Part 2: Indian rebirth 1991 style

Public relations pitches are usually less lavish productions than advertising ones – mainly because the sums of money at stake are generally much smaller. But I wanted the Indian account, and I was determined to win it. So we set about creating one of the more elaborate PR pitches ever seen in New York.

Just days after meeting Zanghi, I spotted a late ‘40s Indian Chief in a nearby shop window as part of a clothing promotion. Next to the bike was a small card giving the name of the man who had supplied it. I wanted that bike in our foyer for the pitch, so I called the guy. He said the Chief was committed to the store for some weeks to come, but he could go one better: how about a fully restored 1906 Indian single? I jumped at the chance, and it was duly delivered to our offices on the eve of the pitch – raising a few eyebrows as it was wheeled down the deeply carpeted corridors.

Meantime, I contacted a friend in our Los Angeles office and he arranged for a professional TV crew to visit one of the nearby canyon hangouts used by local riders every Sunday morning. I wanted ‘vox pops’ – motorcyclists speaking to the camera about how they felt about the possibility of Indians going back into production. Would they buy one? Was the brand still desirable?

The camerawoman, luckily, was a thorough pro. Not only did she get great footage and wonderful interviews, but she even spotted a few Indian riders and got them to ride their bikes through the canyon bends for the camera. The motorcyclists she spoke to were unanimous: a revived Indian would be a big hit.

Back in New York, the video was crisply edited and Born to be Wild added to the soundtrack. Okay, it was a bit corny, but the imagery was wonderful. “Get your motor running” was accompanied by a guy kick-starting an Indian; “head out on the highway” had five bikes doing just that; “looking for adventure” had guys on bikes riding slowly through a sea of parked machinery; “and whatever comes our way” had a Californian blonde reflected in a handlebar mirror – and so on.

On the morning of the pitch, Zanghi and his entourage arrived on schedule and were asked to wait a few moments in reception. The receptionist was briefed to use a remote control to play a tape on the nearby TV screen.

My colleague Pat Carle’s face appeared on screen: “Mr Zanghi, gentlemen, welcome,” he said. “We will be ready for you in just a moment. While you wait, we’d like to show you what some motorcyclists in California have to say about Indian.” The music started, the images ran, the interviews played. The receptionist later told me the Indian guys were gobsmacked. Well, that’s what she meant. What she probably said was something like: “Hey, those guys were blown away! It was awesome.” Certainly, when I picked them up a few minutes later, they were clearly delighted.

We walked down the long, plush corridor towards our conference room. At the end, under all the agency’s imposing Silver Anvil awards, sat the 1906 Indian. This time, they really were blown away. They stared in awe. And Zanghi recognised it as a 1906 bike; he clearly knew his Indians.

With this kind of a start, the pitch was bound to go well. By the time we’d unveiled the details of the main launch, I knew the account was in the bag. The launch event capitalised on the Indian name and its heritage – fly the motorcycle press to Springfield, to the factory, and give them each an Indian to ride on a carefully selected route that would take in a whole raft of Indian (or Native American) reservations, pass by Mount Rushmore and finish at Sturgis, home of the famous annual Sturgis Rally. After that, the bikes would be ridden or shipped to (in most cases) California for longer-term evaluation by the bike media. I think we threw in the Fourth of July weekend as the launch date, for good measure.

Zanghi and his team were clearly impressed and promised to call us with their decision. The call came within an hour, from their car. They’d discussed all the pitches, and we’d won! We agreed to meet again next day to thrash out all the details. And that’s when it all started going pear-shaped, albeit slowly. How pear-shaped? Read more in Part 3.

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How Indian was set for a 1991 rebirth…

The current range of Indian motorcycles has attracted lavish praise from road-testers. The bikes themselves are quite rare out here in Abu Dhabi, where I’ve seen only one on the road and a few others on the showroom floor. The red one I drove alongside on the highway out of Dubai looked and sounded awesome, and the quality of finish on the models in the dealer was of the highest order.

Indian 1

Indian today is a respected brand that is doing great things and looks set to flourish. However, the history of the marque is littered with failed attempts at resurrection, some real and at least one fraudulent, in the decades between its demise and its eventual rebirth under Polaris ownership.

The most successful of those efforts came in 1999 when the new legal owners of the trademark produced a bike based initially around a pattern engine from S&S, which was in essence a modified Harley-Davidson motor. Considering the two companies were bitter rivals for the first half of last century, it was a bit like Ducati opting to use Honda engines for a year until its own were ready. In any event, manufacture ceased once again in 2003.

The unveiling of the present-day Indian motorcycle in 2013 had particular significance to a handful of people who were scrubbed down and gowned up in readiness to assist at the rebirth of Indian in 1991. This was an altogether darker event, totally bizarre and ultimately still-born.

In those days I ran a large public relations consultancy in New York. Our clients included Pepsi-Cola, Marriott Hotels, the tourist boards of Egypt and the Bahamas and a raft of other household names. One afternoon in early summer, my phone rang. At the other end was the loudest, brashest American I’d ever heard. He wanted to come in and talk about launching a new product. What made this a little bit special for me, a life-long motorcyclist, was the fact that this new product was an Indian motorcycle.

We met at my office on Lexington Avenue the next day: a colleague of mine called Pat Carle, myself, Philip S Zanghi II, his father and his marketing director. Zanghi was larger than life in every sense of the word: he was physically enormous in every dimension, imposing, loud, opinionated and charismatic. And there was no doubting his passion for the project he was about to undertake.

He told a tale of lengthy legal battles to prove that he held title to the famous Indian trademark, having acquired it, if I recall correctly, from Floyd Clymer, the American publisher of workshop manuals fame. Sure, other people still laid claim to the name, too: one guy in Albuquerque and another in California, but Zanghi claimed to have the only legal title. And he had grand plans for the Indian name.

He had acquired a large, empty factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, just round the corner from the site of the original Indian plant. He would build large quantities of V-twins there, starting with an Indian Chief. The bikes would be designed and built in America using 100% American components. Harleys now used 15% imported components, Zanghi told me in disgust. They were probably all the better for that, I thought, but didn’t dare tell him so.

He had links with the overseas aid agency USAID and planned to produce a single-cylinder Indian trail bike for use by aid workers in the Third World. His contact at USAID was a politician who went on to become a player on the world stage. There would also be a range of Indian clothing – branded leather jackets, T-shirts and the like – all made in America to the highest quality standards. His office in Springfield held a large stock of samples and he was already starting to sell jackets by direct mail.

