Chain Chatter, January 1953

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By “Carrozzino”

While simmering by the fire with the Editor recently he expressed the opinion that he really knew little about the present-day motor-cycle and should he ever feel the urge to acquire one, it would be difficult to choose. In that he was right for the range of machines offered for sale these days is quite outstanding, running as it does from motorised bicycles or 98-c.c. machines to 1,000-c.c. machines, and single-cylinders to four cylinders. It would not be possible in an article of this length to deal with all these models, so perhaps my own choice may give a good working idea of the range. Just as one motor car cannot fulfil all the requirements of a full motoring life, one motor-cycle cannot do likewise to a motor-cyclist with time and money. I feel that a stable of six machines would make an ideal motor-cycling life more or less bearable, at present I have to manage on four, and we will start the list from the bottom and work up. First essential would be a runabout for which I would choose the Douglas Vespa, as being one of the handiest small machines as well us the best looking. Its 125-c.c. engine and three-speed gearbox mean that it can carry two people comfortably, is economical and takes up little more room about the place than a push-bike. The motorised bicycle type of machine I do not like, as they all have limited space for carrying odds and ends, and are essentially rider-only machines. Should one not want a Scooter for local pottering then there is a very good range of small motor-cycles such as the B.S.A. Bantam, Royal Enfield, James, Francis Barnett, which are all scaled-down motorcycles, or the revolutionary Le Velocette, which is a cross between the Scooter and the small motor-cycle group. All these coming within the £130 price range.

For a good all-round machine a 350-c.c. is hard to beat, and the Competition 350-c.c. A.J.S., or Matchless, would be difficult to surpass. Priced at £207, this model is reasonably light, extremely handleable, economical to run at 80 m.p.g., and fast enough to be used for long runs, while being ideal for entering trials events, or just pottering about off the beaten track. B.S.A. make a similar model and it would be hard to choose between it or the Plumstead models from a design point of view. If one wanted the 350-c.c. for normal riding, and had no interest in competition work or going along farm tracks, then I would take the new M.A.C. Velocette. This very sound push-rod 350-c.c. bicycle has that indefinable quality about it that a Bentley has over cars that look the same. Particularly pleasing is the compactness of the M.A.C. and the whole machine has been viewed by the designer as a complete unit and not planned in its separate parts so that the resultant collecting together looks unbalanced. Apart from perfect steering and one of the best gearboxes ever made, the Velocette has a neat swinging arm rear suspension which is variable for different loads. This is a very sound practical approach to a problem that has been ignored by manufacturers. A rider of eight stone and one of 18 stone have had to buy identical machines, with identical suspension systems; Velocette offer a very good solution. For me, the M.A.C. has no place, excellent machine though it is, for I like to use my 350 model for bog-wallowing as well as general running.

For touring purposes a 500-c.c, bicycle is the minimum for me, for with luggage and pillion passenger anything smaller is being over-worked. I would plump for a twin for the noise is less than a single, vibration less and flexibility is better; and as I am particularly fussy about good steering and roadholding I would choose the Norton Dominator de-luxe, which uses the featherbed-type frame, with swinging arm rear suspension, telescopic forks and the 500-c.c. vertical twin engine which is a very solid and robust unit. Today there are so many vertical twin 500-cc. machines in the lists that choice usually boils down to a pet make, regardless of specification, for they are all very nearly alike. For £250 one can choose from Norton, Triumph, Royal Enfield, Ariel, B.S.A., Sunbeam, Matchless or A.J.S. in the twin-cylinder range, and while they all have their good points and their bad, it may help to touch upon one or two. Norton I have chosen for handling, Triumph I would choose for sheer reliability and long life, Royal Enfield have a very neat rear suspension, Ariel for clean lines and the Plumstead models for the satisfaction of their three-bearing crankshafts, Sunbeam if you want a really modern machine, with large-section tyres, shaft drive and the best looks of any motor-cycle of today, and B.S.A. for a well-proven design with the holding of the Maudes Trophy to prove their point. It is more than likely that my touring would involve sidecar work, in which case the enlarged version of some of the above makes would come under review. Either the 650-c.c. Triumph Thunderbird or the 650-c.c. B.S.A. would do well with a sidecar, but I would not be too keen on the twins, like the Norton, with swinging arm rear suspension, for use with a chair. Before leaving the 500-c.c. class of machine, I have a soft spot for the old “bangers,” the thumping 500-c.c. single-cylinder, and I must admit that I would be very hard put to choose between the Vincent Comet, the Gold Star B.S.A. or the International Norton. Nowadays there are so many special bicycles made for special jobs that the category of “sports five-hundred” barely exists in motor-cycling life, but a run “with the boys” on any of the three mentioned machines would certainly prove to be motor-cycling for motor-cycling sake. Probably the new swinging arm framed B.S.A. is the most outstanding of the three, and I particularly like the double loop frame around the engine, with a stout, single, top tube. This must eliminate a great deal of lozenging which the Norton featherbed frame is prone to do. The Vincent, of course, does not have a frame, the engine and gearbox being hung from a backbone, and while it is a mechanically noisy machine by present-day standards, its finish is superb and it is definitely a connoisseur’s bicycle.

