My dad had a bike—never one in Canada but in England—before he and my mom immigrated. It was a 350 Matchless, and later, an AJS which, according to him, was essentially the same bike. You couldn’t tell them apart, and they were probably made by the same manufacturer. I don’t know why he would buy virtually the same bike twice, but I guess the options were pretty limited in England in the early 1950s.
A 350 single is pretty small by today’s standards, but he and my mom went across Europe to Venice on it for their honeymoon, including traversing the Alps. But before they did, he took the engine out and apart, had it rebored, changed the piston rings, and put it all back together again. He must have had a lot of confidence in his mechanical skills to do that and then ride off with his prized possession on the back.
Sometimes my mom would fall asleep on the bike. He said it scared the bejesus out of him so he made her keep her arms around his waist so he could tell if she was drifting and give her a nudge. When I got my bike in 2015, he didn’t want to go for a ride but my mom did. Only by that time she was well into her 80s and now it was me who was worried she’d fall off, so we never did that ride.
His brother, Keith, also had a bike. I think it was a Triumph Speed Twin, a twin cylinder, and when he cracked the throttle he could make my dad look like he was going backwards. But my dad always claimed that the big flywheel of his single was better in slow-moving traffic. If you were easy on the clutch, you could coax it back up to speed without having to gear up and down in the stop-and-go.
When I visited my uncle in England, he told me a story about a time when he and my dad crashed. Okay, it wasn’t a crash, but a slow-speed lowside. My dad needed to catch my mom—I think at the bus station, if I have it correct—for some reason. Maybe she’d forgotten something? My dad’s bike wasn’t around so he asked his brother to quick, give him a lift. They raced off down the driveway and as they pulled out onto the road there were some wet leaves and down they went. An older couple passing by asked if they were okay but were waved away as the only concern was for the bike. I don’t know if they ever caught my mom at the station in time.
My dad only came off once. A young boy ran out between parked cars and kind of fell over the front wheel, striking and breaking the headlamp as he did. My dad was thrown over the handlebars. Both were okay, but my dad had a concussion and rode for another 45 minutes blind into Portsmouth before realizing he was going the wrong way. He remembers sitting at a stop light and it was like a curtain started to lift and he could see the feet and ankles of the all people passing on the crosswalk in front on him.
And my dad’s dad also had a bike, or bikes, through the years—a BSA, one of the first Honda 100s in England at the time (1967), and later a Triumph Thunderbird 650. He was still riding when I visited him in 1985. He took me out to the garage to show me his bike and told me how when my sister had visited a few years earlier she had in mind that she would borrow it to tour Europe. No training, no experience. She hopped on and said, “Okay, so show me how it works,” or something like that. “What’s this pedal for?” Thankfully for everyone, including her future children, that plan never materialized.
Grandad rode well into his 80s and was only pulled off the road by his doctor when he was spotted going the wrong way through a roundabout. Of course he was incredulous and angry, but we all have to face that decision sooner or later.
Photos above are not of actual bikes mentioned.
I started riding in 2015, prompted by my cousin, Mark, who also rides. If you are making a family tree in your head as you read this, Mark is the son of my dad’s brother, Keith. We were texting one morning (evening for him) and he said something like, “Rode through The New Forest today to visit the folks,” accompanied by a photo of his BMW R65 LS, parked roadside presumably somewhere in The New Forest. I was stabbed with a pang of envy and replied, “I’ve always wanted to ride,” to which he said, “You should.” And then a door of opportunity that had stood closed through my early adult life, which was filled with education and family responsibilities, suddenly opened. Why not? Within a week I had registered for a training course and had started researching possible bikes.
I’m thinking of these stories now as my dad lies in bed recovering from major surgery. He has long since given up riding, and more recently driving, but it seems that his last months with us will be largely confined to a bed. I’m thinking of all he has given me, including some of that mechanical know-how, but especially this passion for motorcycles, something that will always be associated with him. It’s in my blood. And as much as it scares the bejesus out of me to imagine my own son riding, I suppose it’s somewhat inevitable, when the time is right for him. When I’m long gone from this world, maybe his future son, or daughter, will remember me once in a while when they throw a leg over the saddle and fire the engine to life.