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22nd July 2015

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A BMW Bimble

Dave Simmons explains how he stumbled on a little bit of motorcycling history, and uncovered the Pictish past behind Harley-Davidson's V-Rod. Maybe...

I was genuinely surprised and delighted to discover that only 50 or so miles away from my home in Aberdeenshire is the original restored house that was once home to the Davidson family of Harley-Davidson fame. It was akin to finding an ancient and long forgotten fag-end of a packet of Polos in a little used jacket, perhaps just three or four left in the their faux foil wrapping, but enough to savour.

I donít have a Harley but I would definitely quite like one and I know that some RealClassic readers are indeed owners. There is certainly a part of me that admires HD. I like the camaraderie they attract, even if Iím fundamentally antisocial; adore the bellowing exhaust note of the stupendous engines and, if Iím honest, their association with a romanticised freedom and lawlessness. Is that Bon Jovi or perhaps Steppenwolf you can hear in the background? Yes, Iím rather afraid it is. Besides, Iíll happily take what I can get in the motorcycling miscellany stakes.

Back to the Davidsons, I honestly canít remember how I stumbled on this wee gem, perhaps late night surfing while under the influence, but anyway, the paragraph below is taken from the most informative Davidson Legacy website that chronicles the history of the Davidson clan lineage in detail. For anyone with even a passing interest in HD itís well worth a read:

So hereís the abridged version (thanks to the Davidson Legacy for the words)

ĎThe Davidson family has its roots in the tiny village of Aberlemno near the small market town of Brechin in northeast Scotland. Alexander (Sandy) Davidson was the wright at Netherton Smiddy (blacksmithís shop), where he lived in the two-bedroom smiddy cottage with his wife, Margaret, their six children and two workers. It was from this picturesque cottage, nestled in the beautiful rolling Scottish countryside that Sandy and Margaret travelled to their new life in Wisconsin, USA. There, one of their sons, William C, met and married another Scot, Margaret McFarlane, from Stirlingshire. Three of their children, Arthur, Walter and William, along with Englishman Bill Harley, became the founders of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.í

Well roast my parochial raisins, how remarkable is that? The website went on to describe how a group of local folks rescued the derelict cottage and restored it to how it would have been in 1858 when the Davidsons upped sticks and left for America. Truly admirable stuff and I canít quite believe it was all going on just a couple of years ago (the cottage was finished in 2012) and I didnít have a clue.

The website encourages would-be visitors and asks you to get in touch so you can be met and shown around. This I duly did and within a couple of days Iíd and arranged to meet up with one of the key people involved in the restoration effort, Mike Sinclair.

The day of the visit arrived. The route took me away from my usual haunts around the grey granite of Aberdeenshire to the softer coastal realms and red sandstone of Angus. I used to live down this way and sometimes wish I still did because it really is beautiful; predominantly a landscape of productive rolling farmland but with enough remaining trees and varied topography to give it depth of character. The South and North Esk rivers run through, both are majestic as well as being lesser known but very good salmon rivers. Prehistory is clearly visible in Angus. The enigmatic Picts are prevalent; a kingdom that came and went leaving few clues except some largely indecipherable symbol stones. More on these later as, believe it or not, they are directly linked to Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

BMW Bimble through Harley Davidson history

Steed for the day was the BMW R65, with which readers of RealClassic magazine may be familiar, it being the subject of (or should that be subjected to?) my mechanical attentions. At that point, prior to its overhaul, it was running well and for short hops on country roads was ideal and therefore chosen for the task at hand. Small, nimble, with enough power to get up the hills and full of character, the baby airhead is a hoot to ride. As a design, Iíve not yet tired of looking at its neat and compact form.

Starting is a revelation. A fresh battery and new carb diaphragms from Motorworks plus several hoursí worth of carb balancing have revealed an engine keen to start, usually on the second press of the button although the transverse kick starter technique still evades me.

First things first. I fuelled her up and squirted a bit of that valve protector stuff in; a kindness that feels akin to giving a child cough medicine and is probably about as effective at prolonging the life of this particular engineís valves as Benylin is at curing bronchitis. Still, it feels good and that I am doing the right thing by the machine, whilst recognising that it really needs the heads removed and inspected with, I expect, at least one new exhaust valve guide to follow. A good job for the winter ahead (and indeed you can read all about the BMWís overhaul in RC133 and 134).

The tyres have a goodly pressure of air although I continue to stare questioningly at the rear tyre, wondering if it will hold up or blow out spectacularly. The front is new, its predecessor being perished and old, the rear is simply old. Maybe. But it is a Pirelli and in apparently good nick. Ah well, a decision for another day.

BMW Bimble through Harley Davidson history

So, back to the ride. Other essentials packed, including a couple of bananas to fuel the operator, I set off. Leaving at 10ish sees the worst of the school and commuter traffic away. I have the roads nearly to myself as I head along the Old Military Road towards the Cairn Oí Mount (or Cŗrn Mhon in Gaelic). This is an ancient route, once used by cattle drovers to drive stock to distant markets and it passes up and over the Grampian Hills to the coastal lowlands below.

The R65 is behaving impeccably; I, less so. The not-so-latent hooligan-within-the-middle-aged-shell is repeatedly rolling the throttle on to hear the light raspberry of the exhaust, while savouring the muffled goose honk and hum of the crankcase breather and induction in asynchronous cacophony. Some owners fit later airboxes to quieten the thing down, but for me this would be a shame.

