Although we haven't actually met up for 20 years, my UK-domiciled best mate Rick and I stay in regular touch. There's little in the way of topics that don't get dissected but motorcycles and classic cars are a regular topic because of our shared interest. Of late, I've been sending him some photos of bikes that I've owned since moving to NZ in 1975, together with some ramblings about ownership.
I started this blog in a moment of boredom in 2009 and over that time, have produced a few reviews of bikes I've owned, normally at a level of technical detail which would bore the pants off most people, apart from fellow tragics and engineers. The correspondence with Rick got me thinking about putting something together which condensed total bike ownership into one place, leaving out most technical detail but including something far more important - the memories associated with them.
The reasons for buying a bike changes over time - "fitness for purpose". We spend a lot of time looking at technical specifications, performance and so on but we ignore emotional appeal at our peril and to make a good, lasting decision, it has to be a combination of both factors. In fact, the last but one bike I owned before retirement was purchased without much thought to emotional appeal, an error of judgement on my part. Despite the bike's high performance, it simply didn't light my fire. In the 3-odd years of ownership, it didn't get patted in the shed, whereas the others did. That's probably the best example of a lack of emotional appeal!
Anyway, I hope that the following memories and anecdotes strike a chord but if you're a fellow tragic, use the search bar below the header photos (desktop, laptop or tablet) to search for a few individual bike and tyre reviews etc in detail.
1964 -1966 (I think) - Suzuki 50 M15.
The Suzuki 50 was a gift from my maternal grandparents for passing my national school exams. They knew I loved bikes and both Granddad and Dad used to ride in their youth but from memory, I had no input into the choice of bike. A capacity of 50cc was probably their means of mitigating risk to a hormone-laden teen after them taking advice from the local motorcycle shop. Nonetheless, it represented freedom so it was a wonderful gift. They also had it fitted with leg shields and a large windscreen with the aerodynamics of a house to protect me from the elements, bless them. The downside was that with a meagre 4 or 5 horsepower, the wind resistance from the screen severely crippled its already modest performance.
My closest mates had a Triumph Tiger Cub, a Lambretta scooter and an Ariel Arrow, so I was always wringing the throttle in an attempt to keep up. It wasn't long before the screen and leg shields were removed, which did appreciably improve things. Nonetheless, performance was hardly electric and after passing my test, it was time to look for something else.
1966-67 (I think) - Triumph 3TA 350
Like virtually all of us at that stage of our motorcycling careers, buying a bike was more of an act of faith than a well-researched one. Rick owned a 350 Triumph by this stage which seemed like a decent recommendation. I traded the 1964 Suzuki in for the Triumph which was around 5 years old. The dealer was at a nearby town and went by the name of Sharp and Glover. I didn't know at the time that they were also colloquially known as Shark and Grabber, which might have provided some degree of restraint in parting with my money.
However, it turned out to be pretty reliable, the only issue being that it would never rust due to the copious amounts of oil which it leaked. As most British bikes of that era leaked to some extent, I suppose it was just a case of largely putting up with it. I vaguely remember that trying to seal the pushrod tubes and tappet covers was an exercise in futility, particularly when using Red Hermetite sealant - terrible stuff.
Ownership only lasted a year or thereabouts. Whilst its performance was admittedly better than the Suzuki 50, its power output was only 17 bhp or thereabouts and it was quite a heavy bike. The final straw was when I tried to blow away someone riding a Yamaha 100cc 2-stroke twin. Less power but a superior power to weight ratio, not to mention infinitely better handling. The rider wiped the floor with me, a major humiliation. The 3TA had to go!
1968-1971 - Triumph Tiger 100, 350 Triumph drag bike and Tricati
The more I got into motorcycling, the more I seemed to be buying older bikes! I got wind of someone in the next town wanting to sell his 1955 500cc Tiger 100. It had been superbly restored in royal blue and white paint, with lots of additional chrome plating and the engine had been tuned. I had to have it!
It was capable of a little over 100 mph, at least in theory. When I bought it, it was equipped with American-spec hi-rise bars and mirrors on long stalks - shades of Marlon Brando in the Wild One. Exceeding 70mph would see the wind pressure gradually swing the mirrors rearwards, trapping me between them. The riding position wasn't comfortable at speed either and dropped "Ace" bars were subsequently fitted to give a forward lean. The bike was a lot of fun to ride and lots of miles were racked up on it.
