MOTORCYCLES attract attention. Few people can resist turning their head when a bike goes past, even if they’ve never been on two wheels in their life.
So it’s not surprising that the sound of four motorcycle engines reverberating down the busy shopping street causes people to look up. They glance around, trying to figure out where the noise is coming from. But there’s nothing to be seen.
The more eagle-eyed among them glimpse four lids skimming through gaps in the nose-to-tail traffic. Something’s not quite right, but they can’t pin down what it is. Then, as a bus pulls into a stop, the four bikes accelerate into the short stretch of empty road and it all becomes clear.
Immediately, smiles crack their faces. They yank the sleeves of their friends or partners so they don’t miss the joke. We’re not talking about a squadron of MV Agusta F4s and their Alpinestars-clad riders here. Neither is it a group of old boys with handlebar moustaches riding faithfully restored classics. These four loony-tunes are riding Honda Monkey bikes. It appears that the circus is in town.
Prince Charles could prance down the street wearing a tutu and no-one would pay any attention – everyone’s looking at the Monkeys. All but one of the group is used to being the centre of attention. I’m the Monkey novice and I can’t believe the reaction these little machines produce.
The sight of four fully-grown (in body if not in mind) men riding ridiculously noisy miniature machines through a busy town is enough to brighten anyone’s day.
Even through the padding of my Arai and over the cacophony of the unsilenced half-pint Hondas, I can hear people laughing. It’s not derisory or sneering laughter, but proper, joyful exclamations. Everyone is smiling, pointing, shouting.
" So this is what it feels like to be popular, " I think as I pull a U-turn in the crawling traffic. Halfway through the manoeuvre I realise, in my excitement, that I chose to make the illicit change of direction without even a cursory glance in my mirror, and managed to do it right in front of a police van.
My heart sinks and my driving licence winces – I’m on nine points. Then I see the policewoman driving the Transit just smile and slowly shake her head. There’s not another bike on earth on which I could have pulled that inoffensive, but rather stupid, move and got away with it. My relationship with Monkey bikes is cemented as my companions and I ride back to the headquarters of Monkey Bike UK, the company that loaned me the diminutive device.
Inside the Monkey bunker, it’s time to ask the prime movers on the British scene: " What’s it all about, then? "
Dave Blackwell is the boss of Monkey Bike UK in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. He’s frighteningly knowledgeable about all things Monkey.
He says: " They were originally advertised as bikes that could be stored on a rich family’s boat and then used to ride into town to get supplies at every port. Later, they became pure leisure bikes, eventually being used for blasting around the paddock or commuting. "
A cult grew around the Monkey, with the quirky little Hondas attracting thousands of obsessive enthusiasts. Surprisingly for a company known for its engineering prowess rather than its sense of humour, Honda embraced the Monkey fans. The result was the bizarre Monkey Africa, an £800 one-piece body kit that aped the Africa Twin road bike and was designed to be fitted to the limited-edition Monkey 50J Baja special – a compact copy of the twin-headlight enduro bikes raced in the Californian and Mexican deserts.
Honda was having a bit of a laugh and building bikes for people living in a parallel reality – people like Tom Cole.
Cole is an HGV mechanic by trade, but his real vocation is Monkey bikes. He is Europe’s, if not the world’s, most respected Monkey man. His collection numbers 65 different models, from painfully original tartan-seated Z50s to streetfightered, big-bore Gorillas. He has a chronic and incurable dose of Monkey fever.
He explains: " When I first started work in 1976, I needed some cheap transport. So, I bought a Honda ST70 Dax and really liked it. "
The Dax is still regarded as part of the Monkey troop, despite having larger 10in wheels, because of its Honda Cub-derived engine and fold-down bars. Amazingly, it was produced, virtually unchanged, for the best part of three decades, from 1969 to 1998.
Cole continues: " I soon bought another Monkey to restore. I’ve always had a passion for small, light bikes and cars. I’m not into big bikes, really. Despite people saying I was wasting my time messing around with those stupid little bikes, the hobby grew.
" For many years I was the only person interested in collecting or restoring Monkey bikes in Britain. It was difficult to get information, but I managed to buy rare models for a couple of hundred quid that are now worth £3000. There’s a big trade in selling old Monkey bikes back to Japan and they’ve bumped up the prices. "
Cole has built up connections all over the world and especially in Japan, which has helped him keep up with new variations on the Monkey theme. Of the 65 he owns, he bought 17 himself new.
In Japan they even produce a quarterly glossy magazine called Monkey Cruisin’ dedicated to the cause. The editor flew to Britain to interview Cole and photograph his collection. He proclaimed it the best in the world.
