TALES FROM THE YEARS SPENT POLISHING
Chapter 13: Barbarella
We had left our main toolkits back at camp. We decided to repair the engine at the roadside rather than push the bike miles back to the campsite so I left Bill and set off to get the tools.
Bill had a pee then rolled up his coat to make a pillow to take a short nap in the warm sun. He was woken by a push in the thigh by a black zipped racing boot. His eyes opened and focussed on the black silhouetted figures against the dazzling azure sky. The Dices had stopped on their next lap to find the intrepid rider who had tried valiantly to take their leader.
Back at camp I was gathering tools and strapping them onto my bike when across the farm thundered a dozen or so riders with Bill and his Triumph in tow. He got off grinning and began untying the rope from his forks.
I recognised the polished light blue and grey tank of the Bonny that was towing Bill as the leader's bike. The rider dismounted and was surprisingly slim and short compared to the rest of the gang. When he removed his helmet, vivid auburn hair rolled out over his shoulders. It was clear that this was not a he but female. This is how we first met 'Barbarella'.
With the alloy head removed we found that Bill had bent a push rod and blown the head gasket. We went to the nearest bike shop. He was doing a roaring trade at this time of the year selling spares, badges and accessories and his workshop was working flat out. We bought a head gasket and a set of new push rods. As they didn't come singly.
Bill was more than a tinkerer with engines, he was quite a good mechanic especially on this particular engine. The head had been skimmed for higher compression. As the only push rods we could get were standard, they were too long to allow the cylinder head to seat back down. "No problem" thought Bill as he set to work with a junior hacksaw cutting a bit off the end. Two blades later the job was done and just needed a bit of filing for the finishing touch. We fitted the modified rod and bolted the engine back together. It fired up and sounded fine.
That evening Bill spent half his holiday money on a hotel bed while I checked my tent and unrolled my sleeping bag.
A crescent moon crept into the night sky which was filled with a million stars. I could not sleep for excitement about the ensuing senior race and just being here. I left the tent and walked down the lane flanked by farmer's fields filled with tents as the owner of the land cashed in on the annual TT bonanza. Campfires flickered like an early Guy Fawkes night. In the glowing light I picked out the sparkling chrome tanks of a line of bikes. A buzz of talk and laughter mixed in the atmosphere with the smell of cooking meat and onions. Behind a hawthorn hedge I found the Dices. The bikes were circled like the organised camp of some tribe of savages and there in the middle outlined by the campfire was the diminutive figure of Barbarella, a pigmy princess surrounded by her entourage of vast Zulu warriors. As my approach was detected a big guy rose and beckoned me to the fire. I sat near their leader and studied her face. She was attractive in a boyish sort of way with pinched features and wearing no make up. The firelight gave her high cheekbones a supernatural aura. This was soon dispelled as she broke the silence. "Fixed the bike then?" she asked. I explained what we had done and added that it seemed to run OK. "Won't last" she said speaking with an air of authority. "Me and the lads will come and fix it after the senior" she added.
There we sat hot at the front from the fire and cold behind. A reefer was being passed round. I took a puff and instantly exhaled. I didn't go for that stuff, life was too full to drift away and miss any of it! A bottle of whisky was also doing the rounds. Not being a drinker either, it went straight to my head. I remember thinking about Avril at school in her paradoxically white blouse and school uniform. She was probably tucked into bed worrying about her arithmetic homework and thinking of me. I hoped she would be missing me, I certainly could have done with her company right at that moment.
I drifted back to the present, Barbarella was speaking. "Got guts your mate, no style but guts!" I mumbled something about being insane but she wasn't interested in my opinion. Eyes glazed and shrouded in cannabis smoke she pointed at one of the big hulks that made up the circle and he followed her into the darkness.
The morning of the Senior arrived and it was hot. I rose at 6am to get my place at Quarter Bridge to see the riders hammer down the straight and brake hard for the hairpin. Armed with a bottle of Tizer, two Mars bars and my Instamatic camera I waited and wondered where Bill was.
The race was a classic. First lap the riders came round continuously at short intervals due to the staggered start. Mike Hailwood made the hairpin look so easy followed by Phil Read on a Yamaha and Agostini on the other MV. There was then a short gap before a rush of privateers all riding Manx Nortons. In my heart I couldn't help rooting for the Nortons. Many of them had come under their own steam with old Dormobil vans or trailers and burnt the midnight oil making final adjustments. Hailwood had a rich dad who owned Kings of Oxford. He had probably spent the night with a gorgeous Italian whore while a band of top mechanics attended to every last detail on his machine. That apart, when it came to the race, he was the best. I took a snapshot of his gold and white helmet as he flashed past. I was told by a photographer friend at home to swing the camera with the rider as he passed. This I did and hoped for the best. Then I put my camera down and watched the race.
Where I was situated was not too crowded and I had a fine front row view of the track. My head was only three or four yards from the riders and the noise and smell of the hot engines was sublime! I kept a look out for Bill because this was where we had planned to meet.
The race got to a point where the two MVs streaked past followed by other works riders, Honda and Yamaha then there was a full minutes silence while the birds sang before the rest of the pack diced past.
The sidecar event was if, anything, more spectacular. The gymnastic antics of the duo as they changed from the long straight and prepared for the hairpin was dramatic. All the outfits took the same line and performed the same ritual as if, in those pre-video days, they had studied each other's game plan.
The next morning was cloudy and as I sat by my breakfast fire Bill arrived. He sat down with a bemused expression. It was a case of bad news good news. His bike was missing badly but Barbarella had visited him in his hotel room, shagged him silly then tried to persuade him to join her gang! I gave Bill a long hard, analytical stare. Wishful thinking, whisky, one of those crazy fags or what? Still he insisted it was true.
About half an hour later a group of Dices arrived in the field. While two big fellas gathered wood and built up a scorching fire, Barbarella ordered us to take the head off Bill's engine while she, like a consultant surgeon removed her jacket. This revealed a shapely white T shirt with Triumph contoured across the front.
As she sat down by the fire I noticed the long Bowie type knife that hung from her belt. This was a queen among women I thought, not one to be trifled with.
It appeared that the pushrod that Bill had modified with a hacksaw had been the right length but because he had cut off the tempered, hardened end it had compressed with the hammering of the cam and shortened. Barbarella indicated where Bill should cut one of the new rods in the set. Now, like some ancient Samurai sword ceremony, she held the end of the rod in the embers of the fire, blowing gently to cause a throbbing glow from cherry red to orange. At a precise moment she took a long swig of Theakston's bitter and spat it onto the pushrod. The effect was dramatic! A huge cloud of steam cleared to reveal this young lady calmly holding a perfectly prepared engine part for Bill and me to relocate into his Triumph. It started and ran fine and to my knowledge forty years on still is.
Back home the memories almost seemed surreal. Bill was under Barbarella's spell for a while but as she lived in Huddersfield and we were in London, the memory eventually died.
- Tony Sheppard