You thought I’d gone the way of my furry chum; but no. Time has flown by rather and I’ve had more to do than usual for the start of the year. But that’s not the whole story…
I apologise for having been off-air for so long but soon after I lost Finbar something happened which, between you and me, peed me off rather.
I was looking on Google Images for pictures of New Gerrards when I saw an old magazine pic I had used in my ‘New Gerrard News’ post, but it came up with a different Web address. Interested to see that someone else was writing about this obscure Scottish bike, I followed the link only to discover that my article had been copied by a Hinckley Triumph-based site ‘Triumph Talk’ to go onto their new-for-2016 ‘Classics’ page. It seemed a bit of an odd choice of article to use and needless to say they hadn’t asked to use the material and didn’t mention this site. The moderator ‘Dave M’ was the ‘poster’ but the text was signed off with my name, which presumably made it appear that I was a (willing) contributor. It appears that the site is based in the States but it is all a bit vague. There is also material on there from Paul d’Orleans’ ‘Vintagent’ site but that’s properly credited. Knowing Paul I don’t think he would put up with any monkey business so he probably got them sorted straightaway.
Well hey ho, these things happen, I wasn’t too offended although it would have been nice if the bloke had credited this site – or even asked permission to use it. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery but I was less impressed to find that the site contained every single one of last year’s posts. Worst of all that, insensitively included my farewell to Finbar and despite my name at the bottom, because Dave M was the poster, it’s no surprise that the various kind messages of condolence from readers were all addressed to him!
This, I think, is unforgivably crap. Bob, who makes this Blog work for me, looked into it and spent a load of his time putting copyright watermarks onto my pictures, something I have never wanted to do, the pics are there for information and I know as well as anybody how useful it can be to blow them up or print them without watermarks in the way, so sorry about that and if you ever want an un-spoiled copy (and you are not Dave M) just ask.
My relationship with the Internet is always a little shaky; I regard it as a very mixed blessing; it has become a God for our times, utterly depended upon and blindly trusted and although useful, I often wonder if life was better without it. This blog is not a profit making thing, it’s my way to pass on a bit of obscure and hopefully entertaining info that there is no space for in Classic Bike. Having lost my wee pal and then finding that someone had lifted everything, including the little guy’s obituary, to fill out their own flaccid pages pissed me off and seemed to take all the fun out of it.
However, comments and messages still came through from readers – nobody chided me for not having done any recent posts – but people stayed in touch and I realised it was time to get over it and carry on. Hopefully ‘Dave M’ has given up on me now and found somebody else to poach his material for his site from. Don’t suppose he’ll want his one, unless he cuts along the dotted line here…
Right, that’s got that off my chest. Moving onto the more positive aspects of humanity, let me say a big thank you to all the people who sent kind messages for Finbar and especially to anyone who has donated to his charity site. We managed to break the £550 target, which was good going since it spanned the Xmas period, so that’s great and a fitting memorial to a very special dog.
Meanwhile, what else has been happening in the Classic Bike Workshop? Well, I don’t know if it was just losing Muttley but this winter seemed to drag rather and I am delighted to see the sun coming out at last and the days lengthening. I decided to dig the Gold Star out yesterday, after all the footering about with it last year (see ‘A Star is Born’) I still hadn’t really had much chance to test it. Needless to say I got half a mile before coming back; it was as rich as hell. Although the needle and jet are newish, the midrange is shocking, suggesting there lies the problem. I have now dropped the needle to the top groove – all this is painfully familiar – and although I haven’t been out on it yet, just starting up in the garage it was obviously still too rich. Interestingly, leaning to the right made it worse and to the left better, which suggests that the float height needs to be lower.
