Friday, May 15, 2009

Twenty years in the saddle - Part I

Well… nineteen, actually, plus a gap of around ten years. I’ve split the story into instalments because it goes on and on. I’m amazed what I’ve been able to drag out of archive memory without referring to any old paperwork.

Two wheels good; engine better

I suppose my interest in motorbikes started in about 1971. Living in Portsmouth at the time, my father was in charge of the Royal Marines motorcycle display team, so he’d been into bikes for many years. He gave them up for a while when my parents got together. I also have a distant memory of riding around the block on the pillion of my grandad’s Lambretta LD150 (the posh one with shaft drive and electric start). Grandad never owned or drove a car in his life. It was either the Lambretta or some railway locomotive or other.

My motorcycling career really took off when I was fifteen. I borrowed my German penfriend’s moped whilst on an exchange visit and proceeded to burn around the streets of Wendlingen am Neckar at this dismal vehicle’s top speed of 30kph. Meanwhile, my demobbed father had landed a job co-ordinating a new motorcycle training scheme; a job that came with a company bike. They wanted to give him a Suzuki X7, a two-stroke twin with a power band the width of a gnat’s tackle, but he insisted on having a proper motorcycle.

Thus upon my return from Germany there was a gleaming Honda 550-4 in the garage. I had never experienced the thrill of so much acceleration until the first time I rode on the pillion of this monster.

Dad suggested that perhaps I should resurrect my grandad’s Lambretta. After having a puncture and falling off some time in the very early 1970s my grandad never rode the scooter again. We hauled this ancient 1957 beast home in a trailer in 1978, and I spent a futile summer trying and failing to get it to run. Eventually I sold it for £15 to someone running a scooter museum, where as far as I know it is to this day. LCH 372; if you spot it please let me know.

By the time I’d turned sixteen, I’d already done the Star Rider Bronze course. This was a four hour session in a school car park one Saturday morning, riding around and between road cones, practising starts and stops, and generally learning basic machine handling before being allowed out on the Queen’s highway. At that time, it was possible to turn up at a motorbike shop with a provisional licence and insurance, and after crossing the dealer’s palm with silver and slapping a couple of ‘L’ plates on the machine of choice (up to a 250cc for those aged seventeen or more, eeek!) it was typical for a newbie to go wobbling off into the rush hour traffic. How times have changed.

Anyway, I had no money so I didn’t rush out and buy a moped. Aged sixteen, the only available option is 50cc. I occasionally borrowed my mother’s exceptionally feminine Puch Maxi, which I proceeded to thrash mercilessly at its top speed of 30mph. Downhill with a following hurricane I once saw 36mph on the clock. Oooh! Even a moped was a vast improvement over pedal power. Plymouth is mostly hilly, and not having to pedal was a new-found delight.

My first bike

As my seventeenth birthday approached, it was time for a proper motorbike. I’d been working furiously at weekends and evenings, and was thus able to find the necessary £400 for a used Kawasaki Z200 plus insurance. As my father sternly pointed out, “This is a real motorbike. You can kill yourself on one of these.”

Formal training was of course compulsory. Having made a realistic assessment of the British climate I went out and bought a decent waterproof two-piece suit, gloves and boots. The helmet was my father’s spare that I’d been using when riding the moped. Meanwhile Dad’s CB550-4 disappeared when he changed jobs, being replaced with a Honda CX500.

On went the self-adhesive ‘L’ plates, and I hit the road on my seventeenth birthday. It was a Sunday, and I had to go and work my shift in a petrol station. After the moped, the power was astonishing. Eighteen Japanese horses lurked in that little single-cylinder engine and, as I subsequently discovered, gave the tiny Kwak a top speed of almost 80mph. Later that afternoon, my father got his black Honda out and we spent the rest of the day riding around the Dartmoor lanes, with frequent stops where I was lectured on correct techniques. Eight days later the ‘L’ plates came off. I passed the driving test first time, woohoo! And that afternoon I rode off across Dartmoor with a pillion passenger for the first time.

