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28th September 2012

Ducati 860GT
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Martin Brown recalls the long hot summer of 76 and the perils of being keyless in Skegness. A classic motorcycle ride to remember...

The summer of 1976, what a time to have a bike! It seems unbelievable now but in May that year I had traded in my Ducati 250 Desmo and, a week short of my 18th birthday, signed away a substantial chunk of my wages on a Ducati 860 GT. Just imagine a 17 year old nowadays being able to get insurance on a bike of that size!

The long hot summer just went on and on and, as soon as I got home from work, it would be a quick sit down for some food and then I would be on the bike again, more often than not with my mate Chris on his XS650.

This is a Ducati 860GTS rather than an 860GT...

My Dad had a Vincent Series D Black Shadow with a big Busmar double adult sidecar attached. One weekend we decided to visit a friend of ours in Skegness who happened to be a traffic cop using a Norton Interpol at the time.

The weekend was scorching hot, even out on the bike it was hard to cool down. After a pleasant weekend we got ready to head off on the Sunday afternoon for the trip back home. My Dad was not the speediest of riders especially on the combo and so I waved them off with my Mum frantically fanning her face in the sidecar - or greenhouse as it was fast becoming! We had arranged for them to leave an hour before me so I could travel at a faster pace and catch them up later on down the A1.

And this is a 750 rather than an 860GT...

After another cuppa or two I started getting ready to leave. Helmet? Check. Gloves? Check. Jacket? Check. Keys? Aaaahhhhhhhhhh. I am sure we all know that cold feeling you get when realisation suddenly hits you. My mind then helpfully flashed up its own little reminder of where my bunch of keys were. Unfortunately this was not a lot of help as they were in my Mum's handbag which was now bouncing around in the sidecar about 40 miles away! Nowadays a quick call on the mobile would have sorted it… but no such luxury then, sonny.

You can only run around like a headless chicken for so long, babbling and waving your arms about. Logic kicked in. My mate was a police motorcyclist, he must have seen loads of hot-wired bikes, they were always going on about a thief being able to make off with your pride and joy in 30 seconds… so let's do it. We pushed the Ducati into the shadow of the garage and set to.

RIght bike, but wrong size photo. Sorry...
Classic Ducatis on now...

Now, I had always naively imagined the ignition switch to have just two wires, easy peasy, just pull them out and wrap them together. WRONG! Those of you who have ever had a look inside your BT junction box will have some idea of Ducati wiring of the period. The good old Italians managed to cram about 10 wires into the tiny space behind the switch so… red to black? Nope. Red to blue? Nope. You get the idea, but eventually, success!! The bike fired, so two hours later I finally set off. It was now around 8pm but it was August and still warm so no real harm done and I settled down to a relaxing ride back home.

Approaching Peterborough it was beginning to get a bit dark and a bit chilly. I only had thin gloves on as I hadn't expected to be riding in the evening and my fingers were beginning to feel cold. I flicked on the lights and continued on but shortly after a man in an MG overtook and flagged me down. Puzzled, I slowed to a halt behind him and waited to see what he wanted.

'You've got no rear light mate!' he cheerfully called out, he turned out to be a motorcyclist himself and as my hands were a bit numb by then he helped me whip off the rear light and check the bulb. No problem there so it had to be our hot wiring. With only the light of a street lamp and the rapidly dimming headlamps on my new found friend's old MG, we managed to permanently wire on the rear brake light. With a quick but sincere thanks I was off again, but I had wasted still more time and it was now pretty late.

Right bike!...

Making up for lost time, I began to get that feeling of elation when you manage to overcome everything that's thrown at you. Soon I was coming down into the lights of Stevenage with only around 25 miles to go… when the bike gave a bit of a cough.

I am sure we all know that fluttery heart feeling when you can just feel the bike isn't 'right', and sure enough in a mile or so it started to splutter and judder. It was then I realised I was running out of petrol. Fumbling under the tank I switched over to reserve and tried to think where the next petrol station was. It was just about then that I glanced down at the tank and saw that great new accessory I had bought a few weeks before…

A lockable filler cap!

I remembered reading in a road test that reserve was good for around 30 miles, but it was still a bottom-clenching ride for the last 25 miles home. It's surprising how one's awareness for the slightest cough from the engine is heightened! Thank God the V-twin engine is quite tractable, I reckon I must have stayed below 2000rpm all the way home…


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