After the disappointing Goldie non-ride I took out the Rudge for the first time this year. What a cracking bike that is. Last year I was having bother with it jumping out of gear but I had a good think about it all and made an adjustment that seems to have worked. I didn’t go very far but I really enjoyed myself and I must say it does put the Gold Star into perspective. I was a bit of an ‘erbert when I built the Goldie, wanting a fast but definitely 1950s British bike to worry the ‘moderns’ with and (when it worked properly) that was what I got. As I was always told, a good Gold Star is a bloody lively thing. I still like to hammer along a bit but these days I prefer just having a scratch around the lanes and for that the Rudge is a lot more fun. Knowing what I know now, if I saw the two bikes for sale, the Rudge is the one I would buy not the BSA. I reckon that’s a good test of your stable; look at your bikes and ask yourself, ‘If I saw that for sale would I buy it?’ because if the answer is ‘no’ then why are you keeping it? The Goldie sort of falls into the negative category at the moment and yet…
I guess I still need to get it sorted and decide then. Who knows if I can get it’s mojo back maybe it will knock ten years off me…well, I mean off me, not my life expectancy!
February was the MCN/Carole Nash London Motorcycle Show, which is usually an enjoyable weekend if only to catch up what’s happening outside the classic scene. This year the event was given extra salt for me with the inclusion of the Jock Hitchcock collection in Coys Auction.
Jock was a Triumph dealer in Folkestone. I went in the shop once when I was about 17 with my dad. Even after all this time I remember being fascinated by an ancient Great War Triumph on display in the shop window. I think there were two of them, Model H 550cc, as I now know and I recall Jock telling us he had found them in France. Possibly this was one of them with its foreign plate…
Jock had a bit of a reputation for being ‘difficult’ with anyone asking for non-Triumph parts. I remember Ray Palmer – founder of Maidstone Motoliner – telling me how when he was grass tracking he rang up Jock for some parts for his Triumph race engine and as soon as he rashly mentioned that he’d fitted a Norton crank, Jock put the phone down on him. Click, burrr… That’s the stuff; never mind all this ‘have a nice day’ rubbish!
This un-messed about Triumph 3TA looked like a nice thing to take home. Jock famously maintained an excellent relationship with the Meriden works by travelling up to collect his spares order in person. This allegedly meant that he succeeded in getting parts where others failed but despite his obsession with Triumph he had collected a varied selection of vintage machinery. The hairy tyre in the first picture belongs to this Zenith…
I would have liked to take this one home. It’s a ‘Gradua’ gear model: winding the ‘coffee grinder’ knob on the R/H side of the tank both expands the crank pulley and lengthens the wheelbase to take up resulting belt slack. This clever invention rendered Zenith virtually unbeatable in hillclimbs of the single speed days, leading to their being barred from competition. Needless to say this enabled them to use BARRED as an enticing part of their trademark portfolio for ever after.
This was another rarity. A transverse vee-twin P and M Panthette. Designed by Granville Bradshaw it was not altogether a flawless design and few were made. This one had been off the road since 1957. What a little cracker.
Speaking of G-g-g-granville, he was probably most famous for his oil cooled (yes, like the Suzuki GSXR…sort of) Bradshaw proprietary engine and one of these peculiar overhead valve three-fifties was fitted to another of the auction lovelies.
This one is a DOTand whether the ‘oil boiler’ motor still allowed it to retain DOT’s ‘Devoid of Trouble’ byline I am not sure. Dear old Bob Currie, doyen of the vintage movement and founder of the Classic Motor Cycle magazine, had one of these that he used in VMCC events and there is another on the Isle of Man. It’s an attractive thing and went pretty cheaply for what it was at around £5000 I think.
Of course there were Broughs… Having an auction without a Brough Superior is a bit like a bike show without the Wall of Death. You need thrills and spills and seeing somebody pay property prices for an rusty old motorbike always draws a crowd. This time though, buyers only needed a small portmanteau for their used tenners rather than a suitcase. The choice was between two of the budget (under £100 grand) models. The first was this rare 680cc side-valve Junior from 1934…
Now hang on, 680cc side valve? In 1934? Well, yes, admittedly this seems to be one of those things that are often described as being ‘for serious collectors only’, in other words it’s a bit of a dud model, created around a few obsolete engines Gorgeous George picked up for a song from the JAP factory and fitted into some of his leftover 1920s frame parts. But you could always rely on good old George to pick up a bargain and turn it around, according to the log book detail in the Coys catalogue, somehow GB registered the leisurely bike as ‘Model: Competition’. What a player! I often wonder whether George Brough’s remarkably enduring salesmanship and charisma is the sole reason Broughs have become the figurehead of all high-end old bikes. Joking apart it’s good to see one of the rarer Broughs has survived and it’s probably a very pleasant thing to ride given it’s light weight specification. The other Bruf-Sup on offer was this delightfully scruffy 680cc OHV model.
Be great if somebody had the attitude to buy one like this and just ride it as it is but I guess that’s a bit of a forlorn hope. If you ask me, there’s something rather sad about all this Brough caper. In my lifetime, both Broughs and Bentleys have gradually gone from ‘valuable collector’s item’ to ‘successful man’s status symbol’. There are few now left in the keeping of the people, or the descendants of the people, who found them for the fabled ‘tenner’ decades ago. You can’t really just will your old bike to your grandson if the blooming thing is worth quarter of a million quid, that tends to cause family problems, so they all go for auction where they are inevitably plucked by those with a quarter of a million in their pocket to spend. People with those resources are unlikely to fall on hard times and be forced to sell them on at a huge loss, so the bikes have effectively gone from the floor, never to return – it’s a bit like a game of musical chairs. It’s a great pity but the strange thing is presumably to a millionaire a Brough represents a smaller capital investment, proportionally, to that which my Rex Acme, Inter Norton or Martinsyde do to me. If they were destroyed I simply couldn’t afford to replace them. So why is it that so few of these bikes are ever seen out and about? If I and others are prepared to use rare bikes, gambling that they won’t get blown up crashed, why are so many Brough collectors such retiring violets? There are a few SS100s left in old-school hands that get ridden and seen out and about but when they come up for sale there is little chance they will go to a like-minded new owner. Like I say its a shame and a waste of what I guess is a pretty exciting motor cycle.
Outside the auction in the main show hall, I paused for a while to chat with Daredevil Dave (left) and Chip, noted purveyors of tee-shirts to the gentry. I’ve known Dave for a long time and am always interested to see what his latest lines are. Dave’s a great guy with a wicked sense of humour which is often reflected in his designs and makes for a great mix of fun and straight images on his high quality shirts, bags and other goodies. You’ll find him at Stafford and all the major bike shows or visit his website Daredevilstore.com
Dave took me over to an adjacent stall for a coffee where he introduced me to Tristan. He’s 16, learned to weld from his Grandfather and is currently building a ‘bobber’ out of a Honda CG125. Here he is and below is the bike he’s building.
I reckon he’s made a pretty good job of it thus far and evidently he’s about to take up a course in basic machining next. When you read the VMCC magazine everybody seems to believe that the whole future of the Club is in jeopardy because ‘kids today aren’t interested in old bikes.’ Well, I speak to as many young enthusiasts like Tristan as I can in my travels and they seem pretty interested in old bikes to me. Okay a CG125 is more their price range than a Bonneville but when I was 17 I was dreaming of Vincents and Goldies not my L plated Yamaha XS250. What you ride is dictated by circumstance, the most important thing is where you are headed, not where you are now. What counts most is that guys are getting into working with their hands again and creating stuff. Old bikes are perfect for that – be they British or older Japanese. It seems to be a reaction to the spoon-feeding of the Internet and modern vehicles that you can’t work on, or tune, yourself. Thankfully there is a perversity among mankind that rebels against the life of the Lotus-eater. When everything is presented to us on a plate, we get bored and start looking for things to fiddle with.
Which of course leads us to the wacky offerings in the Custom part of the show.
As Twin contracting band front brake? I like it… As I said I am delighted to see motor cycle creativity in action but I am a little bit cautious around customs because they veer a bit too close to the art world for me. That’s not to say that I don’t think art has a place in motor cycles, far from it but there is usually a fundamental divide between the artist and the engineer. Where the two coincide tends to be in the sublime combination of function and form. It seen most clearly in the natural world: beauty in nature is never there without a purpose. In our mechanised creations it’s seen in a Spitfire fighter or a BSA Gold Star, anything where evolution for purpose creates visual appeal. Customs are an inversion of this philosophy, creations where visual appeal overrules practicality. As works of art that’s fine but I wonder where these paintings hang; I mean, is there a place for them in the motor cycle world once the show’s over?
