by John Lonergan
Further to my last musings of my early motorcycling years look what I found in an old album , me and my younger brother sitting on the said Bantam , he would be about 7 or 8 and me about 12 or 13 the photo is mid repair , I had removed the head , cylinder and piston , I remember well ( and I'm laughing now) I had read somewhere that if you polished the ports the engine would run better and faster …..it didn't 😂 . If you look closely you'll see it is minus the top end , this was also before the we fitted the large sprocket , anyway it did get a good decoke and it did run a little smoother.
Now in our street there were a couple of the dad's who were actually motor X riders and rode competitively each Sunday and usually one or the other sometimes both would take myself and my mate Brian to the Scrambles boy did we look forward to Sundays , they also gave us many second hand parts such as part worn tyres old alloy guards and anything they could spare that would help us out . These weekend trips would continue till after we left school and the highlight of the week , top blokes and I'll never forget their kindness.
Now it's 1970, I'm 15 I've left school and am working as an apprentice HGV technician but still get the odd lift to the Sunday Scrambles meet . So this day Brian and myself got a lift to a grass track event and as I was working and had cash in my pocket I was pretty well dressed and was enjoying watching the practice laps when in amongst the sidecar outfits going round the bends I recognised two local lads a couple of years older than me and unfortunately they came a cropper on left hand bend and the older of the two the rider John had broken his wrist so it appeared their entrance money was wasted , John was taken to the St John's Ambulance station while Terry the passenger ( PASSENGER no such thing on a competition outfit it's damn hard work) walked about trying to find someone to ride the chair while he took to the controls of the bike ( a Norton 600 I think it was) well there was no one available ……. Until well dressed idiot (me) stepped forward " I'll do it Terry " I shouted eagerly , " you'll have to tell the scrutineer you're older " he said "ok" said the well dressed idiot grinning from ear to ear , I borrowed John's helmet and gloves and so it came to pass on a fine summer's day in 1970 I became the best dressed sidecar rider( idiot) in the land . So there I was best togs and boots on at the start of my very first (and last) sidecar race .
And we're off 😂 I never to that point felt acceleration like it and in seconds was on the first left-hander , my right hand through a leather loop and me hanging way out of the left side left hand almost trailing the ground ( I knew what to do - I'd watched many races) back up for the straight and seconds later throwing myself over the right side for the right hander and so on it went till the race was over , we didn't qualify for the final but we weren't last either.
It was the most thrilling ride of my young life and the most hairy but absolutely the most fun I ever had , we rode gently back to the pits where I jumped off slightly shaking and totally exhilarated. I looked at my mate and Charlie the bloke who brought me they were laughing fit to bust and I was grinning from ear to ear , I was no longer the best dressed idiot on a sidecar but I must have been the muddiest , the only parts without mud were around my eyes where the goggles were and my teeth when I grinned .
I really did have the time of my life - my clothes were ruined and my fancy boots in a right old state but did I care? Not a bit though I did have an embarrassing ride home as Charlie made me strip to my boxers for the ride home .
Oh what fun we had ,
young and daft and just a little mad .
by John Lonergan
Growing up as I did in a North-east pit village with a keen interest in motorcycles from a very early age and fortunately next to a large expanse of woodland, it seemed almost inevitable I would end up riding motorbikes - the tracks through the woods were just perfect as were the old pit heaps from the then disused colliery.
It would be around 1967; me and my best friend Brian were 12 and 13, Brian was about 9 months older than me and he bought an old Ambassador motorcycle fitted with the almost bulletproof Villiers 197cc engine for the princely sum of £6. It doesn't sound much but back then a lot for a young lad to save. Well what fun we had on that old bike flying through the woods (well it seemed like flying), open exhaust, chunky scrambled tyres and no mudguards . We were covered in clarts (mud) every time we went out and loved every minute.
When the Ambassador finally died and he couldn't afford to fix it Brian sold it on and between us we went half's on an old BSA D7 Bantam. This we stripped back to just the frame and engine (they were so simple to work on) ditching all unnecessary items like lights, wiring, mudguards and battery. We didn't need electrics as the engine would run straight off the magneto; we hand painted the frame red with the swinging arm and forks yellow for no other reason than that was the only paint we could find in Dad's shed! It looked quite alright actually if a bit bright.
As my Dad was a motor mechanic and had taught me much from a very early age I was designated "Head of Maintenance" (hmmm!). We did fit some short alloy mudguards cut down from some discarded ones lying in a friend's outhouse. He was also a biker but a fair bit older than us. We were also given and fitted scrambled tyres (also second hand) and the one new part we had specially made and ordered through Motorcycle Mechanics magazine was a 60 tooth rear wheel sprocket which was fitted as soon as it arrived through the post (keen, we were!) cos we couldn't wait to try it out. Yes it lost some speed but we didn't need that through the woods and on the pit heaps, but what it did gain was a lot of bottom end. It would climb anything and wheelie great, which was what we wanted.
We had great fun on that bike until one day we couldn't select one of the gears, so it was down to me as "Head of Maintenance" to sort out (13 going on 14 I was by then). So this one Saturday Mam went out shopping in town and I knew it was an all day trip - it always was and as Dad was at work I decided to tackle the gearbox on the Bantam.
So out with the engine, only a few bolts and a couple of wires, the Bantam engine is very simple and I made good progress stripping it all down and laying out the ancillaries so I would have no trouble on reassembly (Dad taught me that, always be methodical he would say). Now we were down to the crankcases which had to be split as this was a unit construction and the gearbox was inside. All bolts out and parted the casings the oil oozed out and a broken selector fork lug dropped out as well. We did have some spares, half an engine no cylinder head or clutch but inside those old casings there would be a selector.
I stripped the old part out and was just finishing installing the gearbox when in walked mother dear. Oh she wasn't best pleased and had a face like thunder as I was working in the kitchen and had the engine in her new plastic washing up bowl. (Well I thought I was being tidy using the bowl and I did put some cardboard underneath and there was no mess on the floor. I really couldn't see her problem!).
I was immediately expelled from my workshop but on the plus side she let me keep the plastic bowl, that was thoughtful of her. I was then relegated to working outside and it was quite cold (has she no heart?) so I finished off reassembling the engine using homemade gasket (Dad had shown me how to make gaskets using gasket paper and a small hammer) and copious amounts red Hermatite which seemed to be all over me as well.
Before refitting the engine I clamped on the gear lever and tried engaging the gears ….yeah success I could select all three, so the engine was refitted and duly track tested. It worked brilliantly, a total success mechanically and personally I was full of pride at my expanding skills. We had that bike a couple of more years with only minor problems to sort.
At the age of 15 I started working as an apprentice HGV technician and my mate Brian went into clerical work. But a couple of years later Brian bought proper scrambles machine an AJS 250cc Stormer - a brilliant and very fast bike. I got to ride it quite a bit and it was I have to say a bit faster than the Bantam. Brian also bought an ex GPO Morris Minor van to transport the bike to events each Sunday and I was always with him as " Head Of Maintenance" and got free entry to all the events.
In those early years I only had one brush with the law; our local Bobby didn't like us riding our bike in the woods but couldn't stop us either. We never rode on the paths or roads but pushed the the bike to and from my Dad's garage. It was during one of those pushes up the back street that the said officer popped up. He read me my rights and charged me with using a motorcycle on a public road with no tax, MOT or insurance and some other spurious things as it was an off road bike.
It actually went to court, I think I was 14 or 15 anyway it was before I left school. I did have witnesses to prove I wasn't riding and after the officer had read from his pocket book the Magistrates looked at each other and seemed quite annoyed and I thought "I'm for it here", then one of them looked at the policeman and said "Have you really nothing better to do? ...case dismissed!". Phew relief, he never bothered us any more after that . I had many bikes after that but that little Bantam held a special place for me in my early years.
Over the next few years I had several Japanese bikes that served me well, then the inevitable girlfriend (later wife) which necessitated the purchase of my first car, a lovely Wolseley 1500. Many more cars followed then in 1998 with family grown and flown the nest there was no stopping me - I wanted another motorcycle (no, not a Bantam - I wanted a big bike) .
A lad I grew up with just happened to own his own motorcycle shop and attached workshop so I popped up to see him. After many years he looked a lot older than when I saw him last nearly 25 years before (so I told him so and he told me so right back 😂). I told him I wanted a bike but it must be a Brit. He said the only one I have is a Triumph Trophy 900cc. Wow I said "that's big but it's beautiful can I take it for a run?". His reply was "we don't usually but in this case you can as I know you ". "Alrighty then lend me a couple of lids - Cath wants to come too" I said.
