Mud in his veins
John Burrows, “JB”, motorcycle legend and something of an enigma now resides in the Adelaide Hills. Since his wife died years ago (he married Heather Binger in 1955) he has lived alone in a stone house in beautiful Aldgate. On the day that I called I was half expecting the solid, imposing, square jawed figure with the famous ‘comb-over’ hairstyle who would block the light in the doorway of his Malvern shop. Yet for the bit of weight he has lost the features are still impressive. This is a man who always commanded respect from all sides of the motorcycling community; and has never been afraid to give or take advice…well; he would let you know pretty quickly if he thought you were talking rubbish.
JB was born in 1933 and raised in Box Hill; on the eastern fringe of Melbourne’s suburbs. He attended Box Hill State School and then the Technical School to Intermediate level (year 10 now) and took the harder of the two streams, the Professional. “God knows why as I got 51 for Maths 1 and 49 for Maths 2, they must have fiddled the books to get me into it!” The suburban houses of the city to the east merged into orchard country and it produced an unusual amount of fast riders. Clubs active in the surrounding areas in the 1950s included Box Hill, Mitcham, Nunawading, Ringwood and down to Hartwell in Camberwell. Scramble events were popular with spectators and the tracks were always close to population centres. It seemed everyone rode motorcycles in those days. Even JB’s father, Harry, rode speedway at Olympic Park just before WW2.
Harry joined the firm Russell and Co Agricultural Machinery as a motor engineer and later bought into the place in the depression. The company manufactured spray pumps for the orchard industry (they made everything in-house bar the magnetos) as well as producing munitions for the war; and Harry built a successful business despite material shortages, before adding the Fergusson tractor franchise after the war. He then sold Standard Vanguard cars and was invited by GM to be a dealer for the then new Australian Holden car. Box Hill was a ‘dry’ area at the time (no alcohol sold in the vicinity) and a very conservative one and it took
a gentle persuasion to sell cars there. So it seems inevitable in hindsight that JB would pick up his father’s mechanical and sales influences and continue in a similar vein. As keen as he was to get a motorcycle, his early years were spent lairising around on his pushbike. While he used it for transport to far away orchards to earn money he was also the scourge of the local park caretaker doing skids as fast and as far as he could on the grass. This only stopped when the caretaker told his dad. JB’s business acumen was evident even from an early age. He was getting half the wage of older workers on the orchard so he approached the owner and asked for a raise. He got his way, much to the surprise of his father. The pushbike antics continued with a local motorcycle hero Eddie Tapscott towing the boys down Whitehorse road to 50 mph (80 km/h) and then letting them go, broadsliding their pushies to a stop in the gravel! Doing it later on a real motorcycle must have seemed so much tamer. When he turned 17 he bought his first motorcycle, an ex-army Matchless for thirty pounds and as his dad and mum were ex-Box Hill motorcycle club members, he snuck into a few inter-club events. His first ride was at Springvale in 1951. He won first time out so it fired up his interest. Since you had to be 18 to earn a road licence to get your competition licence he had to cool it for a year. Then in his second Open scramble he won his first race at Beaconsfield, ahead of several prominent ‘A’ graders. ‘Johnny’ Burrows was on his way. Local Neil (Billy) Street was Victorian 350 cc scramble champion and his bike was much faster than JB’s so JB asked him to make a set of cams. Billy did all his work at Turners the tool people; and JB turned up at the Streets and took the top end apart under a pine tree. Billy came out with the cams, eating toast in one hand and slipped them in. JB asked if he wanted a degree wheel to time them but Billy said “No, don’t let them fall out; you’d better mark them when you get home”. It made a huge difference. Those very same cams are now being used in a present day vintage road racing bike. The early model Matchless JB stripped for the dirt had no working front brake and local wisdom was you didn’t need it as you were meant to pitch it into the corners to scrub off speed. The pushbike practice certainly helped. All the local lads got around corners by ‘broad-siding’ them. The tracks were pretty smooth then but it took a violent manoeuvre to get them sliding. You couldn’t argue with the area’s champions; Billy Street, Albert Flood, Harold Traps-cott all rode speedway style. The local area facilitated practice; any open area around they would simply go