I mean, something like this BSA B40 is eye-catching and a lot of fun. The B40 wasn’t one of the greatest bikes ever made so if you come across half a one, why make it into something a bit different, just for fun? Sounds like a good idea but what troubles me is what you can do with bikes like this once they’ve done the rounds of the shows, are they things you can sell to someone to ride on the road? There’s a bit of a taboo, or used to be, about making completely unrideable customs so I’m sure bikes even more extreme than this one would carry you around a car park but if they’re not really practical for use on the road won’t they just get broken up to make something else or hang from the wall of some hip beer joint or city boutique? It all seems a bit pointless. But my greater concern about the current popularity of the custom scene dates back to what I recall in the 1980s, when Back Street Heroes magazine came out. As I recall before then, there was Easy Riders of course but no readily available UK custom bike magazine. When BSH came out it was a sort of rallying cry to UK chopper freaks and so promoted building-your-own that people with no ability at all started customising, beginning by angle grinding off the rear frame and ending with the discovery that they didn’t know what to do next. It’s one thing if you actually complete a custom project like these ones at the show but I saw too many end up scrapped as part of somebody’s learning curve and the one I most recall was, funnily enough, also a BSA B40 – an SS90 model, the ‘sporty’ version of BSA’s 350cc 1960s single; quite rare, completely original and unrestored. A mate of mine bought it just before we left school and I remember the still-shiny enamel and original ‘Sports Star’ transfers; it was a peach. But the next time I saw it, another guy I knew had bought it and fitted 18″ high ape hangers. He soon blew it up, fitted an ex-Army engine and decided to hard tail it. He welded on a hard tail, added some Japanese disc front end and flogged all the standard bits. Then he gave up and passed it on to another mate of mine, going on to do something similar to a very tidy CB500F which ended up with candy-twist springers. Luckily a C15 rolling chassis turned up so we put the B40 engine in that. God knows what happened to the chopped B40 frame, I don’t think this is it…
Looking back, it was the only good thing about British bikes becoming unaffordable. Street customising moved over to more available Japanese fours and matt black paint became a top seller for Halfords; so there you go kids, that’s how it was in the old days…
This was a bit of fun, a sort of Burt Munro World’s Fastest Indian-alike, I wonder what Burt would make of it all? After all he’s my idea of a true customiser: somebody who builds a bike entirely to his own ideals but not just as a work of art. That hackneyed old thing about ‘I don’t care if you like it or hate it so long as you don’t ignore it’ is a bit glib for me. Burt Munro didn’t care if you liked it, hated it or ignored it as it turned up on the trailer. You wouldn’t ignore it when it set off down the salt. Maybe that’s it, there’s too much posturing in the world already, if customising can keep a grip on reality everything will be fine. Customs were originally about performance, cafe racers obviously but even bobbers. The name came from the chopped back look of running a bike with the tail end of the mudguard (sorry fender) cut down like the fashionable tomboy girl’s ‘bob’ haircut of the day. It was about shedding weight from bulky Indian and Harley heavyweights to get a bit more go out of the big motors. The impractical custom came, I guess in the UK at least, out of the ‘concourse’ movement. Nowadays we call it ‘concours’ and it means 100% original perfect restoration but from up until the ’70s or so it referred to what might nowadays be termed ‘pimping your ride’: tarting-up with a bit of extra chrome, twin horns, furry seat cover… almost the complete opposite of what performance tuners were into. Bike people generally prioritised speed over style if they had to choose and so it’s quite revealing that when the chopper boom kicked off in the UK many of the early faces were custom car builders looking for something new. The bike scene was still about head down, arse up café racers, British or Japanese and the custom world was a bit separate, rather like speedway is to motorcycle racing and somehow that still seems to apply.
I reckon it’s up to Tristan and his generation to sort all this out, get rid of some of the art and get back into tuning and engineering, there’s a common saying in motor cycle design, “If it looks right, it is right”. I’d say the reverse also applies.