The dealer network would be special. All the dealerships would be architect-designed glass-and-brass edifices with two floors, top-quality servicing facilities and a built-in coffee bar, which was all pretty advanced for the early ‘90s.

The bikes, he promised would be very special. He described them with evident enthusiasm, although to me he didn’t come across in any way as a motorcyclist. There would be a range of large-capacity V-twin engines with fuel injection, extensive use of titanium, anti-lock brakes, all mod cons. Development was well advanced and testing was about to begin in Texas.

So, he asked, would my firm prepare recommendations for a public relations programme to re-launch the Indian brand and launch the new range of bikes? Would we heck! Zanghi was also talking to at least two or three of our biggest competitors, and we’d have to compete for the privilege of handling the work – what’s known in the business as “a pitch”. Without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed. I wanted this account; not only would it be worth quite a lot of money to the company, but it promised to be more fun than anything I’d done in PR so far.

It helps to understand a little of the history and heritage of Indian. Here was a motorcycle company that was as old as the century. It produced its first machine in 1901, some five years ahead of a newcomer called Harley-Davidson. The founders chose the name Indian because the company’s founders believed it “best typified a wholly American product in the pioneer tradition”. Zanghi’s commitment to a pure, all-American bike 90 years later was rooted more in history than jingoism, although there was plenty of that: he would talk about building bikes “from the US of A, not the US of J”!

By 1902 the factory was already entering and winning hill-climbs and went on to dominate motorcycle sport in the US until the up-and-coming Harley-Davidson started taking an interest in racing in 1912. By that time, an Indian had set a new lap record of 93 mph at Brooklands in the UK, and Indians had taken the first three places in the 1911 Isle of Man TT. By 1910, 60 police forces across the US were riding Indians and the bikes were set to become the most popular and prestigious motorcycles on the American market. Quality was always a trademark and the bikes are cherished to this day, with an estimated 50,000 “old” Indians still running.

The early bikes were either singles or V-twins, and some of the racing models featured such advanced features as four valves per cylinder. In 1920 Indian introduced its four-cylinder Ace, an in-line engine along similar lines to the FN and Henderson fours of that era. Later there was even a Guzzi-style transverse V-twin for the army, the 841, with shaft drive.

The Second World War saw both Indian and Harley supplying large quantities of motorcycles to the US forces. The British Army even ordered 5,000 V-twins after Triumph’s Coventry factory was hit by the Luftwaffe in 1941. After the war, many of these found their way into civilian hands in the UK and Europe.

As the years progressed, so did the proliferation of Indian names: Scout, Warrior, Chief, Cherokee. The company made its own sidecars and diversified into outboard motors. It produced a tradesman’s trike called the Dispatch-Tow and even developed a prototype aircraft engine that mysteriously found fame under another manufacturer’s name – Continental.

Indians enjoyed great commercial success as well as a series of near-death experiences. The introduction of the Ace four in 1920 almost bankrupted the company, and it lived a hand-to-mouth existence throughout the Depression years of the 1920s. The arrival in 1930 of a member of the du Pont family, E Paul du Pont, as owner injected new funds and provided 15 years of relative stability. In failing health, du Pont sold the business in 1945 to a multi-millionaire industrialist, Ralph Rogers.

The new owner suffered problems with his business partners but struggled valiantly to keep the company alive. In 1948 he even installed a Vincent Rapide engine in a Chief chassis with a view to producing a powerful new model, but the project never progressed beyond the prototype stage. The company was finally closed as unprofitable in 1953, although a few Chief models were produced into 1954 and a badge-engineered model, the Indian Enfield, was still on sale in the US until 1961. To all intents and purposes, however, the true Indian lineage died in 1953 with the Chief.

Floyd Clymer tried several times to resurrect the name, including an abortive attempt to produce a Scout in Europe and the marginally more successful Indian with a 500cc Velocette Thruxton motor, which sold in limited numbers – mainly to people still mourning the demise of the Velocette brand.

In 1991, despite all that, the Indian name was still revered among American motorcyclists. If Philip Zanghi reckoned he could bring the name back, then I certainly wanted to be along for the ride. Find out how it went in Part 2.

When bikers talk dirty

I mentioned recently in a piece about riding the Rune to Plettenberg Bay that I had a particular horror of dirty bikes. And cars. That doesn’t mean my cars and bikes don’t get dirty; they do, all the time. It’s just that it feels bad.

It’s especially a problem if you live in the Middle East, as I do for some of the year, due to the amount of sand and dust that blows around here. My wife and I used to own a glossy black Mustang convertible in Abu Dhabi, and a glossy black and white Triumph Rocket III Touring that we’d bought each other as a wedding present. I recall my anguish after carefully washing and drying first the car and then the bike under the cover of our car port on a dry and sunny day. I had just stood back to admire the fruits of my labour and noted with horror that the Mustang already bore a patina of light dust – and the bike that I’d finished only minutes ago was already getting its own coating.

It was about that time that I came across a guy who ran one of those “waterless” car-washing companies that proliferate in this part of the world. Most supermarket and shopping mall car parks feature the service, but the idea that somebody was going to spray a mysterious liquid all over my glossy paintwork was totally alien to me. However, this chap explained how the chemical they use encircles every grain of dust or dirt, and how microfibre cloths then attract the dirt, which doesn’t get ground into the paintwork.

Sounded like mumbo-jumbo to me, but I tried it on our other car, an older Mustang with light green metallic paint, and it seemed to work just as described. Eventually I took the plunge with the glossy black paint, and it too came out gleaming and scratchless. The black car has been replaced by a metallic one, and now my wife and I both use waterless washers without giving it a second thought.

I’m not sure I’d entrust any motorcycle to a third-party washer, though: washing a bike properly is a far more complex operation than washing a car, which almost anyone can do. It also gives you the chance to inspect the bike up close, which is always a good thing.

Some people here in the UAE employ maids and labourers to wash and polish their cars every day, often in the early morning before they leave for work. One of our neighbours has a guy to wash his admittedly gorgeous burgundy Mercedes AMG G63 G-Wagon (if you like that sort of thing, and I have reservations about the proportions) at about 6 a.m.

That’s one solution, and maybe a bit excessive, even by Middle East standards. But I am almost as bad when I’m on tour. Right back to the days of my first-ever long-distance trip from London to Rome on my Yamaha 350 YR5 (made it in two days – ah, the folly of youth) in about 1975, I have always made a point of washing my bike when I reach my destination. What’s the attraction of finally getting rid of all the luggage and riding a dirty, fly-spattered motorcycle around Rome or Sorrento or wherever?

