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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Classic Motorcycle Mechanics – Oct 2003

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

Before there were 125s, we rode 250s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WhichBike? – May 1982

Image: Hunt Emerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 1975

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

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

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

Well if so, you can forget it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Hunt Emerson


Bike – August 1975

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Hunt Emerson

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well . . . or do I mean “ah so”?

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Bike – October 1975

This was written whilst recovering from only my second – and amazingly, my last – road accident which I covered with untypical reticence, possibly because it happened on the ride home from a small but rather wonderful rock festival run by the hippie entrepreneurs behind what became known the infamous Operation Julie, whose chemical largesse I was possibly still under the influence of at the time

As someone who is currently hobbling around with the aid of a walking stick, perhaps I’m not the best person to address you on the subject of high speed motorcycling. In fact I’m so full of painkillers at the moment that I’m not the best person to address you on anything that requires even a modicum of coherency.

However, the minimal demands of gonzo journalism being what they are, l have just been pointed in the direction of a typewriter and the reading public will doubtless thrill to the printed word which eventually transpires. Just as well they don’ t pay me for this stuff.

Anyway it was in my mind before I smacked up my leg against the side of
that goddam Datsun that I would pass a few comments about the joys, and otherwise of fuII-tiIt road-riding. It’s been my fortune in the past few weeks to spend a lot of time piloting fast motorcycles through our green and pleasant land, In fact I guess I’d been averaging about five hundred miles or so a week. Some of this was aboard Davick’s BeneIIi Sei demonstrator and the rest of it behind the threshing handlebars of my XS-2 – but don’t expect any sharp comments about these two very different boIides ’cause you’ve had a bellyful of them in recent issues, ain’cha? No, what I want to discuss is the low state of the driving art in this country and the effects it had on yrs. truly.

‘Course you gotta remember that this was high summer and the Austin Maxi and caravan brigade were out in force, especially In Wales where a lot of this lunacy took place. I suppose that old Doc Gilbert (the then Transport Minister – MW) would hardly warm to the idea of legislating these crawling bozos off the road, but to my mind they’re far more dangerous than any sixteen year-old on a road-going TZ250.

Well anyway the predominance of caravan-induced traffic jams in Wales this summer really was a hazard to a biker’s mental health. On some of the twistier roads a tailback of twenty or more vehicles could often be seen lying tamely in the wake of a slow moving marshmallow on wheels. After several bouts of not very skilful coffin cheating I developed a nifty way of zapping past tiresome wagon-trains as they crawled round the Z-bends: headlamp on, finger on the horn, Iowish gear and lots of engine noise. They either think it’s a rozzer or a lunatic and most of them are so dozy that they pull well into the kerb (if such there be) and/or grind to a halt – by which time you’re past with a grin and, if you choose, an anti-social display of digits.

The trouble is that one gets a bit blasé about using such devices to maintain a respectable average speed. After a while you find yourself flashing headlamps and sitting on the horn as you zap through even the sleepiest Welsh village at 90mph and all this at midnight. In fact an acquaintance of mine with more experience of this sort of outlandish riding (and the scars to prove it) advises those really serious about such things to wash a tube of Pro-Plus (or something less legal) down with a couple of high powered lagers before embarking on one’s trip, but I would never condone such practices. Oh no.

Stimulants would in fact have done little to exaggerate the already crazed cranium of your scribe after a fortnight’s highway weirdness at the hands of the motoring public. It got so bad after one cross-country trip from Wales to Peterborough (the Cleveland, Ohio, of England), that I started swearing at an innocent young petrol pumper when he raced over to gas up some asshole in an XJ6 who’d given me a bit of trouble earlier on, although I was into the place a good three minutes earlier. It wasn’t quite Sonny Barger stuff but it wasn’t Enid Blyton either, and I realised at that point that rider-mania had got me. Got me over the top, no less.

Rider-mania is quite simply not knowing when to stop. For some redundant and usually quite absurd reason you find yourself astride a motorcycle at 9.30am following a session of alcohol abuse that lasted well into the night. The sun is already beaming a good 75ºF onto the world with a promise of much more to come and you know – you just know – that there’s gonna be madness afoot once you hit the Queen’s highway. And your purpose then becomes to get to wherever in hell you’re going very, very quickly. None of that bullshit about drinking in the scenery or adhering to the inane speed limits, you’re going to get out on that tarmac and Ride with a capital ’R’. Suddenly you feel tight, and ready to go.

