Backmarker: Merry Christmas

December 24, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

My sister lives in London, and when I visit her I always take an afternoon to wander through the antique shops near Camden Passage. Much of what’s for sale there is beyond the reach of motorcycle writers, but there are a few shops that sell affordable prints and maps. Naturally, I’m on the lookout for motorcycle stuff, and while this is just a page torn from an old magazine, it’s one of my favorite finds.


This illustration came from a copy of Punch in November of 1938. Within a year, England would be at war with Germany. The topic of this drawing is not war, however, but the upcoming Christmas holiday.

According to Wikipedia, Punch was a weekly magazine of satire and humor, which virtually invented the cartoon. This one has two captions, the first one written in the artist’s hand reads, “Going home for Christmas when Grandfather was young” and the second, type-set caption tell us that what we’re seeing is a Christmas card from the future.

What I love about this is what it tells us about the status of the motorcycle in 1938. The artist, Graham ‘Pont’ Laidler, could’ve drawn Grandfather using any manner of then-new vehicles; he could’ve driven a car, flown, or taken an electric train. But to Pont, the motorcycle was a perfect symbol of that moment.

I love that it’s raining, water’s splashing up. I love the lights hanging over the middle of the road; they remind me of the lights over the Douglas Prom. Grandfather’s bundled up, with a leather helmet and goggles, and Grandmother’s riding pillion, while a hapless Christmas turkey takes the rear. The motorcycle’s not sufficiently drawn to be identifiable. Most would’ve had that girder fork in ’38; telescopic forks didn’t become common until after the war.

The artist signed his works ‘Pont’, because he had a nickname of ‘Pontimus Maximus‘ amongst his friends. Although he was still only 30 when he drew this cartoon, he was already quite well-known in England. The editor of Punch wanted him to draw exclusively for his magazine. Unfortunately, Pont suffered from tuberculosis and died of polio at 32.

Looking around the U.S. today, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when motorcycles outnumbered cars here. The arrival of the Ford Model T in 1908 made cars as affordable and perhaps more practical than motorcycles. During the time that the Model T was produced, dozens of American motorcycle brands went out of business.

It took a lot longer than that for it to happen in Britain. Cars didn’t become the dominant vehicle in the UK until the Morris Minor came on the market in the late 1940s. Maybe that’s why Pont chose a motorcycle as the harbinger of an increasingly mechanized future.

Marc Marquez films Brad  with his GoPro  for a future home video.
AMA Flat Track Champion Brad Baker takes part in the revived Superprestigio alongside the then newly crowned MotoGP champ, Marc Marquez.

2014 was an interesting year for Backmarker. It started with the return of the Superprestigio, and we here at MotoUSA played a part in ensuring there was an official entry for Brad Baker, who was then the Grand National Champion. He won. The second Superprestigio just ran, and there were three GNC regulars in Barcelona, although at the end of the day, Marc Marquez beat out Jared Mees in the Superfinal.

I’ll leave the last word on that to Bryan Smith, who told me, “I’ll let Marquez use my backup bike on any mile next season, if he really wants to see how good a flat tracker he is.” I’m pretty certain Repsol Honda won’t let that happen, but the offer made me smile.

In the spring, Backmarker scored an interview with John Ulrich, who took it upon himself to promote a west-coast superbike series that fired a shot across AMA Pro Racing’s bow, and while I didn’t get it quite right (we reported rumors that Jonathon Palmer might attempt the takeover, not Wayne Rainey) I did predict huge changes in American road racing.

I interviewed BMW Motorrad’s competition boss Bernard Hauser during the TT, and had an inkling that BMW was going to put more emphasis on ‘real roads’ racing. That was proven correct when TAS Suzuki, a team with an incredible TT heritage and record, just announced it would be switching to BMWs.

Then I interviewed Kenny Noyes, an expat American living in Spain, who was leading in the CEV Championship’s Superbike class. I worried that I’d put a curse on him, when he fell behind by a few points with a couple of races to go, but he won. That’s proof that sometimes at least, nice guys don’t finish last.

Although the actual riding I did was too limited to tell much  the consensus amongst journos was that the bike is probably already as competent as  say  the Zero SR.
Mark takes a spin on the unexpected LiveWire at its official introduction in New York City.

In the middle of summer, I was privy to the motorcycle story of the year, if not the decade, when Harley-Davidson unveiled its LiveWire electric motorcycle. As far as I know, they’re still describing it as a ‘market test’, but don’t believe it. It’s really a very daring leapfrog over all the other big manufacturers. Strategically brilliant. Well played, Milwaukee. The LiveWire was so unexpected that when photos leaked off the Avengers movie set a few months earlier, the story was ignored by the motorcycle press. They were all, like, “An electric motorcycle from Harley-Davidson? Never!”

Not long after the LiveWire story broke, we had what would’ve been the biggest motorcycle story of the year in any other year. That was when Wayne Rainey and MotoAmerica announced they’d acquired the national road racing championship from AMA Pro Racing. Six years of DMG rule ended with a whimper, not a bang.

It was a year with several big stories, but I think the one I enjoyed reporting the most came late in the fall, when I went to meet Mike Harper chasing an altogether different story about his huge business in vintage Moto Guzzi spares. Then I virtually stumbled over his earlier history as a factory rider in Japan in the late ’50s and early ’60s. As a sort of amateur motorcycle historian, I talk to a lot of old guys who bring to mind the expression, “The older I get, the faster I was.” So I was skeptical when he first told me of his Japanese exploits.

Most of those guys get quiet when I ask them if they’ve got photos or other evidence to corroborate their claims, but Mike told me, “As a matter of fact, I just found a box of old photos…” My readers on both sides of the Atlantic have been debating the topic of Mike’s 350cc Dream Single the way philosophers in the Middle Ages argued about the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin.

Anyway, thanks for bearing with me. You’ve come to the end of the last Backmarker column of the year. Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas.