Thursday, 30 December 2010

An Old English Custom

While training to be a mechanic I picked up a 1965 BSA A65  as a selection of bits in cardboard boxes,  carrier bags etc.The A65 had belonged to a chum – known as Mad Dog – who had stuffed it into the side of a Ford Cortina and bent the front forks some years before.

Babies and unemployment then curtailed his motorcycling activities and the frame was used as a drying rack for baby-gros, while the engine was a lounge ornament.
Mad Dog sold me these remains and they lived for a while in an enormous crate in my bedsitter.

Slowly – very slowly indeed, I began to customise the BSA – I sold the original metal side panels and petrol tank to buy various bits – like a set of piston rings from a dealer that were still marked up in  shillings and pence – and had the forks straightened for a tenner.

My A65, the Midnight Surfer

I also bolted on a pair of shocks from a GS850, some T-bars, a mini bates headlight and had a  round oil tank made, fitted a flat blade back mudguard and covered the fork tops with chrome exhaust trims for a Ford Escort

I had the wheels re-rimmed, bolted on a custom peanut tank and redesigned the electrical system so that it didn’t need a battery.

I gave the engine a rebuild – and was glad I had – the crankcase was full of Lego bricks deposited by Mad Dog’s offspring one wet afternoon.

Bungie-ing on the banana seat made it usable and I did actually ride round the block a few times on it.
I dragged the bike round flats and houses until it came to rest in the basement of the Welsh terraced house I fetched up in in the early 90s.

These days it would be called a Bobber. In 1990 it was just an old road bike with a custom tank on.
But just as babies and unemployment had stumped Mad Dog so they did me and after a while I got fed up with it cluttering up my basement, so I flogged it. I often wonder whether it ever ran again.

Suzuki A100 -Built to take on the country? The country would win on points
Mad Dog had also thrown in a worn out Suzuki A100 which my girlfriend of the time swore she would learn to ride on and then failed miserably to do so.
Actually this was quite wise. I rode the A100 a few times, and it felt like it had a hinge in the middle and the front end flopped about like a chicken’s lip*.

Another ridiculous moped came into my possession - this one was a Honda Express, which had a strange clockwork spring to start it up. you prodded this four or five times, pressed a leaver on the handlebars and the spring was released, pushing the crank round until the engine caught.

Watch out for that powerband. It's vicious

The Express was one of the first machines designed for lady riders since the Ariel Three and this starter mechanism was intended to make it more elegant to use. The spring on mine was broken, but i made do by tying a bicycle inner tube to the lever and the frame.

I also had fun for a while on a Yamaha SR500. This belonged to another chum, who was away from the UK for a few months in 1988 and wanted someone to look after it.

Unlike myself the owner, Clifford, a chap of mercurial temper who you would want in your corner when in a tight spot and definitely wouldn't antagonise under any circumstances, could actually fix a motorcycle properly and this bike was a cracker.
Clifford had a fine eye for detail, and did a beautiful job fettling the SR.
He was clearly born out of time, and should have been a rocker in the sixties - he subsequently built himself a Triton cafe-racer from parts.
The SR500 was Yamaha’s attempt to replicate the big British single cylinder machines of the 1960s by shoehorning the engine from their XT500 into a neat little road frame.

On Cliff's SR500 at Black Rock Gate in 1988

It vibrated nicely and would take your leg off at the ankle if you got the kickstarting procedure wrong. The girl who had owned it before Cliff had been unable to kick it over and had to get her boyfriend to start it up.

She would park it outside shops with the engine running and when she came out would find it had started to vibrate its way down the street without her.

I never had that sort of trouble with it – I lived at the top of a hill and could bump start it. And I made a point of never stopping the engine unless there was a handy slope about.

I'd have one like a shot today, If I could but find one

*I love this expression and nicked it from an old copy of AWOL magazine.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Oh this is clever

The very nice people at Real Classic magazine  have a thingy on their website that isolates all the cheap classic motorcycles seen on ebay for your perusal.

Anyone wishing to relive their youth/get on the road cheaply would do well to bookmark it....

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

I've got no unfinished sympathy at all...

It was around about this time that the DHSS decided that the welfare safety net was not actually designed to allow wasters in their mid 20's to sit around on their backsides fiddling with motorcycles, pretending to be in the music business and failing to learn the guitar.
These days of course I'm prepared to accept that it was after all designed to support the poor and underprivileged, and prevent the scenes of degradation that the country had seen in the 1920s.
At the time however it was harder to take. I had got away with it for three years, however, so I didn't have a great deal to complain about.
Damn, you Maggie Thatcher, and I was having so much fun, too.
My penchant for terrible business decisions reared its ugly head again, this time on its most spectacular occasion.
I was firmly convinced that the music business was ready for radical white boy soul punk, but I was approached by a chap who told me that he had just got back from London, where he had been to a few events which involved taking over warehouses and playing funk and dance tunes till the early hours.
These events were called "Raves" or "Warehouse Parties". He asked me If I would help organise a few in Bristol, but I turned him down. There was clearly no future in it. Last thing I heard he was heading for Ibiza with a camper van full of used tenners.
I was also contacted by a band who reckoned they were on to something big - a form of electronic dance music, which they called Trip-Hop, and wanted help promoting gigs. I turned them down too. After all, what sort of stupid name is Massive Attack?

There are nights when I don't wake up in a cold sweat about those decisions.
why, why must you haunt my dreams?

Well, there was a sort of recession on, and all the DHSS could manage to do was a successful attempt to force me into some sort of training.
This turned out to be that of riding the Morini to the Fishponds Skillcentre - a redundant army base turned into a selection of workshops - where we reluctant types were trained to become shoddy plumbers, brickies, hairdressers and, in my case, semi-skilled motor mechanics. Frankly I wasn't much good at it, but then neither were any of the other idiots on the course.
I had become reasonably competent as a bike mechanic, but cars had all sorts of strange bits on them like distributors,  track rod ends and universal couplings.
To give you an example of how inept we all were, consider that I came first in the electrical wiring test. And I'm colour blind.
Then there was the bloke who connected the heater hose on the lecturers Peugeot to the brake servo pipe on the carb manifold.
This filled his engine with water the first time he started it up, and snapped a conrod.
None of us were likely to make onto the McLaren pit crew.
After “qualifying” (and I use the term advisedly) I spent a week in a Lada dealership and I then managed to get a job servicing Renaults.
The job involved the following - change the plugs, change the oil, change the filters, change the brake pads – whether they needed it or not.
I also learned how to put on a driveshaft boot – a horrid job, and how to fix a starter motor by the addition of a £5 electrical component, then spray it blue, and tell the punter you'd fitted a new one and charge them £75.
The chief mechanic wisely kept me away from anything more complex.

