May 05, 2009 GMT
Local Hero

I would guess that lots of present-day bikers inherited their biking bug from one or other of their parents, probably their dad. The same with me...... So this is a bit of an indulgent look at his story.

Mine was born in 1924, becoming a legend in his teens with his regular weekend bicycle rides from his home in central London to Taunton and back. His older sister had married a boyfriend from the town and moved down there. So Dad decided that visiting her would make ideal weekend trips when his shift work at the local mortuary allowed.
Then war broke out and Dad volunteered, but within a week or so his porkie pie about his age was discovered. So he carried on the cycling trips to Taunton until he reached eighteen and joined up again.
Unfortunately, after two years of training and within twenty-four hours of being sent to the front line, in Italy, half his leg was shot away and he was invalided back to Blighty to face more than a year of recovery and convalescing.
Over the years I made two motorbike trips to the scene of this event, near Florence. One on the 50th anniversary, one later with Caroline, now on this African trip.

Initially, he was considered 100% disabled, later reducing to 90%, but either way, pedal-cycling was out of the question - for quite a while anyway.
So it was that a BSA Bantam joined the family, around the time I was born.
Dad seemed to have a natural ability to service and repair the bike. His father earned a living as a London fireman, and part-time watch repairer - a pretty odd combination - but my Dad had often observed at close hand the intricate and delicate work required in mending those timepieces (and maybe in extinguishing fires as well). And I suppose repairing a BSA Bantam is similar, (to watch-repairing that is), just on a different scale.....

I used to ride on the back of the Bantam at a pretty young age, four I think, and remember wondering how on earth we stayed upright with only two wheels, as well as being even more mystified about what exactly a gallon or so of smelly liquid did inside that engine. Just HOW, exactly, did it produce all that noise and super-fast movement? What could possibly go on inside there? Dad was my hero just for being able to control it all.
And not a crash helmet in sight.

Then my brother arrived - and so did a bigger bike with sidecar attached. All the rage in those days. Another BSA, an M20.
The effect of riding this, I think, gave my Dad a taste for bigger and grander bikes, so after another year or so he bought, brand new, the bike that he was to keep and cherish for another 18 years, the grandest sidecar bike of them all, a Panther model 100, with Canterbury double-adult sidecar.

Family and friends were amazed. Here was Dad, with only, really, three-quarters of his right leg intact, taking on a brute of a bike that needed the strength of two men to kickstart it. But Dad quickly learnt 'the technique', and anyway, we lived on a hill handy for bump-starting.
Additionally, routine maintenance was made a little simpler by the fact that the Panther's engine turned at a speed not dissimilar to the innards of the watches that my Dad used to observe being repaired by his dad.

Many were the mornings that Dad would act the part of sea captain as the family departed on some outing or other - "All aboard!" - as Mum and little brother filed into the sidecar and I would take the prized pillion seat. Then he'd be an aircraft pilot, with “Chocks away!” as outfit and family started to roll down the hill, followed by "Contact!", loud enough for all the neighbours to hear, as he let out the clutch fifty yards from the bottom. A lumbering lurch to the right, and the Panther's steam engine (well, that’s what it seemed like) chugged into life, gulping in huge quantities of air through the open carburettor intake just ahead of my right knee.
The fascination of only having two wheels was gone, but it was still a mystery to me what it was that that smelly petrol stuff did inside that massive engine to produce all that noise and enough power to drag all the family along at breakneck speed.

Over time Dad gave this magnificent machine more and more work to do. Pulling all four of us all the way to Devon, with two tents, cooking gear, bedding and clothing stowed in a box trailer towed behind. On one of these trips, complete with trailer, and with Dad's right hand taking a particularly firm grip on the handlebar, he shouted at us all, above the wind and engine noise, to crane our necks and look at the speedo. We'd reached the amazing speed of SIXTY MILES AN HOUR!! No one I knew had ever travelled at that speed. I thought to myself, I bet none of my friends even know that that speed exists!
And not a crash helmet in sight.
Headgear always comprised, for Dad, a cloth cap made rainproof by years of being handled by oily fingers. For Mum, a headscarf, not made rainproof. And for us children, nothing.

