GETTING SENTIMENTAL

Bike – August 1975

Very much a period piece in its references to sports-mopeds, the ‘sixteener’ licensing regime, long-forgotten models such as the appalling Ariel (BSA) trike, local dealers’ spares counters and indeed disgraced US prez ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon, this was typical of my high-horse rants about the high-cost of our little game. But compared to what it costs nowadays to take up ‘biking and the complexities of getting licensed to do so, I can only weep with nostalgia… and note that it’s hardly surprising that there are so few young ‘uns joining the fray.

I am not a traditionalist. And I use that phrase in much the same way that Nixon (Richard, not Gary) exclaimed, “I am not a crook”, because I normally abhor sentimentality for its own sake. Which is no big deal, unless of course you happen to be a biker.

However there are certain things going down now that raddle me not insubstantially, and one of them is Yamaha FS1-Es. Have you noticed how many of these little blighters there are around these days? Well if your ultra-cool Peter Fonda shades prohibit you from seeing anything on the road except buses and Scania Super 110 artics, let me wise you up to the fact that the FS1-E is replacing the Bantam as the bolide you kick off your motorcycling career with.

On my regular trips to Wales I pass a technical college on the outskirts of a small market town. Each week it seems there’s another goddamn purple FSl-E in the cycle sheds. Thank heavens I never pass by when they’re all on their way home to their Findus fish fingers. Think I’d die of fright, all those purple lemmings buzzing after me in formation.

Now when a beaming David Startup – then head of Mitsui (the then UK Yamaha importers – MW) introduced me to this strange little moped with a gear lever, I gained the distinct impression that it was merely a rather droll joke. More fool me. In my pathetic ignorance I failed to realise that if sixteen-year-olds were going to be forced to ride mopeds, then suddenly the choice of a first bike became limited to a collection of invariably mundane pushbikes with lawnmower engines. That is until canny Mr. Startup (the man who sold BSA all those Anka engines for the Ariel trike – ho, ho, ho) brought in the multi-geared FSl-E.

Immediately the repressed teenager had either to opt for 3 Raleigh Wisp, Norman Nippy, Puch Maxi or something of that ilk . . . or he could go for a sleek, relatively fast machine that actually looked vaguely like a motorcycle. Now faced with the choice of a secondhand and probably very rusty, smokey toy and a brand new Yamaha for chrissakes, which would you choose? Well of course…

But such shameless logic meant also that instead of shelling out 25 quid for an old nail, you were suddenly into hire purchase, bribing parents and heavy duty insurance. In fact in his adolescent enthusiasm for the biking life (hah!), the feckless young punk was unwittingly snarfed up into big time commerce.

And that, gentle readers, is not what it’s all about.

When I was but a tot, I paid four-and-a-half real pound notes for my first bike, a D1 Bantam with a cracked piston. My best friend, who was a year older than I, already owned a Greeves Scottish at that juncture and with the aid of his dad – who just happened to own a BMC distributorship in sunny Newcastle-on-Tyne  – the Bantam was very quickly turned into a natty dirt-tracker.

I painted the thing a fairly obnoxious shade of gold over white, stuck an oversize Amal on it, cleaned up the ports with a Woolworth’s hand file and skimmed god-knows-what off the head. It went like a ferret up Larry Grayson’s trouser leg until one fateful day when I chucked it into the ‘fast’ corner on our local bombsite speedbowl in too low a gear. That bang was heard for miles around.

However a Bantam piston cost but a few bob and within a week I was trading in the re-built machine for a 197cc Dot, the differential being somewhere in the region of 20 notes, I seem to recall.

Now all that might sound very innocent and twee, but it was also a very easy-going way to get into a hobby that shouldn’t really become a big-bucks madness until one is old or smart enough to earn big bucks. And the ludicrous sixteener legislation changed all that; a nasty piece of work that inadvertently (perhaps) provided importers, insurance and finance companies with a licence to print money, whilst masquerading as a safety measure.

