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Being a Born-Again Biker in Brum

1952 ~ 2002: The End of an Era?
By David A Hardy

My first experience of motor cycling came around 1952, when I was about 16.

I used to visit a friend in Great Barr (the other side of town from Bournville, where I then lived), Michael Guest, whom I had met at the Midlands Branch of the British Interplanetary Society, which I had just joined. He had built a telescope, through which I was able to obtain my first glimpses of the Moon’s craters and Saturn’s rings ~ magic! But I had to travel over there by bus; not an easy journey. However, on one occasion Walter Harris was there. Walter also had a telescope, and lived about half a mile from me, in Mulberry Road, and he had a motorbike: at first just a moped, but then he got, I think, a BSA 250 (maybe 500 ~ it seemed big, and black of course), and one night he offered me a lift home on his pillion.

Anything was better than that bus journey, so I accepted, with some trepidation. It was scary, but I quickly found that I enjoyed it ~ loved it, in fact! So I made sure that in future I got a lift from Michael’s whenever I could. In 1954, at 18, I joined the RAF for National Service, and after basic training was sent to train in the Medical Branch (this came as a result of the fact that my lab job was in the Pharmacy Department ~ I never wanted to be a nurse!). But after training I was posted back to my square-bashing camp, RAF Hednesford, up on Cannock Chase. After some months a new Dispenser was posted into my billet, Alan Ainsley, and he had permission to keep his motor cycle on camp. We became friends, and he quite often took me into the local towns, Cannock or Rugeley, on the back of his bike. Of course, I never had a helmet or anything; I just rode in my uniform or ‘civvies’.

When I was demobbed I got a job at Cadbury’s, only a mile or two from my home; at first in the General Sales Office, while I waited for a vacancy in their Studio. I used to go to work on my bicycle, but it wasn’t long before I began to pester my parents about having motorised transport. A car was never an option, and at last I wore my poor mother down into ‘lending’ me £100 so that could buy a motor cycle. Off I went to Cope’s in Bearwood (the place for bikes in those days), with the intention of buying a second-hand BSA Bantam two-stroke which, at 125cc, was the usual ‘beginner’s’ machine. But I was seduced by a Francis Barnett 150, in beautiful condition and British Racing Green, and at a price which I could ~ just about -~ afford. I bought a helmet, and enrolled in Cope’s two-hour training course at Barnes Hill, where I rode around a track and learned how to use the throttle, hold in the clutch while I changed gear with my right foot, use the rear brake with my left foot, and so on. Then I rode home on it.

The feeling of being on the road for the first time, on your own and under power, is indescribable! There was just room to garage it in the lean-to veranda of our house. (Today, I wonder how it, and later, bigger machines, ever went through the door, but they did.) Of course, I was soon going to work on it; there was a large motor cycle shed on Cadbury’s car park, and I met other bikers there, with machines of all sizes and shapes. I passed my test at the second attempt. The first time it was raining and I was too slow with my emergency stop, on that slippery road. Well. . .

I went out for rides on the local roads, and generally enjoyed my new freedom. My friend Barry Soden got an old BSA 250, and we went out on our bikes together. His kept breaking down. But it did inspire me to get a bigger machine myself, and I traded in mine for another Francis Barnett, but a 225cc. While still a two-stroke, its exhaust had an impressive, staccato ‘blat’. On this I went down to Seaton in Devon for a holiday, while my parents went down on the train. On the beach there I met a very nice girl called Wendy, who taught in a local school and rode a scooter with ‘L’ plates, and gave her lessons!

Another year I went to stay in Colwyn Bay, alone, and it was here that, unknown to me until later, an inexperienced young garage attendant put Red-X into my fuel tank instead of two-stroke oil when I asked him for "two gallons and two shots". The result was that I was roaring along the nice straight road alongside the estuary when, with a nasty screech, my engine seized up solid. I was able to de-clutch, get out of gear and coast to a halt, and asked a passing motorist to call the AA, which I had wisely joined. (Back then, AA men rode yellow motorbikes with a sidecar, and saluted you as they passed if you had an AA badge. Ah, those were the days!) He said I should be OK to get home, but to take it carefully, as it would need a re-bore.