The outstanding memory on this bike was attending the Isle of Man TT in 1969, along with Rick on his Triumph Trophy. Apart from everyday riding round the Island , Rick and I got up before dawn on a non-race day, lined up on the starting grid and went hell for leather round the entire 38 mile/60 km circuit, with a complete absence of traffic which was handy. Rick pulled out of sight fairly quickly although I knew he wasn't far away as part way round, there was a guy leaning on his gate, looking down the road. Climbing the mountain, there was further proof of his passage with seagulls having been disturbed from kipping on the road, wheeling about in disarray. We finished less than a minute apart with smoke pouring off my back brake drum. It had got so hot dropping off the mountain that some of the wheel bearing grease had melted onto the drum. The Tiger has the honour of another photo below. It was taken on the TT course with me in my civvies, along with a delightful Scottish lass I met there. I hasten to add that this was 2 years before I met my wife! Rick's Trophy is on the right.
I finally sold the Tiger to one of my good friends in 1971. It was getting little use as I joined the staff at Cranfield University in 1970 and there was little time for social riding or commuting on the bike.
Supercharged 350cc Triumph drag bike - Icarus
I was already familiar with the Triumph 350 twin motor and as there was a dragstrip close to where I lived, I thought it would be fun to build a drag bike, especially as engineering studies gave me access to machine shops and technical resources. The Mk 1 bike was a lightly tuned motor with a Shorrock supercharger, running on methanol. Whilst it performed moderately well, the piston crowns had an occasional annoying habit of departing the rest of the piston at the oil control rings due to the high revs (mean piston speed load) enabled by the supercharger.
To cut a lengthy story short, did some calculations and it was feasible to make a short stroke version to reduce the mean piston speed and loads. I machined a solid billet short stroke crankshaft in the engineering labs and used a modified 500cc barrel and cylinder head to turn it into a very oversquare 350. Sounds easy but it was anything but, with a lot of engineering development work required. Eventually, it was one of the top 2 or 3 fastest UK 350's over the quarter mile, with a lot more performance to come. Over the standing start mile, which I only did twice at one event in 1970, it was world class. A terminal speed of 147 mph on an RAF runway with rudimentary suspension and minimal wind protection is something never forgotten!
Icarus was capable of being developed much further but a new career and the high costs and time associated with drag racing drew a curtain on further racing. I sold the rolling chassis but kept the engine and that leads on to the next bike.
Early Triumphs had a poor reputation for handling. It was relatively common to put a 650 Triumph engine into a Norton featherbed frame which handled well and was called a Triton. Less well known was shoehorning a smaller capacity Triumph twin into a Ducati frame to attain great handling. This was the Tricati. I'd seen an article in a motorcycle magazine on building a Tricati and thought that sticking the drag bike engine (minus supercharger) into a Ducati frame would be a fun project. A Ducati 200cc Elite rolling chassis was obtained and the build commenced. Progress was a lot slower than planned due to work commitments, getting married and buying a house. Then came the offer of a great job in New Zealand so the whole project was shelved. I'm not one for regrets but in hindsight, I should have chucked it into the shipping container rather than getting rid of it. Didn't think at the time that I'd ever return to motorcycling though.
I don't have any photos of the Tricati construction but the photo below is one of the Tricatis built by Mick Snaith, the chap whose bikes were featured in the original magazine article. Amazingly, Mick saw a more detailed article I'd written about the Tricati build and sent a whole heap of information which is HERE. Small world!
1975-1987 - Yamaha 50 bucket racer
The move to NZ in 1975 put motorcycling on the back burner what with raising a family, a challenging career and taking up competitive sailing. There was a short return to motorcycling in the 80's though (sort of)!
One of the company departments which reported to me was the large apprentice training school. It was run by an unconventional ex-UK SAS sergeant called Len who had a deserved reputation for innovation and getting difficult things done quickly. It didn't pay to ask how on most occasions. His exploits would fill a book but we'll stick to the motorcycle narrative. At some time in the past, he'd acquired a 50cc Yamaha racing motor, complete with spares including a wicked expansion chamber. He was always vague about its provenance but clearly, possession was 9/10 of the law in this case. The engine was put into a frame made by Len and the apprentices. The original intent was to use it as a "bucket racer", an entry level race class in NZ. It sat unused in the training centre for a number of years until Len asked whether I'd like it. I entertained the thought of our sons riding it on the local go kart track but they showed little interest. This is it....
