Extremely good vibrations

From Cyril's memoirs dated 15 March 2007

I'm often asked, 'Cyril, why are your recollections so full of smut and filth?' I can only hold my hands up and say, Mother, I've lived a charmed life full of good fortune.

The other day, Francesca and I were poring over the January issue of Bike and the luscious photos of the new Ducati 1098. We agreed that certain motorcycles really do have a certain sex appeal in themselves, and I can assure you it goes beyond the merely academic discussion of bulges, tubes and orifices.

Many years ago I had a Suzuki GSX-R750H, hard to believe now, but there was a time I could bend this old frame of mine to fit a supersports bike. And talking of bending my frame, this was when I was married to former Soviet discus champ Anoushka (she of neck-twisting thighs and killer right hook fame). She always loved the bikes and would climb on the back at any opportunity (she'd climb on my back at any opportunity, but that's another, rather painful, story). The woman was a real speed freak and always urged me to go faster, whatever bike it was we were riding. But when it came to the Gixer, it was different. We'd get up to about 80 and she'd start nudging me in the kidneys to slow down. This would generally happen on long stretches of boring road, such as a motorway.

It wasn't until we tried an intercom that I realised what was going on. It turned out that in top gear at 80mph the 750 would produce a particular frequency of vibration through the subframe. I'd never really noticed this, but Anoushka certainly had, as betrayed by barely stifled whimpering and laboured breathing one day on the M6 between Kendal and Moffat (normal enough after a service station lunch, but we hadn’t stopped). And there was me thinking it was the fresh air leaving her rosy-cheeked at the end of a good ride. The intercom didn't last long, by the way. Ever had 110 decibels of Russian profanities piped directly into your ear while trying to find an obscure address in an unfamiliar city?

Another experience I had happened when much younger. I must only have been about 18 years old and riding around on a tatty AJS single. Well, you chaps will know what it's like when a healthy teenage body is flooded with out-of-control hormones; a nanny goat in a summer dress could have given me a stiffy, but the vibes created by the old Ayjay would cause trouser anarchy.

I recall having to run a package round to a local engineering firm, the aptly named Upright and Sons. It was a mild day and I had on a woollen jumper, with no jacket, and loose-fitting worsted trousers. Traffic was heavy and I had to make several detours before I reached the Upright offices, by which time I could have honed a Panther cylinder with my own special tool. The cruel trick was that after ten minutes or so of these vibes the old todger would be left practically numb and I'd become pretty much unaware of it.

Have you ever seen a woman faint? I entered reception with the package in my hands and as I walked across to the desk I saw a look of absolute horror on the aged receptionist's face. Her gaze was fixed firmly on my groin and by the time I'd realised my predicament it was too late, up she stood and down she went. This was, let's remember, 1953, a more reserved age. I'm sure if an 18-year-old arrived in such a state these days the receptionist might well go down, but in an altogether different way.

I was terribly sad when I sold that bike, rattly and slow as it was, but the old boy who bought it was thrilled. He never let it out of his sight and even when he became too old to ride he could be seen sitting on the Ayjay on his drive, revving the thing rhythmically, a wistful smile on his dreamy face.



From Cyril's memoirs dated 2 February 2007

It was 1964 and I was a young and, whenever possible, thrusting Global Sales Director at Triumph, but as Triumph was by then controlled by the mighty BSA I was generally aware of what went on at the Small Heath HQ. Back then, the Cold War was at its height, as were James Bond films, with Goldfinger on the screens that year (I saw it in a Soho cinema and was expecting something entirely different). There was another film already in production – Thunderball – and BSA was approached by special effects genius John Stears (who later won an Oscar for his work). He wanted to equip a performance motorcycle with rocket launchers, to be ridden by the SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe (played by the really rather stunning Luciana Paluzzi, who happens to be Francesca’s aunt’s godmother’s niece, but I digress).

All went very well and Stears got a 650 Lightning on which his own people did a lot of modification work. Months later, there was a special private preview of the film at the Birmingham Odeon to which various members of the BSA board were invited, including Harold Armstrong and Edgar Smeer.

Armstrong and Smeer were long-serving board members with solid engineering backgrounds, which makes what follows all the more baffling. They were, as a pair, so taken by the stunts they saw in the film, featuring a pneumatic woman in tight black leather shooting rockets from her Beeza, that they took it upon themselves to develop their own fully-functional version of the bike, no special effects needed. They rightly assumed that they’d never get official approval for the work but convinced themselves that the Ministry of Defence would be thrilled with the machine once presented with it. At the subsequent trial at the Old Bailey they referred to the disastrous events as ‘snags’. The judge, I recall, preferred the term ‘criminal negligence’.

Thanks to BSA’s background as a gun manufacturer, Harry Armstrong had several useful contacts in the arms trade, which was how he managed to get hold of the anti-tank guns which were fitted to the side of an A65 Firebird street scrambler. After various bench tests and many hours with the slide rule, Armstrong and Smeer decided to take the contraption to a disused airfield for secret tests. We should be glad that they decided to film their exploits as the grainy black and white footage provides a valuable document (reputedly available in some obscure corners of the internet, though I've never found it, and even Francesca's deft young fingers fail to raise anything despite intense googling).

