ARCHIVE ALERT! This article originally appeared around two decades ago. Some things never change – RealClassic’s editor Frank Westworth is still a committed AMC Anorak – but don’t be surprised if some of the people and specialists he mentions are doing other things these days…
Things rarely turn out the way you expect, even if your expectations were pretty modest! Frank Westworth always wanted to be an expert…
Back in those misty, but somehow perpetually sunny days we recall so well, if somehow inaccurately, I was prone to admiration. That’s not to say that my life currently lacks admiration – not at all – but back then I was prone to it. I could even be found making cups of alleged coffee for those I admired. They deserved cups of my famously vile ersatz coffee because these admirable souls could – and did – fix my bikes.
Way back then, when Rowena was but an egg, I was faintly notorious among my two-wheeling chums for riding an AJS single and claiming to enjoy the experience. Everyone else in our constantly shifting and certainly shifty circle who rode anything other than a BeezerTriNorton maintained that they did so with reluctance, and would rectify matters as soon as circumstances allowed. Given that their poverty-stricken circumstances were exactly the same as my own, and that they were unlikely to win the Lottery because it hadn’t yet been invented, I regarded such mutterings as the posturings they were. But the fact remained that I was the only true fan of the Plumstead plodders. Even the spotty oik with the first Norton Jubilee I’d ever seen pretended a complete lack of envy when he rode alongside me and my AJS 18. I’ve disliked spotty oiks ever since, although time has made me more tolerant of Norton’s weediest twin.
What I really wanted to be, though, was An Expert. Experts were those who could transform something impenetrable into something understandable. They could FIX things. And I could not. For a depressingly long time I could not.
The greatest Expert of all in those acne’d times was Geoffrey. Geoffrey was a rider of fearsome reputation. He rode like the wind. When he started his riding life on a BSA C15, he became notorious for out-riding the local hotshots on their 500 Triumphs. When he graduated to a Tiger 100A, no Bonneville was safe from humiliation. When he moved on to an Ariel Huntmaster, he revealed that there really was no point in wasting all that money on British triples or Japanese fours if all you wanted to do was ride improbably rapidly.
Maintaining his reputation as scourge of anything with pretensions to performance required that all Geoffrey’s bikes were thrashed beyond anything like their makers’ expectations. And to survive that, they required maintenance. Expert maintenance. And Geoffrey could do that. I brewed oceans of disgusting coffee for him because he could keep my ancient AJS going, too.
I wanted to be able to perform these mechanical miracles, too. I wanted to be able to sit down cross-legged in front of my exhausted AMC single and somehow transform it from an oil-spewing ruin into an oil-tight tarmac-chewing terror. Geoffrey could – and did – this; performing miracles of leak-fixing while armed only with a pair of adjustable spanners, a woodworking screwdriver, a pair of scissors and a pile of old cereal packets. He was the Original Expert, and although it’s possible that his mental processes were damaged by my appalling coffee, he went on to design arcane bits of jet engines for Rolls-Royce. I occasionally wondered whether he used the same adjustable spanners, the same pair of scissors…
Unhappily our ways parted, as ways do, and when Geoffrey was no longer available to perform engineering marvels at the drop of a pleading gaze I had to learn how to do it myself. This was not easy. While I had been festering lagoons of inevitably indigestion-provoking and spectacularly laxative coffee, Geoffrey had never actually revealed how he’d done what he’d done. I’d often watched him, but always lost my grip on his reality when his muttered terse commentary on whatever it was he was doing degenerated into the realms of ‘I don’t know why anyone would waste their time riding this heap of **** when there are so many Triumphs about.
‘Or even Ariels. Or Enfields. S*ddin’ h*ll, even a **** of a Panther must be better than this…’ He could curse in an expert and creative manner too, which was always a worry when Mum was about. My coffee increased his ability to curse…
For years I understood that the way to keep bikes – my bikes – running was to swear at them. If a dose of profanity failed to fix a rocker box oil leak, then swear more while marching around the bike waving a pair of adjustable spanners. My maintenance techniques did not improve. No matter how much swearing, spanner waving I did, I could still not stop oil leaks; I could still not keep my bikes running well.
I tried advanced approaches, like spraying everything with WD40. This might work, in an unpredictable way, though WD40 was expensive. Even a proud combination of profanity, the application of buckets of WD40 and the original appearance of Thor, King of Hammers, failed to fix my bike. My bike by this time was a Triumph, a T140 Bonneville. I had drifted from the true path of the AMC devotee, seduced by claims of reliability, performance beyond dreams and guaranteed attractiveness to girls. I believed all the sales talk, and none of it was true. After one lengthy night-time ride in lashing rain from my then home in North Wales to the parental home in Somerset in search of solace at the bosom of a fair maiden (or failing that, drowning my sorrows in a trough of RealCider™) my motorcycle ended its flight staggering down the A38 illuminated by just a single indicator lamp – all other lighting having passed beyond restoration by the final dregs from my can of … WD40.
It was a dark time.
I needed to relocate to the fragrant oasis which is AJS (or Matchless) ownership. And I did, replacing the Triumph with a G9 Matchless. This proved to be similar in every way to the Bonneville; it was every bit as unattractive to girls, for example, but it had one huge advantage. It had a magneto. In those day, magnetos never went wrong. And if they did you could pick up another for pennies.
I learned to use real spanners. To perform maintenance (buy a book; follow the instructions). To check the bike over every time the skies were light enough and the kerbside dry enough for my aching knees to support me as I squatted toad-like, adjusting primary chains, brakes, things like that. After only a few years it became … fun. Well … nearly. And it still is. Well … nearly.