Friday, 27 May 2011

Six months with a Dingbat

Next purchase was back to two wheels, and I bought a Japanese import Suzuki Bandit 400 Sling Shot from Morses Motorcycles in Weston-super-Mare.

Before the Bandit bloated out to 600 and 1200cc the 400 was the bike that really started the explosion in naked Jap bikes in the late 80s.
Real Motorcycle, ahoy!

Morses didn't seem to know what to do with it, and punted it out for £900, even though it had only done 10,000 miles and was shinier than a shiny thing. Because it was a Jap Import, rather than a UK spec one it was faster and had better goodies on it - mirrors and indicators and the like.

After years of cheap cars and the cool but stodgy rattlyness of my XS650, this bike re-kindled my love of Motorbiking.

The Bandit was an astoundingly fast machine for a 400, howled along at a hell of a rate of knots and the supension was so good and the engine was so smooth that you could barely feel the road – it was like riding one of those light cycles in Return of the Jedi.

I christened it the Dingbat and used it for six months, enjoying it immensely.

It was the first motorbike I took my kids - by then 9 and 11 - out on. The older one got off looking slighty shaken but grinning, and the younger one just shouted "Faster, dad! Go Faster!" in my ear as we rode along at a speed I had felt was entirely adequate.

The only trouble with it was the build quality – bolts would snap off if you showed them a spanner.

It was put to pretty unsuitable use commuting, howled into central Bristol to drop the Missus off and howled out again down to Clevedon on the coast, then flat out on the way home all along the motorway.
Not the gentlest of treatment for a little watch like 59bhp screamer.

Then I found I had to buy a new tyre after just a few thousand miles. It came as something of a shock, after years of chunky old tyres for chunky old customs to find that soft compound sports bike tyres  cost an absolute bloody fortune.

I also found that many dealers would only change tyres for sports bikes in pairs which was a fast route to bankruptcy  – so on the market it went and was sold to a kid from Reading, who I feel sure had loads of fun on it.

Not a very exciting tale, I know, but sometimes thats all there is. A very good motorcycle, that works very well, but you don't engage with it, and its gone.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Home again home again, jiggity jig

So there we were, battered old Ford Escort filled to the brim with icky diesel – this is not what you want to happen to a petrol engine, especially when you are around 1,000 miles from home – although I do believe that the result of a tank full of petrol in a diesel car can be even more dramatic.

There was much latin handwaving from the garage proprietor and proclamations of an innocent mistake.

However he didn’t let me off paying for the tankful, and mysteriously produced, as if from nowhere, a number of enough 25 litre drums and a length of hosepipe and swiftly siphoned the contents of the tank into them giving him with 50 litres of diesetrol.

Unfortunately he left about 10 litres of diesel in the bottom, and the Escort ran comfortably after that for about a mile and a half before the top speed dropped to about 20 miles an hour, the engine started to bang and splutter, and it looked like the grand tour was at an end.

I had visions of being trailered back to the UK, and managed to crawl back to the caravan park where I spent a couple of days with my head under the bonnet all the while being fed Peroni and Pizza trying to clean everything out, until the top speed made 40mph.

This was still not enough to get us home again, but a new set of spark plugs and some carburettor cleaner bought at a massive italian hypermarket – the place is a petrolhead’s paradise I tell you – sorted it.

With the Escort recovering its form we spent six days driving around the stunning villages on the shores of Lake Garda, then headed back to the UK, car stuffed in every available orifice with bottles of wine.

Lake Garda. Completely stunning.

We drove past Milan – which is like Birmingham with sunshine, and where they sell bottles of wine with pictures of Mussolini on them and eventually headed up into the Alps again on the Italian toll roads – which were much less expensive than I thought they would be.

