Thanks to Covid there isn’t going to be an IoM TT again this year but harking back to the mid-70s when it was still just about in its glory days, I started thinking about what might’ve been, at least commercially, and this column warned that the sport’s governing bodies seemed to be missing a Big Trick, even then and indeed as now.
THE MOTORCYCLE BUSINESS IS SO full of anachronism and contradiction that it’s small wonder it hasn’t disappeared up its own posterior. We have ample evidence that biking is increasing in popularity each year, registrations of new machines soar every month and the breadth of two-wheel appeal is such that even unlikely cats like Lord Hesketh and ex-Deep Purple rockstars are investing time and money into the biz.
Next summer will probably see a really full-tilt motorcycling boom in which a much larger section of the public will become aware of the diverse pleasures and excitements of the two wheel trip. Unfortunately they probably won’t be able to go out and indulge this new found thrill on a brand new British motorcycle thanks to our foresighted government and the bright sparks of NVT (Norton Villiers Triumph – the last corporate gasp of the UK industry – MW). But no matter (he said, stifling a technicolour yawn).
But in one important area of motorcycling we British are still pretty damn good. And that’s road racing. Already such outfits as Motor Circuit Developments have elevated bike racing to the level of a spectacle for baptised bikers, if not for the public as a whole. All it requires is just one really charismatic event which has the potential to capture the imagination of the average man-in-the-street, and suddenly road racing could occupy the same sort of role in the public’s consciousness as football, horse racing or Raquel Welch. (Remember her? – MW)
I mean very few people are into rowing, for instance, but just about everyone follows the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, don’t they? And if anyone tried to legislate against rowing, you can bet your Y-fronts that there’d be a lot of public sympathy for the boys in the boats. It’s the nature of the event that captures people’s imagination and there are of course parallels that can be drawn in almost every sport that people bet money an,
Now in motorcycling we have a yearly event worthy of more public attention than the Cup Final, The Derby and the Horse of the Year Show all rolled into one, and yet almost everyone from journalists to sporting officials are trying to kill it. I’m talking about the Isle of Man TT, obviously.
Even if you hated motorcycles and the leather-jacketed clods who ride them, you could not fail to be drawn by the imagery and scope of the Isle of Man during TT week. I have taken people to the island who didn’t know the difference between a Benelli Six and a BSA Barracuda and they came away euphoric as much from the good-natured mania that grips the island as the racing itself. All of them were riding motorcycles within six months, too.
For whilst Agostini, Norrie Whyte (a gruff, veteran Motor Cycle News hack who loathed everything Bike stood for– MW), the ACU and the FIM concern themselves with the safety and status of the TT races, the majority of the people are attracted by the sheer outrageousness of motorcycle racing around 37 miles of varying terrain. Ask anyone who goes.
Now if the same incredibly efficient publicity machine that ground into action to publicise the recent Earls Court (Bike) Show (which attracted over 140,000 punters – MW) was given rein — and enough cash – to whip up public interest in the TT, then you can bet attendance and that all-important media coverage would increase by at least 50 per cent. And I ain’t kidding. See, the trouble with motorcycling in this country if it can be glibly put down to one single factor, is that the people who run its industry, its sport and its press are into motorcycling at the expense of most everything else. They find it hard to detach themselves from a closed reality that has something to do with an island mentality and a lot in common with 1950s cultural self-righteousness. The recent debate in the motorcycling press concerning the future of the TT races illustrates this only too well. Do we really want the TT races at a short, flat Silverstone circuit, even if it means world status and the return of superstars? Even if such a move attracted Linda Lovelace (notoriousstar of early porn movie, Deep Throat – MW) riding topless on a 16 cylinder Mercedes-engined Bantam, I doubt whether it would attract as much public interest as a properly promoted Isle of Man TT.
Yet it appears that the ACU and the FIM (and everyone else who obligingly follows the haughty edicts of these two bodies) object to the world status of the island races on the basis of safety, or rather lack of it. Well I ask you, is the Isle of Man circuit any more dangerous than Daytona? And does it really matter if it is?
No, I ain’t a vicarious sadist or a roller-ball (a barmy team sport involving violence on skates – MW) freak, but a good rider is a good rider and will deal with the problems better than a poor rider. The better able he is to deal with these problems – be they changes in road surfaces, a multitude of corners, or a split fuel tank – the more likely he is to win races. The point I’m trying to make is that even a real dynamite rider knows when his ability is being pushed to its limits. And if he can’t handle a situation he’s confronted with in any race, anywhere, then he has to slow down.
Only a fool rides beyond his limits, and who wants to see fools riding around the TT circuit? Does anyone care that much if lap times continue to diminish each year provided they’re seeing exciting competition between top class riders? The best riders would still win even if average speeds started dropping.
It’s certainly true that the TT circuit makes demands on a rider that no other track does, and for that reason alone it should reclaim its prestige as perhaps the ultimate challenge to a road race star’s ability (this title now seems to’ve been adopted by Daytona, aided, no doubt by the British motorcycle press in its role as a decreasingly patriotic blind sheep). Maybe more money should be spent on making the TT circuit safer. Maybe practice times should be doubled. Maybe the terry service is inadequate. But all the remedies necessary to make Isle of Man TT Week the giant spectacle it could become are now within the grasp of the motorcycle world as we stand poised on the threshold of a boom, It seems the whole status of the PP has deteriorated as a result of Giacomo Agostini moaning about its dangers five years ago. Before arrogant Ago copped-out there was hardly a word said about the event’s safety, or lack of it. Even if the sport’s governing bodies pander to the whims of a few petulant (and now fading) stars, should the rest of us miss out on what could be the motorcycling extravaganza of the year, every year?
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I think everything I wrote in this column was long ago vindicated by the demise of Hesketh and the dimming of David Essex’s star… talk about the Curse of Williams. But four decades later it also has a grim resonance when one thinks of the more recent departure of Norton…
“IT DON’T THINK ANY OF US SHOULD be too hard on the bike,” said Rodney Gould who, as an ex-world champion racer, could be forgiven for being tougher on a new competitor than most people. But Mr Gould and I were conversing amongst the elegant portals of Easton Neston, country seat of Lord Hesketh, where minutes earlier his business partner, Mike Hailwood, had helped unveil his Lordship’s much-vaunted 1000cc production roadster. It was this machine that was the subject of Gould’s verbal fingerwagging.
Red rag to a bull, of course.