Of course, passing the test is only one small step. My inevitable first giant leap came a few months later. I had already learned that loose gravel was nasty to ride on, so having gone into a gravel-strewn corner way too fast, I chose an escape route up an earth bank. The bike flew off in one direction and landed in a gorse bush. My soft landing was provided by the putrefying carcass of a long-dead sheep. Humble pie all round. I rode home and confessed, in a display of embarrassment never before seen. This was the first and only time I ever dropped the Z200.

Cornish nasty

It was lucky Friday 13th when I passed my car test a few months later. Car insurance was prohibitively expensive, but on this auspicious day I upgraded to a Kawasaki Z400. As it turned out, the Z400 had a number of electrical issues. It consumed headlight bulbs because the voltage regulator was duff, although I didn’t realise this at the time. I had also learned that constantly lubricating and adjusting the chain was a permanent pest. My father’s shaft-drive Honda had none of these woes, so when I was offered an interest-free loan to buy my own CX500 I jumped at the chance. I totalled that bike three months and 3000 miles later when I had a head-on collision with a Ford Capri that I met halfway round a bend in a Cornish village. As the car was completely on the wrong side of the road, the driver was done for Driving Without Due Care and Attention and fined £25. No that is not a typo: Twenty-five quid. I got up unscathed, although my jacket needed some TLC with silver gaffer tape to restore its waterproofing. I subsequently bought a leather jacket, much to Dad’s disapproval. He passed snide comments relating to sexuality and fetishism.

Speaking of which, when I answered a small ad to buy some leather motorcycling trousers, it turned out that the seller had gone to strenuous effort augmenting the belt with huge numbers of chrome studs. He said that he was selling the jeans on behalf of his friend, whom I suspected of being named Dorothy. Much uric extraction was undertaken by my alleged mates. After a brief appearance in a very low-budget post-apocalyptic movie (but that’s another, completely different story), the belt was demoted to Fancy Dress.


I borrowed my father’s almost identical machine for a couple of months while my own was repaired at the expense of Captain Capri, and went off to Portsmouth Poly. Here, I met the Portsmouth Polytechnic Motorcycle Club, a likeable bunch of high-speed hooligans who rather led me Yea, Unto The Paths of Wrongtiousness. A thrash out to some distant rural Hampshire pub every Tuesday evening was in order, along with weekend treasure hunts and bike servicing and repairs in the club’s lock-up garage, whose extensive facilities comprised, erm, one damp concrete floor and a couple of moribund bikes that could be illicitly scavenged for spares. At one point we’d even devised a street-racing circuit around Southsea. In hindsight, having an unofficial racetrack that went past a police station and the law courts was perhaps not the wisest move ever made…

In due course, my own bike was repaired, I stuck a full fairing and a pair of Rickman Alpine fiberglass panniers on it in addition to the top box. I could almost match a Ford Transit in luggage-carrying capacity. One of my friends speculated on what would happen if I fell off: “Newsflash! A motorcycle shed its load on the M27 motorway earlier today blocking both carriageways…

The motorcycle club made a point of attending race meetings, bike shows, bike rallies and at the end of the academic year, Racing School. This last item is why I fell off someone else’s bike at Brands Hatch. The following year I resolved to ‘ride it like I’d stole it’ and did rather better. At the 1982 University of East Anglia bike rally, I received a prestigious award on account of all my hard luggage. Everyone had a jolly good laugh at my expense; no-one else from PPMCC won a thing. I still have the UEA-82 badge somewhere.

The club also owned an ancient and battered Yamaha TY175 trials bike. This was regularly trailered along to some local chalk pit and horribly abused by the club members. Here is where I really discovered that I don’t like riding bikes off road. Wet chalk is the slipperiest substance known to man, snake oil excepted.

