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21st March 2005

Working Classics

Although some folk still use their old nails as daily transport, most classic bikes only come out on high days and holidays. Neil Thomas runs a fleet of nine classics which do all of the above, and his bikes work really rather hard for a living...

The classic motorcycling tours which Classic Bike Provence offer sound like heaven on wheels for the holidaymaker: a chance to escape the UK's dull weather and the congested roads. A chance to ride the charismatic classic you've always wanted to. A chance to soak up the sunshine and ride some incredible roads. A chance to let loose without worrying about maintenance or reliability. A chance to just... escape.

Beats a wet Sunday morning at Hunstanton...

That's one side of the coin. But the bikes you might ride on a Classic Bike Provence tour aren't on holiday. Unlike most classics, they don't sit in the shed for most of the week, either. When the next batch of fun-seeking sun-lovers fly in, the bikes have to be ready and waiting to ride off into the sunset (or the mountains. Or down to the sea. Or...). Now it's hard enough to keep a fleet of modern motorcycles prepped and ready for use - Neil Thomas, the proprietor of Classic Bike Provence, has chosen to offer his holidaymakers a tour on motorcycles which are 30, 40 and even 50 years old. That's a challenge, surely?

'I must admit,' says Neil, 'that when I started the business in January 2002 I wasn't sure how the old bikes would stand up to possible mis-treatment from, you know, unfamiliar or inexperienced riders. I know the clutches and gearboxes can take a lot of stick but thankfully most riders learn quickly. I wouldn't be operating with classic bikes, now, three years later if they didn't work. Part of this is testimony to the original engineering and design, and part of it is because the bikes are never really stressed. It's just not possible to maintain high speeds on the routes we take around Provence. So most of the time these old girls are just ticking over, which is why even the heat of the 2003 summer didn't cause any problems'.

...or even a dry Sunday morning at Hunstanton.

But surely... it's not that easy? Not with nine old bikes?

'I would be lying if I didn't say that there is a lot of spanner time that goes into keeping these bikes running, particularly the older ones.

A lockable filler-cap would help prevent accidental baloon loss.The 1973 Honda 750/4 is the most reliable - no surprises there! Having said that, there's not really any need for extra special attention or maintenance. All the bikes perform admirably with routine fettling and regular inspection. Sensible modifications include electronic ignition and separate oil filters, and with regular servicing they just keep on going!'

And they do keep on going - an average ride is about 120 miles and on single lane roads that's a full day's riding. Annual mileage varies from bike to bike but the average is about 5000 miles in a season. Not all classics are suitable for this kind of use. So how did Neil decide which bikes to adopt for the Provence fleet?

'I had a couple of the bikes before starting the business -- the Velocette Venom (it's a 500 now but started life as a 350 Viper), and the 850 Norton Commando which I've owned from new.

The first bike purchased for solely touring purposes was a 1962 BSA A65 Thunderbolt. I chose it because of the spares availability, its value for money and good reliability, plus it's got a very comfortable, low seating position, a light clutch and throttle and makes a great sound. It's easy on the eye, easy to start and ride, has character, good handling, decent brakes, single carb, light weight... the list goes on.

'Originally I thought of trying to standardise the machines for ease of maintenance and spares, and seriously thought of running a fleet of BSA A65s. But then I decided that I wanted to offer much more than that to our clients.

So I went for a variety of different machines which would take the riders through over 30 years of motorcycling history, from a 1951 Sunbeam S7 Deluxe, which has been a show-winner several times, to a 1984 Kawasaki Z650.

I always wanted the big 900cc Kawasaki in my collection but my clients reckoned I'd be better off with a Z650, because the Z1's power would be wasted in Provence. With the smaller bike you get all the looks and you have better handling and a lighter machine for all the twisties. Our Z650 is the very last model, with the double disc front brake.

'Clients love to try out a range of different bikes, and often ride more bikes in four days than they have in the last 10 years!

Random BSA A65 Stuff on

Chrome? Check. Sunshine? Check.'I try to find machines that meant something in their day -- a machine that gets the heart racing -- and at the same time I choose bikes that are easy to use. I'm looking to change some of the bikes at the end of this season, not because they are getting into high mileages, but so that I have different models to offer my clients, some of whom are on their fourth holiday with CBP. So I'm looking to add a triple to the fleet and am searching for a suitable T160 Trident or a BSA Rocket Three.

'The balance of the fleet is also important when I'm looking at buying another bike. Bear in mind that I have to cater for riders of all shapes, sizes and ages, so I need to consider seat heights. Many clients also ride two-up so I have to consider overall seat sizes.

It might not be everyone's idea of comfort to ride two-up on a Velocette Venom, but it's a different prospect on a Norton Commando. Not everyone is comfortable with a right foot gear change or kick-starting a bike so I must take this into consideration. And fuel tank sizes have to allow for a good range - there's no point having a bike which hits reserve at 80 miles when others can do twice that distance.'

So which of Neil's current fleet has proved to be the most popular with the customers?

'Overall I would probably have to say the 1976 Norton Commando Mk3. However it depends on age and sex. The Norton is a big grunty bike with an iconic image that means a lot to guys in their late 40s. Pillion passengers often vote for it over and above the Honda 750/4 and the oil-in-frame BSA and Triumph. The ladies prefer the Bullet or one of the two pre-OiF BSA A65s. For example, when she came down earlier in the year for a long weekend in the sun, Emm really took a shine to the Lightning. It inspires confidence with its sure-footed handling, and it has that great 1960's look.'

And which is his favourite to use when leading the tours?

'I love riding them all but as some days are higher mileages than others, depending on clients riding experience or special requests, I go for practicality. For example, in 2003 when I was doing the Gorge du Verdon in one day, it was the Norton. That day involves a 200 mile round trip with a mix of fast A-roads and lots of twisties and the Commando is a really comfortable machine for a long day in the saddle. Nowadays I do the GdV with overnight stops as it is just too beautiful to rush.

Rider on left, in background, has just accidentally wheeled the Z650 into the harbour...

'For lower mileage days when we go to the Cote Bleue, and visit some of the lovely little resorts like Méjean, I just love to ride the Velocette Venom. She is my P&J and as I've owned her for nearly thirty years she holds a special place in my heart.'

Somehow, Neil just made it sound so easy...! Still, any problems with the bikes are, indeed, his problems. If you take a CBP tour then what you get is a worry-free ride on a charismatic classic.

Classic Bike Provence offer a range of tours, from a half day excursion up to a five day extravaganza. There are even a couple of dates this spring for a really special tour a little further afield, to the wildly beautiful island of Corsica - in early April and mid-May 2005. Fancy taking one of those classic bikes for a really memorable long ride...?

The genetically-engineered Horizontal Ivy was a great success.


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