Tuesday, 28 December 2010

First blood

Visiting Dr Girlie Nice-Smile in Aylesbury one weekend, her on-call commitments left me at a loose end - covering the special care baby-unit AND Stoke Mandeville (which explains her dislike of motorcycles) left her busy and me bored. I finished up at On yer Bike (now Ducati Aylesbury) and buying a blood-red Paso 750.

Even then (1990) Paso's had gone from rave-reviews to ridicule, but I'd had enough of worrying about what magazines thought, so one February Saturday saw me explore the Paso's infamous carb-icing on a packed Aylesbury roundabout. I lived long enough to relish the way the Duke was just about a sports bike, but would cover 200 miles without a twinge: far comfier a seat than the preceding VFR.
The only prob was a broken gearchange return spring, leaving me to limp home in second - something of a Ducati weakness, and ridiculously expensive to fix, because it's buried on the "wrong" side of the engine. If you ever have an engine in bits change the return spring while you can.

The thing that really got me about the Paso was non-biker's reaction - everyone loved it, and Ducati was just starting to be a brand recognised outside motorcycling. So while most bikers poo-poo'd it (even other Ducati owners did the "it's not a real Ducati" thing) women would ask to be photographed sitting on it. This was something new to me...

Spotting an immaculate Superlight in Three Cross motorcycles saw the Paso part-ex'd: one of the few SL's that didn't sport the #1 badge on the seat hump (because Ducati hadn't won the Superbike championship the preceding year) and lacking the original SL's Marvic wheels it was still an under-rated bike that's only just starting to be appreciated - a nice SL will easily fetch twice the equivalent SS's price, which is odd when in essence it's just a solo seat and carbon mudguard that make the difference. And the famous "limited edition" plaque on the headstock - ah, collectors: don't you just love them?

Monday, 27 December 2010

The final fling

Offered a GSX-R1100 cheap by a dealer because it had a scratch on the swingarm, I entered Nirvana. Even for a rider of my mediocre talent the Gixxer crushed all comers - you could sweep up behind anything (GPz900's especially) and pass it before an impossible turn: next time you looked in the mirrors they were gone. Checking the speedo before a turn usually involved around 150mph - this was always going to end badly. Getting home late one night I left in on the front path, rather than ride to the lock up and risk the ridicule of pub homecomers pointing at the dolt on a bicycle in full leathers. Next morning the 1100 was was gone.

The insurance money went on another magazine reviewer's must-have - a Honda VFR750L, the first of the single-sided swing-armers. By now I'd met Dr. Girlie Nice-Smile, and endless commutes to see her in various hospitals and homesteads meant the Honda racked up the miles including a track day organised by the RICS a few days before our wedding. But I didn't get the Honda, and it languished in the back garden all winter because (a) I couldn't be bothered to ride it 500 yards to the lock-up and (b) the scrotes who lifted the Gixxer felt the same way. One ad in MCN proved that I'm the only person on the planet who feels ambivalent about Sochiro's V4: inundated by calls I sold it to some Tynesiders who rode on to Cornwall (200 miles away) because "it seemed a shame to come so far south and miss it."

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The Kawasaki years

Funny how you switch loyalties - happy with my Kat, but being a consumerist tart, when Kawasaki debuted the GPZ1100 I had the have one - fuel injection, Unitrack suspension and a proper fairing that let you go as far and as fast as you liked. I loved that bike, but when the GPz900 appeared (complete with small z!) the press reaction meant I had to swop.

