IT’S a surprise this wasn’t a character in the movie Cars. The black-painted front wheelarches are the shoulders framing a teddy-bear face with its grille-shaped nose and those sparkling eyes posing as headlights. It was this happy personality that first attracted Gippsland couple Amanda and Johnno Goodge to the humble Morris J-type van.
This article was first published in Street Machine’s 2020 Yearbook. Photos: Alastair Brook
“I bought a big-block Corvette about 10 years ago,” begins Johnno, “and Amanda was hanging it on me: ‘Well, what am I going to have?’ I said: ‘You choose a car and tell me what it is and we’ll get it for you.’ One day we were having coffee in Melbourne somewhere and a Morris J-type van pulls up out the front. That was it. Sold! She wanted one of those!”
The search for a J-van began, but finding one wasn’t easy.
“I got this one in New Zealand in absolutely rat-shit condition,” reveals Johnno. “Let’s say it wasn’t one that you’d want to restore!”
| Read more: Holden V6-powered Morris commercial J-Van
On the plus side, all the rust and rot meant it was a great chop-chop candidate. The basic plan: upgrade everything underneath with a big dollop of the Morris’s original cartoonish character plonked on top.
Although J-type vans had bolt-on wheelarches/mudguards, the ones on Amanda’s van are wider; handmade to suit the J’s packed track and treads
“I began working on it in the shed with my son, Rian,” says Johnno. “Peter Bateman [legendary Street Machine photographer and Morris J-type nutter] was involved early; he helped me get it from New Zealand.
“I began discussing all the things we could do with it to build and customise it. Peter suggested that a Mitsubishi Express chassis was close to the correct wheelbase and track to fit under the Morris body. We got it to the point where the body was a sloppy fit over the chassis.”
Fresh bright yellow paint pops the patina on the original nose badge. What a great finishing touch!
It’s around here that Ron Smith became involved. Ron has a career background in factory automation – he was one of the brains behind some of the CNC machines that made parts for our Aussie car industry. These days he remains involved in automotive manufacturing, but in a much more fun and hands-on way, under his Kustom Bitz banner in Croydon.
“When Johnno and Rian first stepped into the workshop six years ago and started talking about their little project, I thought: ‘Oh no!’ They sounded like restorers,” recalls Ron. “But Johnno had measured everything and it was a viable project. He did a lot of research. He had the right attitude. The project was a real collaboration.”
The Ecotec V6 has been dry-sumped, with a reservoir in the nose. With intake also cut and shut, around 200mm has been cut from the driveline height
The ex-Kiwi van’s shell was rotten up to about knee height, so Ron had plenty to do. As well as grafting the body over the Mitsi chassis and conspiring with Johnno for a complete driveline change (more on that soon), other aspects of the van needed to be clean-sheeted. The interior floors are all built to spec, including the seat rail and belt anchorages. The Morris’s troublesome ball-jointed original rear door hinges have been replaced with simple hockey sticks swinging two new handmade doors, and the four fenders are handmade.
Johnno wanted some no-nonsense retrotech-type grunt for Amanda’s cruiser. The Morris’s front-mid engine layout – with the motor behind the front axle line under the front seats – was a challenge. Sure, we’ve all seen V8s shoved into lots of things – 1970s Bedfords and Ford Transits, 1980s/90s Mitsubishi Expresses and Toyota HiAces – but the 1950s J-type van is smaller, almost like a three-quarter-scale model.
Using Jag rear suspension provided several benefits. It’s old-school cool; it’s independent when the J (and the Mitsubishi chassis on which it now sits) was beam; and having the diff housing installed to the chassis cleverly covers any geometry issues with a tailshaft with a length of just 250mm!
“I had to find something that was going to fit, so I went to a wrecker’s yard with a tape measure,” says Johnno. “The shortest motor I could find was a Commodore V6.”
The decision to run with Holden’s Ecotec 3.8-litre had an added bonus in that both the cast-alloy intake and sump could be chopped and welded back together, which allowed Ron to slice 200mm from the motor’s overall height.
“Most of these old small-van conversions compromise on cabin space and you end up cuddling the engine,” says Ron. “But not in this one.”