While I was there I bought an old Wolseley 1300 automatic which had been traded in.
oooo what a lovely brown!

It wasn’t that great, but seeing as it had only done 20,000 miles from new, still had its original plastic seat covers on and was 20 years old was bit of a bargain at £50.
It should have come with a compulsory flat cap and pipe, a tissue box on the back shelf and a subscription to Peoples Friend.
The automatic gearbox had a two or three second delay before it kicked in, which meant plenty of angry toots from behind at traffic lights.
And it was fitted with sports radial tyres at the front and 20 year old crossply tyres at the rear. This made for some very interesting handling characteristics.

I drove around in it for a bit and added 10,000 miles to it. Its low mileage and simple construction  meant it was incredibly reliable which also meant it was often pressed into service to transport people long distances, but it didn’t suit me at all.
So I sold it for a hefty profit - the first time that had ever happened.
At about the same time I gave up being a motor mechanic, which was just as well for all concerned.
Events culminated one day when I had got so bored with the job that I accidentally fitted a set of brake pads the wrong way round. The owner never got their hands on it, and the mistake was quickly rectified but it was clear that wielding spanners for a living was not for me, and before I killed someone by my cackhandedness, I left the motor trade to drive a van for a living instead.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Origins: My dad buys himself a Christmas present

In the next proper instalment we move to four wheels, so where, one might ask, does this obsession with the internal combustion engine come from?

It is certainly at odds with anything in the way of good environmental practices, and I’m not that good a mechanic, or that good a rider or driver either, to be honest.
But as it is of course traditional these days to blame your parents for pretty much any psychological problems you might have I can honestly say I hold my father entirely responsible for my disease.
Experience of motorcycles in the family included the Coventry Eagle belonging to my uncle which my old man crashed into a wall - Uncle subsequently went on to own a number of BMWs, that were utterly luxurious motorcycles by the standards of the day. A cousin broke his back piling his early Honda Goldwing into a pedestrian barrier in central London.
My grandad had a Lambretta 200 which he and granny went touring on round Scotland and another uncle had a Triumph Bonneville, and later an MG Roadster (he also had an Original Model 50 air rifle, which I thought was cool as hell)

In my childhood, once the old man got driving, we had a motley collection of motorcars.
As a small boy I was driven around in an Austin A40 and an AC 2 litre – which had a wooden chassis – and the enormous pile the old man rented in a decaying part of Birmingham had a coach house big enough to put both in and also housed a rotting Morris Eight that was there when we moved in and which I used as a climbing frame.
Don't get the impression we had any money. This was in the days when you could still rent decaying piles for next to nothing as no-one wanted them, and they hadn't all been turned into luxury homes and flats. 
I found the old place on Google streetview a while back. It was surrounded with horrid nineties pseudo mansions and had a gravel drive. When I lived there the drive was made of old bricks and bits of bombsite, and we lived in two rooms because we couldn't afford to heat around two thirds of it.)
Later he had a Renault 8, and then a Renault 10, which he put through a hedge upside down into a field. Tricky handlers, those rear engined Renaults on icy roads.

A Renault 10 with a definite whiff of Gitanes and black roll neck sweaters

After the Renaults we went to BMC, looked briefly at an Vanden Plas Pincess (a Morris Oxford with very classy  coachwork and a huge 4 litre engine) and he bought a Wolseley 18/85 saloon, more commonly known as the Land Crab, because of its tendency to drift sideways. This much-loved motor had a class - I loved the grey leather seating and the fold down shelves in the back of the seats and the way the Wolesley badge lit up in the middle of the radiator grille. 

The pride of British engineering
In 1973 we started a chain of events that had a formative effect on my motor vehicle ownership in later life.

At the time I was 12, and morphing from short-trousered  child into monosyllabic teenager.

By now the old Wolseley was pretty much on its last legs, so one Saturday morning my father and I climbed into it and drove into the centre of Glasgow. 

Our first stop was a tiny, grimy back street garage run by a small balding dwarf-like man who wore a tie under his overalls and had oily fingerprints on his forehead. He certainly didn’t look like a car salesman and there appeared to be only one car on sale, a fairly new Mini – an unlikely choice for my dad.

But he led us through the workshop to the rear and there he pulled a dust sheet off a shape in the dark corner.

There before me was a vision of loveliness, surpassing anything I had ever seen in my short life.

It was a 1949 Lagonda two and half litre convertible coupe.
How could anyone not want this?

It was burnished gold, and swept dramatically from front headlights to duck tail. It had a tan leather roof that matched the tan leather seats, a polished wooden dash, deep chrome and it smelled of pure class.

It had less than 40,000 miles on the clock. It was of course entirely impractical and I was in love with it – and so was my dad.

The garage owner wanted £700 for it.

My dad said he would have to think some more.

“Beautiful, isn’t it son?” he said as we left, “Of course, your mother would kill me.”

Next stop was a big flashy Ford dealership on the Maryhill Road. There we found a practical vehicle – a red 1.6L Ford Cortina Mk3 estate. 

 fucking horrible

It had black vinyl seats, black plastic trim, a ghastly and tinny chrome radiator grille and was everything hideous there could be in a motor car – especially after the encounter with the Lagonda.

It cost £700. And of course the head ruled the heart and the old man bought it, as it turned out to his eternal regret.

It was uninspiring and broke down all the time. Even though it was only a few years old, bits fell off.

We had owned it for a year or so when the main bearing which ran the drive shaft fell apart – and that was when he cried "enough!".

By now it was nearly Christmas 1974, we had experienced power cuts and miners strikes and petrol had shot up in price from about 30p a gallon to 75p a gallon and all thanks to the Israelis and Arabs. Thank goodness times have changed, huh?