And I was strangely underwhelmed - a riding position that wasn't one thing or the other and a much revvier character than the 1100 and big Suzy's I'd known and loved. Maybe because most miles were done with a pillion it seemed a step backwards, or maybe it was just that I'd got so used to wrestling the big old bruisers. Whatever, a test ride on a VF1000 made me think I wanted one of them 'till it overheated and poured coolant everywhere. So in a fit of maturity (I was now 25) I was again fell for the press hype and bought a BM K100. Horrid, hateful thing that lasted a week. My last Japanese bikes were on the way

Saturday, 25 December 2010

The Suzuki years

Determined to buy a Ducati GTS860, I finished up with Suzuki 750s (and bored girlfriend in the background - hi Julia)...after a go on a mate's Duke I loved the idea but hated the bottom end failures that seemed to plague the era's Ducati twins. Never mind, the Suzook handled better than any other Jap bike (how Classic Bike can compare it to the "where's the hedgerow?" GT kettle escapes me) and had a lovely glow-in-the-dark pink instrument panel (though I hated the gear position indicator - what? Do you think I can't count?)

The inevitable rise to a GSX1100 followed, but it handled like a wheelbarrow full of wet cement. But better than baby brother's 750 version, which he binned in front of the local Brit-bike fan club's weekly meet, grinding the alternator and his leather jacket to atoms. How the hell did we survive this?

All set to buy a Hailwood Rep just like mate Kenny Robert's (yes, really - and RIP, Kenny) the new Katanas turned my head - my Katana 1000 was a beaut, and kept me on the Suzuki trail longer than intended

Friday, 24 December 2010

The 400/4 years

How I loved these - never got the two-stroke thing, and as a teenager you just want to thrash the living daylights out of a rev-happy Honda. First one was bought privately in London, having taken the train up. No other means of getting home meant I had to buy it, but luckily it was fine, except as he took my cheque the seller casually mentioned "It needed a rebore, so I put a Yoshi 460 kit in." Lovely: hit my first ton shortly after joining the M4 slip road.

Unfortunately a car on the wrong side of the road meant it was written off in Cardiff - my pillion passenger surfed to safety on my back, wearing through my helmet visor and jacket. Never mind, my local dealer was keen to buy the wreckage for the 460 kit and engine to prep Richard Stevens bike for the F3 TT. It blew up...

But by then I had the F2 with Dunstall fairing pictured - Dunstall exhaust soon followed, and I must have done 20,000+ miles on that bike in all weathers: the regular commute to Cardiff during winter 1978 every Sunday night usually involved riding in darkness across the Severn Bridge footpath to save paying the toll. God, I got cold

Eventually it went for a GS750, but setting up home with my brother meant trading down to another 400/4. Oh, dear...after a 750 (never mind a bevel twin) it felt gutless as hell, but as in a blog passim Dixon Racing and Pops Yoshimura eventually sorted that out

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The L plate year

Ah, the irony of riding Pat Slinn's perfect C15 for Classic Bike when my C15 was built the same year: but there the similarities end. Mine was registered the day I was born, so was nearly 17 years old when I paid £60 for it. The combination of dubious parentage (the bike's) and doubtful mechanical talent(mine) was always going to end badly. Still, I loved the torque after a moped, and having mastered kick-starting it was fun to watch others try and fail. Often painfully.

But duff reliability meant missed bike tests and school, so my parents generously bought a second-hand Honda 125S for my 18th birthday. Non-original tank was courtesy of the previous owners crashes, but I soon added twisted bars and crooked front mudguard after overtaking a friend on an unknown road, and finishing up in a disgruntled (but nicely spoken) chap's front garden.

Test passed, I could barely afford to keep the 125 in petrol, but took it everywhere - including weekly commutes to Cardiff and Southampton. I holed the piston when an article in Motorcycle Mechanics told how to adjust the points, surely something that would allow an indicated 70mph (at the far side of the red line, ahem) but instead I buggered the timing and holed a piston. When I joined the merchant navy I sold it to my brother, who not appreciating the little Honda's taste for oil soon blew it up. Never mind, the 400/4 years beckoned

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

12 days of Christmas

In the words of David Byrne how did I get here? Christmas shopping done in an afternoon, I don't understand why folk say some people are hard to buy for. But then my obsession with obscure old motorcycles means that, like most old bikers, unless you know the path that brought them to their current condition, I guess you'll never get what they really want for Christmas. Sure, less miles on the clock and a bit less grey hair would be good but research proves reliving your past makes for a happier and healthier present. So over Christmas I'll post all the bikes I've had, and think about whether I'd like to own them again

First up's the ubiquitous 1970s peds from Puch. My step-mum can't drive, so experimented briefly with an old Puch Maxi. I was 15 and not really into bikes, but endless cycling to get around and a village full of bikers made me think...

