of bikes, motor bikes, that is, all started about 16 when my best
fishing mate, Pete, passed his test and was given access to his father’s
scooter, a Zundapp Bella . Together we would go from his bungalow
in Fawdon all the way to Plankey Mill past Hexham and Langley, a journey
taking an hour and a half on old roads. Today it would take half the
We would huddle under layers of woollies with newspaper stuffed down
the front of our shirts to keep the wind out. We had no leathers or
Kevlar reinforced gear but instead wore green ex-army stores Parkas
and travelled in our fishing waders with school scarves wrapped round
and round under our open-faced helmets.
Pete was so proud of this old scooter and never tired of shouting
over his shoulder for me to “feel the power!” as he accelerated
up a hill in third. It was a solid German machine in red and it never
let us down. Soon it was not fast enough for my pal and he progressed
to a (to me) huge black beast of a bike, an AJS 500. This seemed to
be the most powerful, fastest machine God ever made of course I’d
never even heard of a Bonneville at that time. But this was really
going some and the little scooter was soon sold off. And of course
Pete’s pulling power with the girls was immediately greatly
enhanced so I got a lot less rides on the back.
At 18 our ways parted, he went to Newcastle to do a German degree,
me to London to do medicine at King’s. He soon got engaged to
his first girlfriend from school and I hitch-hiked up the A1 to be
his best man. After that we saw little of each other until I visited
them in Bielefelt in Germany, but more of that later ….
So in September 66 I started as a student in halls with £3 a
week spending money to get by on. My frequent pleadings with Dad for
a bike fell on deaf ears, entering as they did into the same categories
as flick knives and air rifles, too dangerous. So nothing happened
on the wheels front until much later.
A quiet fellow
student called Keith Hyde casually mentioned he had a bike to sell
and was I interested? I was so excited I could hardly speak! I was
somewhat exuberant in those days and said I believed in “grasping
every opportunity with both hands”
“How much?” “Six pounds, if that’s all right.”
He lived in a rather nice house in Surbiton with his rather nice
parents. The bike, MY FIRST BIKE, was a BSA Bantam 150cc 2stroke
painted green. Talk about love at first sight, I was over the moon!
That afternoon he tried to teach me to ride it. You would have thought
I would have understood the idea of a clutch and gears having been
a pillion all those years but that didn’t stop me driving
straight into a pillar box, forgetting to brake or turn the handlebars!
The bike and I were unscathed and after “high tea” I
reckoned I was man enough to ride right across London back to my
student house in Camberwell. Everything was done legally, although
I didn’t really understand it, as I signed my name across
a 2 1/2d stamp on a scrap of paper which said I now owned the bike.I
had phoned the insurance company who would give me third party only
cover straight away and I had “tax applied for”scrawled
in the disc holder. Keith’s Dad, who was keen to see the back
of this death-trap generously threw in a Second World War flying
suit (for a shorter man than I) and a helmet and gauntlets. I wore
that flying suit for years until it was completely oilsoaked and
filthy—I still have the full length zips somewhere….
So imagine riding across London on your first ever attempt on a
bike as it’s getting dark and the puny strength of your lights
waxes and wanes with the bike’s revs…
I went through a red traffic light at Wandsworth. Looking back,
the Policeman must have been very brave or extremely foolhardy to
trust that I could stop for him when he leapt out in front of me
waving his little square Ever Ready hand torch. But stop I did and
he approached purposefully.
“Terribly sorry Officer, I went through an amb..”
“It was red”
“red, R E D ,red!”
“Terribly sorry, Officer”, my voice trailed away
He then did his slow Mr. Plod act walking round the bike, noting
the illegally rolled L plates on the shock absorber covers and the
lack of road tax.
“Could do you here ‘n now for fifty quid “, he
said. “Is this your bike?”
“Oh yes Officer, I just bought it this afternoon and here’s
the bill of sale and my provisional licence. I slowly unzipped the
front of the flying suit to get at the crumpled bit of paper.
“Cool,”said the copper, “Now bugger off and don’t
go through anymore red lights cos’ the next copper might not
be so soft.”
I was off!
I loved that bike! It was slow, had only three gears, and consummately
refused ever to kickstart so I always had to bump start it. Nevertheless
it went! So the expedition was to see if I could get down to Deal
(my new “home” when not at college) on it in one piece.
My mother and aunt had moved into a bungalow there after my Dad
died. They made a good team at washing student clothing and roast
Sunday dinners, and the 80mile trip seemed like a manageable challenge.
dawned on a crisp, sunny, autumn day with me scarved up to the eyebrows
and raring to go. I got as far as Sidcup in Kent when, while screaming
up a hill in second the bike suddenly lost all power. I freewheeled
and pushed it to a nearby garage and the aged mechanic agreed to
have a look at it for me. In a few minutes he had the head and barrels
off and diagnosed seized piston rings.
“Whatammagunnado on a Sat. am in Sidcup with seized rings?”
“Don’t worry”, said the nice man, “The rings
are near as dammit the same as a Morris Minor’s. So he fitted
a pair and charged me a pittance (pleading student poverty and not
for the first or last time) and I was back on the road!
I made it to Deal. That weekend I took great care to explain the
whole situation to my dear mother -- how I wanted to be able to
come home frequently to see her and Aunt Betty but I really needed
a reliable form of transport, one that wouldn’t seize up at
Sidcup on Saturdays. And Christmas was coming….
I had actually
been sniffing around the local bike shop in a side street off the
front in Deal. This was a small shop run by a father, teenage son
and one other mechanic.
In the window
they had a one year old D14/4 Bantam in shiny black paint. Compared
to my (crappy,slow,old,knacked)bike it was the ultimate in speed(60mph!)
and promised reliability .
My aged mother said yes (but do be careful and you will wear a vest,
won’t you) and so the deal was done! He charged me £68
and gave me my original £6 back in part exchange. But I continued
to wear my flying suit….
This bike was a completely different kettle of fish to my first.
For a start it was reliable, i.e. it started with the kickstart
and it went well, cruising at 45mph and doing 100mpg. I enjoyed
it right from the start. I fitted a handlebar fairing in silver
and took to pottering round the leafy Sussex lanes, stopping to
explore old Saxon churches and brass rubbings. And of course there
were frequent trips down the A2 to Deal with a load of dirty washing
to keep the ladies busy.
At this point my best mate-and later my best man-Eddie bought a
bike too. This was a 2-stroke Suzuki 80cc screamer. It went faster
than my Bantam but it, like my first, soon seized and was discarded.
That, combined with Eddie’s easily frozen fingers, put him
off bikes and on to cars forever. It also helped to account for
his great successes with girls.
I became mates with the blokes in the bike shop. I might have just
been another innocent mug to them but they always seemed really
pleased to see me. The following June, six months after buying the
second Bantam , was in the shop one Saturday when Dave , the mechanic
said , “Time you got yerself a real bike ,doc .”
“Wot you need is this ‘ere Triumph!” he said.
Standing in the window was to me the most beautiful, desirable love-object
I’d ever seen in my entire life. Compared to the Bantam, well
it was just no comparison at all! It gleamed at me in pale, pale
blue. It’s 350cc seemed absolutely huge when ranged against
my tiny phut-phut 175.It was a “ Twenty one “ all encased
in a lovely (I thought) bathtub fairing with a front mudguard like
a centurian’s helmet.Little did I know that most of the bikers
of the day soon ripped off the fairings as “uncool.”
“Give him a ride on the back”, said the proprietor to
his son. He started it up and revved it as much as he could. The
smooth difference from a 2 stroke was immediately apparent to the
ear. I hopped on the back. I should say at this point that I was
totally unaware that this lad was the leading junior light of the
Lydden racing circuit! I had never been so terrified in my life.
Clinging on for dear life I looked over his shoulder at the speedo,
which said we were cornering around the perimeter of Deal castle
bends at 70mph two-up!
Sold to the idiot in the scarf for £100! And he took the Bantam
back for £60, and I don’t think I put upon Mum for the
rest, but I can’t be sure…
This was the bike! It felt so smooth and the acceleration to me
It would cruise on the A2 back from Deal to Camberwell at 50 to
60 without, as I remember, any great vibration. Under duress it
(she) would do 70! But here befell a dreadful fate. That tempting,
long, rolling bend downhill on the A2 near Gillingham was my downfall.
Flying along on a Sunday afternoon on my way back to London after
a large Sunday lunch cooked by ‘the Grannies’, with
a bag of freshly irond clothes on the back, I foolishly opened her
up to full throttle. Well, it was only for a minute and it was downhill,
The loss of power was immediately noticeable. I had burnt out the
exhaust valves. Of course I personally didn’t know this at
the time, that was not made clear to me until a week later when
I returned to the Deal bike shop (slowly) and confessed my sin—managing
85 on a 350 T21 !
True to form they had the head off that Saturday afternoon and the
valves reground before closing time! And I don’t remember
them charging me an arm and a leg either. But I learnt to treat
my little blue bike with love and respect from then on.
Summer holidays were coming—the last long vac we were ever
going to get as medical students. In subsequent years we would only
get two weeks in the summer, while all our mates doing French and
Law and Maths got three months off, lucky buggers!
Right then! It’s our only chance! I had a flatmate called
Geoff Frost from Hull .
“My name’s Geoffrey and I cum from ‘Ull”
was his opening chat up line at hops (dances). He was the proud
possessor of a BSA C15 in red with the loudest megaphone silencer
you’ve ever heard. He was obsessive about the oil level in
his primary chaincase and insisted on checking it at every opportunity.
Nevertheless we determined to embark on an adventure together on
our bikes which seemed to us as great an expedition as Thor Hayerdahl
and his balsa Kon Tiki. We were going to Rome!
Steve Bentley was great with his hands. He became an anaesthetist
in later life but he was a great mechanic and electrical engineer.
He made Geoff and me a set of fibreglass panniers each and sprayed
them up to match the bikes. The plan was that he and Eddie (see
previous Suzuki 80 debacle) would go to Greece in his Triumph Spitfire
while we went to Rome on our bikes.
crossed the channel on the ferry and spent a last night together
in a municipal campsite north of Paris. Next morning we waved the
others off and Geoff and I started our adventure proper. The plan
was to do a hundred miles a day on average and to take a week to
get there, have a week there, and take a week back. My brother David
was doing his Theology training in Rome to become an Augustinian
Friar, which was handy…
So off we went.
Try as we would we always seemed to end up driving through the heat
of the day. “Tomorrow we’ll definitely get up early
and be there by lunchtime so we can relax for the rest of the day”.