So the old man decided that we needed a new car, and that it should be cheap to run and practical – an estate was a good idea for family holidays, and after his frankly traumatic experience with the Cortina, he wanted something a bit more solid. An economical diesel engine was considered essential too.

The only estate car diesels in the market place were Mercedes or Peugeots. He considered a Peugeot, being impressed by the extra fold up seats in the boot, but rejected it as a bit too French. He was disdainful of Mercedes as having ideas above their station. “You dont see Rolls Royce making estate cars,” he said.

There was one other option that almost fitted the description: a LWB Land Rover Safari Diesel – in the days when Land Rovers were a good deal more agricultural than they are today. Yes dad – that’s a really good idea for commuting daily into the middle of the Scotland’s biggest city.

He phoned around and found one at a big Land Rover specialists near Greenock so he arranged a test drive.

Driving the Cortina, driveshaft and all to the dealers we parked it as far away from the salesman as possible and we hoped they couldn’t hear the dreadful graunching noise.

This was a classy establishment, with carpets in the showroom and restrained and besuited salesmen speaking quietly and urgently to the farmers that made up their clientele. 
And when we went through the doors, there it was in the centre of the floor.

A five year old  XJ6 4.2 Jaguar.

We went over and sat in the Jag.

It had leather and woodwork in spades, Walnut fold down trays in the back of the drivers seats, a built in VHF radio, an eight track tape player under the dash, electric windows and other things to impress the 13 year old me – like two petrol tanks, and two exhausts curving out of the back.
The keys were in it, and he switched it on. A whole Apollo 15's worth of lights shined on the dash.

It also did about 12 miles to the gallon, and had an automatic gearbox and a six cylinder engine with pistons the size of coffee mugs.

It was as far from a Land Rover as it was possible to get.

My dad turned and looked at me.

“What do you think of this, then?” he said.

“Its gorgeous, dad.”

He pressed the button that brought down the drivers window and beckoned the salesman over.

“This Jag,” he said, “I’ll take it.”

I don't think I'd ever seen him so happy.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Thing Of Beauty And A Joy Forever

It was August, 1986 and I was about to embark on a long love affair.

With my pockets full of disposable loot, I chugged over to the fair suburb of Knowle in the missus’ Hillman Avenger estate – of which more another time.

I was going to see a Moto Morini 350 Strada – more commonly known as the “three and a half” because of the unusual badging used by Morini.

Moto Morinis are Italian and Beautiful. Think Botticelli's Venus, rather than Ducati's Sophia Loren or Moto Guzzi's Gina Lolabridgida

A Moto Morini 350. Sort of.

The Morini was five years old and had seven previous owners. The current owner was a girl, a young student who had just split up with her biker boyfriend and had lost all enthusiasm for matters two wheeled.

The bike was a little dog-eared – all the chrome plate had fallen off the bike from the exhaust system to the headlamp brackets – something that was quite common in Italian motorcycles at the time – in fact even breathing on to the chrome was likely to start it flaking off.

The paint was a little tired, too, with bubbles of rust appearing around the petrol tank.

oily drainpipes, Rucanors, open face, goggles, red piping on the gloves, black silk scarf, almost a mullet. It must be 1986
No matter – this was my dream bike and I rode it 30 yards up the road, rode it back, gave the girl £350 and crobba-crobbed off into the evening sun, with a huge grin on my face.

(Crobba-crobba is the official noise of any Italian V-twin, by the way)

Well the first thing to do with the Morini was to get out and ride her.

So I did ride her, everywhere. The bike was a jewel, and there was hardly anything on the road at the time that could keep up on a country lane or a B-road – many a rider of a big Japanese four  came frightfully unstuck trying to keep up on the bends.

Theres nothing unnecessary on a Morini 350. You get a gorgeous lightweight engine, a brilliant frame, good sized petrol tank, and the rest is the best bits from Italian industry. Grimeca brakes and wheels, Marzocchi forks and shocks and even the electrical system works brilliantly.
The only duff bit on the bike was the starter motor. Which I solved by the complicated technical procedure of undoing three bolts and throwing it away. Nowt wrong with kickstarters.

The bare bones. Add an engine and its all a motorcycle needs

I‘d had her for six months when one night, remembering at around 2am that I hadn’t locked her.
I went outside and found she had been nicked.

I knew that she had an egg cup full of petrol in her tank – and  hoped against hope she had coughed to a stop nearby and frantically prowled the streets of St Andrews and Montpelier searching for my lovely bike, but she was nowhere to be found. Eventually I gave up and reported the loss to the police, resigned to never seeing her again.

The following morning a policeman knocked on my door.

They’d found my bike. In Camborne, Cornwall.

Two country boys had come to Bristol to look for work, spent a fortnight on the streets and then given up, stealing my bike to get home on.

I threw tent and sleeping bags into the back of the Avenger and the girlfriend and I headed south west.

I was convinced they had trashed my bike. But when I got to Camborne Police Station she was in better condition than she had been when she had been stolen. The tank was full of petrol, and the oil had been topped up too.

I spent a blissful week in Cornwall in glorious sunshine hacking that little Morini round some of the most perfect biking roads in the country. On occasion I even hoped the two lads didn’t get too badly clobbered for nicking the Morini.

Back home that October I was riding home from the Weston Super Mare beach race when the Morini shattered a valve spring. But because of the pretty unique nature of the engine, the valve did not bend on top of the piston - I even rode the bike ten miles home not realising I had a broken spring.

So I stripped her down for a much needed servicing, replaced as many of the rusty bits as I could, had the seat recovered, spent a fortune on a specialist paint job from Dream Machine  (that turned out to be rubbish), and fitted a pair of Tommaselli Gold Commander clip on handlebars.
Waldo DR Dobbs, my cat, is unfazed by the beauty of my Tomaselli Gold Commanders
This just made a great motorcycle brilliant.

The Morini remained my regular transport until the 1990s.

Then I was caught full in the face by the collapse of the late 80s economic miracle, negative equity and all.

I'd started a business two days before Sterling collapsed in 1989, and it all went downhill from there.
I went bust in 1992 and was declared bankrupt in 1993.