I know it’s going to get just as dirty on the journey home, but for those few days at least it can look like its designers intended.

I imagine there are a lot of adventure bike riders out there who feel just the opposite, wanting their GS1200s or Multistradas to show off every splattered insect they’ve managed to kill en route. It’s a point of view, and I respect it, but it just ain’t me. I’ve been known to pack a sponge, chamois and some polishing cloths on trips just in case they aren’t readily available at the other end. Sad but true.

One of the motoring writers, and it may well have been Jeremy Clarkson, once remarked that for him the measure of a good driver is the absence of kerb marks on his alloy wheels. It shows the driver knows what he’s doing and takes care of his car. In the same way, I feel that a clean, shiny motorcycle is a mark of a rider who cares about his bike.

Bizarrely, though, I don’t think I do this cleaning to impress others – I do it to impress myself! I like the feeling that comes from riding a clean, polished, scratch-free bike. That’s one reason I prefer to ride when it’s dry and sunny (apart from not wanting to get wet or cold, having done way too much of both over the years). It means I can ride and not feel the need to wash and dry the bike next day.

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Ever bought the wrong motorcycle?

We’ve all done it, I suppose – set off to buy one thing and returned home with something completely different. That’s not a huge problem when you head for the supermarket to get bread and milk and come back instead with a pizza and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. But with motorcycles it’s different. I set out one Saturday some years ago to buy a Kawasaki VN1500 Vulcan Classic and by Sunday was the proud owner of a gleaming new Honda VTR 1000 Firestorm. That takes some explaining.

There was something about the Kawasaki VN1500 Vulcan Classic that appealed to me, and I’d lusted after one for about a year. But Kawasaki couldn’t point me towards a dealer with a demo bike anywhere in the country, and I really didn’t fancy buying a bike.without trying it first.

Strong press reports on Honda’s VFR800 and VTR Firestorm made me feel I should try them out before making the final decision, and my local Honda dealer at the time (Redline of Colchester in the UK) had demonstrators for both models. The VFR was first out. Now, I’d ridden and raved about the original VF750 as a road-tester back in 1983 and was prepared to be blown away by this latest incarnation. Yet somehow it left me unmoved – nice, but a little bland. Certainly not enough to part me from my borrowed cash.

The yellow VTR was a different proposition. I fell in love with the power delivery within minutes. The bike felt light, agile, secure, perfectly poised and plenty powerful. Here was the motorcycle Ducati had meant to build when they created my old 750GT, but with the power and acceleration of the CBX I’d sold a couple of years ago.

Forty minutes later I arrived back at the dealership, grinning from ear to ear. This was how all motorcycles should be made. The torque, the roll-on acceleration, the power out of corners. This was wonderful! The salesman had already sold two VTRs that same morning, and I happily made it three.

The first 1,000 miles were sheer joy, although they proved that the VTR is by no means perfect. After all these years, you’d think Honda would know how to build a slick-shifting gearbox. And the 100-mile range between fill-ups was simply ludicrous. Pillion accommodation could usefully have been a little more generous, and the sporting riding position a little less radical. I know that to modern sportsbike riders the Firestorm position was virtually upright, but nevertheless it placed a bit too much weight on your wrists below about 80 mph. And the mirrors showed more elbow than road.

But the power delivery was truly seductive and – despite press criticism of the styling as boring – the yellow paint made the Firestorm a thing of beauty for me. So I persuaded myself to overlook those initial shortcomings and take the bike to Naples that August, three weeks after it rolled out of the showroom. Sunshine, scenery and sinuous Alpine bends beckoned.

A trip to the dealer for a new tank bag and other sundries revealed that Redline was offering test rides on its Valkyrie demonstrator, so they let me borrow it for two hours the weekend before I took the Firestorm to Italy. Awesome! I’m not sure how long I could have maintained high speeds with that riding position, but otherwise I found the cruiser sensational. When my then-15-year-old daughter Charlotte and I swapped back to the VTR, we couldn’t believe how small, compact and unyielding the V-twin felt – and how the saddle felt like a plank of wood. How prophetic.

So it was with some niggling doubts about comfort that I headed for Folkestone and Le Shuttle the following Sunday. The plan was for a 2,750-mile round-trip to Terracina, half-way between Rome and Naples, using a familiar backroads route via Dijon, Chamonix, the Great St Bernard Pass, Aosta, and then the autostrada to Naples. Three days down, three days back and a few days on the beach with my sister and niece.

It felt good to be on the road again as the bike throbbed its way across the baking French countryside. The roads were largely deserted, apart from a few tractors and giant combines bringing in the harvest. Stopping every 100 miles for petrol was a pain, especially on a Sunday when more than a few rural French petrol stations are closed. After about 250 miles I had to concede that the pain was very real – and spreading to my backside.

With some relief I reached Dijon, about 500 miles into the trip. It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit that afternoon and I was hot, sweaty, tired and sore. Next day was the highlight of the whole journey as the Firestorm flicked its way through the fabulous switchback roads of the Jura and the Alps, swooping through the gentler curves and dips on the less mountainous stretches. This was definitely Firestorm country and, although my bum still ached and the tank still needed almost hourly refills, I revelled in the sun-drenched ride.

Day three on the autostrada brought 110-degree temperatures and the growing realisation that, delightful though it was, the VTR had five serious flaws as a tourer. The first was the vibration through the right handlebar that frequently numbed my thumb – odd, this, since on the demo bike it affected the left ‘bar. Thicker, winter gloves all but eliminated the sensation, but wouldn’t have been my ideal choice in August. The second issue was the way the riding position made my right wrist ache.

Number three was the hassle of lubing the drive chain every evening, made infinitely worse by the absence of a centre stand. I’ve got better things to do after a long day in the saddle – like take a shower and have a couple of very cold beers. At least the chain went through two hard days and 900 miles without needing adjustment, and the adjustment process itself is so much easier than it was on, say, my old CBX.

Main yellow Firestorm pic

A fourth and damning flaw was the fuel range. That little red light telling you it’s only 15 miles to walkies came on every 100 miles, on the nail. Twice I rolled into service areas on my last thimble-full. Who designs bikes like this? Don’t they intend people to ride them? How far do they think owners travel? It’s frustrating to re-pass the same vehicles three or four times in a day as they sail sedately on while you re-fuel. The headstock strap on the excellent Oxford magnetic tank bag proved a major nuisance in these circumstances, so I dispensed with it on day two and this at least made the process faster. The bag never showed the slightest sign of lifting at speed, so the strap was essentially redundant.

