Paul Charman: When British bikes obsessed us
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I’ve noticed Kiwi riders of all ages enjoy flicking through ‘Racing with the Wind’ — which recounts a dramatic Christchurch “bikie war” of the early 1970s.
It is written by one of the protagonists, Robert Ferris, with white-hot passion for British motorcycles evident on almost every page.
The backdrop is that deadly feud between “Devils Henchmen” and “Epitaph Riders” motorcycle clubs - New Zealand’s first gang war, events now seeming as vainglorious as they were tragic.
But there are concurrent sub-texts in the book: a passing-to-manhood theme, plus a kind of “spiritual awakening”, which reaches its culmination at the end of the story.
Anyone who was around Christchurch about 40 years ago will find that most of this rings true.
Above all, the self-published book, which hit the book stands last year, revolves around the machines of the day.
And in this respect, aside from all the machismo, “Racing with the Wind” is a snap-shot of Kiwi motorcycling history.
Remember, in the late 1960s to early 1970s, the sun was setting on the once world-leading British motorcycle industry. And how the mighty had fallen.
At the dawn of the 1960s Triumph’s so-called “speed-twin” had taken the all-important American market by storm.
It’s hard now to credit how this basic parallel twin motor once dominated almost every form of motorcycle sport: road racing, motocross, hill climbs, flat track, desert racing . . .
Meanwhile, Triumph’s equally decisive conquest of the popular culture was demonstrated by Bob Dylan's “Triumph Motorcycles T-shirt”, on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited (1965).
You see, during the 1960s almost every Kiwi bloke longed to own a British bike — usually a Triumph
But by the end of that decade Triumph was struggling due to dated designs, incompetent management and obdurate unions.
The British bike industry, whose other stalwarts included BSA and Norton among many others, was steadily collapsing.
Incredibly, the bikes kept getting scarcer and more unreliable, despite a huge demand for them all-around-the-world!
Here in New Zealand two tribes of Triumph customers held out longer than most — even though Japanese motorcycles were better priced, generally better performing and far more reliable.
These “tribes” were the Ministry of Transport, whose traffic officers (remember them) rode Bonnevilles and Nortons well into the early 1970s.
And, of course, the other comprised pre-Harley-riding bikie gangs, like those mentioned above.
The desired look for the latter was generally a stock-standard Bonneville, but with high bars; although some enthusiasts added “trappings”, such as extended forks and sissy bars. . .
Today these 650cc to 850cc bikes look perhaps just a wee bit under-powered — but at the time they were the height of cool.
And in between these Traffic Officer and bikie “tribes” were an army of youngsters growing up sketching Triumph and BSAs on their school Mighty Pads...We were filled with the positive folk-law about British motorcycles, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. It was as if the New Zealand motorcycle world was in denial.
The supremacy of British bikes was something we wanted to believe in, though our eyes told us a different story.
Example: I well remember local hero Robbie Dean who successfully campaigned a Norton 850 at the now defunct Bay Park Raceway circa 1979.
Robbie generally beat off the Kawasaki 900s and 1000s to achieve a podium finish. He and his old British bike would either beat them, or they’d beat him by a tiny margin.
But the price of all this “derring do” was pushing an old British machine harder than the designers ever intended . . .
That last day Robbie raced his Norton he was out in front, when the poor over-stressed machine’s wiring caught the bike on fire, and though Dean was okay his Nortonnever raced again.
But above all, British bikes increasingly became “hot property” — being repetitively stolen as the gangs taking short cuts to obtaining both bikes and spare parts. (The gangs only really switched to Harleys following final liquidation of Norton Villiers Triumph in 1978).
Of course, John Bloor revived the marque in the mid-1980s, and even took it to new heights, with many successful models.
But to some of us Bloor Triumphs lack the street cred of the old ones, which they endlessly emulate design-wise.
And aside from that, you can’t help wondering what might have been . . . I mean what if the British motorcycle industry had moved forward, and grown from strength-to-strength from the 1960s onward, instead of falling over and leaving space for Japanese and American rivals to fill.
We’ll never know what could have happened in that Alternative Universe.
But we can get an accurate reminder of a romantic era in Kiwi motorcycling by reading the likes of “Racing with the Wind”.
And the sub-title could well have been, “When British bikes obsessed us . . . “