Difficult Riders

Now, y’all know I like me some old-fashioned machinery, right? Steam trains, early cars, ships, pumping engines, whatever you got. If it’s weird and mechanical, I’m probably into it.

Epsom. Really early. Sunday.

So when the Da asked if I fancied coming along on the Pioneer Motorcycle  Run last Sunday, you may imagine I fairly leapt at the chance. Or at least, said, “Yeah, cool.” The run, I was informed, was from London to Brighton. As it turns out, it in fact starts from Epsom. On Sunday. At 8am.

The run is, basically, a motorbike-based equivalent of the Veteran Car Run that takes place every November (see Yr. Humble Chronicler’s entry on that subject linked above). It’s organised by the Sunbeam Motor Cycle Club, and this year is the 73rd anniversary. Only bikes built before 1915 may participate (although as you might imagine, there were plenty of more recent classics ridden by the spectators).

Morgan tricycles, really pushing it on the bike classification there.

I have to confess to a lamentable lack of knowledge when it comes to motorcycles – even less than I know about cars – so apologies if this account comes across as the ramblings of an ignorant maniac. But I had no idea of how much variety there was in those early bikes. For instance, on the left you may see a Morgan cyclecar. These were essentially a tax dodge – cars that, by virtue of their engine size and weight were classed as bikes by the Ministry of Transport. They were also cheaper to buy and run. The Reliant Robin and the bubble car are direct descendents of the cyclecar, although small, economical vehicles such as the Mini and the Citroen 2CV pretty much put paid to them.

These days, when cars are nigh-universal, it’s often forgotten that widespread car ownership is a relatively recent phenomenon. Motorbikes with sidecars are something of a novelty these days, but well into the 1960s it was common for such a thing to be the family runabout – Dad in the saddle, Mum riding pillion and the kids crammed into the sidecar. It was just that much more affordable than the latest offering from Morris or Rover. Cyclecars were something of a step up, and the AC Sociable on the right (made at Thames Ditton, London fans) played up in its name the virtues of the cyclecar over the motorcycle combination.

An alternative solution, if you want to carry more than one person, is to stick a seat on the front. Actually, these are car enough to participate in the aforementioned Veteran Car Club run, and several do. Am I the only one who keeps imagining a sort of Edwardian version of Death Proof involving one of these?

I include this photo and the next to illustrate two more varieties of tricycle, but they also coincidentally depict another of my favourite veteran vehicle phenomena – dressing the part. After all, if you’ve gone to all the trouble to get your 190-something bike exactly as it was a century ago, why not go the whole hog and make yourself period-authentic too?

 I think my favourite such item was the deerstalker crash helmet, but alas, the chap wearing it was moving too fast to be photographed. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a tweed-covered crash helmet with earflaps and brim to make it look like the sort of thing Sherlock Holmes didn’t wear.

I also rather liked the names of the manufacturers whose products were participating. Obviously you had the likes of Sunbeam, Norton and Harley Davidson. But then you had companies whose names verged on cockiness – Triumph, Matchless, Zenith Gradua, Premier, Favourite. In some cases, they weren’t just fronting. BSA and Royal Enfield, both of whom were represented here, were actually arms manufacturers for whom motorbikes were just a sideline.

If you were a little more humble or at any rate poorer, you might consider the vehicle depicted on the right. Well, not the entire vehicle. The actual entrant is the thing bolted to the back wheel – the Wall Auto-Wheel. Basically just a wheel with a petrol engine, you’d attach this to your existing bike and zoom away, leaving people agape at your badassery. Until you came to a hill and had to pedal, of course. There’s a rather good article on riding one of these little devils here.

Unfortunately, my ruminations were somewhat spoiled by a sudden feeling of nausea that overcame me. I assumed this was a hangover, before remembering I’d not had anything to drink. It was swiftly followed by a headache, dizziness, loss of vision and a slightly wussy collapse. Apparently I was overcome with the fumes, which is crap.

However, I am assured that the rest of the run went as normal – people zooming around surprisingly fast, a few breakdowns, a lot of running repairs and a massive queue at the bacon roll stand. Nothing to do with the bikes, it’s just that on a Sunday morning when it’s freezing cold, sometimes you just need some bacon in you.

To finish, here are some more photos. Born to be wild, &c.

The Mayor or Epsom and Ewell, Clive Smitheram, sends 'em off.

"Are you sure the BSA van ought to only have a single wheel supporting the cargo space, sir?" "No, but I am sure I have thousands of guns in this room here, so get on with it."


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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Commuter belt, Current events, History, Only loosely about London, Photos, Transport

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