The bruise on my calf is something else. This fist-sized multicoloured patch of mangled flesh is painful to look at even before physically witnessing a passing trouser or sock. It’s also a very familiar injury, indeed, when I dinged it last week an ancient part of my brain blinked slowly and mumbled, ‘oh yes, I remember that. Ouch.’
Johnston (a 1976 Triumph T140v) doesn’t have an electric start. It did do, but like most British bikes in that era, they weren’t, shall we say, competent. Up until the late 60’s they had been but that was before the 70’s UK government stopped spending money on our motor industry, the inevitable strikes were the final straw and by the early 80’s the original Triumph motorcycle company was no more.
The belt and braces approach to manufacturing resulted in Johnston retaining its kick-start, it was almost as if they knew the electric start was shit from the off, and it’s this device that has pummeled my calf black and blue, literally.
Kick-starting Johnston requires a combination of patience, know-how and luck. Before you’ve even faced severe bruising the fuel tap must be turned on and the pair of carbs individually ‘tickled’ (operating a crude choke via miniature plungers set on the side of each unit) in order to increase the volume of petrol available for (hopefully) combustion (this doesn’t apply if the engine is warm, warmish, or even coldish (you decide this one, it’s part of the fun/horror)) then turn on the ignition and prepare to kick…
This is the tricky part. The pistons have to be in the correct place in the cylinders or either the kick-starter will lock, resulting in the full force of the kick being transferred directly up my fucked up spine, or jerk down to seize with the same possibly more severe consequences. One has to gingerly crank the engine into position by tapping down on the kick-start until experience suggests it’s time to jump onto the starter in order to generate enough energy for combustion. Factor in the iffy carb issue, and the ignition itself which has a propensity to simply switch off due to the stresses placed on alternator/battery/dubious wiring there is a very good chance you’ll be kicking the fucker for a good 5 minutes until it finally fires, and even then there is no guarantee it’ll stay running. By now, of course, one’s calf looks like a thunderstorm.
I first bought Johnston when I was 24. My granddad had died and left me a few grand and, being a keen biker himself, it seemed appropriate that I should buy into the heritage he’d enjoyed so much as a younger man.
It wasn’t a particularly well-thought out decision (I’ve not learned my lesson if un-sold Brutta is anything to go by) as I was a flat skint student at the time and instead of researching the matter with my dad, a motor engineer and British biker, I blazed-in and bought a US import via some dealership in Hastings. Four weeks later some Hick was unloading Johnston into my drive from the back of a pick-up. The tank was a non-standard metal flake brown and the engine had lots of chrome. She looked beautiful but it was apparent she’d need a hell of a lot of work -at the time I’d no idea how much.
I have to say that without dad I’d have been fucked. He’s a keen bike restorer and saw Johnston as a working project and, fortunately, in his element tinkering with old vehicles in his garage. Between us we got it half-way decent culminating in it being actually quite reliable and looking resplendent with a shiny black tank and burgess pipes which would shake the teeth of out of your head.
She required a lot of work though, we must have rebuilt the engine twice over the 5 years I had her. In the end I gave Johnston to dad, she’d pay off the debts I’d accumulated from my folks during my student days, and as I was now working, my desire to get on something faster and bit more modern had boiled over. I got a Ducati 900ss (Eko (pro. ‘echo’) was her name) and a few years after that moved onto the Black Bitch.
In the meantime, dad stuck a sidecar on Johnston and maintained her; he even got her to a standard where she was eligible to be shown at classic events. As time went on, Johnston was only getting used for high days and holidays and, more recently, dad discovered he was getting a bit too old to start her- in addition to reasons cited it takes a great deal of physical effort to kick over a Triumph, and there is also the underlying worry that it might kick-back resulting in one being thrown over the bars and/or a broken ankle. The former has happened to me twice.