and ride on, and the younger Keith Stacker could be talked into trying the creek jump first in any new track they set up. Keith was fearless, and if anything looked doubtful they got him to try it first. JB said Keith was the best rider of them all. The local community of competition riders all looked after one another. Cams were made, parts swapped, expertise shared and all on the basis you did what you could to help each other out. JB’s dad had a three-ton truck he used to haul tractors around on; so for a meeting in Geelong he loaded up eleven riders and their bikes and with them all hanging on went and raced. Leon Street was towed behind a car by his brother Billy to a short circuit meeting in Geelong, only having the rear brake on his Matchy to stop. He was white as a ghost by the time he got there, so JB’s truck would have been a luxury. JB was training as a pattern maker and with the knowledge gleaned from the locals got his bike as good as it could be, but then he went away from local wisdom (“…you can’t slide a sprung frame”) and bought a 350cc AJS with a swing arm frame and telescopic forks and a working front brake. The rigid Matchy with girder forks used to rip off all the skin between the tip of his thumb and to the end of his index finger at a race. Acquiring the AJS took him up a level without punishing him so much and in the first years JB got lap records at Lysterfied, Point Henry, Tower Hill, in the Australian championships in 1953, and at Cranbourne, Eltham, Daylesford, Korweinguboora and St Helena in 1954. He had a ‘purple patch’ in 1953; winning amongst many others the twenty lap Grand National at Lysterfield and the 350cc Australian Scramble Championship and was second in both in 1954. In a press article in Australian Motor Sports, May 1955, he confessed that while he was keen on watching road racing and speedway he ‘wouldn’t have a clue’ in a road race. In that same year the Championships were to be
The rigid Matchy with girder forks used to rip off all the skin between the tip of his thumb and to the end of his index finger at a race.
held in Western Australia. The ACU offered to pay for previous champions to travel to compete but such was the state of the roads there that you had to figure in the cost of a new car to get there, said JB, as your old one would be destroyed. JB got into the motorcycle trade inadvertently when after constant arguments with a drunken and disinterested boss at the pattern-making factory, he rode into Melbourne to S R Evans, AJS distributors, who promptly offered him a job. JB was there for six months when Guilfoyle, the BSA dealer who prepared his bikes in Deepdene where Keith Stacker had worked until recently, asked him to drop in and gave him a job running the shop.
JB relates, “The motorcycle industry was full of drinkers in those days. Those were the days of hotels shutting their doors at 6pm and the Empire Hotel in Elizabeth Street was the focal point for all the trade. It was chock-a-block and the deals that were done there kept the industry going. If you wanted to find someone, that’s where you went. Before six o’clock you’d buy a dozen glasses of beer and take your time to finish them. The spare parts industry was thriving as most parts for racing bikes could be made here, in Adelaide in particular. A lot of guys were happy riding standard machines but I always thought it made my job a lot easier if I had a faster bike. I subscribed to the English motorcycle newspapers and had them airfreighted out here within a week of publication. I would study everything and see who was doing what. I found an ad for Greeves bits and pieces, which we couldn’t get here. I wrote to inquire about some parts and next thing a parcel lands on the counter. He had sent the bits without so much as a bill. I rang him to get the amount and posted off the cheque. How’s that for trust? That was the start of a long relationship that saw me get rare and useful parts that the Greeves factory couldn’t supply or didn’t want too. He was the inside line to information that Greeves wouldn’t give you as their comment was always …“Oh no, we don’t have a problem with that.” Like gear shifting pawls. They were made of some cheap pot metal and were always breaking their tips off. Dave Basham, a South Australian sponsored rider had his mechanic change the pawls after every race! I was talking to a customer, a toolmaker, about it and I showed him one. He made a set up out of good steel, cutting them out with a hacksaw and a file, got them hardened and no more problems. Why couldn’t the factory do that?” “I met the guy who brought over the first Greeves. He lived at Warragul and loaned the 250 to a local rider. A mate told me there was one in the country and he saw it at an event but I didn’t believe him. I had seen them in the UK mags and knew this was the new thing, a lightweight that could beat the