It was never the same after that, seeming to lack power, and around that time (1959) John Richards, who lived just around the corner in Old Barn Road but was away, I think, at university, came home on a gleaming Triumph 21. I fell in love with that at once; the only 350cc twin four-stroke on the road, it was a metallic silver-blue, and he had a full Avon fairing of the same colour. I couldn’t afford it, but I wanted one, and started looking around, only to find that this model was like gold-dust. Eventually a friend of Dad’s, who seemed to have ‘contacts’, told me to go to Shovelbottom’s on Ladypool Road, who were due to have one delivered.

It was the first and only time I ever bought anything on hire-purchase. It cost £339, which was just about £1 per cc. I paid it off monthly, driving there from work to have the payment checked off in a little book. I wanted crash-bars rather than a full fairing, so I had an Avon fairing and screen, and later Rodark panniers fitted, as well as a luggage rack. And a spot/fog light and two-tone horns! I was also the first biker that I know to fit small dome-shaped amber car indicators: one each side of the headlamp on the fairing, and one replacing the red reflectors on each pannier, and a handlebar switch. Nowadays, of course, all bikes have them as standard.

The engine had a muted but powerful note, and I used to delight in coasting down New Street to where pedestrians would always be crossing ‘against the lights’ on the corner of Corporation Street, then pressing my horn button and watching them scatter (expecting at least a Rolls Royce) as I opened the throttle to roar around the corner. What a tearaway! I also got one of the new ‘semi-dome’ helmets, which, also in silver-blue, looked much more cool than the old ‘bullet’ shape. They still didn’t have visors, but I got prescription lenses put into some aviator-style goggles.

Around this time a number of school-leavers joined Cadbury’s General Office. They were all six or seven years younger than me, and by this time I had been ‘promoted’ to Head Office, where I got to be in charge of, and design, stationery, among other things. But Ian Elliott (who had gone to my school, Kings Norton Grammar ~ his older brother Graham was briefly in my class) had a Lambretta scooter, and Roger Parkes had a 350cc Ariel ‘Red Hunter’. I don’t think Bob Palser had a vehicle at that time, and Brian Grainger never had a bike while I knew him, as he had a car (wow); an Austin A30. But we all hit it off, and used to go out to the Fleur de Lys at Lowsonford, which at that time was the only place you could get the steak-and kidney (and chicken-and-mushroom) pies of that famous name (1s 6d), calling ourselves the Kidney Klub. I still had the 225cc when they first appeared on the scene, but on the day I arrived at the car park on my new Triumph 21 they all gathered around in admiration. We talked of all having identical Triumph 21s ~ perhaps persuading Triumph to fund us to tour the USA to promote them. Fat chance. . .

After a while Ian and Bob (traitors!) each bought an Ariel Leader, which was the new 250cc two-stroke twin, with a completely enclosed engine and unique ‘buzzing’ engine note. They also left behind them a blue smoke-screen from the two-stroke oil. Roger, on the other hand, bought a Triumph 500cc Speed Twin, which was a twin of mine except for its bigger engine and maroon colour. So we never had those identical machines, but we did ride out together, to places like Stratford-upon-Avon and Stourbridge or Bridgenorth. And, of course, to the Fleur de Lys; we never thought anything of having a pie and a few pints and then riding home. I used to go to scrambles at Feckenham or Rollswood with Howard Dorrell (from the office at Cadbury’s), where we acted as ‘marshals’ for Kings Norton Motor Cycle Club, keeping spectators off the track, picking up fallen riders, and so on.

In December 1959 Ian and I got tickets to see a recording of the Goon Show in London. We set off in late afternoon, Ian on my pillion, to go on that new-fangled M1 (which we actually loved, in those days), but while still on the A45 we saw frost sparkling on the road. Not fancying the journey back on an icy motorway and roads, we stopped instead at a roadside café, had a coffee and listened to Fats Domino singing ‘Be My Guest’ on the jukebox before going home. The funny thing was that when ‘Bluebottle’ (Peter Sellers) appeared on that show, he said sadly: "Hello everybody. Ooh ~ one, two, three, four. . . not many in tonight, are there?"

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