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By Bond to the Rando Cyclo

by Barbara Smith's chauffeur

As Shakespeare says of death, there are many doors into Bonding.  Ours open and close at the Sars Poteries Rando Cyclo moped rally near Avesne-sur-Helpe in the Nord Département.  I went on my own in 2003 and while I was away my wife and Mrs S decided to go for a scooter ride out to a garden centre.  One of those silly mischances occurred and by the time I came back two days later Mrs S was lying in Barnsley Hospital with a broken arm and a broken leg.

By September she was back on her feet.  Unsurprisingly her family were not keen that she should take up two wheels again and she was miserable that she would no longer be able to come with us.  Then I saw the advert for MKH 651A in Old Bike Mart and suggested that, if she were really serious about continuing, I would go halves with her.  We tentatively christened the car Annie Dyson after Barbara's Mother and Grandmother.  It was a special birthday for Mrs S in 2004, less than a fortnight before the Sars Poteries event, and it seemed natural to suggest that we would take our 1963 Bond Mark G saloon to it.

There were several times in the following months when I wished I hadn't.  MKH 651A was taxed and MoT'd but had been largely towed to shows and paraded around grass arenas.  I have heard Mark G brakes described as "very good" but the brakes on MKH were nothing less than frightening.  The first job therefore was to replace the front wheel cylinder and have the master and slave cylinders reconditioned.  Then we discovered play in the front swinging arm - a lot of play.  The sintered metal bush had cracked and all its metal rim had disappeared so that the arm could move back and forth more than a quarter of an inch.  New plastic bushes cured that.  The rear chassis cross member was made out of paper, rusty paper, and that had to go too.

Then we tackled the most obvious of the rattles.  I put little bushes cut from quarter inch inner diameter stainless steel tube in all the eyes of the gear change and used tap washers on the joint at the bottom of the lever that goes through the steering head.  I sound-proofed the area around the petrol tank and cut a new rubber surround for where it goes through the bulkhead.  It's like working on the Forth Bridge.  You start at one end and work to the other.  Take it for a test drive and then start again.  I maintain, however, that MKH, after uncountable weekends and evenings is marginally quieter.

None of this dealt with the major difficulty we faced in doing a long journey in the car.  There was absolutely no charge coming out of the Dynastart system.  I verified this by removing the battery lead once the car was running at a fast tick over.  The Bond hints suggest that the car should not only continue running but also power various ancillaries lights, wipers etc - without assistance from the battery.  MKH died immediately.  Months before we were due to set off I attempted to remove the Dynastart flywheel.  I ordered the correct puller from the spares scheme and it wouldn't fit.  I ordered another from Villiers Spares.  That too wouldn't fit.  Eventually it was plausibly suggested that since the Dynastart system was used on some continental vehicles, the puller for these flywheel rotors had probably been metric.  No one seemed to know where you could get one of those from, however.

Time was moving fast.  We planned to buy a second battery in the hope of getting to France.  Our 'box of bits', which came with the car, included a control box that looked to be pretty new so, as a last resort, we changed that for the one already on.  When we started the car again the red light went off, the needle moved up the ammeter - we were in business!  Then there was the MoT which ran out just weeks before we were due to leave.  MKH failed, of course, on the offside rear trailing arm bushes (which the tester incorrectly diagnosed as the wheel bearings) and on unequal brake pressure on the two rear wheels.  I changed the wheel-bearings, realised the mistake and packed the play in the swinging arm bush with a good squirt from the grease gun (just round the corner from the MoT station).  I also tightened up the brake operating arms.  The MoT tester either didn't notice that the new rear wheel bearings hadn't made any difference or was too embarrassed to say anything.  "I took up a whole lot more slack in those brake rods", he announced, proudly.

David MacNeice is well known in Bond circles and we had been put in touch with him.  He offered to come round in his Mark G Tourer and take a look at our Bond.  I asked him to drive it and tell us what he thought.  "It doesn't pull as well as mine," he pronounced, "are you sure the brakes aren't binding?"  "Do you think we'll be all right taking it to France", I asked.  "Oh yes, no problem," he said immediately, "once you get them set up right, they'll run for miles."

On the Friday of our departure we had to work the morning but be in Hull, 60 miles away, by 5:30pm.  We had arranged to go to work in the Bond and leave at 2:00pm to give ourselves time for any adjustments en route.  From the first, it didn't look good.  When we got to the slope down into the college car park we realised that the car was not running freely at all.  The brake drums were hot and smelt awful.  Our friendly MoT tester had arranged the brakes so that they were on all the time.  I ran into see my boss and she let me take the Bond home to fettle it while Barbara taught our class.  By midday I felt I had got the brakes adjusted correctly and drove back in.  As I walked down to the car at 2:00pm, my boss stopped me to tell me that a lot of people had been admiring the car.  "It's a horrible thing," I said vehemently.  Three quarters of an hour later we were still in Doncaster less than 12 miles away.  This was no fault of the car, however.  Friday traffic was heavy and when we reached Thorne a few minutes later we began to pick up time.

