Truck Restoration Projects
Yellow Express J-van lives on
On Saturday June 26 1926 The Adelaide Mail newspaper wrote: A few weeks ago a company was registered in Sydney and Melbourne called Yellow Express Carriers Limited with a capital of £500,000 ($1m) . The capital has been increased to £1,000,000 ($2m) as the promoters anticipate a rapid expansion.
The first issue of shares were 500,000, all of which were underwritten by Mr P W Tewkesbury, chairman of directors of Yellow Cabs of Australia Limited, who is the promoter of the new company Yellow Express Carriers.
The new company was intended to be run on similar lines to the Yellow Cab Company, so far as organisation was concerned, but would carry merchandise instead of passengers. Mr Tewkesbury left for America and England to make arrangements for necessary equipment and configurations.
P W Tewkesbury had made his money dredging gold in Victoria’s Ovens Valley and at one point was said to have banked £1million ($2m) in gold.
In 1910 he founded the City Motor Service that was one of the first hire services that revolutionised motor passenger transport. Firstly in Melbourne and later in Sydney,‘high chugging’ four-cylinder Fiats with smartly uniformed drivers could be hired for a minimum of 3s. 6d. (35cents).
Later, during a trip to America, Tewksbury saw meter-operated taxis for the first time and returned to promote Yellow Cabs of Australia Ltd in 1922. He imported one hundred of these cabs to Melbourne, carrying 200,000 passengers within the first three months.
As a prelude to their appearance in Sydney, Tewksbury held personal negotiations with Premier J T Lang, to persuade him to amend local regulations. In 1926 he also founded Drive Yourself Cars. Tewkesbury was a true entrepreneur with a ‘seventh sense’ for business.
End of an era
For 46 years Yellow Express Carriers Ltd transported goods in its brightly coloured yellow vans and trucks. It also carried much of our country’s infrastructure on its unique and specialised heavy haulage trailing equipment, being an innovator and leader in this mode of very specialised road transport.
The heavy haulage division drivers were first-rate professionals: specialists in securing and coxswaining their extremely heavy, over dimensional and cumbersome loads with great skill and perseverance.
The company was also a general carrier with a broad based fleet, consisting of vans, pantechnicons, tray trucks, conventional semi-trailers and all manner of materials handling equipment.
Unfortunately, by 1971 the company’s profit had fallen, due to the increased wages granted to workers in the National Wage Case. It was unable to recover these increased costs, and the company omitted its final dividend.
With the resultant depressed share price, Yellow Express Carriers became prey to a takeover, and the transport carrier Fleetways (Holdings) Limited launched a takeover bid in November 1971, offering three of its fully paid shares for four fully paid Yellow Express shares.
The directors of Yellow Express Carriers Ltd rejected this offer as they considered it undervalued their company. Subsequently a revised bid of nine Fleetways (Holdings) Limited shares for each ten Yellow Express Carriers Limited shares was made and this bid was recommended to shareholders by the Yellow Express Board of Directors.
By March 1972 Fleetways (Holdings) Limited had successfully acquired the company and Yellow Express Carriers Ltd was delisted from the Stock Exchange.
Fleetways Holdings then renamed it Fleet Express, retaining the yellow and black paintwork, only substituting the sign-written word ‘Yellow’ for ‘Fleet’.
However, the story doesn’t end there, because the Yellow Express name and trademark were purchased in the 1970s by Noel Lewis, and used to operate in Sydney as a courier and taxi-truck business.
The new millennium
In 2001 Noel’s son Justin purchased the operation and lifted its profile and level of service, by structuring an enthusiastic team lead by the well-credentialed CEO Mark Dixon.
Handpicked, professionally presented and company trained owner/drivers were the all-important frontline customer service operators.
Justin Lewis was keen to locate a Morris Commercial J-type van, as he wanted the type of vehicle that Yellow Express used in the post-WWII era, to use as a promotional vehicle. He contacted the Morris J-type Register and, along with help from J-van aficionado Peter Bateman, the J-type Register’s representative down under, a suitable survivor was eventually found.
The vehicle, according to Peter Bateman, is one of the most original as new J-type vans in the world.
These Morris Commercial forward control J-vans were a common sight on Australian roads during the 1950s and 1960s, before the Japanese van invasion of the 1970s.
The Morris J-type was a practical and handsome van in its day, with ample cargo capacity, rear barn doors and sliding driver’s and offsider’s doors. The heart of this little English lion cub, from Lord Nuffield’s Adderley Park pride in Birmingham, was a four-cylinder, thermo-syphon, water-cooled, 1476cc, 36bhp side-valve petrol engine. Its modest output went through an eight-inch (200mm) diameter clutch and three-speed gearbox to a spiral-bevel rear axle centre.
