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BSA Bantam Motorcycle
Original image by John Shepherd, CC BY 2.0

Motorcycling: Tales from prehistory

We all catch the motorcycling bug in different ways. Doctor Sprocket found it in a sandpit. Thanks mum!

How many people can say that their first motorcycle was a Triumph Tiger T110, bought for them by their mother?

Ok, so I was four and it wasn’t exactly 650cc of ton-up, 1960s rebellion. And, yes, it was a 1/43 scale sidecar unit, but even as a Matchbox toy, it made a big impression on me. In my mind, I often rode it across the ridgeline on the back of our settee, making a cacophony of brmmming noises and through the desert wastes of our sandpit with an escaped Airfix tailgunner on board.

Actually, there must be quite a few kids whose prized T110 got lost in the garden or dismembered by a big brother. I know this because to buy this nostalgic diecast miniature now costs 165 Euros (plus 500 more for delivery/customs from Germany. Thanks, Brexit). That’s probably more than the original full-size machine.

In 1964, I met the boyfriend of a family friend who wore a white pudding bowl helmet with integral leather headpiece. Everything the guy owned seemed to be adorned with black and white checks. At the time, he looked incomparably sophisticated but I’d guess he was no more than 20 and I wasn’t totally clear about the differences between motorcyclists and astronauts… the uniforms were identical, after all. I couldn’t understand what someone with a bike and checked gauntlets wanted with a girlfriend.

My uncle had a real one. A real T110, I mean – or perhaps he had the Thunderbird version. It pulled him and my much loved, Sunday-go-to-meeting Aunt all over Ireland, wearing a back-to-front flat cap and easily outpacing many a donkey cart. It was a much more adventurous journey then than nowadays, even when constrained by his baptist pillion. The bike finally disappeared on the back of a scrappy’s lorry in about 1968, together with some .303 rifles and a collection of buckets… the market price of rust must have taken a sudden downturn.

I was a know-it-all 10 year old when we first went to the TT on holiday. The deck of the ferry across the Irish sea was strewn with crates, all of which contained racing machines. I managed to read the name Billy Guthrie on the side of one orange bike (before saying hello to Huey over the side). The next time I saw Guthrie’s steed, it had burst from its crate and was one of a sequence of 120MPH streaks, airborne over some country bridge.

My father was heard to complain, a few years later, that one of his customers had had electrical trouble with their BSA Bantam – hard to believe I know, given that the idea of attaching electronics to a motorcycle was still like fitting rayguns to your jetpack. Faced with a bill of several pounds, the owner decided he would just disappear, on foot presumably.

After a certain amount of persuading, I was permitted to ride it around the workshop yard.

I’ll never forget the first time I let the clutch out and felt that magical sensation of forward movement without any muscular effort. Muscular effort wasn’t really part of my skillset. I’ll also never forget the time, a few minutes later, when I felt the less magical sensation of falling off. Made of good British steel, the bike demolished a section of good British brick wall and my right elbow bears the scar. You probably understand why it still makes me smile.

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