A Velocette Venom was 499cc, while an Ariel Red Hunter was 497cc. Vincent also chose 499cc for the Comet, but Triumph twins were 498cc. A Matchless G50 was 496cc, a Manx Norton the full 499. If you bought a Matchless G3L you got 349cc, as you would if you bought a Triumph 21. Among the 650s, Triumphs were 649cc and BSA A10s 646cc, as were AJSs, Matchies and Norton’s 650SS. Over at Redditch, Royal Enfield went their own way – they often did – and produced the 692cc Constellation.
Why have I just written, from memory, all these cylinder capacities – completely arcane detail that is useless to me in real
life? I’m not like Rick Parkington, who knows truly practical motorcycling minutiae, such as which gudgeon pin fits which BSA Gold Star (499cc) variant.
Boys like their planes, trains, ships, tractors, motorbikes and cars (a Jaguar XK120 is 3442cc... no, stop me now). In my case it was the latter two, and growing up in the dull ’50s meant I spent hours browsing A-Z spotter’s guide-type books. I discovered the flat-four Wooller, the vicar’s Sunbeam S7 and S8 inline twin shaft-drivers, the 596cc Scott water-cooled two-stroke twin, Ariel’s Square Four (997cc) and Velocette’s LE (192cc), a water-cooled flat-twin for bowler-andbriefcase types.
I inevitably spent most time poring over the big 650s. AJS 31CSR – I had no idea what the number 31 signified, or the initials, but they sounded vaguely fast, bad and dangerous. BSA Road Rocket and Super Rocket, Triumph Tiger 110, Norton 99 – names fired a boy’s fantasies.
The nearest I got to any 650 was studying a parked one, or watching them speed past on the road. I came from a nonmotorcycling
household; the fastest thing in the clan was dad’s 1937-ish Morris 12 car. I can’t tell you what it’s 0-60 time was, because it wouldn’t do 60mph. Occasionally, affable Uncle Fred would turn up from Essex, 250 miles away, with plump Aunt Ollie on the pillion seat of his BSA B31 (348cc); they looked like they’d walked out of a saucy seaside postcard. Uncle Fred gave me a spin on the pillion
seat once, but apart from that the nearest I got to riding a motorcycle was thrashing my Raleigh bicycle in cycle speedway on
bombsite dirt ovals.
Just up the street, a man called Frank used to wheel a Triumph Ton-Ten out of his garden gate before he disappeared to who knew where. His 42bhp twin was the equivalent of today’s 207bhp Kawasaki ZX-10R, and he wore an armless brown leather jacket over his waxed-cotton gear. Frank made me think that motorcyclists experienced life more vividly than normal drones, which proved to be true when I later got among them.
There were bikes in the A-Z guides that seemed naff even to a guileless prepubescent. Would you strut about boasting: “My bike’s a Francis-Barnett”? Especially if its model name was Fulmar (a tube-nosed seabird). Fannie might have been squat and gross, but she still seemed more exciting than this 149cc two-stroke with a hideous pressed-steel tank/seat unit.
At the back of the A-Z was a bike that I don’t remember seeing at the time: the Vincent Rapide (998cc). With a 50° cylinder spread, huge timing chest sprouting chromed pushrod tubes, the sweep of twin exhaust pipes, it was all testicular motor. It looked as though it had been designed by greater minds than those that produced the 650s (and in Phil Irving and Phil Vincent, it was).
It never occurred that one day I might ride a Vincent twin. A 650 was my more realistic target. But by the time I’d racked up the necessary years and money, almost every make in my boy’s A-Z of motorcycles was gone. The Japanese didn’t really have to compete: the field was left open to them.
To have lost two or three marques from this A-Z richesse would have been careless. For the whole lot to slide off the table was
just inept. Soon, it seems, we may not even be able to produce a sheet of steel in this country. Britain’s international accounts
are more in the red than those of any other developed nation. Still, at least we’ve got lots of bankers in the Square Mile.
Bankers, I said.
It’s not surprising to learn of technicians in a leading MotoGP team who are taking an interest in classic metal. Compared to the
’60s, when Japanese manufacturers would often crush their last-season’s factory bikes, there is now a widespread appreciation of our sport’s heritage.
