants, to a couple of cars that stood center stage at the prestigious Meguiar’s MotorEx show in Sydney. It really takes something special to stand out.
I don’t think it is necessary to say that this little van stood out. If that’s the goal, then forget buying a ’32 roadster, 60’s muscle car or 50’s sled. You’ll need to find something truly unusual and then go to town, through all the streets and 50 miles out the other side with it!
The Morris J van was first introduced in 1949, with a 1500 cc side-valve engine from the contemporary Morris Oxford sedan and a three-speed gearbox. It was right up to date with the new trend in vans that was sprouting across Europe. The JB update of 1957 brought in a 1600 cc ohv engine and 4-speed gearbox, and over 48,000 were built before being replaced in 1961. With the BMC merger an Austin version was created and, as you can see above with the second Austin front panel for the blue van, there is little difference. I wonder if the owner swaps the front panel to beat parking tickets?
Just so it is clear how small these vans are, the length is 149” (3.78 m), wheelbase is 86” (2.18 m), width is 64” (1.63 m) and the standard (!) height (standard!) is 79” (2.0 m), although obviously not here. Standard weight is 2300 lb., with a payload capacity of half a (British/long) ton, or 1120 lb. / 500 kg. The standard wheels are 16” by approximately 4” wide, and fit a 6.00 x 16 tire. With a final drive ratio of 5.125:1, the top speed was quoted as 53 mph–not terribly relevant, since these vans would usually be put to delivery work around town.
Bisides our van’s obvious change in sitting about 6” closer to terra firma, it also has a Mitsubishi L300 Express van chassis with a Jaguar IRS rear end. Looking through the sliding door, you can see the engine cover that hides a 350 Chevy V8 backed up by a Turbo 700 trans. The wheel arches, widened to fit the 17″ wheels, are masterfully done, and it is only by comparison with the originals that you’d know they didn’t leave the factory that way. The headlights are a little larger too.
Originally, when the van was run by the Tip Top Bakery, the engine was mounted over the front wheels. You can see in the example above that a left-hand drive version would be problematic! These vans typically wouldn’t carry a passenger, so the space restrictions were acceptable. Note the radiator filler neck just below the windshield; I think (hope) I can see an overflow tube!
Contrast that to the modified version with the engine moved back over two feet! An actual dashboard has been installed, complete with a glovebox and a much more comprehensive set of instrumentation and switches than the original. Legroom next to the large gear shifter and umbrella-type hand brake appears to be quite good, although the seats appear to be as basic as the original’s.
I have to give the owner credit for driving the 1300-odd mile round trip from his home base of Sydney to Phillip Island, which is approximately 90 miles southeast of Melbourne, as well as a few parade laps around the race track. On such a short wheelbase and with what must be less suspension travel than a 1980s Honda, I hope the seats are more comfortable than they look.
These vans definitely have a following, both in original form and modified in this manner; believe it or not, there are a few others like this one around with their own unique flavor. I can definitely see the appeal but I’m not sure it would be enough for me to want to own one; I think a drive or three would be enough!
Bonus extra content! I saw this hot rod refueling on the way home, surely close enough to Curbside? It can’t be seen in this photo, but the fuel filler is actually on the roof! Makes sense with how low the thing is.
Here is a static shot to show how drastically it has been chopped, channeled and sectioned!
Further Reading (and photos):