And a few more ramblings…
Many of the responses I have had to my rambling motorcycle reminiscences show that a surprising number of our Morgan community have bought (or nearly bought) other three-wheeled devices such as Messerschmitts, Heinkels and Isettas. However, no-one has admitted to ownership of a Bond Bug or Reliant, although the WM GO when I first joined the MTWC in 1970 used to lead our convoys in a very scruffy Reliant.
I have been much encouraged by the positive comments I have received, so here are a few more ramblings.
I guess I grew up with motorcycles. One of my earliest memories, when I was about two or three years old, is of sitting on my father’s old Ariel 350 and smelling the hot oil on the engine and hearing the odd noises as it cooled down (possibly the source of the pernicious complaint suffered by many of us with an addiction to oil and smelly vehicles). We lived in a cottage in the New Forest at the time and my father used the Ariel to ride twenty miles each way to the artillery ranges and back. The thing had a prodigious thirst for oil and he used to buy a quart of oil each day on his way home. Each morning, he put half the tin in the tank and then tied the can to the back mudguard so he could put the other half in before riding home. After a while, he said he had to be very careful if it had been raining to avoid sliding off on his own oil slick. Some years later he told me that he had ridden the bike up to London one night to visit his parents. Starting his journey back home at about one o’clock in the morning, the needle valve in the float chamber had stuck in the backstreets of Lambeth and the overflowing petrol had ignited on the magneto. Not wishing to lose the bike, he had turned the petrol tap off and stood, with the bike at arm’s length, revving hell out of it to clear the remaining fuel to stop it dripping. He said that the flames were just dying down when a burly, middle-aged police constable appeared around the corner, made his stately way over to my father and enquired, “Are you having fun SIR”. An explanation apparently sufficed to avoid a charge of “Committing a public nuisance” and, after a bit of fiddling, my father carried on his way.
Incidentally, one of my other early memories was being swung down the three narrow stairs between the lounge and the kitchen at Robin Cottage, which had three different levels reflecting the two extensions that had been built on the original mediaeval building. The roof at one end was thatched, in the middle it was slated and, at the other end, the most recent part was tiled. The ceiling in my room under the eaves was just the right height for a three year old but my parents had to bend double to tuck me in at night. The staircase was so step it was more like a set of stepladders and we impressed the petty officer who guided us on a visit to HMS Victory because we trotted up and down the ship’s companionways facing forwards without any difficulty. All his other visitors descended backwards as if they were on a ladder, clinging to the handrails.
When I was older, since my father worked for a Honda main dealership, rather than the ageing second-hand British bikes that my mates all bought, I was blessed with a year-old Honda SS125 (see photo, although mine was blue) as my first, legal road bike. Revving to ten and a half thousand and with a top speed pushing seventy-five, it couldn’t quite keep up with my mates 250s on full acceleration or top speed but it could be ridden all day with the throttle against the stop. This meant that, on a run, I could usually keep up as my mates had to periodically back off to avoid seized pistons and the like. Its other obvious advantage was total reliability and incredibly easy starting. The little over-square twin could be very easily flipped over with two fingers on the kick-start. My usual practice on group outings with my mates was to wait while they got themselves out of breath and red in the face jumping up and down on their kickstarts trying to coax their engines into life. I would then, in one smooth flow, flick my fag end away with one hand while putting my helmet on with the other, lean down, flick the engine into life with two fingers and bring them straight up to salute my mates before kicking the little Honda into gear and dropping the clutch at some silly number of revs (which was the only way I could get it to wheelie). I never tired of this childish game as the reaction was always so gratifying. The pack would usually catch me up and pass me shortly afterwards (except the poor sod who had a Bantam!) but I would usually find them stopped somewhere down the road while someone mended something or I would slowly overhaul them in a while after they backed off out of consideration for their engines.
During this period, I made a lot of my beer money fixing my mates cars and motorcycles. I had a completely unearned reputation for mechanical knowledge and always insisted that my agreement to carry out repairs was contingent on a workshop manual being available for the machine. I have to confess, I did gain a considerable preference for Japanese engineering at this time, particularly Honda, as their machines always came apart without difficulty, went back together without a struggle and stayed oiltight afterwards. The average British bike had inaccessible fasteners that could only be accessed with open-ended spanners, flimsy castings and pressings that never held oil and a distressing tendency to develop a succession of new, and unconnected, faults after the first had been fixed.