Hah! Actually I’m all in favour of the Hesketh, or at least the idea of it. The 90degree vee-twin is a welcome alternative to serious European sports machinery produced by Laverda, Moto-Guzzi, BMW et al, but I’m afraid everybody is getting swept up in a welter of patriotic fervour when assessing its merits as either the salvation of the British bike industry (a glib hope applied with equanimity by the weekly comics (MCN and the long deceased MotorCycleWeekly – MW) every time NVT paints its Easy Riders a new colour or Meriden fit a revised exhaust system to the Bonnie), or more seriously, a viable opportunity for the average well-heeled Joe to own something better than a Suzuki, Kawasaki or Honda of similar capacity.
In his opening speech, the redoubtable Lord Hesketh emphasised that this was not a one-off fantasy to tempt the cheque book of some ingénue backer into turning it into an instant museum piece, but a pre-production model that was tried, tested and very much ready to roll once proper manufacturing facilities had been set up. This I do not doubt, but how sound is the concept of the Hesketh in marketing terms? Will anyone actually want to buy it on its stark qualities as a high performance motorcycle for the ‘eighties?
Well there are plenty of vee-twins available, some of them capable of propelling their owners at speeds marginally in excess of the 130mph suggested (though not, wisely, claimed) as being the Hesketh’s terminal velocity. Disregarding the market’s fatuous reliance on manufacturers’ and road-testers’ claimed top speeds as purchasing decision makers, I’m concerned by the fact that Hesketh claims this speed is achieved by 86bhp at 6,500rpm. The Ducati 900SS Desmo needs just 68bhp to go 140mph, and the Moto-Guzzi Le Mans II, 75bhp to hit around 130. Admittedly these machines are lighter and their engines have to rev higher to match or exceed the Hesketh’s top whack, but this only focuses attention on what I consider the most dubious aspect of the new bike’s highly exalted British-ness.
Firstly, the Hesketh’s specification is really little more sophisticated than that of the equivalent Laverda, BMW or Guzzi. A couple of extra gauges and a clever rear-end hardly make it more desirable than, say, the Guzzi with its linked braking system and shaftdrive. Laverda have a hydraulic clutch available and BMW have fairings and extra instruments. But this may be nit-picking when considered against the heart of the bike itself, the Weslake vee-twin.
Why is it necessary to endow an engine which peaks at only 6,500rpm and produces optimum torque 1,500 revs lower down with double-overhead cams? They absorb energy and add weight. Perhaps they also add sales-appeal, eh? And why does the engine run so slowly anyway, when other European manufacturers of big twins and triples have clearly proven that their engines can safely peak two or three thousand RPM higher? I hate, but am not afraid, to say this, but I fear the answer may be that the Weslake is an inherently unreliable engine, certainly their earlier motorcycle engines were notoriously failure-prone. And keeping the revs down and the torque up may’ve been an expedient compromise between performance, durability and once again, saleability.
One chap who’s actually ridden several prototypes admitted to me that Hesketh had to virtually re-build all the engines delivered to Easton Neston by Weslake because they were so, er, ill-fitting. Later he collared me and asked me not to publish what he’d told me, but I honestly think it would be irresponsible not to tell you that the Hesketh, whilst it might be an admirable project in numerous ways, may also be a flawed one. (Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of stick for this at the time – MW)
The finish on the engines also left something to be desired, especially the rev-counter drive housing which looked as though it had been machined up the morning of the launch. I also considered it vaguely suspicious that no engines were started whilst we were ogling the ironware. No rorty roar to further fire the patriotic pride was a distinct downer as far as I was concerned. (There were a few squeaks however, when Motor Cycle Weekly’s dapper hack, G. Sanderson, was refused entry to the lig ‘cause his paper had broken the shock-horror embargo by 24 hours. Anyone would’ve thought that Lord Hesketh was declaring home rule for Towcester and war on Japan instead of launching a machine that will probably capture nothing more than 0.00049% of the world market.)
It’s only occasionally that the motorcycle press en masse enjoys the unbridled largesse of Britain’s cultured minority, although in the hey-day of BMW’s efforts to up-grade the biking image some four years ago or so, we got to sup champagne, munch paté de foie and break out the kipper ties quite frequently. I was therefore amused to see so many of my peers (ouch) straightening their knots and desperately tying to regain lost ‘h’s in the company of some genuine motorcycling gentry, many of whom were actually paying for the extremely generous piss-up. Eventually the sight of so many forelocks being metaphorically tugged in unison depressed the crap out of me, not because of any misplaced sense of socialism, but rather that the whole spectacle promised unilateral, if not fawning approval of the Hesketh. I’ll repeat that I don’t wish to demean the fundamentally admirable aspects of the machine and the dedication and despatch which lie behind its appearance. I just hope that it doesn’t end up like another Silk or Quasar due, at least in part, to the myopic indulgence of the media and the trade.
Actually an even unkinder analogy would be the preposterous Silver Dream Racer which David Essex is currently pledging his all to at a cinema near you. ‘Pudgy Dave’, as we close friends and colleagues affectionately call him, encourages your sympathies as the penniless road-racer who via the most unlikely set of circumstances imaginable, manages to acquire a mysterious bolide capable of circuiting Brands Hatch considerably faster than the factory Suzuki of smart-arse World Championship contender Beau Bridges… who also looks far too corpulent to convincingly pilot a 140bhp motorcycle. Bridges has a nasty reputation for ungentlemanly (and occasionally homicidal) behaviour on the track and what appears to be an incestuous relationship with Christina Raines. Into this sordid menage a trois (i.e. Bridges, his ego and Ms Raines), the recently bereaved Essex unwittingly marches, full of derring-do and pints of lager. Aboard his shiny new steed and with a figure trimmed by a fortnight of jogging round a disused air-field in South Wales (N.B. the same location used in the forthcoming ‘Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ movie for Malcolm McLaren’s flight from the reality of his crumbling business empire… is this significant?), Master Essex can do little wrong, and indeed quite a lot of nights, (T-shirt rights, album rights, poster rights etc., etc.)
Naturally this lengthy flic wastes no opportunity in promoting Essex the musician — he wrote the totally disposable soundtrack and can also be heard warbling an equally unmemorable ballad at one point. There is also an extremely thin patina of “humour” pervading the dialogue, doubtless an attempt to divert the audience’s attention from the ludicrous plot and otherwise facile script. A teeny bop ‘Carry On Bike Racing’ would just about sum it up. Nevertheless ‘Silver Dream Racer’ has two redeeming features: the racing footage really captures much of the adrenalin edginess of throwing a_high-performance bike round a race track circuit; and the stereo soundtrack (if your local fleapit, is in a position to offer you such a thing) complements this element of the film magnificently.
In the end though, the Silver Dream Racer proves to be only fractionally more durable than its name suggests; a dream that quickly fades. Now what was I saying about the Hesketh?
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One of my perennial complaints about advances in motorcycle design providing more finicky technology than the average rider needs or can use featured here, and once again, in these days of traction control and lean-angle ABS it was as relevant then as it is now… possibly.
In the bad old days of bike journalism (and indeed Bike journalism), L J K Setright used to write a column called ‘Cog Swapping’ which most of us didn’t understand but few of us remained unimpressed by. (Setright was a marvellously eccentric but high erudite automotive journalist – also a real biker – who I’d previously admired in Car magazine from under whose wing, anoraks might recall, I launched Bike – MW). Leonard’s command of the English language was such that the determined reader could often only plough through his pieces if armed with a very substantial dictionary, and it was thus often the case that the subject matter got swamped by the syntax. But on matters technical – and ‘Cogswapping’ was after all supposed to be a technical column – Setright certainty knew his stuff, and if he didn’t it was inflamed with such extreme literary pyromania that few would dare contradict him. One technique that he repeatedly employed, and which consistently irked me, was to jump into a eulogy on some deeply obscure engine design, brake system or lubrication pump using the catch-all springboard of there being ‘nothing new under the sun’. An old trick and one beloved of motoring hacks of every stripe, but too often used when the writer has little wise or witty to say about matters of the moment. (And just in case you think you know what’s coming, you’re wrong…)
No, I merely mention this now because | was reminded of Setright’s technique, and indeed his loquacity, when | was struggling to come to terms with current motorcycle suspensions… and also because this column probably wouldn’t fill a page without a couple of largely irrelevant introductory paragraphs.
However, unlike Setright, I am not especially interested in plundering the history books in order to leaven the claims of modern motorcycle designers. The march of progress is in my opinion entirety healthy and any recent duplication of engineering solutions can only improve on the original thanks to better development and manufacturing techniques. Unless of course the march of progress is no more than a well orchestrated fox-trot, you know – two steps forward, two steps back.
Take suspension for instance ~ and you’d better take it ‘cause that’s all I got: The high performance sport bikes of the early ‘60s had all manner of acronyms emblazoned on their fork legs which basically added up to the fact that anti-dive control, adjustable pre-load, damping and even ‘heat compensation’ gizmos had been engineered into their front ends. In truth, much effort end ingenuity lay behind these devices, but it was equally true that derived as they were from race technology lots of them provided damn-ail benefit to the average road rider. Now we all know that racing does indeed improve the breed. But somewhere between Kenny Roberts and Joe Soap the best suspension system in the world had to be diluted for you or I rode around the Hammersmith roundabout with HRC forks legs on our VFR7SOF we’d probably come off the bugger anytime we applied the front brake in earnest. The trouble was that modifying these undoubtedly accomplished racing solutions for domestic use meant sacrificing one of a number of their original benefits, and the compromises that ensued left us with systems that were either ineffective, effective only at low operating temperatures (i.e. for a short while), or required the rider to execute a complex equation of dial and valve settings every time the road surfaces, vehicle load… or his mind changed.
It therefore comes as little surprise to me that these twiddly bits seem to be quietly disappearing from today’s new and revamped models. Two recently ridden examples illustrate my point: Suzuki’s new GSX1100F abandons the R-version’s anti-dive and air-valves, as does the older but equally impressive XJ900 Yamaha.
Taking the last first, the bike was originally launched in an all-singing, all-dancing display of high-tech hubris at the Suzuka Circuit in Japan. Well do I remember the po-faced claims that were made for the bike’s sophisticated suspension (this was before mono-lever rear ends had really caught on big-time, remember). And well do I also remember that whatever settings I dialled into the forks of my particular test bike, it still waddled on hard braking into corners.
Now, of course, the anti-dive !s no longer a feature of the XJ900, just as Suzuki have chosen to leave it off a brand new, high-performance tourer that from its price-tag alone, would suggest that such an accoutrement would be de rigeur. There are those cynics who’ve already suggested that such omissions are merely economic expediency in the current cold sales climate – and I’m indeed one of them. But in reality, I’m now asking myself are these bikes any the worse off without them?
The XJ900, tested in our next issue, is a fantastically accomplished machine at a bargain price (well at least by the current crazy standards), and I doubt if anti-dive – certainly not the original anti-dive – would improve its performance or my enjoyment of it? The Suzuki, on the other hand, could usefully benefit from a bit more compression and rebound damping, but that could be done far more easily and cheaply than by bunging on the company’s PDF.
These contentions were generated by jumping on and off an XJ900, a GSX1100F, a Norton Commando and a BMW K75S in fairly quick succession. Quite frankly the ancient but well refined Commando had the best balanced front suspension, inasmuch as it suited fast, every-day riding on average roads, although the other three bikes all offered more comfort (due to longer slider travel if nothing else). The K75 with its large damper fitted in just one of the fork legs, dives on braking only slightly more than the two Jap bikes but — and it’s a big but neither of them offered better roadholding.
The conclusion I draw from this is simple, and the analogy tortuous: There are many ways to skin a rabbit, but only one way to eat it – namely with your mouth. That is to say that the refinement of a simple idea is often preferable to complex innovation (and it’s certainly cheaper), and the effects are invariably lost on all but the most tutored or sophisticated palate. We are now seeing this with front suspension, just as we have recently witnessed a certain amount of retrogression in the boiler room with Honda all but dumping complex V-fours and quietly resurrecting the UJ-multi in the shape of their CBRs, whilst Ducati steadily tinker with their V-twins and come up with comparable output figures.
If this is the shape of things to come, then it’s no bad thing … but the techno-junkies that the Jap marketing men have turned us all into in the past decade will have to modify their perceptions of what technological improvement actually means in the real world. Or – and Leonard Setright was unbearably fond of chucking in obscure quotations to underline his point — we should take note of Lewis Mumford’s dictum, namely that, ‘For most people, progress means accepting what is new because it is New, and discarding what is old because it is Old’.
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I can fairly be accused of occasionally wandering off-topic with my columns, and this one was certainly near the edge. However it was all true and was the product of a much-needed holiday after four exhausting years starting up my own company, re-launching WhichBike? as MotorCycle International, acquiring Motorcycle Enthusiast and preparing to publish Used & Classic Bike Guide edited by the estimable Frank Westworth, mentioned herein and, extraordinarily, still a good friend.