Unbeknownst to me, a few months ago, dad converted Johnston back to a solo machine and 13 years after I’d given her to dad he called and suggested that I might like to have her back. The proviso was her value (about 3k) would come out of the money I’d inherit in my will, which was a little distressing… Nonetheless, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands, my new environment offered a secure space in which to park her and as a freelancer I’m not required to go into the office everyday countering potential reliability factors.
I rode Johnston back to my flat last Tuesday week. It took me a few minutes to re-familiarise myself with the heavy handling and lack of brakes but, sweet fucking Christ, it was running beautifully, even with the sensible pipes dad put on (they’re coming off) she sounded like a blackbird having one. Yes, it leaked oil as it always did, I should imagine my riding it harder than it had been in a few years didn’t help, but that’s all part of it. I haven’t sat on a bike grinning like a chimp for a while but I did all the way home, lifted by adoring glances (and comments) from drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and the burbling British twin giggling under my bollocks.
But, this is Piqued you’re reading here, not some love-in with life.
The next morning I leapt up, said goodbye to IC in our frankly gorgeous flat (it’s looking bloody lovely now, you should pop by) and walked out into one of the last summer days of the year. It was warm, sunny and all was ace of spades. I unwrapped Johnston who sat glittering like a jewel ready to receive my tight hot ass. I turned on the ignition after the preliminary checks and… nothing.
I’m not too bad when it comes to mechanics but with electrical issues, as this most certainly was, I’m more useless than concrete nipples. I was at a loss, after an hour of panicking and kicking the shit out of the starter following my suspicions this was a battery issue I resorted to grabbing wires by means of ‘connecting’ the broken. Suddenly the ignition light flickered on, then off again. The problem was around the headlamp area, I fiddled around until happy the ignition would remain on and kicked her again, nearly 2 and half hours after I’d approached her she finally roared into life.
Johnston randomly cut-out 8 times to and from work; at least two of these were fucking dangerous as they happened in the middle of junctions. Each time the problem was solved by mashing the wires under the headlamp but it was apparent something needed to be done.
Following a fantastic weekend of wine, woman and song I managed to get Johnston over to my folks on Tuesday, but only after I ran out of fuel en route at Vauxhall. I was forced on a mile long march to a garage in order to procure a fucking petrol can, petrol and a mile long walk back to the bike. I filled Johnston under the watery gaze of a weeping woman stood a few feet away then leapt on the kickstart for a good 10 minutes whereupon she finally started, the weeping woman dabbed her eyes said ‘well done’ and continued to weep. I said ‘chin-up’ and fucked off sharpish.
It was 3pm when I parked Johnston in dads garage, I left at 8.30pm with more issues to resolve than I’d arrived with. I won’t go into details save to say the brake lights were operating as riding lights after fitting the swanky mini indicators, and the cut-out matter was still ongoing. It’s fair to say that all these appalling wiring problems have been inherited from some hillbilly in Ohio, yes we could change the loom but it’s an unnecessary expense, well, it was. I had to take the train home; it took well over 2 hours. On arrival I went to bed, slept uncomfortably, and got up at 7am and then went directly back to my folks.
By the time I showed up at 9.30am dad was already finishing off the last touches of the wiring. ‘Sussed it!’ he said with a wink. Good old dad. We put the bike back together leaving the headlamp unit for last. Just as we were feeding the wires into the headlamp dads glasses fell off his nose, instinctively he made a grab from them with one hand, the other lost grip of the unit, which I caught just before it hit the deck. But it was too late, the unit had pulled free a whole bunch of unrelated wires that had popped from their sockets and, due to years of additions and alterations, the usual system of colour coding made replacing them a job for a savant version of Stephen Hawking.
The language dad used was frankly startling, especially from an ex churchwarden. It began with ‘cunting whore,’ before descending into a stuttering collection of ‘fucks’ punctuated with all manner of shits and cocks. Meanwhile, the fuse blew and the circuit shorted causing a battery wire to smoke and melt.
The whole of the electrical system was stone cold dead.