Never ever happened. We always ended up hot and sweating with lots
of dead flies on the visors and slippy melting tar under the wheels.
well. We reached the Alps and started to climb. The power steadily
got less and less the higher we went and we were ever so grateful
to reach the Susten and St. Gothard passes safely. We pulled into
a little, dark hostelry on the Italian side and the owner produced
a bottle of ice_cold Lambrusco from the fridge, which tasted like
nectar in that heat. We tucked a bottle under the bungies for later.
later came sooner than we hoped. Rounding a corner on a long descent
into a town we came across a mile of bumpy cobbles. I saw it all
in incredibly slow motion. Looking in my bar-end mirror I saw the
bottle bounce once, bounce twice then shatter. There was nothing
I could do, I was in a long line of traffic and guilty though I
felt, I just carried on. Luckily Geoff missed it and didn’t
get a puncture. And coming up the hill was a long crocodile of Cub
Scouts with a good deed for the day just waiting for them!
got to Rome and my bro David. He really looked after us. The monastery
in the centre of Rome, St. Pat’s, did not have air conditioning
but it did have the biggest fridge full of cold beer you’ve
ever seen. He showed us all the sights and took us out to their
summer retreat in the hills (cooler) called San Pio. This had a
swimming pool and a vineyard. Good combination. He had even anticipated
our arrival in Rome by giving a pint of blood three weeks previously
to secure two opera tickets for us to see Aida. What a bro! They
were really good seats and he actually bought himself a cheaper
ticket near the back! The performance was of course outdoors in
the ancient arena and I remember they had live elephants and camels
on stage as well as the fat singers.
All too soon
our time was up and we had to say goodbye and start our trek northwards
again. We decided to go back a different way and climb the Dolomites
this time. Once again we felt the power sap away from our laden
bikes as we climbed higher and higher. Slower and slower we ground
our way up the mountain. We didn’t think we were going to
make it so when we came to a convenient mountain railway, we bought
two tickets for the Nathan-Bockstein train tunnel. It’s really
something new to sit in a cattle wagon, on your bike, with your
headlights on, as you are taken through the mountain instead of
over it! And then of course it was lots of downhill when we got
out the other side!
The next day
we entered southern Germany and started to make our way through
the Schwartzwald (Black Forest to you). On a downhill set of S bends
I got a front wheel puncture. No problem, the tire went down gently
and I had good warning. So we stopped in a small side lane on the
convex side of a bend.
this, I said, “For the quickest repair you’ve ever seen.”
And in minutes I had the front wheel off and in my hands. At that
moment we heard a series of tyre squeals and suddenly a car came
round the bend, passed within two feet of us and hit both our bikes,
taking them with it over the edge and down the bank into trees below.
All was absolutely
silent. We were still eight hundred miles from home and the only
thing left in either of our hands was my front wheel with an unmended
puncture! The car had turned over on its roof and we suddenly came
to our senses and remembered the driver. When we got to him he was
half out of the car muttering and obviously looking for something.
“Ich will meine Schue,” he kept saying. Silly man had
been driving barefoot and had pressed the accelerator instead of
crowd of locals and passers-by gathered and a Polizei man dee-daa’d
his way up the hill. He arranged for a tow truck to come and pull
the car up from the valley below and take it away. By now it was
six o’clock on a Freitag evening and the crowd ambled off,
there being little of interest left to see, ad we had to say,”Oi!
What about us?!” to the copper before he too buggered off
for his wurst and chips. Kind man though he turned out to be. He
went back down into the village and purloined the breakdown truck
himself, came back up the hill and helped us load up our bashed-up
bikes and take them all the way down to the garage.
So at least
we were safe and unhurt. We retrieved our bedding and our little
home-made two man tent and stove and set up camp near a meandering
stream which ran through the village. Popped into the little store
before it closed and bought a bottle of fizzy strawberry mousseux
(palates were sweeter at that young age) and thought of our evening
meal. All this excitement and trauma had made us hungry and in need
of a feast…or perhaps a banquet. Well,we were by a stream
weren’t we, so out came the fish hooks and fine line, and
a worm was soon found. Before long we had two fat little German
Forellen frying in the pan!
we were up early and anxiously awaited the opening of the garage.
Luckily they did do Saturday mornings! The mechanics kindly leant
us their hammers and we beat my bathtub fairing back into some sort
of shape, enough to fit back on the bike anyway…tied on with
string. Sadly my panniers were beyond any chance of repair, so that
meant that Geoff had to carry more of the baggage on the smaller
The other major
downside as far as the Twenty one was concerned was a persistant
oil leak from a cracked pipe under the crankcase.This translated
into a loss of one litre of oil sprayed over the back tire each
day forth till our return home!
say we drove home very gingerly. Every morning we would pack up
our little tent and top up our various oil orifices and cheer our
motto,”And still they go on!!”
We made it
back to Dover, and eventually Deal in one piece and immediately
went round to the friendly local dealer who had originally sold
me the bike. Dave took one look at them both after hearing our tale.
“They’s definitely write offs, they is, definitely.”
He said. And with that he and they disappeared round the back, him
carrying a long length of steel piping over his shoulder. Crunching
sounds and bending creaks issued from the back yard..and we never
saw either of our bikes ever again….
written and translated into German by fellow students, and sent
off to the Vesicherungsgesellschaft, insurance company to you. Grant,
soliciting brother got involved and wrote a stiff British legal-type
letter. And eventually, it seemed like an age to be bikeless, a
cheque came through in lovely Deutchmarks! A hundred plus pounds
for me and forty-five for Geoff!
Dave the mechanic
said much later that Geoff’s little C15 motor was used for
years to power the rabbit at the local Greyhound stadium. Nothing
was ever mentioned about what was done with my pale blue beauty.
But not sad
for long! Money was burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted some
wheels, and fast! In conversation, another student mentioned he
had a 650cc BSA Super Rocket which he wanted to get rid of because
his Dad didn’t approve, and was I interested? Boy, was I!
