Grand Day Out: Vintage Performance Bikes

1 of 3

It was January 1998 and it was a typical post photo shoot piss-up. The usual insults flowed: Ronnie’s ferret, Gus’s willy, Alex’s teeth, and so on. By closing time it’d turned ugly. And a race was on: Sidecars, fancy dress, Skegness. And not necessarily in that order.  

y blouse smells. I can’t quite work out what it smells of but it’s not nice. I glance across at young Bobby, hunkered low behind Perspex screen, hiding from the wind. He looks at me. I notice his lipstick’s smudged. I turn back and my floral top, flapping in the 70mph wake, slaps me in the face. The mysterious odour is now a pure, uncut stench. Ah…piss.

I don’t have time to savour the realisation and, as a left hander looms into view, I think of the words of Jim Charnwood, proprietor of Charnwood Classic Restorations, owner of these ‘ere chairs, and a worried man. ‘Always always keep on the gas in left turns. Roll off and the chair wheel’ll flip up, then you’ll head for the other side of the road…’

I recite my newly learned mantra over and over, as I have for the past 100 miles.

Sidecars. A whole new bag of eels. Slippery, wriggly ones too.

Let me scroll back through time. About a week, I think. It was Ronnie who came up with the idea. Cue broad Harrogate-stained gravel-drenched voice: ‘Eg geg geg…we should test some chairs. I knoo, Wallace ‘n’ Gromit versus those cooking birds, y’know the two fat ladies. Fook it’ll be a laff…Eg geg geg. Tell ya what, we’ll have a race. Me and Gus’ll kick yer arse, yer shandy drinkin’ Cockney sparra…’

Back to the future (or something – I’ve never understood the concept of time travel. Does my head in Er, I digress, sorry…)

Here we are, racing to Skegness. When I say we, I mean two fat ladies. Wallace ‘n’ Gromit have long since disappeared from our wing mirrors. But then, as Ronnie (Gromit) was so sure of our victory, I made sure they got the venerable (but slow) Enfield 500, while we have the FJ1200 rocket ship…

There are a cuppla things that need dealing with right away:

1)     Sidecars

2)     Wearing women’s clothes

I’ll deal with the sidecars first. Yeah, yeah, I know, hideous appendages bolted to otherwise decent motorbikes, wouldn’t be seen dead etc, etc. But hairy nads to all that.

The simple knack of riding a sidecar? Sorry, there’s no such thing as simple as far as chairs go. Bikes are just so easy by comparison. All a chair wants to do, it seems, is move in a mysterious, abnormal way.

On the gas it pulls to the left. Off the gas it pulls to the right. Accelerate hard and it’ll do both things together. Outfits understeer on right hand bends – washing the front – and oversteer on left hand bends, scaring anybody in collision distance with an airborne third wheel. In the right hands they can be fun. In the wrong hands they’re lethal.

My outfit’s a complete monster. An expert mating of FJ1200 powerhouse and luxurious chair, with leading link forks (plus car tyre) thrown in for good measure. It’s fast, at least 100mph (it’ll go faster but I’m not brave enough) and comfy. The view from the cockpit is pure FJ; it’s all very familiar. Until, feeling a presence, you look down to the left. Then you see the multi-adjustable scaffold tubing supporting the most humungous fibre-glass shelled chair.

The first thing to get used to is physically manoeuvring the whole contraption around. Finesse is not called for; just push ‘n’ pull on the bars like hell. Steer to the left, go to the left, steer to the right, go to the right. It won’t travel in a straight line by itself – a constant pressure on the left handlebar is needed. Of course, there’s no need to put your feet down. Ever. But you can’t help the odd dab at first…

My initial 50 miles pass in a blurred state of terror. Then I get used to it, get cocky, and that’s when trouble starts. My intentions truly overcame my capabilities*

Barrelling into one particular lefthander I momentarily forget the following: who I am, what I’m riding, and the fact I’m travelling far too quickly. Plus the painful truth: the only protective layer between me and the tarmac is a pair of size 16 denier tights (with reinforced gusset). I panic; roll off momentarily and, true to prophecy, the whole contraption takes off in a direction I’m not prepared for. Luckily nothing is coming the other way, but the look on Bobby’s face – helpless fear, pure and simple – is etched into my mind forever.

