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15th July 2016

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Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy

Friends can be a mixed blessing and are almost always a mystery, says Frank Westworth, motorcycling friends especially so...

Are some of your friends insane? Observe that I am assuming that you do actually have friends. Anyway, moving swiftly on, do your friends astonish you with the idiocy of their choices when it comes to motorcycles? Several of mine do. I try not to share my incredulity, but it does sometimes slip out, in a subtle and disguised way, like falling to the floor and roaring with uncontrollable laughter. I have few friends.

One of the noble few who would cheerfully admit to being a friend of mine has a bizarre penchant. That is not a motorcycle marque, by the way, it’s an inclination or a taste. I know this because I looked it up. Not to be confused with either a pennant, a pendant or a pedant, all of which are different. My friend’s penchant is for motorcycles originating in Europe, usually but not always the mysterious east of Europe, and mostly but not always two-strokes, rather than manly heroic and totally noble four-strokes, as preferred by chaps of a more right-on disposition. And worse than that; he bullied me into riding one of them.

Most riders of the more ancient persuasion have preferences in the bikes they either own, ride or covet. I expect that you do, and I most certainly do. Most of these preferences are at least faintly sane, and some of them are apparently related to the actual riding requirement. Some riders prefer thundering monsters of massive capacity and performance, perfectly capable of zapping from Ramsbottom to the bottom of the African continent in an afternoon, while others prefer the svelte delight of a lightweight sportster, perfect for hooning around the scenery in endless tight country curves and fetching up for a glass of refreshment at a favourite hostelry. There are bikes perfect for every branch of the game, from gentle commuting to continental jaunting and all between. And almost everybody chooses their own interpretation of two-wheeled perfection.

Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy

Which makes my friend a little odd. He is a gentleman of substance, a proper professional person no less, and is unrestricted by financial considerations. Which completely demolishes the best excuse for riding some gasping horror – that it was the best affordable at the time. And he derives an insane level of delight from not only owning these things, but also riding them. This is inexplicable to a simple soul like myself.

I can understand riding something ghastly if the only alternative is walking, pedalling or simply not going anywhere. I’ve been through several phases like that myself, more than once, and still own several of the deeply awful clunkers which provided desperate wheels when the alternatives were more desperate, Nowadays several of them are Great British Classics. Life can be strange. And unexpectedly rewarding. At one point in time G5 Matchlesses were free to a good home. Or indeed any home. Or to the binman. I digress.

Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy
Jawas on ...

I can understand – remotely and in an academic way – the appeal of a BSA Bantam. Built in Redditch by chaps like us and owned as a youth, so forth. Or even a Norman. I struggle with the entire concept of the Francis-Barnett, but can excuse it for those same reasons. A Piatti-engined James? A Villiers-engined Panther? OK… if you must. At a stretch. But do you actually ride it?

My friend rides astounding mileages aboard his fleet of burbling oddities. He really does. I can neither fault nor laugh at this. I am as amazed as I am appalled. He could ride everywhere aboard the very finest machine available (a Norton, obviously) but instead smokes drearily along on things that are like MZs only … worse. Why?

Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy

Because he never stops smiling. This is a fact. I have studied him closely and it is true. He clambers aboard some relic of European social disaster, kicks it in a desultory way and sits there, beaming insanely, as it coughs, splutters and smokes beneath him. He wears Derriboots. In an earlier age he might have considered growing a big beard, smoking a noxious briar and riding a Velocette. He is that … peculiar.

And he tells me that I miss the point. His bikes always make him happy. He delights in riding them, fettling them, owning them and meeting other similarly misguided owners. They all know they’re misguided, too. They are impossible to insult. They beam smugly while lesser men (that would be me, then) attempt sarcasm and scorn. When one machine expires, he drags another out from the pile of similarly neglected monstrosities and rides that instead. It’s no big deal, he says. The ride is the big deal. And he rides away again. Smiling. This is infuriating.

He never worries about rubbish spares – the most awful new Chinese junk is an improvement over the original. He never buys tyres or chains – the bikes simply never wear them out. Insurance costs almost nothing – who would steal one? And even arthritic pedestrians could hop out of the way should the power overwhelm the marginal stability. The bikes just go on and on and on. All the time I’m searching for spares, installing greater perfection in my treasured classics … he’s simply touring Lapland or Patagonia or Dorset or somewhere like that.

Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy

The biggest insanity of it all is that I fear it’s contagious. Another friend of a similar dark tendency sent me a link to an ad for a WSK. A what? A Polish Bantam clone? Don’t be silly, I replied. Then he sent me an ad for a Planeta Sport, and for a moment I was tempted…

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