big four strokes. Finally I tracked the guy down and had to have it and he gave it to me to ride. A mate was going to England and I asked him to look up Derry Preston-Cobb, the Greeves sales manager and try to get the dealership here. As it transpired he had a previous spoken agreement with this other guy but when it transpired Preston-Cobb and my mate went to the same school in England, the deal was done.” “I broke my right wrist at a meeting at Arthurs Creek in 1967. I had seizure problems with my Greeves all day and when the race came up I missed the start. I always liked to go hard at the start so I flew into the dust cloud and hit a straw bale and went over the bars. I lost too much movement in it and was just going too slow when I came back. I retired at Christmas Hills Grand National that year when I was struggling around and then Stacker came past yelling ‘Get moving lad!’ I thought… I’ve just been lapped! I rode up to the pits and young Jacky Pengelly was there and as he was after a Greeves I said “Do you want that? Take it away.” I could trail ride but not race. I couldn’t use the front brake and the throttle together.” JB dealt in his High Street Malvern shop ‘Burrows and Stacker’ with a lot of English motorcycles. Greeves, Cotton, DOT, Metisse, as well as having a good working knowledge of all the old British stuff. He sold what he could get and what worked.
Reading the overseas papers he “wanted in” on the Japanese deal and was able to get Yamaha and Bridgestone. He also sold Hodaka but wanted a dirt worthy trail bike from the big firms to sell as trail riding as a sport was starting to take off. As he was on his way to register two Bridgestones he stopped outside May-fairs the Honda distributorship in Elizabeth Street. A manager asked what he was doing with that shit in his ute to which JB replied “… cause you wont give me Hondas to sell.” Well, he bolted upstairs and came down with the paperwork and ‘Burrows and Stacker’ became the first dealer outside the city to sell Honda. They also sold CZ on consignment, Ossa, Can Am, Husky and never discounted the bikes but added value to them as they would fix flaws they knew about. You knew you had JB’s years of experience behind every purchase. The shop was a magnet for scramble riders. JB and Keith opened the shop due to their dissatisfaction with Guilfoyle. They virtually took all his customers too as they were the brains and driving force behind the shop. JB had a contact who knew of a motorcycle shop in High Street Malvern that had been closed for years with the owner living above it. All the tools and equipment were there so the transition was easy. Burrows and Stacker became the centre; a home away from home for all scramble riders. “There were hundreds milling about the shop. I knew all the young riders and their parents. We got girl road riders too coming in for the Japanese bikes and we dealt with them sympathetically, especially workshop head Tom Webster. He was able to talk to them in plain fatherly language”. Deals were done amongst the riders for cars, bikes, you name it. JB’s advice was always sought and he often facilitated a deal with a loan. Even when his riders went overseas they would ring when they ran out of money. He always got it back. Hartwell club alone had nineteen ‘A’ grade scramble riders and most riders had a book to write up their purchases in and were billed every month. The system relied a lot on trust and continued for decades. The infamous ‘Isle of Malvern’ was a route through the streets that the boys ‘tested’ customers’ bikes on. Wrecked bikes and maimed riders were repaired as best they could and it all had to be hidden from JB. A young Trevor Flood was sent there by his mother as he was out of control at home; yet if it was right that JB had some influence it didn’t stop his antics. Servicing a bike, he fired it up, spun it around the oil soaked boards spitting tools like shrapnel; and with JB yelling at him jacked it up on the rear wheel and somehow wheelied crossed up through the door and out the back alley. Jack Pengelly was showing the boys how to wheel-stand a TL125 when he lost it and slammed into the cyclone wire fence, ripping his pants off. Too many test rides ended up under or in a car; then it was up to the boys to fix it without help from the shop supplies. Low-level fun was also had. Playing on JB’s musical intolerance and gadget phobia, they would tune his car radio to a heavy rock station; turn the volume up to max and then switch the ignition off. Getting in to drive home would be a cacophony of noise and swearing as he frantically stabbed buttons trying to turn it off. JB was both supportive and tough on his staff. One ‘Isle of Malvern’ incident almost killed a mechanic racing with Rob Gordon when he jumped the railway bridge into a car driven out of the side road by an elderly gent. As the bike ploughed