Ask a member of the Vintage motorcycle Club (VmCC) how many motorcycles they have and you rarely receive an immediate answer. There’s a pause, accompanied by a distant look of pleasurable concentration, as if they’re trying to recall the name of that buxom art teacher at school who wore tight tops. Then, once the mental scan of lock-ups, sheds, mates’ garages and spare bedrooms is complete, there’s usually a clarification question such as, ‘does an engine and some forks count?’ and then the answer: so far today it averages just over four. These elderly gents might look like the bowls club has dressed up in 1980s Frank Thomas textiles for a bet, but they’ve got a serious case of motorcycle addiction.
My investigations into this curious world start in the middle of a labyrinthine housing estate near kettering, as VmCC members gather outside a bungalow belonging to the chairman of the Northamptonshire chapter. bikes of all ages are scattered in front of the bungey and down the road, cluttering up neighbours’ drives. It’s wonderfully chaotic, with more ariels, BSAs and Triumphs arriving all the time, chugging through the housing estate while kids and their dads sit on front walls looking on in bemusement at the stream of senior citizens on their hilariously loud motorcycles. anyone hoping for a lie-in this sunday morning better have good earplugs. and as their owners chat in the sunshine and eat the chairman’s sausage baps, the motorcycles mark their new territory with drips of Castrol 20/50.
My guide into this world of ancient machinery and a steely determination to keep it on the road is Geoff McGladdery, the newly-elected chairman of the VmCC board. He waves me over to talk to bob, who’s just finished restoring a 1921 aJs that was dug out of a hole. ‘It was owned by someone in Northampton in WWII and apparently it was getting a bit tatty by then,’ says bob, a twinkly-eyed 80-something. ‘Then he had to make an air raid shelter so he started digging this big hole in his back garden but by the time he’d dug it the war ended. so he had to fill it in, and what he filled it in with was the aJs and a load of other old junk. Then the house got knocked down and it became a playing field. but a local knew it was down there somewhere and someone eventually dug it up with a JCb.’
It sat at the back of a garage for years before bob offered to, ‘look after it,’ VmCC code for painstakingly restoring every component and against all the odds, managing to turn it into a working motorcycle. bob then starts explaining about the problems he had with an anti-clockwise cam running in a clockwise mag – he’s losing me now – when people suddenly start swigging down their tea and nudging us to the bikes. It’s time for the ride-out...
In order to get the full VmCC experience, Geoff has generously offered me one of his bikes to ride, an unrestored 1950 Triumph Tr5 Trophy. ‘It’s not too hard,’ says Geoff. ‘You’ve just got one or two things to think about.’ Nerves start bubbling in my stomach as we walk to the Triumph. I’ve never ridden a really old bike, but I know what ‘things to think about’ means – the controls are in the wrong place so every riding instinct I’ve honed over the last 35 years will be rendered worse than useless. I’ll go for the front brake and it’ll be the ignition advance or ejector seat, or something.
Geoff notices I’ve gone quiet, and possibly pale. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says grinning. ‘You’ll probably be fine.’ Probably. The bike does look wonderful though, with the presence of an ancient Herbert lathe combined with the functional beauty of a Victorian steam engine. The mist of grime coating the engine and frame and the splatters of mud add to the effect. It looks proper, and makes pristine concours bikes appear like shiny baubles. This is a Fred Dibnah bike.
‘I’d better give you a quick lesson,’ says Geoff as bikes fire-up around us. ‘To start it, tickle the carb (he pushes a little button up and down), give it some choke, make sure the advance is in the standard position and give it a kick.’ I do as I’m told. Nothing. ‘bit of throttle,’ suggest Geoff and it fires up, shaking with delight at the prospect of being let loose, albeit with a novice at the controls.
‘Right foot gear change,’ shouts Geoff above the clatter. ‘One down, three up, and the rear brake’s on the other side. The front brake is where it should be but it’s an ornament really.’ He’s not kidding. It won’t even hold the bike against the slight incline without a four finger clench. ‘There’s not much in the way of suspension either,’ he adds with some understatement – there isn’t any suspension at all at the back. I lean over the front and look at the forks. What’s all that oil, I ask, pointing at the stanchions. ‘That’s a good sign,’ says Geoff. ‘It means it’s had some in there at some point. Probably not much left in there now of course.’ I see. Photographer Chippy, meanwhile, is prodding the trials tyres – Geoff’s bike is thought to have once competed in the International six Day – and asks what pressure he runs. ‘Oh I think there’s about 12psi in there,’ he grins. ‘Plenty.’ anything else I should know? ‘It gets a bit of a weave on at about 50mph but I don’t worry about that anymore.’
