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Classic Motorcycle Review - Posted 20th July 2007

1987 Simson S51 Comfort Sports Moped

On a clear, cool spring evening, Phil Speakman takes to the saddle and storms some passes aboard an unusual East German moped. En route he encounters mysterious moorland, startled sheep, and possibly the best gear-shift in the world...

Mine can be a funny sort of job. I'm often under tremendous pressure to complete projects on time, yet there can be occasional islands of calm like I experienced in April. It was 6pm on a beautiful early April evening and the only interruption to my afternoon in the garage (rebuilding my Jawa), was a call telling me to stand down. You see, within the telecommunications industry upgrades to equipment are routinely performed overnight. However, if all the boxes aren't ticked or all the pegs aren't in the correct holes then all bets are off and the shift can be cancelled at a moments notice. Such as that night, for example…

Now I'm sure many of you will be thinking 'lucky sod' or some such and to be honest, I tend to agree. Yet my body clock is still working in night time mode so I've a long evening ahead and I'm trying to stay out of the pub. I'm a bit Jawa'd out to do anything more in the garage, but I do have a strange little plan that's been gestating unbidden in the dark recesses of my mind.

You see, I've had a yearning recently to do an overnight crossing of Hardknott and Wrynose passes westwards across the Eskdale Vale in the Lake District. Don't ask me why, though I think missing last year's British Two-Stroke Club's 'Storm the Passes' event last summer might have a lot to do with it.

The weather forecast suggests that a clear dry night is predicted. My stainless steel flask is ready and waiting and my butty box is already made up. I'm also still getting paid time and a half, which is simply champion (or should that be NGK?).

The bike I've decided to accompany me on this curious journey isn't the fastest machine in the world, but it does handle. I can throw it about like a rag doll, safe in the knowledge that if I get the corner wrong then I can fight it damn near into an instant U-turn if necessary. That comforts me, knowing that tonight I'm going to be attempting some of the most challenging roads in the UK during the hours of darkness.

It also stops on a sixpence and is quite pokey for its size.

It's my 1987 Simson S51 Comfort sports moped.

Note bins in background. Natural habitat? 1987 Simson S51 Comfort Sports Moped

You just knew it was going to be German, didn't you?

Oh, and let's get this pronunciation thing cleared up right now shall we?

There's no 'P' in Simson. The Germans pronounce it 'ZimZun'.

Hmmmm, close but not quite. Try again. Just a little faster this time. That's better, now you've got it.

The former DDR government made a policy decision in the early 1960s that all motorcycles produced within East Germany would be two-stroke machines as they were cheaper to produce, simple to maintain and powerful for their cubic capacity; if a little smoky around town. The effect of this decision was that MZ in Zschopau were assigned motorcycle production, whereas the Suhl based Simson factory were allocated the brief of moped production, effectively calling time on their popular, shaft drive, 4-stroke, 250cc 425 model.

Kenny Roberts is still racing these in MotoGP. Probably. Schwalbe Kr51

Simson's highly successful Schwalbe scooter has now gained cult status throughout unified Germany, although prices for decent restored models are still easily affordable and spare parts are still plentiful due to the sheer numbers sold. But in the late 70s and through the 80s Simson were attempting to go head to head in the UK with the Yamaha RD50 and Honda's SS50 and subsequent MB50 for the spotty-faced youth market. The Simson 3-speed S50 was superseded by the 4-speed S51 sports moped and enduro models. They were well constructed, cheap (approximately half the cost of a Japanese equivalent) and pretty quick too. The S51 would easily do 40mph on the flat, topping out at 45mph with said youf prone along the tank. By simply fitting a larger main jet and cutting the couple of inches from the exhaust pipe that extended into the silencer and interfered with the induction effect of the exhaust system, the bike would top out at well over 50mph.