Riding the pillion of this machine was a magical experience. Dad's back, right in front of my face, made him loom large in my mind as well as in my sight. After all, what WAS he doing? All his actions were hidden from view, his hands could have been playing a piano for all I knew. But somehow, pulling on those levers, pressing those pedals, twisting the handlebar grip, sent us flying along in a crescendo of incredible sounds. The wind in my hair, a bang every lampost, air sucking into the engine past my right knee, the whirring and clunking of the chain by my left ankle, the hum of the tyre on the tarmac, the creaking of the suspension, all amplified by the soundboard effect of the wooden sidecar against our left elbows. Add the sight of the road whizzing past below my feet and we have a cacophony of experiences that could never be explained or rationalized, and could have only one effect. Sometime, I would have to do all this.

One day, we reached the limit of our outfit's heavy-haulage capabilities. In those days, in our sort of family, cars were fairly rare, and motorbikes only slightly less so. And Dad's Panther outfit was the only powered transport that existed in our extended family. So there was always a big demand for rides. This occasion was a grand family party at my Grandparent's house in London, and all the children, cousins and friends were clamouring for a ride to Hyde Park via Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. Standing up in the sidecar. The best way, the only way as far as we were concerned, to see London in those days. Dad calculated that he could fit five or six of us in the sidecar with one grown-up, and an uncle and one more child on the pillion behind him. Thus we were all squeezed in.
As if setting the organ stops at St. Paul’s, Dad carefully positioned the air, ignition, and decompression levers (no hill here for bump starting), followed by the customary shout of "Contact!" Then an almighty lunge on the kickstarter such that, aided by the weight of eight or nine passengers, the gearbox nearly hit the ground. And the great engine sucked, fired, sucked again, and was away.
All us children were immediately fascinated by the rhythmic mystic music of this amazing contraption: "……suck-squeeze-bang-blow-suck-squeeze-bang-blow......"

Then the loud dull "clunk" of Dad levering first gear into place, the rattle of the clutch, the gentle rise in the engine's pace, a few inches of slow forward movement, and........
Kerrrrashhh!!! as the floor of the sidecar, with half-a-dozen children standing on it, collapsed onto the road.
Like most sidecars I think, this one had two little leaf springs at the rear, and the shackles attaching them to the floor had succumbed under all the weight, allowing the whole sidecar to drop onto the road.
Well, Dad always carried a ton or so of tools, also in the sidecar, so a few minutes of manipulation with a crowbar soon had the suspension righted, and the leaf springs bent to a sharper angle to cater for the extra, or maybe extraordinary, weight. This time, as Dad gingerly let out the clutch, and a couple of willing helpers gave the outfit a gentle push, we travelled maybe a couple of feet, hopefully, before....... the sidecar shook and juddered again and came crashing to the ground.
In the end only seven of us got to see Big Ben and Hyde Park that day, much to Dad's disappointment.

Other memories include Dad reaching the limit of the outfit's braking capabilities, easy to do I guess. In heavy traffic somewhere in north London, a coal lorry in front of us stopped rather quickly. In those days it wasn't always a good idea to stop quickly. I was standing in the front of the sidecar, felt a violent swerve to the right, and the top of the sidecar screen hit the coal lorry. The result was a bit of a shocked me, and lots of wood, splinters and perspex all over the place.
But it did enable Dad to give me a lesson in sidecar repair, carpentry and simple upholstery.

Then there was the North Weald Air Show, sometime in the 50s. The good old Panther had hauled the whole family to the perimeter fence, where Dad had found a gap in the hedgerow just big enough to squeeze the outfit into so that hardly any of it was still on the road. We could see all the action, without the need to pay the entry fee to get onto the airfield. In all the time that Dad had those outfits, I never saw him pay for parking. Wonder what he'd make of it now?.
But he had reckoned without the enthusiasm of a young police constable, who, seeing all the No Waiting signs, and without waiting for any word of an excuse, slapped a parking ticket into Dad's hand and told him in pretty stern terms to move the bike, or else..... Oh dear, bit of an expensive embarrassment, that.

Everyday, Dad used the outfit to travel to work. Usually six, sometimes seven days a week. For a few years the round trip was about twenty miles across London. Then work moved and the round trip doubled. All weathers, all year. So the bike did a LOT of mileage, and servicing and repairs became fairly regular. Consequently, the position of Chief Assistant Mechanic-in-training fell to me. About ten years old. And at last I learnt exactly what it was that all that smelly petrol did inside the huge wheezing engine. So did my Mum, and younger brother, as engine repairs took place in the front room, or kitchen, or both if the crankcase had to be split. Well, we didn't have a TV, so what else was there to watch?

