TALES FROMTHE SHED
Project bikes are always a disaster; as kany magazine editor....
Project bikes are always a disaster; ask any magazine editor…
In case you’d somehow managed to ignore this strange fact, I am a magazine editor. This weary state of affairs has been the case continually since 1988, unless you include club magazines – and why not? – in which case the rot set in another five or six years before that. And, like any other disreputable means of turning a sad shilling, magazine editors learn to learn a few simple rules – trials of the trade, if you like.
The first and best rule of journalism (the ignoble art of earning a living from journals) states that All Free Clothing Fits. If this sounds a little mysterious to you, then it’s not. It is profound. Everyone… almost everyone who enters this slightly odd world discovered very rapidly that the world is filled with folk of remarkable generosity. You’d not noticed this yourself in your own private and professional lives? That’s a surprise. Many things are suddenly available to folk whose attempts at writing appear in the public gaze, not just clothing. But clothing certainly does.
Early on I was presented with a sticky new riding jacket from a lesser known purveyor of such things. I was at an NEC bike show and was of course delighted. This would be around 1989 or so. The next magazine appeared, complete with a feature written by yrstrly and which included a few riding shots. I was wearing a Rukka jacket, not the sticky black free one. The supplier called me up and
asked why this was. His jacket was as waterproof as blotting paper. I was young and naïve and revealed this. He called my boss and…
The second rule of journalism suggests that The Truth Must Never Get In The Way Of A Good Story. You doubt this? Check out how many Great British Bike Revival tales you’ve read down the years. Moving on from that, my own hardearned rule is that magazines never start a restoration / rebuild / project series unless the bike is finished, complete and running well enough to be photographed riding down a dark desert highway … or a soggy street in Surbiton, wherever. It was a standard joke among my more frivolous friends that ‘Project Bike’ series started up endlessly – even in the pages of shiny posh magazines which should know better – and then never ended. When I first dripped disconsolately through the horror halls of motorcycle magazine infamy I occasionally asked Noted Editors what had happened to the project bikes. This is a family magazine, so…
Like all editors, I of course make an exception to this rule, which is why you are staring at my musings rather than at lovely pics of the Better Third roaring off through the sylvan sun-drenched glades of beautiful Cornwall aboard her immaculate and perfectly fettled BSA B25SS. That bike is as useful as an Arthurian myth. Entertaining but of no known use. To anyone. Particularly not to me, because I want to pack my own pages at the back of the magazine with tales of success, prowess and wonderfulness (rhyming words are hated by all – ask any editor), rather than writing glumly about another month where nothing much appears to have happened. In fact, lots and lots has been going on in The Shed … just no tales of great success and achievement.
It may come as a tiny surprise to you to learn that we are offered loads of rebuild stories – far, far more than we could ever feature in the magazine, in fact. We agree to almost all of them, provided they share at least a tenuous link or two with the kind of bikes we feature in the magazine, and preferably rebuilds at least attempted by the guy writing the story. Lots of folk rebuild bikes. In fact, a steadily changing feature of the old bike scene (man) is that the prices of projects – ‘barn finds’ and the like – are rising remorselessly. You might sneer a little here and remind me that of course they are, we’re running out of unrestored and original bikes. And so on.
But it’s more complicated than that. Lots and lots of the bikes which pop up for sale as projects – with no pretence at all that they’re ride-away runners – are neither original nor unrestored. More honest and open vendors might describe them as ‘earlier restorations’, which is probably as close to the truth as we’re likely to get. How do I know this? Because I am always more interested in finding bikes I fancy both owning and building. The Shed already contains a decent assortment of great bikes to ride – including a couple of those ‘earlier restorations’, and I know that they are what they claim to be because I did those earlier restorations myself. Only… we didn’t call them restorations. Mostly.
