A first class delivery!

Posted by Chris Graham on 2nd May 2020

Having restored a red Morris JB mail van, Gordon Wilson needed a green GPO van to match it. Peter Simpson tells the story of a first class delivery, and gets to see the rest of the collection, too.

A first class delivery

A first class delivery! Gordon Wilson’s superb GPO van took six years to restore. The original Morris J came with a 1,476cc sidevalve engine, similar to the one used in the MO Oxford. But, from the introduction of the JB – in 1957 – this unit was replaced by the BMC B Series, in 1,489cc form.

Based in Lanchester, County Durham, Gordon Wilson has worked with commercial vehicles for most of his life, though most were somewhat larger than the Morris J types he collects these days. He started out as a driver’s mate with Siddle C Cooke (heavy haulage), before moving to Elddis Transport. Eventually, he created his own business – Elmfield Transport – initially in Consett but then, following a takeover, with a second base in Peterlee. At its peak, the business ran 16-20 vehicles, with regular/contract customers including well-known local crisp manufacturer Phileas Fogg/Derwent Valley Foods, Mission Food, Metro Mail printing, and Morrisons.

As with so many lorry operators, though, the industry was much more than just a job, and he was always very interested in the preservation side of things. In fact, he owned a pair of restored ERFs which were rallied regularly. He also bought the first of the J Types before retirement, some 14 years ago.

However, when the business was sold in 2015, the premises went too and, with nowhere to store them, so did the preserved lorries. Happily, though, both found good homes. The Morris, though, was retained. Gordon also owns a plot of land with road access and, while nearby housing makes it unsuitable for any kind of commercial/industrial use, a building for hobby use is a different matter entirely. In fact, the presence of nearby housing is a major benefit security-wise!

Accordingly, with the appropriate permissions obtained, a barn/storage building was constructed which now houses three J type vans – two restored, one awaiting light restoration – and various other bits and pieces. In short, it’s the sort of ‘man cave’ that many of us can only dream of!

A first class delivery

The Royal Mail J Type was in fairly good condition when bought, but still needed significant restoration to bring it up to Gordon’s standard.

J Type reason
But why J Types? “Well, I’ve always liked them, and I have a thing about Royal Mail.” Though owned by Gordon for 14 years, 1960 JB YLH 449 has been in preservation, and a reasonably familiar sight on the show circuit, for far longer. It also achieved nationwide fame when it was used in the backing illustration for a 2013 Guernsey Post Office stamps issue.

The van had been living in Southampton, and Gordon describes its condition on purchase as “reasonable, though a lot of the GPO stuff was missing.”  Five year’s renovation work then ensued; work which included a fair amount of repanelling and fitting replacement rubber wings of the correct pattern.

A first class delivery

Mail van cab has been fully refurbished; they were never this clean in service!

These are, of course, like hen’s teeth to find, but persistence paid off, and membership of the Post Office Vehicle Club helped a lot, of course. Both driver and front passenger seat were refurbished, and a set of genuine GPO-spec lights sourced and fitted. Window rubbers were also renewed, the usual brake and running gear overhaul completed and a new spare wheel carrier made. Oh, and the bumpers, which were black when the van was bought, were chromed.

As is fairly well-known, GPO spec at the time included rubber front and rear wings, meaning the headlight had to attach to the body rather than the wing.

About five years after purchase, the van made its first show appearance in Gordon’s ownership, at the 2011 Post Office Vehicle Club event at Amberley Museum where, probably unsurprisingly, the van was judged best in class. Numerous other appearances, including at the NEC Classic Car Show, followed.

As on later Morris mail vans, the bulkhead included a sliding door, allowing the postman to access the ‘load’ without opening the rear doors.

Gordon, however, having by this point started winding down in readiness for retirement, was on the lookout for a second van to restore. Initially he began to negotiate the purchase of a TV Detector Van – a vehicle regarded by many enthusiasts as the holy grail of Post Office vehicles. But, for various reasons, that fell through. However, Harvey Pitcher of the Morris J, JB and Austin 101 Register – and author of The J Type van, a classic light commercial (ISBN: 0-9543982-0-3) – knew of an almost-as-rare J type telephone planners van. It was in need of restoration, and could be available to the right home. He also knew that Gordon was especially keen to acquire a ‘green’ Post Office van to match his red one.

The van in question was in Altrincham, Cheshire, and, as is often the case in situations like this, a good home where it would be restored was more important than money. Gordon, clearly, was an appropriate new home, a deal was agreed and, in June, 2013, SXH 241 moved to County Durham, where a six-year restoration ensued.

A first class delivery

Newly-restored GPO Planning Van which made its show debut at the 2019 NEC Classic Car Show.

Missing interior fittings
When bought, the van appeared to be “complete externally as a van” but, needless to say, almost all of the original interior was missing except for, somewhat surprisingly, the original, side-mounted, fold-down rear seat. It had been stored undercover and further protected by a sheet, but the building wasn’t watertight, and moisture had run down the sheet and into the van, causing severe corrosion to the offside and some underneath.

