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.

OUT OF ORDURE

TrailBike Magazine – Aug 2012

This is probably the latest column you’ll find here, coming as it does from the 200th Anniversary Issue of TrailBike Magazine, but my involvement with mud-pluggery goes back to 1963 and a 197cc Greeves Scottish trials bike. Once I got the magazine bug, I started an ‘Off-Road Rambles’ section in Bike and then ‘On The Rough’ and ‘Dirt Bike Buyers Guide’ in WhichBike? and even the wildly unsuccessful WB? Enduro Team with then ad. manager and real star rider, Charlie Harris and old pal, Peter Furlong. Recreational off-road riding has changed enormously since then and become more restrictive and much maligned by non-motorcyclists so whilst I look back on my days on the dirt with fondness and pride, I’m slightly relieved that they’re over.

Illustration by Mick Brownfield, which seemed to portray me as a kind of deranged rural mobster… perish the thought

I wasn’t one of the original suspects when Si Melber started TBM, but our links extend even further back than that. He’d worked on MotorCycle International, a magazine I’d initially wrenched out of the ruins of WhichBike?, which I’d launched back in 1976, and which of course makes me very old indeed.

So old, in fact that I can remember when you could, and I did, ride legally almost anywhere off-road using an 8000-odd mile (yes, EIGHT THOUSAND ! – MW) network of ‘greenlanes’, or Roads Used as Public Paths (RuPPs), some two-thirds of which became the now verboten Restricted Byways. And when I first went mud-plugging yes, that’s how the ‘bike media routinely referred to it back in the early ‘70s, you could still do it on a brand new British bike, albeit with a very old British engine, for BSA, Triumph and smaller outfits like Greeves and AJS were still building trailies back then, of which I had a troublesome few.

So when Si invited me to contribute a column to his small but perfectly formed off-road rag in 2004, I assumed that he wanted a moisty-eyed took in trailriding’s rearview mirror, rather than the sort of sardonic commentary on contemporary motorcycling matters that I’d parlayed over the decades in columns for MCI, WhichBike? and the grand-daddy of ‘em all, Bike magazine. But once again I was wrong, which was probably my own damn fault. Having just returned to trailriding because I had time on my hands (a/k/a being unemployed) and living slap-bang in the middle one of Britain’s least populated rural landscapes (a/k/a Powys), I’d begun re-building a clapped-out Yamaha XT350 on which I eventually entered in my first enduro in 25 years, only to discover it wasn’t remotely competitive… although that might have possibly been due to my lack of fitness and ability.

But what I also learnt and soon reflected in my wittily named Totally Rutted column was that trailriding had changed considerably since I’d abandoned it in 1981 to go and live in America. And not necessarily in a good way.

Access to rideable rights of way had considerably diminished (a bad thing), driven mainly, if ironically, by the huge increase in recreational trailriding (a good thing, hence TBM); and the reaction against it of po-faced bobble-hats and arrogant landowners who jointly had a lock on the ears of legislators both local and national. Worse was to come of course when the infamous 2006 National Environment and Communities Act (NERC) hit the statute book, instantly decimating the network of RuPPs, and this despite determined lobbying from the Trail Riders Federation which I’d re-joined in 2004.

Other bad things in my book, or rather as chronicled in my column, included the increasing tendency of the younger trailriders to belt along in large, noisy packs and often on illegal tracks, as if they were competing in enduros, which tended to quite literally frighten the horses and left little time to enjoy the views. But this was probably just sour grapes ‘cause I couldn’t always keep up with ‘em. More seriously, over-use of softly surfaced tracks angered councils responsible for
their (expensive) maintenance which thus degraded, were now cryptically referred to as being ‘technical’, making them much more taxing for old farts like me.

So a couple of years after returning to the dirt, I was enjoying it less and less. My response was to instigate a regular Right to Ride featurette in TBM which alerted readers to the Forces of Darkness and their efforts to curtail things even further and, in particular, the brave but tiny TRF’s rearguard resistance. By 2006 I’d actually helped form a TRF group here in Mid-Wales where, again ironically, trailriders and 4×4 drivers who’d been forced off lanes in their own counties were increasingly weekending in droves, wearing out some of the more spectacular and lengthy tracks such as Monks Trod and Water Break Its Neck which the local council in turn began closing down, often by stealth.

I soon found myself representing the TRF both Iocally and even nationally in what was becoming a battle, especially after NERC, to keep the lanes open, and eventually I became the TRF’s Press Officer, too. Without my much prized platform in TBM, this certainly wouldn’t have happened but within the small, fragmented and I’m afraid often rather blinkered community that rode off-road, I now had some influence. Failing to extend that by harnessing a rather impotent motorcycle trade association (which actually had real clout with legislators when Britain still – just – had an industry back in my Bike and WhichBike? days), or getting the TRF’s top brass to agree that the 4×4 brigade were not actually our allies, eventually convinced me that we and therefore I was fighting a losing battle and I resigned my TRF roles a year after I was, ahem, obliged to resign my TBM roles following disagreements with Mr Melber.

I sold my much-loved, if somewhat hot-rodded TT-R250 a few months later when the last of my local trailriding pals became a dad and like many before him, was subsumed by more important responsibilities, and so I haven’t plugged the mud since 2010. I now look back on my TBM days with affection, regret but also mild relief.

Si and James Barnicoat’s passion was considerable and contagious: I probably wouldn’t have taken up the game again if it hadn’t been for their enthusiasm or more accurately perhaps, coercion and they were always generous with their support, as well as clothing and kit… or at least when they no longer had any use for ‘em! Which was good for this marginally skint oldster.

As temporary keeper of the Doing The Rounds flame (A regular feature – MW), I also greatly enjoyed ride-outs as far afield as Northumberland and Cornwall, although some of them left me bruised, battered and panting with embarrassment. But the other regular feature that Si enthusiastically embraced whilst I was in situ was From The Archives which enabled me to revisit my early off-road days and the bikes we then rode. So I’d come full circle after all.

Which made an old fool very happy, and a bunch of new friends who still remain that way…

The spirit of TBM still lives on online in the vibrant form of Rust at http://www.rustsports.com And if you enjoyed my latest old rant, please sign up to get alerts each time I post a new one using the box on the RH panel… or add your own comment, as below.

COMMIE PLOTS

Bike – September 1979

Written whilst I was dividing my time fairly equally between London and Los Angeles (where I worked for Motorcyclist magazine – a publishing revelation to me), this was an only slightly tongue-in-cheek poke as the escalating cost of then learner legal sub-250cc bikes. The red revolution never happened of course, but there were some decent Commie machines, most notably from East Germany (MZ and Simpson), and some utter dogs, too, most notably from Russia (Voskhod and Ural anyone?).

Not sure who inked this excellent image, but ’twas probably Spike Davis

WHILST FULLY APPRECIATING that some pretty strange doggerel has found its way past the sub-editing department of Bike magazine (the trick is to blithely assure the Editor that you sent your copy days before the deadline then, while he’s tearing his hair out wondering where the hell it’s got to, send it off on copy day with two Green Shield stamps and a childishly scrawled address on the envelope, so that it goes straight out of the In Tray to some incredulous typesetter), I must ask you to take the following very seriously.

I’m convinced that the Iron Curtain motorcycle manufacturers are going to take over the UK market within a matter of; well if not months, maybe within the next decade. Rubbish? (Or some stronger expletive?) Nah, figure it out for yourselves. Whilst our fledgling phoenix of an industry struggles to stuff a few more Bonnevilles and AJW Pointers (A dormant, pre-WW2 marque that resurfaced in the ‘70s with Italian-engined lightweights – MW) down the patriotic public’s neck, the eminently more sensible, decorous and reliable Japanese product which we have over the years drawn to our bosom like some sort of favourite orphan, has priced itself out of the market. Or almost.

The pound depreciates against the yen and suddenly we’re looking at massive retail hikes that put a fairly ordinary 250cc twin into the 800 quid bracket. (Happy days – MW). Why, four years ago a Honda CB250 went out the door with your wallet some 500 pounds the lighter. And it’s not just inflation, ’cause an MZ250 Sports has gone up just 25% in comparative retail cost during those same four years, but it’ll still hit you for less than half you’d pay to get a Honda 250 Dream proudly wearing a set of L–plates.

Which is almost where I came in. A magazine with which I am associated  –and which the publishers of Bike, in their infinite wisdom, are somewhat coy about having mentioned in These Forthright Pages (WhichBike? – MW) –  paced a CZ250 twin against a Yamaha RD250. Before you laugh your frocks off I will happily admit that the Yam was significantly faster than the CZ; it also dumped all over it in the braking department and scored tops in handling and roadholding. But then the CZ returned far more frugal fuel consumption, demanded less from your bank account when it comes to replacing worn or smashed parts and cost several hundred pounds less to buy in the first place. I can tell you’re still not impressed.

Well, when I was knee high to a gnat’s bollock, everyone and his kid brother ran BSA Bantams, or, if their parents owned chip shops in the suburbs, Francis-Barnett Plovers. Hire purchase was a dirty word in most households and, in any case, 25 notes would get you a damn fine example of British motorcycle engineering, albeit fifth–hand. But whilst these smokey little 2-strokes were as dull as Ex-Lax in their virgin form, we had Mr Reed’s Tuning For Speed as our bible.

Jeez, my first bike, a rigid frame Bantam if you please, was hardly in the garage before I had the files down its exhaust tract and a bigger carb stuck on the other side. Me and a pal, now sadly vegetating into his second marriage on a housing estate up north I hear, used to spend our evenings in preparation for the Saturday afternoon Grand Prix at the local slag heap, on his Greeves (his dad was a ‘motor trader’) and me on this snazzy gold-and-white Banti. With little money, less expertise and a lot of luck we wrought all sorts of nonsense on those bikes with, in my case, a massive seizure on turn two of our infamous dirt oval. One big bang and I was on my arse wondering where I could buy a decent used 250,

The notion of adding a few more BHP to your CB4OOF in the privacy of your own shed is fostered only by those with BSc (Eng) or a decent lathe. Which is perhaps just as well for the Piper Engineerings and Mochecks (Both then tuning parts suppliers – MW)  of this world, but such specious reasoning bypasses the very real world of simple 2-strokes.

See, there is little to prevent you or me tinkering around with a CZ175 single, an electric drill fitted with a roto-file and a bunch of Jikov jets and coming up with four or five more horsepower. And of course it’s a low bucks operation. Don’t scoff, I’ve recently ridden just such a machine and nearly scared myself onto the verge of a particularly fast corner. Sure, this specific machine had some slightly more expensive alterations applied to the suspensions, but the basic engine tuning was no more adroit that6 your average backyard Bimbo could manage. Here in America you can get all sorts of hopped-up heads, barrels and gear clusters for literally dozens oft 2-stroke singles and twins, including‘ CZs… that’s of you’re too dumb or lazy to see ‘to your own sucking and breathing), and I see absolutely no reason why some smart UK outfit shouldn’t start Offering hot stuff for Commie ironware.

CZ have already cashed in on cosmetic avarice with their 250 Custom which, whilst it performs like the rather drab machine that it is, looks decidedly hotsie-totsie. So why don‘t they go the whole hog and offer a 13:1 head, twin carb version with matt black expansion chamber exhausts that‘ll have future Z250 owners falling over themselves at traffic lights? You don’t have to be dull to be different, after all.

We have witnessed the Russian, Polish and Czech car manufacturers slowly coming to grips with what the capitalist opposition are up to (there is even the threat of a Polski sports car on the horizon, believe it or not), to the point where at least two friends of mine whose wisdom in such matters I only question after several drinks, are actually driving around in Ladas, having recently forsook their Mazdas and Marinas (well, they weren’t that close friends). And with Jawa fielding works road racers, however embarrassingly, and MZ already producing a 5-speed 250 single that hits an honest 85mph, can we not speculate that the factories themselves might not already have their hammers and sickles wielded over some secret prototypes designed to hit the Japs where it hurts most – at the Sunday morning drag-offs and subsequently in the dealers’ showrooms?

Don’t laugh again, there is a plethora of irate Oriental bike owners who are incensed by the lack of parts available for their machines and the expensive strings attached to them. There are even more who are having to settle for a second or third-hand Suzuki or Yamaha (with all the attendant pitfalls) when they’d much rather go for new. An MZ with the right spec. and the right looks could tug their heart strings like nobody’s business.

Naturally the EEC fans amongst you will be screaming “Italian” at the tops of your voices by now, but take a look at what’s available in the under 500cc field, and take a look at the prices. Big Italian bikes might well score over the Jap stuff on both price and performance, but their 125 and 250cc machines are over-priced and/ or antiquated when objectively sized up alongside their oppos. I’ll tell you this much, riding a Suzuki PE175 around London was a whole lot more fun than you might think, and if CZ came up with a sharp-edged single in a slightly more sanitary mould, then even I’d think no more than twice about buying one.

If you liked what you read here, or even if incensed by it, you might want to get regular alerts to further episodes by clicking on the box in the RH panel. And do please bung me a comment, too.

PATRIOTISM HITS THE BUFFERS

Bike – September 1975

Written just after the launch of Norton Villiers Triumph’s two new trailbikey models which used Yamaha engines, and the Easy Rider moped powered by Italian ones, this was my sarcastic but arguably realistic response to NVT’s utterly misplaced industrial jingoism. Needless to say NVT curtailed their advertising in the mag shortly afterwards.

THERE’S ONLY ONE THING WORSE than a bigot, and that’s a crazy bigot. I must therefore thank providence that my socially undesirable presence was not requested to attend NVT’s emotive press launch of their dinky little lightweights a couple of months back. Had I been a fly on the wall though, I gathered that l would’ve heard some quite alarming right wing patriotism coming from the sanctimonious lips of diverse Very Important Politicos.

Apart from the quite predictable demands that the government should of course make available umpteen million pounds to avert the awful disaster precipitated by those recalcitrant bounders at Meriden (The worker’s co-operative then running the factory – MW), there were some angry suggestions that imports of foreign (i.e. Japanese) bikes should be curbed in order to give our chaps a chance.

Whichever red-faced gentleman it was who made these remarks obviously needed a large helping of reality pie rather than the copious liquid refreshment that’d no doubt helped fuel his ill-informed outburst. And yet on the other hand it’s common knowledge the UK car industry has for some time been murmuring darkly about the supposed “dumping” of excess stocks of foreign cars here. Moreover the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) – a highly prestigious organisation, incidentally has been preparing secret reports on such evil practices and apparently recommends that some form of import restraint be imposed to safeguard the home industry.

But if selling off a surfeit of car production at unrealistically low cost is harming the British manufacturers in their own backyard, there is indeed a type of restraint that I might personally condone. And that’s selective taxation based on currency fluctuations and differentials which could bring imported car prices into line with their cost in their home markets – in which case Moskvichs and Skodas would probably double in price. (Moskvichs were rubbish Russian saloons that rusted even before they left the showroom, and East German Skodas at the time weren’t much better – MW).
However that, as the actress said to the professor, is rather an academic point. For in the car market we actually’ do have British products which compete, specification against specification, with foreign tinware. And if some eighty quid a week spot welder in Coventry is losing overtime because his East German colleague does the same thing for a third as much loot, then John Bull is inevitably going to start ranting and raving before you can whistle the Red Flag. But in the field of motorcycles we just don’t produce machinery that in any way competes with most of the Japanese or European ranges.

So slapping an embargo on imports would inevitably mean that if granny wanted a little pip-squeak to go shopping on she’d have to settle for a Norton Commando or a Triumph Trident (with pedals?). Unless of course NVT followed the example (example?) of the communist countries and resurrected its 20 year-old designs and tried selling them as everyman’s motorcycles at bargain basement prices. Fat chance.

Jeez, can you imagine what the car park at Brands would be like under such circumstances? Rows and rows of Norton Jubilees and Fanny-Bees plus the odd Commando owned by some minor dignitary. And the coughing and spluttering and bump-starting that would follow each meeting as the poor sods tried to leave for home

Forget for a moment that we have a tottering industry with a record of poor decision making that rivals even that that of Mr. A. Hitler. Forget that the newest designs produced by this industry rely on major components bought in from abroad. Forget if at all possible that virtually nothing new in the way of engine design has found its way into production in Britain during the past fifteen years. Now ask yourself if preventing the importation of foreign bikes would do any good for British industry or for motorcycling.

At NVT‘s July press binge Dennis Poore (Its then boss – MW) exhorted my brethren hacks to help his company by adopting a patriotic approach to the company and its problems. In a welter of emotive oration he asked us whether we wanted to see the Union Jack behind him flying proudly or lying as a shroud on the coffin of the British motorcycle industry. Heavy stuff, but hardly relevant.

The company may well have a few bold new designs – which I for one find both practical and attractive – but on the basis of their past performance and against a background of hysterical flag waving and blind patriotism, should we really put our faith in their ability to forge a bright new future for limey bikes?

Personally I think it’s too late. The only thing that would convince me of NVT‘s ability to cope with the future would be the employment of energetic, competent new blood in responsible positions where foresight could be appreciated and acted upon.

There is an unhealthy but increasingly prevalent tendency to blame outside sources for our present economic hassles. Sitting on our little island surrounded by what many people see as the communist and/or oriental threat to our trade and thence our lifestyle, there’s a temptation to entertain hastily contrived short term answers that won’t help anyone in the long run.

Supporting an ailing industry be it manufacturing motorcycles or mousetraps just ’cause it’s British and employs a fair number of British chaps, is like running a farm for lame ducks and wondering why only lame ducks hatch from the eggs they produce.

We’re wandering perilously close to Orwell’s vision of a country where only the Government has the power and the money to keep the people employed, clothed and fed. Such absolute power corrupts absolutely, no matter how nice a guy that dear Mr Wilson might be. And although letting NVT go to the wall would be a sad day for motorcycling, if the alternative is another step toward state controlled everything, then I have mixed feelings about it. At the very least.

THE PRETENDERS STORM THE THRONE

WhichBike? – August 1987

I’ve never really been a fan of freeway cruisers, at least not ‘til I tested a Kawasaki Vulcan after I began writing for Bike again in 2015, but brazenly dismissing them out of hand – as was my wont and as follows – also allowed me to take a pop at Harley-Davidsons and those who buy ‘em, something I wouldn’t dare repeat nowadays.

Image: Hunt Emerson

SOMETHING ODD’S HAPPENING. PEOPLE are riding cruisers. Quite a lot of people are riding cruisers. And it seems by the end of the year, lots and lots and lots of people will be riding cruisers.

I don‘t know why this should be. Unless, that is, I act cynical (a difficult feat, as you’ll know) and hark back to the words of Mr Steve Kenward (then head of Heron-Suzuki and also the MotorCycle Association – MW) in last month’s Worldview UK. ‘Manufacturers have immense power to determine what the market buys,’ he said. ‘If they want everyone to buy 750cc race replicas, they can actually do that, and gear their profits accordingly.’

It was later during our conversation that Kenward let slip that he thought that ‘Custom bikes would be the next major trend’ in this country, but I didn’t put two-and-two together until much later. Three weeks later, in fact, when I happened to be cutting my usual stylish dash along the A23 and kept reaching traffic lights at the same time as some guy on a Kawasaki Vulcan. My excuse for not blasting past this ‘hideously ugly, tackily finished and overweight machine’ [© T. Isitt] (Our then mighty editor – MW) was that I was riding the ’67 Triumph Bonneville recently restored for our sister magazine, Motorcycle Enthusiast, which with a mere 32 miles on the clock, I was not about to do a Pee Wee Gleason on (Gleason was a famous and fearless American drag racer – MW).

After trading furtive glances as we drew up to the red lights a few times – you know how it goes – I leant over and asked him what he thought of it. ‘Not bad,’ he said. And as its incumbent pilot was of the full-face, baggy Rukka school of motorcycling elegance, and clearly not your closet Angel, my next question was, ‘So why d’you buy it?‘

Somewhat taken aback, he replied: ‘Because I like the look of it, and it was cheap.‘

Indeed.

Beguiling arguments, whichever way you look at them. Well of course the way I look at it is with mild amusement and a certain amount of disdain. Riding a poor pastiche of a Harley-D on the rain sudden, over-crowded roads of Blighty seems pretty daft to me, but then so do a lot of things considered normal by otherwise sane men. But personal foibles aside, is this the shape of trends to come, manipulated by the likes of Heron Suzuki or otherwise?

Hate to say it, but the signs are erring towards a definite ‘Go’ mode.

Consider first the impact of Harley-Davidson in this country. In recent years, Harley have footed an advertising budget that surely must be disproportionate to their eventual sales. But the net result is that their 1987 quota was sold out months ago. Alright, so that’s 130 bikes, but remember we‘re talking price tags that start at £4200 and rise to a heady £8000. (Happy days! – MW)

The only guy I know who actually owns a Harley is a big boy in the Hells Angel hierarchy, and although when I first met him many years ago he rode a chopped BSA 650, he now will barely acknowledge the existence of anything other than Milwaukee iron, much less contemplate riding it. Since my friend tends to subscribe to the ‘flsts-first’ school of social debate I haven’t really taken him to task on the impracticalities of owning a Harley in the UK even when, okay especially when we’ve been getting loaded together at the same bar. But the cost of spares, the contorted, cratered and congested nature of our roads and our inclement climate would certainly deter me from buying a Harley (but then of course my outlaw friend may not have actually, ahem,  bought his in the first place . . .)

Such considerations are in fact arguments for choosing a Harley clone – e.g. the Vulcans, Intruders and Viragos of this world – for though they ape the style of Milwaukee, they are Japanese bikes built for world markets rather than the straight, slow roads of a laid-back America. Harley-D’s advertising dismissively and relentlessly points out that these oriental pretenders are thus compromised by traditional American standards, but this hasn’t stopped the company quietly ‘civilising’ their own products in the meantime. Indeed it is some testimony to this process that enabled Harley to reclaim their lead in sales of machines over 850cc last year after a seven year hiatus.

However this is not something the Big Four are taking lightly. The latest generation of quasi Harleys, Kawasaki’s  1500cc Vulcan, Honda‘s 1100cc Shadow and Suzuki’s 1400cc intruder eschew Japan‘s previous policy of trying to make smaller, high tech and often multi-cylinder engined bikes look like big, slow cruisers. These new behemoths are big, slow cruisers whose tall 45/60° v-twin engines chug lazily along just like those of a Harley.

Perhaps the consequences of Japan’s head-on assault on the walls of Juneau Avenue are not yet discernible in Britain, but l’m fairly convinced that they soon will be. In the recent past, the Japs have tended to develop sportbikes for the world markets, and custom bikes for America, but faced with a contracting world market, they can no longer afford to develop any bike exclusively for America. So the process of dumping surplus inventory wherever a few extra sales can be picked up will not just accelerate, it will become the main platform of their marketing strategy. This means that instead of getting a few X8650 Customs, Honda Nighthawks and Kawasaki SR650s thrown at us a couple of years after they‘ve saturated the US of A, the new generation of custom bikes will start appearing in European showrooms within months of their American launch. At least that’s my interpretation of the facts as I see them and Steve Kenward’s comments as I heard them, but even if my eyes are coated with a constant film of jaundice and my ears contain built-in cynicism conditioners, there are precedents for this sort of thing.

For example, no one here demanded an endless slew of fake enduro bikes for us to ride solely on tarmacadam, Japan simply decided that they could sell more lightweights if they tarted them up that way. And if there is indeed an imminent invasion of chrome-laden cruisers for us to wallow around on, then many people who cut their motorcycling teeth on ugly little CM250s and SR250s or even, gawdhelpus, Fantic Motor Choppers, will positively wig-out when they get a chance to buy the real thing.

Ironically, however, if the ‘real things’ turn out to be relatively slow, simple, twin-cylinder four-strokes in conventionally-sprung chassis, then mainstream motorcycling will have stepped back from the brink of the high-tech, ‘speed-is-all’ overkill presaged by the GPX/VFR/ FZ sportbike faction. And that may be no bad thing for the future of motorcycling as a whole.

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JUSTIFIED JUNKETS

Bike – January 1977

Written after I’d been flown along with the so-called cream of European motorcycle scribblers to a press launch of several new Yamahas in Marrakech – most notably the XS750 triple and the XT500 – I couldn’t help but reflect on the new-found marketing awareness of the Big Four. In later years this would extend to even greater largesse flung at the m/cycle press which until recently was pretty much taken from granted but in these straightened times could soon become a thing of the past. I also resisted any mention of the availability (or otherwise) on the launch of the infamous (?) whacky-baccy that Morocco was then famous for.

In this month’s issue of this organ you’ll read an account of Yamaha’s lavish Moroccan press junket – that’s unless you only buy Bike for the pictures (and I am informed that such people do exist, most of them called Stomper, Skunk, Masher and own Tritons built almost entirely from parts stolen from breaker’s yards in obscure Midlands towns… but that’s another matter).

Well, depending on just how candid Mr. Editor Nicks’ report (the estimable Mike Nicks took over from me as the mag’s second editor, and still can be found scribbling for Classic Bike – MW) of this splendid exercise in public relations turned out to be, you will have some idea of the extraordinary lengths that Yamaha NV went to in order to impress jaded hacks such as l with the virtues of five brand new models. Actually that’s perhaps not quite accurate, for from observations made during those most enjoyable five days of over-indulgence, I once again came to the conclusion that not all motorcycle journalists are what I perfunctorily described as ‘jaded hacks’.

And there’s the rub.

You see, motorcyclists have always been regarded as the poor relations of those who own cars, not only by the government, police authorities and mass media, but also by the public relations world. Consequently those who produce newspapers and magazines for the motorcycling community have generally been treated in a far less professional manner than their colleagues in the four-wheeled press, certainly as far as public relations are concerned.

Friends of mine who write for car mags are forever nursing jet-lag in their Hampstead penthouses as they attempt to recover from six-days spent eating and drinking it up in Barbados to celebrate new interior trim options for the Autistic Allegro, before rattling off a few hundred words filched more or less verbatim from the press kit on the portable electric typewriter they were generously presented with as they left the specially chartered Concorde at Heathrow. Then a few days later they’re off to New York aboard the QE2 to familiarise themselves with the latest electric invalid carriage designed by Lord S*****n (Snowdon – MW) and specially tuned for handicap (ouch!) racing around the poop deck. But for us miserable sods who are responsible for chronicling and, indeed, to some extent fuelling the Great Motorcycling Boom from behind our creaking Olivettis, it’s a very different jar of tadpoles.

(Which puts me in mind of a certain rather well lubricated national newspaper correspondent attempting to explain the expression ‘pissed as a newt’ to certain equally well oiled Italian journalists one evening in Marrakech.)

The weekly press usually carry some hashed together ‘road impression’ of a new Japanese or Italian model from one of their foreign stringers, a month or two before the bike is due to be announced for UK sale. The companies responsible for importing these machines seem to assume (perhaps with some justification), that apart from a few 10 x 8in glossies and a duplicated press handout, such pre-availability publicity in the weeklies will generate sufficient public interest in their new whizz-bang to shift their entire import quota from the showroom floors once they finally arrive. Sure, there’s a road-test version or two available which we all wait patiently in turn to ride, our views on which invariably don’t appear until six months after the damn thing’s been on sale anyway, the vagaries of printing schedules being what they are. But I’ve always been under the distinct impression that except for a few favoured editors who’ve been in the business since 1909, the attitude of British importers (nee manufacturers) toward road-tests of new models has, at best, been one of grudging tolerance, and at worst, a means of getting as much mileage as possible (sic) out of bikes they use to do a certain amount of pre-Iaunch evaluation work on themselves anyway.

However, I am happy to report that Yamaha’s North African foray marks the end of that era.

For a start, all four Japanese marques are now imported by companies who have thoroughly revitalised management structures (and stricturesl), or in some cases by completely new companies, with a definitely improved sense of public-relations awareness. Suddenly the Japanese manufacturers have realised that Europe is their second biggest export market and that the UK represents just about the biggest slice of the continental cake. And all of a sudden it’s time to get serious!

BMW were the first to take the British motorcycle press seriously, as I’ve mentioned before in this column, and slowly but surely the other importers have followed their initiative. Condescending ‘wait-and-sees’ from overworked sales managers have slowly given way ‘would-you-like-to-come-and-tries’ from professional PR men, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Have you noticed Honda’s adverts in the Sunday colour supplements or their posters in the tube stations? Or Kawasaki dressing up their dealers showrooms like Barnum & Bailey? Or the abundance of Suzuki promo-flak that hits you every time you trundle into a Heron filling station for your three quid’s worth of four-star? Christ, even Jawa~CZ are advertising in the Daily Mirror.

Yes, what the British industry should’ve been doing in the ’sixties is finally happening, courtesy of some none-too-soon oriental inscrutability in the mid-seventies. And it was clearly a big treat for some of us sixty, count ’em, sixty, assorted pressmen who were flown into Marrakech by Yamaha to find ourselves the subject of so much attention.

Not that l pretend to be above all that sort I of thing. I’m as grateful as the next man for a free air-ticket and a magnum or two of Chateau Special Brew. But I have had the benefit of three years’ writing for the music press during which I went for whole weeks without eating, drinking or travelling at the expense of anyone but record and management companies. So whilst our Moroccan binge certainly didn’t leave me with any feelings of jaded complacency, I was able to judge it in a slightly different light to some of my compatriots. And in that light it was a very smart, smoothly executed piece of public relations.

But make no mistake, we are in for tough times ahead. The pound continues to plummet, foreign manufacturing costs and the prices of natural resources steadily escalate, and a lot of motorcycle dealers and smaller importers are riding what’s left of the boom on the backs of the Big Boys who’ve finally made it happen. Yamaha NV’s public relations bright-spark, Rod Gould (the notable ex-racer – MW) suggested to me that by the end of next year, there’s won’t be a haIf-way decent 750cc motorcycle on sale in Britain for less than £2,000, and he’ll probably be proved right.

Honda have already issued directives to their dealers to cease the price-cutting war. The new hierarchy at Mitsui (Yamaha’s UK importers) are about to seriously revise their dealer/spares network. Suzuki are already owned by an industrial group with its feet firmly planted in retailing and petrol sales. Kawasaki are selling motorcycles almost exclusively through solus-site dealers.

Once again I repeat myself, things are getting serious. And I for one am delighted. Not because it means more press junkets to exotic hot-spots, but because at long last the motorcycle press is being treated with some sort of respect by the motorcycle importers. And that’ll make my job a lot easier. Theirs too.

Finally, let’s go over to the Everything-You-Read-About-Them-in-the-Sunday-Papers-is-True Dept. I opened my copy the Daily Mirror this morning and nearly choked on my caviar and french toast as my eyes lit on the headline ‘Hell’s Angel girl is jailed for killing a cripple’. Yes, here’s an item for Stomper, Skunk and Masher at last, for 23 -year old mini-skirted Hell’s Angel momma Rita Stewart kicked a 30 year-old crippled hippie (had to be a hippie, natch) to the ground with her platform boots, then stabbed him thirteen times in front of an admiring gang of Hell‘s Angel onlookers.

Ah well as freeloading hacks jet to Morocco to ride expensive exotic motorcycles in the blazing sunshine the real world still goes happily about its business

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THE LAST RITES AND WRONGS

WhichBike? – May 1985

This was written immediately prior to turning WhichBike? – for a while the market leading ‘bike rag when I launched it in 1977 but since in steady decline – into the rather grandly titled MotorCycle International in 1985. Decidedly tongue-in-cheek it lampooned the whole schmear of self-important specialist journalism that was rampant at the time, which included of course, my own. I had fun with it though, as I hope you’ll see.

ENOUGH WITH THE MISTY-EYED NOSTALGIA! This may be the last issue of WhichBike? and although I wrassled the little bastard puking and whining into the world (and went through a similar routine with several of its subsequent editors), I’m not sorry to see it go. Neither am I smitten with sorrow at the departure of ‘Running Out Of Road’, a love hate indulgence I’ve fandangoed with for over a decade now. Truth is, I’ve had enough of the pretence, and although ‘truth’ is another word I’ve had a love/hate relationship with and for a lot longer than ten years, it’s about time I finally bared my soul to the world.

I do not want to stare the Grim Reaper in the face again. I take no comfort in the fact that cartwheeling through the air as £4000-worth of prime two-wheeled technology buries itself in the front wing of a Toyota Cressida qualifies me as macho-man of the month when I hobble down to the Duck & Ferret and trade tales of gore on the highway. And, most particularly of all, I am fed up with spending ten minutes decking myself out in the most ridiculous looking garb this side of a Space Shuttle pilot every time I plan to venture across town to argue with my bank manager, and 20 minutes dripping all over his carpet afterwards.

This does, I suppose, mean that I am slipping out of my responsibilities as a rough, tough motorcycle journo, a poet of the highway and all that garf. It means that come a whiff of damp on the mid-morning air as I breakfast on my usual lightly-boiled quails’ eggs, I will be searching for the keys to the Mercedes, rather than the Moto-Guzzi. It also means that instead of a rapidly declining pool of available females interested in braving the elements and unwinding 16 layers of extremely unattractive weather-wear before they can entice me with their frilly lingerie, I can take my pick of the numerous slinky sirens who sidle up to any chap in his mid-thirties who shakes a Martini at them, provided he’s walked into the El Sophistico Cocktail Lounge wearing Gucci loafers and an expansive, mysterious smile… rather than scuffed, baggy-at-the-knee leathers plastered all over with duct tape and Judas Priest patches.

Cartoon: Hunt Emerson

It is this ego-crazed narcissism that lies behind our – or rather – let’s be honest about this megalomania –  decision to lay WhichBike? to rest. And wlth it of course. Running Out Of Road.

RooR has actually been extinguished several times before, usually at the behest of editors embarrassed by public outcry, threatened by legal rumblings or simply unable to comprehend what I’m on about. And having been on both sides of the editorial slab, I can appreciate if not actually applaud their decisions. But the peculiar nature of column writing bears some explanation, especially at this time of great national sorrow. Like most people, well most people with massive egos, journalists invariably think that they know everything about everything. Responsibility for this impertinence lies in the fact of their constant exposure to ‘experts’ and ‘celebrities’ in their particular theatre of operations.

Unfortunately journalists erroneously assume that some of the expertise or talent of those they kneel at the throne of, gathering crumbs of wisdom, actually rubs off on them, thereby imbuing them with a licence to pontificate. And when you come across a journalist who operates in more than one arena, their sense of self-importance increases dramatically. So that with someone like moi who is a master of numerous literary cadres (motorcycling, cinema, aerospace, rockaboogie and international pornography to name but a few), the ‘pompous asshole factor’ assumes unbearable proportions. Unfortunately. it‘s that very affliction that compels multilateral wordsmiths to apply their overstated talents to column writing, basically on the assumption that since we know an awful lot about an awful lot, it is our gift to the world that we can gibber on randomly about them on a regular basis and never be short of material.

This self-deception, as well as being a flat-out lie, is also an iniquitous harbinger of bad journalism, which in turn undermines what few items of any import that might sneak through the columnist’s invariable slew of opinionated gibberish. In my own case, for every thoughtful exposé of injustice or inconsistency in the biking world, I must have composed five ill-considered, bile-ridden screeds of gonzo pap. Okay, so I’m mad enough to admit it, but I am also daft enough to explain that I actually like jumping aboard a stream of consciousness and letting the typewriter run away with it.

And there we have the final paradox. RooR may not be responsible, (or even readable) journalism, but it’s what I’m happiest doing. And the strain of trying to resolve these extremes is what lies behind editorial pronouncements, past and present, to kill the little bugger. But before we do this, for what I promise really will be the last time, I’d briefly like to answer a question I’ve been dodging virtually ever since I got involved with the whole sordid business of off-the-wall column writing, namely, are any of the experiences I’ve related actually true?

The answer is, of course, yes. And no. All the stuff about riding in an
irresponsible manner, my enfeebled body a‘swill with various dangerous substances is, of course; complete fabrication… whereas any references I may’ve made to hysterically taunting 18-stone, angeI-dust-crazed Hells Angels are of course true. What saddens me is that readers have concerned themselves with the veracity, or otherwise, of such behaviour at the expense of singularly more important matters, like bringing down the government that imposed helmet laws upon us, or investing massively in the future of the Iron Curtain’s motorcycle industry. (See, you forgot both of those).


So basically, you pays your money and you takes your choice…. and still you ignore the serious, responsible journalist that lies within.

And the second most frequent (and irritating) question I’ve been asked during my glittering career, is what exactly was my most memorable motorcycling experience (that wasn’t totally fabricated). No simple answer to that one, of course, but I think there are several, shall we say ‘incidents’ that qualify for near misses:

Running around Los Angeles on an all-black, beautifully semi-chopped Bonneville with a beautiful, semi-chopped transexual who divided her career between S & M whoring and fronting an art-rock combo… that was possibly one of the more bizarre episodes, especially when I had to go downtown and bail her out of the Slammer for doing 90 in a 30mph zone and the cops tried to arrest me for pimping (must’ve been the cherry red Harley I was riding at the time, a real wet-back chrome palace).

And in the same early ’eighties era, an adrenalin-gushing run up to

Laguna Seca for the Big Race will forever be etched on my mind. My riding companions were all hot-shot ’cycle journos, men to whom braking last and leaning furthest were a matter of serious reputation. We were all packing girlfriends in pillion, me on a CB750F, the rest on a variety of serious business including GSI000s and GPZs and as mile upon mile of the deserted but twisty valley pavement disappeared beneath our wheels, the pace got faster and faster, riders and pillions coalesced into single beings, and skidding rear ends  and lifting front wheels lost their breathtaking danger and became mere details in the ebb and flow of the chase. Now that 300 mile thrash was the stuff that nostalgia is made of – halcyon days that almost compensate for endless winters spent slithering through sodden city traffic jams.

But even closer to home, there have been Great Moments. Like back in the late ‘sixties, when Sunday afternoon sport meant racing from Islington with BSA and Triumph-mounted flat-mates, down to Earls Court tube station, where ticket machines would be utilised to prove who’d got back to base fastest. 22 minutes was the record I think, and nary an endorsement to show for it… ah, sweet mystery of youth.

But perhaps the most ominous tiptoe down memory lane takes me back to my first serious outing aboard my brand new BSA Victor Trail (a real man’s machine, ho-hum). The scene was mid-Wales, and so it was obviously pouring with rain, which equally obviously failed to deter a troupe of us from indulging in an impromptu enduro. Down the mountain-side we chased, onto a narrow gravel track when a cattle grid suddenly loomed large around a bend. Muggins here takes it at an angle, and on the lean, and whoops-a’go-go, it’s time for hand-stands. Result: Monday morning I walk into my first day at a new job, both hands and wrists swathed in plaster, and no typing or ‘biking in prospect for the next few weeks. Nothing too dreadful about that you might think, except that the new job was producing the first issue of something called Bike magazine, which in turn ushered in the whole era of irresponsible journalism and column-ising that I’m now trying to knock on the head.

Well if that little incident didn’t quite teach me the danger of running out of road, the awesome responsibilities of magazine ownership certainly have. As you’ll see next month!

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LEARNING. THE GAME.

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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HOW WET CAN YOU GET?

WhichBike? – May 1982

Image: Hunt Emerson

Returning to a favourite theme of mine which though just as relevant today,  would also be pilloried by what passes for the current biking establishment, and I seriously doubt whether any magazine editor would now risk publishing such subversive, irresponsible suggestions – even if they might personally embrace them. That said, my reactions these days aren’t quite what they used to be so the years of riding dangerously are all but behind me… though not entirely.

