A submarining Commando, somewhere under the English Channel…

What can you learn from taking your father’s 1972 Norton Commando on a summer Grand Tour?  That is, 800 miles with little preparation, on the bike your father bought new, never restored or even had the crankcases apart? As I discovered last month on a journey-cut-short to the South of France, the answer is ‘quite a lot’.

I never really ‘got’ the Commando when I was young: the Featherbed models hold all the mystique, being the basis for the all-conquering Manx, with the many great riders who chose it as their steed. As I grew up, so did my tastes, and I started to understand the beauty of the Commando…especially the gently modified example residing in the family garage. With the chipped original paint, the original tank (scratched, and missing most of the Norton decals), the S-type seat fitted soon after purchase when the standard Roadster item failed (but which is now looking quite the worse for wear with a split and rogue piping), the shortened Vincent bars which my father fitted along the way, the Barleycorn rearsets that arrived recently (already with scars from a drop), and the John Tickle headlamp brackets with pin holes in the chrome… it was nearly the perfect road machine, in my eyes. Maybe romanticism, but it really spoke to me.

Who would leave sunny skies for certain rain?

I’ve already written about how much I loved my first ride on the machine, and I was determined to further the experience with a Summer Grand Tour, eschewing the easy option of my modern BMW. Before I left, with 150 miles of test-riding and a new tire, I felt confident enough to make the most difficult step of my journey: pushing the Norton out of the garage and riding it down the road. Lao Tzu really knew what he was talking about with “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

So off I went, blazing into the warm night to catch the 1am Eurotunnel, chest on the tank, stopping near Brands Hatch for fuel, keeping an eye on the tacho needle, keeping it hovering at 4K, digging the warm glow from the instruments and reflected light on the front mudguard (and how warm is that filament light, versus the modern halogens of passing cars).  Once on the train, I managed a quick doze under the bike, with no oil loss ruining my helmet hair, the heat from the engine keeping me cosy, and then it was chest on the tank again, through the cold and rain of Northern France. At my breakfast stop, a gentleman confronted me: “Is that your Norton outside?” On admitting that it was, he sat for half an hour discussing the virtues of British machines, owning a Velocette Venom himself. It always astounds me how classic machine ownership gives admission to the friendliest club in the world.

When France turns sunny…

As the sun broke through the clouds and chased me from Rouen to Le Mans, a Mercedes estate pulled up alongside at 100kph, the father pointing and smiling with the children in the back waving and taking photos. It really brings comfort to my soul that the beauty of a motorcycle transcends generations.

But all good things must come to an end, and I soon learned the truth in the adage Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. At the péage north of Tours my ticket would not go into the machine and blew out on to the ground.  As I bent down to pick it up, I noticed the primary chaincase was covered in oil; the bike was not feeling good. I had felt a loss of compression when I pulled away from the previous aire, but, resolving that I could do nothing about it, tried to press on, planning to do a repair when I arrived in Biarritz.

The very Biarritz which drew Nicolas southward…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. On reflection, I should have got off the autoroute and called for recovery as soon as the engine started to turn sour. In the end, I limped the Commando to the next junction – possibly the most nerve wracking 8km of my life – with the engine sounding very sad and losing power all the time. I phoned my insurers, slept in a field under the sun for 2 hours and woke to a very agreeable chap in an ancient Renault Nevada with a trailer on the back who towed my bike to his garage. All fairly straightforward; my flight home was booked by my insurers the next day and the Norton should be back home later this week.

So in a roundabout way I’ve got to my point: what did I learn? Firstly, the more you use older machines, the more you learn about them and the more issues you iron out. Your conversation with the machine develops and you begin to understand what’s going on beneath you, when something is going wrong, and fix it before disaster strikes. This winter, I’ll rebuild the engine to a better standard than ever departed Woolwich. Then, with confidence in all major components, and preserving the patina on the machine, I should, finally, really, have my perfect road machine.

Don't worry young Nick; they did this when new, too…

Secondly, the adventure really does start with the first step. Having a pipe dream for THE epic trip with spreadsheets, costings and route plans is all well and good, but actions speak louder than words: actually getting on the road may be the hardest part, but it is also the most liberating. Although my trip was a failure in some ways, I also had a wonderful adventure with some great stories to tell; I felt mentally and physically tested…something not true of sitting at a desk. If more riders realized insurance breakdown cover provides a safety net, maybe more would make the leap from dreaming, to tires on tarmac.

- Nicholas Biebuyck

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The idea of owning something extraordinary in the field of two-wheeled transport had long been nagging. From the deeper and dustier recesses of my brain, memories a strange device haunted me. As a small boy, one of my favourite excursions was to the intriguing motorcycle collection ofMr Spearman, toy shop proprietor and sometime garagiste in Bishop’s Stortford.  Amongst the many treasures within said garage lurked a Ner-A-Car. In its heyday, the Ner-A-Car was one of several strange two-wheelers produced commercially as an answer to the believed desire for a ‘civilised motorcycle’, and it must rank as one of the strangest.