The Bond is a musical instrument within a discordant scale.  Accelerating (and I know that is a relative term) through the gears one finds periods of rasp, times of hum and a ricochet of rattles.  Into fourth and things smooth a little but under 30 miles an hour there is lot of drumming and the gear stick oscillates in its housing to produce a fearful tempo.  At 32 miles an hour all this smoothes out (again a relative term) and between that and about 38 or 39 miles an hour, depending upon gradient, wind direction, position of the moon and whether there's an "r" in the month the car achieves a momentary auditory equilibrium.  Push the car to 40 and above and a sense of strain returns with deeper sensory grumbles and a kind of mechanical heavy breathing.

By the time we could see the Humber Bridge as we bumbled along at a steady 35 miles an hour along the south shore of the estuary we were feeling pretty good.  Crossing the bridge is always an (expensive) thrill.  Mixing it with the traffic that had come off the M62 made us forget all our new-found mechanical sympathies and push the old tub up to 45.  By 4:30pm, however, we were into the dock waiting area and ready to embark.

The crossing was excellent and relaxing.  It must have been the old Bond's first journey abroad but it experienced no qualms and within a few minutes we were off the quay at Zeebrugge and bowling along a Belgian boulevard.  We had devised a route, which avoided the major roads but still had to negotiate the Brngge ring road.  I was dreading that section having visited the city last year on the family holiday.  There were a couple of involuntary detours.  One before we left the dock gates and another when the quiet suburban route into Brugge proved accessible only by turning on to it in the wrong direction and then using the Bond's wonderful steering lock to turn around in the road and go back on ourselves.  Within half an hour we were desperately trying to find our way through Brugge.  We drove up a bridge as the road swung eastwards and burburburburrrrrrburbu - the engine stopped.  Luckily we were by some road works.  I steered between the cones into the empty working area (it was Saturday morning) and put on the handbrake.  "That sounded like we ran out of petrol," said Barbara with all the confidence of the ignorant and dim-witted.  I gave her a withering 'stick to what you know, girl' look and undid the bonnet.  It was true that the fuel filter glass looked dry.  It was also true that when I pressed the tickler no fuel came through.  I tapped the carburettor bowl in case the float had jammed.  I took the spark plug out and checked it; clean as a whistle.  I put the spark plug against the head and kicked it over.  Good fat spark.  "Looks like we ran out of petrol", I said nonchalantly.  I had not been sure which way was reserve on the fuel tap lever.  Now I was sure.  It had been on reserve the whole time.  We really were without any fuel.  By good fortune, the messing about allowed a tiny drop more mixture into the carburettor and with a few good kicks I managed to restart the engine.  We took the next right turn and our luck held.  There was a garage that I recognised from last year and it was open.  Better still, once we had filled up, this same turn proved to be the one we were looking for to start out on the road to Kortrijke.

South of Brugge the land was flat but not uninteresting.  Hedgerows, trees and houses chequered the lush grassland.  The sun was shining.  The road was flat and it should have been ideal Bonding country.  Unfortunately it was a concrete road with joints every 10 metres.  The weight over the front wheel ensured that the front suspension rode the bump well but the lightness of the rear end caused the back of the car to lift and then crash onto the next bump.  The tools added a touch of cymbals to the beat.  Happily after a while the road had been asphalted.  Once again cruising at 35mph or 56km/h, which sounds faster, we began to relax and enjoy the drive.

The N50 runs from Brugge to Tournai, almost straight (on the map) and directly north - south.  It was the ideal route for us.  The only drawback when you avoid the motorways and by-passes is that even roads which go straight through a town tend to get themselves lost in inner ring roads, one-way systems and the like.  At Kortrijke or Coutrai we took a cup of coffee outside a roadside bar before getting lost.  That steering lock came in handy again.  After a decent interval we re-found the N50 and were bowling along southwards once more.  Time was not a problem but we found ourselves lost in Tournai well in advance of lunchtime.  A well-presented lady of mature years decided to examine the car at one crossroads, from the centre of the bonnet.  The little lurch that MKH gave as I tried to get her into neutral startled the elegant Belgian out of her reverie and she gave a dignified nod before she scuttled out of harm's way.  At the next roundabout, working on the premise that the least likely turning off the roundabout was probably the correct route, we picked up the N507 to Valenciennes.  It was a great feeling as we left the blue road signs of Belgium and entered France.

On the map Valenciennes looked to be dominated by motorways so we turned off the N507 shortly after crossing the border to head into St Amand les Eaux.  St Amand turned out to be a good choice for lunch.  The baths there still exist and are open to tourists but visually the town is dominated by a huge tower carved in a soft stone that has weathered to an almost natural look of splendid decay.  The facade was under restoration and scaffolding as we arrived and the town was en fête.  The bar and the food proved good and after a while the sympathetic vibration in our heads and backsides died down enough for us to soak up the local atmosphere.  A French couple stopped to have a look at the Bond and we exchanged what information we could.  The Frenchman lovingly produced from his wallet, not a picture of his grandchildren, but a snap of the pre-war motor cycle that he owned and had restored.

