THE Street Machine Turbo Taxi has been a hit on the internet this year, racking up some big numbers for the Carnage series and showing the public’s love of the underdog (or should that just be dog?) is alive and well.
But as cherished as our thrashed cab is, it runs a distant second in popularity to Australia’s most beloved taxi-turned-racer, which was driven by one of our great sporting characters, “Gelignite Jack” Murray.
Taxis have been used in virtually every motorsport discipline in Australia – drag racing, salt racing, circuit racing and speedway – but none have ever captured headlines like Jack Murray’s Grey Ghost did back in 1954, when it won the Redex Round-Australia Reliability Trial.
Born in Port Melbourne in 1907, John Eric Murray was a larger-than-life character with a showman’s flair and a champion’s will to win. At various times he had been an amateur wrestler, cyclist, waterskiier and Bondi lifesaver, as well as competing in motorsport events like hillclimbs and endurance trials.
In 1932 he moved to Sydney, where he briefly worked as a test driver for Chrysler before setting up a service station in Bondi with his brother, Ray. Largely a taxi service and fix-it shop, the Murrays ran their business on either side of World War II, during which Jack served with the 2nd AIF.
After the war, Jack started racing cars of all types, including the ‘McKellar Special’ and ‘Day Special’ Bugatti/Fords, a D-type Jag, a Cadillac-Allard J2, and various saloon cars. In the 1940s and 50s he was a Mount Panorama regular, a Grand Prix racer, and a star of the Hawkesbury Hillclimb, but it was in the Redex Reliability Trials of the 1950s where Jack would make his biggest splash.
Jack with eldest son John, aka Snowy, and Bill Murray atop the all-conquering Grey Ghost. John is now in possession of the Ghost, having bought it at auction in the 1980s.
He got the name “Gelignite Jack” because he’d carry along sticks of explosive to clear obstacles on outback roads, and also occasionally throw them out the car window to announce his departure from a country town.
The Redex fuel additive company started holding 1000-mile cross-country rally-style events around New South Wales called Reliability Trials, which eventually led to the first Round-Australia Trial in 1953.
Jack took to these 1000-mile tests with aplomb, placing second in a Ford Consul in 1952 and winning in a Ford Customline in 1953. The first Round-Australia Reliability Trial (of 6500 miles / 10,500km) in 1953 generated major media and public interest.
Unfortunately, Jack’s trip finished early when he rolled his brand new Chrysler Plymouth in Queensland, but he would be back the next year with a car better equipped to make the journey.
Jack Murray (right) with navigator Bill Murray (left) and the famed Grey Ghost, a Canadian-built 1947 Ford powered by a flathead V8. As you can see from the signwriting on the front fender, Jack and Bill were not related.
The chosen vehicle was a Canadian-built 1947 Ford Super Deluxe powered by a flathead V8. The six-year-old car had done 75,000 miles as a taxi when Jack got it for 700 quid.
As Jack explained in an interview with Neil Bennetts in 1976, the car’s advantages were its generous ride height and advanced Houdaille shocks.
“I was keen on a Ford,” said Jack. “It was a V8 and it had a lot of punch in it and it had the right springing, transverse springing; the front spring and the back spring transversed, and up very high. There’s a lot of clearance under a Ford, and they had a very strong chassis on ’em.
“The one we had was built in Canada and exported here. They didn’t bring a lot of them. Why we picked that, they had [special] shock absorbers. Called a Houdaille, it’s a hydraulic shock and it’s a circular arrangement. They are French-designed, beautiful shocks. “There’s no shock absorber that would last you ’round Australia; they hadn’t made any good enough yet. That’s why we picked this particular Ford with the Houdaille French-designed shocks on, the Canadian Ford. The body was better than the ones they make here – but the shocks were the main thing.”
Jack learned some valuable lessons after rolling his 1952 Chrysler Plymouth during the inaugural Round-Australia Trial in 1953 and subsequently sought a new vehicle with greater clearance and tougher shocks.
Jack put his personalised JM456 number plates on the taxi and painted it in grey primer, hence the nickname The Grey Ghost. The motor, as advertised on the doors, was reco’d by Kirby, Doutty and Wicks – who, evidently, were not a law firm.
His navigator for the 1954 Redex Round-Australia Trial was the unrelated Bill Murray, winner of the 1947 Australian Grand Prix. The 18-day, 9600-mile (15,400km) race began at the Sydney Showground on 3 July, passing through Brisbane and Far North Queensland, across through Darwin to Broome and down to Perth, then back over through Adelaide and Melbourne and finishing back in Sydney. Huge crowds came to cheer the 246 cars off at the start.
Ever the showman, Gelignite Jack wore a gorilla mask for the occasion. He then led the race almost all the way around and somehow managed to get back without losing a single penalty point – a feat that was never repeated. When Jack and Bill drove the Ghost into Moore Park as the winners on 20 July they were greeted by a 20,000-strong crowd – in today’s currency that’s equivalent to roughly a million YouTube views! They celebrated by eating a cake that had been baked by a fan.
The 1954 Redex Trial was 9600 miles (15,400km) heading anti-clockwise around the outskirts and taking in every mainland state and territory.
Australian Motor Sports Spotlight reported:
‘Jack and Bill Murray did a miraculous job bringing their Ford all the way round with not a single point lost […] particularly as Jack, as usual, treated the thing in a delightfully light-hearted way, and managed to take a bit of time for clowning here and there.’
Jack Murray passed away in 1983, but wild tales of him and his Grey Ghost will continue to be told for years to come. He had continued to race cars and later got into hunting wild game and racing powerboats, winning the inaugural 1964 BP Ocean Classic from Sydney to Newcastle and back. Though he would never again reach those headline-grabbing heights of 1954, that didn’t seem to faze him when interviewed by Neil Bennetts in 1976.
“I like motoring,” Jack said. “I like to win, but I don’t care if I lose. What do they say: ‘Modest in victory, gracious in defeat.’ That’s it. I like the sport, I always liked sport, competing with somebody whether it is physical or with cars. When I say I like to win, if I’m competing with somebody there’s a lot of fun it. I think I do it more for the fun of it.”
For more on Jack and the taxi, check out the book ‘Gelignite’ Jack Murray: An Aussie Larrikin Legend by his son, Phil Murray.
New Holland Publishers RRP$29.99 available from all good bookstores or online newhollandpublishers.com