The views and the atmosphere were something else. As the air got thinner the wounded Escort’s engine gasped and struggled until the top speed was down to 40 mph and the missus got a nose bleed,

After the climb up the Alps we made it to the Frejus Tunnel which is 15 miles long and the border between France and Italy. After a serious accident in the Mont Blanc tunnel a few years before some extremely strict safety measures had been introduced.
brace yerselves kids, we're going in

Cars had to travel at no more than 40mph, which was handy for us as it was all we could manage, and had to leave a gap of 150 metres between them and the driver in front.

We had two more stops to go.
The first was just north of Avignon where my battered appearance clearly marked me down as local – I got asked for directions twice. The site was deserted, as the French holiday season had finished.

Then we headed over the mountain roads of the Massif Central to a campsite where we met our first compatriots in a fortnight

After the friendly Luxemburgers and Italians and the polite French and Germans I now realise why the British have such a boorish reputation.
The place was packed with Brits on trips to Disneyland, and they were mostly awful. There they were in France, home of the finest food in Europe, apparently, and all they wanted was chips and beer.

They shouted at their children and their children shouted back, and they were only interested in Disneyland and complaining that the pool table didn't work, or exchanging tips on the best way to get 50kg of Golden Virginia rolling tobacco past customs.

One thing I did spot in small towns all across Europe was the number of war memorials.

These days it is quite common to hear from whiny lefty historians that the British are obsessed about the Second World War and how it is “time to move on”.

But it’s not just us, because all over northern Italy there are signposts pointing to German military war memorials to this Wehrmacht regiment or that SS battalion and at the same time dedicated to the 7th Armoured Division. The Italians sell Hitler wine and Mussolini memorabilia.

A cheeky little number, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption

The French are the same – every small town we passed through had its “Museum of the Resistance”, or at least a plaque reading: “On zis spot in 1943, the Maquis destroyed an important strategic German bicycle” or some such.

"Eh senor, don't tell Mr Churchill, but most of us are Spanish Communists"

Leaving Paris I finally succumbed and splashed on an autoroute toll for the run to Calais, stopping on the way at a French Macdonalds, because the kids were getting restive about the constant diet of fresh bread and great cheese and wanted something bland, and I wanted to see if you really could buy a beer in a MacDonalds – you can – this one sold 1664.

We chugged onto the ferry and spent some time being smelly in the first class lounge, just because we could, and then chugged off at the other side to be presented with customs – we got singled out by the officers who clearly figured that in such an old car we were running contraband booze and fags.

“Can you tell me where you have been sir?”


The look was disbelieving, but they checked the car and our documents and we were waved through, the customs officer shaking his head.

The final stretch, from Dover to the M25 was about as miserable a journey as you can have, dodging the asylum seekers who had climbed out of the backs of the lorries and were walking up the M20, and then into the ghastly traffic jams of south London, all I wanted to do was turn the Escort round and head back to civilisation, sharpish.

Sadly the trek pretty much finished off the Escort and within three months it had failed its MoT and been carted off on the back of a lowloader. Still, what a way to go.

In the footsteps of Hannibal

If you were going to do a grand tour of Europe with a family of four what vehicle would you choose? An Aston Martin? A Mercedes or Volvo estate? A big 4x4?

I bet you wouldn’t try it in a 13-year-old 1.3 litre three-door Ford Escort Popular with 170,000 miles on the clock.

I'd been without a vehicle beyond dear old Cassius the XS650 for a bit,  and had been using the new bird's Ford Fiesta Popular - 900cc's of raw Dagenham Power.

The Fiesta was a handy little thing, but she was offered The Escort cheaply – £400 from a relative – so she flogged the Fiesta for £25, whence it became a festival run-around, was the abode of a young homeless couple on a patch of waste ground, and ended its days dramatically being used in a ram-raid,which was a suitable end for a vehicle of such impeccable Norf Laaadon origins.

The Escort was a beltingly good little car and provided had provided sterling service for three years, pottering back and forth to work with little maintenance.

When I was offered the chance to try out a Eurocamps holiday free of charge a grand tour was planned – England to Italy and back, and after a few fruitless attempts to borrow a bigger car the Escort was pressed into service.

