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Monday 23rd February 2015

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Riding Reminiscences 4

Ian Caswell recalls his first encounters with old British bikes, and how they led to a simply shocking experience with a Honda...

Click here for part 1, part 2 and part 3

Back in the day, there werenít many in the Paddock who had even a remote interest in British bikes. Come to think of it, in my early days there, even owning a four-stroke was demeaned as a lardy admission of racing un-competitiveness. Two-strokes ruled, and by that I donít mean BSA Bantams!

And yet there were a few of us who, spurred on by parental tales of daring deeds done during the dark and decadent days of their own youth, yearned to prove ourselves by mastering obscure starting rituals, quirky mechanicals and the black arts that would cure vibration of tectonic proportions and make ancient alloy cases gleaming and continent.

My own fatherís favourite tale told of him buying an Ariel for a few shillings from a farmer who couldnít keep oil in it, and in whose ownership it kept seizing. To preserve the farmersí dignity, and to hide his own mechanical alchemy, he wheeled the bike to the end of the lane after buying it before removing the oil lines and replacing them in the opposite order. With the bike now sucking oil from the tank rather than air from the return line, he then rode off into the sunset; happy ever after.

These were large boots to fill when at 14 I spent my hard-earned pocket money on the wreckage of what had once been a 1947 Norton ES2. It had been abused as a field bike and more of its parts were missing than were actually there.

However, pulling it apart and putting it back together again was much more fun than Lego had ever been, and it even taught me a little about the valves, rockers, cams and cranks that make up a motorcycle.

Its engine also looked impossibly tall and handsome, as beautifully prehistoric as the still-sharp edge of a flint-napped axe-head, yet promising all the earthy power of the Flying Scotsman. It, and the Bruce Main-Smith books that I bought to learn about it, filled my juvenile head with Nortons. Nothing else came close.

Nortons for the large-booted, on ...

And then I turned 16 and was let loose upon the world on board my trusty Fizzie, but Iíve told you about that. The practicalities of transport and new teenage horizons soon left all those ancient relics as dreams only; gone but not forgotten. A procession of 250 and 350 Hondas came to broaden my motorcycling experience. I even survived a brief and ultimately doomed spell on board a GT750 Suzuki with virtually no brakes.

Tales of the legendary handling of Nortons looked particularly welcoming after that one, and so I bought a Bonneville (quite what the links were supposed to be between those two makers I have no idea; it must have seemed sensible at the time). I didnít buy the first Brit I looked at you understand, that would only have been impetuously stupid. It was the second. The first could have been any one of five or six ex-police Saints that were for sale in a car dealership in Ballyclare. They were all in need of one or two small things before they could have been MoTíd, but as the cooking version of the breed and marred as they were with their great barn door fairings, I foolishly passed them over.

Riding Reminiscences 4

Instead the wonderfully eccentric TT Tommy, a roving hippy-like ex-member of a French Hellís Angels chapter put me on the track of a Bonneville which lay at the back of a bike shop shed close to Belfast Zoo. It was from 1965, seized and ratty and with a few parts missing. I was hooked. The kudos of the Bonneville name and an aftermarket Tickle twin leading shoe front brake conquered all. So I bought it.

Needless to say my project soon turned into a gargantuan money pit where everything took longer and cost twice as much as expected. I soon tired of walking everywhere and hanging on to some lunaticís pillion seat during Sunday runs, so my thoughts turned to getting another bike on the road to tide me over until the Bonneville was released onto an unsuspecting world. The piles of K4 Honda twin parts in my garage were soon combined with a frame that was quite literally dug out of a garden to produce a ratty yet functioning bike. Its ripped seat cover was Ďfixedí with a plastic bag tucked under the seat strap. This innovation had the additional benefit that when the bike was left in the rain, the bag could be folded back to keep both the front and rear seat covered and dry (patent pending).

The Hondaís rear light too was unusual in that it came from a scrapped lorry. Initially there was an indicator, a reflector and the tail light in a huge rubber unit. Stan the knife came to the rescue and soon trimmed that down to the required parts. A patch of moss growing on the frame from its period of underground storage soon disappeared, after the slight leak caused by using a second hand alternator gasket worked its magic. It kept the chain lubricated too (patent pending).

It wasnít all bad. I had managed to liberate a few good bits from my boxes of spares, a Cibie, halogen headlight probably being the most useful of them. Meanwhile a seahorse and a selection of plastic knickknacks stuck to the headlight and front guard reinforced the bikeís joke status. It was ugly, so very, very ugly, but at least it was serviceable.

