Ups and downs of a motorcycle road-tester

Suzuki X7

For eight wonderful years in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s I had the good fortune to work as a professional motorcycle road-tester. It wasn’t a full-time job, because it didn’t pay well enough, but a part-time role supplementing a full-time job. Truth be told, I’d have done it for free!

I got to ride the largest, newest, most expensive bikes on the market, at a time when I couldn’t possibly have afforded to buy most of them. On one memorable occasion, I had four of the latest, most exotic bikes available sitting in my carport at the same time (a Honda CBX, Yamaha XS1100, Laverda Jota and MV Agusta 850 race replica). The only problem was finding time to ride them while holding down that day job. It was a busy week, but oh what a week!

Unlike big-name car testers, back then we motorcycle testers didn’t get the bikes delivered to our doors and collected afterward. You had to make your own way across London or even farther afield to the headquarters of the various importers to pick up the test bike, then retrace your steps by train or Tube at the end of the test, helmet in hand. But typically you got to keep the bike for at least a week, often two, and that was worth the effort.

As a freelance, writing for four magazines, two of which I edited, I had some say in which bikes I tested. At 6’ 2” and weighing about 90kg, I tended to avoid the 125s and 250s if I could. Living 30 miles from the office, some of that on high-speed roads, I wanted more oomph to make the journey fun. I recall testing a Honda CG125 at one point and battling to keep up with the traffic into a headwind on the A2 in Kent. That was my only 125, happily, and the 250s were few: I recall the Suzuki X7, Honda CB250, Kawasaki 250 and the Puch 250.

The Puch was the one that got me into trouble. Not road trouble – political trouble. I was never one to be overly rude about a bike, but neither was I one to skirt around the issues: if I bike handled badly, had poor brakes, terrible tyres, mediocre suspension, rotten headlights, harsh ride, insufficient power or a hideous seat, then the reader deserved to be told. And back in the ‘70s, a lot of bikes suffered from at least one of those faults, sometimes several.

The Puch was an old-fashioned two-stroke twin (I think – I’ve tried to blot out all memory of it, and even an Internet search doesn’t reveal much) that had been tarted up with a BMW R90S-style bikini fairing and positioned as a sports bike. I think it was a UK-only special. It used a petroil mix, rather than the separate petrol and oil tanks that the Japanese had been using for years at that point. So you had to buy a small can of two-stroke oil or carry one with you, put some petrol in the tank and then add the oil, and shake the bike about a bit, which was hugely inconvenient and felt like stone-age technology in the late ‘70s.

The other “feature” was a very odd foot-operated clutch, in addition to the usual handlebar lever. I’s been riding bikes since I was 13 and never come across, let alone heard of, such a thing. I had some very clunky winter riding boots back then, sturdy thick leather things that didn’t transmit much to the foot within. So I found myself on several occasions, in busy London traffic, with what felt like a slipping clutch and no forward progress. I eventually tracked this down to the fact that the sole of my left boot was touching the gear lever and activating the clutch. Once I worked that out, the thing worked well enough, but not well enough to earn a good test report.

It was more economical than a contemporary Japanese 250, but way behind them in performance, convenience, quality of finish and value for money. So I said so, and was duly given a tongue-lashing by the MD of the UK importer, who sneered and called me an amateur journalist. As it happened, I was a full-time professional and fully qualified journalist working for a respected UK magazine; the truth was that the Puch was a crap bike by the standards of its peers.

Other bikes that failed to impress were the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide and the Harley XLCR1000 café racer. I rode them both on a test track in Surrey, with speed banking, in heavy rain and have rarely been so frightened in my life. The brakes didn’t work in the wet, and neither did the tyres, and it took a massive effort to complete a few laps without falling off. Neither bike felt that fast, luckily, compared with the Suzukis, Kawasakis, Yamahas and Hondas I rode that same day. The XLCR1000 was a handsome beast, all in black, but was let down by its chassis, tyres, brakes, suspension and engine. Not much more to say, really.

There were other scary moments, but not many. I recall taking a BMW R100S to Ireland to test it over the wonderful twisting back roads there and being a little concerned by the state of its front tyre, which seemed to be upsetting the handling. I took it to Ireland’s only BMW specialist at the time, who found that the steering head nut was loose! He also replaced the front tyre, and normal service was resumed.

That was one of the things about test bikes: they were usually new, sometimes brand new, and were usually given a thorough check by a factory mechanic before being loaned to the press. The last thing you expected were loose nuts and bolts on crucial components.

Happy days, despite the few duds. More on the good times soon.

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