My latest post to the Home Thoughts from Abroad is rather self-indulgent, but I hope you’ll bear with me and that it will in fact trigger a few memories of your experiences learning to ride a motorcycle. Please post a comment to let us know what it was like for you.
The Bike That Dad Built
When I was but a boy of 11 years old, my father decided it was time that I was introduced to the pleasures of motorcycling, first hand. At this tender age I had already spectated at several scrambles meetings and had experienced the altogether different affair of watching a few trials. The first trial I remember spectating at was the 1970 East Anglian Trial, organised by the Sudbury MCC and won by Derek Adsett, and I was hooked from that day on.
I soon became an avid spectator at Eastern Centre trials. Dad and I would make for the start of a trial and discover where the groups of sections were situated – in those days trials generally still included some ‘road work’ – then jump in the car and head off there as quickly as possible in order to catch as much of the action as we could.
I loved the sense of anticipation as dad skilfully negotiated the twisting country lanes of Essex and Suffolk in his Triumph 2000. During this era the top local riders were Eddie Cordle, who was riding a Montesa at the time, John Kendall on a Bultaco and a young emerging talent, Allen Collier, who competed on a very neat 175 BSA Bantam special and enjoyed support from Jack Hubbard Motors of Braintree, and I was desperate to see them in action.
Other riders would occasionally turn out, much to our delight, including John Pease, a Greeves rider and employee and top all-rounder – I remember dad pointing out the ISDT badge on his Barbour suit at the East Anglian, BSA’s star motocross rider, John Banks, former European trials champion, Don Smith and, of course, the great Dave Bickers, who it seemed always had the time of day to stop and have a quick chat with members of his captive audience.
There were also the sidecar boys and I vividly recall seeing then in action at Purls Hill Woods near Sible Hedingham, where they had some decent hills to take a run at. Blasting through the trees on full-bore came, Eric Miller, with brother Reg in the chair, Ian Preedy, a larger than life character, and the Vince brothers, Roy and Les, who had an outfit apiece.
Now one autumn evening dad and I ventured out to a farm at Stisted near Braintree. I don’t recall whether dad had told me where we were going; he liked to surprise me from time to time. When I was a boy of no more than 5 years-old, he was away from home for a year whilst he did his teacher training course. Just before he left, and unbeknown to me, he managed to acquire a large box of Dinky toys and when he returned home every Friday the first question he asked me was, “Have you been a good boy this week?”, to which, I’m sure, I always replied in the affirmative. On checking with my mother that this was indeed the case, he would then disappear into their bedroom where much to my delight he would ‘Magic’ a Dinky toy. Well, returning to that farm in Stisted, it just happened to be Coven Brook Farm where the Vince family lived and worked the land.
It’s funny the things you remember. Speaking about this recently with my father he recalled, “They had a three-legged deer on the farm.” I had completely forgotten about this. “It was a beautiful animal and really tame and it came right up to us.” With some help from Malcolm Taylor, of the Pre-65 Motocross Club, I was able to talk to Les Vince, who confirmed this. “Yes, that’s right. My dad was cutting clover one evening, and the parents had left the fawn hid up in the field. Dad never saw it and it jumped up and cut its leg. A few days later they were turning hay in the fields and they saw it running about with the one leg dangling. One of the young lads ran and caught it and we soon saw the leg had gone all rotten. So dad took it to a vet who amputated it and we had it with us until dad had to give up the farm. Then my wife put an ad in the local paper and somebody from Marks Tey took it away to a farm.”
My father, who worked as a lecturer in the Motor Vehicle department of the North East Essex Technical College in Colchester, had a student, Dick Challis, who had mentioned he had an old motorbike he wanted to sell. Well, as we were about to discover it wasn’t a motorcycle per se, but a veritable ‘box of bits’! I cannot remember how much money dad parted with – it wouldn’t have been much as he has always been very good at haggling – but we left the farm that evening with a BSA Bantam D3 rolling chassis and a 197cc Villiers engine and gearbox. I always believed it was a 9E, which is what we were told it was, but have since discovered it was probably an 8E. This formed the basis of dad’s winter project and over the course of the next three or four months he busied himself in the garage, with yours truly helping out wherever and whenever I could.
The main jobs I remember dad having to deal with were making up engine plates to accommodate the Villiers unit, welding a sump plate in place of the engine cradle, which he told me, “took many hours of afterhours work at the college”, fabricating and repositioning the footrests and making a seat from scratch, using an aluminium base and the cover and foam from an old Morris Minor seat. The wheels I recall had 18” rims, probably from the Bantam, and the front tyre was a well-worn road number, but dad did manage, after plenty of sweating and cursing, to fit a 3.50 trials tyre on the rear and shoe-horn it into the rear swinging arm.
