Posted On 28 May 2024
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This entry is part 21 of 25 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#33


Modern day motorcyclists are certainly spoiled for choice; spoiled for choice, I say! Everywhere you look there are streamlined, high-performance roadster motorcycles of almost every shape and size – although many are disturbingly similar in appearance – of every conceivable colour, and all seem to be of similarly ‘urgent’ intent. They sit quietly on the showroom floor, or are parked innocently outside, but nearly all of them – including the lightweight commuters – look as though they are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to have some lucky owner smilingly straddle then, fire them up and then zoom off at speed into the sunset.

Even the plainest of them exhibit engine designs which were (or would have been) the stuff of wet dreams only a generation or two ago, for they bristle with such standard devices as double overhead camshaft engines, often multi-cylindered and usually with multi-valve cylinder-heads. They exhibit hydraulically-controlled disc brakes, alloy wheel rims and fat tyres made with special ‘rubber’ compounds, fancy tread patterns and contours which are ideally shaped for brisk cornering.

Their long-travel, hydraulically controlled telescopic front and swing arm rear suspension systems are now standardised, and are thus almost basic, while the handlebars controls are lighter than ever and much more efficient. But the placement of those high-mounted, minuscule, ‘afterthought’ foot-pegs on sports models which pillion riders are forced to attempt to use safely could be a great deal better designed, I’m sure. That huge gap between rear tyres and rear guards which most modern-day motorcycles seem to feature is surely on the far side of ugly indeed. Back to the ‘bathtub’ rear wheel enclosure of Triumph twins of fifty and more years ago, I say, which, by no means popular even then, certainly imbued those mostly-forgotten motorcycles with far more pleasing, fl owing lines.

So what, I hear you hoarsely cry; get on with it, you fool! So what, indeed?

And so, let’s get on with it.

For a start, there is nothing new about multi-cylinder overhead camshaft motorcycle engines powering road going motorcycles.

The 500cc OHC Square Four Ariel, with its chain-driven overhead camshaft, and the 600cc Matchless ‘Silver Hawk’ Vee-Four, its overhead camshaft driven by impressive bevel gears and vertical shaft, were four cylinder machines coincidentally exhibited at the same Olympia Motorcycle Show, in 1930. It must be said, however, that they were rare examples, and were very much the exception rather than the rule. Oh, and the Matchless adopted a clever form of cantilever rear suspension by swing arm and adjustable friction damping for its horizontally-mounted springs. It was a similar system to the cantilever rear suspension seen on the single-cylinder Moto-Guzzi five-hundred in 1929, to be later adopted, with great success, by Vincent in the mid-thirties and some Yamaha machines in much, much more recent times.

Peugeot campaigned a 500cc DOHC vertical twin racer back in 1922, while the Belgian FN offered a four-cylinder, shaft drive motorcycle with a crude telescopic front as far back as 1908.

Indian utilized a form of electric self starter with its Power Plus machines around 1918, and also employed swing-arm rear suspension and leading link front forks to provide suspension at both ends just prior to World War One, the wheel travel controlled by un-damped quarter-elliptic leaf springs.

A similar system of swing arm rear suspension was employed on Granville Bradshaw’s British ABC in 1922.

There was some attempt at controlling spring oscillation with simple, infinitely adjustable friction damping on some of these forms of springing (Moto Guzzi provided an early example), but in other suspension systems the wheels were free to jump about all over the place.

The following year, Freddie Dixon won the 1923 Isle-of-Man Sidecar TT with his unique ‘banking sidecar’ fl at-twin Douglas which was built so that the bike, along with the banking sidecar wheel, could be cranked over like a solo machine, with all three wheels leaning into a corner. His racing sidecar was fitted with three unique, cable-operated disc brakes, which proved to be very powerful and owed their design to the aircraft disc brakes which were to be seen on the occasional flying machine in those days. Unaccountably, his simple disc brake design never caught on with any manufacturer over 90 – that’s ninety – years ago even after his most impressive win. And there were hundreds of motorcycle factories in the world in those days. This will forever remain a mystery; at least it will to me!

Four-valve cylinder heads were commonly used in aircraft as far back as prior to the 1914-18 war, and were used by Harley-Davidson and Indian board-track racers – among other American machines – while many British motorcycle factories adopted this design in later years as well, including Rudge, Royal Enfield, Excelsior and Triumph, so again there is nothing g new about that.