Cole adds: " The Monkey scene in Britain is growing all the time, but it’s huge in Germany, because Honda Germany officially imported Monkey bikes for a number of years.
" I travel to Germany about three times a year for Monkey meetings. I also went to Japan with Dave Blackwell when we were invited there by the three main manufacturers of aftermarket Monkey parts.
" But one of my best memories was attending the World Monkey Meeting in California a couple of years ago. I flew out with four other British guys and we shipped out a bike each. We rode up the canyons to the Rock Store bike venue. When we got there, the place was full of Hell’s Angels and they all fell in love with the modified Monkey bikes. All the women were saying how cute they were. "
As we talk, three young blokes walk into the shop. They’re wearing expensive sweatshirts and look like they should be at a Chelsea match. Instead, they’re asking about the correct tyre fitment for rare late-1960s models. Yes, these fellas are also Monkey fanatics.
Oliver Friend, 26, has brought the restored Z50J he bought as a project bike from Monkey Bike UK to show Blackwell. It’s an odd sight to see a fashionable young man showing almost paternal pride for a 50cc motorcycle that’s the size of a Basset hound. It even has a tartan seat, for gawdsake.
" I’m just into Monkeys, not other bikes, " he smiles. " I take it to race meetings and ride around having a laugh and getting stared at. That’s what it’s all about. "
His mate, Henry Overhead, liked the look of Friend’s Monkey so much he bought his own. He says: " We go to the pub on them and park them out the front and just watch people crowd round them. It’s a bit of a laugh, really. I’ve modified mine. I’ve fitted uprated forks, anodised wheels, a big-bore kit and an exhaust system. "
Modifying is a big part of Monkey bike ownership. " Anyone who’s ridden a standard Monkey on the road will want to modify it. They’re dangerously slow as standard, " admits Cole.
To be honest, Monkey bikes are no slower than other 50cc machines aimed at wobbling learners, but obviously a bit of a pep-up wouldn’t go amiss. Just how far Monkey fans go with their modifying is truly shocking, though.
Amazingly, you could build a complete Monkey using all but two aftermarket parts from one of the three main tuning firms, Takegawa, Kitaco and Daytona.
Blackwell says: " We sell a lot of big-bore kits. The 88cc conversions are very popular, because they make the bikes more practical, giving them a top speed of about 50mph. There are also 102cc, 108cc and 115cc kits. Then obviously you’ll want a performance exhaust. " Obviously. " We have as many as 40 different full systems in stock at any one time, including Yoshimura systems. "
No, he is not taking the pee. The quality of the parts is easily as good as anything available for top-of-the-range sports bikes.
Cole says: " You’re buying a machine that has had the same quality control as a FireBlade. The Chinese Jincheng M50 Monkeys are great value at half the price of a new £1850 Honda example, but there’s a difference in quality. "
There is one concession to sanity that shines through all the Monkey madness. If you stick a 17bhp engine in a machine with an 895mm wheelbase you’re asking for trouble, so chassis upgrades often follow engine mods.
Blackwell says: " Lots of owners fit longer swingarms to increase stability and change from the standard 8in wheels to larger 10in rims. You can also fit the grippy rubber developed for Italian scooters. Disc brakes are also a good idea. "
The Japanese tuning companies make aluminium frames and even upside-down forks for the knee-high Hondas. The quality may be fantastic, but they don’t come cheap – a pair of Takegawa inverted toothpick long forks costs £1250. At least you save on insurance, though – even a fully modded Monkey won’t cost more than £125 fully comp.
" I’ve got about £10,000 in that yellow Gorilla, " admits Cole. " I can’t justify it, but it’s only money. I take it to the TT every year and do a few laps. I get Ducati 916 riders giving me the thumbs-up. It gets more attention than almost any other bike on the Island. "
Cole is obviously happy there are now hundreds of kindred spirits who love the Monkey almost as much as he does. The team at Monkey Bike UK may have built Europe’s wildest examples, but Cole is already making plans to build a turbocharged Monkey bike. The thought of it is lodged in my mind as I leave the good-natured insanity that drives the UK Monkey bike scene.
With all the talk of expensive modifications, it’s easy to forget that a brand new Chinese-made Monkey can be bought for £950 on the road. They’re tough enough to be given to kids to ride around on wasteground and then used by mum, or more likely dad, to buzz to the local on a summer’s evening.
In fact, the Monkey bike is a party on wheels. Perhaps a monster raving loony party, but a party nonetheless. The little machines, and the reactions you get when you ride them, are harmless and highly addictive.
Now I’m desperate for my own. I’ve just got to find room to keep one. Maybe if I move that shoebox…