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.