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It seems my first love affair was the Mini - not the midriff wear of leggy ladies, nor the little 4-wheeled rust boxes - but from an earlier age, when as a child circa 1949, I first noticed the appearance of the buzzing little Trojan jobs with their blue petrol tanks. They were soon followed by Power Paks, Cyclemasters, BSA Winged Wheels and occasional Vincent Fireflys; all pushing Watford working men to the daily grind in that hub of proletarian activity just north of London.
Other makes I don't recall, but I remember vividly when my father came home one afternoon in the spring of 1954 with a big box housing a brand new Mini-Motor with its tank of gleaming gold-bronze. Soon it was in the back yard being fitted on the sports roadster - off with the Sturmey-Archer wheel and on with the sensible back-pedal brake. Then the ceremonial cutting of the rear mudguard to accommodate the carborundum roller and the fitting of number plates at front and rear - registration OXW 764. Then, with 20 to 1 mix of petrol to Essolube 20 or Castrolite, away he would sail.
The Mini didn't actually become mine until some 18 months later, towards the close of 1955, right at the tail end of the cyclemotor era. But for all this time the Mini had performed sterling service for my father who, as an ambulance man working shifts, had to ride it out in all weathers round the clock. He decided to move up to (or down to) a Cyclemaster, which he didn't keep too long before moving onto a 98cc Excelsior Consort - a "real" motor cycle with 2-speed handlebar change and a pillion seat too.
But the Mini-Motor was now mine: no more pedalling in the dark and wet the arduous uphill three mile journey home after a very long day at the National Benzole laboratories in Watford, where I worked as a very junior chemist. Who says cycling is good for you? I've always found it more of a flog than hard fell walking!
Working at the labs had many benefits: one had access to a workshop and a clever test house engineer (Charlie) and could keep the Mini tweaked up to peak performance. When some fool knocked the Mini over in the cycle shed, fracturing the alloy exhaust, our test house genius effected a professional welding repair. But the "swipes", the Motor Benzole left over after experiments, were the biggest perk of all. Mixed with two pints of Dominion petrol, which we bought "on the firm" at 3s 8d (18p) a gallon, it formed a potent brew for the Mini's little engine. It averaged over 200 miles to the gallon and, on the flat, it could outpace a friend's Excelsior Autobyk - but that was more a reflection on him as the "mechanic's lost hope" than the machine, I think. One evening, just to show off to the girls, both the Mini and the Excelsior did some furious buzzing laps around the Parish Hall at he Church Youth Club. Amidst a haze of blue smoke, we were forced to leave when the curate arrived, speechless with rage and indignation.
But on the Mini I would range further afield on spring and summer weekends - 30, 40 miles to Whipsnade and beyond. One friend with a Power Pak went all the way from Watford to Southsea to see a married nurse. Was the ride both ways worth it ... ?
The Mini proved very trouble-free. Roller slip was a problem in the wet on hills but could be minimised by fitting the special "Motorette" heavy duty tyre. Plug whiskering became less frequent with a switch to two-stroke oil. With regular de-coking and carefully grinding in the tiny decompressor valve, plus the potent Benzole & petrol mix, the Mini would purr like a dream.
So, all through that summer of the Suez Crisis, I sailed around on the Mini. But by the autumn I had become interested in a little hairdressing apprentice called Jackie. Now, two-up on a Mini-Motor is hardly a vehicle to induce passion or pair-bonding. Covetously, I looked at the cheapest new bike in Lloyd Cooper's Watford showroom. In gleaming two-tone green and with a dual seat, it was the BSA C10L 250 side valve. At £84 10s it was like reaching for the moon on my junior chemist's £4 10s a week. But fate came to my aid when I bought for £6 a 1939 Francis Barnett Seagull 250 from the assistant chief chemist at the labs who had laid it up for the war years. Tweaked up by our test house engineer to peak performance, it was very fast for a pre-war two-stroke, clocking 65. I don't think lady pillion passengers complained about the twin blue smoke trails from the exhausts either. The Mini I sold to a friend who was soon to fit its bicycle with a car battery strapped in the V of the frame and which he charged up almost nightly. Besides semaphore indicators and a rear stop-lamp, this powered an ex-WD Motor Torpedo Boat signalling lamp. "I'm sick of being dazzled by these blasted cars!" he said. Valiantly, the Mini would continue to perform well with all this extra weight and, apparently, cars would be brought to a brake-juddering halt by the piercing halogen-intensity of the Mini's beam. Needless to say, this same gentleman, with such an incipient lust for power, was having "burn-ups" on the newly-opened M1 within three years, riding a Vincent Black Shadow.
But the homely Mini endures: OXW 764. Let's hope the registration isn't on some over-powered tin box somewhere, driven by some fat cat; but with the little power job it was intended for, giving as much pleasure as it gave to me.
First published - February 1995
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