Dimensions and space also dictated the gearbox choice. Logic told Johnno to simply use the Holden V6-spec auto, “but the bellhousing [the same depth as the motor’s original sump] was too low,” he says. Instead, an ex-Ford C4 auto was fitted using Dellow hardware.
There were fewer space constraints under the back of the butterbox when fitting the ex-Jaguar independent rear suspension. The classic Jag rear end is proper old-school coolness that dates back to the Chiko Roll-chompin’, blokes-with-ponytails-a-flappin’, custom vanning era of the 1970s.
This Mitsubishi front end is popular in hot rods, as 1960s Holden front crossmembers once were. That snippet of trivia becomes a jewel of knowledge when you learn that Hoppers Stoppers makes a bolt-on big brake kit using Ford-spec twin-pot calipers for Mitsubishi front ends.
Holden claimed 147kW for later versions of its 3.8-litre V6. As well as the hardware mods to make it fit, this one carries dual fuelling; an LPG electronic injection system supplements the standard petrol squirters for terrific cruisy economy
“It should handle pretty good,” reckons Johnno. “And it’ll stop well and it’s not too heavy.”
How about that cheerful green paint? Since the van was built for Amanda, she, of course, chose the colour. And, like many of us, she took plenty of time to decide!
“It went on for months trying to choose the colour,” Johnno says with a laugh. “She’s an artist! We painted scale models in acrylic a few times to get the colour right.”
The colour is a commercial hue known as Minty Fresh, and after Ron had nailed the chassis swap and body tweaks, the van’s paint was entrusted to Pat & Steve’s Restorations in Tyabb.
Now, there are two small problems that mean the van won’t see too much street cruising just yet. At the time of writing, Victoria’s recent COVID lockdown means the gorgeous J-van hadn’t yet been delivered back to its owners. And: “Amanda has been looking at pictures of it,” says Johnno, “and she reckons it’s too nice to drive!”
Inside, there’s a mix of handmade and out-of-the-box hardware assembled in cahoots with the body/chassis graft: FG Falcon seats, a set of Classic Instruments dials, SoCal cluster and knobs, Lokar shifter and a Flaming River column
THE J FILES
DON’T feel bad if the Morris J-type van is something of a mystery to you, even if you’re a big car nut. Volkswagen’s Type 2 commercial vehicle range – tagged Transporter but better known these days as Kombi – is definitely the better-known one-box, forward-control delivery van of the 1950s and 60s. Introduced in 1948, the Morris pre-dated the VW by a couple of years and was assembled at Zetland, NSW for a while. Originally, power came from a 1.5-litre sidevalve engine. Like VW’s equivalent, it was intended as a no-nonsense commercial vehicle – and like many thumbs-up street machine builds, it was never supposed to end up like this!
1959 MORRIS J-TYPE
Paint: Minty Fresh
Brand: Holden Ecotec 3.8L V6
Induction: Dual fuel (LPG and petrol), modified intake manifold
ECU: VN, ‘chipped’ to suit LPG and premium unleaded
Fuel system: Dual fuel; 25L petrol tank, 60L LPG tank
Cooling: Race Radiators custom
Exhaust: Fabricated headers into 2¼in stainless system
Ignition: Standard GM-H
Gearbox: Ford C4 three-speed auto with Dellow bellhousing
Converter: TCE 1600rpm stall
Diff: Jag IRS, 3.25:1 gears
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Front: Mitsubishi, KYB shocks
Rear: Jag rear end, GAZ adjustable shocks
Brakes: Hopper Stoppers vented kit with AU calipers (f), Jaguar vented rear discs (r)
Master cylinder: XW Falcon under-dash
WHEELS & TYRES
Rims: REV; 17×7 (f), 17×8 (r)
Rubber: Sumitomo; 215/45/17 (f), 245/45/17 (r)
Peter Bateman for assistance with general J-van craziness; Smithy’s in Bayswater; Steve at MKAL Automotive; Errol and Graham at JV Automotive for the EFI/LPG advice; Stuart at Ultimate Wiring; American Muscle Car Glass