There is also nothing new about the design of the diamond-and-head stock frame, which first appeared when the safety cycle was invented in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This antiquated design is still used to this day in the construction of every popular motorcycle on the planet. It could thus be argued that, while motorcycle design has advanced very steadily over many years and has now achieved a very high level of sophistication, in some critical areas it has managed to stand absolutely still at the same time!!

But the greatest area in which modern motorcyclists may happily rejoice is in the design of a bewildering range of first-class protective clothing for, as we often see within the pages of this rightly revered publication, there seems to be no end to the great, ever-expanding range of these essential items from which to choose.

There are now armor plated gloves,comfortable, bullet-proof boots, back protectors (back protectors?), one-piece or two-piece heavy duty water-and wind proof suits which employ built-in protective armor, and helmets which will fit a cranium of any size, no matter how small, large or oddly-shaped that person’s head may be.

It was not ever thus, because when I started riding motorcycles as a schoolboy there was nothing available in the way of protective clothing (or accessories) for motorcyclists; nothing that is, except for the very effective, extremely rare and monumentally costly Barbour or Bel staff waxed cotton jackets and trousers. They were very effective indeed, were rightly referred to as ‘greasies’ at the time and are still to be seen on occasion worn by the more elderly of our number; including, for what this is worth, myself.

But it was within the War Surplus stores where most of the motorcyclist’s gear was purchased just after War’s end, with the long, single-breasted khaki Army greatcoat by far the most popular.

It was worn almost as a uniform by a great many riders and did the job very well indeed, for a large Army greatcoat was made of very thick, heavy-duty wool, and could easily stop the worst of winter’s chill. The thing was also surprisingly waterproof, although it would be so heavy when well saturated that once a rider removed his long coat and hung it up somewhere it was so heavy it could hardly be lifted up again!

At one time, there was very grim joke doing the rounds about that Army overcoat, and this is it:- “It appears that the rider’s female pillion passenger was complaining about the wind whistling through the open gap between the single-fronted buttons, so he suggested she should wear her greatcoat back-to front; which she did.

As it happened they slipped off at some speed on an unseen oil patch, and were naturally spat up the road for some distance. When the rider finally sat up and looked about him, he fearfully enquired from the recently-arrived ambulance driver as to the condition of his girlfriend.

The Ambo was said to have answered that she was screaming at him very loudly when he arrived, but when he screwed her head back the right way round, she suddenly shut up!”

That large Army overcoat never appealed to me at all, but there were many other War Surplus products which did, including the strangely-designed, if entirely practical, full-length, Birkmyre canvas, waterproof overcoats worn by British dispatch riders. They were very heavy, employing two thicknesses or Birkmyre canvas with a sheet of rubber interpolated, but even the smallest of them was so large that it dragged along the ground whenever I wore it: but I wore it everywhere for some little time, nonetheless.

One of its most clever design features was to have a large flap attached to the rear of the coat, which I could hitch up under my legs and attach to the front by four large press-studs, and this was intended to protect one’s nether regions from the ingress of water which would always run down the fuel tank. There were several other press studs which were sited along the rim of the coat which, when nipped up, resulted in that all-enveloping coat wrapping itself closely around my legs as far down as to cover my boots.

It worked brilliantly, for that heavy coat fitted perfectly when I was seated upon my tiny, 125cc James commuter – which it was clearly designed to do.

But when strolling around it was a shocker, because it looked laughable in the extreme, for it bulged out grossly at the back and I always looked as though I had filled my nappy hugely, and several times over at that!

So help me, when the thing was fully buttoned-up, I could never get my ankles any closer together than about half-a meter apart, which meant that when I walked about I looked as though I had suffered either a grim accident, a sudden attack of piles, enjoyed a delightful, fun-filled encounter which resulted in the swift onset of Shagger’s Back, or had simply slipped a disc.

Across the front of the high-mounted, stiff collar was a large, triangular canvas cover, which was secured in place with the agency of two more press studs. It had to be firmly attached, otherwise it would flap gleefully about, belting me savagely across the face as I was riding.

It kept the cold air and water out, to be sure, but it was perched so high that I could only just see over the top of the thing, even with my neck stretched out almost to breaking point.

Unhappily, it simply had to go, although it was the smallest size available, but I suggest it was so large that even the over-sized Stuart Wood bury would doubtless have disappeared entirely within its voluminous folds!

I once had a photo of myself proudly riding the bike while encased within that enormous coat: I long since pelted that photo away, for I looked like I was a small child enclosed within the stifling embrace of a four-man canvas tent, the machine all but invisible beneath me except for its front wheel.

