TALES FROM THE SHED

Al­though no re­build ever truly ends in The Shed, for Frank’s found time for con­tem­pla­tion…

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Al­though no re­build ever truly ends in The Shed, Frank’s found time for con­tem­pla­tion…

Time to stop. Time to stand back and gaze in an an­a­lyt­i­cal way at the re­sults of so much span­ner­ing, spend­ing and scratch­ing of the head. Pull the B25SS from the bench for what I prom­ise my­self will be the last time, park it up in the mid­dle of The Shed and walk around it with a cam­era – it will never look as good as this again.

Smile con­tent­edly as I spot the bits and bats I’d in­tended to sort but didn’t. Feel all warm and vaguely glowy as I re­mem­ber that I have an as-new MCH66 head­lamp shell with the cor­rect fit­tings to re­place the ‘mod­i­fied’ item on the bike … but what the heck? No one apart from me would no­tice the dif­fer­ence, so why do it? More im­por­tant is the fact that it’s time to fuel up, fire up and ride a lit­tle. Fu­elling up from a can, pour­ing care­fully just in case the amaz­ingly smart new tank paint is less than mod­ern fuel-proof, finds my eyes drawn to the bolt which should an­chor the tank to the frame, stick­ing up like a mast from its tun­nel in the tank. The new slim­line fuel tank re­quires a shorter bolt than the old tubby tank – oh well, no prob­lem. Some other time. Maybe.

But it looks re­ally good. It starts first kick, mostly, hot or cold. What’s it like to ac­tu­ally ride? Prob­a­bly as near to the ex­pe­ri­ence of rid­ing a new 1971 BSA 250 as I’m likely to get. That’s dodg­ing the is­sue, of course. I’ll talk you through a ride, then. Switch the switch, kick the lever and off it goes. The en­gine sounds like the very ham­mers of hell – but they all do that, sir, so noth­ing to worry about. It smoketh not, nor does it leak. The clutch is de­light­fully light. Gears en­gage crispy and cleanly. Off we go. This is one of those bikes where even rid­ing on quiet lanes is im­proved by a tight-fit­ting crash hel­met. It’s not a safety thing, it just al­lows you to ig­nore the ever-present unit Beezer whine and chat­ter.

But it pulls hard for a 250. Very quick through the gears. The speedo nee­dle sud­denly flops back to its rest. That’s an­other re­pair / bodge which needs do­ing, then! Just not by me. I have a near- new spare speedo of course. It cost £80 at an au­to­jum­ble and al­most cer­tainly works. Who cares? I have a new-found de­ter­mi­na­tion not to fit it. Maybe some­day. Or maybe not.

Into top, bound­ing along now. Brand new NJB rear shocks work with pre­dictable ex­cel­lence: the ride is very good. Front forks have new stan­chions and springs too, and work well in har­mony with

their bouncy cousins around the back. Then it’s time to brake. We have a back brake. Af­ter sev­eral re­assem­blies, the front brake ap­peared to be work­ing while in The Shed. It would stop the wheel from walk­ing pace. Not on the road. It is still aw­ful. Ev­ery­thing in­side it is new and in per­fect ad­just­ment. It just does not work. Who cares? Not me. Be­cause once the Bet­ter Third and I have com­pleted our lit­tle ex­per­i­ment, the B25SS will be parked up, pro­tected from the cli­mate, and will cease to be ei­ther a prob­lem or a chal­lenge. And cer­tainly an ob­ses­sion.

Pose the bike so that Rowena can shoot some shots and take a spin. ‘Brake’s aw­ful,’ she says. She is cor­rect. She is wise.

Re­turn to The Shed. Ob­serve a sin­gle spot of oil drop from the BSA. Not. A. Prob­lem. I refuse to even won­der where it came from. Maybe I should won­der where the drip came from? In­stead, I switch the bat­tery from the Beezer to the Tri­umph, the se­ri­ously scruffedup T25SS which was built on the same assem­bly track as the BSA, just a few weeks later. Add fuel from the BSA’s tank, switch on, kick up – it al­ways starts first kick. Ex­cept this time, when it fires first kick but doesn’t catch. It sud­denly does this a lot. How­ever, even­tu­ally the gods of Lu­cas shine down and off we go. How does it ride in com­par­i­son to the BSA?

