This article was originally published in the June 2010 edition of Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly. http://mnmotorcycle.com/. The bike had featured in the magazine before, hence the familiarity of the first few paragraphs. The whole thing was done as a reply to a 'Geezer with a Grudge' column.
After major surgery on its cylinder heads and a whole series of maintenance tasks and modifications, my old R75/6 lives again. The last of its original oil seals in the bevel drive have been replaced, and I have fitted a later swinging arm with a shock absorber in the shaft drive. A new horn replaces the feeble original, and an up rated alternator now gives me scope to plan a whole new series of alterations. All in all it’s been a busy winter, but a month or two of commuting has shown that things have bedded in and my confidence in its reliability has been restored.
You may wonder why anyone would want to be bothered with all this hassle to keep a 1974 bike on the road rather than simply buying something new and running that for a few years. There is no simple answer to this. Indeed, before this recent bout of maintenance, when I found that the cylinder compression had dropped by around 50psi only 15,000 miles after a major rebuild, including an unleaded petrol conversion, the thought of adding a match to it and just walking away wasn’t that far from my mind. How can professionally fitted valve guides wear to a point where the valves won’t seal in that kind of mileage?
Despite this when I thought about what I might replace the old girl with, thoughts of repair always came to the fore. I’m long past trying to prove that I’m the quickest thing on two wheels (and I have the broken bones to show that I never was), I don’t want to pose around on a big cruiser, and the thought of wrestling some king and queened behemoth around the off piste roads where I like to ride fills me with dread. What I do want is to change the spark plugs and set the tappets without recourse to special tools, and without having to dismantle half the bike just to get access. The BM fits the bill in a way that modern bikes don’t even come close to, so with a little help I fixed it. Now, with brighter evenings and a little heat in the air, it’s payback time.
There is plenty of coast near my home in the north east of Ireland, including the Ards Peninsula, that curved promontory that stretches from Belfast Lough, southwards around Strangford Lough towards the Mourne Mountains. Its furthest point is only around 37 miles from Belfast city centre, but it’s a world away by any other measure. So, on a bright but misty day, I headed out to clear a few cobwebs. The peninsula’s roads have two distinct characters. The inner roads, which run along Strangford Lough, are more sheltered, more regular, the type of roads where you can set a rhythm to your riding. I have travelled this way so many times that leaving the town traffic of Newtownards at the northern end of Strangford brings an expectation, a vision of what lies ahead, the corners, the gear changes, the places where I can safely get past any slow moving cars. This runs like a computer program through the bike and I, the old BM smoothly doing exactly what it was built for all those years ago.
It is no R1, definitely not a Fireblade eater, its big flywheel limits its ability for instant point and squirt throttle opening, to the point where it ‘gains speed’ rather than accelerates. Wind round that long, long throttle though, and once the old girl had lifted her skirts, and that flywheel has gained momentum, and she can shift in a distinctly more sprightly way than those vintage looks would suggest. The old ATE disk brakes need a firm squeeze rather than the gentle two finger caress of a modern bike. They work well enough though, and are a distinct improvement over the single original disk with its odd half cable, half hydraulic operating mechanism. Despite the limitations of its almost prehistoric design, and its lack of cubes when compared to its modern progeny, this bike can still be deceptively quick over distance in the modern world.
The bends arc onwards, past the walls of Mount Stewart, a stately home now owned by the National Trust and open to the public, past huge rocks and the rounded drumlin hills that were left in the wake of the last ice age. So sheltered is this coast that even here, at a latitude of around 55 degrees north, Mount Stewart grows a collection of semi tropical plants outdoors. To my right, beyond mud flats exposed by low tide, the sun sparkles between the many tiny islands of the Lough, the far shore shimmering in the haze beyond. There are only really three villages and a few scattered small groups of houses on this side of the peninsula, and they reel off in fairly quick succession. First Greyabbey, with its ancient monastic ruins, then another short blast to Kircubben.