The first stop was to be Luxembourg. Being a cheapskate, I wasn’t going to use the French toll roads, so we chugged though Northern France, across the First World War battlefields through Amiens, across the Somme, and down to Sedan, all of which the little Escort took in its stride – which is more than I can say for the cramped occupants.

We discovered that the French were not too keen on letting us find Belgium, because all the road signs only pointed to French towns, not Belgian ones, and the French roads were appalling.

Over the border into Belgium and through the Ardennes forest, the long sweeping roads through the forests were a godsend after the stop-start of the French villages, we were through Belgium and into Luxembourg in a few hours, where the roads were even better, and the welcome fulsome – and they had the cheapest petrol in Europe.

what the Ardennes looks like

What every English schoolboy since 1945 thinks the Ardennes looks like

An early start saw us heading for Germany and across the border at  Trier, stopping at a German site near Stutgart with a high speed rail line down one side.
We made the astonishing discovery that Germany closes on Saturday lunchtimes for the weekend, which rather curtailed our food intake, though not the beer intake as the campsite staff had kindly stocked the fridge so it was beer, ham, bread rolls and cheese for tea.

So far the Escort’s performance was faultless. On the following day we had to make it to Italy, on the same day as England were playing Germany in Munich at football, which resulted in some fairly good-natured barracking from minibuses full of German football fans. And my word, the Germans drive fast – why on earth they don’t have more accidents defeats me.

We headed for Austria, and the sight of the Alps approaching 70 miles away was both exhilarating and scary – would the car make it?

We had to buy an Austrian toll road pass to use their motorways and in those pre-Euro days, I didn’t want to buy any Schillings, so we got one in Germany and headed over the Alps, very slowly, following a procession of tractors.It has subsequently struck me as odd that the main road from Innsbruck to Munich is little more than a British b-road, and that farmers are the same the world over - Its going to take more than a horde of tourists to keep them from taking a trip to the bier-keller in a Massey Fergüsön

I didn’t like Austria – there was something about the place I couldn’t put my finger on – it was just too clean.
We stopped briefly at a spotless motorway services if only to get the full value from out toll pass by having a slash, and then headed over the Brenner Pass which is a quite incredible drive and one I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

Then three days after leaving England, we were in Italy – and I loved it from the moment I arrived.

It was endearingly tatty and you can forget everything you have heard about Italian drivers – they were excellent – they kept their distance, and while everyone drove like Senna, they all seemed to know what they were doing. And you can buy fresh bread, gorgonzola, parmesan, olive oil and red wine in the motorway services.

After all that driving, when we got to Lake Garda, where the German visitors were in a very reserved mood, but the English tour guides ecstatic – England had beaten Germany 5-1.

I figured we all needed a bit of a rest – the Escort most of all, so we sat around for two days before venturing out. The Carabinieri traffic police were a bit disturbing – I do think that a submachine gun over the shoulder is far more likely to make me behave than a speed camera – and the presence of scantily-clad ladies touting for business in laybys was most entertaining.

"Dad, why are those ladies hitchiking in their underwear?"

It when we went to fill up with fuel that what could have been a disastrous event occurred.

The ancient Italian who ran the filling station stuck the nozzle in while I visited the loo and when I came out I found the tank had been filled.

With diesel.

Next week: the voyage home.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Fat Cat

A sign on the door of my favourite motorcycle shop, Dog Motorcycles which is a proper old fashioned bike shop, with spares hanging on the walls in yellowing plastic bags, cheap helmets, a selection of old jap fours and scooters and a chopper on the workbench for at least the last three years.
Long may it continue.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

oh bother

It seems that blogger may have lost my last post, and has yet to restore the bugger.

This is a trifle irritating, but forewarned being forearmed etc, I've just copied all 41,000 words into a word doc for posterity - only 5000 words more and I'll have equalled Farenheit 451, I believe.

Anyway, in the interim while the gallant chaps at Google try to get the missing post up, here is some music.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

A man of means by no means, King of the road.

