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1953 James 197cc
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Back in the day, Jim Peace started his long-distance riding career on a Villiers-engined two-stroke commuter. A story about a James, then, by James...

In the autumn of 1956 petrol rationing was reintroduced because of the Suez crisis. This meant that my dad had to find a more economical way of getting to work, so he bought an NSU Quickly, with two-speed, twist-grip gears. As soon as petrol was available again the moped was ignored. Not by me, though. I taught myself to ride it on the private road outside our house, finding it made a lot less noise if you shut the throttle when changing gear. On my 16th birthday I could legally ride it anywhere so I did over 120 miles, spending all my birthday money on petrol. I can still remember the route, and plan to ride it again, fifty years on.

Although it was a lot better than a push-bike, the Quickly was not that fast. And I had to pay for the petrol out of my schoolboy pocket money. It would run on just about anything inflammable, though. petrol/paraffin was the favourite, with petrol/white spirit a close second, and petrol/meths a poor third. Petrol had to be paid for, of course, but the other liquids were kept in the garden shed. Oil had to be added to the fuel as the bike was a two-stroke. No problem. This could be obtained from the sump of dad's car. Fortunately a six-cylinder Vauxhall Velox held quite a lot of oil.

Plug whiskers? Well yes. But dad happened to mention this at the local garage when he was filling up the car - and putting more oil in. They produced a tape and shellac insulated plug from a 1910 Atco lawnmower, which they claimed had a platinum wire central electrode. Whatever; it never whiskered up.

Not a 1953 model, sadly.... 1950 James Captain

After a few weeks on the Quickly I managed to persuade dad to buy me a real motorbike, a James 197.

In those days you could ride any sized motorbike on L-plates at 16. My mate Jim Andrew - who is still my best mate after 50 odd years - had a James and it looked like a good machine. So dad bought me a 1953 model, with plunger rear springs, and a separate saddle and pillion seat. To my chagrin one of my schoolmates immediately got his dad to buy him a 1955 model with swinging arm suspension and a dual seat. It wasn't as comfortable as my older model, though; he often had to get off to make adjustments. No, not to the bike.

Not a 1953 model, either... 1951 James Captain

At the time I thought my James was the, er, cat's whiskers. It was powered by the ubiquitous Villiers 8E engine, with a round aluminium cover over the outside flywheel. Inside the flywheel were the points. I was told to set the gap with a piece of cigarette paper, which I did. The engine refused to start. I eventually discovered this should have been a cigarette packet, which got it running again. Or was it the other way around? The bike had a three-speed gearbox, a great improvement on the Quickly's two, with a proper foot change. It really was a grown up motorbike.

I financed the running of the James by taking a Saturday job with the Co-op, helping on a bread round. It paid 12/6d (62p) plus four cream doughnuts for lunch. The money paid for two gallons of petrol, with some over for the necessary oil. I was in heaven; my school even allowed pupils to put motorbikes in the bike shed. Two James 197s and an Adler 250 twin. Guess whose dad was rich?

That August my parents decided we should have a family holiday in Orkney, where our family originated, but they wanted to take my aunt with them. This meant a very full car.

‘Would you’, dad asked casually, ‘like to ride up on the bike?’

I could hardly contain my excitement. Orkney was only 600-odd miles from our home in west Surrey, and the bike was good for 50mph. Twelve hours, easy peasey. I hadn't quite embraced the concept of average speeds at that point. Dad bought me a Black Prince jacket in rubberised PVC; I can still remember the smell. It went well with my black Corker crash helmet.

I don't recall checking things like the tyres or gearbox oil, but I'm sure I must have. I fitted the bike with some ex-army pannier bags, which flopped around alarmingly, as I didn't have the proper frames.

The look of a man who has ridden to Orkney and back... Our intrepid author, as a teenager.

We set off on a Saturday morning, having agreed to meet up at the Scrabster ferry terminal, on the north coast of Scotland, two days later. As soon as the car was out of sight I went off to do my baker's round. Even though dad had given me plenty of money for the trip I wasn't going to forgo my 12/6d, so I didn't get on the road north until after three o'clock.

Armed with an old RAC handbook, which had maps in it, I headed for London and the Great North Road. When the bike ran onto reserve I filled up at the next garage. Yes, garage. We were posh, us. There was a half-pint measure under the petrol cap. One measure per gallon of petrol. Or a pint of oil from a little green Castrol jug to two gallons of petrol. Writing that now I can hardly believe it. Petrol to oil, 16 to 1. Pollution? Youngsters today don't know nuffink; we really knew how to do pollution then.