Imagine going from a little 350 straight to a massive 650 with legendary
bottom end grunt, without passing through the 500cc stage! I was
naturally tempted and immediately donned the rose-tinted spectacles
which mugs wear when they are about to be taken for an expensive
The bike was parked (or was it languishing?) in his garden. Rusty
but huge. And it started. The noise from those baffle-less exhausts
was ear splittingly mind blowing. I was entering Toad of Toad Hall’s
“Poop Poop!” trance again.
“Why don’t you have a ride?” he urged. I was lost
already. The acceleration and aforementioned torque (grunt), even
on a wreck like this was incredible after a 350. And he only wanted
twenty five quid for it! Only! Done! Done I certainly was.
So I looked to the cosmetics to start with.
Nice new shiny exhausts and silencers and a coat of hand brushed
salmon pink paint! Sacrilege, you may say today, but you must remember
this was the late sixties, the time of the Beatles and psychedelia.
But I still didn’t do a very good paint job.
I knew little
about mechanics as you now realize, and so was very dependent on
handier mates like Steve Bentley who could do anything (remember
the panniers). So we took the head off, (me handing the spanners
to him), and replaced the pistons with some nice high compression
ones ….to boost the performance even more…….
were reground and the rear chain replaced. I put new tyres on since
the originals were worn square. So at last it was ready for a ‘Home’
Off I went
at a corking pace. The A2 and then the M2 beckoned. A coffee and
devibrationary stop at the half way Fortes services, then on again.
Suddenly a coughing, jerking from the motor made me pull over. Looking
down I was amazed to see the end of the magneto hanging loose with
sparks merrily dancing off it. But the main thing was the end cap
hadn’t dropped off! Once rescrewed back on I was away again
and arrived safely at the ‘Grannies’.
What I learned
that day was that we had a serious shakes problem in the higher
registers. So I rubber mounted the handlebars! I wrapped 6ins of
cut inner tubing around the bars under the attachments to the fork
yokes and tightened it up as tight as I could. Then I bought a pair
of those fat air-filled Triumph hand grips and kidded myself that
the vibes were much improved. (Hadn’t actually heard of isolastic
suspension at that time, but I think it was just being invented
for the Commando.)
Time passed and the initial expenditure seemed to have been worth
it. This included a new seat cover by this time. Most things seemed
to work most of the time. A little tootle was called for.
My cousin Francis
invited me up to the Tweed to take his two days salmon fishing at
the end of the season in November. What a great opportunity to give
my P & J a good thrash! Scotland here I come!
And so, on a bright, crisp Autumn day I steered my way up through
the centre of a sleepy London to Apex corner and the start of the
A1. All was going well to start with. I cruised along at a steady
70 in the middle lane listening to the thrum of the engine and the
burble of the exhaust note. Bang bang bang BANG BANG BANG went the
exhaust note and Someone Above told me to pull the clutch in NOW!!
Total silence, except for the wind, at 70 miles an hour, alone in
the middle lane of the A1M, near Long Eaton… The difficult
thing was how the devil to get over to the hard shoulder without
releasing my clutch hand to signal my intent to the bloody great
lorry on my inside! Eventually they got my message from the drained
look of impending death on my face and I coasted gently and silently
to the side. I applied the brakes, and when I’d slowed to
about 20mph I let the clutch out just to see if everything was allright.
Optimistic fool that I was! Blue smoke and a controlled skid was
my answer-she was seized, that was for sure.
The rest of
the day was long. The nice RAC man came and took the bike and me
to the nearest garage in Long Eaton. They said yes they would mend
it if I could leave it for a week. Of course I had no choice, so
I left it, thankful to be alive in one piece, and caught the slow
train to Berwick, and Francis and Nancy’s renowned hospitality.
And no I didn’t get a touch of a salmon all that week, so
As soon as I got back to London I phoned Long Eaton for a progress
it’s f***ed,”said the mechanic. Exactly how f***ed remained
to be seen
later but the immediate problem was to find a replacement engine
and to get mobile again. Eddie was dragooned into cruising round
all the East End bike dealers with me until at last we found a second
hand A10 motor in Forest Hall. It was sold “as seen”
with no guarantees at all for £38. It wasn’t a Super
Rocket engine like the original but I didn’t care. Niceties
like matching frame and engine numbers meant little to penniless
Eddie took me up the A1 in his Ford Cortina with the engine in the
boot. The mechanic had saved the remains and entrails of my broken
engine for us to see. The con rod had snapped and the flywheels
had spun off and gouged out the base of the crankcases. There was
honestly only a toilet paper’s thickness of metal left at
the bottom of the sump! No wonder it was seized solid and blue smoke
skidded when I let the clutch out! I have often thought since that
I might have continued onwards at 70 in the middle lane of the A1M
if I’d not pulled in the clutch when I did!
enough of this omphalospecsis,(medical term for navel-gazing!) we
left the “new” motor with him for yet another week so
he could put it all back together, and promised to come backed pick
it up the next Saturday.
I really couldn’t
put upon my old mate for yet another trip up the A1 so I put all
my clobber in a holdall (including the famous oilstained flying
suit) and stuck my thumb out to hitch a lift from Apex corner. I
got a lift in a lorry as far as the first service station and stood
in the December cold on the sliproad enswathed in my King’s
scarf with my cardboard sign for “Long Eaton, please.”
A large Rolls
Royce pulled up. A liveried chauffeur got out and said he was going
near Long Eaton and for me to hop in. I was so gobsmacked I started
to get in the front clutching my holdall.
no Sir”, he says, “We don’t allow any luggage
inside Rolls Royces.” And with that he picked up my grip and
put it in the huge boot. Off we went and were doing 70 before we
joined the motorway. He was an RR trained chauffeur and was totally
devoted to and proud of this car. It had electric everything and
walnut and leather everything else! He had just dropped his employer,
a business tycoon, at the airport. This man had emphysema and so
he had had an oxygen concentrator fitted as an extra to aid his
went round each of the features in turn and gave me a demonstration.
Of course today lots of these are bog standard but then I’d
never seen electric windows and sunroofs. You could actually hear
the clock ticking and not much else! “Do you want to hear
what it’s like outside?” he asked at a hundred miles
an hour. With that he rolled down the electric front window to let
the roar in. Soon we came up behind a red E-type Jag, which seemed
so small and low beneath us.
look at him waving all over the road in the wind!” he said,
as the lovely sports car wavered and wallowed in the cross-wind
as we bore down on him. Stately as a galleon we drove past as he
dutifully gave way….to a chauffeur-driven penniless student
on his way to pick up his P&J. Would it be ready? Would it go
alright with the “new” untried engine? How much would
dropped me off and swished away with my many thanks. The bike looked
fine and the financial damage wasn’t too drastic so on I leapt,
keen to get back to London before dark. Twenty miles was it? I can’t
remember now, but it wasn’t much further before I noticed
that a large amount of oil was being sprayed out of the breather
all over the back tyre. This was coming out of a really obscure
little hole at the back of the crankcase, which I had never even
noticed on the previous engine! Nevertheless I got back home to
Camberwell in one piece, and after a thorough cleaning of the back
tire and engine, I later Araldited the biggest plastic hose I could
find to the little breather hole. I fed this upwards and over the
back mudguard out of harms way, should it decide to spew oil again.
But it never ever did! Oil froth would bubble up so far during a
run, but not overflow, and later subside back whence it came into
the crankcase. I never did investigate the bores for wear. I think
I’d spent enough on this particular bike at the time and just
wanted some miles out of it before any further expenditure.
So now with time passing we were nearing finals and the medical
school, in its wisdom, threw us out for a three month elective period
to go and do something vaguely medical anywhere in the world that
would take us. So Eddie and I went to a Hospital in Columbus, Ohio
for two months with a fortnights touring holiday either side. In
the hospital we were called Doctor with the title of Extern (as
opposed to the qualified Intern). We earned 25 dollars a day and
75 dollars a weekend so we really went for it. At one stage we worked
13 days and nights on the trot! It was a wonder that we found any
time or energy to study the indigenous female population at all!
At the end
of it all we had learned a lot, made a lot of friends and saved
a tidy sum. I came home with a Chase Manhatten cheque in my pocket
for two hundred pounds. That old banger just had to go!
Interestingly it had performed faultlessly for Johnny Rycroft for
the whole time we were away and the minute I got back on for my
first burn up the headlight bulb blew!
It knew obviously
I no longer loved it.
Motors beckoned, and I saw and bought (within a day) a beautiful
one year old Triumph 500cc T100SS in green and silver. This felt
like a small, easily manageable bike after the thumping old Beeza,
but what a sharp, revvy little engine!!
Boy did it
go once you got past three and a half thou’! It was the newest,
smartest bike I’d ever owned so I decided to beautify it even
more, and make it more comfy too.
So I fitted
a full Avon fairing in white, with a radio slung in the unused headlamp
brackets and a Police loudspeaker on the handlebars. The radio was
fine as long as the engine wasn’t going! Unfortunately it
wasn’t an FM radio and couldn’t be effectively suppressed
so it clicked unmercifully with each spark.
It looked cool and the way the traffic parted when I had the aerial
up was fantastic. Car drivers only noticed the white fairing and
aerial and totally failed to see the lack of speed cop riding it!
In case you had forgotten, my regular garb included a grey helmet
with plastic bubble visor, faded Millet’s 2nd World War US
Parka worn over oil-marinated Flying Suit (also WW2) and fur-lined
boots, the whole ensemble emitting an air of faded grubbiness.
Triumph went so well! It was reliable, revvy fun and you were warm
and relatively dry on a wet day too. Coming back one balmy summer
evening on the A3 from Cobham I clocked up my fastest speed on a
bike, and I shouldn’t think I’ll be bettering it in
the future either. Tucked down behind the windscreen on a nearly
empty dual carriageway after a pint of bitter the speedo read 105mph
at 6800rpm. I doubt I’d have the confidence or recklessness
to do that now.
In winter too
I still loved this bike. It was the most user-friendly set of wheels
I’d ever had but it still had its ups and downs. Christmas
was coming, and I had it off, so down the M20 I flew to Folkstone
then along the south coast to Dover. Now there is a steep hill to
climb out of Dover up the white cliffs to get round the bottom right
hand corner of England to reach Deal, and all festive like it started
to snow. Soon it was deep and crisp and even. I motored on very
gently in first gear with my feet off the footrests gliding just
above the ground, but suddenly the front wheel just slid away from
me and the bike skittered off down the road on its side as I deftly
hopped off without injury. I need to get home, I thought, tonight,
I thought. So I pushed my (unscratched) bike to the nearby railway
station and the kindly guard let me put it in the luggage van! When
we got to Deal it hadn’t even snowed there so I was home in
qualified that summer and started my first house job doing three
months Orthopaedics at King’s followed by three months at
Dulwich doing Urology. It was there that I was struck by a tanned,
petite staff nurse who had just come back from a sunny holiday.
