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Thursday, August 17, 2017

MOTORCYCLES: Ton Up, by Wiggia

The BSA Goldstar


I saw a comment on another blog about how modern vehicles seem to have electrical everything and it is all a recipe for something to go wrong, as electrical faults are the biggest area of grief in modern vehicles. There is more that a scintilla of truth in that statement.

Of course this caused an avalanche of “when we were young” comments asking why it was so difficult to wind a window up that you had to have an electric motor fitted to take the strain out of all that winding and many more examples were forthcoming, some very funny.

One caught my eye though, talking about the ‘joy’ of kick starting a motor bike: he must have lived on another planet as there was never any joy in kick starting a motor bike, only a sore leg, tired muscles and a still-inactive bike. Some bikes of course were made to be difficult, nearly all large single-cylinder machines.

The story that came to mind was that of a friend who lived in the same council block as myself who purchased as a first bike (?) a BSA Gold Star 500cc single cylinder machine which was ostensibly sold as a club racer, a sort of poor man's Manx Norton - beautifully made but totally impractical, which was why you rarely saw one on the road.

Anyway my friend Irvine (it was a very Jewish neighbourhood) was standing with this bike when I appeared and asked the obvious question : where did that come from and why? He replied it was his cousin's and he was selling it cheap so he bought it; the why was never answered.

I left him there and went indoors but could hear this low gasping sound coming at regular intervals as he tried to start the bloody thing. Being of slight build he was standing on the kick start and having to use all the weight he had to even get the kick start to move; occasionally he did and the low "I am not going to start" sound would emerge from the exhaust.

He gave up after a while but returned later for another go, looking distinctly worn out and peeved, so I went down to give support. Still nothing happened and a couple of other boys who lived there and had bikes tried also to start the recalcitrant machine. I went away again and just as I reached the top of the stairs heard a short burst of life from the engine and then it stopped. I rushed back down to find my friend laying in the road in serious pain: the bike had kicked back and the kick starter had caught him mid shin; we/he later found it had fractured his leg.

On top of that he had started it and somehow got it into gear, so having let go everything in pain the bike shot off and went through some iron railings. He never did get to ride a motor bike and the Gold Star was sold on post-haste. He was next seen with a Vauxhall Wyvern; similar but no cigar.

I only briefly had bikes because of my association with my oldest and still best friend who raced them. My own two bikes were the much loved NSU SuperMax from the NSU article earlier and a Triumph T120 Bonneville but it was a brief and interesting period and most went through it as cars were then out of reach and not nearly as much fun.

One of the boons of the period and one of the downsides of the consequence were the empty roads. Apart from the police who actually patrolled in those days there was little to stop you being a lunatic on those same roads, not fast by today's standards but fast enough with rubbish tires and brakes, and the resultant accidents amongst the ton up brigade and mounting death tolls was something to wean you off bikes as it was all too tempting.

One used to get owner cliques who would gather at the various greasy spoons dotted around London. The most famous and still operating is the Ace Cafe on the North Circular, but in our part of the world it was Ted's Cafe on the Southend Road. As drab inside as outside, it always had the appearance of a place they had opened and forgot to put the lights on. Its popularity was it was adjacent to the Mad Mile where the ton-up brigade would race from the cafe to the next roundabout and back.

The car park was of course full of motor bikes, either in the groups that had come there or in groups of single makes. The most revered were the Vincents - it still had that cachet no other bike had; and then there were the Velocettes:  handsome machines; though dated by then, they always seemed immaculate, apart from the pool of oil under them or left by them, a sort of calling-card.

The other two main groups were the Norton owners and the Triumph lot. Nortons had the name for their handling and good looks of the Dominator but a poor reputation for engine failures. The Triumph was the reverse though the handling wasn’t bad. Other makes like the Royal Enfield had a big twin that like the Norton (but worse) seemed to blow up with consummate ease when strained; and the Matchless and AJS twins - nice bikes, but the Triumph was king.

There were of course many small bikes and my association with road bikes ended when my racing friend - he raced an Aer Macchi and briefly a Manx at the end before emigrating to Aus - decided we would go to a party in Southend. His road bike was an Ariel Arrow. In those days the Southend arterial had a roundabout known as the Halfway House for various reasons; on approaching said roundabout three Triumphs overtook and I knew what was going to happen. He got past two into the roundabout but the third was a step too far: the foot-stand dug in and deposited us just outside the police station (remember them?) that stood on the roundabout. No injuries, just hurt pride and as he asked me if I was all right he started laughing. "What?" I said. "Your trousers!" I looked behind and the whole arse of the expensive Carnaby Street trousers fell down in a torn flap. So the party was never made and my association with road bikes ended very shortly afterwards.

Like all things it was one of life's experiences and above all else I always thanked that period as a motor bike gives you a whole different slant on road conditions and how to manage them, something a car can never do. If used wisely that knowledge stays with you and is invaluable.

The non-starting motor bike saga continued awhile after my Gold Star front seat. My racing friend's Aer Macchi was a pig to start: it had the most critical timing and had to be absolutely spot on or nothing happened. Being sick pushing the bloody thing in the paddock is not something I would want to repeat, so some modern additions are welcome after all. I can remember when some cars and not just cars had a starting handle - can you imagine going back to that? You needed the arms of Bluto.

2 comments:

James Higham said...

Interesting as usual. Just thinking of getting back into bikes and have been looking at the old 'uns.

Joe Public said...

An interesting memory-jogger, thanks.

"the Velocettes: handsome machines; though dated by then, they always seemed immaculate, apart from the pool of oil under them or left by them, a sort of calling-card."

Could you have mis-remembered that it was the leaky Enfields that delivered profits to the middle-Eastern sheiks?

My Bullet, like many others of that marque, had the design flaw of the primary-chain cover held on via a single central bolt. Once overtightened, oiltightness was buggered from then on.

Not mine - but shows the problem: http://www.classic-british-motorcycles.com/images/60Royal-Enfield-350-Bullett-L.jpg

Having also owned a 500 Velo Clubman, I know which of the two dropped most oil.

Then, came the sweet CB72. Japanese lateral thinking cured most oil leaks at source by having horizontally-split crankcases, so the bottom half was a pan, unlike most Brit bikes' crankcases at that time still being vertically split, and leaks-in-waiting.

Reminder of why the Goldie was such an impractical road-bike - its impossibly high 1st-gear - allowing up to 65-70mph before the necessity of changing up into 2nd!