I have always been very much a “Dyed in the wool”, Japanese bike fan looking at the Brit bike scene with confusion. Not wanting to be victim of constant oil leaks, people obsessing about having every bolt correct and having to make road side repairs just to get anywhere.
In a moment of weakness I bought a 1960 BSA Bantam. “Yes I know”, but the price was very right. It had been stored unlovingly at the back of a garage for over ten years. So whilst recognising my hypocrisy, I did the deal anyway. For various reasons the bike then spent a few years languishing in my garage and then over seven years under a tarpaulin in my back garden; not a great location to store a classic bike.
About eight years ago I had a severe bike accident and saw the Bantam as a light-weighted alternative to ride in the Christmas toy run. Not feeling hopeful I dug the bike out. I took it to the garage to put in fresh petrol and a new plug, anticipating just how bad things maybe. To my surprise it kicked over so not deceased, that was a bonus. A few more kicks just to see how free the piston was and the bike started. I can’t imagine a Japanese bike taking that kind of abuse, so you can imagine my surprise. I found the Bantam to be great fun to ride even though the top speed is 40mph at best. I continue to ride the Bantam regularly and it never fails to start or be an absolute pleasure to ride.
Given my experience with the Bantam I joined The Friends of The National Motorcycle Museum and had the chance to ride some of their bikes. That was a true revelation and from that moment, I was determined to put, “My money where my mouth is”, and bought a 1960 ex-Auxiliary Fire Service Matchless G3.
So what is it like to live with the matchless? Well once I got it on the road, I found it a very different way to enjoy a bike. It took some time to get used to, the across the frame breaking and the ‘race pattern’ gearbox (1up 3down); the fact that the breaking is more adequate than astonishing and there is no brake light unless you use the back brake. However, because the bike is not really happy at speeds above 50mph there is no need to think about overtaking and the whole riding experience becomes more about the journey not just the next bend.
The sound of the 350cc single thumping away and the unfiltered carb sucking air; the occasional waft of warm oil all added up to make riding the Matchless a very special experience. People’s attitudes change if you ride a classic bike. I have been waved and applauded just riding passed and when parking the bike it always attracts positive comments, admirers and enthusiastic questions. All things that none of my Japanese bikes got.
The classic bike community is also nothing like I thought it would be. There are those who know every nut and bolt of the machine I am riding, but rather than criticise they usually are the first to offer assistance. There is a camaraderie, if one person on a run breaks down everyone stops to help.
I still would not recommend owning a classic bike as your only motorcycle, as much for the bike’s sake as anything. You have to remember these machines are more fragile and parts often not easy to find. However, I can say that on a sunny day, on a road less travelled and time to spare, nothing else feels, sounds or lifts your soul like a classic bike. What’s more, the chances of reaching your destination and getting home again are far better than you might think.
These bikes are our heritage and you owe it to yourself to become part of ensuring their survival, whether that be by ownership or involvement in clubs like the Vintage Motorcycle Club, marque specific clubs or supporting the many museums preserving these pieces of living history.
See you out there.
Author Mark Leese