The Japanese VIP

From Cyril's memoirs dated 4 January 2008

The freakishly wonderful Suzuki B-King has brought back mixed emotions. You see, I once had close dealings with a certain Haru Jakamashi from Suzuki HQ, who went on to be a key figure in the B-King’s birth. When we set off on a road trip together in the spring of 1996 it should have been the start of a long friendship and a fruitful working relationship. Instead, it was a disaster.

Mr Jakamashi doesn’t have a motorcycle licence. He raced in his youth, but for our journey to a European Suzuki summit in Valencia he was to ride pillion. He was flying in from Hamamatsu and I was to pick him up from Heathrow on a then newly-launched 1200S Bandit. However, I have a confession.

The maintenance department had entrusted me to carry out the bike’s first service myself at home and, of course, I left things till the evening before the trip. By 11pm I was all done, when, having changed the oil as part of the service, I decided to recheck the sump plug. I’d lent out my torque wrench so I was using guesswork as I applied a little... more... pressure to the spanner. It's quite odd, looking back, that the thought of stripping the thread and it actually happening seemed to occur simultaneously. A sweat broke out down my back.

I’ve always been a bodger and opted for one I’d once used on a Kawasaki Z900. I opened a bottle of plonk, poured myself a glass, poured another, then, after a little trimming I screwed the cork into the sump. So long as I didn’t cane the Bandit, and I had no intention to with a high-ranking Japanese suit on the back, I felt sure the cork would stay in place till I got back.

There hadn’t been time to fit hard luggage except for a top box, so I used soft throwovers. At the airport, Mr Jakamashi and I had a bit of a tiff straight off when he insisted that the panniers be adjusted way down so they weren’t interfering with the backs of his thighs. Maybe he had a Cordura phobia, but eventually he was happy and off we went.

The overnight crossing from Portsmouth to Bilbao was interesting. The demure Mr Jakamashi found his voice after a bottle of Chardonnay and several large cognacs, and we spent two hours in the karaoke lounge duelling with some footie lads on the way to a game. When we staggered back to our shared cabin (an administrative error we decided to endure) my honourable Japanese companion rounded off the night by chundering into my shoes.

The next day he was moving very slowly as we set off across Spain. Twice he fell asleep against my back before I insisted on bungeeing him to the top box for his own safety. Later, on the A68 just north-west of Zaragoza, people started flashing us as we overtook them. Disgruntled do-gooders infuriated by our speed, I thought. Until, in the right mirror, I noticed the flames.

It’s remarkable how long it takes to get a bungeed fat bloke off the back off a bike, especially when he’s hung over and panicking as flames from a burning pannier lick at his right buttock. Moments later, as we stamped on smouldering clothing on the hard shoulder, my suggestion that it was his fault for insisting the panniers were adjusted down so far that one had touched the exhaust didn’t go down too well. It was salt in the wound, given that the charred remains were all his. My clothes were in the other pannier.

The rest of the ride down was tortured. We hardly spoke. Then on the last evening after the conference we made friends again in a drunken haze. Mr Jakamashi had cheered himself up on a shopping spree, feeling especially proud of a hugely expensive pair of hand-made Spanish shoes. Once again we took to the karaoke, duetting, in a fit of hysterics, to Arthur Brown’s ‘Fire’.

The next morning, I was outside the hotel checking the straps on what was left of the panniers as the Bandit warmed up on the sidestand. Mr Jakamashi emerged, looking very swish in all his new clothes, ready to take a taxi to the airport. We shook hands across the thrumming bike.

‘We have good time together,’ he smiled, and I could see a rosy future for me at Suzuki after all. ‘I like this bike very much!’

And with that he gave the throttle a slightly cack-handed twist, the revs hit the limiter, there was a dull pop and three litres of hot oil disgorged themselves onto Mr Jakamashi’s brand new tan suede monkstrap shoes. I left Suzuki in the autumn of that year.


