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27th January 2006


Opinion: AMC Anorak 15

Never a lender nor a borrower be … sound advice when it comes to motorcycles. Frank Westworth has some good and bad memories...

You never know how awful your motorcycle is until you let someone else ride it.

Given that I ride lots of other folks' bikes, and given that I discover that about a quarter of them are horrible, it's always a worry when someone borrows one of my own bikes. I get really nervous about this; do you? I mean, whenever I arrange to borrow a bike so I can pen a piece of deathless prose in pursuit of what laughingly passes for a living, I always assume that Proud Owner simply wheels his / her bike from their air-conditioned luxo-shed, flicks a switch or two, applies a kick or two and then strolls away disinterested while I flail about, pretending familiarity with the controls, so forth.

But it might not be so, of course.

On those rare occasions when someone asks if they can take a spin aboard one of my own sad collection of weary wobblers, I go into a complete funk. I mean, my bikes are of course faultless, maintained by A Noted Expert in tip-top condition and in a state of complete mechanical excellence, ready for every one of those splendid sunny days. Erm… well, perhaps.

A fine upright motorcycle...

Suddenly, all those little quirks, foibles, charming characteristics are revealed for what they truly are; an accumulation of minor disasters waiting to happen. They are not problems individually, and even collectively they aren't going to make the bike a danger to itself or to its pilot, but when someone else begs a ride, then … quite suddenly, and every time is a first time, I understand once more that the only time most of my old bikes get much in the way of restorative or preventive maintenance is when they have to go in for their annual MoT ordeal, which is the most difficult other-person-riding scenario of them all. Unless you're very lucky…

In a rash moment a little while ago, I offered a chum (you may well know him; one of those folk who inhabit the Message Board), a spin on my elderly Matchless G80. It's a '47, iron head rigid, and has never been restored. My favourite kind of motorcycle, in fact, and always as eccentric and entertaining a riding experience as you're going to get. Although bikes in this kind of condition (I almost wrote 'this kind of state…' but that would have been unkind) are a dwindling breed, they attract much attention (if that's important to you) and exude a certain presence, their world-weary air more than compensating for a certain incontinence. And before I say anything else, I might mention that I like my bikes to attract attention. It is my firm belief that the only way a word gets spread is by action, not talk. So when I read in shiny magazines how concerned everyone is about attracting new riders into the old bike arena I find myself a touch irritated. Never mind lecturing the converted; get out and ride the bikes. If we grin a lot while we're doing it, and are plainly enjoying a particularly jolly time, then other folk will want to join in!

End of lesson.

The G80 is a grand old tank, and it has enjoyed many years of careful and thoughtful maintenance … from previous owners. Its wiring, for example, has mainly been replaced. It has a stop light fitted. There's a solid state electronic gizmo inside its original Lucas CVC box. It has a replacement saddle (thank the Lord!) and its tyres are of decently recent manufacture, as are a few of its cables.

But the rest of it is what we might call 'nicely patinated' (if RealMart allows language like that in these electronic pages). The speedo cable, for instance, has lost a lot of its outer covering, the section nearest the rear wheel showing off how the wire winding of the cable is constructed. But who cares? It matches its rusty surroundings and the speedo works well. Even the lights work! And best of all, it is a superb machine to ride, comfortable with itself in the way original motorcycles so often are. They almost invite you to share a ride with them, he says, getting slightly romantic!

Every pixel carefully patinated...
Random AMC bits on eBay.co.uk

And I really like it; this is one of my very favourite machines; it starts well, steers well, has adequate Go, almost no Stop … nigh-on perfect, then.

Until I offered it to a chum for a spin. Suddenly I found myself giving him The Grand Tour. Suddenly I was apologising for the slop in the clutch cable (where does your clutch bite? I like mine to start gripping near the handlebar, which means that the lever flaps about entertainingly when you ride along). Suddenly I found myself shouting out 'Hang on a sec; I'll just tighten up the front brake a bit!' Why? The brake works as well as it's ever likely to, and moving the cable bite point nearer the pivot isn't going to improve it.

I pumped tyres, kicked them and pumped them again. I rubbed optimistically at the headlamp glass and squirted some adhesive concoction at the rear chain and its sprocket, praying that whatever was in the aerosol would plate a little extra metal on the rather worn teeth…

Finally, m'chum overcame my mounting terror, mounted up, kicked the engine up and vanished down the lane. I chewed my beard: should I follow in the car with the trailer swinging behind? Did he have a mobile telephone so he could call me? If I went out after him in the car, how would I know where he'd gone in case he'd staved off disaster until after the first junction? If I took the car, would Richard know my mobile number? Did I know my mobile number? Did I know his? It was an agony, I can tell you.

Tinc, tinc, tinc...

And of course I need not have worried. My Bonneville-riding chum reappeared, a beatific smile plastered across his bearded chops. He swung the Matchless onto its sidestand, which wonderfully didn't retract itself before he'd put the bike's weight on it. I should have warned him…

He stood close to the bike and pulled the decompresser. The engine sighed sadly to a stop - no more riding today then. It wept a drop of Mr Duckham's finest onto the toe of Richard's smart and clean boot. I should have warned him…

Petrol started to drip from various bits of the petrol plumbing. I should have warned…

But it was a victory for the G80. Richard was quite converted. He sang praises, lit up a celebratory pipe bowl of Olde Composte and announced an attack of true lurve. I beamed and preened; the Matchless ticked and dripped, gently. My chum rode off, back to the sylvan southlands somewhere not very near Launceston, and I wheeled the old Matchless back into The Shed, both of us basking in the appreciation of another experienced rider.

But did he mean it? What if he was just being kind? What if he was even now collapsed in a local lay-by, convulsed with laughter at the dreadfulness of the old warrior and its wonky ways? What was it that the philosopher said? Never a lender nor a borrower be? Too right; some folk should be listened to…


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