When motorcycling was fun

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Our sister monthly Motorcycle Sport had an Editorial last month, in which the view was expressed that today’s super-bikes have very little to commend them. The theory was propounded that the modern too-big, too-powerful motorcycle possesses little other than status symbolism. Too fast, at 120 per, for prevailing speed limits. As petrol-thirsty, as expensive to service and as prohibitive to insure as a small car. Too heavy for a frolic over the rough.

That is how our sister journal sees it, pointing out that once upon a time tens of thousands of riders opted for a sporting 350, perhaps a 500, which would do 80 m.p.g. and could be used for going to work, for weekend pleasure jaunts, employed in the winter, after a change of tyres, as a trials mount, and might even be pressed into service as a grass-track or short-road-circuit racer. The 1971 £500 4-cwt. machine cannot be used like this, apparently, and Motorcycle Sport goes so far as to suggest that the true motorcyclist may soon be compelled to ride a vintage model, as 3,000 VMCC members do, while other two-wheeler clubs are on the decline.

These views set me thinking back to the sort of motorcycles road-tested by Motor Sport before I was old enough to qualify for even a two-wheeler driving licence—to the days when motorcycles were FUN. I am thinking of the early and mid-nineteen-twenties (of course!) when Motor Sport hadn’t a companion motorcycling magazine, so we lumped two-, three- and four-wheelers together in these pages and, come to that, were soon to add boats and aeroplanes. Spacious days!

To my regret, I am no rider. I fall off all single-track machinery, whether self- or petrol-propelled. This has one curious advantage, namely that I can take a sidecar outfit round corners as easily (almost) as I can steer a car, without going bott over bod. But I did summarise those 1920s Motor Sport road-tests of solo motorcycles and combinations in the war-time issues and my first, shared, motor vehicle was a 25/- Zenith-Gradua, which we never rode because we couldn’t raise the price of a driving belt. Later, there were hectic rides on the pillion of a friend’s Cotton-Blackburne, falling off on wet tram-lines and averting horrid accidents by centimetres being part of the enjoyment, such is youth’s fool-hardiness. And we took it to Brooklands, inevitably.

All of which prompts me to publish the accompanying pictures of the motorcycles we tested all those long years ago. They may not reproduce very well, but I think they will recapture the times when motorcycles were indubitably FUN—when Rodney Walkerley served his writing apprenticeship with Motor Sport, like so many other since-successful motoring scribes, getting for test mainly a series of dull little two-strokes, all powered by the same type of Villiers engine (he contrived to make them all sound interestingly different, nevertheless) before he went on to be Sports Editor of The Motor… When chaps in wide Oxford bags wrote about how to tune, or “hot-up”, a 1925 350 G6 o.h.v. AJS so that its speed increased to 85 m.p.h. and it could compete effectively in Inter-‘Varsity speed-trials and similar events… When a bobbed flapper went along, if the machine had a “chair” attached, to a BMCRC meeting at the Track or a scramble at Red Roads… When… well, when motorcycling was simple, versatile, inexpensive and thoroughly worthwhile…

I still think it could be that way, although not wanting to belittle our influential contemporary’s powerful Editorial. If sun and fresh air appeal, what better medium to enjoy them with than a motorcycle, which provides more contact with both than a car. Not even a coupé with the top and sides down (draughty!) or a vintage sports car with aero-screens can improve on it. And if off-the-road exploration seems worthwhile, a motorcycle will go where even a Range Rover might not care to follow, at one-tenth, even one-hundredth, of the cost.

Anyway, here are some pictures, which I hope will make the writer of that February Motorcycle Sport Editorial truly nostalgic.—W. B.