I was plucking up courage to ask her out but I had this trip planned
for a weeks visit to see Pete and his new wife Linda in Bielefeld
in Germany. The guy I got to do my locum for me was a real good
looking smoothie, so I made him promise not to ask her out while
I was away!
The trip went
well and the Triumph sped happily along the Autobahns. Pete still
had his ancient AJS although sadly it was stolen some time later.
Sadly too his marriage didn’t last and he’s still a
bachelor thirty years later-with a dusty Norton Commando in his
On my return
the nurse in question, Lesley, found me quaintly old fashioned and
obviously a challenge in need of restoration, so she said yes when
I asked her out. Now Lesley could drive and had a car of her own.
Her acquaintance with bikes was only via her younger brother Grahame,
who had fallen off his and got a nasty scar on his cheek to prove
it. Nevertheless she was game to come for a ride and eventually
we decided to let her meet the grannies in Deal. Brave girl! It
precipitated down all the way there and we looked like drowned rats
when we arrived. One of us had mascara on, which ran down her face
to give a pretty good impression of the Rocky Horror Show! And of
course my mum was at her disapproving best, “Really dear,
don’t you think you should ride side saddle…”
relationship continued, and since my next six month House job was
to be in Tunbridge Wells that meant I soon got to know the A21 really
well. It was the beginning of several years of romance at a distance.
One winter night I had bade my farewell and was humming back down
the dual carriageway, it was very cold and frosty. I came to Badger’s
Mount roundabout and took it slowly as I leant into the curve. It
was an extremely black night to hit a patch of black ice and the
bike slid away from me on its side. I had time to extricate my leg
as it went, and sort of stand on the saddle before rolling over
and over on my side. And lo! A great light shineth in the East!
Yes it was a following car’s headlamps and I was dead centre
stage! Quick as a flash-and that’s pretty bloody, adrenaline-fuelled
quick-I jumped up and dived for the central reservation and safety!
The car passed on without stopping. I felt bruised about the knees
in particular but the old flying suit had done its business once
again and nothing was broken.
over to the bike to inspect the damage. As usual the wing mirror
was beyond hope but otherwise all seemed OK. Then out of the corner
of my eye I saw a Mini without its lights on parked on some waste
ground at the edge of the roundabout. A bloke and his girl got out.
“Hey mate,” he said, “I’ve never seen anyone
get up off that roundabout as fast as you did then!”
“What? You make a habit of watching for crashes do you?”
“Oh yeah, we come up here most nights, it’s great! Saw
someone killed, we did, last week!”
his ghoulishness I said no more, just started up my faithful Triumph
and pottered back to my room in the mess at the Kent and Sussex.
My knees were so sore I went downstairs to Casualty. There an incredibly
camp male night nurse [sounds like a cough linctus] dressed them
with a cooling salve of Lotio plumbi et opii. Dead old fashioned
it would be now, but it seemed to help at the time. I do remember
the next day being so stiff that even the consultant overtook me
in the corridor running for a cardiac arrest!
warm, fast, reliable, what more could you want? The raw power of
a 650 Triumph perhaps?
Driving back to Dulwich from seeing the grannies, leaning into the
twisty-twisties ‘tween Deal and Sandwich I called in at the
local bike shop and saw this object of unutterable beauty. (Where
have you heard this saga before, dear reader?) A red 1970 H reg
Triumph TR6 of low mileage with the slim export tank. ‘Of
course you can have a test drive sir’, he said. The power
was there and so much smoother than the old A10. The only trouble
was the previous tyro had had short megaphones fitted and the noise
was incredible! ‘Of course we can replace them with standard
exhausts if you wish sir, just give us a couple of hours’.
So for a straight
swap for £200 I said goodbye to my warm and dry white faired
500 and took off on this wild red monster! It sat me higher than
theT100 with more of a leg stretch and a comfortable riding position.
The acceleration (I felt) was blistering, in fact I found myself
cruising at 80 at 5000 revs in third, thinking I was in top, and
then changed up from there!
My life was
changing, my career progressing. I meandered into the 3 year vocational
training programme for general practice based in Tunbridge Wells
which meant four, six month hospital jobs and two spells in different
training practices. For the psychiatric job I had a wonderful summer
commuting to Hellingly in deepest Sussex to an old Victorian “looneybin”.
Later on during my time in general practice I use the bike, still
my only means of transport, to do my visits. I would park it down
the road around the corner, divest myself of my clobber and then
walk to the patient’s house. One old chap was most concerned
that I had walked so far from my car and tried to insist on giving
me a lift back to it! The writing was starting to be written on
the wall, I had to get a car.
already had a car and could drive. A greeny-blue Morris 1100. I
bought a black Morris Minor for £68 with a replacement front
wing where the previous medic had hit a cow. This went well as long
as you didn’t mind seeing the ground passing beneath you through
the holes in the floor. The front seat (in red leather) was up on
wooden chocks as I remember. I manage to fail my test in Canterbury-
sitting in the wrong lane to turn right in the stupid one way system.
Eventually I did pass in T. Wells under a 16 stone ex-army instructress
with BO who shouted ‘Mirror Signal Manoeuvre !’ in my
left ear. You can see where this story is leading, can’t you…
So I bought
this white Capri see. With the long bonnet and the tan bucket seats…
In this, David
and a fellow Friar, Lesley and I drove to Rome stopping off in all
the summer-emptied Augustinian monasteries on the way. Unfortunately
Lesley was shipped off each night to the local nunnery as we were
as yet unbetrothed.
