Single Track Mind – A First World Problem

July 25, 2013
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.

With winters frost being broken by an early warm-up in England  the G.50 was taken out for a nice stroll at Anglesey.
With the expense of their daughters college tuition looming, the Melling clan bid adieu to their beloved Matchless G.50.

I have, or more accurately had, what our Managing Editor Bart Madson called, with admirable wit, “A First World Problem.”

In fact, the problem was also an interesting metaphor on a wider range of issues which are now dominating motorcycle racing so please indulge me by allowing me to tell you the whole story.

The problem was our beloved G.50 – and my daughter’s education: the two are symbiotic in this case. For British kids whose parents are in employment, as distinct from receiving any of the vast range of benefits showered on those who prefer not to work in Britain, college is an expensive exercise. Done on a tight budget, it’s a $20,000 a year project and kids leave school with a degree – but carrying an elephant sized debt on their shoulders.

We decided to do what we could to help our daughter and she kept her side of the bargain by doing her first degree in two years and, fingers crossed, will complete her second degree next year.

However, two degrees barely get the young adult on the back of the job seekers’ starting grid so, as a family, we decided that Elizabeth would do her Master’s degree before taking a teaching qualification. This was another $25,000 and we simply didn’t have any more money.

However, we did have a G.50 which, even second-hand, was worth a lot of money. But sell the G.50? Goodness me, two years ago I would have rather cut off my right arm. However, things have changed in the classic racing world – and not for the better. Last year, Carol and I took the G.50 to a prestigious classic race and all the top six riders used three sets of tires – including ultra-soft “Qualifiers” with a working life of five laps. Now three sets of classic racing tires is $1500. Add $350 entry fee and $150 for diesel and that’s a $2000 weekend – and we’re simply not a $2000 per race family.

After playing with his G.50 at the Bikers Classics event in Belgium  our correspondent caught a glimpse of the general motorcycling public in his travels through central and sourthern Europe.
The blow of selling the G.50 was cushioned by the fact that it cost a fortune to maintain and repair.

Our G.50 was also uncompetitive. G50s now come in many flavors and a standard bike like ours was not on the pace.

Finally, racing a G.50 can be a terrifyingly expensive exercise. A new, race ready engine is over $20,000 and once again, we’re not a $20,000 family in this respect either!

The cost of a G.50 also made Carol and me very nervous about working on the bike – very nervous indeed. Make the slightest mistake and the bill is never in hundreds of dollars – only thousands.

The last part of the equation was that we had five fabulous, and utterly unmissable, years with our G.50. I only fell off the bike once and it never let us down. In those five glorious seasons I managed to get on to the podium twice in real road races and also took home a trophy from a British championship race. Could a clubman racer ever ask for more?

So, the G.50 went to a new home and we could continue to make some contribution to Elizabeth’s long term future.

The next step in the process should have been to hang up my leathers, sell the race trailer and become a spectator. After all, my first event was a horse and cart race just after the Pilgrim Fathers landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts and I had done virtually everything in the racing book – and usually multiple times too.

The problem is that racing is peculiarly addictive. When the lights go out the years roll back and, at least until the following morning, all the aches and pains which come from being an ancient, disappear and are replaced by a near mystical sense of clarity and joy for life that few other activities can equal. In short, the race track is a truly wonderful place to be.

Carol, my wife, business partner and best friend sensed the sadness and regret and, as always, put her finger right on the core of the problem. “Yes,” she opined, “you do need to retire – but only when you’re old. Put it off for a bit…”

The problem was what to race. There was no point in spending a lot of money on a classic race bike because this would simply abrogate the financial benefits of selling the G.50 in the first place, and the affordable race bikes were cheap for a very good reason!

Then the lights came on inside both our heads – and simultaneously too. At the back of the garage, under dust covers, was our beloved Seeley Suzuki – the bike which had been with us most of our married life.

Bringing the Seeley Suzuki out of retirement after parting ways with the G.50.
Bringing the Seeley Suzuki out of retirement after parting ways with the G.50 – Melling’s racing life aint dead yet.

The Seeley had virtually not turned a wheel during the five years we had the G.50 but it still had one heck of a racing pedigree with a lot of success to its credit. Better still, we had owned the bike from new and so in every way it was our bike.

Let me digress at this stage and introduce the Seeley Suzuki. It is a replica of the bike which launched Barry Sheene’s career as a big bike rider. Here’s the full story.

In essence, Colin Seeley, the genius of British frame building, took a Suzuki Cobra engine and built a chassis around it which was capable of Grand Prix success and in so doing got Barry the factory Suzuki ride which was to lead to his two world championships.