The recent burst of activity in the upper echelons of the whacky world of motorbicycle organs might deceive a bored and lethargic public into thinking that the leisure hours of biking’s men of letters are spent in exotic climes aboard equally exotic motorcycles (or in MotorBicycle Preview‘s case exotic motorcars).
True, some of us are regularly eased into our skin-tight, freebie Kushitani leathers by simpering bimbos and the liberal application of Baby Oil, all in readiness for a quick thrash down to Juan Les Pins for a little foie de gras and a crate of Bollinger. And equally commonplace is the preponderance of ‘plane tickets that arrive on senior magazine editors’ desks in an effort to persuade them to hop off to Bali for a quick look at the Micronesian motorcycle industry and to be fascinatingly photographed on the beach in their shorts and smiles for the benefit of grateful readers back home.
Even a humble soul like Mr Editor Isitt spends three or four months a year working on his tan on a Greek Island or the East African Coast, but for a distressed mogul such as myself, time and the purse strings are tight, which is why the sum total of my exotic motorcycling activities this year looks like being a long weekend on a moped in the Balearics.
I tell you, there’s nothing more relaxing after a year piloting the leaky craft of destiny through the treacherous seas of high interest rates, disconsolate staff and uppity printers than wheezing along at 20mph on a freezing night aboard a 50cc Derbi enduro. Especially if your riding companion is a spotty 16-year-old who’s just taken great delight in leaving you miles behind on a bona fide moped, and so you’re now lost as well as cold and mildly stoned.
There’s not much streetlighting in Formentera and the only road of any substance on the island, although virtually straight as a die on the map, is in fact bedeviiled by sudden, vicious turns that are usually unsignposted. Which might not have been too bad if the Derbi’s headlamp had been anything more than pathetic and I’d been able to recognise the turning to San Francisco. (Honest. And to think that Big Frank was singing the praises of a dusty, two donkey hamlet on a Mediterranean island all these years).
The previous evening mine hostess had lurched us all off to the island’s only happening-acid-house-bullfight-disco bar in her topsy-turvey Tonka Toy (which for some reason bore stickers that read ‘Suzuki SJ410′), but as I was well shit-faced at that point I couldn’t remember the exact turning and all Spanish dirt roads look the same to me. So I took what I thought was the correct turning and, sure enough, there were a few houses either side of the track. Trouble was that the candlepower of the Derbi’s headlamp was roughly equivalent to its horsepower, i.e. next to damn-all, and the same goes for its suspension. So if you were a nocturnally grazing Balearic goat on December 30th last, the fool falling off the Derbi was me.
The previous morning we’d had a little trouble with the throttle which, I later surmised, probably had a knock-on effect on the engine’s unwillingness to pull in the gears and thus spin the dynamo (surely those things don’t have magnetos, and they certainly don’t have batteries?). The appalling bandit who’d hired out the moped and this grim apology for an enduro bike had neglected to secure the throttle cable with anything firmer than a small twig (I kid you not), which meant that the first time a red-blooded tarmac stripper such as myself grabbed a handful of go-gas, the twistgrip made like a yo-yo and the cable went AWOL.
After trucking the thing back to the shop in the ‘jeep’, a new(ish) cable was fitted which was clearly too long and, thanks to advanced Derbi engineering there was no means of adjusting the slack. I also suspected that the crankcase seals were also as sloppy as Joan Collins’, er, syntax due to the lack of air filter and the quality of Spanish petrol, a combination of maladies which resulted in the Derbi’s extreme reluctance to move in a forward direction unless propelled by foot.
Yet somehow when it was daylight and, unhindered by the blunt edge of alcohol, I was just pottering around the boondocks near our villa, this didn’t seem to matter too much. Whilst wheelies weren’t exactly a snap, I was able to regain at least a glimpse of my glorious youth and the thrilling exploits of the all-conquering WhichBike? Enduro Team… providing my spotty friend didn’t zip by on his single speed moped with a humiliating smirk on his dial.
In fact it was on one of these relaxed sorties that I discovered the true reason for the continued existence, if not buoyancy, of the Spanish motorcycle industry. No, this is not because the absence of mandatory helmet legislation and the most rudimentary of licensing requirements encourage all and sundry to take to two wheels, nor is it because the climate favours wind in hair, bugs in teeth etc., etc. The real reason is that Spanish ‘bikes are bloody awful, but bloody cheap. Which is why I found sundry dead Bultacos, Montessas and Ossas littered along the bay behind our holiday retreat.
Experienced, talented mechanics such as you and I would have been able to restore many of these 50-250cc ‘strokers to their vibrant, adrenalin-pumping glory with the mere application of a crowbar and 15 gallons of WD40 (salt spray is a ready hangman), but the laid-back Spanish obviously just leave their dead bikes under a bush or on the beach when they break down and walk back to town to buy another. I honestly can’t understand why else there would be so many of the things lying around the place… unless they’d all been hired from the same dealer who’d supplied the Derbi.
And if for any strange reason you should be reading this, Pedro, it wasn’t me that left it propping up a wail with the front wheel and a cunningly re-shaped set of forks; someone must’ve stolen it just as we were running for the ferry back to !biza, taxi drivers and civilisation. All I need now is a proper holiday so’s I can recover from this grim automotive experience: I reckon a couple of weeks spent camping around the picturesque Durham slag heaps on a CX500 should just about restore the bloom to my cheeks and the fire to my veins. Sounds like something I could blag through the Used & Classic Bike Guide... now where’s Frank Westworth’s phone number?
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Written over three decades ago (when RooR had become Lore inMotorCycle International) much here still applies today, which is why I decided to post it here. The only thing that’s really changed is that China has somewhat by default taken up the baton as far as entry-level bikes are concerned which is a bad or a good thing depending where your morals, politics and hopes for motorcycling’s future are concerned.
IN 1976, THE AVERAGE WAGE OF A 17-21 year-old man was £68 per week. That same year, the price of a state-of-the-art Japanese sport bike like Honda’s CB750 F1, was £1145. Something less exotic, the sort of 250cc machine a first-timer could slap a pair of L-plates on, say a Kawasaki KH250 or Suzuki GT250A, cost a mere £540 and £549 respectively. Ten years on, the apogee of hotsy-totsy motorcycling, Honda’s VFR750, will put you back £3649; that’s a rise of 218% in the retail price of Honda’s top 750.
