Friday, 25 March 2011

Bad to the Bone

I mentioned before that I'd sold the Honda 400/4 and the CM125 and used the money to buy the single most disastrous vehicle I ever bought.
I'm gonna keep this one brief, as I didn't get to drive it, much.
With the thousand quid I bought my partner a red Triumph Spitfire.
It came from a young poshish bloke in Port Talbot, and while it looked a little battered the soft top was sound, everything worked, or seemed to at least, and it had a years MOT (For all five of my foreign readers, thats a certificate of roadworthiness. Brit cars need one ever year.).
We both loved it, it was rorty, and classy, and tarty, made a racket, and theres nothing like getting the top down on an empty valleys road, with the sun streaming through the trees, and giving that accelerator pedal a good hard boot, feeling the back end fishtail a bit, ragging it into a couple of bends and flooring it again out of them.
ok, so imagine this a year older, rustier, tattier and sagging in the middle

Not a lot of the panels fitted, and everything creaked a bit. Things broke, but on a 20 year old Spitfire, what do you expect? We bought our own wheel clamp to stop the scrotes from having it away. Parts were easy to come by, and it had a nice 1500 engine, with two gulping carbs sucking in house bricks, pheasants and small children through minimal air filtering. Only did about 25 to the gallon, but fuck it, eh?

I didn't get to drive it much, but when I did, it stirred the blood.
But when winter came, a decidedly loose Spitfire with tolerances in cubits, an ill-fitting soft top and a minimalist heater was not what you needed on roads that where several inches deep in snow a good part of the time.
And then we'd had it a year, and took it for an MOT, and found that thing was a bit lethal. Chassis, body, steering components etc, were pretty much shot away.  There was no way on earth it had got through an MOT a year before - the level of rot implied it hadn't been roadworthy for years, and we could only assume Junior had bought the certificate down the pub.

So it was sold, for a few hundred pounds, to a young lady I had just met on the university course I was enrolled in, though she did get sight of the fail certificate first.
And the poor lass ended up having to spend more than two grand putting it right. Something I do still feel guilty about, but amazingly enough, she still talks to me despite this.
(I would point out, K m'dear, if you are reading this, that I don't feel guilty enough to give your money back.)

And that was my one brush with a British sportscar. As a motorcar it was great. I often consider getting another, just for devilment. I'm thinking of an MG Midget this time.

But let me give you one piece of advice. If your relationship is a bit rocky, and you are spending a lot of time at the typewriter, and your partner is the sort of person who wears short skirts and works later than they really have to, do not buy her a red soft top sportscar that is rotting from the inside out.
For some reason such a vehicle will make her enormously attractive to other men.  Especially her gin-soaked aging lothario of a boss.

You'll be lucky if your relationship lasts longer than the track-rod ends....

Oh lordy. You can hire them out for weekends...

Classic Car Holiday Hire

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look....

 "Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights;
Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous." 
Julius Caesar: Act 1, scene ii.

I found the Yamaha XS650 Special through a small ad in my local Free Ads and drove down to the Mumbles near Swansea late one October evening in 1995 to see it.

The owner was a very hairy young man living in  holiday chalet on a run down holiday camp, signing on for the winter with a selection of other hairy young men and and the sort of girls who had lots of beads and tattoos and not enough on, who I would have found very attractive in my youth but as I was at the sensible age of 34 they didn't even turn my head, oh dear me no...

The air of the chalet had an interesting herbal smell about it.
The bleary-eyed owner of the XS650 took me outside to show it to me.
It was a little the worse for surviving life on the South Wales coast, and had been fitted with a ghastly set of T-bar handlebars, but other than that it was standard – something of a rarity in itself as most of these machines had been customised in one way or another, and it was a European one, which meant it wasn't all bunged up with the ridiculous emissions regs nonsense the Yanks had to deal with.

It was supposed to come with spare set of forks and a pair of disc brakes and to my later regret I never be bothered to go and pick these bits up.

Of course I had decided the bike was mine before I even arrived and it took little in the way of haggling – I got him to knock £100 off the £950 asking price – before I straddled the XS and made off on it.
It is one of the most expensive motorcycles I have ever owned.