It sat in our garage for a while until I decided to try it out. It was only road legal in the sense that it had two wheels and functional brakes but the chances of getting caught on a local country road by the law was pretty slim. Starting the bike for the first time in the garden was horrific. The racing expansion chamber was unbelievably loud and had a frequency that made your teeth ache. To maintain harmony with our neighbours, Len made a small silencer to fit on the tailpipe. It bore a close resemblance to a covert weapon suppressor, which Len would presumably have had more than a passing acquaintance with in his past life.
I only had one highly illegal ride on the road which was quite enough of an experience. We lived on the edge of town but riding the few hundred metres to the open countryside still turned heads, thanks to the noise from the expansion chamber; which was mercifully less than it had been. The power band was exceedingly narrow but once coaxed up the rev range, the bike got along at a decent lick and handled tolerably well too. Wonderful fun but not wanting to get a bad name, it was returned to the shed and that was the end of it until given away to a deserving recipient many months later.
1987-1993 - Honda GB400TT, Suzuki TS 100 and Yamaha IT 175
Competitive sailing occupied most of what free time I had but the entry back into motorcycling happened in 1987 when I'd travelled to Auckland to pick up a new sail. A few doors from the sailmaker was a Honda dealer and a look in one window revealed a Honda GB 400 TT on a display stand. The bike was superficially reminiscent of the Tiger 100 I owned in the UK and I was hooked again! Jennie gave grudging permission for the purchase and she bought a piano as a means of squaring the account. Ummm... at almost exactly twice the cost of the bike!
The 400cc 4 valve head single was a delight to ride but after a year, I decided to add a colour-matched aftermarket fairing, partly to make it resemble a British race bike of the 50's and 60's, but also for wind and weather protection. It looked pretty good, as the photo shows.
It was a lot of fun to ride and attracted a fair amount of attention with its Midnight Blue metallic paint. It stayed in the family for around 8 years before being sold. Always fondly remembered as the bike which got me back into motorcycling.
Suzuki TS100 and Yamaha IT 175
In the early 90's, our eldest son was interested in learning how to ride. The safest way of getting some basic handling skills was off-road in the forest fire breaks bordering our company forests. I bought a TS100 for him from a local motorcycle shop owner for next to nothing. It had been ridden Evel Knievel - style by the shop owner off Ohiwa Harbour wharf into the tide for a dare but after inspection, didn't seem any the worse for its excursion. To keep our son company, I bought an IT175 from one of our apprentices because the price was right.
This was where my knowledge of off-road bikes was shown to be severely lacking. The IT 175 was a competition enduro bike with a narrow power band and a tendency to lift the front wheel with the application of an incautious throttle hand. I spent quite a bit of time spitting dirt out of my mouth having either gone over the bars or being flicked off from a high side or wheelie. To use a technical term, it was a bastard. Coming home covered in scrapes and walking like a 90 year old didn't impress Jennie one bit. Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun for a couple of years and both our son and I learned a lot about bike handling.
1993-2003 - Suzuki X7, BMW K100 RS
Our eldest son was keen to get his full motorcycle licence so we purchased a 1980 Suzuki X7 250cc for him to ride. This was the era of the genuine 100 mph 250cc superbikes. The X7 was up there in terms of performance but the motor was very flexible across the rev range compared with some of its rivals. There even used to be an X7 racing series in the UK. With fantastic handling due to its light weight, it was a joy to ride, whether pottering along or thrashing it down country roads. Besides, the howl of a 2 stroke and their smell was pure Viagra!
I was looking for a bike with a bit more performance than the GB400 but hadn't considered a BMW. It so happened that the dealer I bought the GB400 from was selling a 1985 K100RS on behalf of a client who had moved overseas. It was in beautiful condition and I was offered it at a very reasonable price so the deal was done. It was a fast bike but hard work on twisty roads because of its conservative steering geometry, weight and narrow bars. Overall, it was a reliable bike but even small maintenance jobs revealed how outrageous BMW's parts prices were!
The enduring memory of ownership was doing my first ever Rusty Nuts 1000 miles/1600 km in under 24 hours organised endurance ride on it, along with some mates who were equally insane. Terrible weather, particularly through the night part of the ride and a route consisting of heaps of twisty back roads. We made it inside the allocated time but I was in a heck of a state, particularly the arms and wrists. Etched on the memory forever!
