Friday, 28 July 2017

Triton Tribulations

It was love at first sight. But I should have known much better. It was not my first motorcycle, nor even my first British motorcycle. It was not even a private sale, although that fact was not revealed until l’d arrived at the back lane breakers. The garage stank of dog shit, an Alsatian strained on a length of thin string and the proprietor of the establishment had an old Roller parked outside.

But the bike looked so butch that I had to have it. It had a pre-unit Triumph T120 motor, one of the last before they went unit, with both a magneto and alternator. There didn’t seem to be any oil leaks and it growled meaningfully when he fired it up first kick. A quick run up the lane revealed that all was well.

I haggled the price down from £1250 to a grand. The gleam in the dealer’s eyes gave me a moment for thought, but what the hell, I figured, what else can you buy for a grand these days? The bike was all decked out in alloy and chrome and gleamed machoness in the fading sunlight.

I stretched my body out over the huge five gallon alloy tank, clip-ons down by the bottom yokes, footrests up on the pillion subframe and my bottom fimrly secured against the back of the single seat. Bit of throttle and I wobbled off with a huge grin on my face. It felt just right; just what I needed to celebrate my 40th birthday.

The 50 mile ride home was all good fun. Sure, the motor vibrated like crazy between 50 and 70mph, but that was merely the encouragement I needed to break the speed limit. Between 70 and 90mph the bike fair sung along like a good 'un, the stability of the slim featherbed frame pretty amazing after some Triumphs and many Jap bikes I’d owned. It was also so light that it could be flicked through bends with ease despite the 19" front wheel, shod with a decidedly antiquated TT100.

I arrived, home well pleased with my purchase until I took a closer look at the engine. Two of the rocker caps had disappeared, and the other two were finger tight. There was a huge oil leak from the cylinder head gasket, and a big puddle forming under the bike.

When the wife realised just how much money I’d taken out of the joint bank account to pay for some old relic that was leaking oil all over the hall carpet (well, where else would you put such a valuable classic?), there were some bad eyed looks for the rest of the evening, but I find it’s much better to get something without asking permission than to spend weeks trying to persuade women of the merits of an act. You have to let them know who’s in charge.

It’s pretty much the same with Triumphs. I had some spare rocker caps, tightened down the head nuts way beyond recommended torque settings and polished up the alloy some more, whilst the wife complained bitterly that it didn't even have a pillion seat. For the next few days conversations usually began, 'you‘d think for a thousand pounds that...’ I prayed that it would keep going long enough for her to get over it.

Out on the back roads it was still a real delight. I could crack open the throttle in fourth at 70mph and the bike would take off like a rocket ship; I guessed there were high lift cams and high compression pistons doing their business down there. The bike was fitted with a SLS front brake, which definitely wasn’t 1980’s standard, more like 1940’s. I’m not a great fan of disc brakes, but I'd take one any day in place of the standard Norton fare.

I managed to pick up a TLS job that fitted straight in and worked about three times as well. It would still fade if used from ton plus speeds a couple of times, but at more reasonable speeds was very good. The back SLS brake was exemplary, never locked the back wheel up thanks to lots of feedback.

There was also plenty of feedback from the chassis. This made it feel very secure even in the atrocious weather that started to afflict the UK (one month like the ‘76 summer, the next like winter). There was never a hint of weave or a wobble, although 3" of suspension travel with very stiff springs did mean it was very punishing over bumpy going, which these days includes most city streets and even once smooth motorways.

Over the ton, vibes became pretty nasty. Even the needles of the chrono speedo and tacho started wavering madly. The speedo eventually hit 130mph, when it felt like I was atop a pile driver. Effectively, the 650 twin, for all of its high state of tune, had a top speed of 95mph. Restricted by the vibes, it did manage to return around 65mpg - a lot better than many 250s.

Oil consumption was not negligible - I had to spend more time catering to the oil tank than the huge fuel tank. Surprised that the primary drive chaincase was oil tight (about the only oil tight item on the engine), I took off the inspection cap. Oh dear, the chain looked more than a little dry. Off with the drain plug, a few drops of oil confirmed that it was devoid of lube. Sure enough, when I poured some in it came out through the gaskets almost as fast.

Working on the principle that a fully enclosed primary chain, not subject to the ravages of varying chain tension of the final drive, should last a long time if sprayed with chain oil from time to time, I drained it off and hoped that modem technology would suffice.