Honda Firestorm

The final – and unforgivable – flaw was the seat. I must have owned 15 bikes and ridden more than 100 more by that time in my life and couldn’t recall a more uncomfortable perch. We’re talking real saddle sores here that took more than a week off the bike to heal. I tried changing from jeans to light cotton trousers in case the stitching on the pockets was a contributory factor, but that made no difference. Sitting on the fleece lining of my Schott jacket offered only a partial cure.

By day five, I was plotting my next move. Any future touring would require some fundamental changes: a decent seat, at least 150 miles per tankful, and shaft drive. I knew all that in the 1970s – how stupid can a guy get? So I told myself I’d be taking a long, close look at the Moto Guzzi California, the Pan European, the Gold Wing, possibly the BMW RT1100, and (despite their touring range problems) the Kawasaki Nomad and the Valkyrie.

My disillusionment with the Firestorm increased when it passed the 2,500-mile mark and the engine started making mechanical noises that it hadn’t made the previous day. I have a pathological hatred of new and unusual engine noises, dating back to when I was 17 and my Honda Benly CB92 ate its big-ends in a big way, costing me every penny I owned to fix. My two years of BMW R100 ownership were sullied by an annoying tappet noise that just wouldn’t go away.

On returning to England, the chief mechanic at Redline assured me that the engine was fine and sounded like all the other Firestorms he’d worked on. Fair enough, but I preferred the sound when the engine was tighter. Maybe my dissatisfaction with other aspects were suggesting problems that didn’t exist. I got no real sympathy from the salesman I’d bought the bike from, either. “If you’d told me what you were going to do with it,” he said, “I’d never have sold it to you!”

While I was there, my rear still very tender, I spotted a used Pan European ST1100 and borrowed it for a test-ride. Ah, bliss! Deep, comfy seat; upright riding position; no strain on arms or wrists; no noise; ton-plus cruising; mirrors that gave a clear view behind; 270-mile touring range. God, I could have used one of these last week.

But when I stopped to look at the Pan, I found it difficult to like it. Motorcycles don’t look right when covered from stem to stern in bland slabs of plastic, in my view. Would I get out of bed on a sunny Sunday morning and wheel this bike out of the garage for a couple of hours in the saddle, just for the hell of it? Or stare at it in admiration? In a word, no. Comfortable and rational it may have been, but it didn’t tug at the heartstrings. And motorcycles need to – otherwise, what’s the point?

So I kept the VTR, and was still thrilled with it in many ways. It deserved its many media plaudits and its current sales success. It reminded me of some of the most enjoyable bikes I’d ever ridden: the Laverda Jota, Ducati 750, MV Agusta 850 and Norton Commando. Okay, in one sense it was nothing like any of those classics, except the Duke. But, like them, in my book it was a real motorcycle. It worked on a physical level, providing a thundering drive out of corners missing from most other bikes of that era.  It had an honesty about it that was very refreshing. It was the kind of bike that Ogri’s more sensible cousin might ride (Bike readers will know what I mean).

Being a Honda, it came with the sort of mechanical reassurance and build quality that this kind of motorcycle had often lacked in the past. At 192 kg, it was probably the lightest bike I’d owned since my Yamaha YR5 350, and it was the better for that. The brakes, according to reports, were not quite state-of-the-art but I found them perfectly good, even in the demanding environment of Alpine passes or the amazing mountain road that connects Cannes with Frejus.

Handling was a revelation to those of us whose main riding years encompassed powerful Japanese bikes that wallowed and shimmied on fast sweepers. The VTR was an eye-opener when laid well over into a fast bend where the surface would have sent my old CBX into a fit of minor shakes; it tracked straight and true, solid as a rock, with just an occasional twitch at the back end on poor surfaces.

Top speed was said to lie in the 150-155 mph range, depending on which test you read. The way it picked its skirts up at 120 mph when you twisted the throttle in top gear was proof enough that it’d do such speeds. For me, the real joy was the feeling you got when you opened the throttle on a stretch of backroad in fourth gear at about 60 mph and blasted past a bunch of trucks like they were standing still. That was sheer magic, every time.

I reckon the Firestorm was a fabulous motorcycle. It’s just sad that if even a quarter of the ingenuity and talent that went into designing the engine and chassis had also been devoted to fuel capacity and seat shape and materials, the VTR would have been one of the most desirable bikes ever produced.

Eventually I traded it in for a second-hand Vulcan 1500 before moving to Hong Kong, where I went out and bought a Suzuki TL1000S with an amazing Yoshimura system. Charlotte, thousands of miles away back in England, questioned my sanity: hadn’t I learned my lesson about sports bikes, and what was I going to do it in the urban environment of Hong Kong?

Two good points, well made and well taken, so next day I traded it in for a Yamaha XJ1300. That was okay, but it was showing a little more wear and tear than I like, and it wasn’t entirely satisfying; cruising at, say, 70 mph it felt too revvy, too buzzy and in need of a sixth gear. A month later I changed it, at last, for a rare Honda Valkyrie. I had finally found my perfect bike – but that’s another story.

Part 2: The joy of motorcycle magazines

The growth in popularity of motorcycling in the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s brought with it an explosion in the number of new titles and the availability of a wider range of international magazines. Two that figured large in my life were the BMF magazine Motorcycle Rider and Hondaway, a Honda-sponsored bi-monthly. I had the pleasure to edit the former for three years and the latter for two. Motorcycle Rider was – and probably still is – the only British bike mag to focus on political issues affecting motorcycling. Most of the monthlies ignored the subject, and the weeklies depended on the enthusiasm of individual columnists like Dave Richmond for any coverage at all.

Hondaway cover 001

Motorcycle Rider has had its impact on British biking. Back in the late ‘70s, the Government was proposing a ban on motorcycles producing more than 100 bhp. MCR carried an editorial that pointed out the total lack of logic in such a ban (in those days, almost all the accidents were happening to 17-year-olds on bikes of 250cc or less, travelling at 30 mph or less in built-up areas). The industry body, the Motor Cycle Association, took copies of the article to a meeting with Department of Transport civil servants, and the idea was dropped. The future of powerful bikes was safeguarded for the next 20 years at least – ah, the power of the press.