into the side of the car the rider was launched into the air and then smashed onto the road. Rob thought he was dead and panicked; rode back to the shop where JB took charge and ordered him home. Luckily the injured rider landed outside a doctor’s surgery and got immediate attention that saved him. Mechanics and counter staff described it as one of the most dynamic work environments they’d ever been in. If you were a customer, you had better be prepared for derision if you ventured an opinion not backed up by facts. In the early 1970s, JB had two shops in High street. The main one (mainly Yamaha/Ossa) was supplemented by the Honda shop a few doors down. The second was the showroom and used for private conversations that didn’t need the interruptions of the main shop’s hurly-burly. Unfortunately restructuring the partnership became a point of misunderstanding between the partners and Keith Stacker pulled out of the deal. Keith then went on to independently set up Stacker Motorcycles in Kilby Road, Kew. JB rode the trail bike boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the desire for all ages and sexes to get on two wheels saw great prosperity. This was helped along with the release of the Yamaha DT1 which revolutionised off road riding. This multi purpose bike did service on the street, the trails and scrambling with the GYT kit. The Victorian importers of Yamaha, Milledge Bros, saw the potential of trail riding as a recreational sport and Alex Milledge brought together a nucleus of off road riders and dealers to set up a trail riding organisation, the Australian Motorcycle Trail Riders Association which is still thriving today. JB helped organise the first trail bike ride in the hills of Powelltown in the Yarra Valley and from there the sport took off.
An influential visitor from the USA called into the shop in 1968. He was Dave Latham, an astronomer with NASA and he had seen a shop sticker on a DT 1 in Elizabeth Street and caught a taxi out to Malvern immediately. He was due to fly home at 4 pm the next day and wondered if he could squeeze in a trail ride. No problems. Dave was ordered to catch a taxi out to JB’s at 5am and they’d be on the trails at
first light. JB lent Dave his ‘modded’ RT1 and took on an old Sachs 125 with Titch Jordan on another DT1. They really covered some ground and each was impressed with the other; but I can imagine what Dave thought of JB’s ‘deerstalker’ helmet. It turned out that Dave was a member of the US Yankee Imports Ossa team and a man of some influence in the New England Trail Riders Association, and soon correspondence was flowing back and forth. The upshot of it was that JB was invited to ride the International Six Day Trial in Massachusetts USA on an Ossa prepared by Yankee Imports. Eventually the deal was organised for 1973, the year the event came to America. A three man club team of JB, Winston Stokes and Bob Walpole was organised through Australia’s ACU and the UK ruling body as we were still affiliated with them and had to be included as part of the British team allocation. JB rode the Ossa 250 Bob Hicks used in the 1970 Spanish ISDT and Dave had been using in events since. It was completely rebuilt and was a revelation for JB. “It had so much smooth power, it seemed better than the current models, handled well too despite the trials tyre on the front 19 inch rim.” Then the torture began as Dave introduced him to the New England ‘boneyards’; acres of round rock, mud and slippery tree roots. As JB struggled through the obstacles Dave kept shouting “Keep your feet up!” This phrase was one any riders on the trail with JB in future years would hear shouted at them constantly. Throwing the bike down a wet road wasn’t the ideal way to start an event but despite the pain he was shouted out of bed every morning by Dave to finish for a bronze medal. Once back in Australia, he took on Ossa at the shop and built a reputation for the brand in early enduros. His riders, brother Mike, Denis Lock, and Norm Watts and all were on Yamahas but once on Ossa did the importer Manilya (a branch of Milledge Bros) proud, winning everything in Victoria and NSW in 1973 and 1974. Mike Burrows was a successful scrambles and short circuit rider who was also a top barefoot water skier, but achieved his main successes in the booming enduro scene in the ’seventies. JB returned to the ISDT in Italy in 1974 on an Ossa SDR prepared by him and he had to organise all his own paperwork and got there to be told he needed insurance to ride the event. The only company willing to do it was in Rome, half the country away. JB found the place and then they weren’t interested, so he just said “I’m not leaving this office without it’, sat on the chair and refused to leave. Come closing time he couldn’t be moved and only the fear of a deranged Aussie loose in their office overnight got the paperwork he needed.
