Tuesday, 30 November 2010


After a fabulous few years hacking around East Devon  my now crunched MZ 150 lay pathetically in a back street dealership in Ottery St Mary.
I needed wheels and I needed them fast, and fortunately parental insistence on fully comp insurance meant I had enough for a deposit on another bike on the never-never.

All the tiresome fiddling around with two-stroke oil had got a bit dull,  so this time I decided I would buy a four stroke.
Only Honda had made four strokes at the time that I could afford and ride on L-plates. And so I signed my life away on a Honda CB200.
And this was in all probability the dullest motorcycle I ever owned.
It was devoid of character, fragile and handled abysmally.
Where the MZ had been taut, the CB sagged. Suspension was squishy and it lurched into corners.  It had next to no ground clearance, and no get up and go.
Just 5 mph faster than the MZ, despite its extra 50cc, twin carburettors and two cylinders, it did what Hondas do. It burbled along unspectacularly and reliably. I was alright, I suppose, had an electric starter and the switches hadn't been made out of redundant military components, and took me happily on a couple of youthful jaunts to far away pubs, but it didn't imprint on me the way the MZ had.

It was good for one thing and one thing only – passing my test.
This was not quite as arduous a task as it is today. No part ones and part twos and written theory stuff.
Effectively what I had to do was turn up one morning to an Exeter side street.
There I was met by an examiner, who stood by the side of the road, watching as I rode round the block,while he studied  a stopwatch to make sure I didn't speed. I had to ride round the block five times, indicating, looking behind me etc as he looked on.
I had been informed by the kerbside examiner before I wobbled off that at some point he would would wave his clip board front of me to test how good my braking was.
I had been the case that the examiner would step out into the road, but were many tales of flat-capped examiners stepping out in front of the wrong bike and being flattened, so they tended to be a bit wary you had at least twice the required distance to stop in.

Amazingly, I managed to fail first time round, because I used my mirrors to look behind me instead of looking over my shoulder But second go, I passed, ditched the L Plates and never looked back. except to make sure the filth weren't on my tail.

With pass certificate in my hand I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to buy a proper motorcycle, I just needed an excuse. Nobody seemed likely to nick the CB200, And I didn't fancy binning it.
I really fell out with the CB200, though when the front brake stopped working.
I dismantled the cable-operated disc caliper only to find a puddle of rusty water inside and lots of broken springs.

I spent a few quid on parts from a breakers, inexpertly reassembled the brake, and rode it, very carefully, to Fred Hutchings Motorcycles in Exeter.
There amongst the mopeds and old scooters and jap lightweights were two possible replacements.
For £700 I could have a virtually new Suzuki GT250 - 95mph of screaming three year old two-stroke twin with just 700 miles on the clock, which had been bought by an old geezer by mistake - he thought he was getting a sensible replacement for his old BSA 350, rode it, scared himself half to death and shoved it in the shed, according to the dealer, anyway.
But the GT had just been superseded by the X7 - which was 5mph faster, and so much better looking.

Plus there was an image problem. I wanted to fit in with my new chums at the local motor cycle club, (thats MCC not MC) where everyone had very sensible big chunky four strokes. Howling 250s were for kids.

Fred Hutchings had another bike for £700.
It was a chocolate brown Honda CB500T. In the end cubes and respectability won out over blue smoke and exhilaration.  I chopped the 200 in against the 500T. Well, we all make mistakes.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Eagle has landed. Upside down in a bush.

In April 1979 I took my by now battered and worn out Batavus HS50 to Corby in Northamptonshire and part- exchanged it for the only new motor vehicle I have owned.
I wanted something a chunky and a four stroke - a Honda CJ250T or Dream was top of the list.

For an18 year old hoodlum in 1979 there were essentially four camps. You bought a Honda 250, where you kitted yourself out in Belstaffs and drank real ale and didn't get girls, a Yamaha RD250 - Bomber jacket and football scarf and keg bitter and might pull a farmers daughter,  a Suzuki GT250 - lancer jacket and silk scarf and lager and blond girl who chewed gum and picked her nose with painted nails,  or a Kawasaki KH250 - green Kawasaki jacket, snakebite and whatever you could score - these guys were the ones with the skinny feral girlfriends who would do anything for a bottle of Cinzano, three dexedrine or ten No 6.
Poor people got MZs and CZs, the eccentric bought old BSA C15s or Triumph T25s and the stylish got weird Italian stuff like Benellis. But it had to be a 250. Anything less was just for the wage slave and the poor.
But once again – although I was going to be making the payments – it was my dad who was down as guarantor, and what he said went.

And what went was something ever so sensible - an MZ TS150 Eagle.

At the end of the Second World War Britain was offered two options from what was left of German industry as war reparations.
We could have the design of the Volkswagen Beetle, or the blueprints of a 125cc two stroke motorcycle, manufactured by the firm DKW.
Being the brilliant business brains that we are, we took the motorcycle and handed the plans over to BSA who turned it into the Bantam. These were seen on Britain’s roads throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, often painted bright red and wobbling along with a junior postman on its saddle.
Of course when the Germans handed over the plans it didn't mean that they forgot how to make motorcycles and many former designers ended up in East Germany, where they set up a factory at Zschopau which became known as Motoradd Zschopau, or MZ. Oh yeah and the Russians nicked the plans too and built a factory at Minsk, where they still make them.

