How do we define ourselves? By our jobs, the way we dress, or the music we like? By the bikes we ride or lust after? Episode two from Trevor Oz Brooks…
In my younger days (sigh) I had a clear picture of who I was. I was Big Twin man, not Step-Thru boy, despite cutting my teeth on one of Mr Honda’s finest. It was just a matter of time. On weekends I’d wander around my North London neighbourhood checking out the fast lads shining and tuning their big twins. I implicitly understood this was a sneak peek at my future, my destiny.
I’d grown up through the Hailwood, Read and Ago years and had excitedly witnessed the humiliation of Brit bikes by the new multis. I had personal experience of the superiority of Honda’s Cub over Turner’s. These were strong messages for an impressionable youth, but I was not won over.
Nor was I turned to the dark side; no dense clouds of blue smoke for me. I loved Ernst Degners GP Racers, but that’s the one and only time I’ve drooled over an MZ. Naturally I’d tried a few two strokes, but I’d never inhaled. I even once had a (whisper it) Vespa, but two strokes simply didn’t make the right sort of sound, a Big Twin sound.
For many weeks I had gazed at the world’s most beautiful Big Twin through the window of the local bike emporium in Edmonton. I’d watched with amazement as the price of the beast steadily fell week by week. My time came. The falling price and my escalating savings fulfilled their preordained rendezvous. The beast was mine.
1950/60s adverts from Triumph and Norton
The bike was a concoction of indeterminate parts from several unknown sources tenderly united by a long list of previous loving owners. I relished its air of mystery. The parts may not have belonged together but the beast and I certainly did. I admired its creative diversity.
It looked slightly dangerous to decent society. Perfect.
We soon developed a breathtaking relationship. Usually after we’d stayed out late together and I was pushing it home. But ‘B’ road trips via Cambridge (girlfriend, studies), to Sheffield (girlfriend, work) and on to the Lakes (girlfriend, climbing) were a total blast. Together we flew across the landscape, burbling, roaring, scrapping through corners. I’d arrive at each destination glowing with satisfaction, pride, and a pain in my left side. The swept back pipes swept at slightly different angles, so the pegs were positioned rather, er, eccentrically. Together with the slightly twisted bars, this demanded a torsionally compromised riding position. After long rides I walked like a crab.
It is indeed a fine line between pleasure and pain, but Big Twin had one abiding, thrilling trait. It made me feel like I could really ride! It was exuberant, it fuelled my fantasies, it set me free. When I caught a glimpse of my reflection in high street shop windows with Sheffield Susan (never Sue) on the pillion, I knew who I was. I was cool and sexy. I was Big Twin man, I was ‘It’.
1971 Honda CB350 (Not a CB360G5, sorry)
We went everywhere together. Mostly. That is, most of the bike usually came with me. For it was a temperamental beast. On recalcitrant days I expanded my knowledge of kerbside rebuilds in the gutters of myriad suburbs across the land. If others questioned my allegiance before whizzing off on more mundane machinery, who was I to explain my tortured acquisition of ye secret mekanix knowledge. If they had to ask, they’d never understand.
We shared two glorious summers, then three things happened. Sheffield Susan dumped me for a bloke with a stronger accent, I got a part time job across the other side of London, and the weather suddenly deteriorated. Personal circumstances dictated a commute from North London to Teddington. Dark wet nights and slippery cobblestone laneways conspired against me. On some occasions Big Twin and I failed to proceed, sometimes a very long way from home. Then I missed out on a couple of trips to the Lakes and pillion girl Judith (ah, Judy) gave me the elbow for a chap with a bigger beard.
I was also having problems carting work, study and climbing gear around on the bike. Yes I know Don Whillans rode a TR5T up Ben Nevis and carried his climbing gear across Europe on his old B31/33, but he was, maybe, just a wee bit grittier than me. That winter a bus, a train, then another bus became my commute of reluctant choice. I realised what those fast lads of yore had really been doing on those warm weekends of yesteryear. They’d been cursing the weekly rebuild needed to keep their bikes on the road. And for the first time it struck me that those same fast lads couldn’t wait for the Japanese invasion. They’d been the ones whizzing past me when I was gutter bound. No wonder the price of my perfect bike had been falling week to week. I was the only one who’d wanted it.
I reassured myself that Big Twin was exciting and attractive, with a strong heart beating beneath its unconventionally creative exterior, but I was unsettled. I’d come to see it as a metaphor for myself, an image I quite liked, now I was unsure exactly who I was. Then one day the sidestand cracked and it fell onto the road. With it fell my innocent youth. It’s hard to feel sexy and dangerous lying on your side in the grey wet gritty oil splattered roadway, closer to freezing than cool.
I picked Big Twin up off the ground. Were there tears in my eyes or just the cold rain? I knew what I had to do. I solemnly put on my riding gear and nursed Big Twin to the huge dealer’s at Woodford. And rode home on a new blue Honda CB360G. I’d really wanted a CB500 but it was just beyond my wallet at the time, foolish boy. It was a perfectly sensible swap. I hated it. Riding home I caught a reflected vision of myself and loathed it, loathed myself for the hideously practical decision I’d made.
Random old Honda Stuff on eBay.co.uk
The alloy went furry at the mere forecast of wet weather. When it did rain the disk brake wouldn’t work, a new kind of excitment. I got used to the jelly-on-a- pogo-stick handling by going round corners slowly, but the fun had gone. The Honda was not a winged chariot lifting me to freedom, just a mode of transport, a two-wheeled Ford Escort, no, more a Morris 1100.
Day in, day out the damn CB just started and ran faultlessly. I began turning up for work and tutorials, even dates, on time. For heaven’s sake, people thought I was serious and dedicated. Cambridge girl Laura, who’d always refused to get on Big Twin, was quite happy to perch her cute, er… perch herself on the pillion of the Honda. But now she complained that I’d become a grumpy, cranky so-and-so and accused me of being possessed by the devilish memory of that other ‘crap bike’. She dumped me and went home to Rio. I’d become serious, solid, dependable, grumpy and dull. Somehow I’d swapped my Rolling Stones ‘Let It Bleed’ album for Edmundo Ross’s ‘Bongos from the South’ but now had no-one to Samba with.
The CB was, in all honesty and for those of a modest ambition, a ‘good bike’ but my life was clearly over. I was no longer Big Twin man, I was singular and alone. It didn’t last long. Soon life and identity became even more confused. Before the year was out I was the selected recipient of that highest recognition of corporate worth, the company car. An Austin Allegro was mine, all mine.
1975 Austin Allegro 1300 SDL