Spring 75 saw me persuading my parents that if I moved into the caravan in the garden, I'd be better able to study for the looming O-levels: this of course was a cunning plan to allow me to spend the hours of darkness whizzing around the countryside on petrol "borrowed" from the lawnmower, before pushing the silent auto-ped back to the garage. No-one ever suspected a thing.

So when a 2-speed (hand change!) yellow peril Puch M2 was bought in a local auction for £35 I persuaded Dad to lend me the money ready for my 16th Birthday. I was working evenings and weekends in a garage for 50p an hour, so you do the maths. Spare time was spent polishing EAM135L (still the only numberplatre I can remember), listening to Elton John and Kiki Dee on the DLT show and waiting for summer.

Would I have it back? Oh yes, if kid brother hadn't bought it to trash on home-made jumps in the garden. Although the Puch could trace its roots back to a 1962 half-ped, half scooter thing Puch were first on the sports moped bandwagon and dressed up their pressed steel framed fifties into ever more convincing mini-bikes. Problem was by the time their "proper" sports mopeds arrived with a foot gear-shift the FS1-E had arrived, and brushed Puch aside.

But the summer of 1975 was fabulous, and as I buzzed along wearing just jeans and a red tee (like our Ride tees) despite wondering where mates with proper sports mopeds had gone, life seemed absolutely perfect.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Man, that's Rollie Free

Nothing to do with John Otway's bonkers hit That's really free, but the infamous swim-trunks run at Bonneville by Roland "Rollie" Free in the days before fitted leathers and aero ski-suits, mimicked by Adrian Palmer for his excellent new blog - Ducatista.

Cars vs. Bikes

This was big in the eighties - car vs. bike pieces, usually run (a)by magazines struggling with sales so trying to broaden the readership base and (b)by publishers who had car and bike titles so got a buy-one-get-one-free deal from hard working journos.

But what did they tell us? Bikes faster than cars? When the family go down to the in-laws I usually follow on a bike, but reality bites when their prep consists of closing the car door, while I spend ten minutes kitting up and fiddling with U-locks. And sure, traffic jams don't slow a bike much but then car drivers don't stop under bridges to put on waterproofs if it rains.

Truth is bikes - especially old, Italian bikes - are great fun, but comparing them to cars is pointless. In fact comparing them to each other seems dubious, because most of us are old enough to think for ourselves: this comparison malarkey just seems to be an obsession with auto-publishers. After all, have you ever seen a food magazine boasting "Pear tart or Cornish pasties? Read our 10 page special investigation."

Thought not.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Copy Kat

Ah, I knew it would turn up...an old photo album discovered while retrieving Christmas kit from the attic has led to a full on scanning session. Sadly negatives seem long gone and faded little Truprints aren't the ideal starting point, but needs must.
My brothers and I were Kat crazy - I was all set to buy a Hailwood Rep til Suzuki launched this icon: if the vino rosso hasn't destroyed my memory Kat's were the first Jap bikes with fairings and clip-ons - most folk hated them, because the look was still fringed black leather and sit-up-and-beg. But my lust was driven by the Street Racer look personified by the Italian superbikes, and riding as fast as I could (faster, occasionally, than I could...)

I had the 1000 slide-carb'd version bought at a £1000 discount - weird to think now that nobody wanted them. This is my brother's 1100, which got written off just south of Salisbury when his talent ran out over adverse camber. He's a police officer now, and married to the girl who was on the pillion when he crashed...