There’ll be a pic or two of them around here somewhere, all being well. The bike that’s probably the most rebuilt of mine – excluding the lamentable B25SS which actually belongs to the Better Third – is a grand old AJS, a 1953 Model 20 twin. Same age as yrstrly, in fact, which is one reason I’ve never sold it, despite not having ridden it for several decades. Every time I think about selling the old tub, moving it on to a no doubt delighted new owner who would ride it every day and cherish it, so forth, I remember that we’re the same age. That we went through a lot together. That we rode thousands of miles together in remarkable harmony and surprising comfort, and that although the reality is that I’ll never
ride it again, there is always that possibility, no matter how remote. There would be no possibility if I sold it, so…
But there it stands, a victim of The Shed’s corrosive Cornish atmosphere and suffering from chrome decay. Amusingly and maybe ironically also, there’s even less chrome on the 1953 AJS machines than on other years. Remember the Korean War? One largely unpublicised result of that conflict was that HM government stockpiled all available nickel, because nickel is used somehow in the process of building nuclear bombs – not many people know that! I only know this because I looked up why a few normally chromed bits of the old Ajay were finished instead in a mysterious silvery-paintish coating. Nickel is essential to chroming, so no nickel, no chrome. Instead, AMC used a process called ‘argenising’ to protect parts which were considered suitable for it, including wheel rims and suspension covers, but not exhausts. The only parts of the Ajay which still feature that original coating – which was pretty successful for a sort-of silver paint – are the rear jampot lower covers. I fitted new rims almost as soon as I bought the bike, throwing away the bizarre original. We all make mistakes. I’ve used this as a tiny illustration of how difficult I find it to sell bikes. Because I do. That’s actually the reason there are so many of them in the Shed – not some megalomaniac collector thing.g All the bikes I’ve owned for a long time – ten years or more, say – have piles of associated memories.
But if I did somehow talk myself into selling the Ajay, its value would actually be higher if sold as it is, rather than after I spent the not inconsiderable amounts of time and dosh required to rebuild it again. It’s certainly had two complete rebuilds, and maybe three. And it ran beautifully after the last one. But I had a 1966 AJS 31 by then, and rode that everywhere because it was quicker, had better brakes, lights and steering, and was more comfortable. What does it need? Probably fresh fuel, fresh oils and a serious clean-up of the magneto. It would then probably rumble into relaxed life. Probably.
So should I actually part with it? Also with a few of the other long-termers in there? I doubt that I’ll actually rebuild them, and I seriously doubt that I’ll ride them again.
This slightly unusual line of thinking was prompted by rewriting the price guide for another magazine, and wasting even more time than usual on looking at every ad for our kind of Brit bike I could find. And by stumbling over a bike I’ve always fancied at a recent Shepton Mallet jumble. That was a Royal Enfield Interceptor Mk2, a bike I doubt I’d be able to start now, but a machine I’ve always fancied, not least because I’ve ridden several down the years and have always been madly entertained by the experience.
Parked next to the AJS is another Fifties twin, this time a Sunbeam. Once again, this
has been a companion for quite a while – over twenty years in this case – and the last time it ran it ran superbly, not least because Sean Hawker did an excellent rebuild of the distributor, for which parts are apparently rare. Or they were rare then. This has also suffered from The Shed effect, looks fairly terrible, but is sound and very original. It even has original steel mudguards – glassfibre rarely rusts, so I’m told.
Snag is with both of these gentlemen among motorcycles, I can’t see any place for them in my future riding. I could rebuild either or both of them, but to be honest and for no reason I can understand – never mind explain – I don’t fancy that. So… is it time to take advantage of the newly desirable ‘barn fresh’ concept? That peculiar notion that it’s perfectly sound to buy a bike at maybe 25% less than its running, on the road value, then spend 100% of that on the road value making it good, and then… and then, what?
A Facebook chum and RC reader bobbed his own Sunbeam S8, and suffered all manner of festive online grumbling for doing so – but in fact I can see a terrible appeal in that. I’d not do it myself, not to a complete and original machine, but the thought of building another special (it’s a very long time since I built my last one!) does have a considerable appeal. Fancy this: building a bike using whichever components you fancy, rather than spending hours, days, weeks scouring the ads and jumbles looking for the lefthanded 12mm knuckle washer fitted only to BSA unit singles on two Friday afternoons in June 1970 because the parts bin ran out of 10mm washers but they’re original, so…
Imagine thinking that there are a lot more handsome direction indicator lights than the Lucas stalky variety fitted to our endlessly projectile B25SS? And why worry about the
chrome on the mudguard when paint looks just as good?
Speaking of the BSA – with almost sincere apologies to the letter-writer who’s bored with the whole thing – although I’ve made no progress at all in getting it to spark, there has been tiny progress of a sort. And yes, the front brake does still appear to work. I’d half expected it to lose all its new-found grippyness magically overnight … but it’s not done that. Yet.