For the poor beleagured learner, nervously assessing the cost, personal discomfort and legislative barriers that face him should he take up the unfashionable pursuit of motorbiking, a Kawasaki AR125LC will add £1389 to his parents’ overdraft, or a Suzuki RG125 Gamma, £1219. These rises in the retail price of decent learner tackle work out at 110% and 122% respectively.
And yet in what seems like a remarkably short decade, the average wage for our 17-21 year old has risen to £115, an increase of 69%.
So there, in a nutshell, is the reason why motorcycle sales have declined so horrendously | in the last few years. Well perhaps not all motorcycle sales. The modest, some would say comparitively agricultural, machines of the Eastern Bloc, have not suffered such grossly inflated price hikes. In 1976 a MZ TS150 Sports | would make you the laughing stock of your KH and GT mounted mates for a paltry £245. Today, the remarkably similar TS150 Eagle costs £407, a rise of just 66%. Even the prices of more prestigious machines from just this side of the Iron Curtain haven’t risen by anything like as much as the best that Japan is now peddling: BMW’s £4285 K100 costs ‘only’ 61% more than its 1976 superbike, the £2659 R1008.
And thus the fortunes of Britain’s MZ and BMW importers have prospered whilst almost all those around them have watched the dust settle on gaudy rocket-ships that remain rooted to their dealers floors. I find it extraordinary | that the Jap importers make no mention of this, either in the public prints or, as far as I know, to their masters back in Japan. The only serious discussion I ever managed on the subject was with Steve Hackett, then head PR honcho at Mitsui, who was espousing a fearful inevitability that the recently launched XJ900 would breach the psychologically critical £3000 threshold. That was in 1983, and he was bemoaning the irony that as Jap bikes had now overcome their reputation for being cheap and tinny, the punters were becoming less inclined to pay prices for them that approached those of the BMs and Laverdas that hitherto represented ‘quality’ engineering.
Certainly in terms of performance per pound, the Japanese sportsbikes are in fact a steal, but that argument only holds good when you’re talking vis a vis the automobile. It does indeed take in excess of £20,000 to buy the sort of 150mph-plus top whack that several sub £5000 motorcycles can deliver, but for your £20,000 you also get a roof, a heater, a stereo and, if you’re smart, an appreciating asset. Anyway this is entirely academic, as neither the megabike nor supercar owner is really able to exploit his machine’s bum-clenching performance to anywhere near its max on our crowded tarmacadam and, even more to the point, the few motorcar freaks who can afford a Maserati and also appreciate the primordial rush of high-edge motorcycling, probably already own a Ninja or a Bimota…
No, the real point here is whether or not motorcycle performance has increased in relative proportion to cost. Well let’s take what was arguably the swiftest machine of a decade ago, the Laverda Jota. Depending on gearing, here was a machine that could deliver a genuine 144mph and cost just £2100 in 1976. Today, the cheapest bike you can buy that’ll take you that fast on the Mistral Straight of your choice, is Honda’s VFR750, at £3649. A more sophisticated bike for sure, but does that make it worth an extra 74%, and would you be better off buying a used Jota for two grand and enjoying the pleasure of owning an appreciating classic that’s cheaper to maintain?
True, the GSX-Rs and FZs of today do actually handle a lot better and accelerate significantly quicker than the sportbikes of yore, but my contention is that by locking themselves into a ‘performance-is-all’ marketing battle, the Big Four are losing their grip on the fundamental realities of the marketplace. Realities which, again somewhat ironically, allowed them to trash the rest of the world’s manufacturers in the first place.
In 1970, when Honda shocked the world by launching an OHC, four cylinder 750, its obvious rival, the Triumph Trident, cost £614. The faster, more exotic CB750 cost just £690. Three years later, Kawasaki’s (admittedly evil handling) 500cc two-stroke triple rabbit-punched the opposition at just £725, by which time a Norton Commando was eking out its last at £824.
So all other considerations aside, was it any wonder that Japanese machines quickly outsold their European rivals on performance per pound alone? Of course not. And now we’re seeing (he Japanese pricing themselves out of a market they themselves created! Ten years ago the cost of buying a CB750 represented about 32% of a young man’s annual income, Today, the VFR750’s price tag represents a staggering 61% of that same punter’s hard earned dosh. And the cost of developing and marketing these high-profile projectiles is borne not just by the individual models themselves, but by the toy-boy 125cc versions first-time bikers are expected to pin their L-plates to. Plus, there’s the awesome and seemingly unstoppable ascent of the yen.
The differences between 1976 and 1986 are many, but none of them are good for the motorcycle trade. Unemployment amongst this prime 17-21 year-old motorcycle buying age group is higher, and if the Japs have got their marketing-driven manufacturing policies wrong (just like the Euro-manufacturers got it wrong 15 years ago), then there is no major motorcycle building nation waiting around the corner ready to exploit the situation.
Okay, the Italian industry totters on, primarily in the shape of Cagiva and Moto Guzzi, but these two companies are not interested in, or capable of profitably exporting anything but high-priced and largely uncompetitive machines which a few well-heeled folk buy purely for emotional reasons. And BMW, for their part, are just not interested in the sub-500cc, entry-level punter.
But if the Japanese have unwittingly gone upmarket at the expense of broader retail accessibility, then what the hell happens next? The spoiled brat/rich eccentric market is not bi – maybe 5000 units per year tops – and the cost of just reaching it, let alone expanding it by weaning fat wallets away from sailboats and microlights, is massive.
No, if the industry wants to win back a mass market for new motorcycles it should reduce the prices of entry-level bikes by a least 20%, sport-touring and all-round roadsters by 15-20%, and maybe push up the price of the exotic stuff by a similar amount.
And it’s no good the MCA big-wigs complaining that they are at the mercy of hard-nosed manufacturers far across the globe. Nor is there much sense in holding out the begging-bowl for a zillion pounds to mount a glitzy motorcyling PR campaign. You can make the bikes as attractive as hell, and imbue the business of riding them with all the add-on sex appeal and freedom fantasies that advertising bucks will buy (not that they’ve much of a track record in this department), but who’s going to be able to afford to buy these machines? Certainly not the financially strapped young men and women of Thatcher-land.
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This was one of my all-time favourite RooRs, although TBH it now seems particularly dated and obscure subject matter-wise. It follows the absolutely greatest ride of my life from LA up Highway 101 to Laguna Seca for the AMA Grand National with six fellow hacks, including some real pros not mentioned here to save their (and my) embarrassment. It’s actually a fairly accurate if not extensive account of what followed, even if it reads now like that of a (very) poor man’s Hunter S. Thompson who, of course, was my one of my journo heroes at the time and not averse to a little motorcycle madness himself.