I still clearly remember one day bursting into the frontroom to find Dad on his hands and knees, looking as though he was eating the carpet. Seeing the huge Panther crankcase with that great piston wobbling at the end of the con-rod, occupying most of the frontroom table while Mum was trying to serve up dinner, gave me cause for concern as to what was on the menu. But it quickly became another practical lesson in motorcycle maintenance, accompanied by a certain amount of zen - no, a LOT of zen, on the part of Mum. The subject this time was how to use a magnet to locate tiny steel parts (a circlip) lost in the pile of a carpet, then how to fit the clip into the piston without it pinging halfway across the room again, followed by lowering the massive cylinder barrel over the piston with two hands, manipulating the piston rings with the fingers of another hand that Dad had conjured up out of nowhere like a stage illusionist, followed by Mum's sausage and mash for four.

When my Mum died, my brother knew her local vicar quite well, and had primed him. So it was very satisfying to listen to him at Mum's funeral, describing her special brand of patience that enabled her to happily prepare the family's dinner and tea around my Dad as he dismantled and rebuilt motorbike engines on the front room table. More tea Vicar?
Indeed, the Sunday joint occasionally shared the oven with Panther crankcases, as they were warmed up for the fitting of new bearing journals. Added a certain je ne sais quoi to the aroma of those meat juices.

But before my education into the secret workings of motorbike engines, Dad would play jokes that just deepened all those mysteries further. One day on a ride out into the country, the bike fell silent and drifted to a halt. Just the sound of the chain winding round and round the sprockets, slower and slower until we stopped. Dad looked seriously worried. He unscrewed the petrol filler cap and peered through the huge filler hole into the depths of the huge tank.
"Out of petrol!" he exclaimed, the look on his face becoming grimmer and grimmer. Discussions took place between Mum and Dad. What should we do? Would we have to push the bike all the way home? Would we get home by next week? Where would we sleep? How many days would it take to walk to the nearest petrol station? All the time Dad was shaking the bike, squinting through the filler hole, hoping to spy a hidden cache of petrol. I was worried. About eight years old and seriously worried.
Suddenly Dad's face lit up. "I know! This might do it, just to get us to a petrol station!" He pulled some peculiar faces, bent over the petrol tank, and theatrically spat into it. Can't remember what Mum said. Don't remember it being complimentary. Then, with much flourish, he meticulously set all the levers, air, ignition, decompression,
gear lever in neutral, handlebars pointing ahead. A powerful long kick on the kickstarter, and that magnificent slow hiss of sucking air, mechanical rattles and hidden explosions filled the hedgerows.
"All aboard! All aboard!" It was my turn to sit on the pillion. In sombre tones Dad explained to me, if the engine stopped again, it would be my turn to spit into the tank! Me! How could anything from me make all this noise and power and movement? "It'll have to!" said Dad, "Or we won't get home for days!"
I remember it being the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Not only did this monster work on that smelly petrol stuff you bought at the roadside, it worked on spit as well! What other miracles did life hold in store? What other magic took place inside this engine?

I still think one of the most magical rides you can do on a motorbike is to be about eight years old, on the pillion of a Panther outfit, Dad at the controls, roaring (literally roaring - those straight-through Burgess silencers didn't have much inside them) through the Blackwall tunnel as it existed in the 1950s. One twisty, dog-legged, smokey tunnel, two-way traffic, a 40-watt light bulb every hundred yards. And if Dad got the air and ignition levers right, a few almighty backfires in the depths of the tunnel enough to loosen those ancient grubby glazed tiles from the ceiling. Magic!

As my education into things mechanical progressed, Dad initiated me into the culture of the motorbike spares shop. Dark, smelly places, usually in Stockwell or Lewisham, greasy wooden floors, tea mugs lined up on the counter, upside-down pistons full of roll-up dog-ends. Tyres and tanks hanging from the ceiling, brake cables, chains, cranks and clutch plates decorating the walls. And no English spoken. It was all a foreign language. Earnest advice freely sought and given on magneto advance-retard, carburettor float height, leaky primary-chain cases, over-bored piston ring sizes. “Sixty clutch corks, two tappet-tube gaskets and a tube of red Hylomar please!”