The NRMA and other Australian motoring organisations used these vans for their patrolmen. Many bakeries found them well-suited for bread deliveries and food companies, including Cadbury , also loved their J-vans.
Our subject Yellow Express J-van, serial number J/R 4875, left the factory in England in late 1950. It was an early export to leave the Motherland for Australia. Some 5000 Js were assembled in the first year of production and many were exported. It is not known just how many vans came to Australia during the production run from 1949 to 1961, as according to Harvey Pitcher of the J-type register in the UK:
“No factory records exist to give us any clue as to how many J-types were exported.
“In the early post-War years there was a UK policy of ‘Export or Die’ and many companies placed a priority on doing just that.”
As time went on, some 33 export countries took vans that were shipped in both completely built up (CBU) and completely knocked down (CKD) form.
It’s believed that J/R 4875 arrived in Melbourne and was sold by Morris dealer Lanes Motors. Little is certain of its early owners or its duties, but it’s possible, but not substantiated, that Buttercup Bakeries was the original owner.
Some 30 years later it was purchased by John Beaton from a second-hand motor dealer in Colac, Victoria. The only clue to its meanderings in those three decades was red dust found during dismantling of the timber partition behind the driver’s seat, suggesting it may have worked near the western area of the Murray River. Four vents in the roof suggested it may have been a baker’s van.
John completely dismantled it, with every nut and bolt removed, and any damage that had occurred during its early life was repaired.
The engine and driveline components were reconditioned, with hardened valve seats fitted to suit unleaded fuel. He had just completed the chassis when he found a working J/B van in the Forster/Tuncurry area of NSW. It was road registered and painted, so he decided to purchase it and sell the incomplete J/R 4875.
Now entered Michael Freeman from Queensland. He and his brother Alan had owned a J-van in the 1970s and were keen to relive their formative years, by restoring another J and once again enjoying ownership of one of these quant little Morris Commercials.
So Michael made an 1800km return journey in his 4WD with trailer in tow, in order to collect J/R 4875 van from John Beaton.
Once on Queensland soil in Michael’s large shed, the body was then parted from its temporary resting place on the chassis and an assessment made about what replacement body panels were required. An order was placed with Iain McKenzie of Fairmile in the UK, who is the manufacturer of specialist and one-off panels for classic cars and light commercial vehicles.
Also, Michael was able to recruit some of his mates, who were local tradesmen, to help out. A steel floor was manufactured locally and the rear support panel remade.
The original roof was removed by the time its replacement and other panels arrived from Fairmile, so these were fitted and welded into place. The body was prepared for painting and an undercoat applied.
Then Michael received a work-transfer order and, because there wouldn’t be any room to store or work on it, he couldn’t take his labour-of-love with him. Unfortunately, his only option was to pass it on.
So, after a long wait for Justin Lewis, 21st Century Yellow Express became the next custodian of this mid-20th Century van.
Justin commissioned Sydney vehicle restoration specialist, Axel Olleroch, of the Vehicle Colour Design Centre in Rydalmere, to work his magic and create a Yellow Express time capsule.
J/R 4875 arrived at Axel’s workshop in March 2015, as a partly-restored project by several part-time enthusiasts.
The work hadn’t been done to Axel’s high standards at a facility where the credo is ‘Where passion meets perfection’. With the aid of his team of artisans he embarked on a four-month project.
Some replacement parts were required, so Axel used Peter Bateman’s J-type Register’s contacts, to source Morris components.
Steering linkages were a major group that the Register’s members were able to obtain. Spring shackle pins and bushes were also found.
The electrical system was in a dire state, requiring a complete rewire.
There was some rework to the body, to get it to the final prep and filler-coat stage. With the undercarriage and brake drums masked and painted satin black, and gloss black wheels fitted, it was rolled into the spray booth for masking and top coats of bird yellow were laid. Grille, lights and the guards were also sprayed in gloss black. Then after final reassembly, it was off to the sign-writer.
The van was sign-written in stencil font – the same style used by the originalYellow Express – applied by the fine art of sign-writing with paint, a maul and a brush. No stickers were used on this vehicle!
Justin’s finished product is a joy to behold. It is truly a treasure from our road transport past.
When we last checked the venerable J-van was on display in the company’s head office foyer in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Rozelle.
Named Lorna May, after Justin’s mother, it has been to several automotive show days since the restoration was finished and is due to attend many more in the future, in addition to company promotional events.