The Joys of Classic Biking
How many of us have memories or dreams of the “perfect” Triumph Bonnie—always reckoned to be the 1967 model—or the precision handling of a Featherbed Norton or the sound of a well-tuned Goldie at full chat. Sweet nostalgia!
However, for a lot of us who lived through the “classic” era, or certainly the part of it that saw the staggeringly rapid demise of the British bike industry, the reality was perhaps not quite so rose-tinted.
In those days you could ride a 250cc bike on ‘L’ plates at 16 and there was a reasonable choice available on the new market, including the Honda CB72, Royal Enfield GP, BSA C15 Sports, various Yamahas and Suzukis, and so on. Once you passed your test there was no limit other than available cash. That was fine, if your old man was financing you and your mother was prepared to let you out on such kit, but that was rare in my part of Yorkshire.
First of all, my mates and I were 16 at the end of the ‘60s, still at school and relying on Saturday jobs and pocket money to survive. The hard choice was usually 10 fags, a couple of pints in a quiet country pub (where the landlord was more interested in some trade than asking your age) and half a gallon of two-stroke fuel for the bike that would just about last you the week.
Nobody paid more than £60 for a bike and most a lot less, so what “classic” could you get for such a princely sum? The above list was way beyond our meagre means. We were well down the pecking order from road-burning Hondas and Enfields. Our available market consisted of (very) second-hand stink wheel two-strokes or obsolete 1950s four strokes.
There were things made by Francis Barnett, James and others who were part of the AMC group in its desperate twilight years. Some had Villiers engines, which weren’t too bad, and others had AMCs own two-stroke motors, which were. These were usually between 150cc and 200cc. Then, of course, there was always the ubiquitous BSA Bantam, of which less said the better. Their main market was the GPO telegram boys—most of us would not be seen dead on one!
The four-stokers might be old model Triumph Tiger Cubs, BSA C12s or perhaps C15s or older Enfields of doubtful lineage. AMC also made AJS and Matchless 250cc four-stroke singles, which were equally as bad as their two-stroke models.
My first road bike cost £30 and was a strange but likeable 1959 German DKW 197cc two-stroke single which went quite well, but only a few of them had been imported by Pride & Clarke in the late ‘50s and then they stopped. What spare parts there were had long-since run out! It had a much worn little end, resulting in a highly embarrassing loud metallic “ping, ping, ping, ping, ping” on overrun every time you shut the throttle. With my limited resources and mechanic-ing skills, there was nothing I could do about it. I daren’t even take the cylinder head off to go and have a look because the nuts on the studs had rusted on and, if I snapped a stud, I would have been truly knackered. I have to say, though, that German over-engineering and quality Bosch electrics proved reliable and effective. It never let me down—as long as there was fuel in the tank!
After you had passed your test, you would likely move on to something made between 1955 and 1960. In my case, a bike that has now, over the years, become one of the best of the “classics”—such that it falls into the highest categories of overpricing, almost up to Gold Star levels even. It was a Velocette Viper Clubmans 350cc, single made in 1961, and I paid £50 for it!
I was made up on this. It was café racer-style, with clip-on handlebars, rear-set footrests and “John Tickle” chrome headlamp brackets! Technically, it had some what-were-then good bits on it. The magneto was the excellent BTH TT, with manual advance/retard for the ignition. It had a TT gearbox with ratios for racing and a reverse camplate, so the gears were still one up and three down with the backward pointing gear lever for the rear-sets.
Naturally, it had some awful bits. The dynamo was Miller driven by a belt off the crankshaft. It was even worse than the Joe Lucas (Prince of Darkness) products fitted to most bikes of the period—a permanently oil leaking tin primary chaincase and a Wal Philips Fuel Injector thought to be the greatest innovation in fuel management in its day.
It was, in fact, a piece of pipe bolted to the cylinder head with a butterfly valve linked to a crude variable jet to control the fuel. Fine! Okay! Just as long as you didn’t expect it to tick over or have any sort of idle circuit, it either ran rich or flat out only or not at all. And it was an absolute bitch to start. After a month or so of collapsing in a sweating heap at the kerbside with an aching right leg or shoving it up the road to bump start, the “injector” was replaced with a trusty Amal Monobloc carburettor and a considerable improvement ensued.
I gave up on the dynamo and ran it battery-only for lights, recharging it every night. The sparks came from the magneto, so no problem. Most of our lot did the same; even if you could get a charging system to work at all it wouldn’t stay working for long, so it wasn’t worth the effort.
However the Velo had a beautifully-engineered, highly-reliable engine, an old fashioned but excellent handling frame and a belter of a front brake, which saved my skin more than a few times!
Did it go? For a 350cc in those days, it went reasonably well! With lots of clutch slip and noise to get off the mark and chin on the steering damper, it would do 40 mph in first, 60+ mph in second, 90 mph in third and...90 in top. Perhaps a tad overgeared, but quick and well able to beat and out brake Hillman Minxes and Ford Cortinas of the day.
The downside? Well what do you expect for £50? It used oil. It burnt it (valve guides), dumped it on the old man’s drive (which didn’t impress him) and coated the left side of the rear tyre with it, which then migrated to the inside left leg of any girl rash enough to ride pillion (very limited chick-pulling, I’m afraid!). The other thing it did was to leak battery acid onto my left leg from a breather, which led to holey Levis. Took me a while to figure that one out!
What the classic bike magazines today call “patina”, we called “rust” in the ‘60s/‘70s; there was a lot of it about on our bikes but, as long as they worked okay, we couldn’t afford to be too fussy.
The poor old Velo had a sad end. I managed to throw it up the road one evening, which smashed the gearbox cover and it then seized up when I cocked up the oil feed to the engine through a dodgy non-return valve. It didn’t seem to be worth the cost of repairing, back in 1971, so I sold it for parts and probably got about a score. A decent one today would set you back £9,000! C’est la vie.
Biking, in those days, was surely classic, even if the bikes sometimes were not.