Despite the impervious calm of my facade and the steely resolve of my inner self, I cannot help but occasionally succumb to a sigh of disappointment. How much longer, I ask myself, can I remain a lone beacon of common sense and unblemished virtue, beaming out into a world gone apeshit? 

I have tried, Lord knows I’ve tried, to bring a little reason to the pit of vipers you and I know as the world of motorcycling, but Hugh Palin still refuses to stand down and let my sturdy hand rest on the Motorcycle Association’s tiller of destiny (Palin, ex-boss of Norton Villiers was its then president – MW)still Mitsui Machinery Sales (Original UK Yamaha importers – MW) deny me a stipend to finance the valuable work I’ve done for them out on the ragged, uncharted fringes of product research during the past twelve, somewhat erratic years, (a word applied, rather unkindly I think, to my riding style)… and still I wait in vain for importers’ invitations to join a lot of other tired and emotional hacks wobbling round the sun-kissed race tracks of the world on cunningly tuned examples of their newest models (if only to endow these occasions with an aura of quiet authority)… and still I have not been offered the editorship of The Biker, the most respected organ in motorcycle publishing: everybody else has, why not me?. (This was launched with much fanfare by the mighty IPC org, which was crap and faded fast – MW)

So it sometimes seems as though the pioneering ­– some might even say missionary-work that I do is all for naught. I was grimly reminded of this when perusing a clutch of Which Bike? back issues the other day, and happened upon my column in the November ’79 edition. ‘The Death Of The Fast Rider’, as it was called, and in my usual gently humorous fashion (I find it preserves the health of my kneecaps if I keep the barbs a little on the blunt side) I bemoaned the lack of spirited young blades with whom I could dice with death on the Queen’s highways.

Having now more or less repatriated myself with the mother country, I am rather miffed that my rallying cry to ostentatious behaviour on two wheels has been largely ignored during my year’s absence. Even on that ill-tuned runt of a BMW you may have read my ‘test’ of in the last issue, I failed to draw any brightly leathered GS750 or KZl000 pilots into combat for an impromptu traffic lights grand prix, a race they’d have absolutely no trouble winning. What were they scared off for gawdsakes… an R45?! 

I can’t really accept that the bikers of Britain have all turned into a bunch of nancy boys, and my only conclusion remains that their pacifist attitudes evidences a lack of know-how. rather than a lack of willingness. This is a suspicion confirmed every time I peek round the door of a bike repair shop

and eyeball row after row of smacked-up superbikes, all of them virtually brand new. Indeed, although few would admit it, especially those few who make whacking great profits importing them, the real reason why learners are being prevented from riding anything bigger than a Dinky toy is that most riders simply can’t handle all that power. 

So rather than limply mourn the dearth of derring-do, I’ve decided that I should actually apply myself to redressing the balance and offer the benefit of my – well let’s not be modest about it – my enormous skill and experience of balls-out riding. I’m therefore unveiling the Williams Elementary Traffic System (or WETS), which one might say is directed at people to whom the self-same abbreviation applies. One might also assume that the WETS is the rather more macho companion to the ambiguously titled little morsel that appeared in the last issue, ‘How To Stop Falling Off’. 

The first thing that WETS teaches you is that you don’t have to own a bloody great UJM to get the job done well. I have seen chaps pulling perfectly respectable wheelies up Camden High Street on GT250s, for example. However, since WETS-work involves high-speed, stop-start riding it’s clear that good brakes, spirited mid– and low–range torque and fair-to-decent handling are all mandatory. Kawasaki’s GPz550 and Honda’s CB650 obviously spring to mind, but my personal predilection is for something a little funkier… something those despatch riders will bitterly remember when you dump all over them on the Westway… something to put the fear of the devil into Bob and Doris as you force them into an uncontrollable wiggle on the Gold Wing en route to Brighton. Yes gentlemen, we’re talking Kawasaki triples, and the bigger and smokier the better!

Firstly you’ve got to equip it for serious street racing. You don’t want to brandish your illegality at the Old Bill too strongly, do you? So be wary of bolt-on expansion chambers unless they’re easy on the ears. Consider hi–comp pistons, and hotter carbs if you must, but my own priorities are for slinky clutch action, stiff suspension and gearing that’s low enough to whisk you out of trouble when you’ve got a Cortina-full of angry neanderthals chasing you. 

Nice, sticky Pirellis or Michelins are a comforting, if not essential, adjunct to manic swervery, but loud horns and a quartz headlamp are far more important. The biggest problem, you see, is that most of the jerks on the roads today are really half asleep, even some of .the ones who ride bikes, so it’s advisable to advertise your progress with that immortal warning ‘I’M A-COMIN’ THROUGH’, by keeping your lights on and frequently leaning on the Fiamms. The reverse strategy applies to personal apparel: keep it dark and unobtrusive. You want to be remembered for your elegant riding tactics, not because you look like something out of Dr Who. Besides, if you are unlucky enough to lunch it, you don’t want to scuff your iridescent designer moto-x jeans, do you ducky?

And now for the manoeuvres that are elemental to WETS and the promotion of, um, creative roadcraft. 

A simple ploy to upset the turkeys at the traffic lights is to sit in between two rows of cars, about four or five cars’ lengths back. Just as the lights are about to change to green, you build the revs, ditch the clutch and scream up ahead. This’ll bug the hell out of any bikers who happen to be in line, too. 

Almost as effective is to stay even further back, watch the status of the lights at right angles to yours (assuming there are some, otherwise forget it), and scream up between the cars just as they are about to leave on the green, and then stop! The suddeness of your deceleration just as they’re about to get underway could very well cause a few dented bumpers… so don’t forget to smile. 

A shit-eating grin also comes in handy during the next trick, known as the Psyche-Out. In any given situation where you find yourself chasing the same slot in the traffic, or the same line into a corner, as a fellow motorcyclist it’s important to gain advantage in the most guileful way possible. Giving an impression of being out of control is useful. Prod the rear brake to induce a partial slide, ram down through the gears at high revs and deliberately shake your butt-end, make a lot of noise with your horn(s)… anything to throw his concentration. ‘Course you’ve got to be ready to correct whatever silliness

you’re feigning just as soon as you’ve got the upper hand, and that’s when you turn your head and show the pearlies. 

WETS even has a modern variation of the hoary old ‘tortoise and hare’ number – you know, the one where you spot some berk steaming up behind you in your rearview mirror, all mouth and trousers as it were, so you deliberately slow down, let him pass you, then drop a gear and overtake him with a loud belt on the audible warning device. The new twist requires you to drop a gear before he catches you up, and make it look and sound as though you’re really struggling to stay ahead of him. He will ride smugly by, congratulating himself on the wisdom of purchasing his elephantine Honda Turbo. He’ll also doubtless glance in his mirror to enjoy the look of humiliation on your face, and that’s when you start beeping your horn and pointing at his rear wheel. He slows down in a cold sweat of concern, and I’m sure you can imagine the rest.