And then you find yourself riding at sustained high speeds for hours on end. And the longer the mania grips you, the higher those speeds get and the greater your capacity becomes for cutting up other road users and generally being obnoxious.

On the big Yamaha there was a quite discernible threshold above which all my reason went into the garbage can. (Actually that’s a fairly low threshold even when I’m not on a bike, but no matter). Since I put those ridiculously loud exhaust fitments (the word muffler would be a factual travesty) on the bike I’ve had trouble with the jetting and hunted high and low for oversize needle jets. Finally ace Yam sparesmen, Messrs. Damerells of St. Austell (yes, St. Austell in Cornwall) came up with a pair, and also the elusive gearbox bearing for my DTl (not a main bearing, as erroneously stated two months back to the annoyance of Yarn dealers throughout the world). But until that arrived I had a nasty flat spot around 4500 which made it hard to get above 70mph. Only by dropping a cog and winding it way above five grand before going back into top could I really get to boogie. But once I’d got there it was a pain in the ass to go back down again. Still, it took a week before I had the nerve to stay with the high revs come hell or high water… just had to hang on and tell the judge that all those Hillman Minx drivers religiously pootling along at 50 were to blame.

At this point I should relate how I really came to be a cripple, since it wasn’t actually my fault at all. Ahem, I was taking it very easy around a blind corner I happen to know as a bit of a bummer, when upon reaching its apex I espied a red Datsun slowly doing a U-turn across the entire main road – which was a  clearway incidentally. Very amusing. I went to cut in behind him but he froze when he saw me, thereby leaving me no room to pass. Stamping on the anchors failed to save me from a hefty smack-up courtesy of his rear wing. See you in court, matey.

The point of all this is that the standard of driving on our roads is pretty dire and getting worse all the time. Fuel economy, unrealistically low speed limits and poorly built (and maintained) cars are the basic reasons for the slowness of traffic on our open roads, and such speeds encourage drowsiness, lethargy, lack of concentration and the inability of a helluva lot of motorists to take smart avoiding action (when necessary), or to drive with respect for those who are able to drive or ride fast.

If we are to be beset by circumstances which clearly discourage skilful (as opposed to cautious) road use, then take note that some of us ain’t going to go down without a fight.

The Whys, the Wherefores and the Surely-Not-Agains…?

Thanks for clicking on this new blog which, as it says on the home page will be a (not-so) meticulously slung–together selection of my columns from the various bike mags I’ve written for, launched, edited, and in some ill-advised cases published over almost five, count ‘em, five decades. And just to keep my hand in, and because columnists are generally now shunned in favour of more advertiser-friendly features these days, I’ll sometimes throw in a freshly scrawled tirade on matters motorcycling. Or maybe it’s just my wild rhetoric and fanciful nonsense that are these days shunned by admirably astute editors – which behoves me to explain why I started this in the first place.

I have however written about the origins of my bikey scribbling and in particular, the genesis of the first magazine I launched, Bike, quite a few times already – although that mayn’t stop me repeating myself again here – but for now I’ll just explain that since the late ‘sixties when I discovered some of the great automotive columnists in American mags like Cycle, Car & Driver, Cycle World and the British ground-breaker, Car – the latter from under whose wing I launched Bike and blagged LJK Setright as a columnist – I’ve admired how they created a sense of clanship that made those magazines much more than just a bunch of great roadtests and features. And in my own small way I thought I could do the same, especially with Bike, then WhichBike? and finally MotorCycle International, by building a crew of writers who were distinctive and identifiable with the mag concerned, and of which I was immodestly one.

Later, in columns for mags I didn’t edit or publish myself, e.g. Motorcycle Mechanics (later prefixed by ‘Classic’), TrailBike, Classic Bike Guide and MotorCycle Trader (which I proudly still write for) and a few car magazines I’ll keep quiet about, I just wrote about what was exercising me at any given time and hoped that this, too, would appeal to readers who might want to read about it every month… Which may or may not’ve been the case.

