Unless otherwise credited, all photographs are © David Ritchie and may not be used without my permission.
Roll Out the Resto
It was the moment of truth, the test of my mechanical abilities. All systems checked, the finicky Lucas electrics were refreshed (new electronic ignition, new wiring harness, modern connections installed) and the fuel tank filled with fresh gas.
Prime the gas in the new carburettors, choke on, transmission in neutral, ignition on. Prod the kickstarter to top of the compression stroke. Rise up on the kicker, right knee bent and then all weight transferred down through the kicker in a smooth motion. Nothing. Repeat the procedure and hear the first stumble of ignition.
The third kick and music to my ears- the roar of a fresh Norton Commando engine. I burst into a happy victory yell, a mixture of satisfaction and relief. My grin felt like it would split my face in two.
I was obsessed with motorcycles at a very young age (see “Blame Johnny Sombrero” lower down the page). I have owned a motorcycle since I turned sixteen and the variety has been interesting. In my day new riders followed a natural progression of engine size and power. I shudder when I hear of a new rider starting with a hundred horsepower motorcycle today and I’m saddened, but not shocked when I told the rider has crashed.
My first bike was a Yamaha YG1 80cc. My father co-signed a loan and I rode that bike every day of my sixteenth summer to a Putnam tobacco farm where I earned the money to pay the loan off. I did some crazy things with that first bike. I rode to Mississauga on the 401 in December. It was so cold returning that I tucked in behind a transport to escape the wind. When that failed to keep me warm, I bought a newspaper to wear on my chest under my jacket at a truck stop. Almost burned out the hot air hand dryer in the men’s room trying to restore the feeling in my fingers.
I think I was hypothermic when I left the 401- I stopped on the shoulder of a road and not feeling my legs or feet, I fell over with the bike. A few minutes of “jumping jacks” restored feeling enough that I did get home eventually. I must have shivered in the hot shower for a half hour, then into bed.
An 80cc motorcycle was not the ideal machine for highway riding. I had the throttle wide open the entire time and it might have gone 65 mph with a tailwind, downhill. I sold that Yamaha and bought another- a 250 YDS3 with a delightful intake howl and some real power and acceleration.I rode that bike for a number of years, from Thunder Bay (Port Arthur/ Fort Williams at that time) through Minnesota (Hwy 61), Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
That led to further purchases- a Honda CB 450, a Matchless G80 CS in road trim (worth big $$$ today) – but the bike I lusted for was a Norton Commando, the most beautiful British bike ever. In black with gold trim, the colour god made motorcycles.
I eventually did get a five-year-old Commando, the 1972 Combat model. Very fast and great handling, but still the typical keep- wrenching- to- keep- riding, oil- leaking British motorcycle (they are much more reliable today, with both Triumph and Norton still in business).
After around six years of riding the Norton, I had a very bad crash. The bike was ruined and it took several operations to repair my personal damage.
The ruined bike gathered rust and dust in a barn and then a garage. My guilt mounted as I procrastinated on a rebuild for many years. Life got in the way- family, business etc. I never lost the urge to ride and borrowed bikes whenever I could.
Finally, life stabilized enough that I could afford the needed time and money to consider bringing the Norton back to life.
Penance proved to be very expensive- I couldn’t be satisfied with a stock rebuild.
It took two years. I bought the factory workshop manual and a parts book then stripped it down to the last nut and bolt. The end result was a bike better than the original. All the available stainless steel bolts, alloy wheels with stainless spokes, new exhaust mufflers, controls, headlight, gas tank, seat, tires and much more. The frame was powder- coated, I polished the aluminum alloy parts, a lightweight fibreglass cafe style front fender installed- the entire works. The engine and clutch were refreshed. I took the transmission apart, replaced a few bearings and a gear that were known to fail. That was the most complicated mechanical task. Taking things apart is easy- proper assembly can be a challenge.
The most difficult work for me was the new electrical harnesses (main and headlight), getting the connections right. I learned a lot about electricity, a subject that has always mystified me. My previous knowledge about the evil Lucas electrics consisted of “don’t let the smoke out of the wires”. There is a very good reason that Joseph Lucas was known as the “Prince of Darkness”.
The end result was a successful rebuild. I took a great amount of pride in my work.
I remember the sound, the smell and the feel of every bike I’ve owned. Each one is attached to a particular era from the fifty years I’ve been riding.
It’s funny how memory works. Remember the first whatever and the circumstances from that time seem crystal clear to me.
I particularly remember Dick Wilson’s Shakespeare Cycle, an old-time Norton/ Bultaco bike shop near Stratford. Dimly lit, wooden oil-soaked floor along the front counter, parts everywhere, even hanging from the ceiling, beat old counter, an ashtray filled with butts. The smell that motorcycle shops once had, a smell that only comes with age like a fine patina on old furniture.