MCR cover 001

It was through Motorcycle Rider and the BMF that I discovered a range of other motorcycle magazines that would otherwise have escaped my notice. There was American Motorcyclist, the official publication of the American Motorcycle Association; the then rather thin South African magazine Bike SA, now fatter and still going strong; the very readable Bike Australia, which seemed an agreeable mixture of our own Bike, Cycle and Superbike. Perhaps the best of the lot was Road Rider, an independent venture edited by the late Roger Hull and which had a Cycle-like influence on my two-wheeled existence.

RR cover 001

Road Rider oozed class. It was almost entirely focused on touring, but with a strong political content and a great column called “File under B for Bureaucrap” that kept us up to date on the latest madcap attempts to restrict motorcycling at the hands of state and Federal legislators in the US.  You could tell that Road Rider was written by people who not only were talented wordsmiths but for whom motorcycling was a way of life. The road-tests were not a quick blast up the motorway and an hour at the drag strip but were often coast-to-coast-to-coast 6,000-mile odysseys. If that saddle hurt after three hours, you got to hear about it. If that winter jacket leaked, you heard about that too. The whole ensemble was illustrated with stunning panoramic photos showing the bikes in the middle of some drop-dead-gorgeous spot of American highway.

The magazine’s easy-going philosophy was summed up by something Roger Hull wrote: “For me, it’s the going. I mingle with the macrocosm, mosey across the miles, a wandering minstrel I, but mostly I exist within my head.” Any solo rider travelling long distances will identify with that.

If photography set Road Rider and Cycle apart, it was partly because so many of the others lacked the money, the photographers or the design skill to keep up. The weeklies were doubtless limited by printing on newsprint, and MCI was similarly constrained for most of its life. Motorcycle Sport didn’t have the budgets to compete graphically – for years it was purely black-and-white, then moved to a colour cover photo but retained a very staid internal layout until it was revamped years later. Today, renamed Motorcycle Sport and Leisure, it’s one of the best on the news-stands, with colour leaping out from every nook and cranny. The fact that it has survived and prospered is an enormous testimony to the quality of its writing.

MCS cover 001

Design has been the bugbear for many motorcycle magazine editors. How do you capture the excitement of motorcycling without losing the magazine’s freshness each month? Cycle always seemed to get it right, and its fellow American titles like Cycle World and Motorcyclist were close on its heels. Great photographs printed large, with creative use of white space and a seemingly endless supply of awesome American vistas.

Rider US cover 001

Unfortunately, many designers experimented with the snazzy idea of over-printing the text on some evocative photograph. When it works, it looks stunning; when it doesn’t, it fails spectacularly because in the process the designer has made the type illegible. And while design and photography matter a great deal, what matters more to me is what the writer has to say. Lose that, and design has defeated its whole purpose.

Superbike was often well-written and became the first in a series of laddish magazines that tried to spice up the world of two wheels with the added excitement of bare breasts. The effect was invariably spoilt by photographs that were too fuzzy or reproduction that failed to do justice to the concept. The nudity thing never really took off. I can’t imagine that the success of Easyriders had more to do with the appeal of the outlaw biking thing than to a few gratuitous shots of topless women at Daytona or Sturgis.

Cycle once tried to move with the times by publishing a cover photo of a pretty woman in a fairly chaste white bikini standing in front of an RD400. From the reaction, you’d think they’d featured Madonna spread-eagled starkers across a chopper. Subscribers were not amused, and I don’t recall the exercise being repeated.

Laddishness brought us the likes of Fast Bikes and Performance Bike, both of which cracked the whole photography/layout/design thing but filled the gaps in between with the sort of puerile nonsense that fitted the dumbed-down Nineties perfectly. Both seem to have improved notably over the years.

It’s a sad reflection on readers’ tastes that magazines of the calibre of Cycle, Biker, Motorcyclist Illustrated, Motor Cycling Monthly and Motorcycle International fell by the wayside in the circulation wars, while semi-literate drivel thrived. But then, look at the success of the British national tabloids…

MC Monthly cover 001

The ability to access your favourite bike mag online these days is a game-changer, especially for those of us living in places where delivery of hard-copy versions is patchy at best. The convenience is superb, even if the tactile pleasure of turning real pages is missing.

Motorcycle magazines may come and go, but as long as there are real writers out there with motorcycling in their blood and the talent to express their views, my annual magazine expenditure , both online and at the newsagent, will continue to exceed my insurance premiums.

The joy of motorcycle magazines, part 1

Motorcycle magazines have been a part of my life for 45 years. If you’re anything like me, chances are your attic and garage are crammed with back issues of a whole raft of magazines that you’ll never part with, no matter how many times you move house. They brought you pleasure in years past and, hey, who knows when you might want to see what your favourite road-tester had to say about the MV Augusta 750S should you be lucky enough to acquire one at some future date. Right?

Well, that’s my excuse. I first fell in love with bike mags back in 1970 when I was a 16-year-old in Dublin. Riding pillion on a friend’s CD175, we’d headed out to Bray and found a motorcycle dealer whose clientele included the city’s motorcycling elite: the Guzzi Ambassador and CB750-riding members of the Dublin Motorcycle Touring Club. There, among the relative exotica, was a counter full of second-hand motorcycle magazines.

I bought a glossy number called Cycle for the princely sum of 10 pence and fell madly in love. Here was a beautifully written, exquisitely photographed and technically erudite bible that was to shape my vision of motorcycling for years to come. One particular feature that captured my imagination in that first issue was a story called “The Sunday Morning Ride”. Lavishly illustrated with page after page of glorious pics, it told of a group of American riders that would meet and ride a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway every Sunday morning before stopping for a steak breakfast at some cool diner.

The CB750 was still a relative newcomer, and a real rarity where I lived, but these guys on Route 1 had scores of ‘em! There were Commandos, Bonnevilles, Tridents, Rocket 3s, Harleys, CB450s. And the scenery! That curving road caressing the frothy edge of an impossibly blue Pacific Ocean. Heaven! And these guys did this every Sunday…

I went back next weekend and bough some more issues of Cycle, and went on buying it whenever I could find it until its sad demise in the early ‘90s. I still regard it as the ultimate motorcycle magazine. The writing was in a class of its own from the likes of Gordon Jennings, Cook Neilsen, Phil Schilling and Kevin Cameron.

Cycle cover 001

The road tests were prodigious, with every engine stripped to its barest essentials and lovingly photographed. Engine technicalities were covered exhaustively and explained in terms I could understand. Power figures, acceleration times and top speeds were all faithfully recorded with a zeal that knocked spots off anything available in the UK bike press. Comparison tests assembled all the contenders in a given class to find a winner (although on one memorable occasion a 750 shootout pronounced the infamous Kawasaki triple the winner – a questionable result).

