I’ve always had a bike (sometimes more than one). I started with push bikes and got used to them as everyday transport as I had to cycle the 3 miles to school each day in all weathers. But what I wanted was a motorbike…

In 1978 I left school after A levels, borrowed £300 from my Dad and bought my first bike – a 1974 Yamaha RD250. Looking back it is quite atonishing to realise that you could apply for a provisional license, stick on some L plates and hit the road on a 100 mph bike. No training, no tests, no qualifications necessary. You were limited to 250cc but all the main manufacturers offered bikes to suit the demand. I bought the RD off a school friend (Peter Cook), who was upgrading to a Honda 400/4. We did a few rides together but he had no fear and was much faster than me. We crept in to the by-then disused Longridge motor racing circuit and did a few laps – I can see from the photos that my personal protective equipment extended to a helmet and leather gloves accompanied by jeans, denim jacket and trainers!

Longridge Circuit

Jumping on a bike like this with no experience was of course a recipe for disaster and I did fall off a few times – but no serious injuries. I fell off one night and couldn’t get the bike to start and ended up calling out the parents who duly arrived – probably just glad to see I was OK. We eventually got the bike going and discovered that during the off one of the carburettor slides had got jammed wide open. My worst crash was in the car park at our halls of residence in Leyland where there was a workshop for students to use. Having done some tweaks to the timing I went to try the bike around the car park – and fell off skidding across the tarmac in only a T-shirt – Ouch !

The bike was very senstive to ignition timing which had to be set up using a dial gauge down the plug hole to find TDC. This needed adjusting on an almost weekly basis to keep it running crisply – I eventually installed a transistorised Boyer Bransden ignition which was a huge improvement.

I was sponsored through University by Leyland Vehicles, which meant a “gap year” working for them before going to University – and then back working for them in the summer holidays. As Leyland was not far from my parents the RD250 was an ideal form of transport on these short journeys. However, I was due to start University in Durham in September and would need to be able to get there and back which required a bigger bike. So having passed my (very simple) bike test and with another loan from Dad I bought a Honda 550 F1 – a four cylinder four stroke.

Honda 550 F1

Strangely I don’t have many memories of this bike – it was a reliable workhorse for the Durham trips, but rather unremarkable. As usual with my bikes I did make some modifications, fitting a Dunstall exhaust, lower handlebars and rearset footrests. In common with all Japanese bikes of the era the front disc brake didn’t work in the wet but at least it had a reliable rear drum brake. The previous owner had fitted a luggage rack and panniers (useful for load carrying) and also upgraded the normal spoked wheels to alloys – a pretty unusual thing to do in those days, but they did look cool. One of the wheel bearings worked loose but I managed to refit it using Loctite bearing fit. I also swapped the Boyer Bransden ignition over to this bike but it was much less sensitive to adjustment and had plenty of performance anyway. Why the 550 ? Well I was looking for a 400/4 but this came up for sale in the local paper – no Internet or Auto Trader in those days…

Modified bike

Having been a little bit underwhelmed by the 550 I looked for a bike to upgrade to and the obvious choice was to go for the 750 version of the same bike, which promised 120 mph performance. I rang round the local dealers and struck lucky with one who had just got a special version of the 750 in part exchange – this was a 750 F2 Phil Read Replica… This started a trend that continues to this day of buying transport that is a little bit “different”.
Phil Read raced for the Honda Britain team and won the Isle of Man TT on a modified 750 in the late seventies. To celebrate the event and help to shift some more bikes, Honda commissioned Colin Seeley to modify the standard 750 to make a road going “race replica”. It came with a five-gallon alloy works replica hand made petrol tank with a custom made filler cap. Rear sets, ace bars, single race saddle, full fairing, twin Cibie headlights, a hand made works exhaust (which is music to the ears) and little one-off parts to complete the package. Only 150 were made and there are alleged to be only 35 remaining.

Honda Phil Read Replica

This was a great bike (for the time) – had a good riding position, great looks and super roadholding thanks to the Dunlop Red Arrow tyres. I didn’t feel any need to make modifications to the bike, apart from changing the exhaust to a Piper 4 into 1 when the old one rusted through. The fairing was great for when doing the long trips up to Durham and the bigger tank helped the fuel range. It was almost a single seater but there was just about room to squeeze my girlfriend on the back – for short journeys anyway. The suspension was set up for a single rider but even so it was possible to scrape the pegs through corners – mainly thanks to the grip from the tyres. Two-up getting round any corner at speed usually resulted in sparks flying.

I managed to avoid any accidents of my own making, despite the enthusiastic cornering, but I did have one significant off. Riding through the centre of Durham when a car pulled out in front of me – I grabbed the brakes, locked the front wheel, came off and slid into the car sideways. I had slowed enough so the impact was minor and I was unhurt, but the off had damaged the bikes ignition which is on the end of the crankshaft so it wouldn’t run. I was rather cross and made the poor lady driving the car write out and sign a confession on the spot! There was some other minor damage but the insurance paid out and I managed to fix it myself. The forks were bent but I took them into the engineering lab in Durham and managed to get them straight again.

Being a sponsored student and having a job during the holidays meant that I was relatively well off (for a student) so I was looking for an upgrade from the Honda. I had my eyes on Italian bikes which had a reputation for better brakes and handling than the Japanese equivalents – the Ducati 900SS and Laverda Jota were top of my list. But the reality of pre-Internet bike searching is limited to scanning the local paper or ringing bike dealers. I came across an ad for a Honda CBX1000 – this was not on my list but was the fastest bike you could buy in 1982…

Honda CBX

An in-line six cylinder engine with double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder – 24 valves, 6 carburettors and 105 bhp. This particular bike also had the benefit of a Marshall 6 into 1 exhaust which sounded amazing. It also came with a hefty set of crash bars to protect the very wide engine.

Looking back it seems quite astonishing that a 22 year- old student could be running around on a bike like this, but I was ! But for all the “fastest bike” and six cylinder hype it wasn’t a great bike. The performance, sound and smoothness were perfect. The weight, handling and fuel consumption were less so. In a foolish attempt to reduce the weight I removed “non essential” parts like the centre stand and crash bars. But on the way into lectures one morning, going round one of my favourite roundabouts I reached the limit of the tyres grip and the bike slid sideways – no thanks to me they regained grip and didn’t throw me off – thank you Pirelli Phantoms. On parking the bike I noticed that some of the lower engine bolts had gained a new chamfer – it had been leant over so far the engine had touched the ground ! I was a bit more careful after that…

After graduating from Durham in the summer of 1982 I needed to find alternative transport to get me down to Shoreham-by-Sea to start work at Ricardo. So I sold the CBX and bought a car – my first car, but I’ll save that story for another post…