And the problem with that was, I wasn't allowed to have any assets worth more than £500. There was every chance the receivers would seize the Morini and sell it.

I was gutted, but There didn't seem to be anyway round it and keep within the law. The Morini was worth more than £500. And then, the day before I was expecting the receiver, I had a brainwave. As a complete motorcycle it was worth more than £500. But as a load of second hand motorcycle parts...

I set too with spanners and sockets, and by the time I'd finished I had three crates of oily parts, two wheels and an engine, worth.... well your guess is as good as mine. The receiver didn't even look at it. And I hadn't broken any rules.

So, 17 years later the Morini sits in my garage still stored in a collection of crates and cardboard boxes, and every so often I go and start to clean up parts with polish and a toothbrush.
Needless to say, a few bits have gone walkabout over the years - and if anyone has a set of 36mm Marzochis out there I'd be very grateful. I have acquired a new engine in the meantime though.
I consider the Moto Morini Three and a Half Strada to be very possibly the finest motorcycle ever built by anybody ever. The purest example of its form. You can keep your Harleys and your Honda Fireblades and your Triumph Bonnevilles. There is no better motorcycle.

One day I will see the return of La Dolce Vita.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Trophies and Dreams and Rock and Roll

After moving to Bristol I bought a Mobylette moped for a fiver to get about on, which was stolen within weeks, rather bizarrely.
I mention this for reasons of continuity only - this is All The Motor Vehicles I Have Ever Owned, after all

I then acquired my second MZ for a tenner.
This was a 1973 ES250 Trophy, a curious beast with leading link forks, which had been sprayed matt black and came with three tea chests full of spares and three spare wheels
A MZ ES250. Ghastly

A bargain you might think? Regrettably, unlike the first MZ, this one was abysmal. In fact the longest I ever got it to run for was five minutes, it was appalling to ride, having been designed by the East Germans to haul a sidecar and after riding it once I resolved never to ride it again. It was horrid.

I popped a small ad in the Evening Post to sell it, saying “offers invited” and a very strange man indeed with a foot-long white beard and appalling body odour turned up on my doorstep with his twin sons, neither of whom appeared to have a chin.

He went into paroxysms of delight over the MZ and offered me £50 for it. Then I told him I would throw in the spares and he got even more excitable and offered me £100. “So, you, er, like MZs do you?” I said. “Yes. I’ve got 9,” he said and he and sons took it all away
This was a relief as I hadn’t been able to use my shower for some weeks, as it was the only place I had to store the wheels.

Meanwhile the £80 I got for selling the Z400 financed a Blues and Psychedelia night at a night club in the middle of St Pauls.
In those rather more innocent days, one could actually do this without paying people off, operating as a front for something illegal or getting ripped off.
On the other hand, you couldn't actually make any money for anyone to rip-off playing John Lee Hooker and The Strawberry Alarm Clock back to back.
Then I began to "manage" a blues/soul trio called The Red Hot Knives - a sort of punk Booker T and the MGs - and there were many late nights and extremely early mornings, as the band were put on in obscure venues including a vegetarian cafe, a civil service social club and the splendidly named Demolition Ballroom, which one night after a rained off Ashton Court festival saw me join a well meaning bunch of lunatics mount a 12 hour blues/punk/protorap/acid rock spectacular at two hours notice.
My principle job was getting the Red Hot Knives there in one piece and soberish, calling the BBC to promote the gig, lugging the PA and keeping the rainwater from dripping on the mixing desk by holding a tarp over the sound engineer with a broom handle.

We packed around 700 people into the Ballroom that night, a squatted and squalid former furniture showroom which stole its power from a by-passed streetlight. My minor involvement in that night remains one of the things I'm proudest of. It were proper bonkers.

All of which has little to do with Motorcycles, but as the whole effort was financed by a worn out Z400 I felt it deserved a mention.

Anyway, I digress...
For £50 I bought  a mates Honda CB250T – this was cheap because he didn’t have the money to spend on a few bits it needed, like an exhaust system and a chain and sprockets.

The Honda wasn’t a half bad bike and was more than capable of getting me about in a fairly unexciting manner.

But that was the rub – unexciting – as stimulating as Thora Hird in a rubber basque.

I buggered about with it a little, ditching the enormous chrome back mudguard and fitting a white plastic moto-crosser one, along with a neat little trail-bike tail-light/number plate set up.

My CB250T, and the best angle to view it from

I found a small ad in the back of motor-cycle news for a company that sold budget exhaust systems - fifty quid for bare metal, or sixty for chrome. Being a cheapskate I bought the bare metal one, and sprayed it matt black. I had to take the stand off to make it fit, and it still took a few whacks with a hammer get it on. It looked great, until I started it up, and all the paint fell off.
The remainder of my ownership involved me battling to keep paint attached to the exhaust system. And here's a tip. Never use Hammerite to paint an exhaust system. The smoke produced as it melts is impressive and probably toxic.

Then, in April 1986 the insurance company decided to accept that my XJ 650 – stolen some two years previously – really was not going to turn up again and paid out. Finally I could get myself a really good motorcycle.

I had hard cash, and, as the Honda was running well, I had no real urgent need for a new bike. Which meant that I could take some time to look for a really good one.

Most motorcyclists have wish lists. On mine were a Laverda Jota, A Ducati V-twin (either a 900ss or a Pantah would do) the gorgeous little Moto Morini 350 V-twin and the Yamaha XS650 Custom – but I had resigned myself to never finding any of them in my price range in the near future.

The morning I got the £700 insurance cheque I was idly scanning the columns of Motor Cycle News over a full Irish breakfast - a pint of Guinness and a John Player Special - in the bar of the Old England.
An advert almost leapt off the page at me.

“1980 Moto Morini 350 Strada. £350. no offers. call Bristol.....”