The fascinating annual chase for the AMA Number One plate was covered in detail, and readers knew that Kenny Roberts was something special long before he burst on to the world stage. The careers of Mert Lawill, Cal Rayborn, Gary Nixon, Yvon duHamel, Pat Evans and many more unfolded monthly before your eyes.

But it was the photography and design values that really set Cycle apart. Huge colour plates would show off major new bikes from every conceivable angle, and it was inevitable that when the CBX came out it was Cycle that removed the front forks to create an awesome shot of that mind-boggling (for 1979) six-cylinder mill.

Being Americans wrestling with a foreign language, however, even Cycle didn’t always get it right. Once, they highlighted in huge letters a quotation from racer Gary Nixon, saying: “I would never of believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”

Nothing lasts forever, and sadly Cycle was merged with Cycle World which, though very worthy, was not quite in the same league at the time. It’s a far better mag today.

Bike first issue 001

Three other magazines captured my imagination in the ‘70s. Still a kid in Dublin, I wandered into Eason’s (a sort of Irish WH Smith) in O’Connell Street one day in 1972 or thereabouts in search of Cycle and walked out instead with the launch issue of Bike. Wow! Remember that issue, with the metalflake gold chopper on the cover? To an 18-year-old with a purple-and-white YR5 (what a great bike that was), Bike was a breath of fresh air. It had the balls to be irreverent about bikes it didn’t rate, when the British tradition was still largely of the “all the controls fell easily to hand” variety. The photos! The choppers! Uncle Bunt’s Chop Shop! The women! Ogri!

The cheeky upstart not only survived but thrived and is now probably older than most of its readers. Back in the ‘70s, it spoke to a generation of motorcyclists still high on Easy Rider and as much into music as they were into bikes, and lifestyle biking was born in Britain. I’m sure it outraged many in the motorcycling establishment of the day, and that’s what made it all the more exciting. I didn’t always agree with what it said, especially when it condemned the then-new Gold Wing for being nothing but a two-wheeled car – essentially because it was the antithesis of the Ducati 450 Monza that was that particular road-tester’s personal choice for day-to-day transport.

MCI cover 001

Close on Bike’s heels for me in the UK market were the touring-orientated Motorcyclist Illustrated (MCI) and the inimitable Motorcycle Sport. Both included features and road-tests by people who knew how to string words into a decent sentence and who wrote entertainingly and knowledgeably about bikes. The writing of Dave Minton was one of MCI’s great assets, and both magazines were graced by readers’ letters that were light-years ahead of the “My Beezer’ll see off any poxy Jap crap” that were the staple diet of Motor Cycle Weekly and Motor Cycle News in the 1970s.

Ah yes, the British weeklies. As a died-in-the-wool bike mag fan, I always had to buy both, even though the sensible choice at the time would be to buy neither. We hear about the dumbing-down of the British media, driven by the tabloids, but MCW and MCN got there years before any of them, giving us a diet of drivel punctuated by fatuous nicknames for any sporting hero and a liberal dose of exclamation marks. They were indispensable for anyone wanting to keep abreast of the week’s sporting news, and handy for their classifieds, but the editorial generally left me yearning for the next issue of Cycle or Bike.

The weeklies nevertheless had a huge readership relative to most of the monthlies and their frequency generally gave them a head start over the rest when it came to tests and features on new models. From time to time they employed road-testers who knew their arse from their elbow, but even they were emasculated by a shortage of space for a really penetrating assessment. For that, you had to wait for Cycle or, perhaps two months later, one of the quality British monthlies.

The reliability of road-tests in the weeklies was well illustrated by the launch of a Yamaha 750 custom in Spain. Both weeklies rode identical bikes along the same stretch of Spanish coastal twistery on the same day. One castigated the bike for its soggy handling and awful road-holding, while the other said it handled beautifully and went around corners as if it were on rails. Fortunately, MCW fell by the wayside and MCN improved greatly over the years and is still with us.

Sailing serenely through all these years of change has been Motor Cycle Mechanics. Month after month, it showed us how to decoke our Suzuki 500 twins, repair stripped crankcase threads on a TR6, replace worn clutches, fit better brake pads, lube our cables… Thank God the Japanese came along and made obsolete such encyclopaedic knowledge of 101 ways to get your hands dirty. The fact that it survives to this day as Classic Motorcycle Mechanics is a tribute to the competence with which it has been put together by successive editorial teams.

All trussed up with nowhere to go

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Not wanting the Rune to get wet or even dirty, I had checked the weather forecast for the route between Cape Town and Plettenberg Bay and found that Friday and Saturday would be ideal – and so it proved: blue skies, up to 33 degrees C, cooling wind.

I hadn’t planned on being on the road after Saturday and so hadn’t checked the forecast for Sunday. Hah! Sunday dawned grey and wet, with low cloud and steady rain. It looked as if it would be dry from the town of George eastwards, so the last 90 minutes or so of the trip would be dry.

It’s been said there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. There’s a lot in that, but almost all my waterproof bike gear is back in the UK where it’s needed most. There’s a two-piece Rukka suit that cost a fortune 13 years ago but has never let in a drop of rain, a pair of tall Gore Tex-lined boots and some Sympatek gloves. But they’re all 9,000 miles away.

I check out my available gear. TCX boots, waterproof but short, just above ankle height. Riding pants are from the iXS Desert range and therefore unlikely to be waterproof and offer no labels claiming to be so. We’ll have to see. Alpinestars mesh summer riding jacket and shorty leather gloves – you must be joking!

The temperature is due to max out at 21 degrees C but right now at 10 am it feels pretty cold. Ryan Neves, the salesman I’d dealt with from Motorcycle World, calls to say he’s on his way, which gives him an ETA of around 12:30. Maybe the rain will have eased by then. On cue, it stops, only to return with gusto 10 minutes later.

My only concerns about this whole 550km trip had been the last kilometre, which is where the tarmac of the N2 gives way to a dirt road down to Wittedrif. The authorities grade it fairly frequently but the heavy logging trucks that use it to haul timber out of the pine forests soon churn it up again. This past week, it’s been at about its worst ever, filled with ruts, potholes and severe corrugations at right angles to the traffic. I have two sports bikes that I usually ride up there in third, but last week they required first gear in places. Even our Nissan bakkie, which normally handles the surface with ease, squirmed and bucked.