Dick raced a short-stroke Norton on the dirt track (flat track) circuit. Many fractured ribs, broken wrist, arm and leg testified to his fearless racing.
Drop by the shop with a six-pack and Dick would entertain with really good stories. If you needed to pee after the beer, the “washroom” was in the back corner of the workshop: a funnel attached to a hose that ran out through the wall to drain outdoors. Priceless memories.
I always meant to take my camera and photograph him in the shop. I swore that next time I would do it. Sadly, Dick was killed riding his Norton to the 1993 Paris Vintage Motorcycle Rally by a car driver who ran a stop sign. The next time never came for either of us.
His memory was honoured the following year. I have a laminated copy of this hanging in my garage. My garage is very much like his shop: old, wood walls, cracked floor, smells like motorcycles. Drop by with a six-pack. The washroom is outside, behind the garage.
Norton engine on my work bench. Polaroid transfer to watercolour paper.
Blame Johnny Sombrero
I have ridden motorcycles since I turned 16. Motorcycle riding is a passion for me, an obsession. When I was younger I would ride all year if the roads were clear of snow.
Motorcycle fever first started when I was a very young boy, riding in the back of my aunt and uncle’s car on the way to the cottage in Muskoka. From behind the car, a loud rumble announced the presence of the Black Diamond Riders M.C. Looking out the back window in excitement I yelled: “it’s Johnny Sombrero!” I recognized him from photos in the newspaper.
That was a time of motorcycle ‘gang’ media hysteria, fueled in part by the movie The Wild One, which produced some great lines:
“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”
“What ya got?” Classic Brando.
My frightened aunt says to me “Don’t look at him!” She likely had visions of us being savagely beaten (or worse) by heathen, vicious bikers.
Naturally, I continued to look out the back window. I waved and was rewarded with a nod and a smile from Johnny Sombrero. At that very moment, I knew someday I would have a motorcycle. Thanks, Johnny.
I have had many rodent “visits’ in my time, far too many. They’ve eaten the wiring off a tractor, chewed the seat on my motorcycle, the wiring above my photo studio (almost burned it down), my custom motorcycle boots and other leather apparel, stored books- the list goes on.
The wildest rodent story I have happened exactly as I will tell it here.
I live in an old country house on a farm just outside of a small town. About 20 years ago the farm next door was sold to a developer, one of those cretins who would rather ruin good farmland than build on empty town lots. The land was left sitting, the weeds took over- who needs food? The barn sat empty for many years. Only it wasn’t quite empty- the rats moved in and prospered. Eventually, the cretin had the barn torn down so that it could be replaced with ugly houses. The rats moved on.
They moved over a few fields to my house. We heard noises in the walls at night, scurrying sounds in the attic. I discovered holes chewed through baseboards in my office the perfect image of a typical Disney cartoon mouse (rat) hole. I found rat crap on the kitchen counter. They avoided traps like the plague, a plague I imagined them carrying in their flea- infested mangy pelts.
One hot summer night lying in my second-floor bedroom, I wake up hearing a gnawing noise at the bottom of the stairs. I knew that it was a rat trying to chew through the door to gain access to the second floor, where it could bite our faces and crap on the pillows while we slept. I was angry, very angry.
Now, I must confess that I sleep commando (naked). I have legally registered firearms, so I grab the .22 rifle (the 12 gauge smoothbore would do too much damage inside the house) and head downstairs to put Mickey in his grave. The f*cker scurries into my office, runs into his Disney-fashioned rat hole and stops. I mean he stops in his tracks with his ugly rat ass and his ugly rat tail dangling out the hole. I assume the prone position for the best shot angle. The bare-arsed sniper. I calmly fired a round into his ass. Bad move. Wounded, he scurried up the inside of the wall, screaming his wounded rat song. I squeezed off several more rounds through the plaster, tracing his path up the wall.
Yeah, I shot the feckin’ rat, and I got him good. Too good.
I heard a voice and look behind me. There’s my wife looking at me lying prone, buck naked on the office floor with a smoking rifle. “What the hell are you doing, David?”
The dead rat stench lingered for months.
Paper Route Memories
sleep pierced by hateful alarm clock
gritty-eyed stumble out the door
into a world filled with dark
crickets gossip dogs argue
I am the only human alive
paper bundle at the corner
the unborn waiting to be delivered
will the count be right
will I have the correct amount
or will my newest customer be shorted
cut the cord releasing the scent
of fresh ink on pulp paper
that soon blackens hands
rolling and tucking each copy
like loaves of bread stacked on end
in sturdy steel bike carrier
heavy steering hard pedalling eases
with each jaunty toss of paper to porch
as dawn slowly turns on the light
hawk-shaped kite climbs in air
tethered to youngster on top of hill
magnetic whoops of joy draw another
run up the hill- let me fly it!
soon there were four
wind shift kite falters
run draw in string don’t let it crash
learning things they cannot yet name