We’re approaching Skeggy now and I’ve got chair control sussed. It does float and wallow, but constant throttle and a bit of muscle’s the key. Braking in plenty of time helps as well. As does using the rear disc much more than usual. If all else fails, if there’s any doubt, just give it a handful of extra throttle and hang on.

Everything makes sense now. We’re with it, sitting back, enjoying the ride, basking in the open mouthed stares of onlookers as we swish past. Of course people wouldn’t have stared so much if it wasn’t for our state of dress. Or should that be dresses. Mmmm…not so sure about the outfits. Two fat ladies? More like two blokes in skirts. Sally rustled up our outfits from a local charity shop the day before (that explains the pissy waft then – TF).

Bobby, bless him, is the archetypal rugby-player-in-a-frock and, I have to say, completely unfanciable. Six foot two inches of muscled fenland manhood crammed into a size 16 Laura Ashley print.

We only have one bra between us, so I commandeer that little item and fill it full of socks. Tights? Weird. Apparently the best way to make a girl’s toes curl is to shag her with her tights on (that’s a joke in case yer wondering). Forget tights. They’re not nice, and trap leg hair horribly – very unpleasant.

With the benefit of hindsight the whole enterprise is a farce and a fairly pointless piece of fancy dress. Still, it was funny.

For the record, we beat Wallace ‘n’ Gromit. Not by much though, about 15 minutes. We’d stopped for lunch, one stop for Bob to have a piss and I’d answered my phone twice. But a victory is a victory, as they say.

Applying yet more lippy – should’ve gone for the Dior lip brush, 632’s a popular colour, and stays on all day – by FJ12 mirror, I contemplate the meaning of it all…and by Thora Hird’s hem I’m none the wiser.

Sidecars? I can sort of see the attraction. But then again I can’t. It seems to me you get all the handicaps of a car without the benefits (no roof, no heater, stuck in traffic etc), and all the handicaps of a bike without the benefits (you still get wet, cold, but no wheelies/hooliganism etc).

But I tell you one thing. I quite fancy that Wallace…


It’s A Dog’s LIfe

I don’t think Wallace ever got the hang of that Enfield thing. He thinks he did, but he couldn’t even start it let alone ride it. The bruise on his leg from the kickstart was nasty. But he deserved it. He dragged my arse over the kerb on lefthanders, nearly ramming the backs of cars (when he’d plucked up enough courage to overtake ‘em) - generally scaring the life out of me. You’ve no control sat in the chair – the only thing you can do to influence things is punch the rider in the ribs. The only trouble with that is that the whole shooting match swerves across the road every time. You can’t rush an Enfield, no racing changes on the gearbox, just let it chug along.

We lost the race. But with Wallace at the helm I’m not surprised. As for Skegness…excellent. Kids were queuing to get their picture taken with us, mums seemed happy to chat and I reckon a winter season for the two of us in Skeggy would go down a treat. Not with the poodle at number 36 of course, but there you are. Woof.



Scary Bird Speaks

My notes read: ‘I’m seated in a sidecar with Alex at the controls. He’s never ridden a sidecar in his life. I’m scared. There’s an upside though…this test is the best laugh I’ve had in a long time.  I can’t stop grinning, my eyes are watering and my sides hurt. Gus and Ronnie look so, so funny. Looking back from my sleek, comfortable chair, their 1940’s sidecar looks fragile, old, and judging by the look on Gus’s face, as stable as a barrel of nitro-glycerine rolling down a cobbled street.’

What’s it like to spend a day dressed as a woman riding around in a sidecar? The sidecar is the lesser of two evils. Our chair’s modern. It’s lined with carpet and looks pretty sleek, as sidecars go. The seat isn’t limousine quality but it’s comfy enough.