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A series of unusual events

After the death of the Honda, a mate lent me a Suzuki TS250 trail bike to get about on and visit the posh bird, which was huge fun. As was the Suzuki.
It looked cool as hell, too, or would have done except the owner had decided to stick enormous peace dove stickers on the petrol tank which rather ruined its hard as nails image

more on a lovely TS250 here

There was a bit of an issue with the exhaust pipe as well.
One can almost imagine the design discussions in Japan when they put this baby together.
"What shall we build Michio-san?"
"Let us build a trail bike, with a powerful engine of our own construction. Let it be rorty and rapid with a comfortable seat and a cool looking petrol tank, and good ground clearance, and a silencer with a funky chrome heat shield as well."
"What shall we make it out of, Michio-san?"
"Let us use the best quality steel and aluminium. Except for the exhaust pipe. For that we shall use the scrap metal we've got left over from those Zero fighters rusting in the scrapyard. Bash it as thin as you can. Then bend it in a ridiculous curve, and stick it right at the front behind the front wheel, where it'll catch all the crud from the road. Don't bother to rust proof it either."
The somewhat perforated nature of the exhaust meant the bike was a bit conspicuous. I tried to fix it with buckets of gun gum, jubilee clips and baked bean tins, to no avail.

After a while the owner took it back – so he could posh it up, and sell it to buy baby clothes, which was a depressingly common event among my chums, and I bought a Kawasaki Z400 twin from another mate for £80.

This was pretty much worn out and very sloppy – the handling was best described as approximate and it didn’t so much accelerate as inexorably gather momentum.

The brakes didn’t.
A curious bike, the Z400 twin. There's Kawasaki making balls-out mental double overhead camshaft fours and insane two stroke triples and they also manage to come up with this rather pedestrian overweight single cam twin. 

The Z400 would not have had much impact on me but for an incident one summer afternoon.

I had been out on the bike and parked it up outside my local, just a quater-mile from home. After a mildly boozy lunch involving the quaffing of three or four pints – on a weekday too, those were the days – I was intending to leave the bike and stagger home on foot – but for some reason I decided not to and got on the bike – stuffing my gloves inside my jacket as it was high summer, and jamming my helmet on without fastening it.

Five yards from my house, travelling at 10mph, I wobbled, hit a patch of gravel and the Z400 spat me off. My hands were ripped open as I hit the deck, and my jeans torn open at the knees.

I was covered in blood and went to hospital where the somewhat unsympathetic nurses plucked gravel from my wounds with tweezers, told me to stop whimpering and patched me up. I still have the scars on my left hand and left knee.

It was August 1984 – the last time I used a motor vehicle with any measurable quantity of booze in my system.

In September a series of curious events drew me into a strange bit of business  involving several members of a religious cult who declared that they wanted to kill me.
They were upset that I had loudly and drunkenly told a crowded pub one night that their preffered conversion technique of filling their targets with LSD laced herbal tea and telling them about the mysteries of the universe wasn't exactly kosher, and that I felt you couldn't buy enlightenment for £2.50 a tab. This angered their guru.

Threats of violence towards me were made. My flat was invaded by menacing figures at strange times of the day and night. A fire was started in the hallway.
And so I stiffened my upper lip,  summoned up all my courage, and I bravely ran away.

Stopping off only briefly to tell the posh bird that her parents were entirely right, and she'd be better off without me (which didn't go down too well), I rode off on the Z400 and hid myself away working in a Dutch tulip bulb packing plant  for five weeks, before returning home in the dead of night, gathering up my meagre possessions and heading for a bolt hole in North Devon owned by a platonic lady friend.

The Z400 was pressed into service as I hacked backwards and forwards to Exeter during a pretty nippy winter once a fortnight to sign on, and I learned the virtues of a hard days graft chopping wood for the AGA and the benefits of a four mile walk to the pub.
This is my actual Z400 and is the oldest photograph I have of one of my vehicles. Note the blown fork seals, rusty-o-matic exhaust and broken headlight glass from where I'd dropped it outside the flat.

After a few months of this pretty bucolic existence my welcome was exhausted so I decided it was time for a new start.
I loaded the Z400 again and headed for Bristol.
The Zed's sloppiness had been fairly easy to cope with on Devon country lanes, where the worst things one might come across were a tractor or an unexpected cow. In the big city, a sluggish, lurching, heavy beast with approximate braking and a dodgy ignition system was something of a deathtrap.
A burgeoning career in the music promotions business was beckoning, so I flogged the Z400 to a secondhand shop for £80 and spent the money on venue hire, gig posters and wallpaper paste.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

A short life but a happy one

 I had no money, no job and no wheels, and was suffering severe case of heartbreak.
Things were desperate.
What I did have, however, was a few top mates who got me drunk and, fortunately, the £300 payout for the CB250RS arrived through the post.
Most of it got quickly swallowed up paying off bank debts, but a quick scan of the classifieds revealed a  1972 Honda CD175  for sale.
It was the in gardening equipment section marked at £75ono.

The CD175 had once been red, but had faded to a sort of pink, and the ancient (i.e. over 40) owner had chugged around on it for most of its life in an undemanding fashion. I offered him fifty quid and he pretty much snapped my hand off shaking on the deal.

A CD175. Not mine, but you get the general idea...

This machine was almost identical mechanically to the CB200 I had passed my test on, but while the CB had no soul whatsoever, the CD had it by the bucket load.
Honda had made huge quantities of them, and they worked. It was the sort of motorcycle that died out in the early eighties and has never really returned.
It had one carb rather than two, big deeply valanced mudguards, chrome panels on the tank, shrouds and nacelles everywhere and ancient Speedmaster tyres with cracked sidewalls.
I thought it looked fab.
I'd started to judge vehicles not by what they looked like parked next to other people bikes,  but by what it made me feel like.
The little CD made me feel bullet proof. While noisier chums with loud exhausts, denim cut-offs and bad attitudes rapidly saw the points mount up on their licences, on the CD in my battered wax cotton Belstaffs I was invisible to the law.

In those halcyon days  you could just sign on and pick a bit of work here and there cash in hand. I'll never forget going to the dole office one day to sign on and seeing a bloke pull up outside in a van, jump out in paint covered overalls, run in, sign on and run out again to get back to work.
With the odd days work and with nothing better to do with my time I chugged around in the glorious spring and early summer of 1984.
A chum introduced me to a friend of his girlfriend. Roberta was a 17 year old posh horsey girl with a double-barrelled name and a naughty glint in her eye who fell for my devil-may-care charm and rakish good looks (ahem), and I would hack out to Sidmouth of an afternoon and pick her up from sixth-form on it.

