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”