Posted On 20 Mar 2024
Comment: Off
This entry is part 28 of 33 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#24



The first Sydney Motor Show was held in 1911, but no-one seems to remember much about it, which should be no surprise, because, as far as I know, no-one who was there at the time is still with us. But a recent discovery of an old catalogue from the show mentions that there were no fewer than 200 vehicles on display at the show, from a staggering number of 89 manufacturers! We can only imagine what some of those motor vehicles on two, three or four wheels looked like, but we don’t know how popular that first Motor Show may have been.

It is understood, however, that the Show came and went several times during the many years since its inception. For most of those many years, the Motor Show – now called the ‘Australian International Motor Show (AIMS) – was mounted at the old Sydney Showgrounds. These days the AIMS alternates between Sydney and Melbourne on a bi-annual basis.

My involvement with a Sydney Motor Show began and ended in just two days; Opening Day and the day which swiftly followed. On opening day of the 1954 Motor Show at the Sydney Showground I accompanied the spare parts manager of the Matchless motorcycle importers A.P. North to the Showground on the pillion seat of a motorcycle, which I was then to ride back to the store. Either he was not the most skilful of riders or there was something radically wrong with the bike, because it was not the smoothest of journeys, fairly short though it was. The bike was a rigid-frame, 1948 500cc single cylinder AJS which had recently been traded-in on a new Matchless twin.


The manager mentioned to me, in passing, as I slid forward onto the single, sprung saddle, that the bike had not yet been checked through the workshop and that there were ‘a few things wrong with it.’

Delighted to escape the pile-making sponge-rubber pillion ‘seat’- which was about the same size, shape and consistency of a house brick and was attached directly to the rear mudguard – I didn’t take much notice of what he said, until I tried to kick start the engine. A few things wrong with it, did he say? Only a few things, did he say? In fact, the ride back to the store on that dangerous bike was an unmitigated disaster, as I was very shortly to discover.

Firstly, the little valve lifter lever – which was used to lift the exhaust valve off its seat to make starting easier – was loose and flopping about, for its clamp, which was attached to the left side handlebar just under the clutch lever, was loosely held in place by only one of its two mounting screws. This made starting the engine very difficult, but when the engine finally fired up it wouldn’t idle slowly and raced badly, because the carburettor flange which mounted the carburettor to the cylinder head was visibly warped, allowing it to suck air through the gap, which always resulted in a lean mixture and a very fast idle speed. This could often be a problem with Amal carburettors when they were mounted directly to the cylinder head without a heat insulating ‘composite’ block being interpolated.

To make matters worse, when I lifted the right-side mounted lever into first gear the bike leapt forward with neck-snapping eagerness, because the clutch was grabbing badly and would not fully release. This potentially serious problem, allied to the very fast idling speed, meant that the bike’s progress through heavy traffic was about to be effectively beyond my control. Oh, and there was very much more to come, so don’t relax just yet!


The rear brake didn’t work very well, even with the left-mounted lever almost dragging along the ground, but the front brake was great, except that it would lock up almost instantly, even if you merely touched the handlebar lever. It was a real one- finger front brake that one, and the little finger at that! I must say that I had never before, nor have I since, experienced a small-diameter drum brake which exhibited that strange characteristic.

And so off we lurched, the AJS much more in control of my destiny than I was, you may rest well assured of that.

There weren’t many pedestrian crossings about in 1954, but there were many trams, and there were many tramlines. There were also many tram stops, and there was a Law which demanded that you stop whenever a tram did, thereby allowing the passengers who alighted to make their way to the safety of the nearby footpath. I was quite happy with that arrangement, but clearly the AJS was not, because each tram stop we encountered saw the Law shamelessly flouted as I slipped through the abusing throng, sawing the gear lever back-and-forth, back-and-forth; first gear, then into second, then slotting the lever up again into first, then back down again into second gear, with no sign anywhere of the neutral ‘gear’ for which I was so frantically searching. Of course the rear brake pedal was almost dragging along the ground at the same time, the front end dipping as the tyre yelped before springing back up again as I eased that confounded front brake lever on and off again.

It was all frightful stuff, but the worst, as they say in the Classics, was yet to come!

By some miracle I managed to select neutral gear at the very busy Taylor Square as a ‘point-duty’ police officer stopped our traffic stream, and I thankfully hid behind a very large lady bowler in her Morris Minor as the engine spun loudly beneath me.

When we were allowed to continue I gave her a couple of lengths’ start, steeled myself for the flying start and leapt after her…. just as she kangarooed off and stalled her car right in front of me, while we were half way to the intersection!

So help me, that blasted AJS shoved the hapless Morris Minor into the centre of that intersection, the clutch lever to the handlebars, the rear brake lever dragging along the ground, the woman frantically gesturing and screaming at me from her driver’s-side window, while blowing a shrill series of stirring blasts by enthusiastically engaging the little vehicle’s stentorian warning device.

I wasn’t brave enough to look at the police officer, besides which, I was too busy to do that, anyway, and it was only the front wheel sliding along her rear bumper – well, the car’s rear bumper – and a quick shove with my foot that cannoned the bike clear and allowed us to careen along the busy Oxford Street, then down the steep Wentworth Avenue to finally arrive at the A.P. North showroom.

By then, I had hatched a cunning plan to stop the wayward motorcycle.

