The Early History of Flight (My First British Bike)

As I sit here contemplating the intermittently sticking throttle on my BSA, I find myself wondering why I still do this to myself? I can fix it of course. It ain’t the cable or the spring, so I probably just need to clean up the carb. If that doesn’t work, I might have to dress the slide a touch. Hour’s work maybe, if it’s not that cold outside and my dodgy knee doesn’t lock up and leave me crawling across the garage floor in agony. That might slow me down a bit. Not that I’m complaining. I like to keep busy; in fact, it’s been rebuilding an old bike (my BMW R75/6) and tidying up the others that has kept me relatively sane through a year of self-isolation and shielding. If there wasn’t something to fix, I’d probably invent something, like changing the headlamp to see what the old Sears one in the back of the garage looks like on it instead of the Lucas one… What can I say? I’m a born tinkerer.

I suppose the difference nowadays is that this particular museum piece isn’t my everyday transport. I commuted to work and college on three British bikes throughout the 1980s, and I lived five miles out of town and at least two from the nearest bus stop for several years of that. Probably the biggest recurring problem was the lights going after the clocks went back, but all of these things were prone to playing up, especially if I had somewhere really important to be, from rainwater in the magneto pick-ups right up to full engine seizures. (I did have a little Kawasaki twin I bought at an auction for a bit, but once the cam chain went, I had no idea how to fix it. Then I dropped its rattly arse and wrote it off anyway.) British bikes became more of a hobby once I got to university in 1990. In order to do this, I’d worked on building sites for a while and saved up a decent amount of money (for me). This gave me a shot at a bullet-proof and reliable bike to get to lectures on, and I picked up an ex-cop BMW for a monkey. But that’s another story. Right now, though, the BSA is my only form of legal transport. The ticket’s run out on the Harley and I can’t get it MOT’d until the lockdown lifts. So, I’m kinda back to Square One, I guess.

As I think I’ve noted elsewhere, I am not an engineer and I do not restore classic motorcycles. This is partly because I’ve never been in the income bracket to do this, but equally I cannot deny that I’m not much more than a journeyman mechanic. I can keep an old bike running, often on a budget, and one of the appeals of British bikes for me is that there is nothing I can’t fix on one. They’re basically like big Meccano sets. I am probably a bit of a road rat to be honest. I don’t self-consciously distress my motorcycles, but I use them every day in all weathers and it shows. My Harley has rust spots, dents, chips and scratches, and I rarely have time to polish the bastard; the BSA’s black paintwork has faded to satin and I’ve bobbed the BMW. (I do, however, take great care of brakes, lights, suspension, and engines.) When I look at the beautifully restored and custom bikes I see at shows I feel something of a fraud, or at least a failure. All I can say is that I’ve been riding for 42 years now, with no cars and no breaks, so I am, at least, authentic. And eccentric, I suppose, inasmuch as I’m not an engineer, or on a final salary pension and thus able to pay someone else to do all the heavy lifting. A topic for another day, perhaps…

Anyway, I’m supposed to be talking about my first British bike. I wrote before that it was a passion for old technology and culture that steered me towards classic bikes rather than the sensible option, which was to buy Japanese. And while this is true, it occurred to me that another childhood obsession predated all of this. When I was a little kid, I was mad on aeroplanes. I have no idea why, and can’t track this back to a particular experience, anecdote or movie. I think it goes back too far for this. My kid’s the same about dinosaurs. As I grew up to be a historian, it’s hardly surprising that what particularly fascinated me was old aircrafts, particularly biplanes and triplanes. I read everything I could find about the early history of flight, gutting the local library and angling for books for Christmas and birthdays, memorising significant dates and technical specs, and the biographies of pilots and designers. I dragged my parents to air shows and aviation museums, I built model aeroplanes and hung them from my bedroom ceiling (that’s where my childhood nickname ‘Kit’ comes from), I stuck pictures and postcards on my bedroom wall and watched old movies like The Dawn Patrol and The Blue Max on TV with reverence. (I remember being hugely excited when Aces High was released.) I dreamed of becoming a pilot, though even if I hadn’t been working class, I was already too short-sighted. And what I fantasised about was always those early machines of stick and string, never the jets, which held no interest for me at all. What all this was about, I cannot adequately explain. All I know is that I dreamed of flying, and that this dream was tangled up with the freedom and romance of the pioneers, even if the reality was than a mere five years after the first powered flight across the English channel, politicians had ordered guns stuck on the front of aircrafts and pilots had started killing each other. That can’t have been as much fun.