The frame, forks and wheel rims were all painted with silver Hammerite enamel, purchased through the Exchange and Mart, which, just as it said in the advertisement, provided a tough easy to clean finish. At the time I loved the B50 BSAs as campaigned by John Banks, Keith Hickman and the BSA ‘new boys’ Vic Allan and Andy Roberton. I’d got a good look at the bikes in the paddock at Wakes Colne and had admired the finish on the tank of Roberton’s machine; a dark red, with a bold black stripe. Inspired by this the Bantam tank was finished in a rich red and black with a white pinstripe and BSA decals to boot. Other finishing touches were alloy mudguards front and rear, the front one mounted high – motocross-style – which involved dad fabricating the aluminium mount, an alloy chain guard and a front, trials type, number plate all of which were dad’s handy work.
And so to my first ride. Dad was on good terms with a local farmer, whose farm contained a collection of ramshackle out buildings and in one of these we stored the bike. I remember dad rather sold his soul to the devil, as in return for this he promised to take a look at the farmer’s Eastern bloc built tractor from time to time. At least that’s how it started out, but as the tractor was very unreliable dad had to take a look more frequently than he would have liked.
So, one Saturday afternoon, needless to say when there was no motocross on the telly, we ventured off to the Bates’ farm for a little motorcycle riding instruction. I proudly wheeled my gleaming mount out of its lodgings, across the road and through the gate into the adjacent field. The gate was firmly closed behind us, as farmer Frank probably had a few cows grazing down near the river and dad set about getting the beast started. After several failed attempts, it eventually burst into life and dad gave it a quick blast down the hill turned and rode back up. Now it was the moment of truth as it was finally my turn to learn to ride the thing!
Once astride the bike, dad showed me what each of the controls did and showed me how to select first gear. With ‘first’ engaged he told me to slowly let the clutch out whilst accelerating and low and behold the bike came to a resounding halt as I stalled it! Dad patiently restarted the bike and I tried again, and again, until after two or three more attempts I was eventually away off down the hill. Now, I confess I was a bit of an ace on a pushbike at that time, so the balancing and steering side of things didn’t cause me too many problems, but throttle and clutch control was another matter entirely!
Having reached the bottom of the hill, I’m calling it a ‘hill’ but truth be told it was nothing more than a ‘gentle slope’, dad instructed me to turn and ride back up. So I entered a very tentative, very wide turn, eventually returning to the track and riding back up. “More throttle!” encouraged my dad as the Bantam threatened to stall again. This was good advice, but the five bar gate was now looming large, “Use the clutch!” was the next instruction, with a little edge creeping into my instructor’s voice. “Turn back down!” was the last thing I heard before I made contact firstly with the gate and secondly with mother earth. So endeth the first lesson!
As I was talking to my father recently, I recounted this episode. He professed not to recall it, but after listening patiently, he told me, “That sounds like my introduction to the pleasures of motorcycling.”
Apparently at a similar age to me, his uncle, Reg Berry, brought along a 1927 300 cc New Imperial for dad to try. It was parked up on the ‘drive’ between my grandparent’s house and my grandfather’s workshop and Uncle Reg proceeded to give my dad some basic instruction. With the engine running and first gear engaged dad intrepidly set off towards the back garden where he should have taken a right turn before circling the house. But, alas he didn’t and soon found himself climbing a manure heap on the edge of his mother’s vegetable patch. The New Imp ran up the heap until its crankcase grounded, unceremoniously pitching its young pilot into the muck!
Dad recalls, “It tipped over and lay there with its hot engine steaming in the manure heap. My mother was not pleased.” It was, I guess, a case of what happens when the ‘shit hits the man!’
Luckily, for both my father and myself, our motorcycling exploits did not end there. Dad rode bikes for many years and became a good Expert level trials rider competing in the South Eastern Centre with the Lewes Unity MCC. As for me, I was soon back on the little bike he put together for me, steadily learning the art of off-road riding.
After a few rides on the farm in various fields, we ventured slightly farther afield. In the village at the time there were one or two young lads who scrambled and one of them, Frank Ellesley, used his father’s Bedford Dormobile van to transport his bikes. Now after a fairly big get-off in a race, he managed to bend the forks on his Husqvarna. At the technical college they had an industrial style press, on which dad had managed to gently persuade the forks to move back into line. As a way of saying thank you, Frank Ellesley Snr. loaned us his van to transport the Bantam to Raydon sand pits, a regular practice area for many off roaders at the time. There I got used to riding in sand, which took some time, and there were plenty of ups and downs for me to get the hang of negotiating.
On one such visit I remember dropping the bike on the far side of the pits coming up a slight rise and having the bike with a very hot exhaust pipe laying on top of me. I remember wailing to my father, who arrived some time later and pulled the bike upright. He attended to the bike, straightening a clutch lever here, pulling undergrowth from the brake lever there, whilst I checked myself out. I was still in one piece, a grazed elbow to show for my fall, but my left wellington boot had not fared so well; the exhaust had neatly sliced its way through the boot leaving a great gaping hole! This time, it was my mother who was none too pleased!
These were happy days spent in the company of my father and fortunately a few photos of the bike remain, taken on my very basic Kodak Instamatic, including a rare photo of me in action on the bike.