Unsurprisingly, very little of the original interior had survived, but as it was originally hand-made, it’s been possible to reinstate it using records and another preserved van for information.

 

A first class delivery

The original. fold-out ‘desk’ in the cab area, which would no doubt have been used to look at and draw-up plans for new wiring installations.

As with the mail van, quite a bit of panelwork was required. In fact “most of the bottom third” required either renewal or extensive repair. The entire underneath was shot-blasted and some localised repairs undertaken. This work was completed in Horncastle, Lincolnshire by Duncan Burton of Burton Autos. Replacements for the short rear bumpers were made up by cutting a damaged-beyond-repair front one; the section shape is the same. A full mechanical overhaul was also undertaken, and the van returned to Burton Autos for repaint.

A first class delivery

As bought. Little of the GPO-specific interior remained, but the van looked basically sound.

 

Leaky storage had, however, resulted in some surprising corrosion issues to the offside.

 

Extensive repairs were also needed to the cab steps and floor.

 

Body repairs completed, awaiting paintwork.

 

Collecting the painted van from the bodyshop, for fitting-up and completion by Gordon.

 

Bright, shiny and fully refurbished front panel.

 

Getting there! Replacement side-window rubbers were used.

 

Refurbished instrument pod.

 

Driver’s seat reupholstered to original specification.

As already noticed, pretty-much all the original interior was long-gone but, given that it was basically hand-made anyway, it was possible to recreate it. In this, Gordon had help from two sources; the Post Office Vehicle Club which provided information, and Ken Bennett who owns another J Type Planners Van, and was only too happy to provide full access to his so that it could be copied. As can be seen from the photos, a first-class job has been done.

As with the mail van, Gordon has also assembled a collection of appropriate, period equipment and ‘memorabilia’ which would have been carried. There is, though, one thing still missing – an original, GPO ladder – can anyone reading this help? If so, do please get in touch.

The van was finally finished towards the end of 2019 – just in time to be displayed by the Register on its stand at the NEC Classic Car Show in early November. A set of three GPO J-Types was displayed; a mail van, a utility van and Gordon’s planners van. All three attracted a lot of attention, and the club itself earned a ‘mention in dispatches’ at the award ceremony.

The third van
Talking of ‘sets of three’ J Types conveniently brings us on to the third van in the collection – 7148 WJ. This is a 1960 JB which was new to another well-known operator of J Types – Mac Fisheries of Sheffield. Gordon bought this one in October 2016, through a contact who rang him to say that the family of a deceased owner were looking for someone to buy their dad’s van. Contact was made, viewing arranged, a price agreed and a third J Type joined the collection. The new van is in good condition overall, having been used regularly up until the previous owner’s death, and will – hopefully – need less work than the other two, though whatever’s needed will be dome, and done properly. Gordon is aware of just one other surviving MacFisheries J Type which is owned by Iain Mackenzie of Fairmile Restorations, who makes and repairs J Type parts and body panels.

A first class delivery

Gordon Wilson’s three-van collection; We three; GPO Mail van, GPO Telephones Planning van and, awaiting-restoration in the background, a MacFisheries van.

Gordon is hoping that readers ‘of a certain age’ with long memories may be able to help with some livery/signwriting details. “Some photos show the side of the van with three white waves going from back to front, but there are other photos where the white waves are on the bottom half of the load area, and the words ‘Mac Fisheries’ and a circle displayed on the top half of the side panel.” Gordon hasn’t, however, any information about what the rear doors should look like, so if anyone can help, or has any MacFisheries items (bills, letter headed paper etc), please contact him on 07808 841715.

So, there we are; a matching pair of J Types in fine condition, and a third one which, all being well, will be joining them within the next two or three years. These are definitely vehicles to look out for once the current crisis has passed. In conclusion, Gordon has asked us to thank the following people publicly for their help: Heather and Gary Sumner, Andy Brown, Burton Autos, Ian Mackenzie at Fairmile Restoration, Harvey Pitcher and other members of the Morris J, JB and Austin 101 Register, Ken Bennett of the Morris Commercial Club plus numerous other members of the Post Office Vehicle Club.

GPO J TYPES IN BRIEF
The General Post Office (GPO) was far and away the biggest fleet user of the J Type and JB, buying 6,147 of them altogether – around one-in-eight of the total number produced. They were used as Postal, Utility, Planners, and Radio Investigation vans, and had a number of specification differences, the most obvious and best-known of which were rubber front and rear wings. These required the headlights and sidelights to be attached to the cab-side, rather than mounted on the wings.

GPO vans also had much improved locks for security, with Postal and Utility vans also having a rear door locking bar, which could be operated by the driver from inside the vehicle. Some GPO ‘J’ vans were also fitted with an opening driver’s windscreen.

Although the overwhelming majority of these vans had petrol engines, the GPO did trial a single batch of diesel-powered JBs, one of which is known to have survived until recently on a farm near Stoke-on-Trent.

Thanks to the Morris J, JB and Austin 101 Register for this information.

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