Back home, if the weather was fine Dad would turn an upturned tea chest in the back garden into his workbench, and spend a couple of hours pressing dozens of corks into the perforated friction plates of the Panther clutch. Right on cue, Mum appeared with the saucepan of boiling water and all the corked-up clutchplates would be tipped in. I was rapidly learning that maintaining a motorbike required extensive use of kitchen facilities, and that lesson has stayed with me ever since……
“Makes the cork expand, holds them in place, and makes the clutch grip,” Dad explained. Fairly important if the clutch has to pull a sidecar, trailer, Mum, Dad, two children, tents, and camp kitchen for four, up Porlock Hill.
Then the homeward ride down the hill would have to be to considered, as Dad removed the wheels, dismantled the brakes, and carefully riveted brand new linings onto the brake shoes using a cobbler’s last for an anvil. Yes, the same cobbler's last that he used the day before to repair his own shoes. In the back garden if the weather be fine, or the kitchen if it be rainy. And finally, old clutch corks and worn brake linings were carefully collected together and placed in “the spares box” with tons of other old parts, chains, bearings, pistons, valves, cables, spark plugs, nuts and bolts. “You never know when one of these may come in handy in an emergency!” Surely, every spark plug that Dad ever bought in his lifetime was in that box.

Visits to a Motorbike Spares Shop meant stopping at a place on the way, also smelly, usually on a main road, greasy wooden floors, tea mugs lined up on the counter, upside-down pistons full of roll-up dog-ends. Tyres and tanks sitting in a corner, brake cables and chains on the edge of a table. And no English spoken.
The motorbike cafe.
This one was Ted's, on the Southend road, next to the Roundabout Pub. Both now buried, like so much of 1950s culture, inside a huge concrete pillar underneath an M11 slip-road. Dad would drink his tea, and me a Tizer, while he talked magneto advance-retard, and clutch corks, with whoever would listen.

By the late sixties I too was on motorised two wheels and had progressed to the popular Japanese machines of the day. Dad marvelled at the electric starters, indicators and twin-leading-shoe brakes. Why, these bikes even had an ignition key! But he, and Mum, were firmly wedded to his 1954 Panther. Lucky for me!
I had bought from a dealer a 305cc Honda, a wonder of a space-rocket machine in those days. But it had broken down, and needed to be returned to the shop, quite a distance away. No problem! In double quick time Dad had removed the double-adult sidecar from its chassis, parking it temporarily in the front garden. (I had also learnt, over the years, that gardens are as important as kitchens in the art of motorcycle maintenance.) A plank was lined up to wheel the Honda up onto the chassis, a couple of ropes tied around, the customary “All aboard!”, “Chocks away!” and “Contact!” and the Panther hauled us all smartly back to the dealer. I remember Dad wandering around the modern Honda showroom like Queen Victoria's Albert might have wandered around the international space station. Both the English language, and the language of the Spares-shop, failed him.......

A year later, the lure of the race track caught up with me, and I took the plunge, competing on a 450cc road-going Honda. I was happy to ride the bike to the tracks, but Dad insisted, removing the sidecar each weekend and carrying me and the Honda to the various club race meetings.

In eighteen years of hauling the family, and other bikes, up and down and around and around the country, with never an AA or RAC membership in sight, Dad’s Panther only broke down irreparably on the road once. A broken exhaust rocker on the Hastings road. I remember Dad spreading his extensive tool kit all over the road, and the contents of all his spares boxes (“You never know when you may need one of these in an emergency”), determined to find some makeshift way of getting us home. But on this occasion, his motorcycle maintenance training, inherited from his father's watch-repairing, failed him. Had it happened a couple of hours earlier, maybe the nearby garage would have had a welder still on duty with the ingenuity to join the broken pieces together. We’ll never know.

Then 1973 arrived, and compulsory crash helmets. Dad had never worn one, nor had any of the rest of the family when riding on the outfit, and his leg was giving trouble anyway. So that was the end of his bike riding, but not of his bike licence. He bought a Reliant Robin and used that as his transport for the rest of his days, Fools and Horses or no Fools and Horses. He even acquired a secondhand bicycle and took up some gentle cycling again to keep his leg exercised during those car-driving, or Reliant-driving days. And yes, on at least one occasion, the Reliant gearbox found itself in a hundred pieces being repaired on the kitchen table.

Posted by Ken Thomas at May 05, 2009 03:22 PM GMT

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