As it used to be

Before COVID-19 forced us all to stay in-doors and communicate solely online The Old Motorcycle Gathering used to be a real show. This is what it used to be like.

For the last ten years, the Royal Berkshire Branch of the Triumph Owners Motorcycle Club has organised a smaller bike show at the end of June, a month before our main Classic and Custom Show in July. If our main summer show is like Glastonbury, then this earlier show is like Glyndebourne. It’s certainly feels more in keeping with Midsomer Murders than Miami Vice. We call it “An Old Motorcycle Gathering”. It is open to motorcycles from 1972 or earlier, which the DVLC classifies as “historic vehicles”. The invitation states that bikes have to be ridden to the show. This is not a show of pristine non-runners to be brought in vans or on trailers. It’s a show for bikes from a by-gone era, bikes that are eye wateringly beautiful to look at, but which are still ridden on a regular basis.

The show is small in size, but big on quality. Typically, 30 or 40 bikes are displayed in rows on a beautiful green lawn in front of the club’s gazebo in the grounds of the Burghfield Community Sports Association (BCSA) hall. There are no cars, trailers or trade stands; just a selection of gorgeous old bikes to look at with their proud owners ready to talk about them. If other bike shows are like beer festivals, then this is like more like a wine tasting party. It’s like going to the Wimbledon All England Club, but when it’s the croquet tournament, not the tennis.

The BCSA hall is great venue for this type of event. It has a fully stocked bar, a comfortable lounge and good range of food from burgers, chips and pizzas to salads. The show is held on a Saturday and starts at eleven in the morning and carries on all afternoon. Many people come for lunch and then wander around the lawn outside with a pint in hand, looking at the bikes and chatting to other old bike enthusiasts. It’s a fabulous way to spend few hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June.

For many years previously, the club had held an evening barbeque on a Thursday club night in the late autumn, as an end of season event. To add a bit of interest, the club would judge the bikes in the car park during the evening and award a prize to the “Best Bike” there and a “Highly Commended” for the runner up. So it became a bit of a show, barbeque and party combined. However, it was mostly only regular members who came, although the turnout was a bit better than on most club nights.  It also became a bit of a rush to get the bike judging in while it was still light.  

At the same time, the membership were increasingly turning up to events and rides only on modern machines. There is nothing wrong with that, except that a straw poll of members showed that a surprisingly large number owned old classic bikes as well, but they tended to get left at home and not get ridden to Branch events.  Long time Berkshire TOMCC member Bob Cromwell told me “we wanted to do something that emphasised old bikes and encouraged people to ride them”. What was needed was an event where all the members who had classic bikes dusted them off, got them on the road and met up with other members on them.

So in 2011, the Branch Committee decided to separate what had become a members only, small scale evening bike show, from the club annual barbeque and move it to a Saturday lunch time in June. To encourage members to get their old bikes on the road, it was decided to establish two rules. The bikes had to be pre-1972, and they had to be ridden to the show. It was also decided to publicise the event and try to get more people who were not members, but had road worthy historic bikes, to bring them along.  And so the first meeting of the Old Motorcycle Gathering was born. It worked well, and over the last four years word of it has spread, and it has attracted an increasingly fine selection of bikes.

Best British Winner – 2014

The Best British Bike prize in 2014 was won by a Triton. This bike was based on a 1955 Norton Dominator frame and was built and re-registered as a Triton in 1971. Two years later, in 1973, it was bought by Peter, its current owner, who was then a teenager. Over the years, Peter has substantially modified his bike, replacing bits as they have broken or worn out.  Peter has re-built the engine three times. The current engine is based around a 1957 6T bottom end, with 9 stud, 750cc alloy barrels and a cylinder head from a 1969 Bonneville. He has also replaced the cams for a hotter performance. Once, when riding off the ferry onto the Isle of Wight, the forks broke near the bracket with the front wheel, dumping Peter and the rest of the bike onto the road. Peter then replaced the forks with new ones from a Commando.