For what I wanted at that time, the BMW ticked most of the boxes and it was kept for 10 years. Liked it a lot but didn't love it.
2003-2009 - Honda Super Blackbird
Jennie and I were in Auckland for a
dirty ummm... anniversary weekend and naturally did some window-gazing in bike shops as part of the total window-gazing package. There was a blue Blackbird in the window of the Honda shop lit with spotlights and it looked stunning. I'd worshiped Blackbirds from afar for some time, especially because of the outrageous performance but the looks really appealed, especially in metallic Phoenix Blue paint. As I'd had the BMW for 10 years, Executive Permission was readily given to buy it after a test ride. Emotional appeal was well and truly part of the equation.
The first few weeks of ownership were cautious ones for several reasons. The performance was far in excess of the BMW and to make matters worse, it delivered that performance quietly with a minimum of fuss. Far too easy to exceed speed limits by some margin. Whilst the weight of the 'bird was similar to that of the BMW, the centre of gravity was higher and being somewhat vertically challenged, care had to be taken when manoeuvring at low speed.
There were 3 occasions which spring to mind when thinking back to Blackbird ownership. The first was going for a ride with friends, including one who had borrowed his daughter's Suzuki 175cc 2 stroke. After a stop, we'd send him off a few minutes before us and chase him down. We saw him down a long straight and decided to go past at warp speed. Unfortunately, we neglected to see some significant ripples in the road until it was too late and three of us became significantly airborne just as we passed hm. Fortunately, there were no adverse consequences to our moment of stupidity but it was a sobering incident. It wasn't long after this that I enrolled on a 1 day advanced riding course which was an eye-opener as well as an ego-denter. It was the start of the shape of things to come a few years down the track with my formal police roadcraft training!
Having done several 24 hour long distance events, I decided in 2005 to enter the 'bird in an event called the Southern Cross. It started at the southern tip of the south island and we had 3 days to check in at Cape Reinga at the top of the north island. From there, we had a day to check in at a lighthouse at East Cape, followed by a further day to check in at a lighthouse on the west coast. A total of around 4000 km in 5 days, right on the edge of winter. The Blackbird was built for events like this but the rider was pretty worn out at the end of it. I checked in mid-afternoon at a nearby camping ground cabin after the finish of the ride. Sat down on the edge of the bed, fell asleep on top of it still in my riding gear and woke up next morning with the cabin door still wide open and absolutely freezing!
The third memory was touring the South Island for 2 weeks in 2007 with 3 friends who also had blue Blackbirds. Jennie and a friend's partner came with us in a people-mover with our luggage and we had an absolute ball riding all the mountain passes. Four near-identical Blackbirds in convoy attracted quite a bit of attention. There's nowhere better in the world for riding bikes than NZ's south island, especially with great mates.
I retired from work at 60 in early 2008 and we moved from Tokoroa to our holiday place at Coromandel on a permanent basis. A combination of peninsula twisty roads, the height and weight of the bike, plus my age pointed to the fact that the Blackbird wasn't really fit for purpose any more. The search for something to safely extend my riding career was about to start.
2009-2015 - Triumph Street Triple 675
The search for a lower, lighter bike but with excellent performance led to an unexpected purchase. The Street Triple wasn't near the top of the shortlist but less than half an hour into a test ride, I just had to buy one - a perfect example of both technical and emotional appeal. Ergonomics were perfect, handling was sublime and the power to weight ratio meant that a drop in capacity from the Blackbird wasn't a disadvantage for everyday use. The howl from the airbox at large throttle openings was pure aural (no, not oral) sex!
It was a number of years since I'd taken part in one of the Rusty Nuts 1000 miles/1600 km in under 24 hour rides. In 2010, I got to wondering how a 63 year old body on a naked bike would cope so an entry was duly sent in. In mixed weather conditions, the Triple proved to be the most comfortable bike on any of the 5 events completed, getting no more than sore hands from hanging on in gale force winds for the last few hours of the event. However, I must admit that fitting an Airhawk seat pad before the event paid massive dividends in terms of butt comfort!
Every ride put a smile on my face and apart from a world-wide recall to change the rectifier, it was faultless for the 70,000-odd km I clocked up on it. Much of that distance was the regular 2+ hour commute to Auckland in all weathers to get my Institute of Advanced Motorists police roadcraft qualifications. Becoming a better rider in combination with the capabilities of the Triple added up to it being 6 years of the most enjoyable motorcycle ownership experience of my whole riding career.