See, I love writing columns partly because they are, or were, the one place in a magazine where controversial opinions can be gotten away with, often against the publishers’ commercial interests. And in the case of motorcycling, which due to exorbitant entry costs, perceived danger and the spawning of other, cheaper recreational pursuits, has seriously and steadily diminished in popularity since I started all this, controversy and left-field views are now seriously lacking. Uncoincidentally, there are now far few younger motorcyclists which at the time I launched Bike, and then to a lesser extent WhichBike?, was a huge market largely ignored by the then specialist press.

Instead we have an ageing biking cohort, of which I’m obviously one, and which most remaining magazines and websites explicitly or tacitly cater to, ditto the manufacturers who’ve all but given up on the entry-level market. Ironically, over the last decade and thanks to the generosity of its great editor Hugo Wilson, I’ve been writing for Bike again – most recently about the inspiring and flourishing custom-bike scene – a full-circle exercise that’s evinced a steady, or okay, unsteady trickle of messages from born-again bikers who fondly remember the stuff I scribbled umpteen years ago. So it’s largely to them that I gratefully dedicate this website… plus anyone else who accidentally stumbles upon it.

And I’m kicking it all off by republishing my very first editorial in Bike, which may reflect much of what I’ve just written – period clichés and cringe-worthy jargon notwithstanding. From hereon I’ll be posting every few days or so and if you like what you read, or even don’t, do let me know via the Comment box, or click on the ‘speech bubble’ up above, and do please also click on the ‘Follow’ box in the right hand column to get your regular supply.

Bike – Spring 1971

Strange Days – The State of the Nation

ODDLY ENOUGH we British seem unable to take the latest moves in the unruly history of motorcycling with our usual cool.

Bike magazine cover

Those at the helm of our bike industry continue to churn out inestimably robust wares in ignorance, or perhaps abhorrence of many current trends, whilst brave men career round race tracks and wonder why spectator and industry support for their spectacular skills slowly disappears. And why? Well, see that beer-bellied neo-Nazi pulling away from the truck stop, his gleaming, raked Harley roaring like an amplified Bofors gun as he throttles fuel into its thousand thirsty cubes and chucking a dead beer can over his five foot sissy bar, he snorts off up the freeway with a pack of similarly mounted bike-bandits in red hot pursuit? Yes friends, choppers are here, indicating to some the ultimate decadence of the two wheel fraternity, yet to others they signpost a new direction for the industry.

For despite the fact that there’s damn-all left to chop off a stock British machine and that ape-hangers and raked frames do almost nothing aesthetically for the parallel twins and squarish frames that are the hallmark of British sickle design, accessory manufacturers encouraged by the influence of Easy Rider and the poverty of original design thought that seems to pervade our industry have jumped aboard the bandwagon and are pouring the paraphernalia of the American chopper cult (which incidentally, is a ‘fad’ that‘s flourished since the ’50s) onto a new generation of young ’bikers who feel that they have little or no choice but to adorn their Triumphs and Ajays, however inappropriately, in their quest to ride something a little different.

Rather than admit, “Hey, this shouldn’t be necessary: let’s build bikes that look good and go good in the first place,” many manufacturers have until recently hummed and hah-ed in true ostrich fashion, letting the wily Japanese grab all the action. Now, at last, we are starting to see competitive home- grown alternatives, yet they are unfortunately the prerogative of those with heavy bread. And so we’re meeting a new breed of ’biker, the hip young executive, the pop guitarist and all the other sons of the wealthy middle classes who seek something a little more practical, exciting and, yes, even somewhat cheaper than a box on wheels. These guys are frowned on even more severely by the anti-chopper brigade because, we suspect, they will pay a grand or more for an Egli-Vincent or an imported Harley-Sportster, and because they can afford to discriminate and because they ain’t satisfied with machines the like of which may’ve turned on their grandfathers but leave them stone cold.

So this magazine is dedicated to showing you some of the alternatives that are open to you and, should you not be aware of them already, the divers delights of the two-wheel trip. Notwithstanding our doomy introduction, we don’t presuppose that Britain can’t make or hasn’t made some great and utterly original motorcycles. There is a patriotism in our bosoms that fires us with hope for the future but right now things are unnecessarily dull and directionless. Even as we write there are men of vision screwing together machinery the like of which could well revive the spirit of our industry. May they prosper and multiply…