NOW WHAT’S EXPECTED OF THIS columnist is the jug of pythons he leaves in the closet when at all possible, i.e., always. Recently, though, stern advice reached me that a by-line behoves me to stick unequivocally to the subject in hand, specifically delineated as nuts, bolts, pre-load ratings, gravel rash, DoT intransigence and the numerous pints of real ale that constitute the only fringe topic permitted by the serious motorbicycle journals. Not entirely unsympathetic to this concept of biking as an exclusive male enclave of locker-room hubris and techno talk… hey, it’s fun to revel in the camaraderie of shared Yamaha gearbox failures and late-night speed wobbles… I nevertheless find myself unable to reinforce and condone tunnel vision just ’cause the economy of Peterborough is founded on it. On the other hand, from my point of view as an embittered pauper, perhaps I should own up to H.G. Wells’s dictum, “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.”
Humbled into a state of grovelling compliance by a combination of H.G’s cheap wisdom and an intolerant bank manager, I recently decided to return to some real grime-under-the-nails, straight-ahead motorcycle hackery. No longer would I stand accused of effete badinage comprehensive only to BMW owners and LJK Setright: it’s time to Get Real. And the mainline to the motorcycling artery that I now aspired to was Laguna Seca Raceway and Round 16 of the AMA Grand National Championship in all its pomp, circumstances and, above all, meticulous detail.
There was genuine inspiration at work here. In fact, the minutiae of lap times and grid positions are soaked up by the newsprint of gaudy, monosyllabic tabloids world-wide, and regurgitating yesterday’s papers for the benefit of monthly readers seems positively redundant. Yet few race reporters appear to have the time, or perhaps the creative inclination, to meld intuition and sensitive enquiry into the sort of post-event analysis that really explains why a man wins or loses a race. Anyone who has ever gotten a bike running balls-out along a fast deserted road and found instructions flowing effortlessly, even subconsciously from the brain to the hands, feet and torso in a giddy adrenalin crescendo that frequently leads you, and leads you happily, to the precipice of real danger, anyone who’s squandered fear on the edge of that reckless adventure must know something of the stuff of which road-racers are made.
And surely that sliver of shared experience whets the appetite for more? In such obviously physical spectator sports as football, boxing and even bar-room indulgences like snooker or darts, cause and effect are self-evident skills, whereas high-roller motor sport insulates its protagonists from their audience with fences and leather cocoons and confusing equations of speed and distance. It was my intention at Laguna Seca to add a vivid dimension to the fleeting spectacle of the tarmac chase by reporting what these stocky young gladiators actually felt about what they were doing … what goes on in a skilled professional’s mind when he’s sliding toward the Big Lunch at 170 per… whether the parameters of usable power and inertia bear even the remotest similarity to those by which we judge our humble efforts in the & commuter jungle or the Sunday afternoon show-off… what a seizure at 14,000rpm feels like… how they take their breakfast cereal? Such dumb idealism on my part.
Not one, not two, but four card-carrying roadrace reporters would accompany me. Well, actually two full-time pros girt in freebie leathers with their monikers plastered ostentatiously all over, and two somewhat tardier items: Hodenfield (Chris, loyal pal, early Bike co-conspirator and a truly great rock journalist – MW) on a scurvy GS1000 with a balding rear Metzeler and credentials furnished by a ‘family’ paper back east (on the lookout for a gore story, no doubt); and Gordon (Paul, laconic 2-stroke addict and another razor-sharp scribbler – MW), acting on 11th hour orders from, if you can grasp such a concept, ‘Canada’s leading motorcycle publication’, riding a Suzy 550 unwisely lent him by the aforementioned pros who thought he might ‘gently’ run it in before they set to work on it at the drag-strip. There was also Gordon’s wife, a mean pixie on his hot-rodded RD350, and someone called Belle Starr (My then girlfriend, and a real trouper – amazingly we’re still pals– MW), whose overtures to become our official photographer were cruelly exposed as a peculiar fraud when she produced an Instamatic as the tool of her trade!
Me? Well as luck would have it, telexes chattered across oceans and a Honda 750F emerged rather astonishingly from the American importer. All I needed then were paddock passes, photography passes, entry permits, parking permits and a snappy nylon paddock jacket on which to pin all this garbage… Hell, if you’re going to mingle inconspicuously with these chumps and file a real authoritative story, might as well wear the uniform, right? Calls to race headquarters two days before the 350 mile trip there informed me that I should’ve made a written application three years earlier. The exigencies of fast-moving global journalism impressed my lady informant not one 1tota. More telexes rattled from Which Bike? Central. A last desperate cable flew off to the Monterey nerve centre, but no honey-toned press aide called to reassure me that I was persona grata. Winging it was the only option.
After a 300 mile ride and a night in what laughingly claimed to be “Hollister’s newest and finest motel’, I was rudely awoken by I5 Mexicans bump-starting an ageing Pontiac the size and colour of a Nissen hut… middle-aged leather-boys who’d sneered at our motley attire as we’d shivered in from the mountains the night before broke the grev dawn with their revving, barely silenced multis. It was time to Go Racing… But not before a 25 mile detour into Monterey where a woman with too much make-up and a face full of sandwich sullenly claimed she knew nothing about me, my editor’s telexes or the rudiments of civility. At Laguna itself, a man with a gun forbade me to enter the press office until I showed him a press card and Hodenfield, who was up early and smug as hell with more labels hanging off him than a Woolworth’s Christmas tree, somehow oozed sufficient authority to usher me into the office without suffering a merciless beating. Inside, things got worse. A woman who looked like a professional wrestler sneered at me from behind a thin moustache and told me that (a) the telexes and cables were too late and to no avail, and (b) A woman who looked like a professional wrestler sneered at me from behind a thin moustache curtly pointed out that my proffered press card was two months out of date. “I have come 7,000 miles to cover this race,” I lied, as calmly as possible, “‘and a lot of English people are going to be disappointed if they don’t read my report.”
I don’t know whether she saw through my preposterous act, or whether she hated men in general and English ones in particular. But when she shrugged her shoulders and told me I could pay my $30 and write my report in the public enclosure, I started yammering incoherently about professional facilities and international public relations and had to be restrained from violence by Gordon and Hodenfield.