Riding Reminiscences 4

Boomer and I were then on an electronics repair course based in Dundonald, and to save a little towards weekend entertainments we alternated the journey on one anotherís bikes each day. Both were scrappers and were run on a shoestring so we suffered our share of punctures and mechanical gremlins. Since most of these seemed to happen in winter rain and mist as we made our way over the Hollywood hills past the local reservoir, we soon christened the area Ďthe Ballysallagh Triangleí.

I canít remember why, but I was on my own one Friday. Since we got out early I decided to ignore the snow that had been falling since the day before to go to Spenceís, one of the few remaining ex-Triumph dealers on the far side of Belfast. All went well until I was a few miles short of my destination when the Honda began to misfire. Worse yet, when I pulled in the clutch as I tried to move to the side of the road, my snow-soaked gloves transmitted a huge electric shock through me. The problem was instantly clear. Someone, sometime had cut the HT lead on one of the Hondaís coils. I had used it because I had no other spares, and since the HT leads were sealed into the coil I had to join a new length of HT lead to the old one with one of those horrible screw-on connectors in a Bakelite insulator. Despite loads of insulating tape around this joint, miles of road slush was obviously getting in somewhere.

Given the choice of continuing to a place where I could get some fresh insulating tape and a chance to dry out the coil, or turning round and trying to struggle home, I went on. It was the most appalling ride of my life. At roundabouts and traffic lights I timed my approach as best I could and changed gear without the clutch except when stopping, but in a city where the Friday exodus was getting into full swing, the Honda became more of a defibrillator than transport. The drag of one cylinder that wasnít playing the game meant I was creeping along in the snowy gutter as cars swept past and I was getting wetter and colder every minute. By the time I reached Spenceís (long since converted into a filling station but still with a few shelves of bike parts), I was a shivering wreck. Still, they must have felt sorry for me because no one complained as I stood under the entrance heater, getting strange looks from their petrol customers as I tried to thaw out.

Eventually, when my fingers worked again, I dried and taped the HT lead as best as I could under the meagre cover provided for the petrol pumps. My repair didnít last though, and five or six miles down the road I was back in a creeping, freezing, electric shocking hell.

I donít know how long that journey took me. It seemed endless at the time. Certainly that whole day was not worth the few cables that I had managed to find amongst Spenceís leftover stock. By the time I got home I must have been suffering from hypothermia. I remember shivering so violently that I had real trouble getting my house key out of the pocket of my Belstaff jacket and that I dropped it many times when attempting to get the key into the lock. I was still there trying to get that damned door open when my mother fortuitously arrived home from her work and her nurses training took over.

All this came to mind as I waited for the lights to change the other day, on my way home from work during a shower of sleet. The traffic lights were in the same location where I had suffered all those years ago, but this time on my winter bike I was snug and dry inside my Cordura suit and my hands were toasting warmly in handlebar muffs as I held onto my heated grips. Luxury. The bike itself is a 21 year old 650cc single, a BMW F650 Funduro. It was bought and fixed from a wreck for less than a decent BSA Bantam would cost these days, and although it is proportionally older (the Bonneville was about 13 when I bought it), and lived outside for most of its life, the BMW was still in much better nick than the Bonneville was when I bought it.

If I needed those cables these days there would be no point in looking for them in Belfast. Instead I would simply take one look at the weather and switch on my computer rather than venturing out on such a miserable day. So much easier than all those phone calls and cheques in the post used to be. And so it struck me: not everything in Ďthe good old daysí was better.

Riding Reminiscences 4

I never did finish that Bonneville, instead I part-exed it to a guy for a 350 AJS and enough cash to hitchhike around Europe for a while. TT Tommy had some good but very dubious money-making tips for this trip should I ever have needed themÖ The AJ (although it must be sacrilege to say this in the virtual presence of FrankW), was of no real interest to me. It was too heavy, too slow and too ugly, totally devoid of the Bonnevilleís sporting pretentions. In due course it too went to make space in the garage and fund other bikes.

In May 1989, I took the Black Bomber that I was running then to a celebration of the old Ards TT races along with a friend to whom I had loaned a little Victoria moped that I had recently fixed up. The Victoria had come to me as a freebee, along with the Norton ES2 mentioned at the start of this article but had been dormant for years afterwards. Strangely, both the Bonneville and the AJS that I had once owned were there as well. It was the first time I had seen either of them since selling them.

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