The last 25 miles or so began on the D955 and went through Douchy les Mines before cutting a corner around Solesme to join the Le Quesnoy road.  These smaller roads with their swooping corners and hills were fun.  The road surface deteriorated, however, as we took the small communal by-way into Salesche, which was rutted like the cart track it no doubt used to be.  Our gîte was one of a number on a courtyard farm.  Apart from the occasional scream from the peacocks it was uncannily quiet and wonderfully atmospheric.  We arrived at 4:15pm, just 15 minutes after the gîte was open for our use.  We had covered something over 100 miles by Bond that day.

The Bond had developed quite a lot of play in the steering head on the journey and the farm did not have a lowered kerb on its driveway.  Concerned that we might damage it, we left it in the farm's car park.  No other problems were evident when I inspected it.  After a week at the gîte the Bond, followed by Barbara's son in his car, drove through the forest roads to Maroilles and then on the switch back route to Avesne-sur-Helpe.  The campsite at Felleries was reached without incident.

For the Rando Cyclo itself we let the racing section of sports mopeds that create mayhem in the first few miles by weaving in and out of the tightly packed throng buzzing like enraged gnats, get on with it while we made a leisurely start.  In the Bond we were having quite enough to think about staying sunny side up on the single-track, adverse-cambered, potholed tracks which seem to form the Commune's store of metalled way.  Quite a lot of the time we were driving a three-wheeled motor mower kicking up clouds of dust from the central grass strip.  By the time we got back you could hardly see through the grimed back window.  It was nice, we commented, to be actually able to go slightly faster than the stream of traffic, an unusual experience in the Bond.  The drink stop was in a small town that was holding a custom car exhibition.  Exuberant French youths were blasting Papa's Euros in to the foetid atmosphere by revving tuned engines until they almost burst.  We left the car with its bonnet up just to show the French what a real engine looked like.  At one point a fellow English visitor pushed through the throng of mopedists, "I've just seen eight French bottoms sticking out of the front of your car", he said.

The Bond Mark G at Sars Poteries
Annie Dyson stands in the square at Sars Poteries

Back at the hall we drank some more and partook of 'glazed tart', which annually causes much giggling amongst the, largely male, British contingent.  Then it was the prizes!  No one understands the scoring system but if you fall off, you get a prize, if you breakdown, you get a prize, if you ... well do almost anything that gets noticed by the judges you get a prize.  We got a prize, probably for not being a moped on a moped rally, a prize for bare-faced cheek.  I sent Mrs S to collect it, not being much of a prize man.  We drifted out into the warm evening sun, everyone elated to have done the Randonée again and sad that it was already over for another year.

The next morning we packed and headed for Le Quesnoy.  We were unsure how much petrol was in the Bond but the petrol stations in the town were automatic and British bankers' cards wouldn't work.  It was a case of waiting until the next morning when the pay kiosk opened or pushing on to our 7:00pm ferry.  We chose the latter.  We headed for Valenciennes and found that it is true that it is surrounded by motorways.  We very nearly ended up on one.  We found petrol and headed northwards without further ado.  We got lost in the same towns on the way back as we had got lost in on the way there, but it wouldn't be a holiday without that.  We made such good time that we were able to stop and take a coffee in Brugge.  By 6:00pm we were safely on board the ferry for Hull.

Back in Blighty, Tuesday morning was a rush.  The ship docked just after 8:00am and Mrs S was supposed to be in work by eleven.  Unloading seemed to take longer than in Belgium and then we were short of petrol again.  We dared not cross the Humber Bridge without a tank full and wasted time searching around Hessle.  The feeling of having been to Sars Poteries and back in the Bond buoyed us up until we arrived at Scunthorpe.  On the ring road a white van went surging up the hill on the other carriageway and there was a tremendous "C-r-a-c-k!" - White out!  A stone presumably thrown off the van's rear wheel had crazed the windscreen from one end to the other.  We braked sharply completely blind as to where we were on the road.

It took us well over half an hour to clear up the mess so that we could drive.  You usually have to slow down when you break a toughened screen but 35 miles an hour is 35 miles an hour, with or without a windscreen.  We were back in work for 12 midday, the adventure over.  Our local acquaintance and long-time Bond owner, David MacNeice, came up trumps with the windscreen.  Not only did he have one spare, which he sold to us, but he also helped us to fit it.  He admitted afterwards that he was amazed to hear that we had arrived back under our own motive power.  "I said you'd be all right," he confided, "because I didn't want to discourage you, but I was thinking: They must be bloody mad."

It is difficult to describe why but there was something quite so magical about going abroad in the Bond.  You can sensibly ask: "Why risk spoiling your holiday by breaking down?"  All I can say is that the trip left an urge to go further and that Annie Dyson II, a more powerful three-wheeler, held in even less esteem by the general public than the neglected Bond Minicar, awaits collection even as I write...

The text of this article was first published in the May/June 2005 edition of 'The Independent', the magazine of the British Two Stroke Club.

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