Me still pretending I’m a pilot at the 25th International BSA Rally in Hamburg, 1985

I rarely think about this period nowadays, aside from a residual affection for war films involving aeroplanes, and my nerdy side supplanted this interest soon enough. I got into comics and Star Trek and Batman and by the time I was a teenager all I cared about was music, girls and motorcycles. Having done my apprenticeship on a couple of little Jap bikes, I was determined to get a classic. I was into the whole rocker aesthetic and that’s what I wanted more than anything. And on a practical level, at that point – the early-80s – a big British bike was a lot more affordable for someone with my background than a big Japanese one. I remember a lot of bad blood between British and Jap riders back then, but that was never me. If it’s got two wheels, right…? (I didn’t even mind the mods once I got on the road myself.) Being largely ignorant of comparative performance back then, the baroque style of British bikes just appealed to me more than the modern look of the Jap bikes, with a couple of exceptions. I would’ve loved a Kawasaki Z-1 or a Suzuki Katana but didn’t have a cat-in-hell’s chance of affording either. Neither did I ever have steady-enough employment to be able to get one on the never-never, or a full license… I was also riding around with a gang of ne’r-do-wells who had mostly ditched their starter bikes, the FS1Es, Crunchies and Bantams, for medium-sized Brit bikes, like Mick’s 350 Matchless, Rob’s 250 AJS and Spike’s BSA Fleet Star. I was feeling like a bit of a prat bringing up the rear on a YB 100.

I needed some money. I was still at school at this point, in the sixth form failing my A Levels. It pained me to do it, but first I had to flog the Yamaha and go back to hitching a lift on the back of a mate’s bike on in a sidecar to get out at the weekends. It was tidy enough and I stuck an ad in the local paper and quickly sold it to a university student living at the old halls of residence near the airport, on the other side of town to the campus. I think I got pretty much what I paid for it back. He later phoned me up and moaned that it wasn’t charging properly. I blew him off because it had run fine when I sold it. I always felt a bit bad about that though. I wasn’t exactly sympathetic, but what could I do? It was second hand and the guy clearly had a lot more money that I did. (University students got full grants in those days, didn’t pay fees, and could claim benefits. Working class kids, as I’d been told in no uncertain terms by our deputy headmistress, need not apply.) Not my problem, mate.

My Ariel with the chair off after I passed my test

Otherwise, I did what I’d done the first time and sought out cash-in-hand work I could do in the evenings and weekends. It was a weird time for the family as well. My mother’s long-lost sister had got in touch out of the blue about a year before, to announce she was dying of lung cancer. My mother immediately dropped everything and fucked off to London to nurse my auntie, leaving me and my dad to fend for ourselves. We quickly elected to just keep out of each other’s way. I stopped going to school and stayed out as often as possible, hanging out with the older bikers and hippies who’d already scored places to live, mostly in bedsit land. Then my aunt died, and my mother was back, having (much to her surprise) been named as her sister’s sole beneficiary. Not that Aunt Violet was rich, but her and her late husband had been comfortably middle class and owned their own home. Having never had children and being estranged from her own family (long story), Violet left her house to mum, which finally got her out of the council estate and into her dream retirement home in the suburbs. (My parents sold a Victorian house in London and bought a bungalow just outside Norwich. I often think about what that fucking place would be worth now.) Being a generous woman, and probably also feeling guilty for leaving me at the mercy of my father for a year – God, did I catch some beatings – my mother promptly topped up my bike fund and I was in the market for something British, single cylinder, preferably 1950s, with an option to fit a sidecar. I didn’t at that point have a full licence and you could still stick a chair on a big bike with L-plates. Beyond that, I didn’t really care what it was. Summer was coming and it was more a matter of what turned up first.

I bought my Ariel off an irascible engineer called Glyn whose family had lived over the road from mine on the estate where I grew up. I’d gone to school with his little brother and sister and he often used to fix my dad’s car. Glyn’s people were a big family of Irish ancestry, I think, and were the local wheeler-dealers when it came to old motors – a bit feral, but decent, hard-working people. (I saw Glyn’s brother not long ago actually, though I don’t think he knew who I was. He was just asking about Harleys.) Like RLD (see ‘Grebo Gurus‘), Glyn was another one of the local bikers a generation up from mine, who kept popping up in my life like Flint’s crew in Treasure Island. They’d all ridden together and done apprenticeships at Lotus and Lawrence and Scott’s. They still had big impressive British bikes, but many had settled down, being too old to rock ’n’ roll but too young to die as they say. Glyn was self-employed with two kids, one of whom was severely disabled. Like his father before him, he was a natural under-the-radar salesman, only he traded in classic bikes rather than cars. I nervously thought I’d have a word, which was far from easy as I swear the bloke barely spoke, at least not to people like me. (Mick he quite liked as a brother engineer.) Glyn had this old Ariel, which he’d owned for years, with a hashin’ great wooden crate on the side. I remembered it parked outside his folks’ house since my childhood. But, as he didn’t have anything in the shed just then and I had money burning a hole in my pocket, and having not a trace of sentimentality in him, he offered it to me.

