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19th May 2004

Opinion: The Way Things Were And Are

Jim Rendell inherited the biking bug from his father, and once trained an Alsatian dog to ride pillion on a Francis Barnett. These days, a Dominator does the trick (minus dog)...

My first two-wheeler was a CWS-marketed bicycle complete with full chaincase and rod operated brakes with tubing probably from SGB rather than Reynolds. My father, a brilliant and humorous man, was an engineer of the old school who declared that cable brakes weren't to be trusted, so I ended up with a royal blue bike that would have been more suited to the rigours of the Veldt than the roads of Gloucestershire.

It did well through the school years and I actually rode it to London and back once and often used to carry the (family heirloom) twelve gauge tied to the crossbar on my outings to the Laurie Lee valley of Slad. I lived with my parents in a flat in the centre of Stroud. The youth gathered in the local coffee bars and this is where I met new friends including Geoff and Johnny Morris, who rode Gold Stars, Rockets, Venoms, Dommis and Tigers and other powerful stuff.

No caption could do justice to this picture...

I knew my father once owned a motorcycle because I have this undated photograph of what I believe is his Dunelt, taken at Tufts Junction, Gloucestershire.

My father's engineering skills were acquired with Sperry Gyroscope, HP Baughn and latterly at The Dowty Rotol Group (as was). HP Baughn were a small contract engineering company in Stroud and HP had a passion for motorcycles to the point that he designed and manufactured his own Baughn motorcycle. I believe Baughn was credited as being the first person to employ a sidecar driven wheel.

Isn't that a clean shaven and young Real Mart, middle row, third from the left...

Baughn's Engineering, Stroud, Glos (Jim's father back row left)

Dad was amazing. Our first car was a decrepit Austin Seven found in a lean-to. He chased the mice out of the seats and scraped the journals round and ran his own white metal bearings, all with the car disassembled into parts and carried up into the second floor of the flat. The coachwork was perfectly finished in many coats of brushing Belco. Electricity was a complete mystery. He was sure that current would leak out from the ends of unterminated cables. Verification of a healthy spark was achieved by putting plugcaps on four fingers of one hand and cranking with the other. The jolt and squeal was proof positive. He persuaded me to do that once: never again! My great memories of him are that he came home from work smelling of suds -- and his insistence that I would not go into engineering. I was never certain why.

Based on the weight of history and precedent I pleaded for a motorcycle. I couldn't afford one but father found funding for a 197cc 9E Francis Barnett Falcon. Freedom at last. I attended College in Cheltenham and rode the Barnett 26 miles each day come rain, hail or shine. The road followed a long climb out through Painswick and down onto the flatlands of the Severn estuary, tricky riding in the winter months.

After college I started work with a firm of architects in Gloucester. A reduced journey of eleven miles each way but via the notorious Horsepools hill. I recall a morning of rutted snow and covered the whole journey with feet down, at one point watching a Western National double decker bus sliding sideways towards me. It didn't seem to matter that much and the neglected Barnett never really gave any trouble.

A vivid picture remains of an attempt to start the two-stroke when conventional means had failed. A bump was the answer. The footing was unsure as I ran along, and leapt aboard -- only to fall off the other side. The engine started and I lay there watching the Barnett do an unaccompanied version of a tank slapper, bouncing along a row of wooden garage doors. Oh dear!

Our coffee bar lads joined the Gloucester and Cotswold Motor Club, which met at the Bristol Hotel, Gloucester and ran the Gloucester Grand National scrambles at Tirley. It was the heyday of local riders Smith and Draper and Billy Jackson Jnr on the works Cotton, and Brian Stonebridge on the Greeves. Geoff, Johnny and I marshalled. During one event I witnessed the oddest accident ever. A steep downhill section of the course divided either side of a coppice. One rider misjudged his descent, went into the coppice and came out running holding just the handlebars, forks and front wheel. The rest of the bike was jammed into a tree!

It was around this time I owned a half share in a Greeves Scottish trials bike.

I came home from Gloucester on a dry moonlit night after a liaison with a female. The road through Whaddon was virtually straight apart from a sharp left/right combination. A patch of gravel, it might have been dung, upset the plot on the first bend and I parted company with the Barnett. I flew headlong through a thorn hedge and found myself suspended part way up the hedge, unable to reach the ground with hands or feet. All the while the Villiers was putt-putting away nearby. I virtually swam out of the hedge into the field, collected the undamaged motorcycle, and continued home.

Then the services called, but there was no call for architects in any of the armed forces so I ended up in the RAF Police. After basic training at Wilmslow I was posted to Police School at Netheravon, Wiltshire. I rode the Barnett to and from Netheravon for about twenty weeks. One journey was an epic. I unintentionally dismounted after a meeting with a mid-bend, wet manhole cover. This caused damage to the exhaust pipe junction with the motor, to the point that it came adrift. I drove on through the night with lots of noise and blue flames. Approaching the camp I attempted to tie the pipe back on with a wet rag, which soon after caught fire. The entrance to the camp was up a long steep hill and I pushed all the way. The last place on earth you need a totally unsilenced motorbike is outside a guardroom at a Military Police Training Camp...

5006 Gypsy and the BarnettI left Netheravon as a fully fledged police dog handler and 5006 Gypsy and I were given custody of three Thor ICBMs at Driffield, well Carnaby actually. Myself and 39 other guys, armed with pistols and dogs, kept an eye on things through the Yorkshire nights.

