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27th March 2006

Opinion: A Condensed Lifetime Of Lunacy

Would you like some sound advice about old bikes? Laurie Packer has racked up nearly half a century with classic motorcycles, and reckons you shouldn't be shy of taking the plunge...

It started in 1959. Not for me the underpowered Cyclemaster 25cc - no, I had to have the 32cc version! Promises to parents that this was all I would ever want were forgotten when a friend sold me the remains of a BSA C11G. This mostly came home in a duffle bag . Parental disapproval was muted by the knowledge that I would never get it together. I did, and with four 1.5 volt torch batteries it started. Such batteries don't take a charge very well though!

From there things moved on - or degenerated, depending on your point of view - to a BSA C10L (regularly thrashed between Thornton Heath pie stall and Brighton) various other small BSAs and then a BSA M21 with a sidecar the size of a small house.

French windows, side-partings and pullovers.
Random BSA single bits on

Now the M21, which formed the sole form of transport for three suave young men, cut no mustard with the totty at the Orchid ballroom and, although it gave me practice in how to port and tweak a flathead (an engine design I still like), it had to go in the interests of 'scoring'.

And so arrived my beloved 1957 Tiger 110 which, with the benefit of all the hot cams, followers, high comp pistons etc, went like the proverbial bat out of hell. Thornton Heath to Brighton was now eye-wateringly quick but braking had to be started not long after you passed Preston Park, and the handling on the bends through the South Downs on the old A23 was - well -- novel!

The 110 and I parted company, somewhat violently, in Wallington and when I emerged from hospital I viewed what was left of my pride and joy which still awaited a visit from the third party's claims assessors. 0ops! Scary! And by now the Orchid Ballroom belles expected four wheels so enter the Morris Minor, Austin Cambridge, etc, etc, etc.

And then the story very nearly ended altogether when medical science could not completely put Humpty Dumpty together again after another prang (I wasn't in charge of the vehicle this time!) and my All Groups license was taken away from me. Now all I could drive was an automatic car so I couldn't ride even if I wanted to.

30 years on - enter the Puch maxi - or rather the remains of two of them. Bought by son and heir intending to make one out of the two as university transport, they, too, suffered the totty effect. So father, wishing to demonstrate his skills (or be a smartarse depending upon your viewpoint) took on the project - and enjoyed it immensely. Now some of the bits I bought from Mr Lee came wrapped in a newspaper new to me called Old Bike Mart which I casually flicked through and the rest, as they say, is history.

The AJS Model 16 bought a month later at Shepton Mallet was my first restoration project and opened the door to a world wherein I have met nothing but kindness and help and where skills are still practiced that I thought were lost.

Someone wants me for a Sunbeam...

In those early days I probably ought to call myself a rebuilder not restorer because everything was farmed out but, with the purchase of a small lathe/mill and the help of two local engineer enthusiasts, I first learned to make a variety of what I now know as fixings. So the first piece of advice, if you've got room, is to do just that - get a lathe - the most valuable piece of kit in a restorer's armoury.

A friend, knowing what I was up to, found the Thunderbird for me in Wiltshire. The owner had nursed it home after a lower fork bush had come off but with the same frame as my 110 he shouldn't have noticed a worsening in the handling. Nevertheless he dumped in his shed for 20 years before I got hold of it. So it was back to Salisbury with wheels, Yate for both chroming and electrical knowhow (handy that!), the New Forest for paint and Bournemouth for exhausts and other Triumphy bits.

And it was whilst chatting to another customer in a Bournemouth shop that he told me of his brother's redundant AJS Model 31 CSR (with a full service history no less!) which I raced off and bought from him in Ripley the same afternoon.

And so the madness accelerated. The flathead passion was rekindled by a complete (and I do mean complete) 1935 Norton 16H and was then compounded by shoehorning a Triumph TRW engine and slickshift box into a rigid G3 frame. The AMC tendency was evidenced by AJS Models 14 (ex bramble bush in Torquay) 18S, Models 20 and 22. Oh, and a Matchless G3LSC, G3 and G80CS.

The proper color for a BSA twin...

There have also been a few other marques which I've taken on because they are different and the engineering is therefore more of a challenge but, rather than bore, you what have I learnt?

Well, here's just a little:-

  • The classic bike fraternity is a fraternity in the true sense of the word and boy are there some skills out there.

  • Try to become a restorer not just a rebuilder and try lathe work as the first step

  • Although tinware restoration including paintwork is an art, don't be put off. They had to start somewhere and given the cost… However reshaping, brazing and leadloading Bathtubs is not, perhaps, the best place to begin!

  • Wheel rebuilding is not something that can only be done by wizards in wet Wiltshire woodlands (although they do it awfully well). Take lots of digital snaps before demolition and watch out for and measure offsets.

  • Wiring and electrical gizmos can be understood but it sure helps if you've got a mate in Yate. You'll still need the platers down the road though!

    Blacker than a very black bike...

  • Sunbeam S8s are truly different. An early 1950's overhead camshaft oversquare engine?! Who cares which way round the engine goes?

  • Velo clutches are monumentally horrible but don't the bikes go and sound well!

  • Panthers are epic and so's the owners' club

  • Gold Stars love Mikunis

  • Never pass by a box of AMC singles cams without a careful ferret about

  • Triumph TRWs rescued from India will be full of sand but are worth the effort - one of the best engineered and responsive singles going.

  • Girder forks are not as simple as they look.

  • Don't expect distributors to distribute. Keep the points and go dual coil/wasted spark instead.

    And finally I told a small lie. I am back on bikes A mostly 1947 all iron engine G80S pulls a sidecar especially made by a good friend. It's got a side pivoting nose for me to get in the front and a modified bike rack at the rear to take my wheelchair. The Thornton Heath pie stall with its nut and bolt sandwiches has long gone but Brighton… well, who knows?

    No sleep 'till Brighton...

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