Chapter 10: Merle


- Tony

Merle Kilpatrick was a 'Ton up girl'. She challenged the male bastions of motor bikes so effectively that the mention of her name bought a reverent hush in biking circles. For a period of time I watched her development.

She was the youngest of a family of three children and her elder brothers had been dedicated motorcycle enthusiasts. They entered club road racing events with tuned Yamahas to start with then later a brace of 'Greeves Telstar' racers.

Her eldest brother had been involved in a crash in which he lost a foot. He was a good mechanic and continued to support his younger brother in the venture adding an AJS 7R to the stable no doubt bought with his insurance money.

Merle entered the scene on her 16th birthday with her new Triumph Tiger Cub. It was in 'trials' trim with a grey and maroon tank and looked really sporty. With nice new 'L' plates she buzzed round our estate as she learned the basics.

One evening Bill and I were sitting on our bikes outside the closed parade of shops. We had just returned from the cinema and were talking about the latest Peter Sellers film. Through the still night air came the clattery sound of a small Triumph engine's tappets being pushed to the limit. The young Kilpatrick girl hurtled round the corner onto the estate showering sparks as her silencer touched down. She flew past us and dropped out her knee, John (moon eyes) Cooper style, for the next sharp left hand corner this time throwing up sparks from her centre stand. Climbing through the gears mercilessly she vanished round the corner and into her back yard.

Bill and I looked at each other in stunned silence. "She'll kill herself", said Bill. Even so we were both impressed.

All that season she was doing the rounds with a little group of acolytes, all boys riding learner mounts. As I conjure the picture an Ariel Arrow, a Francis Barnett heavily disguised with chrome tape and 'Ace' bars, a couple of BSA C15s similarly adorned and one of the new Yamahas with a horse shoe shaped head lamp come to mind.

Merle's rise was meteoric. She tore up her 'L' plates long before the rest of her little gang and next graced the scene with a Triumph 21. Her helmet was sprayed metallic blue to match the bike and she had a mermaid on the back of her leather jacket coloured to match.

The 350 Triumph did not remain standard for long in fact it was never the same whenever we saw it! First to go was the big 'bath tub' rear mudguard enclosure. Ace bars were hard to get for Triumphs as the bars were of wider diameter than the AMC bikes and the nacelle headlamp arrangement made clip-ons a major operation. So for a week or two the handlebars remained standard. In that short period though the dual seat was replaced with a racing seat, one of her brother's cast-offs. The sedate Triumph silencer gave way to a reverse cone open mega which made the normally well-mannered T21 growl with impatience.

The final conversion from commuter bike to cafe racer followed shortly after. Merle's eldest brother cut and welded the old bars into drops. These were then re-chromed and fitted with ball ended levers. The whole plot was then tuned and fitted with an ice blue 'Peel mountain mile' dolphin fairing with a mermaid painted on either side.

I remember the warm spring evening when Merle Kilpatrick swung into the car park at the cellar in Windsor, rode right to the front of the line of bikes and parked with the big boys. It was her 'biking coming of age'. We never knew what her brothers had done to that 350 engine but Merle was never left behind. Even when the rides became sustained high speed when burning off a rival gang, Merle's diminutive speck in your rear view mirror was back up with the pack in seconds.

Merle never really challenged the front but was always on the scene. We talked with her and treated her as one of the boys. Her sex never really came into our minds. She was short haired, flat chested and her fingernails were as black and oily from changing plugs as the rest of us. The fact that she wore on her belt a long, black, double-edged commando knife also acted as a deterrent to anyone with amorous ideas!

Merle knew all about bikes and quite a lot about the emerging scene of Italian and Japanese bikes that we regarded with disdain. When a Kriedler 50cc bike reached 100mph Merle was the first to tell us.

One week she was there as usual and the next she was gone with no word of good bye. It's as though she had ceased to exist. We speculated about her fate. Splattered all over a by-pass somewhere like the moths on her fairing seemed the most likely answer. When someone suggested that she had been put in the club and had gone away to get married, no one even smiled at such a stupid idea.

Later that year we heard that Merle had joined her brother's racing team touring the circuits of Europe in their van. Merle had broken free from the coffee bar scene.

- Tony Sheppard