Her parents decided I was a bad influence on her, and they were dead right.

Though to be fair, she was a pretty bad influence on me as well.
Her father banned me from the house so I'd ride the CD out on warm June evenings, to a farm gate near the tumble down small mansion she lived in and she'd leave by the bedroom window and leg it down the drive.
Many a close call was had getting her back home from secret trysts and young farmers discos, her pissed on cider and black, me with a sore neck from the headbanging to the Quo and also from the copious love bites.

Ah, dear dead days, beyond recall.

I think all this excitement was bit much for the CD, and in the end after just three months the little beggars heart gave out.
The posh girl was doing her A levels, and so at the end of June I hammered up the A303 alone to spend a few days at what turned out to be the very last Stonehenge Free Festival.

"I'm in the brown tent,  next to the transit"

This isn't me, and its not my CD175. But if the CD had been pinky-red, I expect I looked like this at some point.

Pictures from the very wonderful

I had a great time, saw The Enid and Here and Now and some fabulous dub acts and was bored by Roy Harper.
But it was my third Stonehenge and I could see that sadly it had been getting out of hand. That year had seen heroin on sale openly for the first time and got the feeling that this particular game was up, a year before The Battle of the  Beanfield.

All things must pass.

After three days I headed for home and was just outside Ilminster when there was a big BANG. Suddenly the air was filled with a cloud of white smoke from the left hand exhaust.

The engine kept running, but performance was halved, so I chugged home at 30mph, stopped at my local for a reviving ale, got back on it and rode it the quarter of a mile home,  parking it up outside my flat. It never ran again I took the cylinder head off and found that the middle of the left hand piston had completely disintegrated, but despite the chunks of broken alloy rattling round in the engine, the CD still got me home.
Probably the second best fifty quid I've ever spent.

I still feel a bit guilty about treating it so badly.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Do you want to fly?

It's the early winter of 1983.
My Honda CB250RS is toast.
There's no courtesy vehicles for the victims of motor accidents. There's pretty much one motorcycle insurer, Norwich Union. Claims, even ordinary ones, take six months to a year to settle - theres no no-win/no-fee solicitors prepared to make a fat wedge fighting your corner. Compensation is almost unheard of.
There's no phones, certainly in the sort of bedsitters I was slobbed out in, so you can't hassle the insurance company for your money, and everything has to be done by post.
But it didn't stop me from needing wheels in a hurry.
I had the £700 I had scraped together to buy the GPZ550 with, but that was it, the other £400 the GPZ would have cost was in a pile of bent metal  and broken plastic.
The dealer I had intended to buy from had nothing for that sort of money, and neither had anyone else.
So in those pre-ebay days, it was off to the classified section of the local paper.
I scanned the small ads and found a  silver four-year-old XJ 650 Yamaha.

                                           An XJ650. Mine wasn't as pretty as this.

The XJ was a UJM. A Universal Japanese Motorcycle. Four cylinders, two camshafts, electronic ignition, and a shaft drive. It was Yamahas third generation four-stroke - They had ironed out the drive train problems they had with the XS750, but, irritatingly for Yamaha, who had spent millions developing it, the XJ was always in the shadow of the much older XS650 twin - to the extent that it is rumoured the bosses stopped making the XS650 even though it was selling well, because it was getting embarrassing competing with themselves.
To be honest there was something dubious about the bike I had found. It was far too cheap, for a start. The seat had been been given a new cover, which seemed odd for such a new bike. The tank looked very tatty, with a poor quality spray can paint job.
There was a big rust bubble appearing on one exhaust.
But I liked the look and feel of it, and the big engine and the shaft drive, so I bought it.

This is the sort of thing I was listening to when I bought my Silver Yamaha XJ 650.

Bet you can't guess what I called the bike.

The one other 'proper' biker  I knew who wasn't prepared to go into hock for a new bike each time he wanted a change, or hadn't been seduced by BMW, was the mechanic at the petrol station I worked at.
He took a look at the XJ 650 and pronounced it a bag of nails.
I reckoned he was jealous I'd got such a bargain, and besides, as he was on the second bottom-end rebuild on his CB900FA he could hardly talk.
I cut a deal with the garage's paint shop - If I prepped the tank, they'd give it a good paint job for me.
I spent hours rubbing it down ready for a new coat of silver. And that’s how I found out why it had been so cheap.
The petrol tank was full of holes. Other evidence showed the bike had been in a fire and been left for a while covered in water and fire extinguisher foam. This had rusted through the bottom of the tank and the exhaust system.
The bloke I‘d bought it off had just slapped paint over the holes it the tank until it had been resealed.
I'd been riding round on a 120mph firebomb.
But with the help of the now very smug mechanic a proper repair job and spray was effected.
He brazed me a plate over the hole in the exhaust and the bike, now christened the Silver Bullet, was starting to come right.
It wasn't perfect by any means - for a start, it now took me 15 minutes to get to work, instead of 11, which was odd.
The mechanic swapped his CB900FA for a Yamaha  RD350LC and we swapped bikes for a few days, and I realised that fast and light was what I liked, not big and powerful -  I didn't want to give the LC back, but he didn't want to keep the XJ.

Still, Spring was coming, and then Summer, and I had pockets full of cash, and a great big motorcycle. Things were looking good.

And then I had the worst day of my life.

And of course, it involved a girl.

I'd been offered a job as a trainee manager at a city filling station, there was more money, and I wouldn't have a long journey to work. It had "prospects".

I took the job.
And there was the girl. The girl who I was hopelessly besotted with. Real unrequited heartache, the kind you only get when you are young and impetuous. I'd known her for two years, and got absolutely nowhere.
And then one day I invited her to dinner and she said yes. I had a bath, bought a bottle of Muscadet and a couple of steaks, Went to my new job and, as I didn't have a fridge in those days, took the bottle to the filling station and chilled it at the back of the fizzy drinks fridge. I did my shift, went home, picked her up on the bike, cooked her dinner, we drank the wine and had the single most disastrous romantic evening either of us ever had.

