Genius? Or insanity?

From Cyril's memoirs dated 3 May 2007

We are constantly surrounded by – and sometimes perched upon – stunning examples of modern engineering. But the people behind these creations are often anonymous. Well, I have to say that’s probably a good thing. I'm not saying that all engineers are strange, merely that their ranks appear to harbour a large proportion of what most people would call eccentrics.

Takatoshi Takahashi was one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met, little known outside the industry in Japan, but seen as a demi-god by those within it. In mid 1996 he was given special access to a prototype of what would become the Yamaha YZF-R1, then known only by the codename of “Warm Turbot” (I believe it was meant to be “Hot Tuna”, but something was lost in translation). The idea was that he’d tune it to run in the following year’s Suzuka 8-Hour, campaigned beneath anonymous bodywork, then feed back his findings to Yamaha HQ. Well, that was the plan, and I’m afraid I feel partly responsible for what followed.

In summer 1997, I went to Japan from Yamaha UK to see Takatoshi while he prepared the bike at his clinical workshop in an industrial suburb of Iwata on the central eastern coast. Over the years, I’ve dabbled with various workshop machinery, rarely happier than when getting to grips with a mighty tool, and thanks in part to his excellent English, Takatoshi and I got on well. I was flattered when, a month before the race, he asked if I’d polish a set of conrods. I set to with the powerful bench polisher and all was going fine until there was an almighty clang and the conrod pinged out of my hands, across the workshop and struck Takatoshi squarely on the back of the head. He fell like a sack of water chestnuts.

The hospital released him later that day, claiming no lasting ill effects. However, he was a changed man. He no longer wanted me in his workshop (understandable), but neither did he want anyone else there, becoming ever more reclusive over the following weeks. Yamaha executives were rather taken aback by the armed stand-off with which they were greeted and no one predicted Takatoshi’s dramatic exit, aboard the now chopped “Warm Turbot”, the rider dressed in colourful ceremonial robes.

The bike was never seen again, but later that year a scientific expedition to the Ogasawara islands, south east of the mainland, stumbled upon an isolated encampment. There they found a small group of people involved in some sort of primitive cult, and though the hurriedly-taken photos are a little blurry, its leader is unmistakably Takatoshi Takahashi. More worrying was the object of the group’s fervent worship, a freakish, four-legged creature made of motorcycle components and animal hides. Worst of all, its monstrous head, fashioned from hunks and flaps of dried meat, bore a spine-chilling resemblance to yours truly. I had become a deity.

Another slightly unhinged engineer was Harry Teischman, who worked with me at BSA in the early Sixties, where he’d spend board meetings harvesting earwax and the nasal equivalent. We've all picked our nose or delved into our ears, but Harry could produce a prodigious haul. He would carefully roll his booty into balls before flattening them into discs. Then, as I watched from the other side of the table, he’d use his fingernail to work away at each disc in turn, but I could never see what he was doing.

One afternoon, the fire alarm sounded and after some grumbling we hurried from the room (since the time Edward Turner set fire to his trousers while doing the splits over a scented candle – it was some sort of a bet with Bert Hopwood – we'd taken fire alarms seriously). I was last out and, passing Harry's place, took my chance for a closer look. There were four discs in all, alternately of earwax and snot, and each displayed the initials of one of the people present at the meeting. The third disc (earwax) bore the initials CG. Voodoo? I would never have thought it except that a few weeks later Harry was found dead in his Solihull garden, slumped over a BSA Starfire wearing nothing but a goose-feather head-dress, his scrawny, pallid body daubed with strange runes rendered in green Hermetite. This upsetting scene was within a pentangle marked out on the lawn in empty two-pint Castrol tins. I mean, how shocking – a fragile 250cc single, of all things! It’s assumed he died of a heart attack attempting to start the heap of junk.


It came out of the sky

From Cyril's memoirs dated 2 April 2007

Reading Ben Miller’s recent comparison of the Honda CBR600RR and Kawasaki ZX-6R reminded me of the superb ZX-7R I had back in 1996. Actually, it was Ben’s talk of the ZX-6’s seamless fuel injection that really reminded me, because although I’ve always been a fan of carburettors, the ZX-7 was not the bike to be riding through the winter, because carb icing could turn it from a focused stallion into an unpredictable pig. And while there’s never a good time to be straddling any sort of a pig (those with a fruity palate might disagree), when there’s snow and ice on the ground it can be a nightmare, albeit one with a decidedly porcine flavour.

I recall riding up to see a friend who lived between Kendal and Penrith in the Lake District. It was mid-March and a period of mild weather had fooled me into thinking winter was all but over. How na├»ve of me. In my defence, perhaps I wasn’t seeing things too clearly at the time. I’d recently been divorced from Anoushka and it had been a stressful experience. Many things came out in court that were rather shaming – the fighting, the drinking and the awful temper leading to violence at home – but I could no longer put up with her behaviour and it was a relief to be free of the monster. So, not-so-young, free and single I fired up the ZX-7 and headed north with a small rucksack, a credit card and a walletful of folding stuff, aiming to have a blast of a weekend with my old mate Bob McDrew.

All was going well until I decided to leave the A684 and take some more nadgery roads in the Yorkshire Dales. I didn’t know the area, but I still had a few hours of daylight and the bike was running beautifully as we carved through the scenery. Once off the A-roads, there’s nothing like dry stone walls for sharpening the mind and on quiet roads the bike and I slotted into a groove. I could feel the tension of the previous months melting away and my spirits soared as the roads climbed higher.

When the temperature drop came, it was quite sudden, as was the appearance of a threatening blanket of low, grey cloud. I remember the bike started playing up soon afterwards. Throttle response went to pot, with the engine sometimes picking up immediately, other times not until after a huge lag, and even then the power was intermittent. My steed had turned into a rocking horse. I pressed on in the descending gloom and before long was wiping slow from my visor every few seconds. Now, I know I was old enough to know better, but surely we’ve all done it. Although I knew I ought to slow down, I was also anxious to get back to the main road, so I pressed on, the bike now lurching and coughing like a three-legged asthmatic camel (what do you mean you've never ridden one?).

The highside should have been no surprise, and I suppose to me it wasn’t. However, to a certain occupant of the roadside field I suspect it came as rather a shock. I was pitched into the air and over a low wall, landing heavily still in a riding crouch. There are two noises I shall never forget. One is that of my beloved ZX-7R revving its tits off somewhere out on the road (carb icing now not seeming to be a problem), the other is the bizarre honk of a rotund Swaledale ewe being squashed by a man descending from a snowy sky dressed in full leathers. Its life was not given in vain.

As night descended, I had a five-mile trudge before I saw the welcoming lights of a remote pub. After a hot bath, an enormous shepherd’s pie (seemed a little disrespectful in the circumstances, but it was delicious) and several pints, I was highsiding 30mph faster and flying 30 yards further. I’m not sure that the barmaid believed a word, a beautiful young Italian called Francesca, in England to improve her English and who owned a classic Husqvarna scrambler. Did I offer to school her in my native tongue? That’s another story.