The engine really was pulling like a train. The metaphor doesnít stop there as it also sounds not unlike a locomotive rattling and clacking across multiple sets of points. Until recently this was a problem as it fed my Ďbig engine eventí anxiety (see exhaust valve guide comment above), but no longer. I have found a miracle cure. The best way to stop worrying about imminent engine failure is to wear ear plugs. I still get the low frequency parts of the soundtrack but not the high pitched mechanical stuff that tends to stoke my concern.

In fact, the only real glitch on the journey over was indicator issues which have resurfaced again after what I thought was a permanent cure, having located a short on the rear indicator. But now the left-hand pair manifest their presence in a variety of visual (and, oddly, a reedy buzzing audio) displays, none of which was in BMWís original design specification.

BMW Bimble through Harley Davidson history

So we head east nearing Cairn Oí Mount, passing the distinctive summit of Clachnaben which I did once walk up although canít imagine why when a photo will do. It is very steep. Rolling masterfully to the summit, we begin a steep descent to the coastal plain and head the few short miles to Angus but not before weíve passed through pretty Fettercairn. Here we stop for biological necessaries, and thence a few miles along some heavily arboured country lanes to the handsome sight of Edzell in early summer. Edzell was until recently home to a large US air force base Ė another link with our transatlantic brethren and also has one of the most beautiful river valleys in this part of the world in the form of the South Esk.

Shortly after Edzell we come to the A90 where an unreliable memory leads to an unplanned detour that nearly took me on to the dreaded tarmac of woe. Having lived close to this road in the past and driven its length enough times, Iíve a strong dislike for it. In common with many of the UKís arteries it cuts a cruel and soulless scar through the landscape. Also recognising that 70-plus is not the natural habitat of the R65, I do a hasty U-turn and am then back on track as the road heads through the undoubtedly devout hamlet of Trinity and thence to the market town of Brechin, famed for its round tower which is some sort of unusual fortification, maybe. I donít really know the details as I was pushed for time and I am too lazy to find out but what I will say is that there are only two left so a rare beast indeed.

BMW Bimble through Harley Davidson history

From Brechin, I take a brief detour to the Brechin Castle Centre and its ĎPictaviaí attraction to be educated in all things Pict. I had not appreciated that the battle of Dunnichen in 685 AD marked the defeat of the invading Egfrith of Northumberland by the Picts, and the subsequent formation of the nation of Alba aka Scotland around 900 AD. Interesting, and a tempting invitation for a diversion in to contemporary politics, but in the interests of harmony I go back to the R65. Duly remounted we hang a right and itís then a few short miles to tongue twisting Aberlemno.

These last few miles are along a corker of a B-road with swooping bends and good line of sight culminating in a long gradient to the top of a rise and the approaches to Aberlemno. Before that it was worth stopping in a handy lay-by for a look back at Angus below and the Grampian Hills beyond. It is then but a short hop to the cottage itself that lies on the left as you ride towards Aberlemno. Perched on a high bank and obscured by trees, itís easy to miss. And indeed I did, requiring another U-turn and a second bite at the drive. As I chug up the unsurfaced drive to the house, out walks Mike Sinclair to meet me.

BMW Bimble through Harley Davidson history

Mike is a biker through and through and has owned many, many bikes, and many, many Harleys. Our conversation wends its way around various biking subjects revealing that not only did Mike have a BMW at one stage (a K100) but he was also a one-time importer of H-Ds from the States. As such, he seems to have the ideal profile for the project. Of no surprise is that Mike is interesting, as people who do interesting things tend to be. In addition, he is hospitality itself and shares coffee and roll-ups and more passionate recounting than my addled brain can absorb before we then take the grand tour of the less-than-grand construction that is the Davidson house.

As I walk through the small, simple rooms it became apparent as with many good stories it is the people that are the real interest here. Thanks to the painstaking restoration to original condition, it is easy to imagine a family living here. I can identify with Sandy Davidson, who, it seems, decided it was time for change and uprooted his wife and six children for a new and unknown world when he was himself already in his 50s. How must those parents have felt when one of their sons died soon after arriving, and who could have foreseen that the path ahead would lead to the establishment of a motorcycling dynasty in Milwaukee? Mike talks on about the modern Davidson family, many who have visited the house and remain keen to continue to maintain this link with their past. By the time weíre done I know Iíve stumbled on something special.

You can now rent the cottage and experience the living conditions of the day Ė or at least some of them; Iím assured lice and dental treatment without anaesthetic are not part of the deal. For my part I settled for a natty ĎDavidson Legacyí lapel badge which Harley man or not I wear with pride; pride in what a few likeminded individuals from down the road have achieved.

BMW Bimble through Harley Davidson history

Leaving the cottage I headed in to the hamlet of Aberlemno before heading home. It was fortuitous as here in the kirk (church) yard is a famous Pictish carved stone depicting the nation-forging battle previously mentioned. The result of the battle comes as something of a surprise when you realise that the Picts, unlike their Northumbrian foe, did not wear helmets. Maybe they had very thick hair, or skulls, or maybe the historians are wrong and they had hair-like helmets. Tactics are everything it seems.

BMW Bimble through Harley Davidson history
BMW Twins Now...

These musings gave me a bit of a headache so back to the point; one of the enigmatic symbols on this most symbolic of stones is a Z-Rod. Yes really, you can see it at the top of the photo and even more wild is that one of the other common Pictish symbols is the V-Rod. Oh yes. Now, anyone who knows anything about the current range of HD bikes knows they have a bike called a V-Rod. Apparently there is no connection, but I for one donít believe it for a minuteÖ

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