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.
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