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The Motorcycle Diaries

BSA Thunderbolt 650


BSA Thunderbolt 650

Next stop, Prestwick, Scotland. In those days it was cheaper to land there and then hitch down to London, so that’s what I did.

My plan, pure and simple, and not withstanding the Starfire 250 sitting in the cellar back home, was to buy a bigger British motorcycle and tour the continent. How I long for the empty head of those long days.

London ‘68

So the centre piece of this less than brilliantly conceived plan for the year in Europe was to buy a the British motorcycle of my dreams and prove to myself once and for all that I could be a proper biker without falling off at every opportunity. The other element of the plan was that I would ship it back to Canada at the end of the year. In those days you could still make a substantial saving on buying in Canada, even taking airfares and shipping into the equation.

I’d done a lot of research – consisting mostly of drooling over pictures of motorcycles – and the preferred outcome was the BSA A65 Thunderbolt 650 single carb twin. I felt this had all the grandeur and credibility I required but with less of the explicitly murderous edge of the dual carb high-lift cam BSA Lightning or the scary Norton Commando 750. I spent a lot of time mooching around bike shops and drooling even more heavily over the huge shiny beasts “in the flesh”.

My biker friend Alex, who had advised me in the matter of acquiring the Triumph 500, lived near the Angel tube station with a BBC producer called Charlie and a beautiful hippy chick called Kate. I could never quite figure out how their relationships worked, but they seemed to work fine. They were very hospitable and welcoming and Alex didn’t seem to mind that I wanted to pick his brain about motorcycles again.

“You mean a brand new one?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I was going to get a brand new man-sized British bike and drive around Europe.

“Sounds like a plan,” he said. But he advised me against getting a twin.

“Twice as many things to go wrong,” he reckoned.

But I already knew a single wasn’t enough. I was hooked on the sound of a British twin, and I didn’t like the visually implied imbalance of only one exhaust pipe. That’s how my mind worked in those days.

I hadn’t brought all my cash with me, thinking it would be more prudent to get to England, open a bank account, and get the money transferred over. What I hadn’t bargained for was the tedious and stuffy old school people and methodologies in English banking. Opening an account was more akin to applying for a job. I had to be interviewed by some stuffed shirt and had to produce references for heaven’s sake. I opted for Barclays – perhaps the stuffiest of the lot and who later achieved international notoriety as the main financiers of apartheid South Africa – because my grandfather Nils banked there and was happy to write a letter on my behalf.

Then I discovered that transfers between accounts, which in Canada took days, in England took months.

By this time I had already decided on the specific machine I was going to go for. It was a beautiful black and chrome Thunderbolt sitting magnificently in state in the showrooms of Harvey Owen on the Walworth Road, South London. I felt I had drooled and dithered long enough and because it was by now 1969 and this was “the last of the ’68 models at the ’68 price”, I foolishly paid a deposit. I didn’t initially think this would be a problem because I thought my grandad, Nils, was loaded and wouldn’t hesitate to lend me the difference.

To my surprise he said, “But how do I know you’ve actually got the money in Canada?” This seemed a fair question coming from the prick I had to deal with at Barclays, but from my own grandad? He eventually agreed to lend me a third of the £300 required on the condition that I secure the rest from other sources. This didn’t seem like much of an offer to me but I set off up to London to see if I could convince anybody else to lend me money.

My first port of call was my cousin Little Henry. If he was taken aback by my querie he didn’t show it and with unstinting generosity immediately agreed to stump up a hundred quid and took me out for yet another Indian meal.

My second port of call was my friend Debbie from Hudson. She didn’t seem troubled by my request but confessed she didn’t have the funds anyway. “But you know who does? Claire has got a couple of hundred sitting in her account.”

“But she doesn’t really know me,” I responded. “Oh she won’t mind,” said Debs, “She knows me and I know you.” So I thought, okay then and we whiled away the time prior to Claire’s return from work.

As soon as Claire came through the door, Deb leapt up and said “Guess who’s here?” and Claire turned towards me to say, “Oh hi, how nice to see you.” “Yeah,” added Debs, unexpectedly yanking the rug out from under me, “But wait till you hear what he wants.”

There was a moment of awkward silence which I broke, prematurely and, given the rug-yanking, half-heartedly by explaining my predicament. “But how did you know I had the money?” she asked, at which point, following my glance at Debs, I guess she realised. I said “Look, don’t worry, I can get it from somewhere else,” but she simply said, “Just give me a few minutes to think it over.” We all had supper together and did some late hours ouija board and I stopped the night. In the morning Claire was first up. She came to wake me and said, “Sure, I’ll lend you the hundred.” and left to go to work. Still bleary, I didn’t even have a chance to say thank you. I found a cheque on the kitchen table when I got up.

I made my way back to Tunbridge Wells to tell my grandad. “Really?” he said, plainly impressed by my ability to raise finance so quickly, and a week or so later, I set off to Harvey Owen’s to pick up my bike.

