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I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle


Those of you who are sad enough to read these occasional outpourings of a tortured soul may recall that at moments of cyclemotoring stress my thoughts are apt to turn to the alternative and gentler pursuit of cheese label collecting.  This, dear reader, is a fantasy.  As an alternative to the unnatural practices generally lumped together under the title "Motor Cycle Maintenance" I did, however, start a collection of motor cycling films.  After several years I have amassed the grand total of five, a number considerably smaller than the number of motor cycles I possess.  In surveying the collection, my mind dwells not on the extent and variety of my possessions but groans aloud at the appalling quality of the films which motor cycling has inspired.  "Easy Rider" is not a bad film and "Quadrophenia" is actually quite good, but I cannot recommend "Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town" or "Hells Angels on Wheels", in which to his continuing shame Jack Nicholson agreed to appear.  And where does the collection go from here?  "Leather Boys" is bound to be less interesting than it sounds and I have sat through "Girl on a Motorcycle" once and am firmly resolved never to subject myself to two hours of such execrable and pretentious twaddle again.

"I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle" is the fifth film in my collection.  I cannot comment on its quality because after the first thirty minutes I was overcome by an overwhelming desire to go and do something else, anything else, rather than watch it any further.  For the title, however, experience has taught me nothing but respect...

Like all the best spine-chillers, the tale begins not with thunder and lightening playing on the dark exterior of a gothic mansion but in an ordinary Lincolnshire street in a small town on a sunny afternoon, in this case outside NACC member Mike Gott's house.  The deal was typical of many such between acquaintances and riding companions in the club.  The price was reduced from that advertised in the magazine and all sides recognised that while the machine was not 'a little gleamer' it was not so far off being 'a little runner'.  Mike was passing it on having obtained it from another mutual friend who had also acted as custodian.  Nobody in the recent past had ridden it but everyone could see that with a little money spending and a few days spanner work it had reasonable prospects.  Everybody, of course, had too many other bikes requiring similar amounts of money and similar amounts of time to have actually started on this one.  Mike even offered to do some of the painting for us.  We quickly established the inevitable fact that I was going to buy it.

The plan was for my son Robert to ride this Puch Grand Prix when he was sixteen in a year's time.  To check its potential we decided to get it running before we stripped it down to re-paint it.  As predicted, a little welding, some fettling from my collection of old Puch parts, a Honda air filter and a new chain and we had a runner.  Our local MoT bloke is excellent.  If he finds anything that concerns him he simply sends you away to get it fixed.  I never argue.  If Mark says it won't do; it won't do.  He OK'd the Puch, however, after a thorough examination, without finding anything and I duly rode it home. 

The Puch mopeds with the inclined cylinder and geared engine are excellent.  Developed from the fan-cooled mopeds which were first imported in large numbers after 1968 (my Haynes manual says), the sportier versions, the bright yellow VZ50s and the later Grand Prix models, combined reasonable reliability with, what was for the time, good performance. Although not as fast as the Yamaha Fizzies, which were reliable if they were not abused (which almost all of them were), they were more robust than the Italian offerings such as the Garelli which were notoriously fragile.  The Puch engine was good for 5bhp, which among NACC bikes puts them in the super sports class.  A four-speed foot-change gearbox makes them proper miniature motor cycles.  After 1972, 16 year-old learners in Britain were restricted to mopeds that had to be of 50cc and have pedals.  The result was a range of small motorcycles with ridiculously complicated arrangements to turn pedals (which had to be able to move the moped along without the aid of the engine) into footrests.  On the Puch a pedal axle is mounted through the frame above and behind the engine casing.  The pedal crank on the left hand has a swivel mechanism to allow it to be dropped into the same lowered position as that on the right, thus forming footrests.  There is a large gear-wheel on the right with a hole in to allow a plunger to lock the pedal in the down position.  This drives a small cog on the kick starter shaft.  When a button in the clutch cover is pulled outwards the whole caboodle can be, very slowly, pedalled by an extremely strong individual for about 50 yards.  After August 1977 all this changed when a moped in Britain became a 50cc motor cycle with a top speed restricted to 30mph and the requirement for pedals disappeared.  Although the last of these models are only just coming into NACC eligibility they are well worth preserving as the ultimate pedalled (and thus NACC type) mopeds.  They also have a little place in the history of youth culture because they enjoyed a kudos on the street which disappeared for twenty years or so until the latest generation of automatic scooters once again made the moped fashionable among the young.  If you were 16 between 1972 and 1977 none of this will be news to you.  In the early 1980s when I was teaching in a rural area lads were still searching out clapped out 'full-power' mopeds like the Grand Prix.  This could be the reason so few appear to have survived.  Our model has 75,000 miles on the clock!   