But France’s Tech3 team, the most successful of the MotoGP satellite squads, have gone a step further than simply admiring other people’s classics. They’ve opened their own historic division – Tech3 Classique – to restore bikes and use their 29 years of experience on the frontline of motorcycling technology to take on some of the more extreme challenges that arise in the renovation business.
Not so long ago, I was talking to Tech3’s patron Hervé Poncharal about his team’s sixth place in the 2015 MotoGP championship with the British rider Bradley Smith. In the course of the conversation I also asked about the classics department, and realised that their skills could help enthusiasts who have some really challenging projects on their hands. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Hervé
said of his new venture. “But so far, with only a little promotion, we’re doing quite well. It’s one person, Laurent Ducloyer, plus Guy Coulon giving advice. They wanted to do it, and I told them to go ahead. The game is simple: in Tech3 we enjoy what we do. We do it with a lot of passion, with all our heart.”
Having known the Tech3 people for many seasons now, I can confirm that what Hervé says is correct. They like the personal touch; human contact. Hervé is unlikely to hire a rider who is simply fast; if he can’t show passion and blend into the Tech3 family, he won’t be invited to take up one of MotoGP’s most prized seats.
Guy Coulon is Smith’s crew chief, the one whose frizzy hair has made him a trademark figure in Tech3. “We have customers who own Honda RC30s,” he told me. “But many of those engines can no longer be run because the crankshaft is worn, and Honda no longer supplies a replacement. We are making a direct replacement. If we can get orders, we can perhaps make a batch of 30. It’s the kind
of job we can handle that others can’t.”
Tech3 Classique is also working on a Munch Mammut TTS, the 1966-75 behemoth powered by a 1200cc NSU four-cylinder car engine. With 88bhp and a top speed of 137mph, the Mammut was probably the fastest road bike of its time. “It has many Elektron components. It’s old magnesium, and you have to give it special treatments to stabilise it and prevent oxidisation,” Guy says.
From an English client comes a 350cc Jawa V4 two-stroke, as ridden by Bill Ivy in 1969. “He has an original chassis and almost all the engine components, but the crankcases are unmachined castings. We are rebuilding the engine to original specification,” Guy says.
A less complex project was the Yamaha YZR250 given to Olivier Jacque by the Yamaha factory for winning the 250cc world title in 2000 for Tech 3. The bike was complete, but needed refreshing before Jacque could ride it in a classic event at Le Castellet. Tech3’s long experience of TZs could prove useful to anyone running such a bike in the new 250cc Classic TT.
Given his long exposure to exotic racing machinery, you might expect Guy Coulon’s favourite bike to be the Yamaha YZR500 on which he worked in MotoGP’s two-stroke era, or perhaps one of the one-litre 24-hour endurance bikes for which France is famous. But his preference is completely unexpected. “A bike that I like a lot for the road is the Rickman Royal Enfield Interceptor,” he said. “The engine is amazing and the chassis handles really well.”
So the technical head of one of MotoGP’s leading teams is passionate about a long-stroke British parallel twin. Just to add even more contrast, Guy’s bike for daily use is a 1969 Honda CB750. As a people, the French are very eclectic in their tastes, and it really shows through in Tech3 Classique’s approach.
I was reminded, when writing the story of Norton’s fourcylinder project (see page 6), how few survivors there are to whom we can talk about motorcycling in the 1950s. The leading figures in the Norton four saga are now gone. We can only access their lives secondhand through books and articles.
It was this sense of being able to experience living history that made me rush to interview Jimmie Simpson in 1980, when he was 82. Here was a chance to meet one of the great TT historymakers, for Simpson was the first rider to set 60, 70 and 80mph laps on the
Mountain Circuit. He did that in a span of just seven years, from 1924-31, at a time when motorcycle design and road conditions were evolving fast. Simpson’s era opened with hand gearchanges and lever throttles, and TT practice conducted on open roads, ending with the first reliable overhead-camshaft motorcycle engines and top speeds of 100mph.
His first TT lap record, of 64.54mph, was even more sensational in that his factory AJS was a 350, not a 500. In 1926 he raised the record to 70.43mph on a factory pushrod 500cc AJS, then pushed it to 80.82mph in 1931 on a 500cc overhead-cam Norton. But while bikes
were getting faster, they were still unreliable and Simpson won only one of the 26 Island races that he contested.