Specifications are remarkably futuristic – no frame, merely a pressed steel chassis, bulbous front mudguard, hub-centre steering and friction drive, oh, and two individually operated drum brakes on the rear wheel only. It worked! -  provided you weren’t a speed demon or didn’t mind young lads laughing as they whizzed past on their pushbikes.

Whilst being wheeled around, it feels like a jelly with a hinge in the middle, but once ridden it all comes together as one of the most stable and beautifully handling machines I’ve ever ridden. Carl Neracher designed and built these motorcycles in Syracuse, New York, and licensed Messrs. Sheffield Simplex of Kingston-on-Thames to manufacture them in the U.K. Mine is one of the latter and of 1922 vintage. I was tipped off as to its whereabouts (an old fish packing shed in Essex) by a fellow enthusiast.

When I bought it the owner generously gave me the rare square format handbook too – full of useful hints and tips – quite necessary when a good decoke, amongst other vital maintenance, was recommended every 300 miles or so. Advertised widely, Ner-A-Cars found favour with district nurses and the clergy, probably due not only to the cassock-protection they offered from road filth, but also to their parsimonious running costs. One unlikely but satisfied owner was the celebrated crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers. My machine, when purchased, had somewhere lost its friction drive and two-stroke engine to a side-valve motor and conventional gearbox; for me it also lost much of its individuality.

 The Ner-A-Car in its purest form is what I now have – dual acetylene and electric lighting, underpowered and friction-driven, the thing is a hoot! I have no desire to restore or even clean it. It faithfully passes an MOT examination every year and runs at breathtaking speeds of some 30mph on its beaded edge tyres.

- Jon Dudley

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What, one may ask, is Oily Rag? To us, Oily Rag means the gentle art of leaving well alone. Whatever it may be – a bike, a car, a house, a painting, a piece of furniture or clothing – it is only original once. To restore it, no matter how skilfully or accurately, is in our view to destroy the evidence of use that is a major part of the appeal of an antique or vintage object, as opposed to even a careful reproduction.

Of course, there are instances where an element of replacement is inevitable. An antique table may have lost a leg. A priceless Old Master painting may have been damaged or inexpertly restored in the past [or have a hole knocked by a billionaire’s elbow – Ed.]. A period house, perhaps hundreds of years old, may have been superficially ‘modernised’. An old car or motorcycle may have had inappropriate new components substituted for old. But does this mean full blown restoration is the only solution?

No. Our mission here at Oily Rag is to promulgate the opposite view, even to the extent of encouraging de-storation rather than restoration. In the UK in the 19th century, the ‘restoration’ of ancient buildings, particularly churches, had become a mania. To many architects of that time, the term meant destroying the original structure and rebuilding it in a style more ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ in the light of contemporary theory. That academic evidence would no doubt have mystified its original builders, who may well have been simple, uneducated local tradesmen whose only training had consisted of apprenticeships served decades beforehand in the time honoured methods of their forebears.

The 'smoking room'...although with no electricity, both the lights and the heating 'smoked'...

Very often it is these long forgotten misunderstandings, the makeshift solutions, the crudities even, that make an old object unique and give it a charm no textbook replica can possess. William Morris (1834-1896), the great Arts and Crafts theorist and practitioner, argued passionately for repair rather than restoration. His belief was that any new work necessary to ensure the survival of an old building should be left looking new, rather than artificially patinated. His philosophy survives today in the manifesto of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings – a UK organisation which he founded and which is still consulted on such matters.

We wouldn’t go quite that far. At the risk of upsetting devotees of Mr Morris, if an otherwise untouched old vehicle came into our possession that had been marred by the inappropriate replacement of a worn seat cushion or a crumpled fender, we wouldn’t hesitate to seek out sufficient well-worn leather to make good the deficiency, or to match the old paint on the rest of the bodywork. In both cases we would even patinate it artificially, rather than leave these alterations to spoil the effect of a venerable artefact that had in other respects stood the test of time.

Are we alone in these beliefs? To judge from the prices fetched at auction by unrestored, well provenanced original antique furniture, pictures, rugs, clocks, pottery and almost anything else we can think of, the answer is no. Collectors in these fields have learned to appreciate the fact that, by favouring objects in untouched condition, they are protecting themselves against secret enhancement or fraudulent alteration as well as preserving a rare survival from the distant past with a particular history of human use and even misuse.

Our aim here is to document finds and discoveries in all fields of collecting which embody these ideals. Likewise, we shall not hesitate to draw attention to what we regard as acts of vintage vandalism. If you share our (possibly eccentric) tastes and preferences, or even if you don’t, your participation in this crusade is invited…

- Douglas Blain

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