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14th June 2004


Opinion: Backfire!

Rowena Hoseason discovers that as she gets older - so do her classic bikes...

'When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.'

Me too (although I never actually made it to manhood, being differently equipped in the chromosome department). My childhood, in motorcycling terms, was filled with the hottest, the newest, the brightest and spangliest shiny-shiny snouty speedbikes I could find. I was a magpie among motorcyclists. If it glittered and gleamed and said; 'New and Improved!' then I was compelled to possess it. New bikes, as you know, have to pass an MoT on their third birthday. None of mine ever reached that age. Most of them were swapped for the newer, the better, the much-improved version by the time they achieved the great age of 12 months.

A good friend (whose initials might be RM) once snickered at a particularly long-lived bike, which had loitered in my grasp until it was nearly ancient, decrepit and totally worn out. It was at least 13 months old.

'What's it like, riding last year's model?' he enquired with something approaching a malicious grin. T'was sold the next week. With friends like that...

Pink and Purple. Yet people were still surprised when they found out it was a gurrl riding it.

Things reached a peak with another bike which was upgraded because it needed a service. I never quite got to the point where I swapped machines when they were due for tyres - but it could only have been a matter of time. Always I was in pursuit of something more advanced, something different, something fresh. Something new.

Then I hit the age of 30. The earth didn't stop spinning on its axis or anything, but I noticed that I was displaying a distinct disinterest in what might be available in future. Instead I bought a BMW as my modern motorcycle - the surest way of opting out of any rat race - and started to tinker with old bikes. Really old bikes. 30 year old bikes. I wasn't acting out my earliest motorcycling fantasies, because these couldn't possibly have been the bikes which I wanted to ride when I was a teenager. The Triumphs and BSAs of the 1970s were scorned and scoffed at in the 1980s. Yet in the 1990s these well worn, oily Britbikes seemed strangely appealing to a 30-something with enough disposable income to support their idiosyncrasies, and with a well developed classic industry at hand to provide the wherewithall to fix them.

Beige. Which is arguably worse than pink and purple...So far, so commonplace. Then the plot thickened. At first my interest in classic bikes was confined to the models which bore some resemblance to the modern motorcycles with which I was familiar. I ventured no further than Norton Commandos with modified fully-floating disc brakes, and T160 Tridents with electronic ignition and electric start. I chose classics with their gearchange on the right side (which is the left side, obviously). Accustomed to riding Ducati Monsters, dodgy old Hondas and BMW boxers, I happily adapted to life with slower, grumpier and infinitely unreliable old bikes.

Next thing you know, I've bought a bike with an sls drum front brake. And four gears. And contact breaker ignition. Hey! This is fun. I can see how most of the thing works, even. Meanwhile, FW, who had previously espoused the practicality of recent classics, has slithered back into the clutches of the 1950s and starts to dabble with old warhorses. He buys old Brit motorcycles with - gasp - ignition advance / retard levers, and a singular lack of any suspension at the rear.

Before you can say 'midlife crisis' we're both gazing in unashamed adulation at pre-war art deco 1930's motorcycles, all sculptured flowing lines and fluted mudguards and simple elegance. For only the cost of a decent current Ducati we could own a 1930's V-twin!

Then at the Stanford Hall show recently, I found myself in discussion with Jacqueline Bickerstaff, she of Vin twin fame. Except... never mind the famous 1950s 996cc beasts, Jacqueline has found, as time rolls by, that she's more interested in older, vintage and veteran motorcycles from the flat-tank era. Classic bikes? Huh. Anything post-war is pretty, well, modern really. At this rate, by the time I draw a pension I'll be back to using pedals again!

In the meanwhile, I've slowed my motorcycling regression to the 1950s, so - as you may know - was out shopping for a beautiful little Douglas 350 Dragonfly flat twin. Found a good one locally, being sold by a chap who'd owned it for 10 years -- but now he was hoping to move onto something a little... you know... older. Less modern. A proper classic. He had a rigid BSA twin in the garage, but that was a bit too new to be honest. He'd been thinking about something with a little more history to it. Like a Sunbeam. An 80 year old Sunbeam. A flat-tank, vintage Sunbeam, with hardly any gears and more odd levers on it than I could count.

And now the colour has gone altogether. Nurse!

So be careful. Today: 140bhp Aprilia. Tomorrow? 4hp AJS. What's stopping you?


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