It was down this washboard road that the Honda would have to travel, and then negotiate 190 metres of steeply sloping twin concrete strips to our house. The driveway was built to follow what I think had been an existing game path, and the curves of the concrete strips were designed to cater for the needs of the builder’s trucks; they do not follow a natural line for a motorcycle, let alone one more than eight feet long.

Now to even get to that challenge I had to ride through two hours of rain on a bike with no weather protection and in the wrong clothes. But, hey, that took me back to my earliest biking days in Ireland, where it was almost always colder and wetter and the gear even more inappropriate. So I sat on the covered deck at the excellent Gunners B&B with my Kindle, gazing at the rain and waiting for my battery.

I walked down the hill at 12:20 in readiness for Ryan’s arrival, to be greeted by the sight of a trussed whale in the place where I’d left the Rune overnight. They say a picture is worth a thousand words…

All trussed up

My benefactor Andre Pietersen and his wife Ena had feared for the bike’s safety and covered it in not one but seven blankets, rugs and curtains, secured with what looked like a mile of thick rope. They’d even parked their cars on the wide footpath to offer it further protection. And what protection! It took me seven minutes just to untie the rope. The blankets and the overhanging bush had even kept things dry. That’s Andre and Ena below.

Rune saviours

Ryan arrived shortly afterwards with his young son Migel, pictured below, and within minutes the brand new battery was in place. The Rune roared into life, normal service was resumed and my personal Groundhog Day was at an end. I thanked Ryan profusely for coming all the way from his home in Cape Town on a wet Sunday to help a stranded customer, and Andre and Ena for going to such trouble to help a stranger. The 1960s ads used to say “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” and 50 years later it still proves to be true.

Rune saviours 2

I set off for Bredasdorp 18 km away, so pleased to be back on the road that I could forgive the stinging rain through the arms of the mesh jacket. As I turned left toward Swellendam I saw two things of note: a petrol station on the right, and an automotive parts store in whose window was a wide range of batteries. Well, I figured, they probably didn’t stock a suitable bike battery, anyway, and were probably closed on a Saturday afternoon, like so much else. A glance at the digital bars of the fuel gauge showed two bars still lit, and the N2 main road wasn’t very far away, so I passed the petrol station and headed on through the rain. The bike seemed to handle wet roads with aplomb, and the trousers and boots seemed to be keeping the weather out. It turned out the iXS pants are indeed waterproof.

No petrol stations loomed out of the gloom as I headed north. The fuel gauge dropped to its final bar, which started flashing. The advantage of being stuck in a small town with nothing to do is that you have time to read the owner’s manual! On Friday night I had discovered that the Troubleshooting section had little of value to offer on the subject of not starting (“check that the battery is charged”) but also saw that when the final bar on the fuel gauge starts flashing you are on reserve. The tank holds 22 litres in total and the reserve is just over one US gallon. So I figured that I might have about 50 km of riding left, and as I’ve done many times before in such situations I cut my speed to 80 km/h to eke out the remaining fuel.

The road seemed interminable. With what I calculated was now 10 km of fuel left, I came to the N2 junction and saw a Norton Commando rider stopped by the side of the road. He told me there was a petrol station in Swellendam, which was the way I was heading anyway, so I slowed down some more and eased my way into the town. I spotted a Caltex station on the right and pulled in. The tank took 22 litres, so I must have been running on fumes! My luck was changing.

The rain stopped about 50 km later and when I reached George the air grew warmer and the sun came out. All was well with the world. I found the Rune could hold a steady 120 km/h (the speed limit) with ease if I moved back in the saddle and leaned into the wind just a little. The same stance allowed me to go faster, but I wouldn’t want to do that for hour after hour. The seat itself cause me to wriggle around from time to time, but to be honest most motorcycle seats have the same effect on me.

My only real gripe was the rear suspension. On poor roads, especially those with sudden dips, the impact went straight up my spine and transmitted a short but sharp pain to my neck. I’ve never experienced that before. On perfectly smooth roads the ride was just fine. They’d just re-tarred the previously terrible surface of the N2 going past George airport, but it was clear to me that while the surface appeared flat and smooth it still had mild undulations, as if the underlying material were more like an Irish bog than real hardcore. I’m happy to rent myself and the Rune out to road-builders as the ultimate test of flatness.

Despite the suspension issue, I reached the dirt road in Plett still feeling fresh. The sun had long since dried out my damp jacket and gloves and I was exhilarated by my five-hour trip. The Rune remained composed as I negotiated the ruts and bumps of the dirt road, leaving a cloud of reddish dust in its wake, and it even managed the concrete driveway without mishap.

Next morning, I was out there with hosepipe, bucket, sponge and chamois to remove the road grime and restore the Rune to its pristine glory. The drying, polishing and detailing process took longer than with any other bike I’ve owned, but the result made it all worthwhile. My reward came when I discovered that the municipality picked the next day to regrade the dirt road; it was by no means perfect, but it meant that the Rune could escape from the garage for a cruise up to the Crags and down to Keurboomstrand in the evening.

It’s early days, but my verdict is that the big Honda is the most awesome of the many bikes I’ve owned in a motorcycling life that spans 49 years (I started young, okay?). It’s not the fact that it impresses others; it enough that it impresses me, to look at and to ride. Next step is to weigh the pros and cons of buying a dual seat and passenger pegs so my wife can share the experience.

 

 

$100,000 Rune in the Western Cape

The $100,000 motorcycle I’d been riding for the past two hours through the undulating farmland of the Western Cape was no longer flowing majestically through the sweeping bends. It now lay silent, as pointless as a beached whale, outside my chosen B&B in the small town of Napier.

Just two hours earlier I had ridden my black cherry candy Honda Valkyrie Rune out the doors of Motorcycle World in Parow, Cape Town, revelling in its peerless style. Purchased sight unseen online eight weeks earlier in December, this was my first chance to see the cruiser in the metal, and it didn’t disappoint.

I’ve always liked Gold Wings, ever since I tested a new K2 1,000cc model for Motorcyclist Illustrated back in the late ’70s. In ’82 I even wrote the first book about these wonderful machines, with their large cult following and their fair share of detractors (Bike magazine in the UK referred to it as a two-wheeled car).

I was especially fond of the unfaired versions (nowadays we’d call them naked) and was impressed by the ’97 Valkyrie. I bought one when I lived in Hong Kong in 2000, and owned another for five years when I returned to the UK, and bought my third in Blackpool in 2014. So you could say I liked them.

The Valkyrie was discontinued by Honda in 2003 and in its place came the (by 2004 standards) hugely expensive and outrageous-looking Rune, featuring the latest 1,832cc engine from the Wing. People who loved the Valkyrie for everything it represented found the Judge Dredd look of the Rune a little, um, strange.