These days, setting the absolute lap record on the Mountain Circuit draws almost as much acclaim as winning a race. It wasn’t like that in Simpson’s time. “There were no congratulations. They were not a bit pleased about the new lap record,” Jimmie said of the Stevens brothers’ response to his heroic 1924 effort. “They said that if I had ridden sensibly, I might have finished first. In
those days lap records were not the intention in racing.”
Statistics underline the fragility of bikes in Jimmie’s era. When he was racing, only 18 of the 44 TT races held were won by the
rider who set the fastest lap; in contrast from 1960-69, 49 fastest-lappers in the 68 races in that period won their respective
TTs. “The Stevens brothers used to say: ‘You go too quick’,” Simpson told me. “I would reply that the race goes to the quickest, but in those days it just wasn’t so.”
In his day, being a factory rider meant you actually worked in the factory. “When I was at Norton in the early ’30s, every bike was personally tested by me before being delivered to the customer,” he said.
At Bracebridge Street, on a salary of £400 a year (around £23,000 today) he worked with designer Arthur Carroll, development engineer Joe Craig and tuner Bill Lacey to improve the company’s first overhead-cam engines, the first of which had been unreliable.
“We had a good engine, and you couldn’t destroy it,” Simpson said. “But the frame had been used on the previous camshaft Norton and was too heavy. The whole bike weighed 450lb (204kg). I suggested that we built a lighter frame and use more alloy parts. In this way we reduced the weight to 330lb (150kg).”
On that bike Simpson became the fastest road racer of his day, lapping the Ulster Grand Prix circuit at 84.63mph in 1930. It was a world away from his 1924 TT record, when, as well as a hand change and lever throttle on his AJS (top speed 75mph) he also had to cope with a footoperated oil pump.
It’s hard for us today, when the Mountain Circuit lap record stands at 132.701mph, to appreciate the hazards that were faced by TT riders in Simpson’s time. In the early ’20s Bray Hill was a potholed, tarmac-free zone, and the road over the Mountain was a rutted cart track. Simpson’s only TT victory was in the 1934 Lightweight, on a Rudge 250. A year after our meeting, Jimmie Simpson passed
away. I’m glad I had the chance to meet him and get some sense of what life was like for those heroes of the ’20s and ’30s.
If you were at Motorcycle Live at the NEC recently, you may have seen a Suzuki GSX-R750F being built from scratch by Nathan Colombi, who fettles Steve Wheatman’s Classic TT-winning XR69 superbike. The show project was organised by Suzuki GB to showcase their extensive Vintage Parts operation, which stocks thousands of components for obsolete bikes.
The GSX was bought just eight weeks before the show, and Nathan restored it, relying on the Vintage Parts catalogue. A pre-build was done to check that every part was there, then it was disassembled and the pieces shipped to the NEC. Nathan put the bike together under the eyes of showgoers, to publicise what the Vintage Parts scheme can offer restorers.
“We’re coming into our fifth year of operation now, and it just gets bigger,” Vintage Parts chief Tim Davies said. “We’ve created a bit of a beast.”
It’s a beast that provides a useful revenue stream; the division’s turnover in 2014 was £1.5 million, and when you learn that 1200 parts are available for the GT750 models alone, you get an idea of the scale of the operation. What’s even more remarkable about Suzuki’s classic spares programme is that it seems to be unique in motorcycling. “There’s not another manufacturer doing this,” Davies claims. Which is odd, given the global scale of the classic bike movement.
Car manufacturers long ago noted the profit potential in classics. Jaguar Heritage, for example, lists 11,000 parts for Jaguar and Daimler cars from the ’60s XJ6 and XJ12s, maintains a website with 26,000 part numbers, has 30,000 photos available to restorers and history-seekers, maintains a fleet of 140 vehicles, and operates a Jaguar Heritage Certificate scheme that provides all the relevant
information on a car taken from the original records.
It confirms the original numbers and colourscheme, dates of build and despatch, name of the first owner and the original registration mark. The service is available for cars dating right back to the Swallow bodied models – Austin Seven, Wolseley Hornet and Standard – of the early ’30s.
Suzuki is a mass manufacturer rather than a niche-market brand, so you wouldn’t expect the same level of detailed data. Suzuki divide their classic machines into pre-1990 Vintage and 1990-99 Modern Classics. Bikes catered for in the Vintage category are the RGV250 K-L of 1989-90, the GT750 J-M models, the GSX-R750 F to H, GT250EX (X7), AP50 and GS1000SN.