The Hagons on the back – which have been on the bike since be­fore I ac­quired it in 1998 or so – are stiffer, harsher than the NJB springers. In­ter­est­ing. The front forks are also stiffer, which is prob­a­bly down to their old – and pos­si­bly in­cor­rect – oil. No mat­ter. The en­gine howls and clat­ters ex­actly like the BSA does, al­though it also smokes a lit­tle from the big black and rusty si­lencer. Who cares? Not me. The si­lencer will not rust from the in­side, and that’s all that mat­ters. The per­for­mance is ex­actly the same … the BSA has been ex­pertly re­built once and ex­pertly re­assem­bled twice. Maybe it will run bet­ter than the rat­tly old Tri­umph af­ter it’s run in? Who knows?

I re­built the Tri­umph’s top end back in the 1990s, af­ter buy­ing the bike as a non-run­ner with a stripped-down en­gine. The only thing I could find wrong with it was a badly cracked pis­ton. How could that hap­pen? There was no play in the big end and no ver­ti­cal move­ment in the crank’s main bear­ings, so I bought a pat­tern pis­ton and put it all back to­gether again. Then, as was the way back then, I rode around on it for a while. The cylin­der bore was I think a lit­tle scratched from the dy­ing of the pis­ton, which prob­a­bly ex­plains the ex­haust smoke, al­though there’s so lit­tle of it that it didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t bother me now.

The brakes – both of them – are ex­cel­lent. Sim­ply that good. Ef­fec­tive and pro­gres­sive, pre­dictable and pow­er­ful. Were I of a dif­fer­ent mind, I would re­move the Tri­umph brake’s in­ter­nals and fit them to the BSA, just to see what ef­fect that had. But those days are past. I have had enough of the BSA’s en­tirely un­com­i­cal hub.

Res­tart­ing the Tri­umph is be­com­ing dif­fi­cult. Lots of kicks, fires, fails to catch. But even­tu­ally it does its thing, and off we go, com­plet­ing a slightly strange route back to The Shed. The Bet­ter Third tries it out and re­turns with a wide smile. ‘Nice,’ she ad­mits. Then a con­fes­sion: ‘I quite liked the Starfire we bor­rowed from North Corn­wall Mo­tor­cy­cles. This is like that.’ We should keep quiet about this.

In case you were won­der­ing, there is a pur­pose to this, be­yond a stupidly lengthy process to get a lit­tle sun­burned and take a few pho­tos. As some­times hap­pens when I de­cide that I have had quite enough thank you of a re­build, a project, I take time to re­flect on the whole ex­tended process and con­sider what has ac­tu­ally been achieved. Also … I con­sider the ac­tual cost, which is ac­cord­ing to sev­eral friends a sub­ject best avoided. Not here. Un­der­stand­ing comes with home truths, no?

So. The Tri­umph cost (I think) around £350 and I bought a new pis­ton and a gas­ket set for it. So, to­tal cost around £400. That was a while back, of course, 1998 be­ing quite a way from 2017. What would it fetch to­day, as a de­cently orig­i­nal, match­ing num­bers, de­cent run­ner in ‘scruffy’ or­der? Around £2000, at a guess.

Right. The BSA. That cost al­most noth­ing be­cause it was in­com­plete and in bits when I bought it – I think it cost around £40. Its first re­build took as long as the cur­rent ef­fort and was mostly me­chan­i­cal, al­though Rowena slaved over the fin­ish with re­mark­able per­sis­tence, while I pro­vided en­cour­age­ment and bought piles of parts – most of which did not fit. Wel­come to the world of late BSA sin­gles, then. Af­ter an ex­pert re­build of the power unit – the bike had ar­rived with no gear­box in­ter­nals – the unit en­gine proved to have no first gear once back in the frame, I’m afraid that I lost all in­ter­est and de­posited the thing at the back of The Shed. And al­though Sheds changed as we moved house twice, the bike re­mained at the back of them all. Un­til it seemed like a great idea to res­ur­rect it.

