Sunday, 16 July 2017

Benelli Mongrel

"Well, to be honest... it wasn’t really a Benelli."


"What I mean is... it was a Benelli but it didn’t have Benelli on the tank"


"It had Moto Guzzi written on the tank."

"So it was made by Moto Guzzi?"

"No, the really surprising thing is, it wasn’t ma e by them either. In fact it was made by...'

"No, don’t tell me, let me guess. Ducati made it."

"Oh no, not Ducati, in fact it was made by..."


"Oh no, not them, look, you’ll never..."

“Laverda, 'it was Laverda, they used to make some two strokes." 

"It was made at Meriden." "Meriden! They made Triumphs, they never made Moto Guzzis." 

"Oh yes they did. On Saturdays." Believe it or not, all this is true.

Only a joint effort between Italy and Britain could have produced such a surreal situation. In 1976 it was announced that Meriden would be devoting Saturdays production to the assembly of Italian 125cc two stroke singles. Given the crisis at Meriden, this was not as bizarre as it would appear. Indeed, around the same time I seem to remember Norton having some sort of tie up with Yamaha.

My patriotism knew no bounds, if I could have afforded it I would have bought half a dozen. As I saw it I wasn’t just buying a bike I was helping to support the British motorcycle industry. It was also my first motorcycle and the salesman had a big grin on his face for days afterwards.

I wobbled off down the road, the fact that I’d recently completed a training course was not very apparent. The bike shop was right in the centre of Newcastle and it was the first time I’d ridden in traffic; it felt like death. Once out of the city I settled down a little and even began to hum to myself. Then the chain snapped.

Today, if my chain snaps I fix it, or I get the AA to tow me home. Back in 1976 I was alone, on that road with that motorcycle and I couldn't have fixed the chain to save my life. I left the bike in some old dear’s garden and caught the bus home.

When I rang the dealer my reception was decidedly lukewarm. They picked the bike up and promised to fix it. It was quite an education - week after week went by and when a solicitors letter was sent they replied that I’d been abusing the machine: “We feel that Mr Chalk will always have trouble with things mechanical." All I could do was give the solicitor more money or wait. Well, I waited and waited and then finally went to pick up the bike. As I sat on the bike and grabbed the ’bars they moved downwards...

A fortnight later, the bike refused to start, the flywheel magneto had junked itself - it took the dealer a mere three months to fix that. After that it went for quite a while, but little things went wrong like the speedo drive in the wheel, a shoddy bit of engineering consisting of a bent bit of metal that’s still standard fare on Guzzis.

I had, therefore, no way of telling what sort‘of speed I was doing, save when pulled by a brace of traffic cops who informed me that I had been doing 80mph. Personally I doubt if I was going that fast, but who am I to disagree with Her Majesty's Constabulary?

The hinges under the seat broke off, so the only thing which connected this item to the rest of the machine was the rider’s weight. This didn’t pose all that much of a problem, until I took my brother for a brief ride. His weight made the seat pivot backwards, although usually only mildly amusing, this ultimately resulted in the bike shooting of without us, we being left sitting on the seat in the middle of the road. You can have a lot of fun with a motorcycle, even when you aren‘t on it, and are merely watching it vanish riderless into the distance. 

For a while nothing seemed to break and I almost had reliable transport, though I was rather glad I only worked half a mile up the road. The machine remained dogged by dodgy transmission, the chain jumping off the sprockets for no apparent reason until I found that three of the four studs holding on the back sprocket were missing. I imagine it had been like this since the day I bought it. With this problem finally solved, I felt brave enough to join some mates on the open road. They were in a car and I was following. 

Night began to fall, and on the unlit roads felt in danger of losing them. Still, I could make out their tail lights in the fading light. The roads began to look unfamiliar, and the direct lighting from the poxy flywheel magneto did nothing to help me read any road signs. Maybe they were lost, I kept increasing my speed, accelerating into the gloom. I dropped behind the car, about a foot and a half behind, so that my headlight would show me something. It showed me I was following the wrong vehicle.

I pulled up at the first road sign I came to, put the bike on its stand and tried to discover where I was. "Toft Hill 3 miles." Oh, that’s OK, I even know where I am. I went back to the bike and started her up, the little two stroke motor sounded out over black and empty fields. l slammed the gear pedal down and eased out the clutch. Nothing. I increased the revs, still no movement. I moved the gear podal up and down, but still no action. I could feel panic eating Into me. Oh God, not again, not here in the middle of nowhere, don’t tell me the chain has snapped again?

No, the chain's still in place, it must be something worse like a knackered gearbox. I tried one last lime and noticed a strange whirring noise. Looking down, I saw the back wheel spinning furiously, clear off the ground y a good three inches. This time I roll the bike off the centerstand before I did anything else. No problem, I continued my journey feeling more than a little foolish.

Summer arrived, and I began to think about doing some serious mileage. My cousin had recently bought his first bike, an MZ250 and we decided to go touring in Scotland.

My first accident was in Edinburgh. Somewhere amongst a forest of junctions and traffic lights, I somehow became mesmerized by the continuous stopping and starting. I edged closer and closer to the back of the MZ. The next set of lights changed to amber, but I had decided we 5 should proceed. Unfortunately the MZ decided to stay where it was. My bike was blessed with an excellent set of brakes, including an hydraulic front disc, but no matter how hard I pulled the next second was inevitable. It may have been the result of some mild concussion, but I do believe that my bike sprang back several feet whilst the MZ rocked gently on its springs.

I hauled my bike upright and attempted to ride off. I found that only by twisting the bars to full lock could I travel in anything approaching a straight line, and realised that the forks were unwilling to go in the same direction as the rest of me. I eventually became quite adept at this mode of travel, and could even go around roundabouts with the bike pointing for the turn off. I think my sense of reality has suffered ever since.

I stopped at the first dealer I could find and was shocked to find him really helpful, untwisting my forks and refusing to accept any payment. My second lesson in reality — you'll only ever find a good dealer by accident, and he will probably be nowhere near home.

The second time I ran into something it was a car, this time not my fault, small pleasure when you’re laying in the middle of the road failing to remember your name. The damage was superficial, but it was enough for me and we decided to head home from Scotland. By then the model had been dropped by everyone concerned and it was very difficult to get spars. A few weeks later it refused to start, the magneto had gone again. The six months warranty was over and parts impossible to find. It ended up with a cover thrown over it - I hoped someone would come and steal it.

Eventually, I resprayed it with several arts of acrylic black paint. Strangely enough, this did nothing to cure the ignition fault and reduced still further the chances that anyone might steal it. I could not fix it, and I knew nobody who could. I eventually gave it away, I would imagine they couldn’t fix it either and it ended up on the council tip.

I suppose that this is a fairly sad and expensive end to my story, but I suspect that it's fairly typical. Lots of young riders end up as I ended up then. Still, it didn’t put me off and I’m still riding bikes. I even have lots of good memories of that little Italian two stroke. I feel the saddest aspect of the whole affair was that given a little bit more money and effort, the whole thing could have ended differently. It could have worked.

Graham Chalk

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