"OK, take mine and the wife's" he said. "Just bring it back in one piece". Well I was gone for two blissful hours and when I returned OK he looked mightily relieved. Straight away I said " don't worry I'm buying it but I've got no kit so if you chuck in two A class helmets and some gloves I'll give the price you're asking", Deal done, I never did tell him I hadn't ridden since my early twenties.
I had the Triumph for about 16 years and kept it pristine. Now that little Bantam I had all those years ago was never far from my mind and although I loved the Triumph I was getting more and more drawn to wanting another (and the force grew stronger). Yep all those childhood memories were flooding back, until one day in May 2008 I spotted one for sale on eBay only about 20 miles away.
It was a 1966 D7 Bantam 175cc just like the one we had - only this one was complete. The owner got it from his friend with a view to restoring it, but that never happened. I arranged to go and see it and as the auction was close to ending with no bids, I made him a there and then cash offer which he accepted. Well now I had a wee problem; I'm 20 miles from home in my car and no way to transport the bike home.
After a short muse I phoned my brother-in-law who had a trailer, but that was no good as he'd loaned it to someone but said he could borrow his brothers Transit van. He arrived 90 mins later. Now during the negotiations the owner was about to back out of the deal as there was a problem with the Bantam engine, when it started it sounded awful and was spewing fuel/oil mixture out of every orifice.
It was a mess and he didn't want to sell it like that, but hold on I said I'll still take it regardless. What he didn't know was I knew what the problem was. I remembered from years back if you didn't shut off the fuel tap petrol mix would leech through the carb and collect down in the crankcases causing this exact problem when started.
"Got any spanners?" I said and he pointed to a toolbox. "Watch" I said as I slid an empty tin under the engine and removed the little bolt at the bottom of the casings. Out poured about a pint of fuel. It was very clean, so I just poured it back into the tank. I left the plug out and one swing on the Kickstarter and it was running, a bit roughly but sounded healthy enough. After a short while it started to dry up and I refitted the plug. "How did you know what it was?" he asked. I said, "you had it running yesterday and you said it was fine but I'd spotted you'd left the petrol tap open and it's something I've seen before". "Blimey I thought it was knackered" he said.
Well we loaded up the Bantam and headed over to my place and parked in the garage next to the Triumph. There were some other items to sort out - there was no battery, the front brake cable was badly frayed, the lights and horn didn't work, there was a nasty hole in the seat and the handlebars were bent plus the levers were badly corroded.
I sorted the lighting and horn easily as this was just corroded wiring connections and fitted a new horn/ dipswitch. I got a suitable battery off my old friend at the local bike shop and ordered new handlebars, levers and a brake cable from a specialist Bantam dealer. The seat I took to a local repairer who saved the seat base and recovered it. The little Bantam was now looking quite tidy and always started first or second kick. I booked an MOT at the bike shop where my old friend gave it the once over and nod of approval. It passed the MOT with no advisories. I really loved this little bike - it transported me way back to my youth and put a smile on my face every time I rode it.
I even used it for work. It was brilliant for weaving through the traffic and you could guarantee that every time I stopped, someone would engage in conversation about it. I kept this for about 8 years, first selling the Triumph and about a year later the Bantam - a bitter pill to take, as I had to give up bikes due to work related health problems otherwise I'd still have them both.
At least I have my MK2 Escort Popular which brings me great pleasure and I can see plenty of bikes at classic shows and look on jealously as they arrive and leave.
by John Lonergan
In 2010 the only Classic car meet I attended was "Cars in the Park" in September as I wanted to see what the classic car club scene was like and this was held on the Shafto estate near Spennymoor Co Durham only about 7 miles from home.
As I pulled through the gate there was quite a bit of head turning (who's this? never seen him before) I was a total stranger on their club meet which was open to all . I did feel a little conspicuous but needn't have worried as Cath and I were made very welcome by all. I was asked a bit about the car and gladly told my tale and within minutes the word had spread. I heard one guy saying "Have you seen that Escort? It's only got 3,000 on the clock!". His mates reply "Aye they're still popping up now and again" . One guy made me smile as he popped his head inside and said "you've dun a cracking job on this interior and only 30,000 miles". His face was a picture when I told him to look more closely at the odometer and that the car had not been restored at all but genuine original condition . We had such a good time there we joined the club and are still members to this day .
