My Journey to Meriden
I cannot even remember the Rambler's registration number but the journey to Meriden is etched upon my soul.
Some phases of my life have been stable. The mid seventies were such a time. I had settled in Fleckney after they pulled 65 Nottingham Road down to build a slum. I was making steady progress at Dunlop. I was enjoying motorcycle rallying, club runs, training scheme and committee activities. Things were very smooth but boring. A time of turmoil was about to erupt.
Dunlop were apprehensive about the type of business our group was involved with - multi-million pound contracts with major electricity utilities around the world. It didn't fit comfortably with their consumer product mentality so they sold us off to Brush (where I had served my apprenticeship). To cut a long story short Brush decided to close the Leicester factory and move everything. Everyone was made redundant and I was on the job market.
I signed up with an employment agency and they quickly arranged an interview at another local factory. I had heard rumours about this factory's methods and didn't turn up for the interview. They telephoned me and offered another date and I said I'd "get back" to them. Finally they turned up at Dunlop to interview me there. As my first defence had failed I went into the interview with the sole purpose of being rejected. They asked questions like "How many degrees in a right angle?" to which I responded "One hundred". Close enough, they said and offered me the job. As nothing else turned up I took the job and stuck it for as long as I could.
With my redundancy money I paid off my mortgage and still had some left over. I could easily afford a new motorcycle. I had the Trident and was using the Matchless 350 for hack bike but the bottom end started knocking. I took the plunge, sold my AJS 500 and Matchless and bought an NVT Rambler with a Yamaha 175cc two-stroke engine.
I bought the Rambler from Twig Forest at Apple Motorcycles in Hinckley, his new large showroom on the corner of Almer Road and Derby Road. When I collected it Twig watched with amusement as I tried to prod it into life. "It's not a big British single" he explained "Don't put your body behind it, just kick from the knee down!"
I picked it up on Saturday and on Sunday I was examining at the Northampton RAC/ACU proficiency test. I set off south on the old A50 through the early morning mists. Just after Welford the Rambler spluttered out of fuel so I reached for the reserve tap. You can guess - it was already on reserve! I pushed the Rambler into a field and set off for petrol with its little tank under my arm. Luckily after a few miles I was given a lift - don't you love it when an old motorcyclist stops to offer help? I arrived at Northampton over an hour late but they always had huge numbers of trainees being tested and Ron Bryan was the Chairman of the examining panel so I got off lightly.
I was desperate to get away from my new job and when MCN carried a story about the Triumph Co-operative developing new designs I sent off a speculative application to Geoffrey Robinson, their Chief Executive 'on loan' from Jaguar. It brought a positive response and an interview with Robinson and Chief Engineer Brian Jones. They asked if I rode a motorcycle and I side stepped the NVT Rambler, admitting I rode a Triumph Trident T160. Geoffrey thought that was blasphemy but Brian admitted that it was an excellent motorcycle even if it was a BSA product. I was overjoyed to be offered a job in the design team.
When I handed in my notice at Leicester the boss took me aside and said, if it was a matter of money they would be prepared to offer me a little bit more. I took great pleasure in saying "I'm taking a drop just to get out of here!"
That was one of the few draw backs to working at Meriden. The other was the 70 mile round trip every day.
Being a co-operative with a fairly egalitarian approach to terms and conditions I was clocking in for 7.30 each morning. As the money didn't stretch to taking a car I used the Rambler. It meant setting out at 6.30 for a cross country run. Here is an account of my route.
Setting out from Fleckney at 6.30 I tried not to wind the Yamaha engine up too much out of the village and up the hill to Saddington. Then I could hold the throttle wide open on the back road to the A50. At that time of the morning I could ride down the middle of this road. On the way home, with cars coming the other way, I had to keep closer to the edge and it was so bumpy I had to take my weight on the footpegs.
Crossing the A50 was a strange exercise. The cross road is a notorious accident spot so I had to make a quick crossing when it was clear. Problem was, the NVT had a first gear that I could use to climb up the side of a house; if I started in first gear I needed to change to second half way across the main road. If I tried starting in second the 175 risked stalling in the live carriageway! I survived.
The road then twiddles its way past Shearsby Bath and Bruntingthorpe vehicle proving ground (where they film some of Top Gear) then on through Gumley to Lutterworth. The nice thing about the Rambler's pretend off road styling was that I couldn't scrape anything on the road round the bends. Luckily the knobbly tyres were only "pretend" off road and coped adequately whatever the condition of the road surface; I had it all, cow shit, snow, ice, mud, oil.
One summer's afternoon on the way home from work through these bends on a Triumph test bike I was confronted by a horse and rider. The horse had heard my approach and decided to stand on hind legs in the middle of the road and salute. Instinctively I grabbed a big handful of brake and it was a double front disc. The front wheel locked and the bike started to go down in a trajectory that would skittle the horse's hind legs. Fortunately it was a rider on it and not a kid. He dug his heels in, the horse leaped forward, I let go the front brake, the bike came under control and we passed inches apart. Further down the road I noticed that the released brake lever had trapped half a dozen horse tail hairs. That was close!
At Lutterworth the route went through the town centre on a one-way system as described by Terry Reynolds in a 1976 Megaphone article. Luckily I never met anyone coming the other way.
From Lutterworth to Cross In Hand on the A5 now takes a new route past Magna Park. In the early 80s it was still a small road past Bitteswell Airfield. One winter's evening on the return trip there was an unusual number of cars in this location, pulling up and parking on the verges. Suddenly I realised why and pulled up. Minutes later the Battle of Britain Flight Lancaster landed at the airfield, no doubt diverted from fog bound Lincolnshire.