By the time the Puch returned from the MoT it had already been established that Robbie wanted to be part of this generation's youth culture rather than that of a quarter of a century ago.  He was having a scooter.  I couldn't pass the Puch on again without having a go, so for the 2000 season the bike was all mine...  Impressed by its oomph, I rapidly realised that it was trying to kill me.

Once over about 25mph the bike gave the impression that it was tired and wanted to lie down, first to the left and then, after you had hauled it back upright, to the right.  The impression increased with speed and with a passenger, it felt even worse.  The most worrying sensation, however, occurred on a long corner when, half way round, it would appear to decide that it needed to lean over further and with a gentle, but nevertheless heart stopping motion, it would take a little bow at the nearest telephone pole or lamp post.  You know how the dark fears haunt you.  "I have spent 3 times 16 summers here and I am simply too decrepit to handle one of these little sixteener bikes anymore."  Pride perhaps or stupidity kept me riding it although I refused to allow my motor cycling 'family', Robbie included, to have a go until I had discovered what was awry.  The bike has conventional forks, which appeared to slide up and down quite easily.  Everything was tight...  The suggestions started flooding in: was the front tyre too hard?  Worn triangular?  Were the steering head bearings too tight?  Were the rear swinging arm bushes shot?  Had I looked at trueness of the wheel?  Each suggestion was checked.  Not a single one proved useful.  At the BTSC's Chiltern Run I handed El Vamp Moto over to the hardy and experienced Dave Brain.  Dave rides a chopped Jawa so he really should be ready for anything.  He came back after ten minutes declaring the Puch the most horrible thing on two wheels that he had ever ridden.  When I went off to London the next day my BTSC comrades left the bike wrapped in blue and yellow police tape of the type used to mark off murder sites.  It wasn't quite a stake through the heart but the Puch and I both got the message.  BTSC wiseacres, after much poking and peering at the bike's front end, had eventually decided that the inside fork leg was very slightly kinked just under the lower fork yoke.

At the end of the season, after I had ridden about 450 miles in this worrying manner, I decided to strip the forks.  It quickly became apparent that neither of the fork legs was bent.  Should I continue to poke about or was the machine haunted by some ghostly ex-rider who had met an untimely end in the grim mists that wreath autumnal Lincolnshire?  Well no, actually.  Some ham-fisted amateur who probably ought to meet an untimely end in the grim mists of a motor cycle maintenance evening course had whacked the ends of fork tubes and distorted the tapers so that they no longer fitted into the top yokes.  Ergo the bike was 'safe' in that the top nuts were holding the legs into the correct holes but as speed increased the fork legs were 'walking', only by a millimetre or so, but nonetheless moving the spindle slightly to the left and then slightly to the right.  This, of course, transferred to the rider the sensation that the bike was attempting to lie down, first to one side and then to the other.  A few minutes with a file and the Puch was exorcised.  It could once again face daylight with equanimity, hear a cock-crow with impunity and was no more likely to drink a virgin's blood than the rest of us (and we only do that on Friday nights here in Rotherham).  A new year's MoT and I was able to do my no hands impersonation of Jack Nicholson in the "Do you want to be a bird?" sequence of "Easy Rider", the rider training video (which you could, of course, only get to see at a cinema at that time) for all of us who were 16 in 1969.  And that brings us back to where we started, doesn't it?

First published, December 2001

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