I go for a test ride up and down the road, watched by a group of kids who’ve worked out there’s potential for disaster here. but I’m surprised how civilised it is. The clutch is smooth and progressive, if about five times heavier than a modern bike’s, and there’s so much torque from the 500cc twin that it pulls away effortlessly in third when I mistake it for first – easily done when the gearbox contains an abundance of neutrals. ‘Just because you find a neutral, doesn’t mean it’s the neutral,’ advises Geoff. ‘always go right down the box and then back up.’
and so the comedy begins. Junctions are, at first, mind- frazzling. Having given up using the front brake because I would achieve more retardation by opening my jacket to the wind, I concentrate wholly on the more effective rear. except, of course, the pedal is on the wrong side, so I instinctively brake by pushing down on the gear lever, which usually sits there obstinately, but occasionally delivers one of its plentiful neutrals. This removes the engine braking I was relying on to slow down and dramatically increases the excitement of any situation. The less fraught scenario is that I approach the junction at a gentle pace, pull the clutch in and prod down a gear, release the clutch and stall, because, of course, I am trying to change gear with the rear brake pedal. Thankfully, the Triumph is a brilliant starter.
as the ride progresses, my brain starts making the necessary neural connections and I nearly crash into the back of fewer vehicles. some of this improvement in health and safety is because I’m now allowing vast distances between me and anything I would rather not hit, but mostly it’s because of that rear brake, which – if you use it – is superb. Obviously, that’s a relative term. Compared with a modern bike it is diabolical, but relative to no brakes, it is marvellous and I love it.
Between junctions, the 69-year-old Triumph is a sensory delight. bobbing along on the sprung saddle feels like a cross between riding a pony and rowing a boat across a choppy pond – it’s just the right side of uncomfortable and it feels like you’re plugged directly into the world below. It makes modern bikes feel anaesthetised, sanitised, sterilised. Potholes are worth avoiding though – there’s a clang as they hit, a millisecond of delay as the saddle springs compress, and then you’re walloped up the arse by a Triumph mallet. No wonder Geoff runs 12psi in the tyres. After half-an-hour, I’m getting the hang of it... and grinning. ahead a two-stroke – a Scott, I think – blows sweet-smelling fume clouds while chasing a couple of old Triumphs and something I can’t recognise. In numerical terms the pace is gentle, but feels fast. rattling down country lanes at 50mph is the sensory equivalent of riding a ZX-10r over the mountain at the Isle of man at 130. The combination of the bars fidgeting and shimmying, the saddle twanging, the wind hissing and the frame swaying like a zoo-mad polar bear is joyous. Thrumming between hedgerows to the soundtrack of the twin’s clattery racket is wholly life-affirming.
With the junction terror subsiding, corners are the next objective. Handling is far, far better than the brakes, but still an acquired taste thanks to the mixture of no suspension and flat tyres. so you get slow, heavy steering, followed by a relaxing, wallowy carve – dum-de-dum, this is nice – and then you hit a midcorner bump and holy crap you’re heading for a hedge. anyone who says old bikes aren’t exciting has never ridden one.
And they’re seriously popular in the Uk. The VmCC has around 14,500 members, making it the largest old bike club in the world, with 1200 events like this each year plus dozens of race meetings; VmCC events worth looking out for are the Banbury run for bikes made before 1930 and the Festival of 1000 bikes, mallory Park.
Rolling into the Rushden Transport museum at the end of the ride-out I’m on a high. Partly this is because I’m grateful to be alive after nearly riding into an overtaking Passat a moment ago (no mirrors or indicators and a 40mph speed deficit make changing lanes on dual carriageways a fascinating pastime). but mostly it’s because riding old bikes is such a joyfully daft thing to do. Looking round at the old boys talking earnestly about magnetos and pushrods, offering up spare parts or advice, or laughing at tales of narrowly-missed hedges, I get an inkling of what old bikes are really all about. The machines are certainly fascinating, but it’s more about the people they attract – inquisitive, practical, eccentric, knowledgeable, generous and totally unimpressed by trends or fashions.
‘It’s about the camaraderie and the fun,’ agrees Geoff, casually looking over his Trophy for signs of scenery interactions. ‘I love the idea of careering round mallory Park on a 1920s Ariel in a ginger tweed suit and a Carburton helmet [an ancient leather flying hat]. and I like the fact that on the right roads, no matter what age the bikes are, you all go just as quickly.’ Or indeed slowly. but that really isn’t important at all.
Why join the VMCC?
Well it costs just £37 per year and they have over 14,000 members made up of 90 local branches, so there’ll be a branch near you. The VMCC run 1000 events per year including midweek and weekend rides, camping expeditions and touring weeks away. On the more practical side of things they are insurance partners with Footman James and can also help register bikes which have no paperwork such as barnfinds and imports. vmcc.net