It seemed to work for the next 3000 miles until the whole engine started vibrating badly. It felt more like some other Triumphs I’d owned. The wife had confiscated my cheque book, so it was with a bit of fear and trepidation that I took the eight stud head off. Oh my god, the head’s cracked, from stud hole to combustion chamber. I whipped the barrels off to find the small ends loose, grasped the conrods firmly to find that the big ends were still OK.

I then noticed that one piston ring was burned into its groove and that its barrel was scored. The wife leered knowingly while I tried to recall what bits were up in the attic. Luckily, I had a spare set of barrels and pistons, so only had to track down a head and small ends. The head took a whole day of phoning breakers to find, I had to pay a hundred notes for a bare head even then. Bastards, time was when I could’ve bought a couple of bikes for that.

The engine reassembled and run in, it ran for 5000 with hardly a murmur of discontent. Then the primary chain snapped. When I took the cover off, the clutch was loose on its bearing and the alternator looked a little charred, something I hadn't noticed as the magneto was self sufficient and I hadn't used it much. To fix it cost a couple of hundred quid, and about three days to get the surfaces of the chaincases flat.

Then we did 3000 miles before the gearbox seized up in third gear. Even the extreme torque produced by a Triumph twin was not up to the 50 mile ride home as I ended up burning out my newly installed clutch. By the time the RAC got me home I was not a happy man. I paid fifty notes for a used box that didn't work, a hundred notes for one that had three out of four gears and ended up paying £300 to have the original rebuilt, as the last time I played with a gearbox it had taken me six attempts to get it half right. Who said British bikes were cheap to repair?

Having replaced almost the entire engine in around 10000 miles is not the highest recommendation, I suppose, but I was addicted to the liquid torque and ever so slick handling. There were rides of such subtlety and exhilaration that the wife would have a good case for oting them in a divorce action.

Then, horror of horrors, the frame started cracking up. Metal fatigue after 30 years, I suppose, isn’t so surprising. The frame had started to crack up where the tubes met the headstock. The frame was the whole point of buying the bike. I managed to buy another frame, but not cheaply; after all, the frame was a classic. £250 poorer and a lot of spanner work in the ’lounge’ had me back on the road and the wife sulking, but I told her if she had some kids instead of taking the pill every day for the 20 years of our marriage I probably would have forgotten all about bikes. For some reason this didn't go down too well.

Back on the road it did nearly 6000 miles with only routine maintenance. Yep, the only bit I hadn't replaced had gone. Shot main bearings are not much fun, but when the whole crank is knackered it’s even less joy. Sod this for a lark, I thought. Another morning on the phone located a near new Triumph 750 engine for £500, which I thought quite cheap compared to some of the prices I’d paid. By the time l had got rid of all the pre-unit engine bits I was back in profit. Unfortunately, the position of the shorter unit engine in the frame meant there wasn’t the same mass on the front wheel and the steering went a little vague. It’s either that or an extraordinarily long rear chain that would probably need replacing every weekend

The new motor didn't have the low speed torque or the high speed punch of the 650 twin.  It also didn't have extremes of smoothness and vibration, it just vibrated everywhere in the rev range; the faster it went the worse it became. I did 6000 miles on it but was not impressed. In less than a year I’d replaced almost a whole machine, and ended up with a bike that I did not really like. When I tried to explain this to the wife she was not very amused.

I put the bike up as the epitome of classic iron - all the looks of a sixties classic - and it did still look very beautiful - with the reliability of a relatively recent Triumph engine, honest guv. The price I wanted was three grand! The wife was plotting with the doctor to have me certified.

Half a dozen or so of the Barbour clad brigade came, shook their heads after a ride, and left with pitying smiles on their face. Then he came, the fabled yuppie in a big shiny BMW. Rolex on arm, smile on face, he told me he’d just passed his test on a Honda CB100 and wanted a proper bike. He showed me his leather jacket, just bought down the Kings Road for four hundred notes (I had half a dozen in the spare bedroom, he could’ve had the lot for fifty sovs).

In for a penny, I told him the bike was sold for three grand, but no money had changed hands, if he wanted to make a better offer... He had a bit of trouble kicking her into life, but I assured him that it'll be easier with practice. A quick ride, he came back shaking a little but bunged me £3250. Even the wife managed a smile. 

John Cain

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