Now I know that Ladas and Wartburgs didn’t have much of a reputation for reliability, but the MZ was  a good machine to cut your teeth on and could be purchased for £350, brand new. It had a whole six months (or 3,000 miles) warranty.

My training to ride this machine involved it being pushed out of the back door of a dealers in Corby, being given the plastic switch that passed for an ignition key, and being told first was down and the other four were up, and to slip the clutch a bit till I got used to it. Thank goodness it didn't stall on the way home or I would never have been able to start it again.
It was pretty reliable, provided I didn't try to practice my cack-handed mechanical skills on it too often and changed the plug regularly - and fortunately it was built out of much better metal thean your average jap which meant fewer stripped threads and chewed up screw heads - and it had a quirky style all of its own. It was covered in acres of inch thick chromium plate, and apparently was carved from a single lump of alloy by the Germans.
The most prominent feature of the MZ was the petrol tank, which rose vertically for about six inches in front of the riders crotch, discouraging panic braking. It also had tyres made out of leather, with the tread glued on, and a tool kit that could have been used to dismantle a Mig fighter.
I learned how to maintain it, after a fashion, changed the tyres for Contis, and daringly turned the handlebars down a bit. I rode the MZ all over the shop – including  on an epic four corners trip taking in Lands End, John o’ Groats, and the Lizard  in ten days. - on this trip i nearly ruined my chance of progeny by riding into the back of my mate Cris's CD175 while fooling about on Porlock Hill.
I won the long distance award at the Peak Rally for riding it from Exeter to Buxton in February, in light sleet.
And all on L-plates
I never felt it was stylish enough for me to dare buying a leather jacket to wear on it, and my Nolan Guardsman open face was all that was required - Full face helmets were for real bikers, not the riders of ring-a-ding commie two strokes.
Unfortunately the MZ came to a sad end. Full of foolish youthful devil-may-care one night, and under the influence of three pints of bitter and a hay fever tablet, I ran into a grass verge while negotiating a bend. The MZ somersaulted over my head and landed, terminally, in a heap. I got up barely bruised but the MZ was toast. It was a good few years before I next came to realise that booze and motorcycles don’t mix. 

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A Batavus Hs50... tasty, huh?

On Mopeds

In 2005 as I wandered, faintly bemused from the Bath and West Showground after a bike show, I held in my sweaty little paw a scrap of paper which apparently proved I was the new owner of a dog eared Gilera DNA 125 motorcycle.
And fine little machine it was too, as I discovered while hacking it back home over the Mendips.
It was only when I got home and photographed it, as I always do these days when I get a new vehicle, that I started to count up the number of motor vehicles I had owned since I first hit the road in 1977.
At that point I had had 57 motor vehicles. The number is now 62.
That's two and a half a year. And they haven't been normal motor vehicles.
There were Dutch mopeds, Polish cars, French vans, East German motorcycles and too many Hondas. All had a personality of their own and all of them were hacked unmercifully round country lanes, mostly in the south west.
Most of them were also held together with baling twine, chewing gum and bent wire.

My first passion was for motorcycles and it was all my stepmum's fault. I was a 15-year-old spotty herbert living on the outskirts of Glasgow, and oneday she announced that we were to move house, to Northamptonshire. After years of good of public transport we were to live in a little village where they had one bus a week.
On a sunday afternoon a few weeks later, she produced an Observer colour supplement with an advert for Honda Mopeds it it. You met the nicest people on a Honda.
"Don't worry," she said, "We'll get you a little moped when you are 16, so you can get about, and then you can have a Mini or something when you're 17."
The idea of owning a moped was something I had never considered, but within a fortnight my bedroom floor was awash with glossy brochures and motorcycle magazines and could tell you the power output and top speed of every sports moped on the market.
I wanted a Fantic GT - allegedly the fastest moped you could buy, which could crack 60 mph downhill with a following wind. Either that or a Yamaha FS1E.
But as I wasn't the one paying for it, I got a Batavus HS50.
This amazing piece of Dutch engineering - which is not a phrase in common parlance, the Dutch being more famous for cheese, tulips and cannabis -  would just make 35 mph with its one gear engine, bicycle tyres and the strangest suspension system ever. The swinging arm was fixed and the frame moved up and down. And the front forks were fitted with biro springs. I crashed it on a fortnightly basis, getting through plastic headlights so regularly that the dealers started buying them by the half-dozen for me.
I rode it everywhere - touring East Anglia and visiting a girlfriend in Bournemouth on it.
After a year of thrashing it into the ground It was pretty much worn out, and the bug had bitten - My stepmum could keep her Mini, I needed a proper motorbike and a leather jacket, and that was that.

Next time: How to destruction test an MZ150

All the Motor Vehicles I Have Ever Owned

Five years I wrote a series of columns for the now sadly defunct Mendip Messenger magazine - All The Motor Vehicles I Have Ever Owned. I've had a few more since then, and I enjoyed writing them, so I thought I'd re publish online each week, only this time with occasional swearing.

Hope people like them.


Ixion was a figure in Greek Mythology
Zeus ordered Hermes to bind Ixion to a burning  wheel that was always spinning across the heavens; only when Orpheus played his lyre did it stop for a while.

Canon B.H. Davies, a vicar, adopted the name for a column in The Motor Cycle he wrote for 40 years until the 1960s.

I'm no Ixion, but I pluck at his coat tails.