"I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you."

Riding the bike with its T-bars was, it has to be said, an experience. They made it feel as if you were riding on marbles set in ice. I ditched them quickly in favour of a set of flat dragster bars I had lurking in the back of the shed, giving it a lovely cobby look. The was way before XS650s were hip, and Bratstyle was but a glimmer in a Tokyo hoodlums eye.

There was plenty wrong with the bike.

The front brake master cylinder leaked fluid and was more than a little spongy so it was ditched in favour of a unit from a Kawasaki GPz550.

The back brake had seized solid in the off position and it took some hefty whacks with old copper/hide mallet to get it to work properly.

The side stand spring was missing, but a dead washing machine released a suitable alternative.

(old washing machines are great sources of bits for bodging. They're full of springs, bits of stainless, good quality fasteners,miles of strong wire, metal sheets, and the motors can make handy polishing wheels.)

The seat had so many holes in it, it looked like a doily, but a rummage in the bargain bin at a back street dealership uncovered a genuine Yamaha replacement cover.

I also fitted the greatest boon to motorcycling since the advent of electric lighting – the Scottoiler.

For the unititiated, let me explain.
There's this little plastic bottle you fill with oil. Using the vacuum pressure from the carburettor the Scottoiler builds up pressure in the bottle, which forces drips of oil slowly onto your drive chain – the faster you go, the more oil it drips. It’s genius – it reduces the number of times you have to adjust the chain and makes them last about six times as long – and as a Scottoiler costs about the same as a chain and sprockets, it does not take long before it pays for itself. I love it. Its such a genius bit of tech, but so simple.

The exhaust system had been – ahem – modified by the expedient of drilling holes in the end of it and had got very rusty in the sea air, so I whipped it off and bolted on a set of straight-through drag pipes which made it sound like a racing dumper truck. This was a bit anti-social, seeing as I set off for work in those days at six am, so I bunged on a pair of silencers from a Harley Davidson which I had picked up on my travels.

However the bike didn’t run very well, and at over 60 mph and it would misfire badly.

I changed lots of electrical bits – the coils, condensors – sourced from a Volvo – plug leads, points etc, before finding that it wasn’t an electrical problem at all, but that there were microscopic holes in the carburettor diaphragms. The bike having been out of production for many years they were obviously unobtainable from Yamaha, but there is a sizeable industry in aftermarket bits for the XS650 and a company called NRP in Manchester sold me some.

The bike got through cables for the throttle, speedometer and clutch at a rate of knots and left me stranded many times.

On one occasion I managed an emergency bodge by buying a bicycle brake cable, tying it to the throttle linkage and wrapping the other end round my wrist which I then had to wave in the air if I wanted to go faster. I did try using my teeth, but it hurt.

The gear shift shaft was worn out so I glued the lever back on with Araldite as a temporary measure -  that stood for nearly six years - before I found an engineering solution to the problem , and  drilled a hole through it and whacked a 6mm bolt through the hole.

Bits fell off often, including one of the side panels. This was irritating, as like many Japanese motorcycles, this one was made of that curious material “unobtanium”. I could not find another panel for years. After this virtually every component which might fall off was fastened in place with ratchet cable ties.

The fuse box fell apart and had to be replaced with a cheap auto spares shop alternative and I never found a mirror that would stop vibrating long enough for me to see what was happening behind me.

The drag pipes stated to look pretty grotty and so the Harley silencers, which weighed a ton,  were ditched in favour of two into one system bought from a bloke in Frome – he also supplied a pair of replacement side panels with curious, demonic-looking runes painted on the inside – I never painted them out – just in case.

Also rotted was the seat base which I repaired with glass fibre and I had to change the brake pipes for braided stainless steel items, just so the dreadful stainless dinner plate of a front disc would actually haul me to a stop – the forks and discs I hadn’t picked up would have come in handy as they included a pair of racing cast iron discs.

The shock absobers were replaced with something a bit less bouncy and the front mudguard with one from a BSA Thunderbolt.

The bike broke down in a number of irritating ways about ten times a year.

