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Thoughts From a Cold Shed

by Dave Stevenson

I am not alone amongst you I am sure on dark starlit nights in taking refuge under a garage roof scintillating with hoarfrost.  Scraping or sawing or sanding, hung about with trembling veils of your own steaming breath, there come those more abstruse musings, as the poet Coleridge said, most suited to solitude.

Can the Cyclemotor Possess Style?

From the earliest glass-plate negative photos of moustachioed gents posed on wood blocks to appear as if they were racing their single speed veterans down unsurfaced English lanes, to the most recent images of Fireblade mounted yuppies in Technicolor leather overalls honing their kneecaps on Swiss mountain passes, two-wheeled motorised transport has always conferred a certain style on those who ride it.  As in the Rugby Club changing room, 'big' has always carried more kudos than 'small' but some fairly low powered machines, scooters for instance, have always been associated with style.  Style in this case comes in two forms.  Firstly there is the actual appearance of the machine and secondly there is the question of what it does to your image when you are 'wearing' it.

So, can the cyclemotor have style?  The thirties, which produced the cyclemotor in Britain, was a grim and drab decade, but it had its own definite style.  In motor transport the use of streamlining, or at least the forms and shapes associated with streamlining, produced some notably stylish vehicles.  The autocycle, on the other hand, was a utility vehicle in which function determined form.  Not that this always produced uncharismatic style.  The Spitfire, one of the most beautiful aeroplanes ever built, was a desperately functional product of that decade.  It is however a dedicated enthusiast who can find the autocycle beautiful.  The heavyweight bicycle frame, the low mounted fuel tank to facilitate ease of mounting, the sober colouring and the anachronistic use of such features as inverted levers gave the machines an unadorned, dour look.  Dubbed "Wilfreds" by the motor cycle press of the time, the autocycle's image was of a homely quaintness without pretension to style.  All very different from, say, French lightweights of the 1920s which, with torpedo tanks gracing the top tubes of proper gent's bicycle frames, have a racy look which belies their 100cc engines.  As prosperity increased after the war, autocycles did indeed become adorned with side panels, toolboxes and other features.  Some, like the two-speed Excelsiors with their round tanks and curved panels, achieved a definite and satisfying 'look'.  Others, and I am going to be very disloyal here, like the Bown, to which were screwed two of the ugliest lumps of sheet metal ever to disgrace a motor cycle, heaped functionality upon functionality and successfully removed all trace of the natural gracefulness that the triangulated bicycle frame possesses.

Can the true cyclemotor then, the clip-on, have style?  With the loss of such integrity as the autocycle, designed in one lump even if as an assembly of bought in parts, possessed, the omens were not promising.  Painted a different colour from the bicycle and often bolted on in such a way as to destroy the satisfyingly geometric design of the original human-powered machine, the engine unit often worsens the appearance of the bicycle.  The attractiveness of the engine units themselves varies considerably.  Looking through the Pitman Book of the Cyclemotor, no one will ever convince me that the ABJ Auto-Minor with its upright oblong tank and its sheet metal cover "with rather the effect of a roll-top desk" was a thing of beauty.  And they certainly can't have been a joy for ever because I've never seen one.  On the other hand any motor which was designed to hang under the pedal bracket looks like it was meant to be there and the designs which put the motor within the back wheel were also very neat.  The Berini egg is satisfying but the Cyclaid has a Heath Robinson look about it, which suggests that with a different attachment it might make porridge or butter toast for the rider's breakfast.  And what do they do for you when you 'wear' one?  Well let's just say that despite the pictures of Bridgette Bardot on a VéloSoleX and leggy lovelies on their Ariel Threes, if you really were looking to project a highly charged sexual image you probably shouldn't have bought a Cyclemaster.  The quaintness and make-do and mend nature of the bikes unavoidably throws a question into the mind of the onlooker.  Why on earth is he/she riding that?  Equally unavoidably the way that the rider dresses will be almost unconsciously assimilated by the spectator into an answer to that question.  There are various options.

One of our local members, Frank Livesey, wears what I consider to be just about the perfect answer.  He has a long brown gaberdine mac of greatcoat length topped by a stylish silver pudding basin helmet and when on the Francis Barnett autocycle he becomes part of it and its era.  Not surprisingly, this answer is favoured by a number of our more style-conscious continental cousins and pictures of the annual event at Montlhéry in the motor cycle press often feature riders in period costume.  There are difficulties.  Even before I purchased the appropriate costume, I should require a shave and a haircut to look anything like someone from the forties or fifties.  Classic motor cycle clothing, leather jacket and boots, tends to emphasise the smallness of the machines and is far too hot for any serious pedalling.  Modern cycle wear on the other hand looks incongruous and tends to emphasise how old fashioned the sit-up and beg bike has become in the sportswear culture of the moment.

Some riders opt for normal day clothes that focus attention on the bike but flatten out its characteristics.  Others grab the challenge with both hands, "Yes, I am as barmy as I look".  I am sure Derek Langdon won't mind me mentioning the fact that for a number of years he rode around with an arrow sticking out of his crash helmet...  There are more subtle ways to hint at a conscious eccentricity and the most favoured is the 'unusual' period accessory.  Deerstalker crash helmets and pipes were much favoured amongst the VMCC Cyclemotor section in years gone by.  The Jungfrau Run of 1987 organised by a mysterious Dr Moriarty appears to have put paid to the fashion.  In my observation it was always a Southerners thing anyway, officers and gentlemen and so forth.  From my exile I can report that there is a Northern equivalent.  Mr Eddie Two-Wheels regularly sports a wonderful revolving visor on his helmet and his butcher's bike carries in its open basket a string of sausages made from an old red inner tube.  So, before my feet lose all sense of feeling and my fingers begin to stick to the icy cold file in this freezing cold shed, the answer to my question is: If you are concerned with the aesthetics of the machine then you need to be looking at the purpose-built mopeds of the late fifties when, influenced by scooter practice, firms began seriously to think about the design of lightweight motor cycles.  If we mean by style what might more properly be termed 'image', then even the ugliest cyclemotors have bags of potential but what you add to the machine in terms of accessories and what you wear when riding it will be as important as the bike itself.  So when you go back up to the house you have a simple choice.  You can stop worrying your little head about all this nonsense and get into bed with a nice warm cup of cocoa, or start to plan a hectic schedule of visits to Oxfam and the autojumbles; there to ask yourself the only really important question: "Will my bum look too big in this?"

First published - February 1999

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