And when we got up the following morning, trying to avoid looking at each other, I went to the window, and saw that someone had nicked my XJ650, which I hadn't locked up as I had been too busy trying to be cool.

So the girl and I parted company, I reported the theft to the police,  I walked to work, and on arrival was fired for having alcohol on the premises the previous day.

I saw the XJ650 again 3 weeks later. It had been sprayed black, had the plate changed, and that was it. It was also in the possesion of a well known local sociopath. I wrote it off as a dead loss.
I was unemployed, heartbroken, single, skint and had no wheels.

Could be worse, right?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Little Flyer

After five months on the dole, and an abortive attempt to train as a fighter controller for the RAF I got a job pumping gas at a local filling station. 60 hours a week, covered in diesel and smelling of petrol, in all weathers on a forecourt that was open to the elements and hand cranking the old diesel pump when the power went off in winter - we had the contract for the council as we were the only filling station with a pump that could be hand cranked to fill the snow ploughs. I loved it. It paid twice what i'd earned in insurance, and I could wear jeans and didn't have to wear a tie.
I cycled the five miles into work most days through glorious Devon countryside, until I'd scraped a few quid together and it was time for another vehicle. The barely-used CB500T was gathering dust.

All the advice I had been given by some older bikers was that there were two good dealers in Exeter – they had started trading back in the 1920s and were run by horny-handed, oil-spattered, sons of toil.

There was also one brash newcomer which had carpets on the floor, computers instead of parts books and salesmen who wore suits. The general opinion was that this garage was to be avoided.

 I looked at their stock which mostly contained a collection of three- and four-year-old 550cc fours and 1,000cc behemoths, and there, lurking unnoticed in the corner was a Honda CB250RS.

This was unlike any of Honda’s usual offerings, and was a lightweight 250cc single cylinder machine with the engine from the XL250 trail bike, fitted with balance shafts to smooth the vibes, spoked wheels, lovely little shorty megaphones and nothing unnecessary  that might make it heavier, like starter motors.

I sat on it and it just seemed right. It fitted me perfectly. There was brief haggle, they gave me twice what I had expected for the 500, sorted out the finance, and bunged me a free crash helmet into the bargain.

Riding the little Honda back home I loved it instantly. The little beast flew along – 92 mph top speed, the slickest gearchange I had ever come across, handled like it ran on rails and did about 75mpg.

It was comfortable and felt beautifully put together and was more than capable of keeping up with bikes twice its size.

I had moved from the countryside to the fleshpots of Exeter, and found I could cover the 13-mile journey to work in 11 minutes.

I had plenty of time to spare at the garage, an inexhaustible supply of paraffin to keep her squeaky clean and free Duckhams hypergrade  from the garage tanks meant she had oil changes every 1,000 miles so she stayed in mint condition.

God, I loved that little flyer and went everywhere on her,, chased girls, hurtled through the night on gallant missions and insane adventures, found the great biking roads that were the Sidmouth Loop and the A39 Coast Road. One of which has been ruined by speed cameras and the other by a dual carriageway.

View Larger Map

the Sidmouth Loop

After a year-and-a-half of ownership I was on a trip to London when, outside the UK headquarters of Honda in Chiswick, there was a loud spang.

The gearbox had fallen apart. This was a disaster – second-hand engines were pretty thin on the ground, but  I found a scrap engine with a good gearbox in Sarf Lunnon and made an awful attempt to repair it using a socket set from Argos in a my mothers garden shed in Twickenham.

I didn't set the balance shafts properly and it vibrated like a jack hammer - so I rode to Woking and stuck it on the train.

I managed to fix her properly back at the filling station, but she was, sadly, never really the same again, which was down to my cack-handedness.
So one Saturday I reluctantly decided to replace her, with something a bit larger and went down to another dealer where I put a deposit down on a Kawasaki GPz550 which I intended to pick up the following weekend.

But as ever things didn’t quite turn out according to plan.
Four days to the weekend, when I was due to go and pick up my new GPz550 I was making my way out of Exeter to work on a wet Tuesday morning when I saw a large grey Mercedes leaving the car park of the main police station. He saw me, stopped at the entrance with his bonnet sticking out into the road, I pulled out towards the middle of the road to avoid the Merc.

Then, with just 10 yards to go, the driver decided that he could clear the car park before I reached him. He was wrong. I hit the Merc fair and square a foot behind the front wheel, flew over the handlebars, bounced off his bonnet and slid 50 feet on my back across the main road, coming to a rest with a bump against the kerb.

I lay there for a minute – but didn’t seem to be in any pain. That meant either I was the luckiest man in the world or I was dead. Eventually the traffic stopped and I got up. Entirely unscathed, I walked shakily back across the road where my bike was embedded firmly in the side of the Merc. The driver of the Merc got out and looked at me. I looked at him. He looked sheepish. “Sorry, Ollie mate,” he said – we drank in the same pub.

She was no more – and so, sadly was my deal for the GPz550 – I had nothing to part exchange and there was a long wait in the pipeline before the insurance company paid out.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Three wheels on my wagon....

Ahh the Reliant three wheeler – what a piece it was.
a Reliant Regal 21e
First of all let me correct an oft-used expression which, for former and current owners, raises hackles everytime it is heard.

It is not Robin Reliant. It is Reliant Robin.

A Reliant Robin- Completely Different
And Del Boy did not drive a Reliant Robin – he drove a Reliant Supervan III.
A Supervan III - different again, see...

Reliant actually produced some surprisingly good motor cars – not least the Scimitar, a sports estate much loved by the horsey set after Princess Anne bought one.
And for a few years in the 1990s – when BMW owned Rover – Reliant was in fact the largest British-owned motor manufacturer.

My Reliant Regal 21E (so called because it had 21 extras - carpets were just one of the many luxuries)  was not really a classy piece of motoring heritage.

One of the curious vagaries of the British motor vehicle licensing system is that you can drive a three-wheeled vehicle on a full motorcycle licence, or a full car licence.

In the days when a motorcycle test was easy to pass many a biker turned unexpected  family man would resort to the Reliant as transport for his surprise offspring.