Out pre-riding the ISDT he watched with interest the US riders’ style on the dirt roads. They were on modified SDRs with Phantom specs and their approach was to break hard for the apex of the corner and accelerate hard out of it. JB just used the smoother road technique and kept up without much effort. JB rode an Ossa SDR prepared by him and Tom Webster back home, shipped it over and then DNF’d when the troublesome cush-drive spring broke. All the modifications tested by him were included in the price of the SDRs sold from his shop. Fork kits, Koni shocks, jetting etc refined the package and he sold a lot of Ossas. He watched the Americans develop their race bikes with interest and was updated by Dave Latham. They converted the lightweight Phantom motocross models that were getting rave reviews in the press for enduro use, adding the SDR engine to the rolling chassis. Further refinements to the US bikes saw them use Phantom engines with SDR gearboxes, longer swing arms and bigger tanks, so JB wanted to follow suit. He was laughed at by the importers when he asked for three Phantoms as the model had been delayed and all were presold. However, a week later the importer rang and asked how many he wanted. The reason for the change of heart was a container load had been dropped on the wharf and many were badly damaged. JB scored three rolling chassis and got Keith Stacker to straighten the frames and then added the SDR motors and bigger tanks. The Team now had competitive mounts and their success showed how good they were. They were the precursor to the Super Pioneer model that were lightly modified each year following the Phantom trends until the factory’s demise. JB also used and sold Can Am, Yamaha again and Husky into the 1980s. He then concentrated on the Metzeler Tyre distributorship before closing the shop in 1983 and moving to a warehouse supplying wholesale tyres only. Once the fascination with trail riding ceased he bought a TY 250 and dragged punters out into the Lancefield forest every second Sunday for exercise. Then it came time to retire so he sold the businesses and after a while he and Heather decided to move to South Australia to be near their married daughter and her children. As a replacement he returned to a previous interest in model aircraft. He is fascinated by the engineering and the science and builds and flies these free flight aircraft powered by diesel engines whenever the wind is right in a certain location where the Murray River cliffs give way to the flats. He leaves by 4 am and doesn’t come back until dark. JB is still active in mind and body, and still recalls details of events that can be verified as true. While he has no particular interest in modern motorcycling he still keeps up to date and keeps in contact with many friends formed over all spectrums of motorcycling. However, it’s instructive how he treats his past successes: he has articles and photographs thrown into a cardboard box with little regard and doesn’t like making a big deal of his time in the limelight.
Come closing time he couldn’t be moved and only the fear of a deranged Aussie loose in their office overnight got the paperwork he needed.
MAIN Hard on the gas at Springvale in 1953. ABOVE Trying his father’s AJS for size. LEFT Airborne on one of the first Cotton scramblers.
JB’s stable; road and racing AJSs. Multiple Australian champion George Bailey checks the rear as JB charges.
A bit out of shape on his 350 AJS in 1954.
Ploughing through the mud at Moorebank (NSW) on a DOT in 1966. Dicing with business partner Keith Stacker (31). On the 250 Cotton in 1965.
ABOVE Touching down on his Greeves. RIGHT JB (4th from right) on a Tasmanian tour and a happy group with a pair of early Cottons.
At Christmas Hills in 1966 with John Mapperson (32) and Ray Fisher (42). A classic shot from the fabulous Christmas Hills circuit with John on his Triumph Metisse.
DOT mounted at Moorebank in June 1965.
John Burrows in 2008.
JB had a successful day at the 1966 Australian Scrambles Championship at Christmas Hills, finishing second in the 250cc and 500cc titles.
LEFT JB in the rear of his Malvern shop in the early ‘seventies. RIGHT Aboard a TT250 Yamaha at Possum Hollow in 1980.