Bike nut, and he has a plane!
NOSTALGIA ON TWO WHEELS: BILLY NEL IS IN LOVE WITH HIS OLD BRITISH AND ITALIAN MARQUES
His Convair 880 airliner is one of only two in the world.
It’s perhaps not very flattering but Billy Nel might best be described as a scrap merchant to his core. Not that he wasn’t a very successful scrap merchant in various places around the country before he was inveigled into politics in East London in the Eastern Cape but, despite his 20-year career in parliament and elsewhere, he’s always retained his passion for motor vehicles.
“Anything with wheels and a hooter fascinates me,” laughs the ebullient Nel, born in Welkom in 1943 as the youngest of eight children.
“I come from a motorcycling background. Dad used to ride and my Welsh mom would climb on the back. All my boets had bikes.
“In those days, there were only English and Italian bikes.”
Now retired and living outside the seaside village of Kei Mouth on the Eastern Cape Wild Coast, Nel has surrounded himself with (mainly) motorcycles. He runs the largely private Morganville Farm Motorcycle Museum which includes more than 650 antique motorcycles.
While there are quite a lot of older Japanese and Italian models, pride of place goes to the British marques: Triumph, Ariel, Norton, Royal Enfield, BSA and others.
No antiseptic museum with halogen lighting and scrubbed floors this, the collection is housed in a scattering of sheds on his 12ha farm in what used to be called the Transkei. It is accessible to the public only on the occasional open-day he holds for local charities or to visiting motorcycle clubs during rallies.
About 85% of the bikes are in working condition and some are extremely valuable.
Among the real rarities is a 1930 AJS R6 Twin Port 350, of which only five were ever built. “There are only two left,” says Nel. “The other is in a museum in Germany.”
The bike, plus another 15 of the older, more valuable machines are parked on a verandah next to Nel’s bedroom. “They are exceptionally scarce and probably worth as much as the rest of the collection put together?” How did he started collecting? “A few years after leaving school, I joined one of my brothers as partners in a vehicle scrapyard. We’d strip cars for parts but, after working with him for a year-anda-half, I discovered he’d sold the business without telling me. “I opened my own business.” His love for motorcycles, he says, “grew and grew and grew. I was buying bikes and storing them in people’s garages and other funny places around Welkom.”
In 1974 he moved to East London. “I continued collecting but it was only after I retired from politics that it really got out of control. I bought this place just to house my stuff.” He still regularly rides his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy, Triumph 900cc triple, Kawasaki GPZ 750 Special Edition, Kawasaki Zephyr and BMW K100S.
Nel got involved in politics in the late Eighties when the erstwhile National Party asked him to stand in the place of the incumbent MP for East London, Peet de Pontes.
De Pontes had been forced to resign because of his relationship with Mafia boss Vito Palazzolo. He was subsequently convicted of fraud and racketeering for facilitating Palazzolo’s South African passport and documentation.
Nel was elected to parliament in 1989 but resigned in 1994 to join the Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature. Ten years later he became MEC for Finance, a position he held till he called it quits in 2008.
Nel has quite a collection of small cars, too, but probably his quirkiest exhibit is an old jet airliner that has been used by, among others, The Who and the Rolling Stones and is parked on his lawn. The Convair 880, he says, is one of only two still in existence (the other is at Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate).