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Bike – January 1981

In late 1980 I returned to California where I ended up living for a year or so, working for a small, punky record label and writing for Motorcyclist magazine, the latter a real eye-opener about how a big bucks, ultra-professional bike magazine operated and one of the best times of my life. I also began stepping out with Carlo Olsen, a brilliant singer-songwriter who inadvertently was the agent of my near misfortune mentioned below. And after launching, editing then leaving but still scribbling for WhichBike?, I changed my allegiances back to Bike after a little unpleasantness in the legal department. All part of life’s rich tapestry…

Cartoon: Hunt Emerson

I DON’T KNOW WHERE IT CAME from, but sometime between July and November there must’ve been a moment of eloquent perception amid all the blurred, mordant bumbling . . . (you’ve heard of the Prisoner of Zenda, well I was the Prisoner of Smirnoff) . . . ’cause writ biggish 0n the backside of a Woolworth’s jotter was the following:

“When the reality of the limelight exposes itself for the harsh glare of egotism that it is, then we are all out of business. Until then, temper your svelte commercialism with some naked, no-nonsense WRITING.”

And I’d underlined the last word three times for good measure. Quite why this stirring homily should be sitting on the back of the pad in the first place defies any logical explanation. It’s the kind of smart-arse, cornflake-packet prose that a couple of friends of mine sometimes commit to a postcard study of the Statue of Liberty dressed up in suspenders and bra that they buy by the gross on 42nd Street and send out, apparently as an example of their great wit, to commemorate public holidays. I collect these cards just so’s I can humiliate them when next we collide over canapes, but a quick check of the back catalogue failed to unearth the culprit. So if I hadn’t copied it from a slightly greater intellect than mine, it must’ve been an original.

Immediately I took it as A Sign. And what do you do when fate throws a wobbler at you? You ring Mr Calderwood (David, then Bike’s editor – MW) and brown nose your way back onto the pay-roll, that’s what.

Bloody cosmic experience, pal.

(None of this cosy preamble explains how I plummeted from a glittering career with Another Motorcycle Magazine (WhichBike?, obviously – MW) which the more indiscriminate of you might occasionally be embarrassed into buying when the newsagent catches you spending quarter-of-an-hour leafing through Fiesta. If slavering at other’s misfortunes is your particular bent, I’ll reward further enquiries with no more detail than the fact that I foolishly and suddenly found myself in a dilemma from which any escape route was paved with shit.

Some time between then and now it seemed prudent to once again consider starting out afresh in the colonies, where a man with a shady past can hold his head up high and bullshit like crazy about his reasons for emigrating. Since this inevitably meant Los Angeles where, for a brief and glorious moment a small business interest of mine (Record production – MW) looked like accomplishing the impossible and making some money, it with equal inevitability meant I had to buy a motorcycle.

Now buying a motorcycle in California is not like going down to Alf’s Bike Shop in Hackney and having your ear bent by some smart-alec in a kipper tie who thinks he can strap you up with three years HP on a one owner XS750 just ’cause you’re impressed by the fact that it don’t leak oil. No, you go by Marina Del Rey Harley-Davidson where a midget could get lost in the shag-pile and these glistening pig-iron sculptures gracefully rotate on floodlit plinths in a calculated attempt to make you come in your pants if you haven’t already given the ‘enquiry agent’ who looks like a tall Robert Redford in $500-worth of Gucci leathers your credit card.

Except that I was in the market for a secondhand item, and respectable Yank motorcyclists treat used machinery with a disdain you and I normally reserve for the Nazi who presides in 10 Downing Street. It’s almost impossible to even find a dealer who sells secondhand bikes, especially when new ones are so ludicrously cheap, e.g. a CX500 for less than £850. So what you do if you’re the poorest kid on the block and can’t stick the sneers of your peers is run through the classifieds and hope for salvation.

What I actually had 1n mind was a well preserved Triumph, one of those rebuilt every year jobs ridden only on alternate Sundays by an ageing meat-packing executive from Laurel Canyon: $800 and an excrutiating half hour of moisty-eyed reminiscences with the reluctant donor. No way was I going to get that lucky, but then a funny thing happened to me on the way back from Santa Barbara one night.

Muggins here offers to drive the girlfriend’s motor back from Santa B, 150 miles up the coast, after her band (the Textones, a precursor of the Go-Go’s – MW) finished a gig there. Like it’ s 3a.m. and her Mustang is weaving all over the freeway thanks to an excess of sleeping passengers, a total lack of shock absorbers and the dozy condition of yours truly. So I pull into some isolated truck stop and it’s full of all the nastiest caricatures of fat, double-knit clad middle America that you could imagine. These people are gross, very drunk and so right wing that they make Ronald Reagan seem like a flower child.

Anyway, I decide that a glimpse of the bleary-eyed lady guitarist who is still in her rather risque stage clothes is all they’ re going to get, especially after hearing beery mutterings about faggots and weirdos as I leave the men’s room. So we take our coffee and blueberry pie outside to eat, and I start nosing around the gas station in an effort to stir the brain cells. Which is where I see this . . . thing.

Now only in America would you find a CBX with street plates and a damn great Goodyear slick on the back. Only in America would some pump jockey put himself in hock for a supercharger, a racing tank, seat and S&W suspension kit for a bike that’s potentially lethal even in bog-stock form. But here it was, garish in red and oil-smudged yellow with a Krober tacho, 5-inch headlamp and enough metal scraped off the footrests and crash-bar (no sense in tempting providence) to convince even the most casual observer that this machine was for Serious Behaviour only.

Cartoon: Hunt Emerson

The old man in the kiosk eyed me with a caution born of years of serving gas to acid crazed hot-rodders and potential child molesters – you see that look a lot in all-night America – but he eventually revealed that the day mechanic was selling it and for a figure I couldn’t believe: $2,000. I didn’t have $2,000 to friitter away on a certain death-trap but I absolutely had to have that bike. I said I’d be back in the morning to do business, and my girl said she now realised that my craziness was no longer a rumour tactlessly leaked by mutual friends.

After a few hours of sleepless argument, I truculently returned With a few hundred dollar’s by way of a deposit and a shameful promlse of my (ex-?) ladyfriend’s mint Rlckenbecker 12-string (just like the one Lennon used on ‘Ticket To Ride’, a preposterous rarity) as surety until I got the rest of the loot.

“The boy’s out on a breakdown,” said the matron who’d replaced the old chap at the till. “He said you could start it up while he was away. That’s if you have a mind to. ”

Do bears shit in the wood?

After much connecting of wires and heaving and cursing with the thing, a pall of viscous black smoke accompanied by the loudest, most unhealthy noise you’ve ever heard coming from any engine, rent the parking lot. I was visibly shaking. With fear. Fortunately the engine’s state of tune was so evil that it almost immediately cut out and I saw my friend mouthing the word ‘NO’ and locking her guitar in the trunk. This seemed a sad and demoralising gesture. Didn’t she appreciate that I was an experienced and highly qualified pilot of mega performance. I was about to use the back of my hand to reason with her when a breakdown truck tooled into the station.

“Here’s your boy,” muttered the old lady, who had the slight smirk of a know-all on her face. Well what a surprise when the old boy from the previous night got out from behind the Wheel: a closet boy-racer, eh?

And then from the other door another figure appeared, a figure with a plaster cast on his left arm, stitches all over his bruised face and some nasty plastic device encasing the lower half of his right leg . . .

Which has a lot to do with the reason I didn’t buy a bike in America and am stuck here behind a typewriter hoping I can earn enough money to buy a new set of chrome for the Jota before next spring. (There wasn’t much chrome on a Jota, but what there was soon turned to rust – MW)

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WHY DON’T THEY DO IT IN THE ROAD?

WhichBike? October 1982

Paraphrasing the Beatles’ song title, this was a fairly coruscating if tongue-in-cheek tilt at the Motorcycle Action Group some of whose members had taken pops at me over the years for what they saw as my mealy-mouthed equivocation in supporting their efforts to champion our collective cause. Truth was that because of behaviours recalled in this column, I felt that the Forces of Darkness could never take MAG entirely seriously and therefore neither could I. Decades later I will however say that whilst MAG became a much cuddlier outfit – all Xmas Toy Runs and summer barbies – motorcycling now needs a really effective, rider-led organisation to represent our constantly threatened interests, and that we sorely lack.

Cartoon by Hunt Emerson

Since their early days when we used get hysterical manifestos advocating protests that only just stopped short of bombing the Houses of Parliament, the Motorcycle Action Group have always aroused my suspicion. The concept of politicised biker organisation working at grassroots level is, of course, an admirable one, but their antics so frequent border on the comic that I find it hard to take MAG seriously.

On more than one occasion I’ve dragged myself out of a hangover and stumbled down the street to Whitehall to one of their demos, (I used to live in nearby Pimlico – MW) nobly intending to offer my support but soon changing my involvement to that of a mere observer when I saw what was going on. Cowering on the pavement with a gaggle of confused and rather frightened tourists, I witnessed a spectacle which could well have been the St. Albans Amateur Dramatic Society‘s production of ‘The Wild Angels’ (A Peter Fonda-led biker gang B-movie that pre-dated Easy Rider – MW)

A motley horde of lashed-up British twins, decrepit old Japanese ‘strokers and a smattering of big, open-mega fours, cruised down towards Trafalgar Square, their riders and passengers whooping with delight and wearing shit-eating grins: anyone would think that they were a bunch of schoolkids who‘d just got away scot-free after raiding the local sweet shop. Such displays of sniggering hubris were occasioned, as you can probably guess, from the fact that they were riding through the nation‘s capital without helmets.

From the loud exhortations of the ruddy-faced, Dennis Howard (who looked like he‘d just rode in bearing despatches from Ypres on a military BSA M20), you could have been forgiven for thinking that this small act of laddish defiance was a mighty blow for freedom and that any minute now the walls of the temple were going to fall and God himself was going to ride out in a Palma sidecar, towed by an immaculate 600cc Panther, with the body of a dead transport minister lying prostrate in his arms.

Since those early demos I’ve steered clear of MAG’s activities, preferring more subtle forms of protest like putting LSD in reservoirs and blowing up post boxes. My prejudices are of course reinforced whenever I read a report like that of MAG’s Croydon demo of August 2nd. Participants in this valiant enterprise were evidently surprised and outraged that the local Old Bill moved in and started booking helmetless riders almost as soon as they hit the road. Keen supporters of individual liberty like Paul Harvey of the Prowlers M/cycle Club even wrote to the ‘papers expressing indignation that after being issued a ticket they had to “stand there and watch the rest of those ‘bikers ride by with their lids on” which apparently “made them sick”. The italics are mine, the warped grip on reality Mr. Harvey‘s. And he was doubtless echoing the sentiments of a lot of other MAG members when he went on to write: “And to the MAG National Committee I say let’s organise a demo through the reps and don’t tell the law. Let them find out when we turn up on the roads.”

A wicked little gremlin inside me prompts me to suggest that Harvey & Co are only scraping the surface: Why not go the whole hog? Arm everybody to the teeth with sawn-off shotguns and military sabres, dose them all up with a lethal mixture of pure speed and shark tranquiliser and ride through Brent Cross Shopping Centre on a Saturday morning, murdering bank clerks and drinking their blood. That would show the buggers you meant business.

But I digress. Much of the legislation suffered by bikers during the past decade may certainly be specious, but blaming the police for enforcing it is a waste of energy: MAG’s efforts should be aimed wholeheartedly at Parliament. Organising a continuous barrage of petitions and letter-writing campaigns to MP’s would eventually have an attritional effect on our elected representatives far greater than any bunch of yobbos riding around lidless. But if the idea of such activities sends a shudder of dismay through the ranks of MAG members who consider letter-writing boring (if not congenitally impossible), then I have the antidote: re-constitute the more aggressive arm of MAG in the guise of Motorcyclists Against Gravel.

The renewed formation of MAG would give bikers a chance to do something really practical for the cause of our freedom and safety, especially in the late summer and autumn. This is the season when county councils in many of Britain‘s rural areas start re-gritting their roads. From recent experience wrestling with a flying dustbin of a full-dress BMW R80 RT, I can assure those of you who are confined to motorways and city streets that loose gravel is a major problem of our time… even more so than the grim portent of a right-hand Sidecar ban (Yes, that actually was a government proposal – MW).

There is nothing more unsettling than tooling gaily along a twisty country lane, even one you thought you knew quite well and finding a wall-to-wall patch of loose gravel appearing without warning. Actually I lie there is something more unsettling than that, and that‘s finding twelve yards of freshly deposited faeces courtesy of the local pony trekkers. And even worse than that is a positively murderous combination of loose gravel and horseshit.

I‘m sitting watching the rain drown any hope of an Indian summer here in the Welsh mountains, and still shaking from my trip back from the Dog & Cess-Pit last night. If I hadn‘t braced myself with seven pints of Ferkins’ Olde Thunderer (a brew so obscure that not even the redoubtable alcoholics on Berk magazine have written it up), I don’t think I could’ve controlled the snarling German beast as it grappled unsuccessfully with the gravel and horse manure. With another two days of serious socialising ahead of me, I fear that there’s little chance of getting the BM back to its importers without a severe case of gravel rash.

So what I’m suggesting is that the born-again MAG should stop frigging about with urban police forces and come on down to the country. Armed with buckets and spades, they could usefully spend their time in healthy surroundings shovelling shit (instead of talking it) and gathering gravel (instead of metaphorically throwing it at the establishment). If they disdain the use of helmets so much, they could pretend that they were at the seaside (although an absence of mods to beat up might disappoint them), and use them to mould sandcastles. Better still, they could sneak up to the local pony-trekking stables and tie their Kangols and Stadiums (Ancient brands of open-face helmets – MW) halfway up the ponytails, thereby providing onboard equestrian potties.

lf Motorcyclists Against Gravel felt that such tasks were demeaning to them, they could still provide a useful service by picketing the local gravel pits, or  lobbying for legislation that required all horse-riders to he followed down the road by a man with a bucket and spade… or if they wanted to get really cute, force horses to wear crash helmets

Anything to keep the crap off the streets.

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EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

It’s perversely gratifying that since I started posting my old columns here back in June, several hundred of you have been reading them each week. It’s also become clear to me as I delved into my extremely varied – and in qualitative terms, variable – back catalogue that many of the topics are as relevant now as they were when I originally scribbled them. Such matters as the failure of our parliamentary servant/masters to recognise the needs of bikers and conversely, our trade associations ability or willingness to challenge them are but two examples, and my constant carping about importers and manufacturers – not that we really have any British bike builders left – who fail to fully understand or cater to the real needs of the markets they’re supposed to serve have been familiar themes over the decades and they are still hand-wringingly pertinent even as, indeed especially as our numbers and new recruits to the fold are dwindling.

Cartoon by Hunt Emerson

However what many of you who’ve signed up to these blogs – and if you haven’t, why the hell not? – may not know, is that although due to the wisdom of their editors (and company lawyers) my columns in mainstream bikey mags have long since disappeared, I managed to persuade the odd classic bike or off-road mag editor to publish my rants in the early and mid-noughties, albeit tailored to suit their particular constituencies. But even they stemmed my streams of consciousness after a while when they realised that the space they accorded me could be better filled by features or, better still, advertisers (whose numbers were also dwindling), but at least one, even more specialist title has bravely continued to put up with me this past couple of decades, namely Motorcycle Trader.

As you’d expect, this is a mag aimed exclusively at those retailers, importers and suppliers who make up the once again declining biking business and so most of my columns, under the guise of ‘End User’, which nominally I still am, are designed or at least supposed to have relevance to those at the sharp end but as often as not they are thinly disguised tirades reflecting the same concerns I’ve always had, albeit often tinged with what I try and pass off as humour.

However with the advent of the Corona virus back in March, Trader stopped publishing its controlled circulation print edition and now exists solely as a website with daily bulletins spewed out to its subscribers, with no budget for, and arguably no point in publishing the random ramblings of a cantankerous old hack like yrs. trly. I’m told by the dear friends, and they are dear friends, who run Trader that this may change if, as and when Covid-19 allows them to resume operations accordingly, but for the past half year or so really I’ve missed using my poisoned quill to address truly topical matters so I’ve decided to intersperse the re-publication of ancient outbursts here with brand new ones, and what you’ve just read – assuming you didn’t fall asleep first – is by way of a preface to this…

It has of course been a summer of discontent biking-wise, with lockdown preventing us law-abiding bikers (ho-ho-ho) from doing much serious two-wheeled traveling until July, just when the weather turned nasty after a pretty clement spring and early summer, but since we were released from bumbling Boris’ grip, I’ve tried to get out and about quite a bit on both my K75S Beemer and my custom Honda VT500 street-tracker.

Where I currently live in mid-Wales we’re blessed with some of the least trafficked and most scenic roads in the UK, but these are in too many cases bedevilled by shockingly inadequate maintenance which becomes downright dangerous for those of us who hurtle round corners to be confronted by large, deep potholes, crumbling grooves and other surface degradations. I’ve written about this in Trader and indeed in non-motorcycle media locally and taken it up with local councils, needless to say to no avail that’s best characterised by buck-passing, e.g. well Westminster’s council budget cuts mean there’s no money for road maintenance, and in any case maintenance is farmed out to contractors whose profit motives incline them to ignore pot-holes in favour of occasionally and more lucratively re-surfacing a few hundred yards of main road that really don’t need it.

That said, and with no little irony, those of us – including me – who’ve had damage caused to our vehicles due to third world road conditions, can and do sue for consequent repair costs which councils are legally bound to cough up, and it’s always worth registering complaints about potholes etc. on such websites as www.fixmystreet.com  or  whacking off an email to info@highwaysengland.co.uk, and your local council’s website will have a link to the relevant department even if they’ll take no notice of your complaints unless and until you and your mates get really vociferous about them.

I mention this because during recent longer excursions on the Queens’ Highway I’ve noticed a change in biker behaviour which, if I’m being generous about it, might be a consequence of prudent caution concerning road surfaces. Take, for example, a recent blast along the A44 to Aberystwyth and thence down the coast towards Fishguard. This is a v. popular route for weekend warriors from the Midlands, hence me going on a Tuesday during which I was somewhat dismayed to find clumps of bikers on far more modern and flasher machinery than my 29 year-old flying brick dutifully sitting at 45–50mph behind trucks or slow-coach pensioners when a determined twist of the wrist would have them, as indeed it had me, hurtling past onto open road.

Given that the A44 is a well-surfaced main trunk road, I realised that my charitable pothole-avoidance excuse was irrelevant so can I can assume that the younger generation – if such those bikers were – are becoming far more risk averse than mine was, or am I still unwisely chancing it even at my ripe old age?

Ooops, but I already covered this in Bike way back in October 1975 under the title The Right To Ride… Dangerously, and reproduced here back in June this year. So everything old is new again, eh?

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WHAT’S WRONG WITH SEAT OF THE PANTS ROADTESTING?

WhichBike? March 1982

I originally titled this ‘In Defence of Trousers’ but that was deemed a bit too obscure for WB? readers… and maybe the then staff themselves. So naturally essence of sour grapes influence this column – freelancers, as I then was, being rather low of the pecking order when it comes to testing state-of-the-art megabikes. The slightly tart editorial disclaimer at the end of my otherwise restrained and carefully considered prose was, however, rather uncalled for! And testing-wise, IMHO things haven’t changed that much since 1982

Another of Hunt Emerson’s brill cartoons, repro’d here in blue as the B&W one had a crease down the middle

THE ABSURD BATTLE CURRENTLY being waged by motorcycle magazines for the title of Most Respected/Authoritative/Pompous Organ is probably as baffling to you as it is irksome to me. In the interests of mental health, I will therefore try and put it into perspective.

Let us first of all go back to the Olden Days, when editors were merely content to try and make theirs the “best” magazine – a task they soon tired of – and for not entirely implausible reasons: What is the “best”? How do you establish the quintessential qualities of a journal that panders to crude sexism, loud behaviour and the worship of mobile ironmongery?

Well, Superbike (a long and arguably well-dead mag – MW) for example, figured that tits-a-go-go were a recipe for success. Motorcycle & (let’s not forget) Scooter Mechanics (ditto – MW) rightly assumed that a lot of oily oiks would rather see pix of stripped Dominator gearboxes than those of naked female flesh. Bike, for which I must shamefully bear a measure of guilt, encouraged lawlessness and beer-guts from the cosy confines of a Peterborough prefab. And Motorcycle Sport (see above – MW) rode blissfully along in a time-warp and made frequent editorial allusions to the imprisonment and subsequent torture of anyone who owned a Japanese bike and/or had not yet reached the age of 72, etc, etc, etc.

Did that make any one of them the ‘best”? Of course not. But staffs and publishers acted as though they were all sitting comfortably on the pinnacle of excellence until, that is, a few years ago when certain unimaginative media corporations, suffering from a lamentable lemming mentality, found it de rigueur to launch a bike mag. It was then that lofty practices like “market research” and “readership profiling” began usurping a publishing psychology that had hitherto relied largely on the slurred bigotry bandied about in lounge bars on the Isle Of Man.

