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1st September 2016

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Back to Basics

Every so often, we receive a plaintive request asking us to explain the basics of old British bikes for people who have just discovered classic motorcycles. Here's the answer...

First, here’s a typical question from an RealClassic reader. This one came from Ashley but he’s far from being unusual in struggling to understand the strange nature of classic bikes.

Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy

‘There are some basics in terms of maintenance and just sheer filling in of my own ignorance that could ideally be covered by those more knowledgeable in these matters. I’d really appreciate if some technical instruction could be included in RC to help the likes of me. Basic servicing and things like the setting of timing, or even the installation of electronic ignition, would be of use and interest to many readers I’m sure, especially the less mechanically experienced like myself.

‘The first article I’d ask to see would be a simple explanation of how the advance/retard and choke levers work. Don’t laugh – but all I know is that I’ve two little levers on my Panther M100 and the bike seems to start and run better with these little wiggly bits in certain positions. She won’t start at all without the right hand lever pulled hard back as far it will go. Otherwise it seems to want to kick back. Is this firing the engine prematurely / backwards? Then when running, she ticks over a little faster and runs more smoothly with this lever pushed forwards a little. I presume this is the spark advance; I’ve a Thorspark unit fitted.

‘The bike can be the devil to start when cold, she fires easily enough but frustratingly kicks back. I wonder if I’m missing a trick here? I just don’t understand enough of how the thing is supposed to work and be set up correctly. I’m developing ‘Panther leg’! As for the other lever, I’ve no idea what position the choke should be in. I tend to leave it alone but am running a little rich by looks of the plug…

‘I’m embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, but I do ride my 60 year old bike as often as I can and commute to work on it pretty much every sunny day.’

Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy

No need to be embarrassed in the slightest. I had very similar problems when I first came to old British bikes after a decade riding modern Japanese machines. FrankW threw a copy of ‘Motor Cycles And How To Manage Them’ at me. It was published for decades with revised versions every couple of years and you can find copies for a fiver or so, online and in secondhand bookshops. If you seek out an edition which is appropriate to the age of your old bike then it’ll take you through all the basics, including ‘easy starting’.

Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy
Old British Bikes on ...

The Motor Cycling Manual provides similar expertise and both cover instruction on setting timing, cleaning carbs, which control does what, and how to get the best from your clutch and brakes. Once you absorbed all of that info then it’s time to turn your attention to modern upgrades and their potential benefits – and the best way to assess most modifications is to ask another owner who’s already been there and done that – subscribe to RealClassic and join the magazine’s Facebook group. Someone there almost always knows the answer!

Words by Rowena Hoseason

Famous Last Words 39: Bikes That Make You Happy

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