This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012
John Eric Murray (‘Gelignite Jack’) (1907-1983), motor garage proprietor and car trials competitor, was born on 30 August 1907 in Port Melbourne, Victoria, third of four children of Melbourne-born parents Walter James Murray, orchardist, and his wife Alice Maud, née Carse. Educated at Albert Park State School, Jack left aged 14. His first job was in a bicycle shop, followed by farm work at Sea Lake and grape picking at Mildura, where he was also a diver’s attendant. The internal combustion engine and speed fascinated him. By the late 1920s he had begun competing in motor sports, hill climbs, acceleration tests and endurance trials. When he moved to Sydney in 1932 he was employed as a test driver for Chrysler cars. The company sent him to the United States of America to inspect motor factories.
On his return to Sydney, Murray started a motor garage at Bondi with his brother Ray. Operated on eccentric business principles, it was largely a taxi service and repair facility. The premises were used to store a growing collection of memorabilia. When travelling in Europe in the late 1930s Murray witnessed the Nazification of motor sport at a racetrack near Berlin. He recalled, ‘Hitler . . . presented the prize . . . a little guy who was all pomp and whathaveyou, I had to put my hand up in the air, too, otherwise I’d have got thrown off the course’. After World War II Murray immersed himself in open-wheeler racing. In a Bugatti-Ford V8, he came fifth outright in a Grand Prix event held at Bathurst in 1946.
Murray became a national figure in the 1954 Redex Round Australia Reliability trial, in which he drove an ex-taxi painted in grey primer and nicknamed the ‘Grey Ghost’, a 1948 Canadian-made Ford V8 chosen for its generous ground clearance and robust shock absorbers. He and Bill (‘No Relation’) Murray, winner of the 1947 Australian Grand Prix, won without losing a single penalty point. At the concluding ceremony at the Sydney Showground, attended by 20 000 spectators, Murray embellished his reputation for larrikinism by donning a gorilla mask.
The sobriquet, ‘Gelignite Jack’, reflected Murray’s use of the explosive to clear debris from outback roads and to mark his departure from (and sometimes arrival in) country towns during motor trials. A congenital prankster, he contended that ‘Gelignite wouldn’t hurt a flea out in the open. It’s just the same as a cracker, only louder’; police officers around Australia remained unimpressed.
Given that he enjoyed but one principal sporting success, the outpouring of stories about ‘Gelignite Jack’ is surprising. The larger-than-life Murray encouraged and propagated hyperbole. According to Evan Green, a British Motor Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd employee, he was a ‘man with a touch of Nuvolari, Ned Kelly and Guy Fawkes’. Professing to speak two languages—English and profane—he claimed some sporting achievements that are open to question. He was a pioneer of waterskiing in Australia and alleged that he had been the New South Wales welterweight wrestling champion for ten years. Of chunky build, he had an undoubted commitment to physical fitness. In 1964 he won the inaugural BP Ocean Classic for powerboats from Sydney to Newcastle and back. He survived some serious boating accidents: in 1955 he was burned; in 1956 he was knocked unconscious; and in 1965 his boat hit an unidentified fish or whale at high speed.
Though Murray’s career straddled an era of growing professionalism and factory involvement in motor sports, his attitude was never one of ‘win at all costs’. He enjoyed social interludes during which he could relax ‘telling lies’ with fellow competitors. Because of his public profile and his friendship with Evan Green he was engaged as a driver in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon and the 1970 World Cup Rally from London to Mexico City. Before the former he annoyed the authorities by waterskiing on the Thames River past the Houses of Parliament. Despite his devil-may-care, laconic attitude, few were as well versed in the harsh motoring conditions of outback Australia. He undertook several landmark crossings to test automotive products and the reliability of newly released motor vehicles. Nonetheless, ‘Gel’ Murray was nowhere more at home than at his garage in his role as a self-proclaimed ‘Bondi Bodgie’.
A teetotaller and non-smoker, Murray had married with Anglican rites Ena May Byrne, a cosmetics demonstrator, on 3 July 1942 at the Church of St Jude, Randwick. In 1980 advancing arteriosclerosis caused the amputation of his right leg and the following year his Bondi garage burned down; he shrugged off both misfortunes. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 11 December 1983 at Darlinghurst and was cremated. A special run of three hundred scale models of the ‘Grey Ghost’ perpetuated the memory of ‘Gelignite Jack’.
Andrew Moore, 'Murray, John Eric (Jack) (1907–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murray-john-eric-jack-15098/text26297, published in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 2 September 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012