For a time in the late fifties to early sixties I used a one-piece ex-RAF flying suit made of a similar canvas material, which displayed a very low crutch, which was located (on me) at about mid thigh, but which again fitted perfectly when mounted upon the much larger machine(s) which I was riding at the time. There was a quilted, purple inner suit which was supposed to be worn underneath the one-piece flying suit, which they laughingly referred to as a ‘Teddy Bear’, but I decided I would never, ever be seen wearing one of those – just in case I had to take off the outer suit somewhere while in company.

Another essential item of equipment available from Army Disposal Stores were the once-ubiquitous genuine wool-lined flying boots worn by pilots and aircrew to help overcome freezing conditions in high flying aircraft. I bought a few pairs of those ill-fitting boots which were made by simply stitching sheepskins inside-out but, even with their more solid soles, they were never long-lasting because of the relative flimsiness of their sagging outer skins.

These wool-lined boots were superseded later by the large fire men’s boots which suddenly sprang onto the floor of Surplus Stores as the uniforms of these heroes began to evolve. However, the much better ‘flying boots’ were copied in later years in their many thousands for civilian use in much stronger, more acceptable designs, and became an all-time favourite for many years with legions of motorcyclists.

My complete ensemble included elbow-length pilots’ sheepskin leather gauntlets, which were wool-lined and could be augmented by the many layered silk inner-gloves which were also specified. The gauntlets were soft and pliable, and were absolutely marvellous, but unhappily they disappeared from War Surplus Stores much too soon.

There were very, very few safety helmets to be seen in those days, and those that were on hand were confined mostly to Cromwell ‘pudding basin’ racing types, but with peaked, leather or vinyl-covered, commuter helmets from Everoak, Corker or Skulgard to be seen on occasions as they very slowly, if surely, became mainstream.

Perhaps the worst of those very ordinary helmets, which I confess to owning for a short period at one time, was the grim, ill-fitting, aluminium-shelled French Romer.

Whatever head gear was pressed into service, however, had to be augmented either by the ex-Air Force, safety glass Mk. 8 goggles, with their angled lenses, or the large Polaroid one-piece goggles which came in a neat pack with several sets of spare lenses, including a couple of plain ones, two shades of green, an amber lens and one which was decidedly on the red side. These Polaroid goggles were so good that many of them are still being used to this day by Allied forces in desert warfare.

Ah, yes, motorcyclists are spoilt for choice these days, spoilt for choice,let there be no doubt about it. And why not, I say, for it is only as it should be.

While not strictly an error, rather than annoy the Police re road conditions check the road report web site ( or phone 1800 24 6199. For more general information including road and weather information try www.outback-australia-travel

The map shows that permits are required for travel on the Mereenie Loop Road. These can be obtained free or for a small fee from Glen Helen or King’s Canyon Resort.

4. Some of the opening hours given seem to me to be excessively short e.g. King’s Canyon Resort ‘6.30 to 9.30 daily’. I think this should read 6.30 am to 9.30 pm or 06:30 to 21:30. One last thing. Just because a place calls itself a RESORT doesn’t necessarily mean you will find waving palm trees (these are at Palm Valley) and nubile, bikini-clad nymphets or mankini-clad toy boys around the pool. They may occasionally frequent such places but you are more likely to find wrinkled grey nomads and families. And the RESORT may often be more correctly called (and to my mind this is a more apt and appealing description) Homestead.

You might not find a full range of fuel at some remote places and 91 unleaded is probably ‘unsniffable’ Opal. It is fine unless your adventure bike happens to be 30 years old. Oh, that is two last things. Sorry.

Just because I am anal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get out here and sample what Central Australia has to offer the adventure rider, especially as you are now reliably informed .

Jeff Cole Alice Springs

Being a bit of a pedant myself, what can I say, Jeff, except ‘thank you’? This reminds me of the story about the judge who told a lawyer that he had listened to hours of stuff rom him but was no wiser.

The barrister replied, “No wiser perhaps, Your Honour, but surely much better informed.”– The Bear


Bear, It has been ages since we have seen anything of Mini Me Bear in the pages of your magazine. Where is he? Has the Ulysses Club hatched a vile plot to hide him?

Karen C, Murwillumbah

This is a good question, Karen. In fact it’s two good questions. Does anyone know? And can someone send me some photos of my “Mini Me”? Here are a couple of old ones to jog memories – The Bear

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