Available parts can be seen via suzukigb.co.uk where, for example, 22 parts for the GS1000 are listed under camchain – from £1.08 for an O-ring to £118 for an adjuster assembly and tensioner. Just the GSX-R1100L is listed in Modern Classics at the moment, but the TL1000S is coming soon, and many more bikes are planned.
“The website gives people such a good idea of what they need to do to restore a bike,” Davies says. “We list everything that’s available from the factory, and show an image of the part. People want to be sure they’re getting the right bit. These parts don’t just fit one bike. Suzuki were very good at using the same part on five or six, or even ten different models.”
He tells a story of someone who wanted to restore a Yamaha RD250, but was having difficulty in finding parts. “I suggested he consider the X7. He found a bike, and said that when he looked at our website it was so easy to see what he could get from us and what to source elsewhere.”
Vintage Parts provided 600 components for the GSX built at Motorcycle Live. That bike will now be used as a promotional showcase for the division. For the GSXR1100 engine in Steve Wheatman’s XR69s, Vintage Parts supplied a new crankcase, crank, rods, cylinder head and cylinders, plus a gasket set. Wheatman will take his classics show on a world tour, taking in the Classic TT, Scarborough,
and other UK venues throughout 2016.
All the components in the programme so far consist of stock that had already been manufactured. Tim Davies’ next step will be to persuade Suzuki that it will be profitable to start manufacturing some parts again. Other factories take note...
Everything was shiny in the early days of the classic world. It was odd, because we were dealing with obsolete metal, but that’s the
way it seemed in the early ’80s, at the birth of what is now a vast movement.
We were wide-eyed and innocent, and nobody had been writing about motorcycles such as Brough Superiors for years, so complete had been the mindwashing since Japan’s emergence in the 1960s as the motorcycling superpower. So when at Classic Bike we were offered the
chance to ride a Brough Pendalpine, our first reaction was to rush to the marque history books. What was a Pendalpine?
I discovered that it was a road-legal version of the factory’s Pendine racer, the latter a machine that was guaranteed to have been tested at 110mph before delivery to the customer. The 1927 Pendalpine was a hybrid, powered by JAP’s mighty KTOR 980cc V-twin engine and fitted with Brooklands can silencers and a kickstarter. But it still carried that 110mph guarantee.
Let’s add a little context to that ton-ten figure. In 1927, the outright motorcycle lap record at the 2.75-mile Brooklands speed bowl stood at only 3.5mph more. That same year, Freddie Dixon achieved the highest speed ever attained on a motorcycle – 130mph on another one-litre JAP-engined Brough. So if you bought a Pendalpine you could get to within 20% of the top speed of the world’s fastest
motorcycle – on the narrow and tacky public roads of 90 years ago. It would be the equivalent of buying a 300mph streetlegal
motorcycle today, when the twowheeled land speed record stands at 376mph. The Pendalpine must have been wildly, outrageously fast for its day.
My motorcycling CV contained names such as Bantam, Crusader, Daytona, A65, Commando, Trident, CB750, Z1, R90S. So a 1920s superbike – a super-superbike really – was something very new to me.
The Pendalpine’s restorer, Tony Cripps, invited CB to sample the bike on a heathland road in Dorset before it was handed over to its owner, Pete Lancaster, then the owner of Bikes of Brighton. Motorcycles of that era were spartan – the Brough only weighed about 350lb – but its controls were not that different from those of 1980s bikes – apart from the hand change on the right for the three-speed Sturmey-Archer gearbox.
So, cog the Brough into first and let the big V-twin gather pace. Changing gear was a leisurely affair – release the throttle,
guide the lever through its gate and wind the throttle back on. What had been a lazy chuffing sound escalated to what seemed
like a 5lb hammer trying to break out of the cans as we gathered speed in second.
Change into top and the acceleration faltered. There was quite a big gap between second and third, but then the KTOR gathered pace again and started to reel in the horizon. I got up to perhaps 70mph on the deserted rural road before it was time to brake and swing around. I had no idea of the actual speed or revs as the Brough wasn’t equipped with instruments.