Teaching and learning

The following summer I trained to become a motorcycle instructor under the Star Rider scheme. I figured that learning how to teach might improve my own riding skills. Any and all promises that this would lead to cheaper insurance turned out to be as empty as a hermit’s address book. The only companies that would offer a discount charged rather more in the first place. Nevertheless, teaching complete newbies basic machine control in the relative safety of a traffic-free school yard made me a tiny amount of pin-money and maybe saved a few lives.

I was actually very happy with the Honda, despite its questionable handling and high centre of gravity. If the bike were as useless as its many detractors claimed, why were there so many CX500 ‘Plastic Maggots’ around? A point of criticism was the machine’s amazing appetite for rear tyres. I typically got 3000 miles out of a back tyre before it looked like Yul Brynner’s head, and this was with normal road tyres too. Later more powerful bikes have always been more economical - for a given value of ‘economical’ – with rubber.

It was around this time that I bought a full-face helmet. One winter’s day I was caught in a hailstorm, and had my face pounded by stinging ice. Never again. Despite any purported advantages of an open-face helmet, this one disadvantage continues to outweigh them all. I’ve stuck with full-face lids ever since.

Three years and 40,000 miles later, my CX500 died a violent death in the side of a Mini Clubman. On a dead-straight road, oncoming car turns right across path of motorcycle, and rider takes impromptu flying lesson. A little old lady with hot sweet tea got to the crash site first, shortly followed by the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, and then a breakdown truck so I could get home. I was, incredibly, completely uninjured. Some boot polish sorted out my scuffed leathers. Ms Mini was convicted of Reckless Driving, a much more serious offence than Without Due Care, and fined £50. Her insurance company finally coughed up for my written-off machine after a protracted battle based on the well-known legal principle of “It must have been your fault because you were riding a motorbike.”

Team Thrasher Tours

Over the summer I was on the lookout for replacement transport. A contingent of PPMCC styling itself ‘Team Thrasher’ was off to the south of France that September and this trip was on my ‘to do’ list. I settled on a Suzuki GS650GT, another bike with shaft drive and a full fairing to which I added the panniers rescued from the defunct Honda. The Suzuki proved comfortable and reliable, but as a tourer it was let down by a minuscule fuel tank. Nine people on five bikes rode the length of France and back again in just under two weeks. The most significant run-in with the Police involved some pop group we saw in Dijon (where the mustard comes from) fronted by one Gordon Sumner and supported by A Flock of Seagulls (if anybody remembers them…)

Apart from accidentally parking the bike sideways on the prone body of one of my mates in a fit of incompetence, I dropped the Suzuki only once. Actually, I highsided it while exiting a roundabout just north of Portsmouth. It was a Tuesday night, too, and consequently right in front of the entire motorcycle club. My pillion passenger was unsurprisingly less than impressed. We were both unhurt, and even the bike only suffered minor cosmetic damage. The club was very impressed with my prang; I still have the commemorative certificate. Thanks, guys!

End of Part One

That summarises my personal history of motorcycling up to 1984. The next twelve years featured more and bigger bikes and travel further abroad. I’m hoping that it doesn’t read like a monstrous thrash’n’crash-a-thon. My bikes generally stayed upright and my licence remained cleanish.



Photos Dubai said...

i can see that passion for bikes oozing thru... :-)

Looking forward to part II

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your article and was interested in the fact that your father was involved in the RMMCDT. My father was also involved prior to leaving the corp. He went on to start a motorcycle club for children and a junior MCDT (Solent Eagles). I am the current trainer. Would love to hear from you please feel free to get back to me. If my email addy is not shown it is available on
Regards. gary

India Taylor Author said...

I'm looking for a man called Alan who would have been in the Royal Marines Motorcycle Team during 1974. Any info would be greatly received :-)

Grumpy Goat said...

Hi India.

Sorry I can't help. Please check your email.



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