Thursday, 25 November 2010

A motorcycle diversion as it’s my day off.

I am putting together a book about Thanet motorcycling experiences in the 1960s at the moment, normally when I publish a book I try to add some sort of publishers note where I can.

Obviously in other cases like the last two books I published, one about the Thanet Home Guard and the other about Thanet’s Civil Defence Sirens, where I don’t really know anything about the subject, there isn’t anything much I can say.

With motorcycling in Thanet, as I have had several motorcycles here I thought I ought to add something to the book, so here’s a first draft.

I think it will take me about a week to get the book out and will post about it when I do.

I have had considerable enjoyment reading about Les and Ken’s motorcycling experiences in the sixties and am only too aware that I missed the golden era or British motorcycling.

I came to motorcycling sometime early in the 1970s, I was 17 in 1970 so I don’t think it can have been long after that.

I must have been between jobs at the time as I remember that money was very short, my mother had a guesthouse in Augusta Road at the time and during periods of poverty, money was made up by doing chores in the guesthouse.

I had, had some experience with a Mobylette moped before a proper motorcycle, this thing was a sort of bicycle with an automatic clutch like a lawnmower, so really the only extra control, not found on a bicycle, was a twist grip.

You twisted the twist grip past the least throttle opening, where there was some resistance, this opened a valve that decompressed the engine, you then peddled like crazy and the automatic clutch engaged causing the engine to rotate at which point you turned the twist grip to open the throttle. At this point sometimes it started and went marginally faster than a bicycle. The rather primitive two stroke sooted up the plug badly, so more often that not you cleaned the plug instead.

My first proper motorcycle was a BSA C12 this was the final variant of the BSA pre-unit 250 singles. Pre unit meaning that the gearbox was separate from the engine.

This was the swinging arm suspension variant of the C11. with the C11s that rear suspension was either fixed – no suspension at all – or was plunger suspension, with no shock absorbers.

The swinging arm swung from about where your feet went with the back wheel on the end of it and shock absorbers going from the wheel end of the swinging arm to mounting on the frame under the seat.

This was the conventional form of suspension for most motorcycles from about 1958 and for the most part very successful. The C12 however was a fairly early version of this and the swinging arm part of the frame was bolted on to a slightly modified C11 frame. The frame was in fact made of various pieces of tubing brazed into sections that were then bolted together to form the whole frame. Rigidity is an important factor in motorcycle handling – the motorcycles ability to go round bends – needless to say the C12 didn’t handle well.

The one I bought had been taken to pieces completely by another young lad who had put the pieces into a series of cardboard boxes and carrier bags and then given up, needless to say it was very cheap indeed.

The chrome had mostly rusted away on the wheels and various other parts so I painted these bits light grey and the rest red, this was done with a brush not a spray but it didn’t look too bad.

This type of motorcycle is fairly primitive and I managed to assemble it, I didn’t quite know what it should look like, as there weren’t any others of this model in Thanet and I hadn’t got a manual. It was indeed several months after I had been riding it around before I saw another one and realised that I had mounted the toolbox and electrical switch assembly on the wrong sides, under the seat.

I managed to get it running and took it for an MOT, sympathetic MOTs at this time were still with Peter Norcott in Broadstairs, after politely agreeing with his ideas about using a rocket to split the moon in half, something that apparently would solve the world’s energy problems, he suggested a few on the spot modifications to my amateur motorcycle assembly and I duly left with an MOT.

I rode this bike around for some time with great difficulty changing gears, once you had managed to get it into a gear it was very difficult to get it out and this made it a difficult ride.

I eventually bought a secondhand gearbox through the post, I think it was more expensive than the bike had been. Having put it in the bike I discovered that the thread on part of the clutch mechanism in the replacement gearbox was stripped so I cannibalised both gearboxes.

Doing this I discovered that the problem with my old gearbox had only been a spacing washer on the end of the lay shaft – when you tried to change gear the lay shaft moved along with the cogs on the main shaft and so it was nearly impossible to get it out of a gear – in the bottom of one of the cardboard boxes was the offending washer that had ultimately cost me more than the whole bike.

With a top speed of about 60 mph and a fuel consumption of about 80 mpg I went a quite long way on this bike for its age and size, I toured much of Southeast England and East Anglia although I remember that the journeys took a very long time.

I think I had some notion that a journey of 100 miles was a very long way, so I would stop frequently for a cup of coffee.

It took the test on it in Margate, with the examiner hiding behind things, I am not sure if it was possible to fail this unless you either hit something or fell off. The brakes had a lot to be desired and although I had removed the brake shoes, boiled them in washing powder – the best way to remove the grease that was distributed by the wheel bearings onto them – the major stopping power in the emergency stop was facilitated by changing down through the gears. Fortunately the examiner owned a Big Port AJS with similar problems, so I passed.

Various motorcycles passed through my hands during the 70s and 80s all of them British and manufactured before 1960, I think my favourite look wise was a BSA Super Rocket that had most of the cycle parts chromed, and my favourite as an overall ride was a Norton 88 Dominator in a Wideline Featherbed frame.

