Silver-black phantom bike

Long ago and far away
Long ago and far away

I got my first bike at 16. Sort of. It was a FS1-E, a Yamaha, a moped. I had a horrible cheap blouson leather jacket of the kind the Fonz used to wear and that was about as far as the resemblance went. About as far as the time I went into the Polish deli in Trowbridge, thinking it was going to be like a deli in New York in the films, full of guys in fedoras and trenchcoats and women looking like Marilyn Monro. It wasn’t.

But anyway, the FS1-E was the first step to freedom. Then I got a Honda CD175, chiefly because it was bigger and a ‘real’ motorcycle, but there wasn’t much style about it. Then I passed my test on a Triumph 250 Trailblazer and stupidly swapped it for a Norton Dominator (steady on, old girl) that ran for about two months out of the two years I had it. And then this one.

I had other bikes after this. A BMW 1000. A Harley Sportster that started as an 883 and got bored out to 1,000cc with a fuel-injector bolted on. But this one in the picture, this one was different. This one was my bike.

I found it in a shop in Southampton in my second term at the university there. Someone had taken a Triumph 650 Tiger engine and bolted into a chromed Norton Slimline frame. It had started out as a cafe racer I think, but somewhere along the line someone had put higher handlebars on it. They hadn’t painted the tank, which is why it was £300. I sold my VW Beetle to get it.

It was the first big bike I’d had, but it didn’t seem to weigh much. I never knew what the top speed was because with the high bars on the wind was too much to deal with much above 85. It was happiest on the roads like the A36 back then, which was a windy two-lane with hardly any police on it ever, that snaked along the river valley out of Bath and out towards the Red Lion at Rode, then wound on out along another valley towards Salisbury, through Warminster, Codford St Mary and Codford St Peter. There was a difference. One had a garage that sold petrol.

Pretty much as soon as I got it to Bath the clutch packed up, but I learned how to change the worn-out clutch plates and put them in and true them up myself. I was proud of that.

The exhausts were another story. I didn’t like the look of the silencers on there and they were a bit rusty anyway, so to complete the look I got rid of them. It was insanely loud like that, so I went to Halford and bought two silencers stubs for a VW Beetle and rammed them into the pipes. That sort-of worked but it didn’t look right. Back to Halfords and a pair of slash-cut luke-warm car exhaust end-pieces. Job done.

Naturally, there were problems. The sidestand was always too  short and there was never a centre-stand. When I clipped a manhole cover leaned over, powering out of a bend in streaming rain on the last long straight under Salisbury race-course the back end flipped out to the right, then left, then right like a snake with its head caught. I knew if I touched the brakes that would be the end of everything and all I could do was the right and only thing, just roll the throttle back very, very slowly and somehow it stopped doing it. I never once dropped that bike, let alone hit the highway like a battering ram, whatever Mratloaf might have advised.

The biggest problems started after I set light to it though. I’d spent two weeks painting the fuel tank blacker than a very black thing indeed, spray, sand it back, spray, sand it back, spray, sand it back at about twelve-hour intervals until I ran out  of first paint, then spray varnish. At the end of that it didn’t look black, it practically shone as it absorbed all other colours. And equally naturally, I’d sprayed paint inside the tank so as soon as I put petrol in it for its inaugural run it flaked off and clogged the fuel line. A nineteen mile jounrey took over an hour and a half because it kept stopping until I got off and blew and sucked the crud out of the fuel line. Got to girlfriend’s house. Kicked it over to start it up. Blowback.

Because someone had junked the air filter there wasn’t anything to stop a backfire spurting flame out of the carburettor. But this was then and air filters were a bit effete. It didn’t matter. It was just like a match flaring. You just reached down and turned the fuel tap off and it would go out. No problem.

Except I couldn’t find the fuel tap and pulled the fuel line off instead, still sitting on the bike I’d just put two gallons of petrol into. I thought I probably couldn’t run faster than two gallons of exploding petrol so I’d better put it out. Luckily I had a full face helmet on, and a leather jacket fitting sweetly to my brain, as the Stranglers used to put it, and more to the point, long leather gloves on. I couldn’t see past half-way down my arm because of the flames. I remember that. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

By the time I got it out the fire had melted the insulation off the horn so it was fused ‘on.’ My girlfriend’s mother had seen it all happen. She came out of the house and said my bike had leaked oil on her drive. After that we found other transport and other things to do. The last ride on it ever was one late Spring evening alone, out around Larkhall and the combes running up to Charmy Down on the northeast edge of Bath before I rode back to the house in the picture, next to the little park where nightingales sang one night as I walked out of there. I remember every part of that slow, sad ride, feeling the cold start to seep into the bones of my legs, smelling that blend of hot oil and cold petrol and Spring and the smell of just being alive there and then, in Bath, a long time ago. It was my bike.


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