For some reason, I always wanted to ride on motor bikes when I was a kid. No idea why this was so, as to be honest, they are in so many ways vastly inferior to cars, but they do have something about them.
For me it started when I was 16 – which in those days was the earliest age you could ride a motorbike in the UK. So with the reluctant agreement of my parents, shortly after my 16th birthday I found myself the proud owner of about the smallest motorbike you could buy in those days, a BSA Bantam.
It cost all of £50, by the way.
Me on my Bantam ( No idea why the fancy costume), and David on his Tiger Cub…..
This thing with its 2 stroke 150cc engine could just about manage to achieve 70 mph downhill with a following wind.
It had a headlight that would have shamed a firefly, so at night I had to try and keep up with cars going in the same direction as I was, in order to be able to see where I was going…. Otherwise the feeble glimmer from that headlight just about allowed me to see my front mudguard. And given that she could could only just keep up with very slow cars, night-time driving was awful.
At about the same time, a good friend of mine David acquired a “real” bike, a 200 cc Triumph Tiger Cub…. Ahh.. the name alone… Tiger Cub versus Bantam…. Not happy about that.
My parents sensibly enough insisted I followed a course on bike riding, which I was happy enough to do. This was run by a group of volunteers and RAC patrol men, oh and some cops as well. It consisted of one evening a week attending a class, during which we were told all manner of things to do with safe bike riding – and told the essential number of horror stories about crashes our instructors had survived over the years.
All very interesting, if alarming at times.
The other part consisted of us riding around on the local sewage farm’s property, learning the practical side of bike riding. This was fun. We were taught how to ride at a walking pace, having one of our instructors walking beside us, and we having to keep our bike level with him, as he wandered slowly, speeding up at times, and following a very winding path… Tricky to do, as we were not allowed to put our feet down, even when he simply stopped and stood still for minutes at a time. Gave us a really good control of the balance of our bikes.
This was all good fun, and very useful training.
We were also taken out and ridden along the roads the actual driving license testers used, and taught how to pass our driving test.. sort of cheating, but it worked.
At the end of the course, we had a very long practical and theoretical exam to pass. Conducted by RAC patrol men, Police men and the guys from the ACU (Auto Cycle Union). Happy to say I passed OK. And a week later I also passed my real driving test with no trouble.
In those days I wore glasses , as I was rather short sighted, but my glasses were not made of safety glass, so never wore them on my bike… Tricky as part of the driving test was to test our eyes. This was done by getting us to read the number plate of a parked car about 25 meters from the bike…. Impossible for me, as at that distance, it was just a blur…
In fact I could see well enough to drive, but not to read number plates at that distance…. so before my test I carefully memorised the number plates of the cars parked around the test centre, as I knew they checked that first. And to my amazement, I got it right.
About this time I joined the TA (Territorial Army), a sort of part time National Guard, as I thought it would be fun to be a Dispatch Rider, known in the military trade as a Don R.
So I duly signed up with the rather wonderfully named Princess Mary Yeomanry, a local field artillery regiment, and became the only Don R in the entire British Army with a beard.
This was fun, as they issued me with an amazing old motorbike, a BSA – 500 cc single cylinder, rigid back end, girder forks at the front machine – with the most amazingly low gearing, it could drive up the side of a house the gears were so low.
Not the one I had, but the same model
Oh it was a model that had been made in the early 40’s or even possibly in the late 30’s, in any event it was a type that was used in WW 2
Loved that thing with a total passion.
They also issued me with something called a Sten Gun, which is a very cheap and nasty sub-machine gun, that the British army hadn’t used for some years. They neglected to give me a strap for the gun, so I had to use a bit of string to hang it over my shoulders… Oh, and sensibly, they never gave me any bullets for it either.. Never did get to fire that silly thing in the 3 years I had it.
So I had great fun driving that thing around the place, while my more serious fellow “soldiers” were busy with our 25 pounder howitzers.