No stable would be complete without a model from the “man’s” range of machines; I refer to the 1.000-c.c. Vincents in various forms, with maximum speeds from 110 to 125 m.p.h. The Vee-twin Vincent would be kept for special occasions when I woke to feel that life was particularly good and that something should be done to justify it, and a run on a Black Shadow would fulfil that role. Admittedly £389 14s. 5d. is a lot of money to have sitting in the garage for special occasions, but we are theorising. The Vincent 1,000 is the only production machine that will record a really genuine timed three-figure maximum, while its acceleration is second to none, including two- and four-wheel production vehicles. When you realise that, fitted with a sidecar, the Black Shadow can deal with most 500-cc. twins solo, you get some idea of why a solo Vincent should only be ridden on special days, if only out of respect.

Lastly, in my mythical stable I would need a racing machine, as road-racing is a particular interest, and the manufacturers can produce 350-c.c., 500-c.c. or 1,000-c.c. models. For a 350-c.c. I would choose the Manx Norton, though the 7R A.J.S. has proved itself more successful in private-owners’ hands during the past season, but I have a weakness for the gearbox and clutch and also for the simplicity of the design of the engine of the Norton. For a 500-cc. model I should, of course, choose the Manx Norton again, but that would be indicative of a one-track mind, so I would have the new G45 Matchless twin. A prettier or neater racing bicycle one could not wish to see and the frame parts, identical to the 7R A.J.S., have been proved beyond doubt. The vertical twin 500-c.c, engine looks sound enough, especially with its three-bearing crankshaft, while the prototype of this bicycle won the Senior Manx Grand Prix and I watched the Australian rider, Ernie Ring, lead all the other private 500-c.c. riders in last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, with consummate ease. There is no doubt that the G45 Matchless racer is going to make its mark this season, so perhaps that is another good reason why it should be in any racing stable. Even so, the 500c.c. Manx Norton will live long and its past record of successes is fabulous. In the 1,000-c.c. class Vincent offer a racing version of the Black Shadow and its performance need hardly be mentioned, though it does suffer from having too much power, at the expense of handleability, so that quite often a good 500-c.c, model will see it off, but in fearless hands, such as those of George Brown, or the Australian Tony MacAlpine,  the Black Lightning is truly in a class of its own.

That then gives some idea from where I would choose my stable of machines or, for that matter, any one machine given the conditions of its use. Naturally there are many more very worthy bicycles on the market which no doubt would count as many people’s first choice, I have only stated my preference. Such models as the 350-c.c. Douglas flat-twin, the 600-c.c. Panther, for sidecar work, the 500-cc. Trophy Triumph as a good all-rounder, the 1.000-c.c. Square Four Ariel as a “gentleman’s” roadster, and so on, all have their following and all for good reasons. Fortunately “to each his own” still applies when buying a motor-cycle and thanks to a truly flourishing industry there is a model for every taste, even an extravagant one like mine.