Classic Motorcycle Mechanics – Oct 2003

Jumping ahead a few decades from other recent re-hashes, I began columnising for  Classic Motorcycle Mechanics in 2003 which then editor Ben Wilkins commissioned and allowed me to mouth off with varying degrees of relevance to his mighty organ. This I re-publish here because the dearth of new converts to our little game is a particular hobby-horse of mine – where are the new riders going to come from? –  which is as much of a worry now as it was in 2003… if not more so.

Before there were 125s, we rode 250s.

That was the reality of the matter when the threshold for provisional license ownership changed in 1983, and what it meant was that motorcycling culture changed forever at the stroke of a politician’s pen. And those of you with long teeth and matching memories will know that we had been here before. In 1971, in fact, for that’s when the then Transport Minister, an ineffectual little toad called John Peyton, at-a-stroke stopped 16 year-old learners learning to ride on quarter-litre motorcycles. Instead they could only ride 50cc mopeds, and we all know what that led to (at least if we’ve got long teeth) – the dreaded ‘sixteener specials’.

My use of the perjorative ‘dreaded’ is a consequence of me having long enough teeth to’ve ridden several 200-250cc motorcycles and, I must shamefully admit, a 175cc Lambretta scooter, whilst still holding a provisional licence back in the 1960s, and I therefore regarded mopeds as wobbly wee devices only suitable for old men and girlies. So that when I became a real man, or at least a motorcycle magazine editor (which is not quite the same thing) and was faced with the prospect of a large section of my beloved readership being forced to ride wobbly wee devices in order to live within the letter of the law and yet still try and have a bit of fun, I dreaded the consequences. And as it turned out, justifiably so.

Some of these machines, such as the Cimatti Sagittarius (Really! – MW) and Malaguti Olympique, were basically flyweight Italian sportsbikes with pedals added, others, like the Batavus Regency or the Puch Maxi GP were basically ordinary mopeds, tarted up to look sporty and perhaps given a bigger carb or louder exhaust in order to go faster, or at least give the impression of doing so. The Italian bikes were in some cases well capable of 60-65mph given a light rider, a long flat road and a fair wind, and the Dutch and German bikes maybe 35mph on a good day, but when Yamaha added pedals and reduced from five to four the number of gears on its 4.8bhp lightweight, added an ‘E’ to its designation (for ‘England’), a star was born. The ‘Fizzie’ soon became ubiquitous, was copied by both Honda (SS50) and Suzuki (AP50) and literally hundreds of thousands of you won your motorcycle spurs, if not your licences, aboard ‘em. But 4.8bhp is not the same as 15bhp, or even 18bhp, which is what you got from a 250cc BSA or Ariel of the preceding era, bikes that until Mr Peyton had his tawdry way, we 16 year-olds could ride around on wearing L-plates – but not necessarily a helmet! – at 70-75mph. Which of course we did.

Hence the indignation I expressed in early issues of Bike magazine at the freedom and the thrills now being denied our younger bretheren, indignation that turned into mild horror when I began testing the first sixteener specials which soon were finding their way into the showrooms of worried dealers. Clearly, any kid forced to ride a glorified moped was going to ride it at, and if possible, well beyond the limit. And the later, disc-braked FS1-E and its imitators perhaps excluded, these wobbly wee devices had teeny brakes and bendy chassis that were flat-out scary to ride, and in a bad way. Certainly a horrid old push-rod British single or smoky 2-stroke twin might not’ve been pushing the boundaries of motorcycle design at the time, but they felt, handled and stopped like proper motorcycles, which the sixteener specials did not. So that if and when you finally qualified to ride a ‘proper’ motorcycle, you were ill-prepared for the 50-60bhp monsters now available to you.

The same might be said of the next politically-motivated downgrading of riding skills discussed in some detail elsewhere in this issue, namely 1983’s upper-limit of 125cc machines for learners of any age, which ultimately killed off the market for 250cc roadbikes. Admittedly this didn’t open up quite such a gulf between the two capacities performance-wise, because in 1983 there were some pretty sprauncey eighth-litre machines around, such as Yamaha’s RD125LC and Kawasaki’s AR125, that would take you close to 80mph and which handled and stopped in a not dissimilar manner to their bigger bretheren.

But even so, anyone getting off, say, a somewhat more lowly, i.e. slow and bandy-legged GN125 or CB125 and onto, say, a GS1100EZ or a VF750F was confronting themselves with more than thrice the power and several times the potential danger. Of course our servant/masters in Whitehall eventually cottoned onto this which is why, in 1997, the Direct Access Scheme came into our lives, which allowed people to take the test on a machine of 46.5bhp or more, but they had to be at least 21 years-old. You can sort of see the sense of this, but it loaded up insurance premiums for everyone and resulted in quite a few manufacturers offering lower powered versions of their sportier models, e.g. Kawasaki’s GPz500S, to lead us into temptation.

With the exception of the performance mopeds, which were relatively cheap and even had their own racing series to appeal to the eager masses, these successive strategies have inevitably resulted in fewer and fewer people joining the fun, to the point where the difficulties of getting a licence and then being able to afford to insure let alone buy a real motorcycle has become too onerous. But maybe that’s why there’s so much renewed interest in sixteener specials…?

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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.

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