Motorbike Oddities

We bikers, especially those of the 70’s/80’s like my goodself, are a rather
odd lot. Let’s face it, back in the late 70’s, you had to be a bit odd to actually relish spending a lot of time on certain motorcycles of that era.
Spaghetti frames, swinging arms apparently made out of the bits of Airfix plastic sprue, sparkly stainless disc brakes which simply didn’t work in relative humidity higher than 15%, front forks which went one way while the front wheel wanted to go the other……not to mention certain types of tyre with all the wet adhesion of gel soap; ah, happy days.

That was generic oddity, born of the time and place. What I cherish more than that are the specific, bike-related oddities which crop up without warning and remind us just what motorcycling can be about, even though it never occurred to us until then.

As a student in Leeds in 1978, I used to work in the Packhorse pub, well known to anyone who has ever lived in that city. Great fun, and a valuable source of student income. We had several bike types as Friday night regulars (including the stunning blonde girl on the Suzuki 425cc twin, who used to draw panting glances in her skin-tight full leathers, as she methodically downed several pints of Tetleys, got very wobbly, and then rode off, spurning all the Galahads who would gladly have offered her a place of safety to sleep it off); but perhaps the nicest was the old boy who used to turn up on what was the oldest, most decrepit piece of single-cylinder junk I have ever laid eyes on. It was so old and decrepit that I never did work out what type it was. Plainly British, plainly pre-war, all distinguishing features such as badges or paint had long since dropped off or worn away in 50 years of Yorkshire rain. He used to turn up regular as clockwork, his mount chuffing away to the kerbside, then wheezily expiring as he pulled some bit of baler twine somewhere- don’t think he had a key. Whether it was 28 degrees or pelting with rain, he always wore an ancient Barbour and snuggled inside it, peeping outside the lapel, was his terrier puppy. It stayed there throughout his regulation three pints and a game of dominoes, like some Harry Potter alter-ego growing out of his chest. He had a pint, the mutt had a biscuit, which the landlord kept behind the bar.

Then there was the glorious vision seen momentarily in passing somewhere around Pontefract, as I barrelled up north. I overtook a Norton Commando and the only reason that was possible on my doggy 550 was because he was labouring on the incline; and the only reason he was labouring was because he was towing a bloody caravan. I kid you not- it was like a beach-hut on wheels, had obviously been knocked up with loving care in plywood in his backyard, and painted a virulent green.

Then there was the eccentric at Peterborough bike show many, many years ago, who allowed me to buy him several pints in return for his fascinating theories about practical motorcycling. These included saving money on them over-priced pub lunches by installing a heating element in one of the alloy panniers on his BSA. It had stew in it. He showed me. His spoon was in the breast pocket of his leathers. Arrive at destination, put down stand, open pannier, eat hot stew. He went all round Scotland with it, he said. I believed him.

But perhaps the classic was about 15 years ago, when I was visiting my mum who lives in the middle of nowhere in the west of Ireland. As I was lounging in the garden admiring the rain, a bearded bloke on a Honda C50 came puttering up the drive by the woodshed, got off, put the little machine on its stand still running, unfolded some kind of expanding thingy from the large plywood box on the back, which then revealed a Heath Robinson affair of pulleys, bands and a grinding wheel. He flicked a lever and proceeded to sharpen the tools in our shed. At that point, mum came out, introduced me to Martin the Knife, gave him a fiver and he puttered off, having miraculously folded the whole lot back into its box. It was only then that I noticed the front wheel barely skittered over the ground- the whole contraption on the back must have weighed 15kg. I offered to chuck in an old crank just to finish things off nicely……..

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