TALES FROM THE YEARS SPENT POLISHING
Chapter 5: Hacksaw customising
At night school I met a boy who, like me, was trying to get extra qualifications to increase his promotion prospects. I had to suppress a smile when he told me he was a gravedigger's assistant. The friendship was cemented when I walked out into the night air to get onto my bike. George also had a bike. He rode an old Sunbeam 600 shaft drive. I examined the heavy green machine with its big cartoon like balloon tyres and old-fashioned lines that made my bike look positively chic.
George had not passed his test and had inherited the Sunbeam when his father died the year before. To make it legal for a learner driver he had fitted a sidecar chassis and third wheel.
That evening as I swung into the road and headed for home I felt much more contented with my lot. I compared my mount to poor old George's ancient monster. How could he possibly make that look fast and racy?
My complacency did not last. After a while I wanted more. A dissatisfaction set in with my AJS, reliability was not enough. I wanted an eye catcher, a head turner, a way of setting it apart from other production bikes. Other boys were doing things with their bikes and I wanted to change mine.
Each week at the evening class George and I would sit at the back of the class and design radical bikes. Occasionally George got so excited at a new concept that he would chuckle loudly. This incurred the wrath of the tutor. He regarded us as layabouts but because this was a paying class he had to admonish us with "gentlemen please".
Slowly the margin designs of bikes became bigger and more lavish until they took up more space than our study work.
In George's sketches the first thing to go was the Sunbeam's old style tank. It was replaced by a gallon tin in the sidecar nose.
The deep-sided mudguards were next to go, being replaced by two tiny sections of aluminium that would not catch much mud but would show a lot more tyre, especially at the back.
The seat became just a sheet of aluminium formed round a steel tubular frame that stuck up to support your backside.
The headlamp arrangement was to be replaced and a complicated concoction of welded tubes made short clip-on style bars half way down the forks.
With the improvised rear set footrests George would now have to lay flat on his steed and squint over an oval plate displaying his favourite number 10.
The silencers were to be cut off and upswept home made copper megaphones would be brazed on and splayed out behind. The entire machine would then be painted flame red for the finishing touch.
The last class before Christmas was a memorable one for me. As I heaved my AJS onto its centre stand in the darkened car park a new noise rent the air. A deep rumbling at first in the distance but soon to grow into a deafening roar as the vision drifted round the narrow entrance narrowly missing the tutor's Wolsley. Was it Chris Vincent? Was it Max Dubal? No, it was George!
As he throttled back great flames leapt out of his straight through exhausts! George grinned a big yellow smile behind the goggles round his head. I smiled back, could this futuristic kneeler which would not have looked out of place at the Ulster GP really be his old Sunbeam? The very same.
We became partners. Apart from the bike, George had inherited a large air raid shelter full of tools. A lathe, bench drill, grinding wheel and welding bottles. It was a paradise the young rarely encounter let alone have free rein on!
Now in retirement it is heartbreaking to think how I mutilated that fine old AJS. But how many of us say that when we realise the classic fortunes that have slipped through our fingers?
I set to work with gusto reshaping my faithful old reliable into a more fashionable beast. My ideas, like so many of my peers, were based on the BSA Gold Star. The speedo was removed from the headlamp nacelle and mounted separately. To balance the re-mounted speedometer with a second dial and not having the technical expertise to modify the crankshaft to take a real rev counter, I mounted another old speedo to complete the illusion!
The headlamp was then mounted higher on brackets made from copper half inch plumbing piping flattened at the ends then drilled, bolted, then painted black. Clip-ons were fitted with the new ball ended levers.
The tank was replaced with a fibreglass racing model with knee insets and held on with a stretchy rubber affair. Next my attention was turned to the riding position. With low clip-on bars and a big tank to lay on, I needed rear set footrests. This was achieved by turning the gear lever backwards which of course meant changing gear in the opposite direction the same as the later Japanese bikes. The brake pedal was cut shorter and the pedal re-welded in place. This made it necessary for more pressure on the brake. The pillion footrests now became the riding footrests and a couple of high studs were welded onto the frame in case I was lucky enough to pick up a pillion rider!
The old, heavy, deep sided mudguards had to go and were replaced with flimsy aluminium sections, again held on with home made brackets. Finally and most expensively, two BSA Goldstar silencers were fitted sticking up at the back.
They didn't have the Goldie twitter but they made a heck of a racket and I loved them!
The old 'jam pot' suspension units were changed for thin ones and the springs were exposed and painted red.
The vision was now complete. The speed was not altered one jot, it still only managed about 85 mph, but it felt as though I was going faster.
At regular intervals home made brackets had to be replaced as they fractured with the vibration that big British twins were prone to.
Those were the days of naked bikes. Vincent had the Black Knight clad in engine covering panels. Royal Enfield had a solid looking fairing on their Meteor and Ariel and Francis Barnet were experimenting with covering the works but for us kids, the engine had to be seen.
Eventually I tried to emulate the bikes on the racing scene and bought a John Tickle racing Dolphin fairing. With much cutting away I managed to shoe horn my oversized bike into it. The result was to lose my current girl friend. She didn't see it as streamlining but only as weather protection that covered up all the macho engines parts!
- Tony Sheppard