Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Plastic Maggot

“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”

Things were getting bearable, The missus had found herself a new job and had hijacked my Citroen BX to get to it, so I looked round for a machine of solidity and reliability.
Parcelforce had, for the second time in a year "reorganised" services, and the Cardiff depot I'd been transferred to had been closed, and we'd all been moved to Newport, so I needed something to carry out the  80 mile a day hack down the M4.
And for £400 I bought a fifteen year old  Honda CX500 to get to work on.

way, way prettier than mine


Now if you've been paying attention  you'll know this was my second Honda 500, and just as the CB450 had been a groundbreaker in the 60's so the CX had been in the late 70's.
Where everybody else was turning out double overhead camshaft straight fours, with questionable cycleparts, Honda had gone out and built an offset four-valve opposed V-twin, with push rods operating the valves, a shaft drive and water cooling, of all things.
They'd even ditched the usual separate headlamp/speedo/rev counter arrangement, and enclosed it all in a plastic nacelle. No-one had put a nacelle on a motorcycle since 1962.
When it came out there were howls of derisive laughter, Bruce, and the machine was christened the Plastic Maggot.
This laughter was amplified when the cam chains started snapping. But Honda fixed them all, with a factory recall, possibly the first ever in the history of motorcycle production - Most manufacturers preferring until then to let the buyer do the last bit of product testing.

There is a famous story of a youth who, having bought a BSA and found it to be an ill running, bad-tempered pile of wombat's do's, had ridden it to the BSA factory in Small Heath to complain. The management sent out an engineer who sucked on his pencil.
He said in impeccable Brummie : "Oy'll tell yow wha's wrong wi' that, sonny."
"What?" enquired the pimply youth...
"Yow bin roiding it," said Selly Oak's horny handed son of toil...

But I digress, as always.

Despite the derision of the sport-bike riders, once the cam-chains had been sorted CX500's, heavily over engineered as they were, just went on and on and on.
They became the darling of the despatch riding circuit and the weapon of choice for those whose pocket wouldn't stretch to a BMW.



By 1994 my 25,000 mile CX500, with its sticky taped on indicators and other road wear bodges  was perfect for its allotted task, and that was hacking down the M4 every day at the crack of dawn, and hacking home again as night fell.
It had a shaft drive, which reduced maintenance, and was big, chunky and reliable. Mind you, it handled like a greased pig on roller skates.

This is my CX500. and my youngest, doing his best Brando. Wasn't he adorable?


I kitted myself out in ex-East German police riding gear - a pair of top notch black leather jackboots which I've still got, and a grey rubberised riding suit with big buttons and epaulettes and a built in holster for a Makarov 9mm automatic  that made me sweat terribly, but kept the rain off.
With the addition of a Shemagh and some expensive but brilliant UK  police gloves - best I've ever had, and I keep forgetting how good they are when its "new gloves time" - I was ready for anything.

I had an empathetic relationship with the CX, like the Superdream before it, a sort of sixth sense.
Take for example  the time I was belting down the fast lane of the M4 at 90 and suddenly had the feeling that something awful was going to happen.
There were three lanes of traffic full of cars in front of me, but everyone was moving at a useful pace.

I applied the brakes a good second before  the brake lights on the Ford Sierra 50 yards in front came on as he passed a lumbering Leyland Montego.

To this day I'm sure there was a  shout of "he's going to brake!"  in that split second before the lights came on.
There were two cars along side each other, and I had nowhere to go, so I aimed for the gap between the Sierra and the Montego he had for some unaccountable reason decided not to pass, bounced of the Sierra's back wing, kept it upright and took the wing mirror off the Montego with my elbow all the while hanging on like grim death.
(A curious expression, that. Why not grim life?)
I braked so hard my forks jammed at the bottom of their travel, but I made it through the gap, accelerated away for few hundred yards from the frankly bonkers motorists and made it onto the hard shoulder, where I sat  vibrating quietly, while Sierra and Montego sailed off into the distance.
A boot to the front wheel got the forks free and I was off again.

Like any old motorcycle things wore out so I bunged a second hand Motad exhaust system on it, and repaired the torn seat with gaffa tape. I kept an eye on the oil and changed it occasionally, wrapped the wheels with good Avon rubber, coated it with WD40, and did all the other things you have to do if your living depends on a cheap motorcycle.
And I learned of the CX500's other weak spot, the four inch long spark plug caps that cracked and broke down, creating mysterious misfires.


But I started to tire of its dull, plodding nature.
Then one morning, one nasty, damp, greasy Welsh valleys morning I was blatting out of the valley at around 45mph, when I hit a collapsed manhole cover on an entirely straight stretch of road.
The bars snapped hard from side to side, the back wheel hit the cover and stepped out, everything went sideways and suddenly I was sliding down the road on my face, the bike along side me bouncing off gutters and kerbstones. I'd been riding that road for six years, and I'd never hit that manhole before.

The damage was your classic medium speed get-off stuff , headlight, indicators, levers , bent and battered exhaust, a snapped exhaust stud on the engine - not an enormous amount, but enough to cost a couple of hundred to put right. It sat outside the house, looking all battered and forlorn for a bit, and I got offered a very different sort of a motorcycle by a fellow postie.
And then I got offered a few hundred for the damaged CX500, so I let it go.

If I thought motorcycles had souls, I'd wonder if it knew I was bored with it, and spat me off on purpose...

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