When I’d paid the deposit the back room boys had said they needed to “set the bike up”, but I’d asked if I could just hear it and sit on it. They humoured me and wheeled it out of the showroom and into the garage at the back, started it, put it on its side stand, and waved their hands. I got aboard and felt that gentle 400 pound giant bursting with life. A totally gormless grin must have broken out all over my face as I sat there absolutely intoxicated by the sound, the suggestive vibrations rippling up through my body, the smell of warm oil and exhaust, the feel of the handlebars, the hint of power at the throttle, and the dreamy promise of limitless romantic distances to come. I looked up to see the mechanics gawping at me in mild amusement. They probably hadn’t seen a lot of middle class North Americans getting emotional over the machinery they took so much for granted.

On the day of my victorious return to take possession of my iron steed I was shaking with fear and anticipation. As the same mechanics, watching me closely for signs of weirdness, wheeled my bike out into the sunlight on the lane at the back of the shop, my primary concern was that I should at least make it to the end of the lane and out of their sight before I fell off. The only optional extras I had were a small chromed steel luggage rack on the back and similarly chromed “crash bars” on the front of the frame to protect the engine in the (in my view very likely) event of my dropping the bike. I hadn’t even bought a helmet as they weren’t required by law at that time and it seemed an unnecessary expense. I fiddled about lashing my shoulder bag on to the rack, hoping the mechanics would go back to their work inside the garage. As it became evident that they weren’t going to miss this for the world, I got aboard the machine for the second time in both our lives, and kick started. Nearly dizzy with rush after rush of adrenalin, I slowly let out the clutch and wobbled off down the lane. I successfully negotiated my way out on to the main road and set off south towards Tunbridge Wells.


At Grandad’s

I was deliriously happy. I rode sedately in the glorious sunshine, hearing and feeling that massive thudding engine doing its work without question. By this time in my life I knew enough not to crank the throttle without significant care, attention, and pre-planning but I wasn’t even tempted to race. The machine was so classy, so full of the promise of power, that I was happy to carry on cruising sedately. And it wasn’t just me. Heads were turning all around me as they heard the muted thunder and saw the magnificent black and chrome beast glinting like a massive industrial jewel in the spring air.

I got clear of south London without incident – not bad considering I was driving on the left and stopping regularly to consult my “A to Z”. In due course I appeared outside the front of the flats were my grandparents lived and went up to get Nils. As an investor, he had a keen interest and came down for a look. It was clear that he too was impressed by its stately presence. “Want a ride?” I asked, to which he responded, “I suppose I’d better.”

I started it up again and he climbed aboard, my first passenger. We didn’t go far and I drove carefully, but at one point I goosed the throttle a little harder than I should have and I heard him go “Whoa!” behind me as he clutched my sides and nearly tumbled off the back.

I left him back at the flats and carried on to my auntie Maria’s at the nursing home where I had work. In the unmarked back lanes I forgot about driving on the left and nearly had a head on with a car coming out of the Birchfield estate. The old girl driving was freaking as I came to a stop on her side of the road. Gesticulating madly she drove round me and disappeared down the road. I discovered later that she was one of the benefactors of the home. We recognised each other when I was introduced to her as the new Canadian orderly. “Oh of course,” she said, “I can see now why you were on my side of the road….”

Maria too was impressed by my acquisition. Observing my “western” handlebars, she astutely pointed out, “It’s so much more sensible than those motorcycles with low handlebars that look like they’re racing everywhere. At least you’ll be able to see where you’re going.” She was of course referring to the “clip on” handle bars that the cafe racer boys preferred as they crouched low and chased the ton at every opportunity.

I rode that bike around the Kent countryside and on trips into London whenever my time off and good weather coincided. My relationship with a local girl, Angela, blossomed as this added dimension joined the blend. Our first major expedition was over the Kentish Downs towards Brighton to visit my funny paralysed friend Andrew who had returned home. We sailed through the spring air like the windblown personification of all motorcycle advertising. She held her arms around me with her hands pushed deep into my jacket pockets where she could reach my nethers.

What else could I ever need? What else need I ever be doing? We cruised down those roads and lanes in a state of grace and perfection.

We also sailed into London and visited my friend Alex to whom I wished to show off my bike and my woman. He had a short admiring toot on the bike but both he and Charlie were clearly more taken with Angela. After supper they closed round her like vampires to draw whatever sustenance they could. To be fair, Charlie’s ears pricked up when we mentioned the faith healing centre we’d just come from. I could see his TV journalism kicking in as he contemplated the potentiality of this story. I think, in the end, it seemed too tame, but I always wondered what Maria might have made of a television crew arriving to do a documentary.

Angela and I rode back in the early hours, under moonlight and through empty city streets and then wide open uncluttered country roads. I was suffused with the flawless endlessness of the moment as she hugged me and gripped my parts and we swung like migrating geese from one long slow curve to another.

It couldn’t last. The next day she went in for her dental procedure and the next time I saw her she had her jaw wired shut and couldn’t speak. Nor would her mother let her leave the house. I’d had to knock on the doors of the grand brick house to see her but I was clearly persona non grata as far as mum was concerned. Angela was still wired shut when I left Birchfield a week or so later.