The A5 Watling Street trunk road is the border between Leicestershire and Warwickshire. In the winter the Warwickshire maintenance gangs could not always be bothered with gritting the road from Pailton north out of their county. At seven in the mornings the road was usually icy and often covered by snow. Otherwise it is a long road for full throttle on a Rambler. I used to hold my weight with bent legs on the footpegs down this stretch as well, not because of the bumps or the ice, but to tone up my leg muscles for skiing holidays.
Pailton stunk of pig manure then and it hasn't changed.
Stretton-under-Fosse didn't have a speed limit until more recently but it did have a pub called The Union with a pub sign of a flag. How things have deteriorated!
Near Brinklow the route joined the Fosse Way over the Oxford Canal. When the service station in Brinklow was closed I was forced to take the driveway to the canal boatyard to get petrol. There was a pub there as well in those days.
Making this journey every day it would be easy to run on autopilot unless I had something to keep me attentive (such as practicing my skiing position). One challenge I tried was to ride the 35 mile cross country route without putting a foot down. It required a lot of forward planning when approaching traffic signals and major roads. I did it just once. Within a few days of succeeding the Give Way sign at the south end of Brinklow was changed to a STOP sign. With a police station just across the road, a stop required a foot to be put down!
I continued on the Fosse Way to Bretford and the little one-way bridge over the River Avon.
The lads in Triumph development knew I had a long way to go back and forth every day so they would ask me to "put some miles" on whatever they were currently testing. Especially as I would inevitably be doing more miles in the evening with the bike club or the training scheme. On one occasion I was coming home on the straight from Bretford to Brinklow and not hanging about. All the cars in front were confusing me by suddenly slowing down as I approached from the rear and trying to gauge my overtake. It was because the bike was a police spec Tiger complete with white fairing and blue lamps (X'ed over with drafting tape). Funny to see life from the other side!
To digress off the route ... I was putting miles on a Bonneville and took it to an instructor training weekend at Beaumanor Hall where the Stinkwheel is held. I parked the Bonneville under the bike sheds in the quadrangle where the stables used to be. When we came out on Sunday evening I tried to start the Bonnie and flooded the plugs so I had to take them out and dry them. While I was doing this the caretaker drove past and I wasn't quick enough to run round and was locked in. I had to climb over the gates and walk to the nearby houses to ask if they knew where the caretaker lived. Luckily they had his phone number and called him back out to unlock the Bonnie. Some years later when my kid's school took the children to Beaumanor for an overnight stay I was able to confirm that there were no security issues!
Back to the route. From Bretford the road goes under a narrow arched railway bridge and immediately left through Wolston. Very often I saw placards for "Large Cockerels - 50p". One day on the way home on the Rambler I followed the signs to a farm. The guy there took me into a chicken shed the size of an aircraft hanger full of hens and a few old cockerels strutting their stuff. "Which one do you want?" he asked rather pointlessly. He pulled one out, necked it and handed it to me still warm and flapping. "Can I have a bit of string to tie its legs?" I asked and then rode home with the damn thing hanging from the handlebars of the Rambler. Luckily my dad could pluck and prepare a bird. He said "This bird is so tough they must have killed the bugger to save its life!"
Turning right onto the A45 was a bit of a challenge especially if I didn't want to put a foot down. Recently they put in a roundabout but in those days it was through a gap in the centre reservation and then gun the bike into the traffic. The A45 went past all the Coventry car factories. Ryton-on-Dunsmore must have worked non-stop on shifts because there was always lots of activity and the smell of paint shop ovens.
Out the west side of Coventry towards Allesley the A45 becomes open dual carriageway and there were no speed cameras - photos hadn't been developed, geddit? I would ignore the speed limit on this section if I was on a Triumph. The rumour was that because the police had made so many friends at Triumph during the Sit-In, when they started the co-operative Chuck the test rider took one of the inspectors aside and explained "We cannot afford to take bikes to MIRA for testing, we have to do it on the road and, as some are destined to be police bikes, I hope your lads won't stop us every time they see us." The story is that from then on the police were instructed to ignore Triumphs that were speeding near Meriden. Seemed to work!
I was always early enough at Meriden to dry out and warm up but I used to admit that I was too exhausted to go home.
The headlamp on the Rambler was a small plastic item with a six volt bulb, damn useless. I changed it for a four inch glass reflector that was a struggle to fit into the rubber headlamp but was a big improvement.
For making the run to Meriden through the winter the Rambler was fitted with a tripoint screen and for once I wore a full-face helmet. Because the visor would often ice up I cut two eye slots to look through and did a lot of head turning (my head and the people I missed!)
In the short time I had the Rambler it was caned mercilessly every working day, rarely cleaned and never serviced. I just put in petrol and oil, pumped up the tyres and sprayed the chain. It only stopped once. On the way home it began to splutter and when I pulled up there was fuel running from the Mikuni overflow. Dropping the bowl revealed a blade of grass obstructing the float valve. Either someone had put grass in my tank or it was a rice leaf in there since the engine was manufactured.
When it became difficult to start I checked the spark plug. The electrodes had burnt right back and the gap was about 5mm.
I cannot even remember the Rambler's registration number but the journey to Meriden is etched upon my soul.
I spent two periods at Meriden in the early 80s and then took a job even further away from home that involved much more riding. That was done on a different motorbike and is another story.
- Ben Crossley