It is always a good sign when a bloke with a really interesting shed shows you around and then says: “But this place is nothing compared to my mate up the road. I’ll give him a ring and see if we can drop over.”
This story on the late, great Nev Morris was first published in Street Machine Hot Rod #10, March 2013
In this case, the first bloke was Johnno Johnson from Quinalow in the Queensland Darling Downs. Johnno builds stunning guitars, bespoke furniture and has a stovebolt-powered HAMBster, a boat-tail speedster in the build and a ratty shoebox Chev in his modest shed. We jumped in the Chev and flew across the plains to Neville Morris’s farm outside of Dalby. What we found was beyond anything I could imagine.
There’s a house, a bus, several big sheds and a gaggle of Nissen huts. Engines, lengths of steel and the remains of many and various cars lie everywhere about and the dirt floors of the sheds are carpeted with steel offcuts. It looks like chaos, yet it has spawned some of the wildest creations I’ve ever laid eyes on.
“It might look like junk,” Nev says, “but show me what I’m not going to use and I’ll throw it away.”
The car Johnno has specifically brought us to look at is the SOG, which stands for Shades of Grey. It appears to be an ancient and giant race car, powered by a 16-litre four-pot engine with exposed rocker gear, an 8in stroke and a 6¼in bore. It looks like something that has rolled out of a museum but Nev built the whole thing himself, including the spectacular motor, which uses D9 Caterpillar valves and pistons, with a 8in D7 crank. The chassis rails are Buick with cantilever springs on the back.
The whole thing took two years to build and, bar the tyres and exhaust bends, every part was sourced from Nev’s shed. SOG could theoretically do 100mph at 1000rpm. “Large, low-speed, high-torque engines need very tall gearing to achieve high speed,” says Nev.
There is nothing theoretical about how the car starts and runs, though. Nev fires it up without fuss, and with me perched in the passenger seat, we tear around a well-worn track between the sheds. The sound is incredible, the clatter of rocker gear floating over the top of the thump-thumping exhaust. It feels as if there is a giant hand on our backs, just sitting there, waiting to push us along at the stab of the accelerator.
There is no point asking why anyone would build such a thing. It’s so impressive that it’d be like asking why a mountaineer would climb Everest, but Nev offers up his own reasons. “I became fascinated with the early race cars of the early 1900s when I was a kid. They wanted more speed, so they just built bigger and bigger engines. Fiat built a four-cylinder, 28-litre race car before WWI. The Blitzen Benz was ‘only’ 21.5-litres but it was the fastest car in the world for some time. Those really big old petrol engines are unprocurable now, so I thought I’d see what I could make from the stuff I had here.”
“It might look like junk but show me what I’m not going to use and I’ll throw it away”
SOG is just the latest of Nev’s creations. The next one to be inspected is ETC — an Aston Martin-inspired roadster, powered by a Buick straight-eight engine, assisted by a 4/71 GM blower and with an Auburn two-speed diff out back. Nev opens up the Nissen hut it lives in, feeds it a little fresh fuel and again, the engine roars easily and delightfully to life. This one is a much more road-going proposition, with mudguards and blinkers, not to mention historic rego.
Next is NOBA, which stands for Not Only But Also. NOBA is powered by a GM Double Six petrol engine, basically a big truck V12. “I tried to find a Double Six for a long time, then a mate found me one in the US and stuck it in a container for me,” Nev explains. “A few were brought out to Australia for evaluation but there were too expensive to run. The engine itself inspired me to build the car. Something like Count Zborowski’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang racers.”
As imposing as NOBA looks, Nev reckons building it wasn’t as hard to build as its appearance may suggest.
“Old cars are easy to do,” he says. “There isn’t much panel work. It helps to have a good relationship with the local truck wreckers, though. This one is built on a Toyota Dyna chassis and I was able to use the brakes and the steering. It’s got a 2:1 diff ratio and a five-speed truck gearbox. It cruises along quite nicely, does about 50mph at 1000rpm.”
The final vehicle we check out is WTFIT, a steam-powered carriage. “Before internal combustion engines got good, there was a lot of experimentation with light steam engines,” Nev says. “They were basically a replacement horse for your sulky. This one is modelled off an Italian car from 1890. The engine is a 90-degree V-twin that runs backwards and forwards. Steam engines are a double-acting, single-cycle deal; it’s all power.”
Again, Nev made pretty much the lot in his shed, including the giant wire wheels and the boiler, which is approved and now able to take kids for rides when it is shown-off on various occasions.
There is of course, much more to be seen. In one shed sits a 2180ci Hall-Scott Defender V12 engine, as used in WWI US Navy patrol boats. Nev’s workspace itself is fascinating, with only just enough room cleared to built SOG. Coolness is everywhere, such as the ancient lathe, which is powered by a 100-year-old Ruston Hornsby engine.
Despite seemingly being able to build anything he damn well pleases, Nev is mostly self-taught and while he would have liked to have studied engineering as a young man, the realities of country life meant he had to stay on the farm, learning to fix anything and everything that came to hand. And though his early boyhood inspirations have stuck, he has happily embraced all kinds of modern technology. “I love You Tube,” he says. “Get on there and look up the Fiat Mephistopheles.”
His musical tastes are set firmly in the past, however, and the whole time we’ve been here, blues music has been chugging away through the shed. Nev stops it though, to play us his favourite song, Solomon Burke’s Down in the Valley.
“There are all kind of ghosts in here,” he says. “All the people who have come and gone throughout the years. I’ve been very fortunate to have had all those people in my life.”
If that sounds, eerie, it is not meant to be and Nev’s shed feels anything but. Open on one side and with an Aladdin’s cave of nooks and crannies within, you can feel and smell the lifetime of endeavour, imagination and mateship that continues apace. Younger blokes like Johnno come to watch, learn and listen, and trade parts and ideas with Nev. It’s a happy, inspiring place and we headed home feeling privileged to have seen it.
“Large, slow-speed, high-torque engines need very tall gearing to achieve high speed,” says Nev. “SOG has a 3:1 epicyclic overdrive between the engine and the 5-speed gearbox. This is connected to a Ford diff by chain-drive sprockets. Overall this gives about a 1:1 drive between the engine and the rear wheels.”
ETC is an Aston Martin-inspired roadster, powered by a 4/71-blown Buick straight eight.
The Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-inspired NOBA is powered by an awe-inspiring GMC Double Six. The spokes on the wheels are all Nev-made, as are the badges and bodywork.
WTFIT? A V-twin steam engine-powered buggy, that’s what. The crank drives straight onto the back wheel! No reverse gear is needed because the engine can run both forwards and backwards.