The footage, as shown in court that day, begins with Armstrong and Smeer unloading the bike from the back of a Commer van on a bleak and blowy airfield (I forget where). The bike looks proficient enough, with the launchers attached to its flanks. But then, from the back of the van, emerges the bizarre sight of Smeer's secretary, Janet Jones, dressed in a replica of the leather catsuit worn by Fiona Volpe in Thunderball. All very well on a toned Italian siren, not so fetching on a middle-aged mother of three a little too fond of the biscuit barrel. The impression was of an over-stuffed black pudding at bursting point. The men had clearly convinced her to take on this role purely for their own pleasure as her riding skills were not the best, as soon became clear. In fact, one wonders whether the whole venture wasn't focused solely on getting Janet Jones into a leather catsuit, an endeavour that I imagine required a couple of hefty lads and a pint of baby oil.

Anyway, the A65 was fired up and, with Armstrong filming furiously, Janet Jones squeaked onto the saddle with the sound of a hand being dragged over a highly-inflated balloon. The following events happened very quickly indeed and I recall the court re-watched the footage in slow motion many times. It seems Janet released the clutch rather abruptly, the back wheel stepped out, the bike went down on one side and one rocket shot out and destroyed the Commer, seen exploding in the background. Janet, now sprawling on the tarmac, is highly compromised as the catsuit's gusset seam finally gives up and bursts wide open (ah, now I remember, it was Blackbushe airfield in Hampshire) and Smeer flings himself on top of her in what he claimed to be an attempt to 'preserve her modesty', though I've never before heard it called a 'modesty'. It's clear in the footage that she sees things differently and the ensuing fight goes on for almost a minute, the dedicated Armstrong not missing one second with the camera.

It's a shame that the film ran out before the arrival of the police soon after. What they found was a scene of devastation, degradation, broken machinery and a grown man crying – a scene that by the decade's end would be fairly normal at the increasingly troubled BSA.


Lord of the Flywheels

From Cyril's memoirs dated 22 January 2007

What first set me off on this passion for motorcycles? I can still remember the day that started a lifetime's obsession.

It was summer 1945 and my brother and I were at Uncle Gilbert’s place near Uttoxeter. I was ten years old and distinctly recall emerging from the improvised swimming pool my uncle had made using hay bales and a tarpaulin. He was on the gravel path on a large motorcycle, watching us intently with a far away look in his eyes. I ran over and he picked me up in his strong arms and lowered me gently onto his big thumper. It was such a rich sensory experience, the smell of warm lubricant, the feel of ribbed rubber in my hand as I reached out and gripped tightly, and when he loomed up behind me and thrust hard with an animal-like grunt, the thing came to life between my legs with a pulsing throb and I was left breathless by the whole amazing experience. At that point something happened deep inside me. Yes, Uncle Gilbert had planted a seed. Five years later I was a messenger boy at Ariel and the rest, as they say, is sub judice.

Many years later still, in 1976, I was UK Sales Manager for Honda. It was my first time working for the Japanese after years with the British industry, and I was keen to make an impression. It was that memorably scorching summer and in those pre-Playstation days the streets and parks were filled with youngsters. One day, I stopped at the edge of a park in Chiswick to double check something on a new Gold Wing I’d taken for a spin from the Power Road HQ. Within seconds the bike was surrounded by chattering, goggle-eyed kids keen to know everything about it. That got me thinking; why not set up a special day for youngsters to introduce them to the wonders of motorcycles? Some might immediately take up off-road sports, others might start saving for their first road bike. It couldn’t fail. Or so I thought. I’d decided to keep a diary of events that day, to enable me to pinpoint the most successful areas for replication nationwide. What follows are extracts from that notebook.

09:30 Saturday 21 August, St John’s Park, Chiswick
Hot and sunny. Bikes all here and on display, including CB125S, CB750F1, CJ360T (though God knows why), CB400 Four, XL250 and GL1000 Gold Wing. People beginning to drift in. No sign of Bill Curtis [my Dealer Liaison Manager]. All bikes to remain strictly stationary with engines off!

10:40 Place filling up nicely and the kids love the XL and the Gold Wing in particular. Some rather fetching young mums around, too! Apparently Bill is organising a refreshments truck and will be along shortly. Small fat boy has just fallen off the stationary CJ360 and torn his shorts. Will have to placate irate father.

10:55 I take two aspirins for the pain in my cheek and although I cannot currently see out of my left eye I’m assured that the swelling should quickly subside. He really was rather angry. Bill Curtis has arrived, ushering in a large snacks wagon that appears to sell alcohol. Maybe not the best thing at this event, but still, I might have a quick snifter to help with the pain.

12:15 Marion is absolutely stunning, although her 15-year-old son, Wayne, is a little shit. Pain is easing nicely thanks to Mr J Walker. After much badgering, decide that starting the engines is fine. But definitely NO riding!

14:40 Luckily, it was the XL that was ridden into the ornamental fish pond and it showed its off-road ability to the full. Unfortunately, Wayne, flapping from the bars like a rag doll, found it all rather a shock. Perhaps I shouldn't have leaped from the pillion, but it seemed a hopeless and extremely dangerous situation. Bugger that!

16:20 Bill has totalled the Wing. I don’t know how it happened. Susan (or Sally?) and I were ensconced in the herbaceous border discussing the effect of crankshaft off-set on piston skirt friction levels. I emerged to see the bike on fire in the middle of the bandstand. The CB125 and XL250 are now wailing skeletons ridden by youths stripped to the waist, their bodies painted with ash from various fires. I appear to have created Lord of the Flies on wheels. What fun. Another drink, I feel.

23.15 Released on bail pending appearance at Acton magistrates court. I seem to have lost my trousers. Not the best of days. Whole thing needs a bit of a rethink.