Monday, 13 December 2010

Fame Acadamy

Huge thanks to Ian Brambley for scanning these pics he took at pre-season practice at Hullavington (north west Wiltshire) back in '84. Two questions spring to mind - who is it? And what class might a roundcase 750SS be competitive in way back then (although the GSX-R and FZ750 were still a year away)? I don't think Battle of the Twins ever came down our way, and even by 1984 the roundcase SS was (dreaded word) collectable. Anyway, whoever it is he was clearly a hero of immaculate taste and style.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Space Cadet

This Ducati 100 just popped up on eBay, and the seller posts for info on what it might be...as someone obsessed enough with classic Italian bike to publish benzina here goes...

It's a 100 Cadet - a 7bhp stroker built from 1967 to '69: four speed, 52x46, chrome bore, 98cc, 55 mph. Had been preceded by a fan cooled three speed engine, succeeded by the pushrod 4-stroke Cadet 125 (which was the last ever pushrod Ducati) and the 100cc stroker Scrambler which was the last mass-produced 2-stroke Ducati (although the limited edition Six Day and Regolarita were a smidge later)

Tragic that I know, but then I still think the Cadet Scrambler (below) was a funkier thing that the mainstream Scrambler...

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Pedal power

New years' resolutions start here - you'll want to loose the Turkey Tummy, and maybe you fancy a retro racing bicycle to help you

Vespamore photography took these fine photographs for Retrospective cycles, a classic scooter dealership that's just started importing period Italian racing cycles: prices seem fair, and you can see what you're getting - a huge improvement over the pot luck I took buying my old Bianchi

Monday, 6 December 2010

My type of Christmas present

Steve Jobs of Apple (hell, Steve Jobs IS Apple) was a college drop-out spellbound by calligraphy, and when he came up with the Mac and Ipod fonts were still as important to him as the technology. Nowadays, thanks to Jobs, every computer offers dozens of fonts yet we still hunger for more.

This is all courtesy of Simon Garfield's excellent new book Just my Type which is breezy yet factual, and even has jokes (Comic Sans walks into a bar - barman says "Sorry, we don't serve your type") - for a limited time you can read the first two chapters here

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Last chance Playboys

Can't believe I missed one of the best bits of petrolhead TV broadcast in years - well, I can because it was tucked away late on a Monday night, and padded a bit with the dreaded Max Clifford. But otherwise When Playboys Ruled the World surely deserved a prime-time slot or even DVD release. Featuring the parallel universes of Barry Sheene and James Hunt, their friendship, and uniquely paired 1976 Wold Championships (the only year Brits have won the top car and bike classes) there was also a feel for the revelry in the new cult of celebrity and the lack of concern for what the masses thought. Stirling Moss offers the insight that post race "We were chasing girls, today they're thanking Vodaphone", and Murray Walker's "it was a time when sex was safe and racing was dangerous" - during the Sheene/Hunt era over 20 F1 divers died, and 40 plus bike racers. Perfect TV, available until 15 December here

(or buy the B+W pic here)

Friday, 3 December 2010

The older we get, the faster we were

This is me, c1979. Moved into a flat, started an evening course, needed money. Sold a GS750, bought another Honda 400/4 and realised I was never going to keep up with home-boy mates still on 750s. So every spare penny went into the 400/4, because insuring it cost a third of a 750's premium, and tyres lasted twice as long.

This was its final incarnation. Built in a second floor flat, getting it back down the stairs was challenging...but worth it. 458cc Yoshimura pistons, R/T cam, 4-1 Yoshi pipe, lowered gearing, S+W fork springs, the list went on. Would ride round bigger bikes in corners, just about hang onto their coat tails in a straight line. Seem to remember the brakes were a bit iffy.

The Dixon racing catalogue recommended ignoring Soichiro's 8,500 redline and waiting until 11k+ for max power. Had a hell of an appetite for oil pressure switches, which I could change on the dealers forecourt in 10 minutes.

College done, I got a proper job and was back on a GS750 in no time. But I'd been cured of keeping bikes stock for good.