So, if it’s unreliable, why is it still in my garage?

"Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel."

Because it’s such a fucking cool motorcycle.

It has soul, looks mean, all shiny and slender and black, sounds cool, and there’s nothing like watching heads turn as you roll back the throttle and go brarrrrrpppp down a high street, all the while trying not to glance at your reflection in shop windows.
And it makes you feel dangerous, not in an erzatz 21st century buy-it-off-the-shelf way, but like riding a motorcycle used to make you feel.
Sworn to fun, loyal to none, the sort of motorcycle you should only ride if you own a black leather jacket, covered in scuffs and scars.
Like you've come out of a time warp from the 70s with nothing more than twenty Players number 6, a bottle of Woodpecker and a pocket full of dexedrine, and you're looking for a teenager to deflower, and you're  mad, bad and dangerous to know....

Cassius, as I call the him, is 33 years old, and he still has a "Lean and Hungry Look".  He needs a rebore, and the frame could do with a repaint. But for five hundred quid and a few weeks work, he'd be right as rain. I'd quite like to trim the back mudguard, cut the seat down a bit, fit a prettier zorst. If money was no object I'd bore him out to 840 and slap on a pair of slide Mikuni carbs. About once a week I go on ebay and search for random bits that would make him prettier.

We've been through thick and extremely thin together. He's taken me places you wouldn't credit, appeared on stage, and been my friend and boon companion for nearly half of his life and a third of mine. I could no more sell him than sell a kidney. I’ll probably be buried with him.

"A friend should bear his friend's infirmities."- Cassius, Julius Caesar 4.3.85

Thursday, 10 March 2011

How to buy your dream motorcycle for £50.

Bear with me on this one, and try to pay attention as it could take some effort to keep up.

It was at around this time while using the Citroen BX and the Honda VF400F that I started to collect parcels from a bike breakers based just outside Hereford for Her Majesty's Royal Mail.
And it was over cups of tea in convivial company that opportunity knocked.
One of the owners of the breakers had a rather fab Yamaha XS650, which was one of the sexiest bikes to come out of the Japanese factory in the 1970s.
This one had an 840cc Halco conversion and looked mean and rangy and likely to devour anyone who came near it.
I sat on it once and started it running, and it felt as if it was possessed by demons.
I had wanted an XS 650 for years, and bemoaned the fact that I would never own one to its owner.
He pshawed, and suggested that I could, with a bit of jiggery-pokery, easily raise the money for one, if  I would but follow his example.
He told me that opportunities for the shrewd were many in the second-hand motorcycle business, and pointed out that he and his partner had started their now highly successful business with a £20 wreck of a Yamaha 250, which they had broken for spares.
This was 1995 - eBay year zero. Hardly anyone had the internet - my mum was the only person I knew with a web connection - 25.6 kbps of Apple Mac/Netscape power.
In those days, children, we had things called small ads, and before PayPal people were happy to send each other cheques, wait for them to clear and then send off goods.
Or there was Cash on Delivery for a fee.
"Please allow 28 days for delivery" was another mantra.
Anyway it was explained to me that when broken into bits the XS250 had been advertised in magazines, sold in those bits for £300 and they'd used the money to buy other worn out bikes, until the business had snowballed and these two blokes were sitting pretty in a converted chicken shed packed with tonnes of bike spares.
They were desperate for stock at this time and offered me £50 commission for any old bike I could get them. So I kept a careful eye on the back gardens I came across as I chugged around in my post office lorry till I found an old  CX500 leaning up against a shed.
The breakers gave the owner £50 for it, and were as good as their word and paid me £50 too - and promptly sold the exhaust system and the speedometer for £100.
I was inspired and spent my £50 on a selection of tea chests containing most of a BSA Bantam.
yeah, mate, of course its all there

I did nothing with them, but sold them on to a bloke who wanted the equivalent of a grown up meccano set to restore for £150.
In the back of a Llantrisant superbike dealership I found a Yamaha SR500 which I paid £150 for, which was sold to the breakers for twice the money and then I bought another SR500 for the £300 which they bought for £400.
So that was a journey from no money at all to £400, and all in the space of three weeks.
For £300 I bought an incomplete Suzuki GS550 chopper, which I sold for £550.
Look at the state of that thing. Also, look at the state of the road damaged by my leaky Citroen BX. You can see why the council were vexed....

