Chapter 4: Flying with the gods


- Tony

I walked along the rows of gleaming monsters with the air of a 'full licence holder'. For the sake of the salesman who glanced up from time to time, I studied an engine or two but I was really interested in the style, the colour and the amount of chrome!

I swung my leg over a BSA Super Rocket with clip-ons and a rev counter. My feet didn't reach the ground with it on its centre stand and a shiver of excitement went through me as I thought that nothing was stopping me owning this 'fire engine' except the price. I turned over the brown cardboard label that dangled from the ball-ended lever and gasped when I saw the price.

It seemed that the rows of bikes were in order of value, prestigious, expensive ones in front decreasing to old ratty ones on the back row. My price band was very near the back!

These older bikes all seemed tired looking with oil trays strategically placed under their engines. Although some attempt had been made to disguise the hard lives they had led, the tyres had been coated with shiny tyre black paint, the signs of wear were manifold. Worn footrests from suicidal cornering, bent and re-straightened crash bars, dual seats with cheap plastic leopard skin pattern covers to hide ripped leather were all signs of neglect. There was a 500cc Vincent Comet going cheap, I knew from reading Motorcycling that the handling could be a bit of a nightmare with its under seat suspension and girder forks. An old Douglas Dragonfly was also well within my price range but only being a 350 it didn't even make me pause to consider. A 350 Triumph 21 also got a similar snub but I did climb on a BSA Gold Flash. I twisted the throttle and felt the width of the frame. Definitely a possibility but even this venerable old lady with plunger suspension would tie up all my wages for many months to pay for it.

At the end of the row was a Morgan three wheeler, British Racing green sporting a V-twin JAP engine on the front. Of course my new licence would also allow me to buy this vehicle as it had no reverse gear.

I climbed into the boat like coachwork and sat in the real leather seat peering through the aero screen. No I thought this was for old men!

By this time the salesman had got to the end of his Tit-Bits magazine and sauntered over putting his foot up on the mudguard of the three wheeler. "You could drive this away for £80" he said. "The engines sweet as a nut. We've just had it fully reconditioned".

I asked him how much he would give me for my Crusader Sports in part exchange for the Gold Flash. Without even bothering to glance at my little gem he answered "Well we don't find that the little bikes sell very easily", he had got me summed up, a kid who had just passed his test and was eager for 'CCs'. He continued "I suppose that we could let you have the Beesa for yours plus £20". Unblinking I said that I would think it over. Leaving the shop I was smouldering, I was expecting a cash adjustment to be given to me!

Each weekend found me scanning the lists of big bikes and visiting North London bike shops with my friends. Buying a bike was a communal affair, every one with their own "Just the bike for you" theory, and all offering very dogmatic advice. "Don't touch Enfields with a barge pole!" "Triumph, good engines but useless frame and forks". "You need a Featherbed frame. You can always change the engine". "I know they say Matchless and AJS are the same bikes with just different badges but Matchless are much better for handling". "Don't talk to me about twins, give me a big single any day, that's a real bike". Sometimes it almost came to blows when someones fiercely protected marque was insulted!

Bill was my closest friend; he rode a Triumph Tiger 100, an old model with the separate gearbox and a headlamp nacelle. He accompanied me on my hunt for a big bike. We became experts at guessing the prices. By now I had saved some wages and had notes in my back pocket. I was adept at seeing through salesmen's patter and nearly settled a deal a number of times. One such deal was for a Vincent Rapide 1000. I took it for a test drive through the London traffic. I could feel the potential of the very willing engine but the handling was heavy at slow speeds. I was very taken with the big 150mph speedo. But something was not right, somehow it was not the image I wanted, those old-fashioned girder forks. I tried to imagine thrashing through the lanes with the gang, too long, not the kind of bike to throw into corners. I decided to go home and think about it despite the salesman's emotional blackmail saying that someone else was coming to try it tomorrow.

Then a stroke of luck. The office manager at work called me in. his nephew wanted a motorbike to learn on and, as he knew nothing about bikes, asked if I could advise him. This was a heaven sent opportunity, I advised him to buy my bike! He took my advice!

The next weekend I went shopping again but this time not on the back row. My buying power now allowed me to consider bikes on the front row.

I don't know how but when I saw the AJS I knew it would be my next mount. This 600 AJS twin had obviously been well cared for. There were no oil leaks, the aluminium forks had been polished like chrome, it sported big 'jam pot' rear suspension units and it was that all-important magical colour ... black! With only 12000 miles on the clock it was good value compared with the more popular BSA, Triumph, or Norton machines. I blanked off from the salesman who was extolling its virtues and thought of dicing with my mates on the by-pass. Y0es, this would fit in to that scenario quite nicely.

Almost as if the bike had chosen me and was trying to impress, after pulling back the choke and retard levers and tickling the carburetor, it started first swing of the kick start. I rode it around the block and enjoyed the effortless torque. The speedo needle leapt forward instantly in any gear.

The AJS was such a new part exchange that it still had not been given a price. I tried to veil my enthusiasm as the young employee went to his boss to decide a price for cash.

I was too naive to haggle and when the price of £79 pounds ten shillings was asked I accepted.

That AJS was polished, serviced and came into everything I said or did or thought about. I rode it to work every weekday and every evening I rode it with my friends. Each weekend I took some part of it to pieces and got to know it more and more. For almost a year it was all I could want in power. The torque was such that I could slide down to 20mph in top gear then pull smoothly away to 80.

The mile straight was a long stretch of lane flanked by fields that went straight ahead as far as the eye could see. When you swung round into it you flattened yourself onto the tank, put your feet on the rear footrests and jammed open the throttle. Great speeds were claimed on this stretch of road before you had to brake hard for the right hand bend at the finish. In the real world however to touch 85 was going some! My well-mannered Ajay would burble along happily in town so quietly it would draw approving glances from old gentlemen, yet on the mile straight it would scare the pants off me!

- Tony Sheppard