Memorable Motorcycles An Inside Look

February 8, 2008
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Personable  knowledgeable  and always good for a chuckle  Motorcycle USA is fortunate to have the wealth of moto-wisdom that resides in Frank Melling s brain at its disposal.
Personable, knowledgeable, and always good for a chuckle, Motorcycle USA is fortunate to have the wealth of moto-wisdom that resides in Frank Melling’s brain at its disposal.

As with many good things in the motorcycling world, “Memorable Motorcycles” came about through two bike fans gossiping. In this case, I was chatting to MCUSA’s Editorial Director, Ken Hutchison, and reminiscing, as I sometimes do, about the vast number of bikes I have actually ridden in what was then 42 years of motorcycling.

The thing which took Ken by surprise was not only the number of bikes I have thrown a leg over but the range too. Unlike some specialist journalists, I simply love riding any kind of motorcycle, from a custom cruiser to a Grand Prix motocross machine and this has meant that I have played in every part of the motorcycling park.

I have also raced all my life and again, somewhat unusually, have competed in a lot of different disciplines. There are not many racers who can put racing in the desert in Lucerne Valley alongside road racing on a street circuit in Spain – and everything in between – on their resume.

The final part of the story was that the brief I had from Ken was a good one which met with my full approval. First, I was to have ridden every bike featured in “Memorable Motorcycles”. Not simply history books or research but the warts ‘n’ all view of the rider from the saddle.

Secondly, we were both agreed that the stories should not be marque histories. There are ample resources for hard core classic bike fans who really want to know the precise thread form used on the friction damper retaining nut of a 1929 International Norton. What MM would do was to try to put the bike in its historical context for a reader with no particular interest in classic bikes.

One of the best examples of this is the story we ran on the humble 32cc Cyclemaster – outstandingly the most successful British motorcycle of all time with a production run of over 250,000 units. What is even more interesting is that the bike was a key element in the expansion of post-war suburban housing in Britain. In a country without cheap and widely available cars, the little Cyclemaster allowed working men to commute from the outer suburbs to the town centre factories.

I’m proud to say that MCUSA is the only motorcycling publication I have ever seen making this incredibly important link.

Melling has immersed himself in everything motorcycles as long as he can remember  and has dabbled in as many disciplines as possible  including plenty of track time aboard vintage racers like this Seeley Suzuki 500.
Melling has immersed himself in everything motorcycles as long as he can remember, and has dabbled in as many disciplines as possible, including plenty of track time aboard vintage racers like this Seeley Suzuki 500.

Ken also insisted that we should tell the stories of the bikes without rose tinted goggles. Listen to some of the club members standing proudly by their displays at bike shows and you would think that the collected heaps of junk that they have on display are examples of the finest manifestations of motorcycling engineering. The truth is not nearly so glamorous. A lot of bikes were utter rubbish when they were first made and are now merely examples of sixty-year-old rubbish. That’s why we run stories on the dull, desperately dull and sleeping tablet dull of the motorcycle world – as well as the rare, exotic and lust inducing.

Finally, because Ken keeps me on a very loose leash, there is the occasional modern bike woven into the mix simply because it catches my eye and makes me think that it is truly a Memorable Motorcycle.

To conclude, I probably have the best job in motorcycling journalism – but it has been earned by spending most of my income in the last 42 years on bikes and having a season ticket to various intensive care units in hospitals throughout Britain. There is, to quote that most famous of Las Vegas epithets, no such thing as a free breakfast!

So that’s the story behind MMs and now to answer some of the questions which readers regularly raise – and for which we are very grateful. We at MCUSA write about bikes but you, the readers, are the important part of the team because you honour us by reading our stories.

Q: How is the MM content decided?

Our Memorable Motorcycles  Man Melling has had the pleasure of throwing a leg over many special bikes  including the BMW works bike ridden by Hubert Auriol in the 1981 Paris-Dakar race.
Our Memorable Motorcycles’ Man Melling has had the pleasure of throwing a leg over many special bikes, including the BMW works bike ridden by Hubert Auriol in the 1981 Paris-Dakar race.

A: We try to get a mix of bikes from the extremely specialized and rare, like the Rudge “4” or BMW Paris Dakar bike, to the mainstream models which are very well known such as the Kawasaki Z1. The idea is to bring you something very different each month.

Sometimes I get distracted by a modern bike like the fantastic Ducati Hypermotard because, unlike some older ridrers, I am not at all dismissive of the latest bikes.

MM is more like a 16th Century sailing ship than a 2007 twin-engined sports boat. We do have a course – but often change it to meet the prevailing weather conditions.

Q: Why aren’t some really important motorcycles included like the Honda 750 K0?

A: There are two reasons. First, a lack of photographs. We do run some original images in MM but only where there is really no option. For example, I was the only journalist ever to ride the works Triumph Adventurer so there is no choice but to use these images. We also think that original pictures, used sparingly, do add a sense of reality to the stories.

The problem is that the pictures are invariably of poor quality. Thirty years ago, both colour and black and white photography produced images of a much lower standard than would be acceptable today. With a relatively mainstream bike, such as the Honda “4”, we need a superbly restored example which can be photographed in the right setting.