Space limitations prevent me from continuing what I trust you’re finding a spiritually uplifting primer in the motorised martial arts. (Speaking of which, a well directed boot on the rear fender is an appropriate punishment for any old sod who gets a bit out of order with you on the road.) I’m sure I can count on at least one fair-minded, responsible body to help me defend my theories from the tirade of hysterical and ill-informed criticism that will almost inevitably follow in the wake of the WETS programme, and that is the Motorcycle Action Group (MAG were a frequent target of mine, espousing as they did some decidedly Dave Spart-ish notions and rallying cries. And if you don’t remember Private Eye’s Dave Spart, then you’re too young to get any of this nonsense – MW). Maybe after endorsing my suggestions, they’ll add a WETS-style jousting tournament to their next sober, well-organised rally in Whitehall. . . well it makes as much sense as anything else they’ve done so far. Or did you always think that MAG were a bunch of WETS?  

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NO FUN ANYMORE

August 1975

Written early in the era of the UJM, it’s true to say that things have changed a lot since then but for bikers of a certain age, e.g. ancient ones like me, there remains some residual, if tiny, pride in what was the British motorcycle industry and a sliver of hope that there might still be one again. But with the recent Norton debacle in mind and the fact that most Triumphs are built in Thailand that takes wishful thinking into the realms of fantasy. Ironically, the July issue of Bike magazine has a piece about the current manufacturing bases of once nationalistic marques like Benelli and Royal Enfield and asks does this now matter? Probably not to today’s few younger bikers, but it still doers to me.

IN THE MOTORCYCLE PRESS OF late, you may have noticed such weird-arse concoctions as flat-four Hondas and exotic European rotary-engined sickles with astronomical price tags.

Have such bizarre bolides caressed your imagination and whetted your appetite for a smattering of fact, or at least intriguingly writ rumour about these technological gizmos? Do you yearn for an inkling of the True Story if such there is behind such awesome ironmongery; a glimpse of the dedication and unfailing conviction of a small group of inspired and perhaps slightly eccentric chaps who burnt several gallons of midnight oil to get the thing onto the showroom floor?

Well if so, you can forget it.

For a long time now I’ve idly turned my thoughts to what makes a truly great piece of machinery, and it’s not just dependent on how many cylinders and camshafts a vehicle has bestowed upon it, or even the aesthetic impact of its visual appeal. Whilst both of these considerations may certainly contrive to carve out a niche in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame for any self-respecting supadupabike, there is still the little matter of legend to contend with.

Once, well before my time I hasten to add, the motorcycle world was full of such latter day exotica as Woolers, Scotts and radial-finned Guzzis with exposed flywheels. Very often the responsibility for the appearance of such machines in the exhibition hall, to say nothing of your local dealer’s window, rested in the hands of one or two rather gifted men. Some of these people, like Phil Irving for example, became contemporary legends: household words in the motor-cyclist’s vernacular. They were known, respected, and expected at any minute to spring some new masterpieces on a not wholly unsuspecting market. The motorcycle rags were full of their supposed plans – artists’ impressions of what the new so-and-so might look like and fuzzy photos of mysterious prototypes taken surreptitiously at misty morning practice sessions.

“Most of the new models mean as little to us as a newly announced brand of cat food.”

What all this loquacious balderdash is leading up to is a statement of blatant, probably unpalatable fact; there’s no mystery attached to the motorcycle industry any more. Or at least very little.

Most of the new models that appear before our eyes – usually in the form of a “show report” in the weekly motorcycle papers mean as little to us in human terms as a newly announced brand of cat food. It would certainly not surprise me if Suzuki presented a 12-cylinder five-stroke at the next Tokyo show. A picture of its perfect, gleaming, technically brilliant self would appear in the rags with a paragraph or two by way of PR puff and that would be that. No- one would be really surprised. Neither would anyone be totally distraught if the thing never actually appeared on our shores in the long run, because we have long since accepted, albeit subconsciously I suspect, that the responsibility for inventive wizardry in the cycle world rests with nameless corporate planners in some remote Oriental industrial combine.

As L] K Setright (Famed if eccentric fellow columnist and friend – MW) will be quick to point out, this in no way infers that technological barriers are not being pushed forward, but it seems to rob us Anglophiles of the excitement that motorcycle development once generated in the forties, fifties and early sixties. We’re out of touch with what’s happening; separated by differences in language, attitude and the scope of an industry ruled by ethics more akin to those of Detroit and Dearborn rather than Small Heath and Meriden. Which I find sad.

Were Britain’s bike builders thriving and developing new machines, rather than trying desperately to maintain our interest in hastily updated designs which are decades old, I’m sure our enthusiasm for new models when they were finally and officially announced would be greatly enhanced because it would be informed enthusiasm.

Personally I’m intrigued by the sort of “leaks” – some of them deliberate factory ploys to assess advance opinion – one sees in car magazines. Take, for instance, the slew of background stories and profiles surrounding Malcolm Bricklin and his astonishing “safety sports coupe” which are littered like holy grail in the US motoring press. (A failed forerunner of the failed DeLorean – ­ MW). The car is about to go into mass production with a panting, highly expectant market practically banging on his dealers’ doors.

Once again in this column I’m making analogies with the four-wheeled world, something I know aggravates quite a few readers who consider that this being a cycle mag, I should temper my language accordingly. Well see here gentlemen, much as I admire Japanese (and especially Italian) motorcycle design, I yearn for the day when some new, practical and above all exciting British bike hits the streets. But in the last few years what have we had?

Well there was the BSA/Triumph OHC 350, cancelled at the last minute for financial reasons. Then there was the KRM, now an unfinished project that’s up for grabs to the richest crank. And even the bold little Mickmar engine project seems to be taking an awful lot of time – and gearbox components? – to reach the market. The NVT rotary? Well I’ll believe it when I see one in the showrooms. (Had to eat my words here, or at least chew on ’em slightly – MW)

Somehow it seems that whatever hot scoops there are to be had in the two-wheeled world are only available to American magazines. It’s in them that we read about Benelli 6s and Kawasaki 750s months before they appear, and it’s in US publications that we get some sort of: coherent background gossip about these new scoots. It is because of the traditional hesitance, nay reticence, of British importers to light their fires in advance of new products, that we’re confronted with the latest Japanese offerings only when they hit the Quayside? Or is it simply that the powers that be in Japan regard the UK as a minor market not really worthy of serious press cultivation? I’d be interested to hear your comments, care of this office.

Image: Hunt Emerson

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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