Best Triumph Winner – 2014

The Best Triumph in 2014 was won by a 1969 Trophy owned by Berks TOMCC owner, Arthur.  This bike was built for the American export market and the engine casing designates it a TR6R.  In 1993, it was brought back from the USA by a dealer in Northampton, but it was in very poor condition and the dealer was considering scrapping it. “It was saved by Berkshire Branch Member, Ian Wort” recounted Arthur.  “He restored it before he sold it to me 11 years ago, just before he passed away. Ian was a good member and well respected.  Branch members remember him with affection”. Arthur has been the proud owner of the Trophy ever since. Unusually for a show winning bike, or for that matter, any bike that is 45 years old, the Trophy is still ridden frequently by Arthur. In fact, it is his main, everyday bike, and he therefore keeps it well maintained and ready to ride as far as possible. The Trophy fits in perfectly with the philosophy of the Old Motorcycle Gathering, which is that bikes should not only be old, well maintained and beautiful, but also ridden and enjoyed as motor vehicles, and not simply ornaments to be looked at.

Best in Show Winner – 2014

The Best in Show prize n 2014 was awarded to an unusual bike:  a 1968 Montesa Impala Sport 250cc. This beautiful, Spanish, two-stroke was in pristine, mint condition and looked absolutely stunning.  Its current owner, Mike, had originally bought it new as a teenager in 1968 from a dealer in Reading for £184.  The dealer used to race these bikes in the 250 Production TT. This bike was actually taken by the dealer to the Isle of Mann for the 1968 TT, but it was never used, and apart from having  triangular cross section tyres fitted on the wheels, it came back to the mainland in the same condition it went out. It was an American model, so it is rare to find one like that in this country, or indeed, anywhere in Europe.  The US model had wider tyres and mudguards than the European model, folding footrests and chrome fastenings. While UK models were either red or blue, the US model was black and gold with red pin striping.  For two years, the bike was Mike’s main means of transportation, but as often happens, he sold it after a couple of years, and that would normally have been the end of the story.

But a few years ago, like a lot of us, Mike still remembered the bike of his youth, and eventually bought a UK specification Impala Sport 250 and decided to set about restoring it. Finding spare parts is difficult when you are restoring a bike as rare as this, as there are no ready supplies and dealers like there are for the old Triumph twins.  But the internet helps, and Mike found people selling a few parts on eBay and other websites. While looking for parts in 2010 he found someone who was selling the old bits of a bike for spares, and he telephoned the owner. When he was told it was a USA specification Impala, he said “I know that bike” and quoted the registration number that he could still remember after all those years. He was right. He had stumbled across his old bike. It had had four other owners in the intervening years. It had been ridden in sprint competitions in Scarborough and North Weald by one owner and at the Columbres rally in Northern Spain by another. Mike knew he had to buy it. Fortunately, the then owner was happy to sell it and soon Mike was re-united with his teenage dream machine. He immediately started restoring it and after two years, it was back to showroom condition and looked beautiful. It had only one defect, it did not actually run. So Mike then started the long job of re-building the engine and finally, only a few weeks before the Berkshire Old Motorcycle Gathering this year, he got it through its MOT and had it taxed and legally on the road.

2014 Best In Show winner receiving his prize

Mike rode it to the show and at the end, just like every other competitor at this show, he started it up and rode it home again. The two stroke single, fed from an Amal mono-block, develops 26 bhp at 7,500 rpm, which, driving through a four speed gear box, powers the bike up to a manufacturer’s claimed top speed of 96mph, just under the magic ton. That is pretty good for a 250cc bike.

The bike has an unusual look, especially when set against the array of British classic bikes at the show. The seat, for example, is high gloss black, as shiny as the paintwork on the tank. The headlamp shell, on the other hand, which you might have expected to be shiny, is grey with a rough, stippled finish. The chromed front fork legs extend about six inches past the wheel hub, half way to the wheel rim. But its unusual styling is part of its charm: as far as I was concerned, it looked fantastic.

