Before I was of an age to ride or drive, I was focused on motor-bikes and cars. As mentioned above, I bought a basket case AJS 350cc twin that turned out to be missing a significant part – its camshaft! Fortunately it wasn’t only ‘Darth Vader’ on my dad’s shift at the fire station, another fireman was Dave Maslin. At home he had a huge shed and had acquired a range of exciting bikes – water-cooled Sunbeams, AJS Square Fours, Vincent Black Shadows… He took the engines out and put them on his bench attached to a braking system and spent months extensively tuning them. I spent hours there, but he had no interest in running the bikes. He would often cut up the frame (to gain space in the shed) and dump the bits – sacrilege!
Hitting sixteen, I acquired a two-stroke 197cc Villiers-engined James. It broke down so often it forced me to hone my mechanical skills. In particular it had a cup and cone rear axle that developed a nasty habit of snapping in those days of wavering engineering tolerances.
I bought the book ‘Tuning for Speed’ which had only one chapter on two strokes which I followed religiously – I polished the ports – I yearned for a four-stroke.
My first was a bike someone had attached to a chair and routinely commuted with to London. On one return journey it made a funny noise and the owner switched to another bike. I thus acquired an ex-WD 16H Norton with a 490cc side-valve engine, it was solid at the rear suspension and girder front forks. It had such a long stroke that it was said to ‘fire every lamp post’. In case this did have damaged or missing parts it had been conveniently supplied with a spare engine.
I took it over after it had been abandoned and left out in the open for a year or two. On stripping it, I found a main bearing had disintegrated and the bearings and bits of the traces had collected in the oil at the bottom of the timing chest, yet this had done no harm to the many components within that chest. I replaced it with a spare bearing from the other engine and it worked – tolerances were quite varied so this had by no means been a given.
I stripped the engine and frame completely and repainted it all. I had one mishap. I hung the fuel tank with string from the ridge of our shed to apply the last coat of paint and for it to dry safely. Imagine my horror when I returned to find a fat spider had dropped on it and skated across its surface, completely ruining the job – you wonder why I dislike spiders!
I then pursued the Tuning for Speed advice. This was a girder front-fork and solid rear frame bike so perhaps not really built for speed, but I had the need… In metalwork lessons at school I drilled every sprocket. I sliced off a huge amount from the head and I had to gouge out new recesses for the side valves. I adjusted the cams and other elements to apply the equivalent of ‘Manx Norton’ timing. I was never accused of lack of ambition. I replaced the big springy seat (quite sensible with a solid-rear) with a modern double-set. I changed the oil tank for a plastic container. I did every bit of this without trying to start it, rather than checking it after each successive phase.
|ASIDE: Our school’s metalwork teacher was odd, and disgracefully, we did all we could to make him odder. He would let us into the workshop and never taught us anything. He never spoke, just sat in the corner looking at us morosely as we fooled around with the bellows and other kit. He eventually lost it one day tossing the equipment round the workshop and lost his job. I don’t recall any of us being bothered by this and it did mean I had free rein with the equipment.|
When I finished the Norton, my dad and a neighbour, leaning on our privet hedge, had great fun vying to make smart remarks about over-ambitious youth as I kicked and kicked it over without success. They departed happy in their belief I had bitten off more than I could chew.
Where to start? I checked connections, still no joy. I took out the spark plug and found that somehow the electrodes were pressed together, presumably when the thinned-down head was sitting on my bench. Not bothering to look for a feeler gauge, I merely levered them apart with a screwdriver and it fired first time – and did so every time thereafter. But it was too late – the grown-ups had me marked down as flawed.
I sold the Norton to a purist who stripped off all my go-faster embellishments and restored it to its ex-factory state.
I borrowed and progressively took over my father’s Lambretta Li150 after he’d had two accidents with it. Someone rear-ended him at a set of lights and later he came off on a sheet of black ice. Understandably became less keen to use it.
This was the era of Mods and Rockers and I became complicated. I had the scooter but rode it with a Norton-liveried helmet and jacket. Jane was definitely Mod-inclined and slowly set about converting me.
I took my first bike test on the Lambretta while my dad was still using it. In Bristol the test centre was in leafy Clifton. It was autumn with leaves spread right across the road. When the test centre guy leapt into the road for my emergency stop, I came off, damaging the left-hand side of the scooter. He insisted I shouldn’t lose the faith and go around again and several circuits later he tried for the emergency stop again. I came off and damaged the right-hand side. He failed me for the bike being unroadworthy. My dad pointed out that it had been perfectly roadworthy when I had taken it out!
|ASIDE: I also failed my first driving test. Imagine how my heart sank when I saw it was the same instructor who had failed me a year earlier for the bike test. Worse, as we emerged from the test centre he pointed at a Triumph car and asked me to read its registration. He described it as blue, I replied ‘the green Triumph plate is…’. Not a smart start, but it was definitely green!|
My next acquisition was a Bond three-wheeler. You were allowed to drive this sort of ‘car’ at sixteen years old, because it had no reverse gear and was thus considered a motorcycle variant. The bonnet had two T-locks which you had to open, lift the lid and then kick-start the Villiers engine inside. Once it fired you had to shut the lid and rush to the driver side which had no door, just a flap window. You rolled into the driver seat and rammed your foot down on the accelerator before it died. Often Jane would have her foot on said accelerator to keep it running and some heated exchanges ensued if I caught her foot in the process. On several occasions on Bristol’s ‘Lovers Lane’ (Durdham Downs) she preferred pushing to bump-start it as being a less painful approach (not a euphemism!).
On a good day it could become a convertible through removal of its hard top by releasing several wing nuts. I would often cram in six fellow pupils to ride up Kingsdown hill back to school after lunch – though we could have walked it more speedily.
I passed my test at the second attempt. At seventeen, a nice old lady across the road approached me and suggested an arrangement. She had a sister living a few miles away but she couldn’t drive. She offered, and then bought, an old sit-up-and-beg black Ford Prefect and, provided I dropped her to her sister’s from time to time, I could then use the car as my own. This was a brilliant opportunity.
I later bought a muddy brown Ford 100E Prefect from my uncle for £35, ran it for a year and sold it for £42. The 100E had the benefit of a range of high performance upgrades and I bought a high-compression head, a four-branch manifold, better carburettors, straight-through exhaust… It took some time to be able to afford these from the rewards of part-time work.
I then traded up to a Mini Van conversion for £45. This was before wind tunnel design caught on and all cars began to look far too similar!
|ASIDE: I remember the first time my car took over £50 in petrol and was moved to tell the young cashier that I had bought both of my first cars for less that this tank of petrol. He said nothing but looked at me in a way that said ‘old fart’ more effectively than words.|