Rather a dull lot of bikes
So said the editor of "The Motor Cycle" when I offerred to write about them: but I had unwittingly offended him by having offerred a previous contribution to "Motor Cycling". They were not dull to me: each one had a part in changing my life.
My first was a W D Douglas 350 twin. It was, I think, the one on which I had my first, and almost my last, pillion ride, with my cousin Teddy in the saddle. Just a few bumpy miles from Pelter Bridge [Rydal, Cumbria] to Wanlass, with me on the bare carrier and the tool box cutting into my thighs. "Pride knows no pain".
I was 14 (then the legal minimum age) and the Douglas, with its two-speed "chain and belt" drive and "two inch" tyres weighed under 200 lbs and had less power than any modern mo-ped.
My first ride landed me in a virgin stretch of wet tar in the middle of Ambleside - they had to burn my trousers. My last ride on the Douglas ended in the middle of Liverpool, with the carburettor having been set on fire by flames from a disconnected exhaust pipe. It should by rights have ended my life in a conflagration, but a man with a "Pyrene" fire extinguisher (I gladly give the name) came up in the nick of time. I can still see the Pyrene fluid washing the flames away. The soldered seam of the petrol tank was open by the time I had wheeled it to a cycle shop.
But in between those calamities (though I sometimes thought I had pushed the Douglas as far as I had ridden it) the little bike had given me independence, some skill at roadside repairs, and a lasting love of motorcycling. Sometimes with the aid of a slipping belt, sometimes running alongside, often frustrated by the absence of a clutch to enable me to keep the engine running when the bike was stopped, I had been all over the Lake District and from Hoylake to Glyn Ceiriog.
Then Granny MacIver gave me the New Imperial. Sherrows [?] of Ambleside supplied it and it cost just £48/10/-. It also had a 350cc engine; but it was the latest thing, with a "saddle tank" and New Imperial's own overhead valve engine. It was not really as good a bike as the more old-fashioned A.J.S. that was later bought for my brother Hamilton; but it saw me through school and Cambridge. Chains and spindles broke, the lights, first acetylene and then battery electric, were dim, and push-rods regularly wore out; but it got me to all kinds of places from the Scottish Highlands to Dorset, and it had quite a comfortable pillion seat. Mind you, the seat (and passenger) did come off on the way into Bournemouth, and go rattling over the cobbles; and we had other notable spills. I even went in for the Inter-Varsity Trial, but soon slithered to a stop with a broken rear spindle on the greasy chalk of Almer [?] Hill and was stranded at Watlington in the Chilterns. I sent New Imperials a little sketch showing where and why this spindle had broken, and they kindly sent me a spindle modified as I had suggested; but even if the bike had been OK I should have been outclassed in that Trial.
Then after my first time at Cambridge, I bought a 1932 498cc New Hudson (also, I think, for £48/10/-). It was heavy and powerful, and very smart with its painted enclosure. It was the same type and size as the famous Norton, but cheaper and not so good. It nearly killed me on my first day out. A car crossed my course, at the Glegg Arms junction at Heswall, and I put my head through its side window. My sister Joanna on the pillion was thrown clear; but those at the road side and in the hospital were so concerned about my bloody face and neck that they did not at first notice that she had a cracked skull.
But she and I got better and for some time I used the New Hudson for riding across Manchester to work and for going up to the Lakes or to Hoylake for weekends. Every 2,000 miles or so, wear on the gear box caused me to lose a couple of gears; and there were various other faults. But the main fault, particularly when the stone setts were icy, was that it was heavy and clumsy. So when I had a chance to buy a real "go to work" machine - a much enclosed water-cooled Excelsior - I bought it! The Excelsior had successful racing machines at that time, and I had the benefit of this; even when skidding about on setts you felt safe and in command! But the two-stroke engine seized up on a hill, just after I had passed a little van, and the enclosure was never quite as good after the van had hit me.
That was the last bike for a while, as Granny Jager and Aunty May had just persuaded me to buy a car, so that I could take a dinner jacket up to Windermere; and then, not liking the patched hood and generally disreputable look of this aged Cowley, had bought me a brand new Morris Eight.
Then I went to Westcott House and so to Swinton and to married life at Billesley from 1941 till the end of 1946.
Wear and post-war shortages caused the sale of the Morris. My first return to motorcycles was an old and not very good James 197cc. But the machine that took my fancy was the little 125cc Royal Enfield, the civilian version of a machine that had been developed for war-time use by paratroopers. It was indeed very small and very light - strange how such machines attract the large and heavy. It was so light that a routine fall by Birmingham G.P.O. (and a little bad luck) caused the frame to bend - and a rather stiff correspondence with Enfield and a visit to Redditch. But the lightness was a delight, and though the lack of power was apparent in the high winds or on long hills, it was lovely enough.
One real snag about its lightness was the ease with which the wind would blow it off its little stand. This caused an extensive mortality in windscreens. Legshields and a large windscreen made it possible to ride about the parish (and beyond) in reasonably ordinary clothes.
Ordinary riding was in fact such a delight that, when I became an Army Chaplain in Germany, I had it packed and sent after me to Berlin. It arrived too late for me to ride it there, or anywhere in Germany. The only bike I rode there was a 350cc Matchless, with troops practising for a "Trial" in the Grunewald; this only proved that heavy machines and trials riding were not my forte.
[He told us about an incident that he presumably thought not suitable for this article. He was taking part in these trials when he lost control of his bike in a remote part of the course. It landed on top of him and he was unable to move. A young soldier was standing nearby on marshall duty who had clearly been told to remain at this station and did nothing when my father politely asked him for help. So instead he yelled at him "Get this bloody thing off me!". The soldier then came running over as he realised that when the padre starts swearing at him he is likely to be in serious trouble.]
Back in England I had a long love-hate affair with the L.E. Velocette. This design, developed by Velocette engineers as a war-time dream, had everything that a utility motorcyclist could desire - except reliability and adequate power. It had a silent water-cooled flat-twin engine, shaft drive, an adjustable spring frame and total enclosure. But it was designed to compete with the old Austin 7, and not with the lively post-war Mini; and though Velocette engineers taking it out from a warm workshop to hard road would find it totally reliable, the customer found it terrible. Condensation, which never occurred with Velocette's alternations of warmth and hard work, played havoc with L.E.'s ingeniously compact inner works. When people such as myself took the L.E. from a cold shed for short rides about the parish, the internal dampness never dispersed. So damp carbon dust caused first misfiring, and then total absence of any sparks where these were needed; and with condensation inside the engine itself, this beautiful roller bearing engine, instead of giving 20,000 miles between services, became total wreck after less than 2,000 miles.
But the charm and the convenience (when working) of the L.E. and the efficiency of the R.A.C. "Get you home" service kept me with Velocettes through their agony. My three machines (all second-hand) were progressively more reliable; but Velocette's modifications made the lack of power ever more apparent.
Eventually I fell for a 250cc Ariel Leander and sold my last L.E. to Catherine Phillips, a non-cyclist who urgently needed personal transport. Thanks to her own pluck and the perseverance of the young men at the A.C.U. training school in Rugby (who regarded her as a "challenge") she eventually passed her test and now drives a three-wheeler. The Leander had power and smoothness and decent reliability and combined adequate speed with good weather protection. On one occasion at least, it tempted me into going too fast for safety. It was that, and the death of a friend on a scooter, and the delights of my new Morris 1100, that led me to accept my bishop's plea to give up motorcycling. And so I did, but I did enjoy it for a span of nearly 40 years.