Little by little
I was using the bike less and less. When we were married it gathered
dust even more. When darling Stephanie arrived priorities changed
yet again. A Capri, a Morris 1100, a Triumph 650 and a baby were
just too much of a good thing. So the bike had to go, especially
as I was coming to the end of my training scheme and we now planned
to emigrate (for fun) for £46 assisted passage to New Zealand.
Now Lesley has
a younger brother by 4years and he was a biking bachelor. Grahame
gladly bought the TR6 from me for the £200 I paid for it and
had several trouble free years joy out of it. He even offered to
sell it back to me for the same £200 years later when he was
ogling at a BMW R69, but by then we had baby Peter and my biking
days were definitely on hold.
So I had ridden
bikes continuously from1968 Bantam days till a 1974 Triumph TR6
was ousted by the practicalities of family life. Our time in NZ
was so busy and exciting I didn’t really miss it, nor in the
succeeding years while developing the practice in Hexham, until
one day in October 1992……….
I had made
a new friend at Rotary, a retired Lloyd’s bank manager with
a dry Neddie Seagoon wit and an interest in old bikes. Pat Docherty,
later to become known far and wide (locally) as Motorbike Repair
Man, is a collector/restorer really rather than a fanatic rider.
He has a collection of six bikes in various states of disrepair
all of which are lovingly stored in his warm, dry inner sanctum
awaiting his perfectionist attention.
a 1945 500cc BSA M20, a 1950 350cc BSA B31, a 1950 Douglas Mk 4
Sports 350cc boxer twin, a Sunbeam S8 in-line 500cc twin, a 1961
BSA C15 250cc single with a ’67 engine and lastly an 850cc
Mk 1 Norton Commando. They had all been on his personal wish list
and hold special emotional significance. He has another bike, but
that hardly counted because he bought that one outwardly beautifully
restored and working…until he started taking it apart, that
green BSA Shooting Star A7 500cc came with most of a spare engine
as extra. But something caught his attention early on in his owning
of this beauty, something just not quite right—the fork slider
covers were too short! And once he’d noticed that he just
couldn’t stop till he’d been right through the bike
looking for other inaccuracies. Of course he found lots and lots,
from incorrect speedo and carburettor to worn out cams and end float
shims that shouldn’t even be there! So over a year later it’s
nearly complete and I live in hopes of a mobile companion on the
moors this summer.
But I digress.
This is now and I am talking about then…1992. We got talking
at Rotary and I started to wish I could recut my teeth on an old
bike again. Pat had been to a little backstreet shop in windy Tow
Law, high on the way south down the A68. So one wet and miserable
October afternoon I wended my way there and saw a sad looking little
250cc Triumph. It looked manageable- bearing in mind I had previously
terrified myself on my brother Grant’s 750cc BMW, and I thought
it might just do me as a reentry model into classic biking.
This red TR25W
was a 1971 model which was a rebadged BSA B25, the last gasp stretch
of the old C15 engine. Poor old BSA were desperately trying to compete
with the latest Jap imports-and failing. To try and increase the
power they increased the compression to 9:1 which of course boosted
the vibes toward self destruction mode.
Of course I
didn’t know any of this then and I foolishly hadn’t
taken my new friend with me so I paid over my £500 and drove
home followed at a safe distance by sainted brother David giving
Grannie a ride out in the car. I just about got home in one piece
but the rusty, oily, leaky pride and joy was coughing and spluttering
like a 40aday Capstan Full Strength smoker. Call in M.C.Rep.man
in fact he turned out faster than a GP on maternity call. And he
dressed the part too, with proper overalls and rubber slaters’
kneepads and faded little baseball cap, not that we deliver many
babies dressed like that these days. He also wore that lugubrious
air of resignation about him, something of the undertaker perhaps,
or the plumber offering an estimate for a blown up boiler.
he’d been with me he’d have noticed that the timing
was a mile out amongst other things. Well the other things let their
presence be known en katimini(my best French phrase-on the sly)
over the next few months and years. But in the meantime Pat deftly
strobed the timing back into line and the bike started and ticked
over and went passably well.
enjoyed “backers” round the block and all held on tight.
Chloe, our new little Spaniel puppy barked and barked and wagged
over the bike was a temperamental starter. On cold or damp days
I would give up in the end, sweating like the tropics inside my
gear having kicked it to b---ery for ten minutes. Eventually we
enlisted Pat’s eldest son Michael to help. Not a M.C.Repair
man clone, Michael is a professional electrical wizard who can do
magic with circuit diagrams and a crimping tool. He installed a
Boyer Bransden electronic ignition system instead of the old contact
breakers and that helped the starting a lot.
Soon I started
to meet the classic bike fraternity. You probably didn’t know
there’s a veritable cottage industry of repairers/restorers
for different bits of your bike just waiting for their bit to go
wrong. And so I met Scotty. A young man in his 30’s I should
think, running a repair shop in a soon to be condemned building
down the Gateshead side of the Tyne bridge. He rebushed the front
forks for me and did a good job. I had found no oil in one fork
and brown water in the other so I thought I ought to do something..
And then Pat
introduced me to Rufforth and thereby to Fencehouses Deryck. “Rufforth”
is an auto-jumble held on the first Saturday of every month in the
grounds of Rufforth Hall on one of the back roads near York. To
get there is a matter of great effort and veritable pilgrimage.