It’s a bike I have always loved and although dramatically different from the G.50 it is still a happy, easy going and very rider friendly machine.

So, it was with a sense of real joy that we ran the Seeley to the workbench and gave it a thorough re-commissioning. The bike is a simple bike to work on and modern technology has made it even easier. Before it went into hibernation, the 20 year old electronic ignition system had been starting to get sulky so I ordered a brand new, solid state unit from Germany and this brought the bike instantly up to date with a spark you could weld from.

The pistons and cylinder bores were fine so we’ve left these alone for this year and the cycle parts were almost ready to go. British racing regulations demand that there is no gap between the rear sprocket and chain and the old, plastic “shark’s tooth” was looking tired so I spent an afternoon cutting, drilling and filing a sheet of Duralumin to make a new item. Since I have the hand craft skills of a drunken, three-toed sloth what would have been a 15 minute job for a real metal worker stretched out to three hours for me. However, at the end I felt an immense sense of satisfaction. With the G.50, it was merely a case of phoning up and, $100 later, a new, perfectly made, carbon fibre shark’s tooth would have been on its way to me. What I discovered as I was playing with the Seeley was a sense of involvement with the bike which was missing with the G.50.

The twin-cylinder Suzuki engine dates from 1967 and is stone-axe simple.
The stone-axe simple Suzuki Twin dates from the late ’60s – aka Mr Melling’s hippie riding and racing salad days.

However, there were some things which I couldn’t fix with my bumbling, amateur mechanic skills and the big problem was caused by the tires. The Seeley is a fine, very fine, chassis but it is a 43-year-old design and in four decades the change in tire technology has been immense.

Current classic racing tires are so good that they put unimaginable stresses on the chassis and actually lead to handling problems. The fix for me is always to visit Ron Williams, of Maxton Engineering, whose factory is fortunately three miles away from our house.

Ron is one of the great unsung heroes of motorcycle racing and can rightly be called a genius. He was Freddie Spencer’s boss – and you don’t get to be a Honda Grand Prix team manager by being fairly good at racing. Maxton make some of the highest spec suspension in the world and, being of a certain age, Ron is still a fan of classic racing.

As an aside, the reason you don’t hear much about Maxton in the US is because of product liability insurance. With small volume production, the cost of the insurance makes selling in America prohibitively expensive – a problem exacerbated by the permanent waiting list for Maxton products in Europe: they simply can’t keep up with demand!

Almost as an addendum to the modern shocks, Maxton make classic racing shocks which look, superficially at least, a bit like the old Girlings we used to have but are fully gas pressurized and have state of the art damping internals with a vast range of external adjustment. In every way, they are cutting edge technology.

The Maxton shocks have a classic look but are fully gas pressurized and have state-of-the-art damping internals with a vast range of adjustment.
The Maxton shocks have a classic look but sport state-of-the-art damping internals with a vast range of adjustment.

One might think that improved shocks simply improve the feel at the rear of the bike – which they do – but they also have a huge effect on the front end too. Ron put what he thought was the best weight of rear springs on the shocks based on my weight – and yes, you actually do have to get weighed at Maxton so your Maxi burger and double large fries will reveal the whole truth and nothing but the truth – and skill level. A quick rider has a very different riding style to a Muppet clubman like me and we both need different shocks which is why Maxton build the suspension units individually to suit the customer.

With the motor running like a dream, we took the bike to the Anglesey Circuit for a shake-down run and immediately found front end chatter which would have made the Ducati team wince. Classic racers hate front end chatter as much as MotoGP deities – maybe more so because Carol would beat me stupid if I fell off!

Back at Maxton, the ever patient Ron listened carefully and then increased the weight of the rear spring by 0.2kg – under half a pound. Now if, like me, you are skeptical when you read of MotoGP riders transforming the handling of their bikes when they change the ride height by 1mm I would forgive you for thinking that a slightly stiffer rear spring would have any effect on a classic race bike’s handling. However, you would be wrong. The new spring transformed the front end and vastly reduced the amount of chatter. So now I had a bike with a lovely, easy to ride 53 horsepower engine, 2200 rpm wide powerband, sweet gearbox and handling which would make your Grandma feel safe.

And so to Bart’s apt description of my “First World Problem”. Yes, the G.50 did go in order to support Elizabeth’s education, but rather than being cast into the pit of perdition, which would be life without racing, I have to struggle along riding a beautiful GP bike which Barry Sheene would have been proud to ride. Truly, it’s a tough life.

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