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22nd December 2003


RealClassic.co.uk - Buying a Real Classic Brit
Home -> Bikes -> Buying a Real Classic Brit


It's good to know your own mind when you ride a classic motorcycle. Paul Friday has some firm views about buying an old Biritsh bike, and he ain't afraid to air them

Let's get some of the myths out of the way first. Old British bikes are not better, not faster, do not handle better and are not easier to maintain than a modern Japanese job. Plus they need not leak oil or break down. The only possible reason you could have for wanting an old bike is to enjoy the experience of riding, rather than getting somewhere quickly.

They can be great fun and very involving, but they are a hobby and not a means of transport. They also get free road tax if you go for one that's pre-1973.

So you fancy yourself throbbing along country lanes on a hazy summer's afternoon, engine firing every few hundred yards. Or perhaps you are roaring along the bypass, knifing through the traffic to get back to the greasy spoon before the record finishes on the jukebox. Whatever film is playing in your head, the bike is British. Here's your wake-up call.

British bikes were not very well made by modern standards. The design of engine and frame was often erratic, and followed whimsey more than stress analysis. Manufacturers would usually start with a nice small bike, then keep enlarging the same basic engine design until they achieved hand-grenade status. The suspension varied from none to little, as did the brakes. The manufacturing methods were dubious, the tooling often worn, and the materials usually borderline. Plain bushes were used instead of proper bearings. The reputation for good handling was achieved more by light weight and low power than any forgotten art. Still want one?

There are three basic types on offer. The first is one that has been restored. These are often cosmetically better than original, and may have had a decent engine overhaul. If you are lucky, all the worn bits will have been replaced. If you are exceedingly lucky, the pattern replacements will be made of decent metal and will fit. The proud owner will have poured several thousands into the restoration, and may hope to make some of it back. Some old Brits have a reputation far above their abilities, so they tend to be expensive. This is why you can't afford a Vincent twin. It's also why you must avoid Triumph Bonnevilles, Velocette Thruxtons, and BSA Gold Stars. Very nice in a shop window but, with the exception of the Vincent, more trouble than they are worth on the road. The Vincent is rare in that it can keep up with modern traffic, but they run on money.

The second type of Brit will be a wreck. These are the 'before' pictures you see in old bike magazines. Someone finds a few bits of rusting iron at the back of a barn, and after just a few years and a second mortgage, turns it back into a nasty old relic of bodged engineering. Unrestored bikes can be cheap, but everything on them will be worn out. And you can be sure that any of the missing bits are the ones that everyone else wants and has already consumed the world's supply of.

An honest working Brit. Even Paul would like this one

If you are lucky then you may find the third type. These will have been restored a few years ago, but ridden since. They will not be pristine or even clean, and they won't have all the original parts or even the original paint colour. If you can get a bike that has been used regularly by an enthusiast, then you may just get a decent one. The place to look is the owners' club and all the magazine ads.

That's also the first tip: if you set your heart on a particular make or model, then join the club. This is where you will find out all the failings and the known remedies. It's also how you tap into the magic circle of dealers, spares stockists, engineers and people who know. The other reason you need the owners' club is for help with maintenance. Most British bikes use a strange mix of threads in both right and left hand form. They abound with hidden bolts and strange practices. BSA twins need a special tool for aligning the pushrods for example, and you'll never get the crankshaft out of an Ariel Arrow until you learn the trick.

You also want the owners' club behind you when you go a-buying. Only the hard-bitten owner knows what to look for and how much to pay. That Gold Star DBD34 you set your heart on could be a badly converted vanilla single, and do you know how to check the engine mounts on an isolastic Commando? And if one more person tells me they have the original Slippery Sam Trident, they will be off to casualty to have the log book removed.

There is only one piece of advice for riding old British bikes, but it's essential: never exceed 60mph. They were built for a slower pace of life when the world was young and motorways not invented. Try to hustle a product of the Empire at a modern pace, and it will break. Take it easy, stick to A and B-roads, and enjoy it for what it is.

There's also a few things to avoid if you can. Lucas electrics were always bought-in at minimum price, so worked at minimum efficiency. Anything that the owner has done to uprate them or convert to 12-volts is worthwhile. Magnetos lose their magnetism with age (as do we all). On the other hand, they work even when the dynamo or battery have died. If it bothers you, there's a bloke who will rip the insides out and replace them with electronic ignition. The brakes will be useless, but can be improved with relining the shoes and skimming the drum. New control cables all round will help, as will lubricating them. Lights will be marginal. Fitting a big fat earth wire from the headlight to the battery helps, as does rewiring the bike and fitting relays. An unleaded conversion is worthwhile - you'll have to take the head off at some point, so do it then or buy one that's been converted (or a two-stroke).


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