The car was given the Zeibart treatment from new and although good protection it looked quite ugly especially under the bonnet, so in 2011 Cath and I removed all the Zeibart visible topside and under the bonnet - that is front and rear valances, sills, doors and inner wings - using white spirit, rags and a plastic spatula. It was left intact on the underside, this improved it's appearance greatly though there is still a little bit under the bonnet still to do.
There was another minor niggle; on opening the NSF door it caught the wing, this was due to badly fitted replacement wing when Keith the original owner had a minor scrape with a gate. As it was not an original part I had no qualms about removing it and having it replaced and correctly fitted.
We continued to take the car to shows and meets and it was at one show (the Durham MG show at Houghall College Durham in 2013) again the little Escort was getting loads of attention when at about 12.30 pm two guys in particular were very interested in its history and supporting paperwork. They asked loads of questions and seemed to go away two happy chappies .
By this time I was quite in need of a loo as I had been drinking heavily (tea) and Cath was in a similar situation so off we went - it was a few hundred yards and the queues were massive. On returning to the car I could see something on the windscreen and with a bit of a scowl I said "somebody's stuck something on our windscreen - cheeky sods " but as I got closer and my eyes focused better my scowl turned into a very large grin as it turned out to be a red rosette awarding the Escort "Best classic car". The two guys who were so interested in the Escort and it's history turned out to be judges.
This was my first MG show and hadn't realised that the car would be judged or indeed that there were prizes . So at 3 pm I was at the presentation to be presented with the Escort's very first trophy. I didn't stop smiling all the way home.
Since then the little Escort Popular has won quite a few trophies with many more 2nd & 3rd places and has brought much pleasure driving it around. It's also been the subject of several magazine articles. My greatest pleasure though is not trophies, but interacting with people who like to see it and relaying it's history. On the one hand I quite often get nods of approval or congratulated for keeping it in original spec, on the other I get people telling me what mods they think I should do. Hmmmm... I know which way I'm leaning!
One funny moment was when Cath and I were travelling to an event one Sunday morning when we found ourselves surrounded by motorcycles on the dual carriageway heading north past Newcastle. They all slowed down giving the car the once over - nodded, gave the thumbs up and sped on. Marvellous, the reaction this little car provokes.
And on more than one occasion has caused someone to shed a tear bringing back fond memories. For me this is what it's all about. I know Keith the original owner often looks at it with approval and sometimes comes over if I'm washing or polishing it just to see it and I'm pleased he is happy with my treatment of his lovely old car to which he still has a sentimental attachment.
by John Lonergan
I have lived at my present address since 1985 and didn’t know my close neighbour Keith had a car until about 7 years later ( @ 1992 ). Another neighbour who had lived there a lot longer than I had stopped for a chat and during the conversation he looked across the road and pointed to the garage and said “ye nar , eez gor an auld car in there and it’s dun nowt “.
A few days later that same garage door was opened for the first time that I could recall since moving there and revealed a white S reg. MK2 Ford Escort. A stranger started working on the car and later that day it was running. A few days later I found out he had taken the car for MOT which it passed, then my neighbour Keith and his wife Maria took the car for a run, returning a couple of hours later and the car was put back in the garage where it remained until July 2010.
I had asked if he would ever consider selling his car and if so would he give me first refusal. I also told him I didn’t wish to sell the car on, but wanted to recommission it and take it to classic car shows. I was politely told it was not for sale, but if ever he wished to sell he would let me know. I asked why he didn’t use it and he said public transport was quite adequate for his needs.
In early 2008 Keith had quite a bit of work done on his house and the garage door was going up and down like a yo-yo with workmen going in and out, revealing the car again covered in dust and boxes. I guess a lot of people saw the car and around that time and Keith was inundated with strangers knocking on his door asking to buy the Ford but again he would not sell.
I think all the attention troubled him somewhat as he is a very private person. Then one evening mid-2008 Keith approached me and asked if I still wanted his car. I said I would be delighted to own it and with a little haggle the deal was done. I asked why he had not sold it to someone else and he said he would like the car to be looked after by someone he knew and would take care of it and not just sell it on.