I got the Reliant not because I had an urgent familial need, but because the boss of the insurance company I was working for insisted that I had a motor car for my rounds.
Personally as my rounds included one of the South West’s more notorious council estates – naming it Burnthouse Lane was not exactly a good omen – I felt that a big noisy motorcycle and a helmet was more likely to scare off muggers after the cash bag full of £2 pound a week premiums I had to carry around every day.

So without a car licence, but able to drive a three wheeler on a motorbike licence, a Reliant it had to be.
All I could afford was a 20-year-old example, which had doors that shut when they felt like it as they were coming away from the fibreglass body work, and in which the driver’s seat had collapsed so a fruit crate had been jammed under it so I could see over the steering wheel.
This amazing piece of kit cost me £300.
Nobody would travel in it with me, apart from my girlfriend, who had to, and I bounced off pedestrian barriers and grass verges in country lanes in it, leaving piles of glass fibre dust all over Devon for four months.

Then, travelling home from a Hawkwind/23 Skidoo/Gong festival in North Devon, the thing blew its head gasket.

It took a week to find a garage that was prepared to do the job, as to work on the engine you had to do one half of the job from under the bonnet, and the other half through plastic panels inside the cabin. it took them another three weeks for them to do it. It cost me £300 - as much as the car had cost - to get it fixed and three weeks after that I was fired from the insurance job for general incompetence.

With the Honda 500 still pretty unhealthy it was my only set of wheels and sufficed as I searched for alternative employment, without success.

Then one day there was a dreadful metal-on-metal graunching sound and it stopped again.
A “mate” offered to take a look at it and pronounced it knackered, and offered me £20 for it "for spares".

Skint and unemployed I took his £20 and spent it on Clan Dew fortified wine and food. The girlfriend and I got drunk for two days.
The “mate” promptly bought a second-hand distributor from a Mini from a scrapyard for a tenner, bunged it in the Reliant and flogged the thing for £300.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

What's brown and sticky?*

look at the styling on the CB450. who'd want a t120 Bonneville after seeing that?
In 1965, Honda introduced to the world a groundbreaking motorcycle. Their biggest machine to date, it was a world away from anything the then dominant British motorcycle industry had on offer.
The CB450 was a twin, like its rivals. But that was as close as the similarities went.
It had two overhead camshafts, rather than none in the case of BSA, Triumph et al. It had an electric starter. It didn't vibrate your fillings out. It was fast. It didn't leak oil in vast quantities.
The Brits were using designs that dated back to the Second World War.
Honda were looking forward, with an engine featuring about six yards of cam chain, a wet sump, horizontally split crankcase and something exotic called "torsion bar" valve operation.
It was the CB450T, with its high spec switches, deep chrome and reliability that started the killing off of an industry that had once bestraddled the world.
The fact that it didn't handle worth a damn meant nothing to the open minded.

The CB450 went through various guises until Honda finally killed it off in 1978 in favour of the equally ground breaking CX500.
the cb500t. very 70's and not in a good way

Unfortunately for me, I bought a 1975 model in 1981. And by then the CB500t (as it had become)  was pretty much dead meat.
I liked the slabby, chunky look of the thing, bedecked as it was in chocolate brown paint and a top-box the size of a starter home. But I soon found it handled like a greased pig and was impossibly gutless compared to chums GS550s and XS500s.
I‘d had the 500T three weeks when disaster struck.
The starter motor clutch, essentially three metal slugs in a metal ring which were held in with biro springs, fell apart under all the vibration and the various bits whirled around inside the generator housing, destroying the whole thing.
I took it back to Hutchings, who looked at me blankly when I said that I'd paid £700 for it three weeks ago and I really felt they had some responsibility to fix it.
They suggested it had been ridden hard. I pointed out I had started it 40 times since I'd bought it and felt starter motor clutches should last a bit longer than that.
They said things about how expensive Honda parts were and how hard they were to get.
I said things about trading standards and the Sale of Goods Act and goods of merchantable quality.
They reluctantly gave me a Honda trail bike of dubious legality with next to no no teeth on the back sprocket to use while they tried to source the parts.

After a fortnight the trail bike was unrideable, and they gave me a Garelli moped instead as it was "the only thing we've got to spare" for my 30 mile a day round trip to work.
It blew up in four weeks.
Hutchings said they had still not been able to get a new generator from Japan and they had run out of bikes for me to destroy.
The mechanic at Hutchings managed to mend the old generator so worked a little bit - just enough to keep the ignition circuit running, but not enough to charge the battery
They gave me a spare battery and a charger told me to run it as a total loss system

One autumn evening I had been out for a ride on the Honda, when I was pulled by a motorcycle policeman on a Norton Commando, as I'd been doing 65 mph in a 30mph zone.

The conversation with the copper went as follows:
Officer: “Do you know how fast you were going, sonny?”
Me: “Yes, about 60.”
Officer: “Well, why were you going so fast? In a hurry to get somewhere were we?”
Me: “Well, the thing is, my lights don’t work properly, so I was trying to get home before it got dark.”

There was a pause. The copper looked as his notebook and I could see him weighing up the paperwork that was approaching.

He sighed: “Well,” he said: “You‘d better piss off home before it does, then...”

Try doing that with a speed camera.

It took Hutchings four months to get a new generator. A starter clutch was apparently unobtainable.
I told them to fit the generator and I'd wait for one to be hand carved in Hammamasutu. As I picked up the bike the old school mechanic, who was fed up with his boss lying admitted that the genny was a second hand one, and there was no point in waiting for a starter clutch because the crank had been so damaged a new one couldn't be made to fit.
It was an inauspicious start to two years of ownership. I lived with a kickstarter and hauled the ill-handling pig around for a while - I fitted a screen, got stuck in blizzards on Dartmoor, patched the holes in the silencers with gun-gum, went on weekend rallies, learned to look after it so I was merely inept rather than cack-handed, commuted on it every day in all weathers, met gurls, and all that stuff.
Moved in with a girl, split up, moved out, came to be a victim of unemployment in Thatchers Britain (though to be fair it was because I was rubbish at my job, which was not Thatchers fault), and went back to mum and dad, a bit sheepishly.
It was parked up next to the shed, where it stayed for six months, rusting quietly.

*a stick