This was also the time I bought the sad remains of an F4 from a back garden in Malvern Link, which is a story perhaps for another day. For a while, I drove the Morgan and Honda as joint transport including taking one of my schoolfriends home through Worcester most evenings. The previous owner of the Honda had fitted drop handlebars and rearset gearchange and brake pedal so he could lie along the tank and pretend he was Mike Hailwood. My father had insisted on replacing these with standard items while I was a novice rider but, after a while, I couldn’t resist re-fitting them. I wasn’t impressed as it didn’t seem to make the bike go any faster and it was much less agile dodging through the rush-hour traffic. It was also an interesting experience carrying a pillion passenger as his feet prevented me from using the rear brake or gearchange and his presence on the seat forced me to sit far further forward than was comfortable with the dropped handlebars. I was told that we looked like some sort of comedy duo riding along with me lying down at the front with my nose overhanging the headlight, and my mate sitting bolt upright behind me changing gear when I yelled at him to do so. It became even more interesting when he had his leg in a full plaster after he broke it playing Rugby (nasty, dangerous things these team sports!). He couldn’t get into the Morgan so we had to travel on two wheels with his leg sticking out at forty-five degrees. I obviously had to keep reminding myself not to dive through gaps between busses!
Eventually, I was tempted to buy something bigger and British and paid a mate £30 for a 1948 Velocette. Very scruffy but, after the high-revving Honda, I was captivated by its seeming ability for the engine to fire every other lamppost. However, reaction soon set in. I didn’t dare tell my father about the Velo as I knew his reaction would be , “What do you want a tatty old thing like that for. You’ve already got an old Morgan.” Also, I couldn’t afford to tax and insure the Velo, the Morgan and the Honda and I came to the conclusion that, if I sold the Honda, it was only a matter of time before both Morgan and Velocette broke at the same time and left me without transport. I therefore, regretfully, sold the Velo, but was pleased to find a buyer at £40, thereby making a useful profit in my three weeks of ownership, although I guess it would be worth a bit more now.
The little Honda served me as economical transport through most of my time at university until it was sold to finance a half-share in a car that my then girlfriend (now wife) bought between us.
The arrival of my first daughter and a severe shortage of cash prompted me to build a working Honda 50 from two wrecks (courtesy of my father) so that I could commute from Sutton Coldfield into Birmingham for my new job at Lucas. The Honda had a three-speed gearbox and centrifugal clutch so I found, in the cut and thrust of rush-hour traffic that normal pull-aways were rather too leisurely. The best plan was to filter to the front of the queue at traffic lights, rock the gear pedal back into a false neutral that by-passed the normal centrifugal clutch, rev the engine and release the gear lever as soon as the lights went amber. This resulted in an instant start and allowed me to get across junctions before the pack of other motorists overwhelmed me. Unfortunately, one morning crossing the Holyhead road by the West Bromwich Albion football ground, I overdid things and the Honda wheelied, tipped me off the back and I ended up sprinting down the road holding onto a vertical Honda which I couldn’t slow down as I couldn’t roll the throttle closed. Eventually, I managed to throw myself aboard but decided that enough was enough and I needed more power.
My next two-wheeled purchase was a 1960m Matchless G5 350, that I bought from a university mate who had previously bought it from Mike Duncan. This got me around a bit quicker than the Honda but, unfortunately, the G5 was the “lightweight” model, built when AMC were cutting costs to the bone and it wasn’t a very nice bike (to put it mildly). Awful vibration and, I guess being used to free-revving Hondas, resulted in a broken crankshaft. Luckily I was attending a workshop training course at the time and one lecturer made me a new crank pin and another welded up and re-machined the damaged flywheels for the price of a few beers. However, a move to Stourbridge and a 20+ mile each way commute became a challenge on a horribly unreliable machine to the extent that it was a red letter day when I occasionally got to work and back without something falling off or needing fixing.
This prompted me to snap up the opportunity to buy a Honda CB175 in a tea chest from one of my work colleagues, who had taken it apart to paint the frame and never got around to reassembling it. The advantages of the Honda were legion:- a 5-speed gearbox (the Matchless had 3), 12 Volt electrics and lights (the Matchbox had 6), electric start (hardly needed but much easier than jumping up and down on the Matchless kickstart), brakes that actually stopped the bike and total reliability come rain or shine certainly made up for the lack of “character” and I used it for many years as a runabout. However, I suffered a significant number of close shaves including a couple of encounters with the tarmac after being attacked by errant motorists and a rather frightening couple of miles crouched under the bed of an articulated lorry whose driver decided to change lane when I was alongside it and left me no room between his semi-trailer and the right hand kerb. This led me to conclude that, although commuting into and across Birmingham in a car had a finite probability of bent metal at some time, it was likely that I would arrive home in more-or-less one piece. On two wheels, it seemed only a matter of time before I saw the inside of an ambulance, if not worse. This was particularly true in the winter when, with wet, slippery roads and steamed-up goggles, I lost the two best survival aids for a motorcyclist: agility and all-round awareness. So, with a modest increase in income to assist, some time in the mid-1980s the bike was first relegated to fair-weather use and then the back of the garage.
That then, apart from a few forays on other blokes’ bikes, was the end of my, rather limited, motorcycling career, although I still have my (very oily) 1960s Trialmaster jacket and trousers and noticed the other day on eBay that they fetch silly prices these days.