2015-2019 - Suzuki GSX-S 1000
With the 675cc Street Triple having reliably clocked up 70,000 km, thoughts turned to replacing it before it got too long in the tooth. The benefits of a light performance bike with a moderate seat height were perfect for my needs and a logical progression was to the 765 Street Triple. Frustratingly, its release into the NZ market had been delayed so it was time to look at other options. I happened to be in Auckland one day and was offered a demo ride on on the GSX-S 1000. Seat height was fine, performance great, weight was acceptable and the price was right so a deal was done.
Unfortunately, I failed to follow my own advice about emotional appeal. A relatively short test ride inside the confines of Auckland city and the motorway wasn't adequate to get a real feel for it and in hindsight, the ride didn't excite me in the way that the demo ride on the Triple did. Should have listened to my heart.
As the bike progressed through the break-in period, the throttle response became increasingly snatchy, bordering on dangerous in wet conditions despite traction control. In defence of Suzuki NZ, they came to the party and fitted a different ECU which solved the issue (mostly). Here's the funny thing though.... although the bike had plenty of performance, it had no "character". Bland isn't quite the right word to describe it but it simply didn't touch my soul. I'm sure that other riders will have had similar experiences at some time or other. As mentioned at the start of the post, it could be summed up by saying that it didn't get patted when walking past it in the shed, whereas the Blackbird and Street Triple certainly did!
The one exception to the negative comments was attendance at a couple of trackdays, organised by IAM. The Gixxer was in its element at the track with the throttle pinned. A whole different world compared with riding on the road.
2019-2022 - KTM 790 Duke
In 2019, I turned 72. I'd safely extended my riding career through a wonderful few years with IAM, not to mention the fantastic friendships made along the way. Nonetheless, I'd done pretty much everything I wanted to do on a motorcycle so the next bike was likely to be the last one. The obvious choice was the 765 Street Triple but reading about the new KTM 790 piqued my interest. Nicknamed "The Scalpel" because of its razor sharp handling, it went onto the shortlist despite the KTM brand not having a reputation for reliability to the extent of Japanese manufacturers.
The test ride on a demo bike from Boyd's in Hamilton sealed the deal. A sunny, hot day and Greg Boyd had fitted supersport tyres in readiness for a trackday the following weekend. I'd known Greg for years and he simply told me to bugger off and enjoy myself for a couple of hours. It's rare to laugh out loud inside one's helmet but I did multiple times on that ride. Apart from filling the bill in terms of ergonomics, handling and performance, it was an absolute hooligan of a machine, loaded with character. A deal was done as soon as I got back to the dealer and a week later, one graced the shed. A purchase clearly made with both technical and emotional appeal.
The various electronic power delivery and traction control options meant that it was capable of being ridden in whatever manner was appropriate to the occasion. A few accessories were added, including a carbon fibre exhaust can to shed a bit of weight and get rid of the ugly standard muffler. The only significant negative experience was a low speed judder when applying the brakes which got progressively worse. This was due to warping front brake rotors but they were replaced under warranty and there were no further issues.
What a great bike to finish my riding career on, bringing out the "inner hooligan" on the odd occasion! The best memory that comes to mind was in 2020, riding to the IAM annual conference near Wellington with treasured friends, then continuing up the east coast of the north island to make it a 6 day tour via roads made in motorcycling heaven. The KTM was perfect for touring with a small tailpack, a yachting dry bag and a small backpack. Genuinely good for the soul.
I've long advocated having a fall-back interest or two to replace a life-long passion when it's time to give up for whatever reason. Prior to the KTM being sold in early 2022, I bought an e-mountain bike for use on the Coromandel cycle trails to maintain fitness and have fun. Jennie and I also have a fishing runabout to do stuff together but bless her heart, it was her suggestion that we get a classic car to keep an interest in things automotive. After a few false starts and pouty lips, we ended up with an immaculate 1972 MGB GT. This also has special significance as it was the year we got married! The MG continues to be a lot of fun and there's no need for speed to enjoy it.
I hope this potted history of bike ownership over a span of 58 years has been of interest from the viewpoints of variety, fitness for purpose and the anecdotes which go with them. Some anecdotes have been left out of print to protect the guilty! I feel privileged to have enjoyed some wonderful experiences that have had a lasting impact but above all, it's the special people I've met along the way. That truly is a privilege.