How much did we spend on it back then? Prob­a­bly around £1500. How much have we spent on it this time? This is where you should take a deep breath and con­sider in­fin­ity: it’s cost al­most £3000. So … adding the spends to­gether means that it’s cost us and there­fore stands us at £4500 or so. How much would it fetch to­day? Full me­chan­i­cal re­build, full cos­metic woss­name, and so on? Maybe £3000, be­cause I would need to be hon­est about the brakes. There comes a point where re­al­ity in­trudes upon every pipedream.

As if this wasn’t suf­fi­ciently dis­cour­ag­ing, it gets worse. The Tri­umph is ac­tu­ally a nice ride. The BSA is not, en­tirely be­cause it has no front brake, and fix­ing that would in­volve more ex­pense, be­cause I have al­ready done ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to it – and failed to make it work prop­erly. I have a spare wheel, but not a spare brake plate, so would need to find one and then go through the en­tire fit, fit and fit again rou­tine un­til I even­tu­ally give up in scream­ing rage and frus­tra­tion and beg Kenny at Ace Mosick­les to take mercy on me!

And yes in­deed, of course I con­sid­ered re­mov­ing the per­fectly ex­cel­lent brake plate from the front of the Tri­umph and fit­ting it to the BSA, but I have a slightly ter­ri­fy­ing vi­sion of end­ing up with two to­tally in­ef­fec­tive an­chors where I have only one at the mo­ment.

But, but, but. At this point I should also say that the rea­son be­hind the se­ri­ous ex­pense was that I em­ployed ex­pert ser­vices for lots of the jobs. These weren’t just the fid­dly things like the gear­box re­build (which I could have han­dled my­self, al­though I would of course have doubted that it would ever work), or the wheel re­build (if I didn’t work full­time I would be happy to learn how to build my own wheels), or the fit­ting of the Pa­zon (which isn’t ac­tu­ally dif­fi­cult; I sim­ply lacked the time / en­thu­si­asm to do it). Or the paint. If money was short and free time long, then I could ac­tu­ally paint things to a func­tional level. I em­ployed ex­perts to fix the var­i­ous woes which I couldn’t, like work­ing out how and why it wouldn’t fire, de­spite sparks and fuel, and like re­mov­ing fas­ten­ers which re­sisted my best ef­forts at me­chan­i­cal vi­o­lence. And… I also bought a huge num­ber of rub­bish or wrong parts. The rub­bish got re­turned, the wrong parts were my own mis­takes and will surely come in handy one day. Or not. Never ask me how many speedo ca­bles I have – in­stead look at al­most every oily-frame BSA/Tri­umph sin­gle and ob­serve the over-length ca­bles.

So the BSA’s pro­tracted build has been a dis­as­ter, yes? No. Be­cause it has been in­sanely, im­pos­si­bly en­joy­able. Every mi­nor stum­ble and every mi­nor suc­cess have been en­ter­tain­ing, ed­u­ca­tional and some­how en­light­en­ing. Build­ing old bikes like this should never be done for profit – un­less you ac­tu­ally are a pro­fes­sional bike builder, in which case I take off my oily hat and salute you! Build­ing old bikes used to be a skill de­manded by our hav­ing no money at all, plenty of free time, ac­cess to scrap­yards piled high with sim­i­larly worth­less old bikes for spares. Who else re­mem­bers the glee­ful an­tic­i­pa­tion of a Saturday trip out to the lo­cal breaker to hunt down a wheel with a bet­ter tyre than your own, or a 650 twin en­gine to shovel into the weary 350 sin­gle which was pro­vid­ing dully de­pend­able trans­port? We needed to be able to keep the old hor­rors run­ning be­cause we needed them to get to work or school come Mon­day.

