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13th July 2004

Opinion: Memories of Military Motorcycles Pt.1

Frank Authers has ridden bikes since 1934, and much of his motorcycling was done during his 30 years of service in the RAF. But before then he learned how to keep carbide lights working...

I have never been an ardent 'biker', as they are known these days, merely an enthusiast who has enjoyed the pleasures, trials and tribulations of owning and riding numerous bikes over a long period of time.

I was first struck with the bug at the age of 14, in 1934. I had just left school and went to work for a local butcher in my home town of Tiverton in Devon. He had a very ancient, large BSA, probably a 1927/8 model, and at weekends would go off to local farms rabbiting. He would take me along with him as a ferret boy. I remember sitting on this huge pillion seat, it must have been about a foot square, with four large springs that raised it off the back mudguard by a good four or five inches, the ferret box strapped to my back.

There was no special motorcycling clothing as such in those days, you were lucky to have a pair of gum boots and a mac of some description, and perhaps one of those flat caps with a peak at the back. I would often get frozen or soaking wet but was hooked, and on good days loved to be flying along (probably about 30mph maximum). So it was my ambition to get a motorcycle of my own when I could.

With regard to speed, in the early Thirties we had a local grasstrack rider by the name of Sammy Jordan who, to us kids was our hero. I remember some kids at school exclaiming in utter amazement; 'Sammy Jordan, he can do sixty!'

A 19 year old Frank Authers on the outbreak of war, sharing his much loved Norton with his girlfriend.

It was 1936 when I got my first motorbike. I had earned and saved enough money from my wages of 10/- (50p) a week (most of which went to my mother anyway), but from the rabbiting and a few other little sidelines that I had developed, I was able to buy a 250cc Matchless. It was hand change and hand throttle with carbide gas lamps. I bought it from a fellow a few miles out of Tiverton for 4. He showed and explained the controls, I had a run up and down the country road (little or no other traffic about then), and set off home.

I eventually took my driving test on it in Exeter (tests had only started two years before), and was delighted to learn that I had passed first time. I enjoyed that bike so much, but was very wet behind the ears when it came to things mechanical. I was going down Chapel Street one day when I lost all transmission. I couldn't understand it, so pushed it down to the local bike man and told him what had happened. He came over and took one look and said; 'you've lost your chain, boy.' I felt a bit of a fool for not seeing this myself, then walked back over my route and there it was, still lying in the middle of the road. He put a new spring link in and I was on my way again, about a shilling (5p) short, but a whole lot wiser.

Then there were the old carbide lights. I had been used to them from my bicycles so knew how they worked well enough but, out around the country roads at night, you could sometimes run out of water. If there was none immediately available then there was only one other means of supply, to which I occasionally had to resort! Well, these lights were smelly enough at the best of times but with this potent mixture... I'll leave the rest to your imagination!

Incidentally, those lights were never really good enough to see where you were going, and would occasionally blow out anyway. I quite liked them and have several in my collection of automobilia, and fire one up occasionally to demonstrate to my grandchildren how they used to work.

Back to the Matchless. It was time to progress so I sold it to another young lad for 5 and thought I'd made a small fortune( well it was two weeks' wages), although I think I'd had a rise to 12/- (60p) a week by now. With this 5 I bought a 1934 500cc Matchless from the local undertaker, who had married and didn't use it anymore. The Matchless was a big powerful beast, with a large chrome tank with a big M in black on it. It had massive power compared to the 250 and I'm sure the undertaker thought he would soon have another customer. So did I when I first let the clutch out! It shot me back onto the rear mudguard, but I soon mastered it and really loved that bike -- and to have electric lights, what bliss!.

By this time I had enlisted in the Royal Devon Yeomanry by putting my age on a bit. Our uniform was a khaki, button-up to the neck tunic, with highly polished buttons, riding breeches and puttees, highly polished boots with gleaming nickel plated spurs, a peaked cap, and a riding crop. So this was the gear that I wore when I rode to summer camp on Salisbury Plain on that Matchless in 1937, with a kit bag lashed on the pillion, I must have thought I was the dog's wotsits. Happy days!

In the next episode: World War Two, and riding an Afrika Corps BMW...

I have written a book detailing my 30 years service in the RAF from 1938 to 1968, which is available from me, priced at 9.95 including delivery to the UK. Call 01392 874171 or email

Frank and son visit one of Devon's two listed AA phone boxes in 1999

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