A 25 Pounder Field Howitzer
During this part of my life I discovered that one part of my training course was very practical indeed. “When in a bike accident, get off the bike to avoid it crushing you…” OK, good advice.
On one miserable day I found myself exactly where the shells from our guns were landing, and managed to get off my bike while going at full speed.. without hurting myself too, I am happy to say. I can still remember watching my bike wobbling down the road without me on-board as I took cover from the shells exploding all around me.
This is not me, but it is the uniform I wore. Just add a Sten Gun on a bit of string, and a beard, and you have me there
I loved being on convoy duty with that bike. This consisted of three of us Don Rs controlling a convoy of up to 50 trucks, their gun limbers and the guns themselves all rumbling along the road. It meant one of us at the back, one at the front and one sort of racing up to the front.
So whenever there was a turn off, the guy at the front had to stop and ensure that the convoy turned off onto the right side road, and when the convoy had passed, he had to stay at the back for a while, as the fellow who had been at the back raced up to the front again… And also whenever we came to junctions or traffic lights, we had to get off, and stop all traffic so the convoy could go past in one go.. so no one got left behind.. Loved standing there with my machine gun on its bit of string holding up all that traffic.. Ah the feeling of power!!!
All exciting stuff my short and glorious military period… I managed to rise to the exalted rank of Gunner – the artillery equivalent of Private.
After this I got hold of a 350 cc. AJS, a much better bike, almost new as well… I lived this old banger, it made a wonderful noise with its long stroke single cylinder.. proper motorbike snarl.
Me looking smooth on my 350 cc AJS
However, it almost broke my leg. You had to adjust the spark timing when starting it, and if you got that wrong, it could kick the kick starter back with real force.. Which it did to me one fine day, threw me up and over the bike and damn near broke my knee. So that was me in plaster for some weeks….
Once healed, I got back onto the bike, and damn me if I didn’t do it again….
After that I moved up to a Matcheless 500 cc twin… Ah the joys of two cylinders… So much faster acceleration… Loved that machine.
At a certain point I put an enormous, double-adult covered side car on it and drove it off to Greece…. Using the sidecar as a sort of caravan… A trip mainly memorable for the insane amount of oil it used, almost as much oil as petrol. It was a British bike after all, and they famously drank oil. Well this one also leaked oil in all directions… Ended the trip with a right leg totally impregnated with oil and a horrid green colour.. Took months to get rid of all that oil in my skin.
I had also had a few accidents over the years with my various bikes, managing on one memorable occasion to sort of sweep three cyclists away at one go (they were riding three abreast on a dark road with a lot of oncoming traffic), and being racing bikes they had absurd little back lights, only saw them at the last moment, so laid my bike on its side, got away from it, and then as I bounced down the road watched as my bike knocked all three over at one go…
No one was hurt, but all bikes were very bent.
On another occasion an old man simply walked right into me as I was driving slowly along in traffic… So he and I ended up lying in the road, and I remember the circle of people (including a cop) who simply stood around us gazing down at us. Reminded me of a short story by Ray Bradbury about a sort of ghoulish collection of creatures who always appear at any accident, and simply look on, do nothing… Well this lot were the same.. Scary.
There then followed a long break of no bike riding, until many years later in Holland I bought a Russian bike with side car.. A Dnieper.
Beautiful but useless.
On the face of it, this was a wonderful bike… Solid, with a reverse gear, very handy, with a side car, and even a driven side car wheel, a sort of 4 wheel drive motor bike. Based on a machine the Germans used in the second world war, I thought this would be great for holidays. Sadly it was total rubbish, just about everything that could be wrong with it, was.. I never managed to drive more than about 5 km without it breaking down. The paint on the inside of its tank was not petrol proof,, so the carbs constantly filled up with a sort of paint sludge, the wheels were not properly round, so the tires slid around, tearing their valves off, if it rained I got shocks from the electrics and so on.,. Totally useless machine… So I sold that to a guy who changed the wheels and the engine, and then had fun with it, damn his eyes.
Since when I have stuck to 4 wheels….
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