No more. Not in my case, and I’ll bet not in yours ei­ther. Old bikes are no longer cheap old bikes. Not ‘our kind’ of old bikes. Cheap old bikes now come from the far east, not from Coven­try, Brum or Lon­don. And al­though it’s not fash­ion­able to re­mem­ber this, back when ‘our’ old bikes were cheap old bikes, folk threw them away – which is why

they were so plen­ti­ful and so af­ford­able while piled high in the scrap­pies. Old bikes were ac­tu­ally as dis­pos­able back then as they are to­day. Have you seen the price of a five yearold Chi­nese 125?

It would be true to say that the cost of the BSA’s build has pro­vided suf­fi­cient en­ter­tain­ment to make the en­tire in­sane, doomed project worth­while. Of course it has, and I knew it would cost a for­tune and be madly frus­trat­ing be­fore I started. We al­ways do know that, don’t we? No one com­pels us to spend years in a shed ex­pend­ing time, en­ergy and mega­dosh on some in­grate of a mo­tor­cy­cle. No, this is some­thing we do not be­cause it’s easy but be­cause it’s hard. Bet you’ve never read any­one com­par­ing a Beezer re­build with the Apollo space pro­gramme be­fore!

Where I must con­fess a lit­tle un­ease is in the un­der­stand­ing that had I cho­sen a dif­fer­ent bike for the build then I would not ac­tu­ally be look­ing at much of a loss – at least, not as much of a loss as would trou­ble my fi­nances were I to sell the BSA. Which in any case I can­not, be­cause it be­longs to the Bet­ter Third, and she claims to ac­tu­ally like it. Well… she would if it had a front brake wor­thy of the name. I do won­der whether the brake would im­prove with use? Whether the shoes and drum would work bet­ter to­gether as they rub along to­gether, as they bed in…

You see: this is what hap­pens. An idea pops up, takes a hold, and be­fore we know it, we’re out to our shed, whip­ping out the span­ners, and at­tempt­ing to prove some other the­ory – or in this case, it would be on with the hel­met and ar­moured leathers and un­der­tak­ing ter­ri­fy­ing (and plainly il­le­gal, be­cause I doubt that the B25SS could pass an MoT at the mo­ment) ad­ven­tures around the lanes, pray­ing that the brake would de­cide to work prop­erly be­fore that trac­tor pulls out in front of us. Which they do.

The other bike I’d con­sid­ered drag­ging from the slum­ber of ages at the back of The Shed when I dragged out the B25SS was a Sun­beam, an S8. Now then, as­sum­ing that the Sun­beam needed only cos­met­ics, it would have been far, far less fi­nan­cially in­ju­ri­ous. It looks se­ri­ously scruffy – and in­deed it is! – but when last it ran, it ran very well in­deed. It suf­fered from start­ing is­sues when last it was pressed into ser­vice, but a dis­trib­u­tor re­build fixed that com­pletely. And I re­mem­ber that it wept tears of dark oil from some­where high up at the front of the en­gine … but mem­ory can be fickle.

So, a pile of paint would have set me back around £350, and… the rims are al­ready black, and… there’s very lit­tle chrome. So from a fi­nan­cial per­spec­tive the an­cient Beam would have made more sense than the B25SS. How­ever, I ac­tu­ally wanted to build the Beezer. I have no idea why! Ac­tu­ally, I do. Be­cause I still re­mem­bered my frus­tra­tion with the mys­te­ri­ously 3-speed gear­box and wanted to fix it. We did en­joy a do­mes­tic dis­cus­sion about whether we should sell it once it was com­plete, but reached no

con­clu­sion. Which is just as well, as you can imag­ine the agg had no one bought it. Or worse… the agg if they had!