Honda created the Rune from a pure design exercise aimed at finding a direction for the new Valkyrie. The story goes that the giant Japanese manufacturer wanted to show the world that it could be fun, fashionable and style-conscious as well as being known for quality and reliability. As the photo shows, they certainly succeeded!

They built an indeterminate number of Runes, variously thought to be between 2,000 and 2,500 or so. Journalists at the time reported that each bike cost Honda $100,000 to make, yet they sold at $25,000 to $27,000. No wonder, then, that after proving its point Honda pulled the plug on the Rune after just over one model year.

Love the 1,500cc Valkyries though I do, I always felt that the 1,832cc engine was just begging to be fitted to the bike. That, plus tales of exceptional build quality even by Honda’s high standards, drew me to the Rune.

I found one online late last year in Connecticut with only 350 miles on the clock from new, but closer investigation showed that it is almost impossible to register a motorcycle in the US if you are not a resident. So I searched instead closer to home and found an identical model in Cape Town, albeit with 27,000 km (about 15,000 miles) under its belt. A few emails and phone calls later it was mine. Due to a work/life schedule that sees my wife and I spending time each year in the UK, the UAE and South Africa, it would be eight weeks before I could collect the bike.

The dealer had filled the tank, performed a full service, checked the tyre pressure and polished the Rune till it looked like new. So it was with great expectations and a broad grin that I negotiated the Friday evening rush-hour traffic on the Voortrekker Road in the early February sunshine. The plan was to head back to our house in Plettenberg Bay, with a detour strongly recommended by my wife to visit Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the African continent.

Like all motorcycle tourists travelling without a tent, I kept an eye out for hotels. The only one I spotted was before Caledon and way too early to stop, so I passed on through the rolling countryside on almost deserted and suitably twisty roads.

Initial impressions of the Rune bore out what I’d read in the relatively few available magazine reviews: the massive weight disappears once rolling; the silky flat-six engine is more awesome than ever in this incarnation; the leading-link front forks work superbly; the seat isn’t hugely comfortable; and the rear suspension is too hard, with too little travel. I also found that the bars, though not as high and wide as on many factory cruisers, were nevertheless tiring at sustained speeds much over 120 km/h. No surprises there.

What was a welcome surprise was the sheer feel-good factor of riding a mobile work of art. Everywhere you look, the attention to detail is amazing. The chrome seems a mile deep, the metallic red paint likewise. And that chrome really is everywhere: clutch and brake master cylinders, handlebar switches, levers, clamps. If it’s not painted it’s chromed, apart from the alloy frame spars. Mine was the “chrome version”, which cost $2,500 more than the base model and gives you spectacular chromed wheels. Why would anyone choose the base model? It’s like accepting a BLT without mayo.

The headlight is set about four feet in front of the rider, it’s top chromed, looking like a large, gleaming ostrich egg. The tactile controls (throttle, brakes, clutch, gear-change) all have a reassuring solidity and smoothness. The engine delivers its 118 bhp and 123 lb-ft of torque with expected silkiness, and the bike is no slouch despite its 850 lb weight.

The frame and steering geometry and the suspension make for easy, fluid bend-swinging and the handling is “high-end cruiser”. Comfort could be improved, especially the rear end over less-than-perfect surfaces, but the sheer pleasure of riding the beast outweighs such considerations. Stopping for a drink brought admirers aplenty (for the bike, not me). Riding through Caledon brought thumbs-ups, and stopping for three sets of roadworks brought stares and smiles.

The sun was now sinking below the horizon, casting beautiful golden shadows over the hillsides, and the strong Cape winds grew colder. I hadn’t seen a hotel sign for about 60 km now and so breathed a sigh of relief when the town of Napier produced a selection of B&Bs. Parking outside one of these brought immediate interest in, and questions about, the bike. Happily the establishment had one room left at R300, and the barman even gave me a key to the back gate so I could get the Rune off the street and into a safer overnight parking area.

I wanted a cold beer and some BBQ ribs but thought I’d be sensible and move the bike to its secure parking place first. Hah! Ignition key in, switch it on, and…nothing. Not a peep. None of the usual array of ignition and warning lights, nothing from the starter button.

This cannot be happening! I check that the bike is in neutral, pull up the side-stand just in case, re-check the kill switch – all okay. The dealer was by now long closed for the day, but he had given me the previous owner’s number who says he’s never experienced anything like this. He tells me where to find the well-hidden seat lock so I can check the battery terminals, and they are all tight. I lift the fuse box cover and wonder (not for the first time) how on earth you tell if a fuse is blown without replacing it; no replacements are included.

And so began my long Saturday in Napier: alert the dealer at 08:30 next morning, and he promises to do what he can. Meantime he suggests I try jumper cables. I’d managed to borrow some from one of the bartenders the night before, and while searching the empty main street for a candidate vehicle to supply the power I ask a couple of passing bikers to help me try to push-start the bike down the hill. We pushed but the bike didn’t start.

I coast to a halt next to a parked bakkie (pick-up truck for non-South African readers) and the kind driver, Andre Pietersen, agrees to hook the bike up to his battery. Again, not a spark of life. He offers to put the battery on charge, and I readily accept. Give it till midday, he suggests, so I go off in search of breakfast at the excellent Gunners restaurant. My Kindle keeps me entertained till midday, when I walk back down the hill to try the bike again, aided once more by the jumper cables and partly charged battery. This time all the ignition lights come on and the starter motor gives a forlorn click, but no start-up. Not even close.

The dealer says he’s still looking into solutions. I check the regional phone book for local motorcycle shops, but there aren’t any. I look for a taxi service or car rental agency, but they don’t exist either. All the while, people are stopping to admire, photograph and discuss the stranded Rune. I contemplate hitchhiking to  the next town of Bredasdorp, 18 km away, where I’m told there is a motorcycle spares shop that will be closed by now but has an emergency number in the window. I even think about hitchhiking back to Cape Town, but that seems daft.

The dealer calls to say that he’s found me a new battery and he will deliver it personally – tomorrow. It’s the best deal available, so I check into a more comfortable B&B for R 350 for my second night in Napier. Then I sit back, sip cold beer and read books, pondering the irony of how something so fine, so beautifully designed, so exquisitely built, can be rendered useless for want of a simple motorcycle battery.

At least there’s a moral here: when buying an 11-year-old motorcycle that may have been in the showroom for some time, splash out a few extra bucks on a new battery!