14.11.08

It's 1965. Rumours of Honda’s impending 750 Four see Cyril sent to Japan for high-level talks in a bid to save the British bike industry


From Cyril's memoirs dated 15 June 2005


Kawasaki and Suzuki, once bitter rivals, now co-operate closely to produce very similar models such as the Mean Streak and Marauder, a situation that benefits them both. This is nothing new of course, and I recall the BSA/Triumph Group extending the hand of friendship to the Honda Motor Company in the mid 1960s. It could have marked a period of greatness for both firms, but I’m afraid the venture descended into a humiliating farce, the details of which I’ve kept hidden until now.


In the summer of 1965 the BSA/Triumph board heard rumours of a big-bore multi-cylinder bike being developed by Honda. So as not to panic the Small Heath workforce, the Honda project was always referred to by the codename ‘Steak and Kidney Pie’. As early as 1963 Bert Hopwood and Doug Hele had drawn up the three-cylinder engine for what would become the 1969 Triumph Trident. Our parallel twins were being pushed beyond their limits resulting in extreme vibration which, while helping lady pillions to a heightened state of readiness, left nerve-shattered riders unable to unfasten their own gloves, let alone complex female undergarments. Everyone was frustrated! However, despite problems with our overstretched engines the Japanese industry was seen by many of those in charge as nothing more than funny little men making quirky little bikes and of no threat whatsoever to the British industry, so for many years in the mid-Sixties the triple was shelved.


The Honda rumour changed all that and we Brits creaked into action, but certain board members saw ‘Steak and Kidney Pie’ as an insurmountable obstacle and that our best chance lay in co-operation with the enemy. It was decided that in my capacity as Global Sales Director I would be flown in secret to Tokyo to meet with the great Soichiro Honda, when I would bring up ‘Steak and Kidney Pie’ and the future of our companies.


In later years, such as during the development of Suzuki’s GSX-R1100 and then Yamaha’s YZF-R1, I travelled extensively throughout Japan and even picked up a little of the lingo. But in September 1965 this was my first long-haul flight and I was a naive 29-year-old from the Midlands. I hold that up as meagre defence for what was to follow.


I’ve never been a heavy drinker, but in those days there was little else to do on a long-haul flight and I’m afraid I began sipping the complimentary spirits as soon as London receded beneath a sheet of grey cloud. I was seated next to a chap who at the time would have been termed a beatnik. I found his slender sunglasses a little disconcerting, but we got along well, taking it in turns to choose the next tipple from the drinks trolley. Several hours in, Bernie, as he insisted I call him, produced a small brown dropper bottle and popped a couple of drips of clear liquid into our Johnnie Walkers. LSD was still perfectly legal, and although I hadn't the slightest idea what it was I decided (helped in my decision by Mr J Walker) that ‘turning on’, as Bernie put it, could do no harm. (Incidentally, ever wondered if habitual use of strong hallucinogens has a lasting effect on the brain? Bernie went on to be a freelance designer in the motorcycle industry and had a hand in such models as the BMW K1, Morbidelli V8 and Honda X-11. I rest my case.)


Thirty minutes after finishing my 'enlivened' whisky, things became a bit chaotic. Perhaps it was because Tokyo had hosted the 1964 Olympics that I seemed fixated by the Greco-Roman wrestling gold medallist Imre Polyak, for apparently it was his name I chanted while climbing over the seat backs in my underpants, smeared in the olive oil supplied with our meal. Air rage is now a common term, but back then I was lucky that grappling with whoever came to hand was seen merely as drunken high spirits. It appears I was pacified for a short while only to return to the fray. Apparently, I spread crushed peanuts up and down the aisle then skidded back and forth on what I clearly considered to be a speedway track. It’s claimed I was doing a passable impression of a methanol-fuelled single and bellowing, in a poor Kiwi accent, ‘I am Barry Briggs, eat my shale!’ Regrettably, I was again stripped to my underpants.


If only it had ended there. I have no recall of the incident for which I was detained by airport police, but I am eternally grateful to the lovely Japanese stewardess for not pressing charges. Neither my socks nor underpants were ever found and apparently upwards of 50 passengers were prepared to testify to the fact that I have a birthmark in the shape of Wales on the underside of my ‘percy’.


The meeting with Soichiro Honda? I’m ashamed to say that it never took place as I was deported after a gruelling five hours' interrogation. In any case, it turned out that the BSA/Triumph management had had a change of heart, having decided to fight the Japanese head on with new designs of our own, and had sent a telegram to my hotel telling me to abort the meeting. So really, it all worked out for the best. Except for the ensuing and catastrophic collapse of our motorcycle industry with the loss of thousands of jobs and many historic marques. But apart from that...

5 comments:

Gary Inman and Ben Part said...

Nice one Cyril.

chris said...

Phew! that was a close shave, tragedy averted. I wonder if Bernie the beastnik have a hand in that Norton Nemesis V8 project as well? proper wrong 'un. terrible business, stick to what we do best . . . 1s and 2s . . . devoid of trouble, what.

Gary Inman and Ben Part said...

Dear Mr Philips,
can we expect you to 'get down to your under-pants' in every episode? Hoping so.

Mick P said...

Dear Gary & Ben

Flicking through Cyril's memoirs still to be posted, I see that, unfortunately, there are several instances of nudity, an episode of penile jousting, a bout of bestiality and various other accounts of human degradation and insanity. I can only apologise in advance.

BLip said...

fingers on buzzers then.