When the train warrants ran out, and I became disillusioned with being dropped miles from anywhere when hitch-hiking (it was easier in those days), the doughty Barnett provided transport. 220 miles each way, Stroud to Driffield, clad in a DR coat, boots and gloves from Exchange and Mart, with chest thermally insulated with layers of newspaper and topped of with a Centurion.

No motorways then and a cruising speed of 45mph and every human joint seized solid by the end of the journey. Why oh why?

Alsatian Gypsy and I often rode the Barnett together but only around the airfield. Didn't I ever get reprimanded? Well as a Snowdrop this was unlikely!

At Driffield I met two of my best friends, Ken Lomas-Fletcher from Buxton and George Robertson from Wick. Ken originally had a DOT and I had the Barnett. The three of us spent many wonderful hours riding the roads of Yorkshire and visiting the live music pubs of Driffield and Bridlington with the occasional sortie to Butlins at Filey.

Ken was once found in a ditch at the back of the main camp. Some thoughtful soul had provided a railway sleeper over the ditch as a shortcut from town to camp. Ken returned via the shortcut one night and lost the front wheel of the DOT on the sleeper, colliding heavily with the far bank. A few days in sick bay and he was fine but then he had a collision on the Hull road with a badger, which unseated him. Shortly afterwards he bought a Matchless 500 single. Never gave up, brave lad.

The RAF Police rode 500cc, side valve Triumph TRWs on escort duty for the missiles; lovely exhaust note! One of the station police was desperate to ride one of these and asked Ken and I to teach him. Never have I been more frustrated. He could operate the controls and ride in a wobbly straight line and was fine as a pillion passenger, but when it came to turning his reaction was to yank the handlebars with disastrous consequences -- at least it was on grass. Ken and I ran alongside trying to stop him falling off. It was no use. After many hours he just never learned to ride a motorcycle. Perhaps he was like a bear walker, who is someone who marches with same arm and leg going back and forth. Try it, its not easy or natural. Not like falling off a log or motorcycle.

Strangest thing is that after 45 years Ken, who lives in Australia, and George, who lives in Dewsbury, and I all found each other again but we cannot locate any of the other 37. Fate.

So National Service was done and dusted and designing buildings beckoned anew. It became increasingly apparent that sophisticated women did not go for blokes on bikes. I needed a halfway house, neither fish nor fowl, not quite car but with a bit of bike in it. Something dry and cheap and could carry two. Big, big mistake. I bought an AC Petite.

'What's that?' I hear you cry. AutoCarriers, of Thames Ditton, made Cobras, Aces and Acecas and invalid carriages, odd mix but that was what it was. The Petite was a stretched, aluminium-bodied invalid carriage with a 350cc Villiers single in the boot. Three rubber bands to the gearbox, chain to the diff, umbrella handbrake, column shift and no front brake, but with roll up canvas sunroof! Got it? Fantastic. Still, it seemed to work with the ladies.

It forever oiled plugs. The boot had no stay and was propped up with a piece of stick to facilitate plug changes. At six in the morning, with the monks at Prinknash Abbey called by the mournful bell, it seemed to glide along, without feet, in the morning mists with water running down your neck, with your head dented by the falling boot lid caused by dislodgement of propping stick due to being knocked adrift by reaction of arm to burnt fingers from hot fouled plug, and the sizzling caused by the said hot plug rolling into the puddle under the car.

Not a lot more to be said, really.

Still I did once try to avoid a guy's hat, blown off by strong winds, outside Jamaica Inn on Dartmoor. Forgot it had a centre wheel in front. My attempt to straddle it turned the bowler into a trilby, very suddenly.

So that was the finale to the first encounter with the motorcycle. Many years were to pass before I leaned into turns again.

A cousin told me of a gathering of the Cotton Owners' Club in my home city of Gloucester. Very nice machines on show, at the back of the Folk Museum. Sad thing was that one could look across to the Shire Hall, which occupies the site of the former Cotton works in Quay Street.

Reynolds contemplates a career move...Parking in any city is a real problem and my thoughts turned to a scooter (shock, horror). My reasoning of no congestion problems and free parking seemed sound. Then I remembered the Cottons and all the other early machines and so this was the route I chose. I studied the magazines and reasoned that for a senior citizen it needed to be a lightweight.

A Greeves beckoned (and not because they once made invalid carriages). I bought a nicely restored, Villiers 4T powered, East Coaster and had so much fun. She represents innovation in the cast alloy frame and invokes memories of when the little Greeves took America by storm. It's an uncommon model and attracts attention. At a gathering in Cheltenham last year John Reynolds, the former British Superbike Champion, admired the little old two-stroke and was photographed on board.

The use of totally synthetic oils means that plug fouling no longer happens and the dreaded smoke trail has gone. It cruises at a nice 50-55mph, although with a six-footer weighing sixteen stones aboard, the progress up hills has to be leisurely.

Note lack of smoke trail.

I never owned a Norton and they were my next focus. Three months ago I acquired a 1961 Dominator 99. It has been well restored and has the matching stuff. I have added air and oil filters, got rid of the selenium rectifier and changed the tyres but the appearance remains unchanged. I have taken the bikes to shows, sometimes ridden and sometimes trailered. My pleasure is absolute and my neighbours consider me quite mad. The friendship and help I have received from my rediscovered fellows is immense and I value their opinion and their company.

A warm long summer is needed...

Jim and Norton, looking forward to a long warm summer...

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