Not long after that I suffered some health problems and the car had to wait until July 2010 to come out of its hibernation. First I had to enlist some help from friends and relatives; the first job was to tie back the overgrown bushes on the drive, then I lifted the garage door and there it was covered in dust, boxes and an old carpet. All the tyres were totally flat, the inside was covered in a white dust and the handbrake was on. I got inside and let the handbrake off while my son James dragged over the portable compressor. He inflated all the tyres then he and my wife Cath gave the car a shove. There was a little clunk and the handbrake came off, I couldn’t believe it - 18 years it was on, and it came off so easily. Next all the rubbish on top of the car was removed and then it was pushed out of the garage and over the road onto my drive.
The car looked in great condition though very dusty inside and out so Cath and myself started the task of cleaning the car. The speedo read an amazing 3,131miles - it had covered just 30 miles since that 1992 MOT, and it looked great.
The next task was to get the engine running. We changed the oil and filter, air filter, plugs, points and condenser, fitted new plug leads as the old ones were green-looking, fitted a new battery, the car was jacked up and put on stands, then the 18 year old fuel was drained off and then in with a gallon of fresh petrol.
I then tried to start the engine. Everything looked fine but it would not fire up; a little investigation led to the coil, so straight down to my local auto centre for a new one, once fitted the engine fired up without hesitation and soon settled down to a smooth tick over. So a quick check, oil light out, there was oil to the rockers and a check under the car for leaks showed all ok. What really stood out was the condition of the underside - it was immaculate having benefited from the ziebart treatment from new. The only job under the car was to change both rack boots which had split when the wheels turned for the first time. The parts were ordered and fitted a few days later.
Next items to be checked were the brakes, all wheels jacked up and removed , rear hubs were removed, Cath worked the brake pedal and handbrake all checked out ok. There was nothing leaking, nothing sticking, all going on and off with each application - unbelievable. The wheels were then refitted and the stands and jacks removed. I started the engine, engaged 1st gear and slowly released the clutch pedal and let the car drive a few yards forward and then in reverse. Again all seemed fine, personally I have never known a vehicle stand so long without something sticking , seizing or leaking, so I carried on and checked out the rest of the vehicle. Everything was working as it should , so it was time to book an MOT.
The MOT was booked and insurance arranged, and as the MOT station was a ten mile drive, I took my wife Cath along for its first trip in 18 years. The car performed well once the brakes had settled in, though I have to say not having a brake servo felt a bit weird for a while. The only thing to show up on the trip was those 32 year old tyres; it was like driving with three-penny bits for wheels (fifty pence pieces for you post-decimal types).
When we arrived at the garage the examiner was very pleased to see it at last. I asked if Cath could stay in the car and he replied, “She should be ok as she is age-related”, just as well he was out of reach. "Mileage?" he asked. "3141 miles" I said. "Bugger off!" he said and put his head round to check, then said you lucky b*****d.
All through the test all I could hear was him repeating expletives and “I don’t believe it“. He even had his workmate and some friends come have a look. It passed with flying colours and after a steady trip home all the wheels were removed. I had them blasted and repainted at Stella Blasting and Painting of Pelton Fell Chester-le-street Durham and had new tyres fitted at Tyre Plus Durham and now it drives as it should.
The only downside to the Ziebart treatment is they sprayed the stuff everywhere, under the bonnet was totally black but I am slowly removing it a bit at a time to reveal the pristine original paint underneath. There was an issue with the n.s.f. wing to address where Keith had a minor scrape many years ago and this was attended to by Dick Francis and his team at Carrosserie of Barnard Castle .
Keith the original owner came over to see me the other day to see how I was getting on and is very pleased with its progress. He gave me the original purchase invoice from the Heaton Motor Company of Consett plus it’s handbooks, along with the last test certificate he had showing a mileage of 03101mls, and a service invoice from 1982 showing the mileage of 1,600mls.
It doesn’t get any better than this - a one owner ultra low mileage vehicle been locked away for years and taking very little to recommission. Am I ecstatic? ..... you bet! .
Since then my little Escort popular has won quite a few trophies, not that that's why I go to shows. Many I go to are just displays but it is nice that the originality of this car is recognised as there are so few base models left, most having been modified to mimic RS models or Mexico's.
This car is in exactly the same spec as it left the dealership in 1978, and I aim to keep just like it is .
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