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10th October 2014

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Famous Last Words 26: Historical Context

Should an article in a classic bike magazine discuss only the motorcycle and how it performs? Or should it attempt to place that machine in its historical context? Frank Westworth ponders such things...

‘History is bunk.’ That’s a quote. And although the guy credited with inventing that famous quote was a dull, tedious and unspeakably successful car person, the same view was announced by a motorcycling acquaintance when we were enjoying a recent argument. Arguments are good for the soul. You can quote me.

‘I don’t want to read a history book. I just want to read about the bike.’ That’s fair enough, and is more or less how the … ah … discussion started. I was gentle and placatory, as a chap should be when dealing with simpletons, and began to explain, with added patience and potential wry humour, how I, that’s me, me personally, prefer to know a lot about a bike’s background before I write something about it.

Not just about the bike itself, that individual machine, that one there in the pictures, but about where it fit into the great scheme of bike things when it was gracing a showroom back then, back in the mists of time. I like to know about the model which preceded it, the model which succeeded it. I want to know who designed it, and why, and I like to understand how and why it works … or fails to work in some cases. I want to know about its showroom rivals, and how they performed. Performed on the road as well as in the showroom. I want to know what it’s like to ride today, and if I can remember that far back, I want to know how it rode when it was newer.

The Solo Motorcyclist
Now a Classic, on ...

Embarrassingly, some of the bikes I rode to write about when they were new are now apparently classics. I’d mistakenly thought that they were just old bikes, but no. Even I can occasionally be wrong about things like this, although I am of course a Noted Expert.

History can tell you a lot about a motorcycle. About other things too, I believe, but The Reader might wax violent if I start discussing guitars again, so I’ll ask you to consider this. Would you prefer to know if the wheezing leaking almost-unstartable pile of corrosion and incontinence standing before you in some improbable autojumble, neglected by all and wearing a tiny price tag as a result… would you not prefer to know that it was actually the very Suzuki stroker aboard which Barry Sheene won his first race? You didn’t know he raced a 125, did you? Ha! That’s history, that is.

The Solo Motorcyclist

History allows the more rational rider to understand a lot more about their bike. It aids in understanding how to ride it and what to expect from it. And when – as will inevitably be the case – the thing collapses beneath you in a dying groan of unfiltered ancient oil and grinding metal filings, you will want to know whether your chosen bolide was successful and popular, in which case decent quality parts will be available to restore it to its place on the highways, or whether it was an unsaleable horror story, which is why you could afford to buy it in the first place, and in which case it’s time for the very very thick oil and a quick dash to eBay. Knowledge is power. Except in the case of anything powered by a Villiers 9E, in which case knowledge is a strange mixture of optimism and disillusion, best treated by strong drink and a bracing long walk down a short cliff path above a wild and stormy ocean.

I’ve never understood how it is that anyone caring enough about old bikes to pay good money to read someone else’s opinions of them can truly believe that a good story should revolve simply around how fast it goes in a straight line, whether it wobbles homicidally in a corner at any speed over 23mph, and whether one particular colour scheme or arrangement of rider ergonomics is better than another. People – some people, gentle reader; I plainly exclude your esteemed self – are just plain strange.

History is key when choosing a bike to ride. It simply is. And any author who neglects to include as much relevant history as his editor’s terrible temper will permit is just being lazy. The more of your bike’s history you know, the more you will learn to understand – even to accept – its tiny failings. Riders of anything powered by a Villiers 9E already know all there is to know about tiny failings, so they’re permitted to smile smugly at this point. Be generous; this may be their only smile this year.

I first heard the quotation with which I opened this story from a valued friend and colleague, many years ago when I was a callowly youthful apprentice scribbler. He was reading one of my very first journalistic efforts. For a moment, I’d thought he’d said ‘His story’s junk,’ while muttering darkly to himself. History is a strange pleasure…


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