Image: Hunt Emerson

But however insidious that side of it might be, what drags a tear from my red-rimmed eyes is the fact that a whole era of do-it-yourself motorcycling high spirits has apparently disappeared for good. For although the Yamaha FS1-E and its counterparts from the other market hungry importers may very well be of excellent value, they are prone to the same maintenance complications, costs and spares shortages as their bigger banger brethren. And they all look, perform and handle just about the same. And that, to me, is very boring.

I know that the recent proliferation of Italian marques in the UK actually undermines the validity of the above opinion, but since they are all necessarily 49cc, there is hardly any comparison with the ‘good old days’ when you had up to 250 cubes to play around with. Maybe it’s my hatred of regimentation, and indeed the norm, that prompts a yearning for that past era of affordable variety.

Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been waiting bitterly for three months for a Yamaha DT1 main bearing! Which only goes to show that however diligent the importers of the vast majority of bikes may claim to be, they can always pass the buck when it comes to spares. After all, in the old days you could always phone up Small Heath – even pop down there and raise Cain over the Ariel Pixie (oops) chaincase you’d been waiting, dare I say it, a fortnight for. But unless you can wrap your tongue around the Jap lingo and own a private jet, there’s no way you can get past the bland disclaimers of the importer.

Now the DT1, whilst I’m on my hobby horse (ain’t got much else to ride until the spares arrive), is/was a pretty popular bolide. Yet not one of Mitsui’s hot-shot, we’ll-never-let-you-down spares distributors have got anything as mundane as a DT1 main bearing. Mitsui have been waiting for them “since January”, I am told.

Which has meant, amongst other things, that I had one very good reason for not being able to enter this year’s Welsh 2-Days. The same reason, in fact, that indirectly prevented me from riding in last year’s event: waiting and waiting on the purchase of a DT1 engine for my pesky Yamadale buiId-up left me with a four-week deadline and no option but to buy a complete secondhand bike. And, natch, every dealer, distributor and importer greases you with the fatuous cop-out, “We’re waiting for a shipment from Japan”, and wonders why you get mad and write nasty things in motorcycle mags about them.

Ah well . . . or do I mean “ah so”?

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About markswill

For those unaware of my glittering career, I started scribbling for the underground press in 1968 and by complete chance was appointed Music Editor of International Times when I happened to visit their office for the first time in '69 on a day trip down from Birmingham. Naturally I took all of a stoned nanosecond to accept the offer... and it's all been uphill ever since. If you really give a stuff, a full resume of my, er, resume is available on the Career page of my website, www.markwilliamsmedia.co.uk, but for now just be content to know that I'm an opinionated media junkie of a certain age who won't sit still.

5 thoughts on “GETTING SENTIMENTAL

  1. Dear Mark…all was not lost! I was one of those Popsicle Purple mounted fizzie kids. Loved it to death and took my girlfriend all over Anglesey on it. But….the minute I was 17 I flogged it to buy BSA Starfire. A ‘real’ mans bike! It taught me the noble art of bodging which I continue to inflict on my sorry collection of two wheel victims to this day.

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  2. Then in 1977 the bastards restricted all “peds” to 30mph! Turning 16 in 1979 I was lumbered with a Honda CB50, possibly the most dangerous road bike I’ve ever ridden, totally gutless, no power to get out of any tricky situation. Fortunately I borrowed a friends 250 super dream 2 days after I turned 17 and passed just the one test enabling you ride anything you liked, (could afford). Tritons, Bonnies, Guzzi’s, Japs, n Germans followed. Shame for me that modern bikes, though arguably better in every way than 60’s-70’s stuff, just don’t have the same appeal. Btw, my top quality, rose tinted glasses are British made 😆

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  3. Aha, the250 Superdream. Legend has it that you could swap the side panels from a 250 onto a 400 and fool the rozzers. Was that ever true?

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