We queued for Coors to cool us all down. Three straggle-haired beer-guts with mouths in their necks loudly out-grossed each other with claims about who had the most beers, blow-jobs and spliffs before getting out of bed in the morning. The race organisers congratulated each other on the PA system over what a wonderful job they were all doing, somehow expecting us to believe they’d ‘only just break even’ from the 40,000 tickets they’d sold. The only vantage point our little team could get in time for the first Superbike Heat was in a square yard of dust vaguely in sight of the infamous downhill chicane, which the riders hit at around 90 over the brow of a blind hill. Reaction to the first wave of gladiators spewing over the top on their street-based racers was mixed. A large woman with a bouffant continued knitting despite her husband’s admonishments. Our photographer decided to take snaps of the diverse headgear on display instead of Chuck Parme throwing away his big Kawa. Hodenfield snorted something about the superior line he would’ve taken through the chicane but I noticed the strange aroma of exotic cigarettes permeating from his direction. Personally, I felt tiny Wendy Epstein (One of America’s few really top class female road-racers who carried on racing, including at the IoM TT, until the mid-noughties – MW) was pushing her GS1100 harder through the turns than Hodenfield could ever manage, although the yawing of what was basically street suspension threatened to have her, and indeed many of the other riders, kissing tarmac. The fundamental difference between pro-stock and formula racing was just one of the burning questions I resolved to ask her when I could steal Hodenfield’s paddock pass.
Eddie Lawson, who looks like he belongs in the movies rather than in motorbike racing, dumped over everyone in both heats and the final of the Superbike and there were apparently mutterings in the Honda camp that his engine was rather more than race regulated when the stopwatch revealed he was lapping only four seconds slower than Freddie Spencer on the NR500. Belle, when not photographing millinery, was loudly rooting for second-place man Wes Cooley for reasons that only became apparent after I saw him surrounded by lissom blondes in the Suzuki/Yoshimura pit palace: another goddam pin-up. Just when I was mentally bemoaning the dearth of gnarled old stagers like Smart and Du Hamel, Dave Emde crashed on the last lap.
You cannot buy a writing implement at a race circuit, so as Gordon scrawled furiously on a notepad, I self-consciously muttered such details as I could ascertain from the PA system into a micro-cassette recorder… and cursed my professional predicament. While Hodentield ambled casually into the press office and interviewed Mamola and Freddie Spencer, I’m listening to some super-jock twerp extracting revealing gems from Wes Coolev: “Uh, yeah, well we ran a real good race ‘n’ I went fast as ah could, the bike wuz goin’ real well, but, uh, well, Lawson was faster.” Heavy stuff, Wes. But these, and infuriating gibberish about mum and dad’s help and how easy it was for the likes of Fred Merkel and Bob Cunnington, respectively first and second in Sunday’s novice race, to move from dirt to road-racing, were all the insights available. One jock told another jock what a great and experienced commentator he was. Opinions were aired as to whether Randy Mamola’’s motorhome was bigger than Kenny Roberts’. California Yamaha dealers were thanked a zillion times for selling tickets. No-one seemed to think we were very interested in the fact that Roberts was riding the 1980 Yam with the transverse, piston port motor, rather than the ’81 square four, or that the Suzuki RG500 Mamola eventually rode to victory in the Championship was also a year old and 30 pounds heavier than the factory’s latest models. Or why.
Fortunately, Belle produced a bottle of Jim Beam from her bag and I quickly numbed my irritation, just in time to receive Hodenfield’s paddock pass which allowed me to stumble round the rows of opulent caravans and suss this stuff out for myself. No economies in the Honda camp. Freddie’s NR had a shelf full of engines ready in case 20,000rpm proved too much (eat your heart out, Mick Grant, I thought), and the other Spencer, Mike, on the conventional four looked cocky. History, and your copy of MCN, will record that Roberts blew the first segment of the Grand National with a “wrong tyre command” and the second with a clutch. “It’s a little fragile,” he told the commentator with rare lucidity and candour. So what the hell is it doing on a hyper-performance racing bike when the World Championship’s at stake, then? Spencer was indecently quick and effortlessly stylish for a few laps, then lost power and dropped out. Randy Mamola and F. Spencer pulled like trains from much argued-over slots at the rear of the grid as did Roberts before he retired and provided the sharpest racing of the weekend, even though John Bettencourt pipped Spencer for fourth place on a neatly decked-out TZ750.
The second segment of the 33-lapper was clearly Mamola’s, with Cooley sitting in his third second position of the weekend, when I turned to watch Belle taking a snap of what looked like two junkies – an ashen-faced couple with suspicious bruises on their necks – sway towards the exit gate. I was thoroughly Beamed by this point on Sunday afternoon and I couldn’t stop irrationality from posing questions like, “Why do a pair of junkies turn up at this ultra-conservative celebration of all that is good, dangerous and American… and am I really here for any better reasons, however weird they might be?”
I decided that it was the right moment to filch a paddock pass again and confront Wendy Epstein with these matters… as one confused soul to another. I mean, precisely why was she out there being lapped by everyone and his brother on a streetbike in a Formula One heat? There might even be a profile for Honey or Spare Rib in it. “Hi Wendy. Exactly how much do you hate men?” That sort of approach would probably crack it.
Or not. At that point in my alcoholic line of reasoning, it occurred to me that reportage is probably best left to those who can deal with it; the weekly papers and their fast-fingered fact processors. I shall cease this dubious quest for insights and stick with what I’m most comfortable with – raging subjectivity – and to hell with conventional wisdom.
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By 1989 my monthly column had rather portentously become ‘Lore’, and this one appeared in the 50th issue of MotorCycle International, which I now published by very my own company and which I’d launched four year earlier from the ashes of WhichBike? It reads a little own-trumpet-blowingly, but may provide an insight to the state of the ‘bike magazine business at the time which in 2020 feels like a golden age!
It’s rather ironic that the masthead on our newly launched sister mag, Silver Machine, bears the Iegend ‘Lawyers. Guns and Money’ above my description as publisher. (SM was actually a re-worked version of the classic-oriented Motorcycle Enthusiast which I’d bought two years earlier – MW). Ironic, because although this was originally intended as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reflection on the life of an harassed magazine publisher, the last minute decision to pull Lore from the June issue had a great deal to do with all three.
