Monday, March 14, 2005

First Wheels

BSA Bantam

In pondering my interest in things automotive recently, I got to wondering about of this lifetime interest. It's difficult to know really. While I (mostly) reject gender hardwiring theories, I have to say my fascination for the mechanical has been around since as long as I can remember. Certainly as I young child I was obsessed with fire engines and locomotives (mostly steam, yes I know this dates me!) As a teenager I was totally smitten by model airplanes -there's a post or two back in the archives circa November 2004- particularly the internal combustion engines that would propel such contraptions. I even used to make my own fuel, the contents of which contained wonderfully volatile components such as amyl nitrate and ether. I swear I spent a large portion of those years totally zonked out of my head. I don't suppose there's anyway a 15-year-old could buy that stuff at Boots (popular UK drugstore chain) in this day and age.

Anyway around the age of 16 I felt I should put away childish things (I suspect I rally meant temptation) and gave up aeromodelling, ostensibly to focus on academic studies. Ha! Ha! The first thing I did was to go out an purchase a motorcycle. We a motorbike of sorts. It was a clapped out 150cc BSA Bantam that had been repainted red (probably by someone using a stick) and had a plastic leopard skin seat cover and a bulb horn which for some reason I thought was cute. I paid £5.00 for the thing. The seller's name was (wait for it) Geoff CLAPP. Even with a red flag like this being waved, I still didn't get the message. Geoff, should you read this, don't worry, I've long since forgiven you. I thought that the bike was going to endow me with enormous sex appeal and the transition from nerdy model airplane builder to hunky biker was going to have the girls falling at my feet. Sad bastard! But then I was very young at the time...

The bike somehow made its way to my house whereupon I discovered it wouldn't run. Then came an epiphany. On taking apart the little SU carburettor (it was full of dirt and the float chamber was clogged; I quickly cleaned it and had the motor running) I realized that there wasn't much difference between the bike engine and all the model aircraft engines I'd played with for years. It was just a bit bigger and had a gearbox. After that there was very little stopping me. Just as well as the list of mechanical problems had started to grow. I took out the engine, replaced the clutch (to this day I've never seen such completely knackered plates) reassembled the gearbox correctly in order to select first gear (some twit had put in the primary cog the wrong way round and the layshaft couldn't engage) and fitted a new carb the bike ran quite well. Needless to say it needed other work like a rebuild of the front forks before the thing would pass the rather undemanding MOT test they had back then. So although I was broke I did have a legal pair of wheels.

In the absence of hordes of adoring girls, I decided to apply my energies elsewhere and tune the engine a bit. I'd read an article in Motorcycle Mechanics about a 100mph+ Bantam and thought I could accomplish the same thing. So the engine came out again, I decoked it, polished the ports with my Father's Black & Decker and a rotating wire brush, spent a week "skimming" the head by polishing it on a piece of glass with valve grinding paste, drilled holes in everything possible and added a megaphone silencer. That was the extent of my budget in those days. Well the bike seemed go quite a bit faster, although it might have just been louder as I don't think I ever did more than about 55mph and that was downhill with the wind behind me! But there was always something dropping off -just like tuned Minis I drove decades later. I was also exceedingly jealous of a neighbour, Pete Newlyn, who had a much louder and faster bike, a 250cc Honda I believe. And Pete seemed to get the girls AND his bike was evidently reliable. In trying to emulate him, I stripped all the teeth off the primary layshaft while attempting a drag start just outside my house (fortunately not too far to push, for once). That was the final straw. I rebuilt the box for the last time and advertised the machine in Exchange & Mart. I sold it to a bloke from Esher, a town about 20 miles away that was even more boring than my own, for £15. He called me later to say he'd broken down in Woking (4 miles down the road) but managed to get home. I think I forgot to mention that I'd epoxyed the points in place. Oh well, I expect he's forgiven me too, by now...


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