And then for £450 I bought a Honda CB650 four with a very rattly primary drive chain.
just, why bother?
Funny bike, your CB650, Bit of parts bin special, with a bored out CB550/4 engine, and all sorts of left over bits from Honda's other models of the day.  It was made in that curious period when Honda forgot how to make motorcycles.
It came out at the same time as Honda's first DOHC fours and it was almost as if they didn't have confidence in the new bike and were worried the punters would be frightened off by two camshafts and four valves per cylinder, so they knocked this out as a sort of safety valve in case it all went horribly wrong.
The Yanks got the CB650 Nighthawk, which had too many exhaust pipes and stick on plastic chrome panels on the tank.
I rode round on it for a month or so. It was quite pleasant in a pedestrian sort of a way, sort of neither old nor young, and a bit chubby round the middle.
As for primary chain, well as the bike dealers used to say,  "they all do that, Sir" and indeed they do - just before the chain punches a hole in the bottom of the crankcase.
By this time the missus was getting wise to the plan and declared, as she had once done before, that she wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle.
So we cut a deal.
She would stop moaning about this constant flood of motorcycles and contribute some cash and I would get her a bike to learn on.
So I swapped the CB650 for a Honda CM125 and £550 - the CM125 being  for her to learn on and bought a very ratty Honda CB400/4 for £50 to restore for her once she'd passed her test.
Yeah, I had a Harley once

While searching for parts for this I saw an advert for another CB400/4 in a classic bike magazine, but this one was  in Melton Mowbray - 250 miles across country.
The owner said he wanted £200 for it and he claimed it was a runner and it had an MoT, so I thought  it would save a lot of messing about, but the downside was the owner said it wasn't terribly original and could do with a tidy up.
Sometimes, though, you go with gut feelings, so I sold the ratty 400/4 for £75 to the breakers (slinging it in the back of my Post Office lorry to get it there. tsk, tsk.) and rented a van to drive to Leicestershire.
When I got there I was met by bearded gent of indeterminate age. I can remember him now, the build, the clothes - army jumper, lancer jacket, jeans - even the length of his grey brown bushy beard, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you how old he was or what his face looked like.
He spent most of the time after arrival apologising to me for wasting my time coming all that way for such a dreadful machine and trying to make me have a cup of tea.
He took me to garage at the end of his garden, and there, sandwiched between a concours condition BSA A10 and an equally gorgeous Velocette Thruxton was an utterly immaculate Honda CB400/4 - Original paint in maroon and gold, perfect in every detail but one.
absolutely fabulous

By "not terribly original" he meant he had changed the exhaust system for an Alfa 4-1.
The Alfa was an aftermarket exhaust system, cheaply made and noisy as hell. It was essentially some steel tube, chromed, with a load of glass fibre wadding rammed down it and what any self-respecting hoodlum did when they bought one was drill off the end cap and pull the wadding out.
By "needing a tidy up" he meant that I would have to clean the layers of WD40 the owner had sprayed on the perfect paintwork to preserve the bike when he laid it up during the winter.
He had MoT certificates dating back 15 years, and it had covered 700 miles a year. It still had the owners manual and the toolkit under the seat.
It was a superb example of a 400/4. I asked him four times if he really only wanted £200 for it, but he just indicated the BSA and the Thruxton and said that he: "didn't really know a lot about Jap bikes." and he then added: "It's just taking up space."
When I got it home I pushed it into the house and parked it up in the hallway -  there was no way a bike this perfect was being left in the street.
It sat in the hall for a while, and was briefly used as a clothes rack.
Eventually madam decided for the second time that biking wasn't for her so I sold her CM 125 for £300. After flogging the previously mentioned VF400F I rode the 400/4 for a short while, and it was as good as it looked - The legend of the 400/4 untarnished by a decade and a half of time.
But it was all too brief a liaison.
The bike was just too good to be a hack, and there was no place in my life for an unridden museum piece. The only toys I had room for were yellow, plastic and made by Fisher-Price.
I came to a decision that my early starts in all weathers for the Post Office would soon ruin this perfect bike, so I sold it for £800 to a collector, and the profit went on as truly disastrous a purchase as I ever made, of which more, briefly, anon.
Finally though, after breaking open the piggy bank and counting up my pennies, adding the money I'd got for the VF400F to the profit on the CB650,  I found that I had over £1,000.
Enough cash to go and buy my very own Yamaha XS650.