After the old church and pub at Saltwater Brig I turn off the main road as it veers inland, taking a more scenic route towards Strangford’s narrow inlet where the tidal flow from a 58 square mile area swirls and froths through a ½ mile wide channel. Thus the Viking observation ‘strong fiord’, gives birth to the Lough’s modern name. I stop to get a photo of the bike against a backdrop of yellow Gorse covered hills, all the time listening carefully for any other traffic on this narrow twisting road. Whether riding or stationary, there is little room to pass, and little time for any reaction should anyone come around a corner. At Ballyhenry Island, there is the wreckage of an old WW2 cargo ship, once used in the Normandy landings, then brought here for salvage at the end of its life. This incongruous lump of rusting metal sticking out of the water in what is now a nature reserve is now a popular dive site. As a child I can remember being fascinated by one old house here, the entrance arch to which was made from the jaw bones of a whale. The bones are long gone, no longer acceptable in the modern world I suppose, although their lack of environmental concern must be more than paid back by the recently built plant a mile or so further on that uses the massive energy in the Strangford tides to generate electricity.
As I reach Portaferry, the last village on the inner side of the peninsula, a crowd of bikes is waiting to make the short crossing to Strangford village on the other side of the Lough. The ferry must do well from bikes on a day such as this as there always seems to be a good natured gathering on either side. Past the narrows and out to the Irish Sea coastline, the road follows a rockier and more erratic coastline, punctuated by numerous small fishing villages. Many now are mere dormitory towns for Belfast’s spreading influence, or were taken over years ago as holiday destinations for its industrial workers before cheap flights moved the ideal destination to the guaranteed warmth of Spain’s Costa del Sol. Still the caravan (trailer) parks persist as weekend retreats, many on old WW2 air fields, a place for kids to experience the sandcastle holidays of old.
The old BM cruises well in fourth or fifth gear on smaller roads. The clunky gear change so often criticised on all these air heads, can be minimised by careful clutch adjustment but never eliminated, making its ability to pull cleanly from not much more than tick over very welcome. The handling is secure over corners often strewn with gravel or even the detritus left by dairy herds. Mudguards that are very generous by modern standards are also a welcome feature in such circumstances. After Kearney, the single tracks are left behind and my speed increases. The harbour in every village thereafter has its own tale to tell, from the concrete and steel of Portavogie, the last major fishing port, to the lifeboat and lighthouse on the stone built pier at Donaghadee. As I ride further north now, the roads widen to provide for Belfast’s commuters. We hammer on through Millisle, Donaghadee, Groomsport and then to home in Bangor. The speed limit is 60mph, a speed the bike could easily exceed all day long without stress. Being built for the German Autobahns, it does handle at speed, not with the precision of a sports bike, but predictably, and without fuss.
This isn’t a run that requires me to spend time preparing as I would for a major bike holiday, but after a few days of wending my way to work between rows of almost stationary traffic, and dealing with all the hassles that cross my desk when I am there, there is nothing better than this for a little escape from the cares of the world. Give the traffic an hour or so to clear after the evening rush home, then freedom is within easy reach. Good roads, good scenery. Everyone should have a few favourite roads such as this. It is, for me, what bikes are about, every bit as much as the challenge of cramming 6 or 7 hundred miles under the bikes wheels.
Would my biking be improved by having a modern bike? Here I must disagree (and I admit I don’t often do that) with MMM’s own Geezer, Thomas Day. Old road bikes ROCK! Fun on bikes wasn’t invented with last year’s model range, and the fun to $ ratio of a good old bike is way greater than that of a new one. On average my annual maintenance spend on this bike must be about the equivalent of a couple of months payments on a new one. If it gets an extra stone chip or two in the paint, then I won’t be worrying about it in the way I would if I had just mortgaged my soul to Japan or Munich. It isn’t perfect, far from it, but it is mine. And if it breaks, then either I can fix it, or else there is a good chance that I will know someone who can help. There are a lot of relatively low mileage two wheelers sitting in people’s garages out there that aren’t used and can be bought cheaply. These aren’t classics, they are just old bikes. Use them, don’t polish them. Something worth considering in the current economic world.