Sitting so low to the ground you need a good screen or, at least, a full face lid and visor. Grit gets chucked up from the bike’s front wheel and other vehicles. The view? To the left beautiful flowing scenery, lambs jumping fences and birds flying free in a deep blue sky. To the right? 1200cc of gloss black engine, fairing, and four feet or hairy, gossamer-clad thigh belonging to Mrs Alexandra Hearn. Eyes left.

Despite Alex’s best efforts to look like a catwalk babe, he didn’t. And neither did I. In fact people said I looked scary. Heartless gits. I’m not gonna tell you what it feels like to dress as a burd, you can find out for yerself. Instead I’d like to ask a question. Is there a woman out there who can give me one good reason for wearing make up, especially lipstick? I doubt it. Flippin’ stuff rubs off on everything you get near. I had trouble eating lunch coz after the first bite I noticed a red waxy residue on my sarnie. Instant spew.

My advice is simple. To all prospective buyers of sidecars, I say good on ya, but be careful of left-handers. They catch you out. To all sidecar passengers: enjoy the ride but make sure you trust the pilot – if you don’t the whole experience is scarier than a rollercoaster in fog. As for cross-dressing? Nah. 



Wallace Has His Say

When the cheeky cockney barra boy mentioned a sidecar test I thought ‘how boring’. No leaning, no feeble wheelie attempts and no rolling burnout practice – what are we gonna do with sidecars?

Couldn’t have been more wrong. This test was the biggest grin I’ve had since primary school (best not explain now why. Ask me about it sometime…) Anyway, the Enfield 500 combination. Old looking thing, but they’re actually still built in India.

It’s an air cooled single with kickstart/gearchange on the right and rear brake on the left. The gearbox is one up three down. Cable operated drum brakes anybody? In other words; a rolling nightmare.

If that wasn’t bad enough I had Ronnie ‘Gromit’ Smith beside me. And seeing how he criticises my every mistake on a roadbike, what’s he gonna be like sat bored stiff beside me on a machine that only does 60 mph?

The two fat ladies pissed off instantly. Hearn’s a bastard for bagging pukka tackle. It all went wrong five miles into the journey when we hit our first roundabout. I’m missing gears and over revving the Enfield hopelessly. I think shit, what am I gonna do? I try to relax, everything will happen naturally won’t it?

Er, no. I squeeze on the front brake, but then Gromit starts screaming ‘We’re crashing, we’re crashing, brake…!’ So I did. At least I thought I did. I actually pressed down on the gear lever, sending the Enfield from second to fourth, and twisted the gas at the same time, so as not to flip the outfit. I’m completely out of control and we’re heading for the Armco in the centre of the roundabout. Cars are swerving to avoid us. Somehow my left thumb finds the de-compressor…we grind to a halt inches from disaster. Surprisingly, Gromit keeps quiet as a mouse throughout this entire episode, but I was laughing hysterically.

Eventually, when he could speak, all he could say was ‘For fooks sake. Spanner job up and learn to ride this fookin’ thing!’ So I did. I treated the outfit with new respect and set about beating the bastard at its own game. The road to Skeggy passed slowly, but easily (we got lost of course, Gromit’s fault. Twat). At least I had time to collect my thoughts.

Good points: people laughing their heads off at us, plodding along at 60 mph on a sunny day without a care in the world, no troubles at all. Leaving Alex to wait for the RAC man while we scoffed a giant plate of sausages and mash.

Bad points: having the whinging Harrogate cheapskate as passenger. He needs a teeth brace, preferably lock wired together and some contact lenses sprayed black. Oh yeah, and his roots need doing.

Everyone should try a sidecar for a day. No, really, they should.

Words Ronnie Smith, Bob Sarnie, Alex Hearn

Read the latest stories causing a buzz this week in News…

Performance Bikes

By Performance Bikes

Britain's best-selling sportsbike magazine