This is the Enduro model - kind of like an R1200GS. Kind of. 1987 Simson S51 Enduro

Unfortunately (in my humble opinion), they weren't as fashionable as their far eastern rivals, often being bought by parents on price alone, rather than as a result of true desire by the pre-125cc wannabies. Sales numbers were therefore never that high and imports pretty much petered out after Wilf Green lost his IFA importers concession in 1989. The last few were sold off cheaply to clear stocks at the princely sum of £1000 for four bikes. These days you'll be lucky to see any form of Simson on the road at all, though I've noticed recently they are starting to re-emerge from sheds, often as non runners on Ebay.

But I digress.

I eventually left home at 9.30pm with 8607 miles on the clock. Quite low mileage for a 20 year old bike which I bought it from a fellow MZ Riders' Club member who didn't want it to go to someone who'd thrash it as a field bike. Originally it had been bought new by a milkman, for his helper lad to use to deliver any additional orders that had been picked up on their morning round. The lad reckoned he wouldn't be seen dead on it, to which the milkman told him he was fired. Since then it's been owned by, shall we say… older and more sympathetic riders. Yet it has spent most of its time accumulating dust and rust in garages before being re-commissioned by my friend.

By 1am I'd travelled north, right through Lancashire, via Preston on the A59 and through Carnforth on the A6 to the banks of Windermere in Ambleside, where I stopped to warm myself with a coffee and a peanut butter sandwich.

The Simson had been buzzing happily along at two-thirds throttle (measured on the twist grip) at a steady 40mph. The 6V headlamp was excellent, being supplied only when the engine was running via the dynamo. Unusually, the high tension circuit runs on a separate system entirely, utilising a 12V coil, which works well when it works, but could often confuse dealers, many of whom really didn't fully understand the set up or how to fix it when faults arose.

The weather in Ambleside was clear but cold, with just me and the ducks on the edge of the lake that was lit by an almost full moon, reflecting on the still water.

Ambleside. Camera-shy ducks not shown. 1987 Simson S51 Enduro

Refreshed once more I headed out from Ambleside on the Coniston road, feeling the air warm noticeably as I passed through Skelwith Bridge and leaving the cooling environs of Windermere behind. The easily missed right turn through Little Langdale leads through dark and narrow dry stone wall encompassed lanes. This is where the responsiveness and the relatively low performance of the S51 comes into its own.

Grotesque shapes of trees bearing mute testimony to chainsaw mutilation and lethal stone walls appear suddenly from the darkness with no warning. After a heart-stopping split second of panic the bike can be stood on its nose using the excellent front drum brake, or simply counter-steered at will around the tightest of bends. I know I couldn't have ridden my VFR or my Tiger with such confidence as the Simson inspired. It's just perfect for this sort of terrain at night.

A final chicane through a farmyard leads to the first climb of the night through the Furness Fells and Wrynose Pass. The S51 couldn't quite power second gear for large parts of the steep pass and I'm left with no option but to keep the engine at 5000rpm in first gear. The occasional dab of the foot to ground helps to keep me on the not-so-straight but very narrow, as the front occasionally lifts whilst negotiating the tight switchbacks. To my left the ground drops steeply away before rising again to the summit of the Old Man of Coniston. The tarmac is single track with passing points and lined with sizeable pale grey boulders, which occasionally get up and walk away in woolly disdain at my noisy antics.

The summit of Wrynose. Camera-shy summit of Wrynose not shown. 1987 Simson S51 Enduro

A cattle grid eventually announces the summit of Wrynose and I decide to stop and look around. All about me the moonlit landscape is washed of all colour and the entire panorama alludes to a moonscape painted from shades of grey with occasional areas of pitch black. Without the S51's contribution, all about me is silent with not a breath of wind to disturb the night. Far above the occasional thin veil of cloud disperses the silvery light evenly across the countryside.

This is fast becoming one of those 'never to be forgotten' rides.

The Simson shows no signs of distress at its recent travail and starts up first kick into a lovely burbling tick over. The descent to Cockley Beck is a long and comparatively gentle one compared to the climb and I take delight in actually riding the Simson.

