For Queen and Country.
I have done engine cleaning work for The Barons Speed Shop for a while now but it is only over the last year that I have come to fully understand Dick’s weight and prowess within the British bike game, which gives him the power to unite those who, like him, adore and cherish Edward Turner’s original design and the bikes that grew from it (parallel twin Triumphs).
His reputation for engine overhaul and bike building work, standard or very much otherwise, precedes him, and is backed up with a hubbub of amazing bikes, high end products, interesting press items and a circle of friends, both specialists and customers that make him very much THE man in the ever growing vintage custom Triumph world.
He dropped a few bits in before summer and over the tea and ciggy briefing on his requirements it became apparent that I was getting involved in something very special and inspiring indeed. Dick had been bestowed the task of building a pre unit bike (separate engine and gear box – before 1963) that would be capable of breaking the record in classes A-PG and A-PF at the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. ‘A’ designates Special Construction, P designates a Pushrod engine. G represents Gas (Petrol) and F represents Fuel (Methanol etc.)
The thought of knowing inside and out the engine that was going to be hurtling over the salt at – considering its handcrafted and seemingly delicate nature – an eye wateringly unnatural velocity, made me swell with a sense of honour and pride I usually reserve for when I manage to leave an A.T.G.N.I. (All The Gear, No Idea) standing at the lights.
The engine, gearbox and side cover castings of old Triumphs, amongst their other components, have such charming oddities to them that they really stand strong as an ambassador for the ‘old British engineering’ nostalgic school of thinking.
It wasn’t until Dick invited me to a celebration of the bike having set a new record, an evening of photographs and videos from the salt flats, hosted in partnership with the very trendy jeans company Edwin, that it became apparent to me quite how tied up motorcycles are with the enduring yet current trend for retro, vintage, nostalgia, whatever, all things cool and old.
The evening started like the few bike things I have been to before, bikes of various styles and eras parked precisely perpendicular to the kerb. Grouped together by clearly conscious choices various riders had made about their bike. I parked up way down the end with a batch I felt at home with, we were actually separated by a car from the main parade! I could see people milling all around the bikes and on the pavement outside the Shoreditch Edwin store, I bravely overcame my initial shyness and awe stuck gawp and leapt into a brave new world…
I have never been to a bike event where the age span of those on bikes was so varied. A fair few charming older gentlemen, some on the BM in full pocket and zip kind of gear, some on their classic bikes with pisspot helmets, ear flaps, turtle necks and Bellstaff jackets, chatted across the road from their BSAs and Nortons. Female riders were amazingly well represented with one lovely older lady aboard a 1973 Norton Commando, which teemed with period outfit oozed a confidence and dominance that cut through the air upon her arrival.
A bunch of young men older than me (I’m 20) but under 35, with whom I felt most akin, hung their open face helmets over the handlebars of 80s Japanese road and trail bikes.
Those I deemed ‘coolest’ were on some great examples of old, untouched Harleys and Brit bikes, with original grease that you would never clean. The real elite were on highly polished and well thought out Triumphs of various styles; café racer, bobber, classic. They all knew The Baron.
There were of course the obligatory hairy, hard-looking, older bikers on rat bikes of various breeds, representing the traditional biker image, yet the air was fragrant with aftershave and ever so eloquently enunciated conversation on the kerbside. Press types (hark at me) stuck out a lot less than at the Ace or similar, and the varied bunch of otherwise connected non-bikers mingled seamlessly.
I rode away feeling massively positive about where motorcycling is going. Young, affluent people spending time and money on their bikes, having a sense of community, loving a bike for the freedom and happiness it represents, not just because it’s the quickest way to commute. On the way home I was picturing myself in the future owning a well put together older bike and the outfit to go with it. It’s a good look. I could carry it off couldn’t I? Before I knew it, I had gone far too far east without crossing the river and ridden into unknown territory in Tower Hamlets! Fuck!
I ended up coming through the Blackwall Tunnel (A VERY indirect easterly route from Shoreditch to Lewisham, which should have been essentially due south) with my tail between my legs feeling like I had a good few years to go yet before I was aboard a £20,000 bike, commissioning land speed record specials and wearing a pair of jeans that cost a month’s wages! It was a great night and thanks again to Dick for the heads up that provided me with an insight into a motorcycle clique I never knew existed.