Binky's Folly

From Cyril's memoirs dated 11 December 2007

‘Gentlemen, it is our destiny, our duty, to present the world not merely with the bike of tomorrow, but with the Bike of the Future.’ Fine, all very Raymond Baxter, but when I tell you that those words echoed around the boardroom not of Suzuki when perhaps planning the new Hayabusa, of Yamaha or even Hinckley Triumph, but of late Sixties Meriden Triumph then you’ll understand the irony. And for once, my freakish friend Peter Cartwright (of dog shaving, turd harvesting and duck pond rampage infamy) wasn’t involved, though thanks only to a court order.

It’s hard to believe that project Jet Bike was ever allowed to take off. Had things gone differently, who knows? We could all now be hurtling around on 350mph hovering missiles with all the control of a discount supermarket trolley stacked with white cider and pushed by a crack-whore teen mother.

The fun began in autumn 1968. Triumph was on the brink of financial disaster, plodding away with outdated designs and haunted, on the eve of its debut, by the overhead camshaft Honda CB750. Many of us at the firm thought that work ought to be progressing on a DOHC four, but people higher up had rather more ambitious ideas.

Harry ’Binky’ Tuttle was a recently appointed development engineer and, being middle-aged and with his biological clock ticking loudly, was desperate to make a name for himself. Ex-RAF, he claimed to be a close friend of jet engine genius, Frank Whittle, and bamboozled the Board into assigning him a small team and large budget.

Suspicions should have been raised within the first month. An aircraft hangar just outside Coventry had been leased and was surrounded by secrecy. However, word got out of dangerous experimentation, terrible near-misses and a reckless attitude to test rider safety. Then suddenly the plans were shelved and nothing more was said about it, but about 20 years later at the NEC Show I bumped into one of the chaps who’d been drafted in to work on the project, Keith Potts, and after a few pints of slop from the NEC bar, he spoke freely about those dark days.

The thing was a shambles from the start, he told me. Tuttle’s child-like impatience clouding any judgement he might once have had. The Jet Bike was an awful lash-up. What you might imagine to be something perhaps slightly larger than a modern-day jet ski was, in fact, a huge turbine fitted with rudimentary controls. The rider straddled it, like sitting over a large barrel and, influenced by the relatively new Hawker Harrier ‘Jump Jet’, swivelling vanes at the side allowed a vertical take-off. All very well in theory.

Within the first two weeks of testing a ‘working’ prototype there were several regrettable incidents: one rider was hospitalised after ascending ‘like a bleedin’ rocket’ and hitting the hangar roof; a visiting Triumph manager was rushed to casualty when a fierce blowback melted his Terylene trousers to his legs; a technician required first aid after a pork pie was sucked from Tuttle's hand and through the turbine, thwacking the man in the face and knocking out two teeth; and Biggles the aerodrome cat was ‘hoovered up like a rag’ and deposited as a multicoloured mural on the hangar wall.

However, the project continued, draining Meriden’s already paltry funds, until the day the Board came to see the Jet Bike in action. Remember, this was meant to be the prototype of a big-selling street bike and although the idea of hovering had by then been quashed, the thing instead using wheels, it was still far from viable. The directors watched in horror as a man dressed in a fireproof suit used a small stepladder to mount the beast, perching precariously on a thick asbestos saddle. Retractable outriggers kept the machine upright, as the rider’s feet were now a foot or more above the floor. The jet was fired up, its turbine hit a high wailing whistle and the directors stared slack-jawed as the monster moved slowly forward. Unfortunately, only one of the outriggers retracted correctly, the other snagging at the ground as the bike rapidly picked up speed. The thing went into an writhing death-weave but continued up the two-mile straight, by now hitting well over 150mph and still accelerating.

The fireball that rose on the horizon seemed a poignant illustration of Meriden Triumph’s fortunes, and before anyone had the chance to sack him, Harry Tuttle had scarpered, never to be heard of again.