An old Ariel at the 2014 show

As well as the three winners, there were many other beautiful bikes to look at the show. A pre-war BSA and a pre-war Ariel were ridden to the show together. Both were in immaculate condition. There was a Vincent and some Velocettes,  and, of course, a complete range of Triumphs including:  a Bonneville, a Thunderbird, a Trophy and a Trident, with a few BSAs and Nortons for good measure.  We get unusual bikes every year.

Last year we had an exquisite, pre-war Sunbeam and the rather modern looking Triumph X-75 Hurricane, designed by Craig Vetter, just sneaking in at the later end of the 1972 cut-off date for the show.  This year, we had very rare Silk 700S, which, while strictly outside the pre-1972 criteria, (Silks were manufactured between 1975 and 1979), was nevertheless a very welcome addition to the show and attracted a lot of interest.

A Hurricane at a previous Old Bike Gathering

Berkshire TOMCC member Mike Ryall explained part of the magic of old bikes. “Most old motorcycles have beauty and an iconic status which you will normally only discover if you ride one,” he said.  “You can rarely go anywhere without heads turning or strangers coming up to talk to you with theirown related experiences.”

Any bike that is over 40 years old will have a history. Our three winners really illustrate that. Think of the Triton that has been Peter’s companion for his whole adult life, repeatedly repaired and brought back to life multiple times. Or Mike’s teenage friend that was lost all those years ago, and then was found again and restored, like the prodigal son in the bible. Or Arthur’s bike, a lasting memorial to a fondly remembered friend who is now departed. These bikes don’t just have character, their stories are woven into the fabric of their owner’s lives. There are memories associated with each bike and an emotional bond with their owners.

An old Sunbeam from a previous years show

Looking around the different bikes at the show, it seems that over the years, almost every conceivable engineering solution has been tried by bike manufacturer’s to solve the basic problems of powering two wheelers.  Manufacturers have frequently tried out new ideas and put them into production, sometimes it appears, with only a minimal amount of testing, only for them to disappear a few years later if they did not work in practice.  Equally interesting are the well engineered modifications which owners have often taken a great deal of trouble to add to their machines to overcome a design weakness or to customise it to their personal requirements. One of the Velocettes at this year’s show, for example, had an electric starter fitted, presumably designed to overcome the difficulty in starting it for its owner.  A number of modifications at the show were home produced and beautifully engineered.

Another of the joys of the Old Motorcycle Gathering is that, because of the rule about having to ride bikes to and from the show, as the afternoon wears on after the prize giving, the competitors start up their bikes and ride them away. I love the ritual associated with starting old bikes. There is no quick press of an electric starter at this show. Each owner goes through their own routine: freeing the clutch plates with the kick-starter, finding top dead centre, in some cases having to release the compression with a handlebar mounted lever in order to do so. Then there is tickling the carburettors, and in some cases, the bizarre concept, by modern standards, of manually changing the ignition timing via a lever on the handlebar. I am sure I also heard some owners muttering a secret incantation under their breath as well.  There is then the leg lunge onto the kick starter and the relief when the engine bursts into life. The sound of those old bikes starting up and being ridden away is a special part of the afternoon.  Mike Ryall summed it up by saying: “you somehow cannot beat the looks, exhaust note and sheer joy of riding a well sorted classic.”

An old BSA at the 2014 show

But all good things come to an end, and as the last of the visitors ride away, the Berkshire Branch members start to pack up the club gazebo and put away the tables and chairs. It is the end of another, quintessentially English bike show, even if the first prize went to a Spanish bike.

Eventually I say goodbye, put on my helmet and start up my own bike. Soon I am riding away in the afternoon sunshine through the leafy lanes of rural Berkshire. Leaning the bike over through the winding bends reminds me again of why I love motorbikes. I pass a church with a clock on the tower, and although it is now long past 10 to 3, I think of home and wonder “is there honey still for tea?”

The above article first appeared in Nacelle, the Triumph Owners Motorcycle Club Magazine, in 2014.