19th December 2014
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Motorcycling in the 1960s
James Styles started his biking life on a BSA Bantam… and soon swapped it for a Gold Star. Perfect for commuting through the London traffic. Not! But who cared, back then?...
My introduction to two-wheeled travel was the Robin Hood bicycle I received for passing my Eleven Plus. I once rode it around 90 miles from Ramsgate to Rye and back in a day, even though it only had one gear. At school I noticed that one of the masters had a Power Pak engine on the back of his cycle to help it up hills. It drove the back wheel via a friction roller so was a bit hit-and-miss in wet weather. I thought that this was the future and wanted power to help me too.
I left school to work for Austin Russell photographers in Margate. The boss, John Potter, had a Vincent Black Knight motorcycle which I cleaned when there wasn't much work around in winter. The bike was a 1000cc V-twin with a fibreglass enclosure which made it look a bit like a scooter on steroids. He gave me a ride on it once and I was hooked – motorcycles were the thing.
I next got a job as a trainee photographer at the National Physical Laboratories at Teddington. After a period of travelling from Margate to Teddington by train on a Monday and coming back on a Friday, I decided that I needed more flexible transport. So at Philpot's Garage in Ramsgate I spent £49/10s on a 150cc D5 BSA Bantam. I took delivery of it on a Saturday afternoon and rode it to Teddington on the Sunday, using a gallon of two-stroke mixture for the 92 miles. I had never ridden on the roads before. I was pretty deaf at the end of the journey as crash helmets were not compulsory and I just wore a flat cap.
The fact that I could come and go as I pleased, and not rely on a railway timetable, outweighed the cold and wet. I passed my test which meant I could use the motorways and speed the journey up. However, as the Bantam was flat out at 55, this meant a faster machine was called for. I liked my Bantam so I decided to buy another BSA… a 500cc Clubmans Gold Star with clip-ons, no less! Really sensible for use in traffic. Riding on motorways was a lot better though, until that machine threw its conrod through the crankcase on the M2. The shop I bought it from fitted a new engine for half price so it wasn't too much of a disaster. I later learned that as the Gold Star was a weekend racing machine, the conrod was supposed to be checked after five hours of competition use.
I used to go riding with a group of like-minded bikers but I didn’t really want to carry a passenger. So I decided that a racing seat on my bike was the best aid to handling: no pillion seat! I wanted the bike to go as fast as possible. I also had a bad experience as a passenger when I slid down the road after the guy at the helm lost control with the extra weight.
Together with my good friend Brian, I collected a succession of Royal Enfield bikes. He had a 350cc Bullet and then a Meteor 700cc machine which was really a sidecar bike – but we managed to get it to an indicated 108mph between the St Nicholas and Monkton roundabouts near Ramsgate. Another friend, Ken, always said his 600cc Matchless was faster. Finally we cobbled together a front end damaged Enfield Constellation and pair of Enfield J2 forks which were undamped. I think we got that machine up to 115mph along the Manston Road.
I decided that I needed a more user-friendly bike than the Gold Star, and part-exchanged it for a new BSA Spitfire Mk2. What a mistake that was. Everything about the new bike had sounded marvellous: GP carbs, alloy rims, high compression pistons and four gallon fibreglass tank. Reality soon appeared though. The Spitfire seized whilst running it in at 50mph, and that should have given me warning of things to come. It would not stay in straight line hands-off, always veering to the left. Later I was told this was maybe to do with different fork springs in each leg. it wouldn’t pick up cleanly after coming out of a roundabout, with nothing happening at first as if the engine had cut out and then a sudden burst of power which was a bit scary in wet weather. I rode it for 17,000 miles but it was still not right and I ended up riding it to the BSA factory. They lowered the compression ratio and that seemed to make thing slightly better, but I ended up part-exchanging it for a Reliant van. I hasten to add that the van was for a friend!
In the years between the Bantam and the Spitfire I had quite a few machines including another Gold Star I bought for £30. I joined the Invicta Motorcycle Club in Ramsgate and went to many events and runs. I did once act as passenger at a sidecar grasstrack event: only once and never again. I woke up in the St John ambulance tent.
If you want to see more of what really took place in the 1960s then look at the Ramsgate Remembered site (www.ramsgatehistory.com) and click onto the photo albums Invicta and Sprint . I took most of the images, with some taken from the back of my brother's Tiger 100 as we sped along. I still hanker after a motorcycle when I see them for sale but with a dodgy leg it must remain a dream…
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