I suppose I feel duty-bound to explain this abrupt display of blank paper to the thousands of bitterly disappointed readers who besieged their newsagents demanding refunds, but stem warnings from my lawyers, the precarious state of our overdraft and the threat of retaliatory action from the big guns of motorbike publishing sadly deter me from doing so. What I can offer by way of explanation does, however conveniently, dovetail with the primary thrust of this month’s epistle which, as you might expect, comes under the general reading of ‘Fifty Glorious Issues of MCi – An Old Man Remembers.‘
This ‘ageing hippy’ as Mr Editor (Tom) Isitt (And a great editor to boot – MW) wittily refers to me elsewhere in this issue is in fact a money-grubbing capitalist whose progress up the mountain of Mammon is unfortunately impeded by an irritating and apparently irreducibly idealistic streak. Unfortunately, and this is perhaps what lsitt was implying, my background in publishing was in something most of you are too young to recall, the ‘underground‘ or ‘alternative’ press. The advantages of this are mixed; a tendency to trust people and situations on face value but an equally strong tendency to react cynically, even angrily, when such people and situations betray that trust. In business terms this underground experience also leads to a rather wilful, ‘if it feels right, do it whatever the odds‘ attitude which needs to be tempered by a financial acumen if bankruptcy is to be avoided. Which is one of the reasons why those mags I worked on back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s courted closure on a monthly basis.
The point of this moisty-eyed nostalgia is that ironically enough, MotorCycle International wouldn’t exist were it not for traces of the ‘ageing hippy‘ ethic still curdling in my brain, but whether or not someone else would‘ve started up such a mag in the past five years is entirely debatable. A secondary consideration is that I have, for better or worse thrice broken the mould of ‘bike publishing in this country only to see other, more powerful and, it must be said, professional organisations plagiarise or adapt the new concepts flung gauntlet-style at them and make a great deal more money out of it than I have. Bitter? Damn right I‘m bitter and that bitterness lay behind my decision to become a publisher myself and turn Which Bike? into MCi.
If you need justification for this conceit, look back at Bike which championed choppers and a thinly veiled druggy lifestyle when the existing rags were still promulgating the cosy platitudes of the Barbour jacket generation. A few years later when ‘bike sales were actually booming and Bike had had its quite obvious effects on the rest of the motorbiking media (and Back Street Heroes was a twinkle in Steve Myatt’s eye), I launched Which Bike?, the antithesis of Bike (thus engendering much ridicule) but an honest attempt to reflect the fact that in a then bouyant market no-one was offering comprehensive, objective tests and information about the ironware on offer. The initially quarterly What Bike? emerged in its wake, as did buyers guides in various existing monthlies.
Launching MCi eventually gave one or two other people the idea that a motorcycle magazine that didn‘t pander to the then all-persuasive yob-ethic could actually work, so now we have MotorCycle Review and MotorCycle (& Workshop)… (Both satisfyingly shortlived, ho-ho-ho – MW)
No, I’m not going to pound my well worn soap-box on the subject of too many mags diluting the market and in turn weakening the motorcycle lobby, but I will say that it’s a bitch doing what you believe is something different and being emulated or even ripped off by those who have the resources to do it (or at least promote it) better. This observation was in part triggered by Mr lsitt’s request that I leaf back through Lore’s back pages for major gaffes that he might add to his own litany of dumb predictions catalogued elsewhere in this issue. Surprisingly – alright, smugly – I couldn’t find any of my grim portents that had ultimately proven to be nonsense. True some of them may yet prove to be so (that’s the beauty of sticking largely to long-term soothsaying), but most of my fears for the state of the market, the lot of the motorcyclist and anything else I’ve arrogantly chosen to pontificate upon, have been vindicated.
Indeed since much of this doom-mongering has turned into fact, I’ve spent numerous dark nights searching my soul as to the point of continuing the wearying, inevitably thankless task of publishing magazines that rely on a dwindling and seemingly ultimately extinct readership, especially when it’s so hard to make it pay.
And this is where we get to last month’s conspicuous lack of printing ink on page 88. June’s Lore was to’ve catalogued our experiences trying to promote and sell advertising space in Silver Machine. It you haven’t yet seen a copy, Silver Machine is another attempt at something new, namely to use the rocker ethic that I grew up with to unite those classic bike fans not obsessed by the ‘Originality is God’ syndrome together with a younger generation who aren’t buying the race– or Paris Dakar–replica schtick being parlayed to them by the bulk of the trade.
Perhaps because it’s finally dawned on a certain Big Publishing Company (EMAP, who owned Bike, MCN etc, in fact – MW) that M. Williams has started things they’ve later had to buy or transmute from existing organs, a sequence of events took place which made it impossible for Silver Machine to compete on equal terms not only with their own magazines, but with other independent titles. Conveniently orchestrated largely through third parties (E.g. magazine distributors and advertisers – MW), after we’d had enough internal problems getting the bugger to press anyway, my indignation at the behaviour of those concerned augured a particularly vitriolic diary of events which horrified our lawyers. Turning the whole thing into a satire amused them heartily (they said), but wasn’t sufficiently fictional at heart to pass the libel yardstick.
Where does that leave me, MCi and the collective ‘us’ who read the thing? Well after fifty issues, we’re still up against a government seemingly determined to eliminate motorcycling as we know and love it, a trade largely frightened and confused in how it should respond, and a publishing empire who by their very might dominate the bulk of the few remaining in advertisers how it should it respond, and a publishing empire who by their very might dominate the budgets of the few remaining big advertisers who invariably see numbers rather than quality of readership as their primary raison d’etre but do very little to champion or protect the longer term interests of their customers. As long as I remain as its owner however, MCi will continue to offer a more rounded, committed and hopefully intelligent overview and the opportunity to advertise to the readers that actually buy their motorcycles that the trade admits are its salvation. That was the original aim of the magazine, which at the time was cautiously approved (if not always supported) by the trade and almost universally derided by our competitors.
Like any haIf-way decent mag, MCi has grown and changed organically: the design has matured without losing both its concision and that aIl-important ability to excite the imagination, sections like Despatches and Beyond the Orient have come and gone due both to reader response (or lack of it!) and editorial subjectivity, and most significantly perhaps, our gamble to go ‘perfect bound’ and drop the Used Bike Buyers Guide in order to free-up more pages to features (and give our other sister rag, Used & Classic Bike Guide, a reason for being!) actually paid off circulation-wise. And the changes will doubtless continue…
‘It’ll last no more than two months,’ sneered the editor of Bike when MCi first appeared. Since then our circulation has risen, Bike‘s has fallen dramatically. and he’s no longer editing any magazine.
Yup, whilst I can afford to be proud, I can’t deny that I’m ‘ageing’, but in the increasingly tough and nasty times we live in, I think I may have to get that ‘hippy’ streak surgically removed…
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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…
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.
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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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.
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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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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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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