8th January 2016
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Carpe Diem Quam Minimum Credula Postero
Did you dream of owning a classic bike in your youth? Well, seize the day and do it now - or you never will, says Neil Cairns...
There are things from youth that stick in your mind for life. I’ve always been keen on anything with an engine in it and back in the 1950s, at a very young age, would help service my father’s terrible old worn-out cars. In my early teens my mates and I would ride ancient girder-fork bikes around farm fields and the disused brickworks in Woburn Sands.
Then in 1963 I purchased my very own bike for £6, a clapped out 1946 BSA C11. With the village lads I rode about the area discovering the county I lived in. We were very close to the then very busy main trunk-road, the A5 Watling Street. With a tidy Norton Jubilee in front and an Ariel Colt and Royal Enfield Continental (fastest bike in the village) behind, all of whom had fully working dynamos (so they had lights) we would ride out evenings to the Sandhouse Transport Café on the A5 by Heath and Reach. My C11’s dynamo was useless so I had to charge the battery every day, hence me on riding sidelights between the others! On an apprentice’s pay there was no hope of ever buying a new one…
The Sandhouse (now long gone and just a bit of empty, shrub-covered waste-ground), was our version of the A406 North Circular road’s Ace Café. The front of the café was a huge, muddy, puddle-filled, lorry park but round the back was a bar and café for motorcyclists, who were mostly ‘rockers’ back then. On my pittance of an apprentice’s pay I would buy a cup of tea (I hate coffee) and make it last all evening.
The attraction for us young 250cc learner riders was the Real Big Bikes and the lads who rode them; our heroes. The bike-park would be full of big 650cc BSAs, AMC twins, Triumphs, Ariels and a smattering of Velocettes, Royal Enfields and the odd Vincent. The café racer scene was in full swing and there was then no helmet law or national speed limit.
There was one particular bike that took my attention. Whilst the others all drooled over the Triumph T120s, my eyes were on the Matchless/AJS twins. The Matchless G12 CSR was a particular favourite as it sounded just divine as it accelerated away. That was the thing that has stuck in my mind all my life, that glorious noise from those twin megaphones.
Like many biker cafés, there was the race to beat a record on the jukebox, to get ‘there and back’ before it finished. A few young bucks would get heated up with arguing whose bike was the fastest and whom was the best rider. So eventually they would line up on the A5 outside and race south to Hockliffe and back, a three mile return trip. A bike would have gone up earlier to ensure no cheating. Sometimes they would go north on the A5 to Little Brickhill and back, another three mile trip, but a lad called Malcolm had come a cropper at the crossroad by the Fox and Hounds pub (now The Flying Fox) and had been killed. After that this bit of the A5 was called ‘Malcolm’s Murder Road’.
We lads all eventually grew up, got married and had families and mostly lost contact except for one mate who was my best man at our wedding in 1970, and who had ridden the Royal Enfield Continental. The M1 eventually stole all the A5’s heavy goods vehicle traffic and the Sandhouse slowly faded away, burning down in 1999. All that is left now is the little lane next to a bit of shrub-covered waste ground. But the echo of those Matchless G12 megaphones roaring away up the A5 has stuck in my mind ever since.
My retirement arrived and hobbies took over, then grandchildren arrived. I also began to attend lots of funerals of aged biker mates. One particular one stood out. I was speaking to a motorcycling friend who told me that no males in his family had ever got past 65 before the Great Reaper got to them. He was now 75 and still fit and riding his Velocette. His next comment did it.
‘I awake every day now and enjoy it, it’s all a bonus. Do it now or you never will.’
Nostalgia and a lost youth kicked in.
‘Do it now or you never will’ bounced around in my head.
Neil continues his story in RC141, the January 2016 issue of RealClassic magazine, when he fulfils that boyhood dream and buys a Matchless G12...
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