James bits on eBay.co.uk

By half past ten I'd reached Grantham. I was starving. I pulled up a chippy and was offered a large bag of chips and batter bits for sixpence. And I do mean large. I couldn't eat it all so I wrapped some up and put them in a pannier bag for later. By now I'd realised that my headlight wasn't very good, in fact it hardly worked at all. Of course, lorries in those days weren't very fast and didn't stop quickly either, so it was fairly safe to follow them. On the Great North Road they ran all night, and I made steady progress by riding behind a succession of smoky trucks.

By about three in the morning I was having difficulty seeing anything so I pulled into an all night transport café. As I went in the door I caught sight of myself in a mirror. My face was black from the lorry exhausts, with a white ring round my eyes from the goggles. No wonder I couldn't see, the goggles were as dirty as my face. A good wash, followed by a mug of tea and a bun got me on the road again. It soon got light and I didn't need to follow lorries any more.

As I crossed into Scotland I stopped for breakfast. I warmed up the remaining chips on the bike's cylinder head, and scoffed them down, with water from a stream. All that day I pressed on north; by this time I had found that the bike was happiest at about 45mph, increasing to 50 downhill. I only stopped for fuel, Mars Bars, and Irn Bru, which, like many things Caledonian, is something of an acquired taste. After two bottles, I went on to lemonade.

The bike ran perfectly all the way up through Scotland, but by late evening I was very tired. I pulled up in a lay-by and settled down on a pile of gravel, which was surprisingly comfortable. I immediately fell asleep and was woken up at dawn by a kindly policeman, who simply wanted to know if I was all right. I think he was rather glad I wasn't dead.

We're getting closer to 1953... 1952 James Captain

At eight o'clock I rode into Tongue, on the north coast. As I rode past a hotel car park, I spotted a familiar car. Ours. I strolled in to the hotel and joined the family for breakfast, to the discomfort of the other guests; well I was a bit grubby. Then I followed the car along the coast to Scrabster and the ferry.

I hardly used the bike during our week's stay in Orkney, but I did take it out once. The islands are very windy and what I remember most was seeing 60mph on the speedometer riding down wind, and struggling back in first gear after I turned round. If I tried to use second the bike just stopped.

The ferry trip back to Scrabster was rough. Seriously rough. This was not a Ro-Ro; vehicles were lifted into the hold. Not motorbikes, though. The bike was lashed to the front of the bridge where the waves could break over it. And they did, hundreds of them. I was sick, mega sick. I brought up my breakfast, several meals from the days before, and some Irn Bru from the journey up, in concentrated form. A friendly deck hand wheeled the bike off the boat for me and left us on the quay. I just sat with my head in my hands looking at the dripping bike.

After a while I decided I was alive, and slowly climbed aboard. Petrol on, strangler shut, kick. Unbelievably, it started. And kept running. Slowly, carefully, I headed south. The fresh highland air helped me to recover and by the time I got to Latheron, on the A9, I was ravenous. I stopped at a little café and ordered a pot of tea and two scones. The waitress took pity on me and gave me an extra scone for free. Who says the Scots are mean?

Somehow, for the return trip, I'd acquired a small tent. I think dad must have had it in the car. When it got dark I pitched it beside the road, and slept till dawn.

Luxurious suspension, lively performance, stylish design and real economy...It was now Sunday morning, and I encountered my first real problem. Just south of Edinburgh the primary chain started to rattle. The oil had leaked out of the chain case, causing it to stretch. By the time I got to Morpeth the noise was too bad to go on.

Spotting a group of lads at the side of the road, I pulled up. Communication was difficult, the dialects of Northumberland and West Surrey not being entirely compatible, but we managed.

‘Is there’, I asked, ‘a motorcycle shop that was open on Sunday mornings?’

‘Aye’.

‘Could you tell me where it is?’

‘Aye’.

With that several of them grinned and pointed across the road. And there it was, with the word 'Villiers' writ large across the window. Saved. The primary chain cost 17/6d, a new gasket 10d and I bought a bob's worth of oil. I won't translate that into decimals; like the Day Trip To Bangor it all came to under a pound. I replaced the chain on the pavement outside the shop, with friendly advice and a cup of tea from the owner. The outer chain case was held on by a single bolt, and if the faces weren't perfectly flat the oil leaked out. They weren't, and it did, but it got me home.

That Sunday I rode down through England, on a perfect summer's day, with the bike humming along beneath me. It ran perfectly. I arrived home at three in the morning, having done the last few miles at about 5mph, in almost complete darkness. I was well ahead of the family, and slept in the coal shed for a few hours until I could get the spare key from our neighbour.

A week after I got home the bike broke its rear spindle, and chucked me into the road. Two weeks after that I came off on a greasy level crossing, hurting my leg. A couple of days later the front tyre shed a lump of tread; I just managed to keep it under control.

That trip to Orkney started a love of long-distance motorcycling which has lasted to this day. I'm not sure I'd want to go too far on a James 197 these days, though.


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