My Ariel parked behind Womble’s BSA M20 outside the notorious 46, Whitehall Road

It was a 1957 Ariel VH 500 single ‘Red Hunter’. It was one of those 1950s Space Age motorcycles in full trim, which meant fancy headlight nacelle, fully enclosed chain case, and a think brass strap holding the three-and-a-half gallon tank on; dynamic curves everywhere. It was a dark, muted red that I later discovered was called ‘Deep Claret’, the trademark Ariel colours. The engine was a pre-unit, so the block and the gearbox were separate, and it had the Lucas M01 single cylinder magneto with a six-volt dynamo strapped on top of it; direct ignition, you turned the engine off with a valve lifter while there was another lever to manually alter the timing. And the crate was still on it. This was my Sopworth Camel and no mistake, but in the first of many stupid decisions I elected to have a smaller engine fitted (the NH 350), to save on the cost of the thing as well as my insurance. And, as Glyn never tired of reminding me for the next ten fucking years, because I was wary of going straight from a tiny100cc two stroke to a 500 four stroke from a manufacture whose motto was something to do with iron horses. Nope, I figured, a 350 would do me just fine. And, in all fairness, it did. I probably dropped 20 MPH or so in top end, but the torque was still amazing, and it pulled that chair like a cart horse. As I recall, I paid £250 for the bike with the sidecar. I nailed on my L-plates and off I shot, having never ridden a bike with a sidecar in my life…

To be fair, I didn’t crash it immediately. It took me a few days. I’d been doing OK rather gingerly pootling around the estate getting to know the thing but come the weekend I wanted to go and show it off on a run. There was an Albion Fayre coming up and I’d managed to convince a rocker girl I liked to let me take her in the sidecar. So far so good. So, long story short, I’m hacking down this long avenue on the posh part of town on a sunny Friday afternoon, wearing shades and a faded denim jacket covered in patches, Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters playing in my head, and heading for my lady’s flat. The tent and a cheap bottle of vodka are in the box, there’s weed in my pocket, and I’m looking forward to a weekend of long-haired debauchery and hopefully taking this new friendship to the next level. I was in a good mood and figured I’d got this whole sidecar thing sorted. You braked and dragged it round to turn right; you accelerated around it to turn left (fuck that up and you tipped it over). You had to be aware of your position on the road like a car driver, which was new to me, and however well set-up the chair, the single driven wheel at the back of the triangle meant it was always a bit of a fight to keep her straight. I was still a bit wary of my position relative to the curb (a problem I’ve always had driving cars as well), and I vaguely remember looking at the sidecar wheel to check… Suddenly, I’d drifted left. I saw my wheel mount the curb then I was sucked onto the grass verge. There was a hell of a bang and then I was flying through the air.

Luckily, the road broke my fall. Even more fortunately, there wasn’t a car in sight. (Well, this was 1982; there weren’t that many, especially at this time of day.) Having miraculously survived the slide (although my jacket did not, I didn’t even get road rash), there was no one to run me over which is how more than one person I know has since checked-out. Any landing you can walk away from, ’eh…? Shaky, bruised and aching all over I got to my feet and surveyed the damage. I’d smacked the chair into a telegraph pole, which I have to say had got the worse of it. The metal cover was stove in and the pole itself was listing at an interesting angle. The bike was still running and was digging a trench with its back wheel while apparently trying to climb up the pole. No damage there, but I’d snapped a sidecar fitting. That meant I had three left holding everything together. Good enough. I found neutral without stopping the engine and pushed the bike back onto the road. Then I got the hell out of there before someone called the Law.

I wobbled over to Glyn’s who, shaking his head sadly, welded everything back together and realigned the sidecar, for which he charged me a tenner, with a stern reminder to watch where I was fucking going next time. I thanked him and once more headed for my original destination, where I picked up the girl and had a quick smoke and a sugary tea, because a near-death experience followed by ritual humiliation is not going to get between a teenage male and his hormones. (I never told my parents I had an accident either.) Then we went to rendezvous with the crew at some pub or other. Listening to my other mates on British bikes swapping stories over a cheap pint about near-misses, prangs, breakdowns and impromptu roadside repairs, as well as putting your trust in antique technology and the sheer joy of doing so on a country road, it struck me that the nearest correlative to riding these junkers was the early history of flight. And after all these years, I still personally believe this.

I will say I took it a little easier but managed to keep up with the pack. There were still a few Bantams in the gang, so we were hardly moving fast. As we swung into the leafy lane towards the campsite some hippies had put up a large wooden sign that read ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood’, which was exactly what I intended to do…

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood…


2 thoughts on “The Early History of Flight (My First British Bike)”

  1. Hey Kit,
    Happy memories of which I am proud to have been a part. You, of course, figure in mine extensively.


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