So that's what I did.

And that's how you buy your dream motorcycle for £50.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Captain Cackhanded and the Brown Trousered Cowboy

The CX500 being a bit bent, I went from the sublime to the ridiculous.
There were four bikers at the depot. Apart from me, there was a crusty old bloke with another even rattier CX500, a long haired chap who would turn up on Kawasaki fours of various descriptions, and who was a 10 year member of the Berserkers MC, a highly respected but now long gone Newport outlaw bike club.
This was a chap who kept himself to himself, but a solid, upstanding bloke. I worked with him for four years, and it was only in my last two weeks with the post office that he told me he was in the club.
And there was a young feller with a 10-year-old Honda VF400F.
This was the first of a very silly series of motorcycles from Honda, with  four cylinders in a vee, three miles of cam chain on each set, six gears, four valves per cylinder, hydraulic doodads all over the shop, a big shiny dash and in-board brakes so complicated that it took Honda factory mechanics two hours to change the brake pads.
For Joe Soap it was an impossibility.

They also had air suspension.

Now, spotty the junior postman had heard about this and became fixated with the idea, that if he adjusted the pressure in the suspension, the bike would be somehow transformed.
He declared that he was going to adjust these pressures. With the post office's high pressure air line.
"Nooooo," cried the crusty old biker, the Berserker and I. The shocks only needed a tiny bit of pressure, and airline is the last thing he should use.
He listened not. And one day we all got back to the depot and found him trying to work out how to ride a 140mph motorcycle with rock solid suspension.

I helped him let all the air out of the now rigid Honda, and pumped it up again with a bicycle pump.
He was very impressed, but he was also fed up with motorcycles and wanted a Fiesta. It was at this time that I had slung the CX500 down the road, and he offered me the VF400F for £400 - about half what it was worth. I grabbed it.

So much trouble in such a small package, as the actress said to the bishop

Interesting motorcycle, the VF. Turbine smooth, insanely fast. Handled quite well, given Captain Cack-handed's efforts to bugger the suspension.
It didn't really gel with me though. It had an irritating and potentially lethal habit of cutting out completely at high speed.

There's nothing quite like the terror of riding a motorcycle down the fast lane at close to a ton, and having engine just stop dead.

And the bike had been fitted with a weird safety feature, so you could only use the electric starter when you were in neutral.

So when the engine stopped, I'd have to pull in the clutch, frantically try to find neutral, all the while piloting a coasting and rapidly slowing motorcycle through three lanes of fast moving  traffic, get to the hard shoulder, get it out of gear, wind the starter for a bit, and the bike fired and ran perfectly, with no indication there was anything wrong.

After fossicking around in the electrical circuitry, and twiddling carb connections, I found out what it was.
The petrol flow was controlled by a tiny vacuum pipe, which was stuck with one end going into the petrol tap and the other end into a carb inlet. The air sucked through the inlet pulled open a tiny diaphragm letting the fuel out. When I reached 94 mph, the rush of air was so great, that the pipe developed a leak, the diaphragm collapsed, with its own tiny pneumothorax, and petrol stopped flowing.
And thus the engine stopped, and wouldn't go again, until it had been spun enough to suck the diaphragm again, to let the fuel flow.
Boy was I glad to work that out. My buttocks were getting so clenched everytime it conked out it was giving me piles.

Having sorted that out, I took a long hard look at this insanely complicated pile of trouble, decided it was likely to be a money pit, and offloaded it to another sucker for more than I paid for it...

A result for once. Which was nice.

best advert ever...