I spent a lot of my childhood and teen years on a building site.. But not because we were in the construction business or anything.. Nope. My dad was a fastidious, fussy, client and extensions to our home that should have taken a year to build – took 12 (!) and it seemed that everyone in the conga-line of architects, tradesmen and designer-types coming through the house, happened to be a motorcyclist.
There was Roy – a mad keen Trials rider. I’m not sure what he did for a living… he never seemed to actually .. you know, work or anything; but always seemed to have the latest gizmo or gadget that everybody was talking about .. This was the early 1970’s and I remember being genuinely impressed with his digital watch. Anyway, he used to turn up Saturdays with two TL125’s on a trailer and they seemed to my then 11 year old eyes – just the coolest things on wheels. Then, one Saturday he turned up with a brand new red ZA50 Monkey Bike in the trailer. We lived in a home with a 100 metre driveway, so I spent the whole afternoon getting my first dose of throttle control. Looking back, Roy never had kids of his own – I’m not sure who the ZA50 was intended for – but for me, it was a bite that’s yet to stop itching..
The list of blokes who came through that place on bikes was long. I can remember a young architect aboard an RD-250. He always used to come over evenings after completing his real job – to discuss things architectural with my Dad. His was one of those old air-cooled RD’s – turquoise green petrol tank with the now familiar Yamaha Black & White stripes; long straight silencers (no expansion pipes back then.!) and thin tyres (he called them ‘Nippon-Slipons’) on shiny chrome wheels laced to drum brake hubs
Then there was Martin. A young carpenter who was to be the first bloke I would ever meet that would be killed on a motorcycle. I remember at the time thinking that at least he died doing what turned him on and being strangely accepting of his demise. There was already a mental agreement by me that the risks you took to ride a bike were incalculably outweighed by the feeling you got when you were riding. His was a sensational Honda 400 Four Supersport. All red & shiny with the neatest set of exhaust headers and an exhaust snarl that was made in heaven. He rode the wheels off that thing and eventually came to grief under a truck that turned suddenly without indicating. Martin had been caught at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The one that really got to me though was Steve Lewis’ bike. Here was a bloke already past his prime – he was probably about 35 but to my then 13 year old mind he was ready for a walking frame.. yet he owned what what would be counted as one of THE superbikes of the 1970’s.. In some laudable company – the venerable Honda 750/4; the all conquering Z series stablemates from Kawasaki, the Imola Ducatis, and even the Norton Commando, the Kawasaki H2 750 Kawasaki was the bike that reached in, touched my soul and convinced me to follow it down a dark & tempting path. Steve was a cabinet maker who worked for my Dad’s during the week and worked for cash on the weekend helping him on the extensions. He and dad were close, and I remember Dad telling me when Steve had bought a new bike. He was picking it up Saturday and would bring it over on Sunday. The anticipation was palpable, and that Sunday I was up earlier than normal as I felt something special was about to happen.
I remember hearing it before I saw it. It started out as almost a mosquito–like buzzing. I could hear him working it through its 5 speed box quickly and purposefully as he carved up through the Church Street Esses. (To this day, 40 years later I still count the gear changes when I hear somebody giving their bike the berries) The short straight from the top of the Esses to our driveway was only a about 200 metres but it seemed he covered it in a heartbeat. Then it was in the driveway. All shiny chrome, metallic paint in lurid jaffa colours (it was the 70’s remember..) – at idle it had a slightly malevolent exhaust note that hinted at the wickedness within and it was enveloped in a cloud of blue smoke that let you know you were in the presence of 2-stroke greatness. That smell is imprinted even now.. It could not have been more unlike the Triumph he’d owned just a week previously. No, that bike had been all sensible British engineering and subdued styling.. In its place was this brash, loud, sexy Japanese Banzai that was just gagging to be let off the leash… Looking back, I suspect Steve was having a mid-life “departure”.. Good on him I say..
Every now and then, something makes you stop dead in your tracks and stare open-mouthed in awe. You cant prepare for it but it’s instantly recognisable the moment it occurs. Right then. , 13 years old, standing in our driveway all wide-eyed and gape-mouthed in the presence of that bike was the moment that I “turned”. I decided (as if I had any control in the process…its way more molecular than that…) that I was to be ‘a motorcyclist’ from here on in.
One of the best things about Steve was his “Ratbag” gland. I’m certain it’s a gland that everyone has – it just gets somehow enlarged in motorcyclists. After pestering him and my Dad for weeks, I finally got to go pillion on the H2, and if there had been any doubt, it was soon swept away.. Steve was for the most part – a very responsible, thinking human being. That was of course, until he was on 2 wheels. At that point, the Ratbag gland discharged its full dose of lunacy and I can’t tell you the rush I got as he pulled a genuine 170kph up Telegraph Road. Feeling the Perspex of the visor pressing against my nose (the helmet was of course too big for my head..), the wind trying to rip the clothes from my back, the impossible noise coming from the exhausts as that sinewy triple rushed towards its redline before he grabbed another gear… and still pulling like a train. I was hanging on and not knowing whether to grab his jacket, the grab bar at the rear of the seat or both; and then the sickening panic as I felt the bike wallow under our combined weight, its immense power, its famously lethal ‘rubber’ frame and Sydney’s (even-then) crappy roads.. We got back unscathed though. I got off with a smile you couldn’t wipe from my face with a Cricket bat.
And that was it – a motorcyclist was created… Looking back now, I’d say the H2 Kawasaki is anything but a thing of beauty, but to my dumb-as-a-post 13 year old mind – there could be no better bike. This was the bike that was the subject of schoolboy doodlings in the margins of textbooks.. This was the bike to which all others would be compared and would be found wanting. This was the bike that I imagined I would soon own.. But they say you should never meet your heroes as they never live up to expectations.. Some years later as an adult, I rode one and the image from my youth was in left in tatters. It was not so much carving up the esses, as butchery that would best describe it’s handling; No doubt, it was undeniably and brutishly fast.. but the hinged frame and wooden brakes smashed the aura..
I saw one for sale the other day in a bike-shop in Brookvale. Were it new, it’d have been identical to the shiny sexy banzai from years before; but amongst all the other shiny & new bikes, it seemed old and forlorn; as if it’d been sitting there for years. A patina gained of years of having been ignored dulled the lurid Jaffa paint and though its still undeniably the bike that ‘turned’ me… I had absolutely no desire to buy it. none. How sad.