Rid­ing both BSA and Tri­umph 250s, one af­ter the other, re­minded both of us that these are ac­tu­ally en­tirely en­ter­tain­ing ma­chines. If some­how I’d man­aged to fix that BSA brake, it is ac­tu­ally a great thing to ride. Starts very eas­ily with the span­gly new mod­ern sparkler sys­tem, breathes well through its al­most new Amal, and has new … well … ev­ery­thing. And the Tri­umph? The T25SS which is cos­met­i­cally chal­lenged but oth­er­wise sound in wind and wheel? And which is ap­par­ently de­vel­op­ing mys­te­ri­ous and un­pre­dictable start­ing symp­toms of its own? What to do with that?

We did dis­cuss selling that, too, not least be­cause au­tumn is upon us, and I still need to take the Bul­let for its MoT so it can be pressed into ser­vice be­cause some in­ner in­san­ity of mine de­mands that we ride a 2004 RE through the wet, salty win­ter rather than the even more cos­met­i­cally chal­lenged T25SS. Maybe, we won­dered, we should sell the Tri­umph? But surely it would fetch more if smartened up a lit­tle? Or not? Who can tell with these things?

Be­cause time has moved on, as it re­lent­lessly does. The Bul­let and the Tri­umph are worth roughly the same money. The Bul­let will con­tinue to de­pre­ci­ate, but gen­tly, whereas the Tri­umph is likely to con­tinue to rise in value, but gen­tly, so is – pos­si­bly – an in­vest­ment. You can I hope share my amuse­ment at all this? And that very amuse­ment is what makes an old bike build so worth­while, for me at least. And that amuse­ment is why I ac­quired an­other BSA, the A65T which you may re­mem­ber from a month or two back. I’ve started to ac­quire parts for that. Only this very morn­ing a set of high ex­haust pipes landed and…

But does it ac­tu­allystart re­li­ably­now?An­swer:Yes,it does.Iteventicks over­steadily. Pa­zon ig­ni­tion and­new Amal carb work­ing well to­gether It al­ways paystocheck thatthe coast is clear

Five min­utes later, the Beezer’s back in The Shed, and this mighty mon­ster is en­dur­ing or­deal by pho­tog­ra­phy

One of these seem­ingly iden­ti­cal front brakes works re­ally well, the other does not. Life is filled with mys­ter­ies

Al­though FW has de­clared the BSA fin­ished, in fact there’s enough lit­tle jobs left to keep any­one amused for years. Like find­ing and fit­ting the cor­rect bolt to fit the new, smaller fuel tank

As the orig­i­nal head­lamp shell was se­ri­ously rusted, and the re­place­ment from the last re­build was re-chromed and pa­per-thin, FW fit­ted one bought from eBay and in ap­par­ently ex­cel­lent con­di­tion. Ex­cept… ex­cept that the switch is the wrong one and the hole in the shell has been en­larged to ac­cept it, which means that the cor­rect orig­i­nal won’t fit. Sim­i­larly, the left-hand idiot light hole has been en­larged by some idiot (not FW) so the warn­ing light just falls out

FW has stored this ma­chine in The Shed for cen­turies, and he’s al­ways been ir­ri­tated by its wrong pri­mary cover. He ac­quired a cor­rect ‘Tri­umph’ re­place­ment in 1999 or so, but…

De­spite ex­pert re­build­ing, the B25SS oozes its lube. FW spent a happy age try­ing to fig­ure out the source of the leak. Can you spot it?

An­other tiny but ir­ri­tat­ing de­tail con­cerns the rear brake pedal. As you might be able to see, it’s sup­posed to rest on the stop cast into the footrest post for that ex­act pur­pose. Ex­cept… it doesn’t

Above: ‘Kick­ing is easy with eyes closed…’ Ob­serve how far over the bike leans on its orig­i­nal side­stand, too!

Left: ‘I’ll just sneak off, then…’

Mean­while, in other news, FW fit­ted a new bat­tery to the Bul­let. In fact, he fit­ted two; the first was com­pletely dead on ar­rival Mean­while, in other other news, strange things have been ar­riv­ing from var­i­ous far­away places. If you can work out what these are, give your­self a prize! ‘No no. BSA are best,’ she might have said with only a grim sin­gle note of irony…

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