Without a bike for the first time in 39 years. What was the first one … ?

March 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.’ Too true. The Moto Guzzi Norge went down to Northampton in November and I packed away the helmet, boots and gear knowing that this enforced period of estrangement would have to be suffered until things turned around. Turn around? In this economic climate? But there was worse to come. Cold turkey. Been riding since I was 16 … never had it before and I don’t like it. It was exacerbated when I met up with an old golfing buddy whom I had last seen about five years ago. The occasion, if it can be called that given what happened later that afternoon, was a pre-match meet up at a mutual friend’s house in Murrayfield before the Scotland-Wales game on February 12th. Over beer and pizzas I caught up with him.

‘What have you been up to?’

‘Kettling mate, kettling.’

Kettling? This was a moment before he revealed for the first time to me he had been biking since he was a kid and, after the usual lay-off to bring up the kids etc, had recently got back into it after rebuilding his garage in a douce Edinburgh suburb to carry out restorations on anything that took his fancy. He had never mentioned a word of this to me on the golf course, but then, at that time he must have been sans-moto for years and that tends to mean that you avoid having to answer the question, should it be asked, ‘So what are you riding at the moment?’

That kettle.

The answer this time was a restored 2-stroke, water-cooled Suzuki GT750, affectionately known as a ‘ kettle’ by lovers of the model. As a 2-stroke the engine was very tunable and it was the basis of the machine that Barry Sheene took to the World F750 championship in 1973 and the one that nearly killed him when he crashed at 170mph at Daytona Speedway two years later. We didn’t get much more time to blether but exchanged e-mail addresses and over the next few days we went through all the machines we’d owned and sold over the years. It was a lesson in how your bikes can define your life.

My list began in 1972 with a half share (£15) in a single-cylinder BSA B31. My biker mate from Lochmaben talked me into it and after ignoring my parents’ advice I took him over to Dumfries to get it. It looked great it had to be said, but then it would as this was going to be my first bit of ownership. It might even become an investment in years to come. Pound signs loomed large in front of me. Wulk shook hands with the seller and the deal was done.

... the first bike I almost owned, a BSA B31

The idea was that I would follow him back in my father’s delivery van, a Renault 4, just in case. Going through Dumfries I could see Wulk was not happy. At the first set of lights he stalled, managed to get it going again but soon stalled again. I pulled over. Helmet off, curses and anger. ‘Bloody clutch is binding. Can’t stop the drive to the rear wheel. Only one thing for it.’

‘What?’ I innocently asked.

‘Heave it into the van. I’ll steady it, you drive us all back.’

‘But I’ve only just passed my test! What if you can’t manage and it clatters the back of the van?’

‘It’s a bloody bread van not a Jag!’

To this day I do not know how we got that hot, black lump of a bike into the back of the R4 but we did and somehow we got it to his father’s garage in Lochmaben and unloaded.

‘Right, let’s get this chaincase drained, cover off and look at the clutch,’ Wulk barked. He was a small bloke but he was not to be messed with. One of the reasons I got into bikes was that I fancied his sister rotten and he had a reputation of using his fists if any of the yokels crossed him. Which was strange behaviour for a public-school educated, doctor’s son …

It was at this moment that I was to be introduced to the inner workings, or not, of the British motorcycle clutch. (I would later excel at taking these to bits, putting them back together again, only to have to do it all over again.) He got the tools out and we eventually found that the clutch drum was locked solid. ‘This is going to cost money to fix, I’m afraid. How much have you got?’

‘I’m skint. I get £5 a week from labouring to brickies in the holidays and this heap has just cost me over three weeks pay.’

‘I’m not much better off,’ he replied. ‘Right, I’ll put it back together and put the word out that it’s for sale and a runner.’

‘But it’s not a runner,’ I pleaded.

Wulk slowly rose up from sorting the pile of clutch plates out and gave me a look I have seen a hundred times since when dealing with bikes. ‘Oh yes it is.’

‘OK. Fair enough,’ I caved in. ‘What will we get for it?’

‘I’ll try and get our money back. Leave it to me.’

A week later Wulk called with the news that he had found a local buyer who he described as a nutter and managed to extract £36 from him.

‘Bloody hell! Three pounds profit each! That’s brilliant!’

‘Less my seller’s commission which is three quid so you’ve broken even. Well done.’

‘OK, OK,’ I said. ‘But what happens when he finds out about the clutch?’

‘Doesn’t matter, mate. He took off up the road to Dumfries and went straight on at the first bend and threw it through a hedge. Right mess. I think Dad is sorting him out.’

‘Is he OK?’

‘Yeah, yeah. But if Dad asks you anything about it, mum’s the word.’

Pleasure, pain, guilt, profit and loss all wrapped up in a thing called a motorbike.

I was hooked.


§ 3 Responses to Without a bike for the first time in 39 years. What was the first one … ?

  • Liz the biker nut says:

    Hilarious. Please write the next instalment.

  • Big bruv says:

    You never told me about this one … good tale. I always thought your first was that restored BSA A10?. It had a dodgy side-stand (or was it the centre-stand?). I remember it used to ground on left-handers. Scared me stupid a couple of times!

  • John Watson says:

    Great article! I remember going to see the North West 200 as a kid in Northern Ireland, the memories are all of chasing autographs of oil-smeared legends in the Pits, such as Tommy Herron, Joey Dunlop, Steve Parish etc, who rode beasts of bikes in dirty overalls. I loved the whole arcane world of bikes, though I’ve never had the nerve to ride one after seeing the speeds those guys did!

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