Graduating from University in 1999 I was of course convinced that it would be a matter of weeks before one of the national newspapers beat a path to my door, or Hollywood would come calling.
However the phone stubbornly refused to ring. Mostly cos one of our housemates was spending his evening ramping up a phone bill the size of the national debt calling sex line routed through Tuvalu, we later discovered.

But with nothing doing after three years of arsing about, I took a job delivering toilet rolls and cleaning fluids for a very strange outfit in Newport. I was pulling a fiver an hour driving a big Merc panel van around south Wales and Bristol. My colleagues were all members of a Charismatic Christian Church. Nothing wrong with that, and they were terribly sweet. But the company was owned by one of their elders and they had to give one-third of their wages back to him, which he passed over to the church.
Still, they seemed happy enough with this arrangement, the church looked out for them in hard times so who am I to judge...
Though deciding to leave would mean you were ostracised by your family and friends and you lost your job. The Merc was alright though - neat bit of kit, did the business, reliable as hell. Sorry, heck.

We plough the roads and scatter, recycled bog roll through the land...

It was while out on my rounds in Bristol that I happened to do a delivery to a shop opposite the house of a chap who had been a very dear chum, but who I hadn't seen for ten years. And as I pulled up he emerged from underneath a Bedford Rascal he was fixing.
Best mechanic I've ever met, by the way. Has a care and an eye for detail that makes me envious.
And it turned out that he had a room spare for a short period, and that we had to get out of our student digs. Very serendipitous. I bought the local paper and there was a stack of jobs I could do, all better paid than in South Wales. 
A deal was struck. We could move in for eight weeks while we (I and my new beloved)  got ourselves straight.
So we did. I stashed Cassius my XS650 under a tarpaulin, we loaded the good lady's Ford Escort with the meagre belongings I'd managed to amass in the previous two years and we moved.
24 hours after moving I got my first job, It was a Sunday job driving a seven and a half tonne lorry a quarter of a mile from a warehouse to an IKEA full of flatpack furniture, unloading it, driving back to the warehouse and doing the same for eight hours. Because it was a Sunday I got 12 quid an hour. And I found a fag packet full of home-grown in the cab, which I obviously handed into the police...
Life looked good.
And the following day I took a job as a motorcycle despatch rider, seduced by the idea that I would be a knight of the road, and better yet I would get to ride around on someone else's bike.
In reality the job was an absolute sod. I learned very fast that riding a bike for a living soon took the edge off the experience.
The bikes had been pretty good, but a multitude of riders had made them a tad sloppy.
They had three ex-police Honda Pan-Europeans _ the one that later got taken off the road for being a deathtrap, and a couple of K100 BMWs one RS and one RT.
The Pans were good machines, and the companies failure to take the yellow police flashes off did get people to move out of your way sharpish. Best time on that was Bristol City Centre to Parliament Square , London - 119 miles - in 80 minutes, in the rush hour.

nee-naw nee-naw

The K100s were alright, and I liked the RS on short hauls, but the crouched riding position  was damned uncomfortable on long haul and the riding position was a nightmare in traffic.
The biggest problem was the working conditions. You got minimum wage and I soon found I was working enormously long days for next to nothing.
Part of the deal was that the working day was supposed to be 8am - 4pm - and they docked an hours wage for the most trivial of misdemeanours.
Ze motoradd make wrists hurt,  you zay?

And if a job came in it had to be done - and no matter how long it took you to do it if it came in before 4pm. but even if you worked many more hours there was no overtime. You got eight hours pay, and that was that. Which was how the owners had brand new Ducati 996's and top of the range BMW sports coupes.
The final straw for me came on week four when I found they had docked five hours from my wages, - even though I had been working unpaid for more than two hours a night.
The day I got my short wage packet, at 3.56pm they gave me a package and told me it had to be in Essex that night - a 400 mile round trip...

I did the job - and penned a letter that night.

"Dear Sirs, I regret to inform you that I am afraid your company does not reach the exacting standard I expect of an employer, and it is with regret that I am going to have to let you go...."