Properly riding it that is, not just sitting on it in a low gear and coasting, but actually orchestrating every aspect of machine's progress through the vale. I find myself controlling the rate of descent by alternating between engine braking, the front brake, then the rear allowing each to cool in turn, pulling the clutch in to allow a few brief blips of the throttle for piston lubrication and cooling (no oil pumps here), then releasing the clutch once again to allow the engine revs to rise and the headlight to once more flood the road ahead with light.

As I conduct this one man 'symphony in two-stroke', I have the opportunity to appreciate the moonscape about me and yet, despite the sensory overload, I still have time to take simple pleasure in the feedback provided by the exquisite engineering of the Simson gearbox. I swear that whilst shifting the gear lever, I can actually feel the indent ball bearing dropping into its seating position on the shaft, in position for the next gear. The former owner mentioned as much and I took his words with a pinch of salt, but I feel it now as plainly if that indent bearing were rolling over the knuckle of my big toe and coming to rest in the joint. It is the finest gear shift of any bike I've ever ridden. Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. How often can a gearbox put a smile on your face?

As the descent ends I turn sharp right and stop to admire the warning signs at the base of tonight's real test for the little Simson. Hardknott Pass!

30%, narrow route, severe bends.

Are we up for that?

Of course we are!

Bottom of Hardknott Pass. Camera-shy bottom not shown.
Random MZs on Now...

The severity of the climb hits us almost instantaneously. Tight switchback after even more perilous switchback leaves no time to even consider second gear. Nor do my feet touch the footrests as I lean forward and dab my way up the pass. The front wheel spends much of the climb a few inches above the ground as my feet dab down to send us once again back in the right direction.

Almost ten years ago I was forced to stop along here, driving a Ford Fiesta Diesel van. The clutch just couldn't take the hill start and I had no option but to reverse partially back and take a run up from a shallower point of the climb, with pushing assistance from my work colleague. I don't think he ever forgave me for making him walk to the top only to find me waiting with a half smoked Marlboro and cup of coffee from my flask.

No such worries for the S51's clutch though, the summit is reached without stopping and eventually second gear prevails, until the start of the descent. No gentle ride this time, just steep drops and first gear bends that need to be negotiated at a virtual snails pace using both brakes, until the slope levels out as we drop into Eskdale. There I choose the turn over Birker Moor and a second gear climb to Ulpha and steep decent into Broughton.

By now the time is well after 3am and tiredness is starting to tell as I turn for home via the A590 and A6 south. As I pass north of Barrow a car overtakes me and I realise that that is the first vehicle I've seen since Ambleside. The Simson and me have had all three entire passes to ourselves.

By the time I get to Lancaster, I'm cold, very cold indeed. The coffee in my flask has long since gone and I sing to myself within my helmet, in order to keep my spirits up. A Kate Rusby tune 'I Courted a Sailor' runs repeatedly through my head making me wish I knew all the words. Eventually I force it from my mind with Stan Rogers' more appropriate 'Witch of the Westmoreland' that I learned many years ago.

As I wend my way south under a cold bright dawn I see the frost is forming on car windscreens. Just south of Garstang the Simson's engine dies, forcing me to flick the petrol cock onto reserve. In Preston I top up with a further five litres and a frothy cappuccino, leaving me with just a 45 minute run down the A59 and a thrash through my Parbold stomping ground to home.

By 7am the bike is parked up in the back garden and I've jumped straight into bed still wearing my thermal underwear. Yes, I really was that cold.

Noon sees me sitting down to breakfast and working out a guesstimate of the fuel economy I got out of the S51's 8.7 litre tank. The clock now reads 8842, so I've done 235 miles on slightly less than 10 litres, giving me a rough figure of 120mpg.

Not bad considering the nature of the roads I've just ridden. And let's be honest, there's worse ways to earn a living at time and a half, isn't there?


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