The JAP engine had triple valve springs and had ‘square’ bore and stroke dimensions of 85.7 x 85mm – advanced engineering in an age when long-stroke plonkers were the norm. It developed around 50-55bhp, which doesn’t seem a lot, but big V-twins of the vintage period right through to the Vincents of the 1950s seemed to make what power they had reach a long way. The Brough could clearly have bounded right across England at a steady, loping rate if we hadn’t had to return it to an impatient customer.
A ton-ten... it was a speed that many a British 650 could barely achieve 30 years later. What I was thinking about most on the journey home was not so much the Pendalpine’s effortless performance, but how you would manage that speed – or even 80 or 90mph – on 1920s roads. You round a bend and there’s cattle on the road or a milk float pulling out; there’s no real bite in the eight-inch drum front brake, and you can’t execute a quick downchange to get engine braking on a slippery road.
And no crash helmet, no one-piece leathers, no back protector... heroic stuff.
The rider swung a leg off the Norton 650SS and pronounced: “Now that’s a steerin’ motorbike”. It wasn’t so much the Norton that stunned me, but the phrase he used.
If I’d been impressed by the handling qualities of the Norton’s Featherbed frame and Roadholder forks, I’d have said something conventional and lame, such as: “It steers really well”. But Charlie Rous had that swing in his lingo from having had motorcycles in his blood from birth.
He talked motorcycling-ese. I remember the time he came into the MCN offices ruing the fact that, at a major event, the road racer Derek Minter had “cast it away” (or crashed, as I would have written so unimaginatively).
Charlie was the first editor I worked for in the motorcycling press, and even though we lost him a few years ago, sometimes it
seems that wherever I look he’s there. When we were collating pictures for John Surtees’ autobiography, published last year, JS produced a photo of himself in his first road race – at Brands Hatch in 1950 on a 500cc Vincent Comet. There was Charlie on a 500cc Triumph, dicing with JS on Paddock Hill Bend.
The other day I was checking the world one-hour speed record Mike Hailwood set on a 500cc MV four at 144.83mph on the Daytona Speed Bowl in 1964. Charlie was there, acting as team assistant/reporter.
When I researched the history of the game-changing Gilera four-cylinder racers, Charlie popped up again. In 1963 Geoff Duke persuaded Gilera to de-mothball their six-year-old GP bikes to compete against Hailwood and the MV, and lined up Minter as his star rider.
Charlie coined the exuberant headline ‘MINTA-GILERA!’ and such was his belief in the potential of the Kent rider that he wrote: ‘Minter will win’. Apparently the paper’s then-editor refused to publish what he saw as a risky prophecy, and it was never put to the test – The Mint injured his back in a crash on a Manx Norton and could not complete the Grand Prix season.
Charlie wasn’t just a rider-journalist; in the modern parlance, he knew how to party. When Lord Hesketh launched his 1000cc V-twin road bike at his toff’s manor in Northamptonshire around 1980, we were told that there would be no riding opportunities. Charlie sensed that hedonism was in the air, and got me to drive him over in a car. By the end of the day he was so legless that I abandoned him in the house and returned home solo – no way was I going to risk a technicolour paintjob over my ride’s interior.
To be fair, Charlie wasn’t the only one; on the way out through the hall I passed the advertising manager slumped unconscious in a chair, the pink residue of prawn cocktail dribbling out of his nostrils. Or pink something...
Charlie could also enjoy himself with the ladies. For a company car they gave him one of those weird BMC 1800cc Landcrabs, with enough room in the back for a pool table. Charlie put the space to other uses, and would amble into the office in the mornings regaling us with tales of what he’d got up to with his girlfriend in there the night before. Being a small-town naïf, I never realised that you could... no, let’s not go any further.
The debauchery does not detract from Charlie’s motorcycling credentials. The other week I was curious about what the first British road tests said about the Honda CB750 four, which in 1969 dropped a bomb on motorcycling in the same way that Apple blew apart
computing. There was Charlie again, sampling the 67bhp flagship of the Japanese motorcycle industry.
‘People just stop and stare,’ he wrote. ‘An enormous spread of power becomes apparent as soon as you move off, pulling from 1500-2000rpm. I’ve ridden faster machines, but they were racers. Never have I ridden such a proud and impressive machine as the 750 Honda
About the only thing he didn’t say about the 480lb Honda was: “That’s a steerin’ motorbike”