Wheels on Fire (1964)

(From ‘An Estate Boy’, boy growing up on a council housing estate in the 1950s and 60s)
At sixteen I craved a motor cycle. My mother saw them as death traps associated with undesirable low life, which she summed up as greasy, long haired riff raff. For her, the leather jacket was a symbol of delinquency. She wanted to protect me from this. To protect me, as all mothers do with their children. The protectionism held out for quite a while but eventually after I’d saved enough from a part time job filling shelves at the food market, she caved in. I was allowed to buy a secondhand BSA Bantam. As the top speed was only about 30 mph when new, the only death likely to result from riding it was shame as rockers whistled past on their 650s.

Still, it was a start.

The bike was a lemon. A bitter one at that. After polishing the tank and mudguards with furniture polish, it kick started and I attempted riding it up and down the garden path. It would tick over but as soon as given throttle it stalled. I did all the usual things like changing the spark plug to no avail. Surprisingly, my mother offered to ask Billy Smith next door to see if he could fix it. She went round and knocked on their back door. Billy was always working on motor cycles and seemed to be permanently covered in oil and striking things incessantly with a large hammer. He wore his black hair slicked back and he had the habit of flattening it with his hand which added to the impression of oiliness and matched perfectly mother’s stereotype. The pair spoke quietly so I couldn’t hear. Billy glanced in my direction and nodded. He came round with an adjustable spanner, screw driver and that large hammer. I watched as he poked and banged around, shaking his head. Finally he slicked back that hair.

Sorry Patrick, this one’s got me beat.

Mum came out with a cup of tea.

Thanks for looking anyway, Billy.

Dad took the lemon back for a refund the next day. He got most of the money back but not all. The guy said he would not refund full price the bike was non-runner and he needed some compensation for time wasting. My dad was not pushy so he cut my losses. With it went my dreams of Colleen, a girl I fancied, riding pillion as we cruised into the country for a picnic, her arms tightly around my waist. It was a ridiculous dream anyway. Colleen wouldn’t sit on anything smaller than 650.

Besides, the Bantam was a single seater. Later I realised I had been the victim of a conspiracy.

My friend Binny who lived at the top of our street invited me round his house to cheer me up. He had a couple of Buddy Holly records he wanted me to hear. I’d never been round his house before. It was a dump, but in the lounge he had a speaker the size of a wardrobe, a record deck and a large amplifier, which consisted of an aluminium chassis, a row of faintly glowing valves, beautiful copper coils and lines of resistors. He put on Peggy Sue and I could hear it mainly in my chest which was vibrating along with everything else in the room. He turned it down.

Sound’s not quite right, he said picking up a long screwdriver, needs a little trim. Best do it while the system’s hot.

I was impressed that Binny seemed classically trained in the art of tinkering with electronics.

Hot? I asked.

Live, the reply.

But…….

And before I could complete the sentence, which would have said isn’t that a bit dangerous, there was a blinding flash, bang and the screwdriver hit the ceiling. Binny fell back against the wall. The set up which hitherto was giving an acceptable rendition of pretty, pretty, pretty, Peggy Sue now garbled in a fashion that sounded like broad Dalek. Binny was white faced and wide eyed. He pulled the plug on the amp and put his record away.

Best we scarper before my brother gets back, he’s just spent three months building the thing. Fancy a burn up?

You bet I did. Binny’s bike was a Triumph Bonneville, he’d only had it a couple of weeks. Binny himself was quite a diminutive lad, so short his feet could barely touch the floor from the bike seat. With drop bars fitted, he would lay flat on the tank and it almost seemed no one was driving it. He donned his leather jacket, crash helmet and goggles.

What about me? I asked

You’ll be ok this time, just tuck your shirt in.

The bike roared into life and I climbed nervously onto the pillion seat. It was surprisingly comfortable as we tootled around the estate roads, and I felt a sense of pride as the kids watched us pass. Between gear changes he would flick the throttle and the roar of the twin cylinders sent shivers through my groin. I could understand why Colleen liked the big bikes.

Once on the open road Binny opened the throttle and went through the gears in seconds. With that devastating acceleration the whole complexion of motor cycling changed for me. Sitting upright, with Binny laying flat in front of me, I was catching the full force of the passing air. My shirt flapped so much it stung and I clung on to the back of the seat for dear life. In those few minutes I promised god if he spared me, I would never masturbate again. We soon ran out of road and he braked so hard I thought I would leapfrog him.

Hundred and five he pronounced with obvious pride. How about another?

He must have seen my frozen expression.

OK, we’ll just poodle back then.

And so I was completely cured of the lust for motor cycling.

Two weeks later I amended my godly promise to include the caveat ‘on Sundays’. I still doodled pictures of super bikes in the margins of my schoolbooks, but a year on these were replaced by the repeated initials of a girl I had met and fallen in love with. I had learned that reality does not always turn out to be as you might imagine.

Footnotes

Wheels on fire by Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity, was released in 1968 and later with Adrian Edmondson used as the theme music for Absolutely Fabulous.

Peggy Sue by Buddy Holly and the Crickets was released in 1957. Along with Eddy Cochran’s Summertime Blues, these records could be frequently heard booming out from juke boxes in coffee bars frequented by bikers (rockers). Buddy Holly sadly died in a plane crash in 1959. He would have gone on to be an icon of the rock era.

The 1960s was a proud era of the British motorcycle industry, with some of two of the fastest production bikes on the market. They were the Triumph Bonneville and BSA Lightning, both capable of speeds in excess of 100 mph. Not much could touch them. Not for me however.

Crash helmets became compulsory in 1973. Surprisingly, there was some resistance getting the law passed by parliament as it was seen as an infringement of individuals rights.

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