Biking back in Thatcher’s Britain
Motorcycles are much more than a form of transport. The older I get, the more they become time machines. As an example, Honda’s humble MBX50 can instantly take me back to the summer of 1986. This was the year I left school, which wasn’t the exciting prospect I’d hoped it might be. Jobs were hard to find, and from what I picked up from the News at 10, the economy was a bit gloomy. The thought of doing sixth form didn’t appeal, and having been force fed careers advice from everyone from the Police to the Army, I was probably more confused than if they’d just left me alone.
For some reason, I’ve never really grasped fashion. I had a mullet-type haircut, and when friends would rush to designer labels and expensive track suits, I’d be happy in my faithful oxblood Doc Martens and knock-off jeans bought from a friend of a friend. Proving my lack of style was my donkey jacket for when it was cold. With the miners’ strike not long other; my mates either nicknamed me scab or Stan Ogden. Hitting 16 though makes one focus. Leaving school was just one of my concerns; the other was getting a moped.
I was encouraged to get a moped by a family of bike riders that even included my mum and her Honda Express. It meant bikes were to be embraced not feared and my dad threw down the gauntlet. He’d offered to match me pound for pound, if I saved up some money towards getting on the road.
Like anything starting is the hardest part, but once I’d conditioned myself to save my pocket money I couldn’t be stopped. Every week a few more pound notes were stashed away, and come judgment day I’d saved up almost 200 quid, including Christmas money and all ill-gotten gains. The object of my desire was a sporty little number, Kawasaki’s AR50. I studied its details every night before hitting the pillow, not normal for every 15-year-old school boy. I know I should have been quietly watching my portable late at night and having illicit thoughts about what was on, but I hated snooker.
The bike park at school always had several mopeds tucked away in it. When I say a bike park it was a car park space, between Mr Lucas the history teachers Volvo 740 in a shade of blue usually saved for murderers bathroom suites, and Mr Savage’s Talbot Horizon. The space was owned by Mr Glanfield who had a few different bikes, but avoided being cool by making sure they were all BMWs. Surrounding his boxer twins were mopeds that at best probably inspired the creation of Scrapheap Challenge years later.
Suzuki TS50ERs were always popular, and so were FS1E’s. The little Yamaha looked so out of date though, spindly frames, skinny wheels and an engine that didn’t even look like an engine. How I longed to see my bike there, the bike I hadn’t even got.
My dreams of AR50 ownership died before they were born when my eldest brother found me a Honda MBX50, he even said he’d fix it for me! An insurance write off it was, bent forks and a few battle scars, nothing too bad, but it’s a good job I’m not superstitious. The bike was repaired and locked away until I was legally of age. This was just a few weeks away but felt like a lifetime as I crossed days off on my calendar. Finally on the stroke of midnight, April 23rd finally became the 24th, and I was legit.
I headed out on to the back street of Dagenham with the most over polished fuel tank of any moped ever. The cutting edge clocks on the MBX, which even included a rev counter, were informing me I was doing a tad over 30mph – no matter what I tried to get more out of it.
The MBX was a slug. Being 1986, 24 hour capitalism hadn’t even been invented, these were the days when supermarkets shut at 5pm and police stations were open 24 hours, how time changes things. After a few circuits of the neighbourhood I realised nobody was out, and nothing was open, and 10 minutes later I was back home and warming my gloveless hands up on the fire.
Back at school we were into exam season, and that period where you spent more time at home than at school – perfect! The MBX50 and I began to clock up miles going nowhere fast. Within a month I was in the need for speed.
I found an advert in a copy of PB which promised MPH illegal on my moped license, but still a 65cc big bore conversion loomed as I did my last day at school and planned 6 weeks holiday. While my bike lacked a barrel and TTS took an age getting it back to me, I’d transformed from school boy to potential unemployment statistic joining 3 million others. I still don’t know why the Redmond family referred to the social as the ‘bun house’ – I had visions of people lining up for hot cakes?
But things looked up when my new 65cc top end came back and got refitted with the help of my brother. An inch or two was cut from my baffle and I had the running-in period to look forward to. But suddenly my 6 weeks of carefree riding was snatched away after a career office appointment arranged by my mum. In a building modeled on an East German hospital, I was signed onto a YTS scheme with a 40-hour week for £27, including a day at college where I’d be taught to use a computer. I never thought they’d catch on!
So, the following Monday at 8am, I was in the real world. The MBX50 was my transport not only on the road but also between those life changing moments from schoolboy to employment.
I kept that bike until I was 17. The 65cc kit like the YTS scheme was pointless. I accepted the odd indication of nigh on 40 mph downhill but never accepted the Youth Training Scheme. It did however spur me to get a proper job, with proper wages and luncheon vouchers. By the time I’d hit 17 I’d learned lots. Don’t wish your life away was one of them, and cutting down a baffle don’t half give you a headache.