The second reason is the need to mix MMs. It would be easy just to run popular, well-known bikes, but this would exclude some wonderfully awful machines such as the outstandingly ugly Greeves Sportsman – a motorcycle of such appalling design that it ought to carry a health warning. 

Q: Sometimes, the bikes in MMs don’t look like the ones I remember or see in original photographs.

A: This is quite a complex question and I need to answer it in several parts. One problem is that the specification of European bikes changed all the time.

Sometimes vintage bikes featured in MMC may be different than what readers remember  but as Melling points out  occasionally motorcycles had different specs for different markets. The European Z1  for example  had dual discs up front  while the American version usually came with the single disc setup.
Sometimes vintage bikes featured in MMC may be different than what readers remember, but as Melling points out, occasionally motorcycles had different specs for different markets. The European Z1, for example, had dual discs up front, while the American version usually came with the single disc setup.

It’s worth bearing in mind how small were the production figures. During 1969, a time when the British bike industry was still very much alive, the combined production of all the British factories was only 52,568 units, whilst the Japanese made over two and a half million bikes.

Some manufacturers, such as DOT, Cotton, Norman, Dalesman and many more, were effectively only assemblers of bought in kit parts. In 1960s Britain, there was still a huge pool of highly skilled labour and a vast network of component suppliers. With minimal restrictive legislation, it was possible to simply set up as a motorcycle manufacturer working from a garage at home – as did CCM.

The same situation applied in Italy where there was a myriad of back yard marques. The result of this plethora of tiny manufacturers, who were constantly changing suppliers, was that the specification of their bikes was always in flux and therefore two consecutive examples of the same model leaving a factory could have two different specifications.

Another problem was that even the biggest manufacturers provided bikes with differing specifications for different markets – as they still do. At the simplest, American Honda CBXs came with high handlebars whilst European versions had low ones. European Z1s almost always had the optional second front disc fitted as standard whilst American bikes rarely did.

As motorcycles became ever more sophisticated so the changes became more marked.

Finally, we are often presented with a bike which is a special edition of a mainstream model. A good example of this is the race kitted version of the 175 Ducati Sport we will be featuring soon. On this bike, the owner has fitted, with complete legitimacy, an original Ducati race kit to a road going 175 Sport – something which the wealthier Ducati customers did in the day. The bike is no longer a standard 175 Sport but is it any the less legitimate? I don’t think so.

Melling is a fixture in the motorcycling community in England and organizes the annual Thundersprint event in Northwich Town Centre which had over 100 000 spectators in attendance last year.
Melling is a fixture in the motorcycling community in England and organizes the annual Thundersprint event in Northwich Town Centre which had over 100,000 spectators in attendance last year.

Q: I had a bike like the one in the story and I remember it went faster/slower and handled better/worse and the brakes were fine/rubbish and so on than you say.

A: You are probably right on all counts and your opinion may well be better than mine. However, let me try to defend my position a little. First, although I was never a gifted rider, I was not too bad at riding motorcycles. I raced at international level – although I was never any good when it came to top class opposition – and competed in multiple disciplines. More importantly, I rode every conceivable type of motorcycle and in incredible numbers too. Some weeks, I would ride road race, trials, motocross and road machines in one week.

It’s why today I have no problems with left or right gearshift – road or GP patterns. I can get on the bike and instantly feel at home. It’s also why I can still ride a 1907 Norton and a Superbike in two consecutive weeks – and not crash either of them.

My opinions reflect the view of a good amateur rider of the period. In simple terms, if I felt that a bike was slow – 90% of other buyers would too. Knowing what made a bike handle, I could make a pretty good judgement of whether the motorcycle would work in the hands of other competent amateurs.

Where I came unstuck was when it came to working with really good riders and outstanding bikes. Take the Suzuki PE250 for example. I loved the bike, it won lots of races at a national level, but when Dai Jeremiah (Jawa’s British works rider) rode it he said it was far too slow on the motocross special tests which decided ISDE winners.

Frank Melling sits on his newest  toy   the Walmsley G.50  a hand-built bike made in the vein of classic British Grand Prix racers. Pictured with Melling is the man who built his cherished motorcycle  master builder Fred Walmsley.
Frank Melling sits on his newest ‘toy,’ the Walmsley G.50, a hand-built bike made in the vein of classic British Grand Prix racers. Pictured with Melling is the man who built his cherished motorcycle, master builder Fred Walmsley.

The converse was true too. Sometimes I would ride a factory bike which was way too much for me – like Heikki Mikkola’s 1974 World Championship winning 360 Husqvarna – but which was clearly the finest bike of its era.

In these circumstances, I have always tried to be honest and put my own failings in front of the difficulties the bike posed for me.

My opinion is usually an accurate reflection of a very competent amateur rider with an excellent technical knowledge and therefore a fair and trustworthy analysis of any given bike.

Thank you once again for your comments and we all hope that you continue to enjoy more Memorable Motorcycles in the years to come.

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