I was never involved in the competition side of motorcycling, mainly I suppose because the British motorcycle era had pretty much finished by the time I got my first motorcycle and anything fast and reliable enough to compete, would have been too expensive.

With the British motorcycles I owned that were manufactured between 1939 and 1960 the main factors that made them go wrong and to some extent more difficult to drive, made little sense to me. With the time that I am talking about these problems had been resolved in British cars of the period and it surprises me that they were never resolved in British motorcycles.

Most of the machines I had, had overhead valve engines, single and twin cylinder machines made by Norton, BSA or Triumph, and the main reason for mechanical failure was poor cylinder head lubrication. This problem was resolved in most British cars with overhead valve engines manufactured after 1935 and I have never understood why it persisted in motorcycle engines. Basically the failure was due to not taking a pipe containing a pressurised oil feed to the cylinder head, if there was I pipe at all it came from the return side of the oil system and therefore had hardly any pressure.

Even the Morris Minor car had a pressurised oil feed to the cylinder head and yet none of the motorcycle designers, in these three competing firms, managed to do this until about 1960.

The other problem was their electrics, the biggest fault with them being that they were 6volt instead of 12volt, the most interesting effect of this was that a motorcycle capable of over 100 mph, had a headlight that produced a dull pool of light on the road a few feet away.

Those machines with magnetos had the advantage that the electricity supplying the spark to the engine was independent of this ineffective system, but those machines fitted with coil ignition that got its power from the 6 volt electrical system, tended to get more unreliable ass the battery aged.

Once again the designers could easily have learnt from the British cars of the period, I have owned three Morris Minor cars and would say that their 12 volt electrical system, although simple was as reliable as most modern cars electrics.

Of course what really finished the British motorcycle industry was the faster speeds, for engine size that the Japanese motorbikes produced, although these Japanese bikes were much more reliable, I think it was the speed that did it.

Some of the funny things that occurred with motorcycles I had now.

As I said the Super Rocket was a stunning bike to look at, not so easy to deal with when stationary, the handlebars were very low clippons mounted just above the front wheel on the sides of the front suspension “forks” the foot controls and foot rests had also been moved back. This meant that you didn’t sit upright on it, but more took up a position lying on your front, to reduce the air resistance at high speeds.

It was also quite a heavy machine with very little in the way of unnecessary parts on it so as to reduce the weight as much as possible, so there wasn’t much to get hold of to get it off its parking stand.

It also had a racing carburettor, manual ignition advance retard and very high compression pistons, making it difficult to start, but easy to get to kick back.

I left it at the MOT station and when I came back for it one MOT man was sitting down nursing his leg and the other was lying on it in the riding position making brumming sounds. They hadn’t been able to either start it or get it of the stand.

I did fall off a few times playing about with a Greeves trials bike, this was an off road machine and eventually I broke it in half misjudging jumping out of one rubbish skip and into another.

The only time I ever fell off of a road bike was in the petrol station in Queen Street, it had my brother and all of our camping equipment on it, when I got it off the stand, standing astride the bike, I just couldn’t hold it upright.

The Super Rocket was certainly the fastest bike I have ever owned, I don’t really know how fast as it is inadvisable to look away from where you are going, to look at the speedometer when riding a over a certain speed, the only time I have ever been prosecuted for speeding was on that bike.

I had a rather lucky escape with the BSA Super Rocket and decided to sell it, in the end I swapped it for a Norton Dominator, a BSA B33 and £200, the chap I swapped it with belonged the local branch of the Norton owners club. He only had a provisional licence though which meant he had to attach a small sidecar to it to ride it legally because its engine capacity, when I met him after a week he told me had been thrown out of the club because he had burnt them all off with sidecar on.

My brother had a Norton Dominator 99 and for a while he had to work in a firm of accountants as part of his university economics course, this necessitated wearing a pin striped suite, rather an incongruous outfit with a large and somewhat oily motorcycle.

If we went to a new biker pub everyone would ignore him until we got into the car park and they saw his bike, I think by this time we were well up into the 70s and these big 50s bikes were becoming something of a rarity.

The picture is of my C12 outside the back gates of our guesthouse in Augusta Road.

1 comment:

  1. Very nostalgic Michael. I too was 17 in 1970 and living in a parallel universe(Margate) but coming to school in Ramsgate on my Triumph Tiger 110 650cc combination.

    If I can find the time I'll send you some of my motorcycling memories which go back into the mid 60s - before I could legally ride road bikes.

    I too had the Albion Motors 'lunar lectures' from Peter - sympathetic MOTs are probably a thing of the past now that they are carried out with a computer programme.

    The other story I heard was that Peter couldn't read and write very much - evidenced by his faithful reproduction on test certificates of the stylised versions of the manufacturers name, complete with swirls and underlinings just like on the tank badges! Maybe he was just too much of a scholar and an artist for his time?

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