Since it takes a good 2 hours to get there it means at least an
8am setoff if not earlier. Arriving, paying and parking was followed
by a first pass recce to see if there were any unrepeatable, rare
parts waiting to be snapped up from the rusting remains languishing
in the Sunblest Bread baskets. Well, they’re bound to be a
bit rusty, aren’t they, if you’re looking for bits for
a 30 to 50 year old bike!
middle aged men milling about reliving their youth in shabby anoraks
doesn’t sound that enticing actually, but then there’s
the bacon sandwiches! And thereby hangs a tale…
(honest) mentioned that we’d had one (a B.S.) to Pat’s
wife Jean, not knowing that she had expressly forbidden his ingestion
of same in perpetuity to prevent his early demise from fat-related
clogging of arteries. Well, once a month can’t hurt, can it,
your honour? My name was mud. Such is his Bankmanagering honesty
that he daren’t have another because he’s totally unable
to fib under interrogation.
of the white vans full of rusting remnants was owned by Deryck Pratt,
a thin smoker who is also a master mechanic when it comes to old
bikes. He has an encyclopedic memory and he needs it because he
has 12 lock-up garages full to bursting with old bike parts. Every
month he sifts through his stock and picks out what he hopes will
be tasty morsels for punters like Pat and me. A patient man, he
sits quietly and watches life go by until someone comes up and asks
him for that hard-to-find part. But he has a good sense of humour
and is always kindly to fools such as yrs trly.
after some time riding this little red Triumph it finally gave up
its last in a big way-as in a big end way, luckily on a downward
slope nearly home. I took the engine out and took it to Deryck at
Fencehouses where he duly took it apart and renewed the necessary.
He dropped the engine off a few weeks later and I put it back into
the frame. But would it start, would it wattle! Backfire and spit,
So I rang Deryck.
“Don’t worry,” he said,“I’ll be there”.
He turned up rather quickly and slightly sheepishly explained that
he must have set the timing a complete 180 degrees out!
bike ran purrfectly.
The most recurrent
and irritating problem with this bike was the gear change lever.
This is mounted on a spline but mine was worn so that no matter
how tightly you tightened it up, sooner or later it would start
to rotate when you were changing gear i.e. just at the wrong moment!
Various shims were fashioned from McEwan’s Export cans cut
up, but they never lasted. Eventually drastic action was undertaken
and a horizontal hacksaw cut was made right through the spline and
a metal wedge inserted so the b---er could never rotate again! Result!
through the bike and feeling all eventualities must have been envisaged
by now, I decided the first (of many) tootles was due. I had a week’s
holiday left to take and I do enjoy riding in crisp early October
autumness, so I girded my loins and off I went. First stop an overnight
campsite overlooking Scarborough. Next day dawned clear and bright
so I headed down the East coast road past Bridlington to the great
Humber bridge. Over that and on down via Lincoln and Sleaford to
see my old friend Phil Evans, a GP in Bury St. Edmunds. He was on
his own and quite glad to see a grubby old biker. We put the world
to rights and next morning I started to retrace my steps northwards.
This time I overnighted with Tony and Linda Lacey, strategically
placed at Wass Bank near Helmsley. Then home to the bosom of my
family and a long soak in the bath. I hardly dare say it but the
trip contained no breakdowns at all. I put her to bed for the winter
year I joined the fledgling Tyne Valley Classic Motorcycle Cub.
Fledgling indeed, I am no.26. There are now over 200 members. We
met on the last Wednesday of the month at the Errington Arms at
the top of Stagshaw Bank above Corbridge. A jolly crew of old bikers,
they had some beautifully restored examples which left me feeling
rather down at heel. But they were very kind and encouraging so
I occasionally tagged along on the Sunday rides out. I was just
about the slowest bike there but it didn’t seem to matter
too much. Ian Watson, the Runs Captain must know every back lane
in rural Northumberland because he steered us unerringly around
most of them showing us places we’d never otherwise have found,
not in a million years! Yes, you knew where it was once you got
there but how, that was the question.
round once again and that autumnal tootling urge came over me once
more. So since I now had a daughter at Nottingham university and
a son at Crewe and Alsager I plotted a triangular route and set
off in the late autumn sunshine…
The rain and
gale force wind soon hit me coming from the side as I went over
Hartside Pass towards Penrith. I made it to Garstang down the A6
and a warm bed thanks to Sue and Andy Hallington, expat Oakwoodians.
Then on down to stay at Kidderminster with Geoff(C15 to Rome, remember)
and Jeanetta the next night. With the weather looking up I reached
Alsager and slept in Halls with Pete, my eldest son. Next morning
I found his “little friends” had sat on the bike on
their way home from the pub and inadvertently jammed the throttle
fully open. Of course they weren’t to know the carb slide
was oval and could stick at the top, eh? So I spent the morning
stripping the carb and freeing it up. Just as well I’d brought
the kitchen sink’s worth of spanners with me…
Then off to
Nottingham to see my lovely daughter. She shared a flat in not so
lovely Lenten and thought it unwise for me to leave the bike out
on the street overnight so down the side passage to the back yard
perhaps? To do this I had to loosen the handlebars and refix them
diagonally as it was so narrow. Next morning I was off again, this
time to call in on our Kiwi friends the Cornforths, high up at Leek
near Buxton. Well I thought it was about time I landed on them,
they’d landed on us enough over the years.
Next day dawned bright and crisp, a perfect autumn day. Off I went
due north up the backbone of England, missing the motorways all
the way, hugging the bendswinging byways as much as possible. Then
up and over the moors, it was truly glorious.
Home in time
for tea and no breakdowns (not counting the stuck up carb), 650miles
in all, mostly at about 45 mph. Not bad for a 28 year old 250. As
long as you’re not in a hurry…