I practiced finding neutral a couple of times on the descent, and managed to do so just once, but just in case it was missing again and I was still in gear at the showroom door I decided I would stop the errant machine by pulling the little valve lifter lever up to slow the engine and then slam the front brake on. Yeah, that’s what I would do; how clever of me. I would soon show that bloody awful motorcycle who was boss.

In hindsight, I knew I should have coasted down Wentworth Avenue when I finally found that elusive neutral, but I didn’t think to do that.

The showroom’s sliding door was open by about half-a-meter as I rode up the layback and shot onto the footpath while trying to reach for the valve lifter lever, my right hand poised over the front brake lever.

The clutch lever had of course been earlier pulled in to the handlebars with my right foot sawing the gear lever up and down, up and down, first-to-second gear, second-to-first,first-to-second and back again, and yet again, but with no neutral to be found anywhere. I released the clutch lever and groped for that little valve lifter lever, but there was no lever to be found, either!

I was later to discover that the thing had loosened off even more and had slid all the way down the handlebars until it came to rest against the handlebar’s clamp atop the head stock, where it was by then well out of reach.

A split second later we flew through that narrow gap with scant millimetres to spare and ran – well, at least we moved at a slow jogging speed – onto the highly polished floor of the spare parts department.

A.P. North’s store had two double window frontages, the spares department on the upper level with a few bikes on display, while its main motorcycle showroom was somewhat lower and was accessed by several steep, linoleum-covered stairs, with its access to the street by its own windowed sliding doors, which were of course closed at the time.

I had once witnessed the great Observed Trials ace Bill Mayes make an ill-fated attempt at riding a near new Competition Matchless gently down those stairs with his huge feet still on the footrests, only to end up underneath the machine, while someone went away looking for the Vintage First Aid Kit which had never before been used.

Naturally, a directive was issued thereafter which forbade anyone from riding a motorcycle into either of the showrooms: a rider was supposed to stop the engine on a machine he was riding and then, as instructed ‘disengage himself from the machine’, and heave the bike up the slope and into one or the other of the two showrooms. This applied to everyone, and no-one ever rode a bike into the shop again.

Well, not until I arrived with that AJS in October, 1954, that is!

With the clutch lever pulled to the handlebar again and the rear brake pedal still dragging on the ground, we trotted to those four steps, whereupon I bounced the front wheel off a convenient handrail (Bill Mayes hadn’t thought of that, but then, neither had I!) and rode that rigid frame shocker down them with great aplomb to start the first of what was to be three laps of the showroom.

I was of course still sawing that blasted gear lever up and down, down and up, up and down, and then down and up again, desperately searching for that damned neutral gear…

All I could hear over the engine was shouted abuse where I had half expected to hear some generous applause or perhaps even a stifled cheer, but I still couldn’t stop the bike and couldn’t find that elusive neutral. By now, though almost out of my focus, several spectators had magically appeared, including one or two heads that sprang from windows ‘upstairs’ where the Oracles sat.

I was absolutely terrified because there was clearly no escape, but why some clown didn’t swiftly materialise to open that lower showroom door to allow me to escape onto the street again I still don’t know.

There was nowhere to go and I was clearly in desperate straits as I made another circuit of the showroom, knowing all too well that if I applied the front brake the bike would slip from under me on the highly polished floor and crash into one of the second-hand bikes on display or, if I was lucky enough, a softer onlooker – should one suddenly emerge.

On the last lap, sobbing in horror and still playing a tune on that confounded gear lever, I noticed a strip of roughened concrete about half a meter wide and a couple of meters long against a wall where there once stood a small display cabinet. That small area just might allow enough bite to stop the machine without losing control of the front end. I headed for the strip and jammed the front brake on.

The front forks went onto full compression, the tyre yelped – so did someone else, and it might have been me! – the engine was on the point of stalling, when suddenly, and with impeccable timing, the nipple pulled straight off the handlebar-end of the brake cable!

The bike launched itself forward

again, to plough side-on into a plunger-frame Dominator Norton we had recently traded. As the Norton fell to one side it leaned on another second-hand bike, which leaned on another, which fell onto yet another, the AJS almost climbing onto the Norton as it finally stalled.

I can clearly remember throwing the bloody thing away, almost in tears, as the Sales Manager grabbed me and shouted something incomprehensible into my ear.

Naturally, I was carpeted in the Oracle’s office, but I stood my ground as I explained in some detail a few home truths about that awful AJS. I expected to be sacked on the spot, but Perce North was, to my surprise, quite sympathetic, which shouldn’t have been such a surprise in view of the report he had so recently received on the condition of the bike. He also made some comments to me about the mental capacity of the guy who gave that God-awful motorcycle to someone he saw, forsome inexplicable reason, as a fairly inexperienced rider. No-one thought to query why that dangerous bike was ridden to the Showgrounds in the first place, and I must say it didn’t occur to me to ask that question either.

As it happens, the very next day I was on the company’s stand at the Motor Show with Perce North himself, and that is yet another story replete with some more high comedy, and more than a little drama. But I must say that neither of those two momentous days in October, 1954 were in any way comical or dramatic at the time, let me make that very clear!

About the Author
Australian Motorcyclist Magazine is Australia's leading motorcycle travel magazine.
Page Scroller Supported By Bottom to Top