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The Motorcycle Diaries

Fiat 500


Okay, so this wasn’t a motorcycle. But when I returned to England thinking I could repeat the trick of a couple of years before – ie, buy a British bike, travel, ship it back to Canada, and cover the costs of my trip – things had changed.

First of all, the British motorcycle industry was in a state of virtual collapse. The Japanese multis were killing them dead. And the rising cost of atrocious, class-ridden management was no match for the far eastern approach which included, among other things, serious respectful dialogue with the shop floor. This was unheard of in the UK where the economy was managed by private school boys taught to look down on everybody else.

Secondly, the value of money had dropped considerably. What British motorcycles there were had price tags well in excess of my financial planning.

So I resorted to hitching around the second hand bike shops of England, and then, forlornly, hopelessly, almost aimlessly, extended my search to France and Germany.

In Bielefeld, not far from Dortmund, I was introduced by friends to this little car. It was considered the successor to the 500 “Topolino” which, Nino, my bicycle tutoring mentor of many years ago used to drive when the family lived in Switzerland. It was only about 3 metres long and was powered by a 499 cc two-cylinder, air-cooled engine. It was allegedly designed as the Italian (and, in its Seat version, the Spanish) answer to post-war peasant mobility. In much the same way as the Model T Ford in America, these 500s and the later, slightly larger 650s, propelled the rural parts of the two nations into the magic world of private motorised transport. (The Citroen 2CV was the French solution.) And prosperity slowly followed as otherwise isolated rural families could go further afield to buy and sell goods and services. Hitching in Spain I would often be offered lifts by such families. With maybe 5 people already aboard, there was always room for one more.

I took the plunge, parted with my cash, and fell completely in love with it.

It came with four seats, but I took out the front passenger seat to make more room for baggage. If I gave anyone a lift they could sit in the rear passenger seats which were only fractionally further back and didn’t inhibit conversation at all.

1972 was the year of the first international conference on environment – the Stockholm Conference. I had a number of reasons for wanting to attend. First, by virtue of my paddling expedition, I now considered myself an environmental campaigner. Second, I was still drawn by my maternal genes towards Sweden. Third, I thought it would be nice to see Daniel and Elisabeth and family again. Fourth, Lenore’s dad was reputedly attending the conference on behalf of a Canadian organisation of some kind and might have access to some of the higher-flying, more exclusive events. By my standards, this seemed like a lot of good reasons.

I fired up the little Fiat 500 and headed north.

This time I went via Denmark, sleeping on sandy Baltic beaches whenever tiredness overcame me. Having the car gave me a lot more flexibility in this regard. I could leave my worldly goods locked up more safely and abandon the vehicle for longer periods of time than I could a motorcycle. Also, night driving and bad weather weren’t nearly as exhausting. And, at a pinch, I could sleep in it in the middle of a city. On the down side, I didn’t mix as easily with indigenous populations – stuck as I was inside my own metal box and carrying my own atmosphere with me wherever I went. Hitching and motorcycles were much better for meeting local people. Instead, I found myself picking up the odd hitch-hiker which meant most of the time I was meeting young North Americans like me – the last kind of person I wanted to be meeting.

I spent a couple of days bumming around Copenhagen like a low-grade tourist and then caught the ferry across the strait to Malmo and set off straight up the main road, through miles of Canada-like lake and forest, to Stockholm. The days were already very long and the hours of night already getting shorter as I progressed north. Just the other side of Jenkoping I picked up yet another American youth who turned out to be heading for the enviro conference himself. Regrettably, he was such tedious company that by the time we got to Stockholm central I contrived to lose him and headed on almost immediately for Upsala where I hoped to find my earnestly christian friends Daniel and Elisabeth.

At Daniel’s family seat there was a huge party going on. I pulled my dusty little car into a drive full of parked vehicles and wandered over towards the main house. In the garden were tables and chairs and brightly dressed people milling about. It turned out that Daniel had just got married – but not to Elisabeth. They were still friends though and it was a joyful reunion. Daniel didn’t stick around for long as he and new wife Vaika set off for their honeymoon. Instead I found myself hanging out with his siblings – two younger brothers and a younger sister. One of the brothers was a hardline socialist but the other two were also “aspiring” christians. The christian brother was tedious and boring but the sister, Birgitta, was beautiful and I was drawn to her like a moth to flame. She had a little boy but was separated from the dad. She and I and the little boy shared some local travels (which wouldn’t have been possible on a motorcycle). Happily, she rationalised our burgeoning intimacy by saying, “I’ve already sinned by having lascivious thoughts, so I might as well sin by doing.”

Later I met an eccentric Greek woman called Veroniki who was a student of film and was aching to get started on some film-making. She was heading back to Athens but we hatched a crackpot plan whereby I would come to Athens (where she, allegedly, had contacts and financial backing) and make a film.

Somewhere in Stockholm my little car went clunk and the clutch stopped working. I immediately stopped and got out for a look. I couldn’t see anything obvious, but I found a broken bolt on the ground. Birgitta and I went round a few Swedish garage workshops with the lost bolt and eventually worked out what had happened. There were six or eight bolts holding the clutch plates in place and one of these had snapped off and was in my hand. Replacing it would cost more money than I had so I resolved to head back to the UK, clutchless, where I knew I could find friends and more affordable resources.

So, I bade my painful farewells to Birgitta and others and, refining the technique of revving high, letting off and ramming into neutral, and then revving high and ramming into the next gear, I limped toward the ferry in Goteborg.

In England I managed to park up in my uncle’s garage, dismantle the rear engine assembly (which included removing the entire rear chassis and bumper assembly), replace the clutch plates, and get on the road again.

The little car served me well for the next few months, visiting friends and heading for the hopfields of Kent for seasonal work. But it began to suffer from overheating. By then I was in the process of acquiring a 7.5 ton TK Bedford, ex-railwayman’s mobile tool and snack truck so, sadly, I gave the car away to a guy who promised to be nice to it