I mentioned that the Better Third actually owns the bike – hence its blinding shine and over-polished look – and said fine submersible lady decided that her BSA would look better with the smaller fuel tank. We have a spare of course, acquired from a fine fellow named Van Tran many years ago and used as a hack slave tank since then. It was a peculiar psychedelic metallic yellow shade, complete with flames (!) because that was the way in the 1970s, but that was soon fixed, and the old tank is now utterly delightful in approximate BSA colours. Hurrah.
Of course the original seat doesn’t fit with the smaller tank, being designed for the larger UK tank the bike has borne with honour since 1971. So, mad impetuous fool that I am, I bought a new seat. Not from anyone I know or have used before, which would have been both logical and sensible, but from an online supplier. The seat arrived, weighs about 25% less than the original meaty Beezer item – not least because its base is plastic not steel – and … would almost certainly fit if only it had the correct bracket to grip the frame at the front. It doesn’t. It has a pair of bolts there to hold on the bracket, but bracket there is not.
Telephony. All very polite. They’ve never supplied the bracket because the bracket from the original seat will fit. Except it can’t, because it’s welded to the original seat base and cutting it off would destroy the original seat. Cue a happy hour researching oil-in-frame seats. I now know far too much about them…
Mutter and curse. Seat supplier offers a full refund. But I do not want a refund. I want a seat. With a bracket. Curse about this while supping nerve-wasting, tooth-dissolving coffee with the guys at Ace Mosickles down in Bude. Who suggest, innocently, that I could simply have a new bracket made up. Better yet, there’s a car fabricator person next door, and…
Look at the pictures! New bracket fits! It does, too. That’s progress, that is. Who needs a running engine when you’ve got a great new tank and a great new seat?
Flushed by this considerable success, and confused beyond description by my ruminations upon project bikes, I have found a Triumph TR5T in bits at a local (ish, to someone else) auction, and I’d really enjoy building one of those, and…
FW is so enamoured of the whole ‘barn find’ notion that he’s thinking of renaming this series as Tales From The Barn. Here’s one now
Flushed with failure in the B25SS dept, FW decided to cart the recalcitrant ruin to Ace Mosickles, secretly in dead of night so no one would see him. Then he could claim Success! Unhappily, when he dragged out the trailer from its resting place, he discovered that the Atlantic air works as well on trailers as on motorcycles…
In the tradition of one picture being worth a thousand words, it’s remarkable how a dose of ACF50 can alter a view of a bike!
And so, fired with enthusiasm to embark on a new career as a purveyor of shed finds, FW has decided to sell all the bikes which actually work and are good to ride. Instead, he’s going to devote his remaining years to gazing at function-free patina
Right: The original seat and its bracket. Observe if you can the mysteriously asymmetric seat nose. An unkind person might suggest that BSA simply took the longer seat from the more plentiful small-tank models and chopped off the front
Above: Meanwhile, while dragging out perfectly fine motorcycles to sell them, FW uncovered another rare delight. It does seem faintly familiar
A couple of The Shed relics have been in the family for a long time. This old AJS, for example, has been around since 1978/79, has been completely rebuilt at least twice, so is quite clearly ‘original and unrestoredunrestored’ and in huge demand Mysteriously, the mostly modern Norton has weathered well, despite more than a half decade under a cover. Good materials and the preservative powers of ACF50 again Once again, inspired by the notion of a barn find, FW found this. Not in a barn, exactly, but in an advert, which is possibly the same thing. He’s all fired up, too And of course once the old eyes are opened to the neat notion of taking a low mileage, almost completely stock machine which has suffered from hard times and making it run again, you could do a lot worse than a Bonnie
Right: The newly-refinished fuel tank has performed sterling service as a handy-sized starter-upper tank for many year. Here it is, starting up an earlier bout of Restorer’s Optimism
Above: Back to the B25SS. The seat requires a little refurbishment, and was about to get sent away for this. However, when the Better Third produced a newly refurbished fuel tank of a size and style she preferred, it was plainly time to replace the seat too, so they match. Hurrah for the new seat! Observe the absent bracket
One new seat, complete with one new bracket (thanks to all at Ace Mosickles). Observe the asymmetric fififixing bolts. Plainly a great BSA tradition, carried on in their memory
Left: Tanks and seats, old and new. The new tank is just resting for the photo, so looks a little strange. The bike is going to look rather better, says RH of this parish
Above: And the view from above is positively inviting!