Something called New Motorcycling Monthly really threw a spanner in the woodpile by publishing a page of test data illustrated by an extraordinary melange of coloured hieroglyphics, comprehensible only to those with a BSc in Maths. This was supposed to outsmart the opposition at a stroke, as it had for some reason dawned on their publishers that Hard Facts were what gave a magazine credibility, and credibility got you readers. Because it came from one of the two stables that were then enjoying a virtual duopoly in motorcycle mag publishing, NMM’s fancy test read-outs were achieved at the Motor Industry Research Association’s facilities in Warwickshire, to which the two

large publishing combines had access. This was supposed to lend even more kudos to the whole scam.

What everyone was losing sight of at this point was that, although an accurate list of mechanical and performance detail is all very nice, these are only relative to the abilities of the hack in charge. Rule One of Reading Motorcycle Magazines is that you should never overestimate the intelligence or sobriety of biking journalists. Any idiot can copy out a factory specification or ring up a chap in the importer’s service department to find out how many links there are on a Hy-vo chain.

Likewise, there is no embargo on electronic timing gear, and the punctilious despot in the green eye-shade – that’s an editor to you and me,
sunshine – who trumpets membership of MIRA as if he were Moses holding up the Ten Commandments, is only kidding himself.

A quick bash round MIRA’s test track will certainly yield a set of figures that are indisputably accurate. But it also stands to reason that a light, experienced and quick-witted rider is going to coax higher speeds out of a fully run-in machine than some tubby novice plucked from the Wisbech Weekly Globe and planted on a brand new 1100cc Turbo-Macho a month earlier. All that’s happened since the quest for accuracy and detail became fashionable is that the various rags are trying to better each other’s figures, all of which result from the same equipment and the same circuit.

“Yeah, well we got three more mph and seven more mpg out of the bugger than Maniacs, which should get us some more advertising,” is roughly how these types think. But it seems rather bizarre to me that readers will swap from one magazine to another just because of more outrageous performance figures. The smart-Alec approach never won me over (possibly because I’m not very smart), and most of these so-called competitors are owned by one of two publishing companies anyway, so what the heck?

From a certain amount of experience in the field, I firmly believe that the average reader doesn’t give a tuppenny toss for the outright accuracy of test figures. What he likes to see are claims at least as unlikely as those he’ll make to his pals at the Pig & Trough (“Course my XS250 does an ’undred’n’five”), plus racy accounts of how various machines recreate Randy Mamola’s last win the moment you open the throttle. Any titbits concerning the pulling power and superior status the damn things offers are a useful bonus.

On a (slightly) more serious note, the pressures on magazine staff to fill an issue every week or month clearly affect the veracity of the test reports you read. Importers with test fleets limited by the size of the UK market are under intense pressure to get as much publicity for a new machine as possible, whilst also trying to satisfy the demands of editors who want the bike before, and for longer than, the others. In America, where there’s a larger overall market and fewer magazines, I’ve been offered brand new bikes for five times as long as I have here, with the opportunity of a full engine strip down by factory personnel for photographic and information purposes. Is it any wonder that the Yank mags appear more knowledge able and better-looking than most of their British peers?

What with the weather, the frequent executive meetings in the pub, reduced staffing levels due to the editor being flown to the Rio De Janeiro Playboy Club for the launch of an important new inner tube, and the fact that the receptionist from WhichBike? just trashed the XL500, it’s even less surprising that half the “exhaustive evaluations” you think you’re reading were in fact done on the basis of a two-hour schlep between Chiswick and Cambridgeshire in the driving rain.

The importers know this, of course, but since they’re the main perpetrators of this ludicrous merry-go-round they rarely complain about inaccuracy or padding. They only react when a writer slams a particular bike in a display of negative bias, but even then the tendency is for subtle punitive measures in the guise of cancelled advertising or demotion in the test-bike pecking order. The only man who ever gave me a hard time about technical or performance inaccuracies was the irascible ex-Laverda importer, Roger Slater, and quite rightly, too, under the circumstances. But now he’s long gone, and most of the concessionaires are too busy selling lawnmowers, chain saws and an ever expanding range of bikes to be overly concerned about what’s written… unless it’s outright offensive.

Which is why I’ll knock it on the head right now, before a tiny Scottish advertising person has a heart attack. (An obvious reference to WB?’s excellent if feisty then ad. man – MW).

The fact that WhichBike? is now a fully paid-up member of MIRA in order to allow its staffers (other than Mark Williams)  total freedom to blast around on fast bikes without forever being bothered by the law is, of course completely immaterial to the foregoing – Ed.

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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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