Philippi - Mark Shaw has a workshop full of gold. Well, OK, maybe that is overstating it somewhat, unless rare classic motorcycles get you going. If that is the case, you will definitely see it as gold.
In the heart of the Cape Flats, among the vegetable farms of old Philippi, Shaw keeps his collection of 18 rare motorcycles, most of which are in good running condition and most of those that are not, are not far from it.
Shaw, 60, a retired businessman, used to run a crane hire business, until he handed it over to his son and decided to become a gentleman of leisure.
But the leisure bit somehow has been elusive, as he immerses himself in other activities, with the collectable motorcycles being the biggest.
With servicing and the odd repairs to be done, as well as parts to be obtained for a few that are still in the rebuild stage, a proper engineering workshop was set up, complete with a milling machine and lathe.
Motorcycle expert Alan Gruneberg of Pig Cycles is also on the premises to lend a hand, so it’s been easy for Shaw to make the motorcycles a very important part of his life.
“I believe one should ride them.”
“They must all be in proper running condition and they should be on the road,” he said. “All of the motorcycles I have that are not being rebuilt, are roadworthy and licensed.”
And, as explained before, that is most of them.
“My father had a BSA Golden Flash when he was young and he crashed it,” Shaw recalled. “So my parents expressly forbade me to ride - and the first thing I did when I had half a chance was to learn to ride.
“The first bike I owned was a BSA Bantam. Then a Harley Davidson. When the Harley was sold, I had a Triumph 500.”
But, as his ownership of motorcycles continued, Shaw discovered that he preferred older bikes.
Every time he bought a motorcycle it was older than the one before.
“I had the crane hire company for a long time and I decided it was time to retire. I told my son to work for me for a year and then I would work for him for a year and then he would take it over. Well, he worked for me for a year and then I had worked for him for only 10 months and he fired me and sold the business.”
The oldest bike in Shaw’s collection is a 1910 Bradbury 500cc single speed. It has no gears and no clutch. Then there is a 1911 Triumph 500cc, also a single-speeder.
Shaw’s wife regularly rides the 1914 New Hudson 250cc two-speed, a lovely little bike that Shaw demonstrated to me and then allowed me to ride. A 1914 Douglas 350cc twin two-speed has also joined the collection.
Then there is a fairly large jump in years and technology more in line with the modern age, to a 1923 Norton 16H 500cc three-speed.
Three 1925 bikes follow. They are a 350cc single Indian Prince, a 600cc Indian Short Scout V-twin and a 1200cc V-twin Indian Big Chief.
A 1928 Short Scout 600cc and a rare four-cylinder Indian 401 of 1261cc capacity of the same year follow that.
The year before, 1927, the 401 was sold as the Indian Ace, because Indian had bought out the Ace Motorcycle Company and were using the Ace four-cylinder engine.
Then there is a 1929 1000cc AJS Mark II V-twin with a sidecar, a 1930 Indian 101 Scout, a 1931 Indian 101 Scout and a 1932 Indian Chief 1200cc V-twin.
“I’ve done quite a few runs with some of my bikes,” Shaw said. “I’ve been a regular on the Durban-Johannesburg vintage bike run.
“We also organise a ride once a month and go out to the Stellenbosch area to ride the bikes.
“I am a member of the Cape Vintage Motorcycle Club and the Triumph Club. There is a very special rally held in the Kamdeboo area of the Karoo and I’m looking forward to that.”
WITH A SPLUTTER IT COMES TO LIFE
There’s no ignition key. No kick-starter, no button to push for electric start.
The lightly built little motorcycle has no visible means of being started. And yet, there is the engine, the fuel tank, the leather belt to the large pulley on the rear wheel, everything.
A set of small levers clutter the handlebars near the grips. At the right-hand grip, one lever is for the throttle, the other for the choke, you learn. On the left-hand side there is a lever that looks like a reversed clutch lever. It is almost the clutch, because it sort of serves a similar purpose - it disengages the drive by cutting engine compression.
Then it strikes you - the 1914 250cc New Hudson is made for push starting.
You open the fuel supply. You switch over to the oil pump. You get on the bike and then you hold in the lever that cuts the compression and you kick a few steps. When the bike rolls forward under momentum, you let go of the lever and engage compression. If your throttle and choke are set correctly the single cylinder will splutter, cough, and then begin to fire. And away you go.
One must, of course, not forget that back in those days, there was a lot less traffic on the road, everything moved considerably slower than today and there were no traffic lights.
Even stop streets were rare.
The riding position on a 1914 motorcycle is surprisingly comfortable, considering there is no rear suspension; the only springs you have are in the seat.
The handlebars curve back towards you, bringing your hands perhaps a bit too close to you. In tight corners it feels as if your hands are going to hit your thighs and you have to be ready for it.
The New Hudson, like owner Mark Shaw’s other 1914 bike, the Douglas 350cc, has a two-speed transmission, a very simple affair that reminds you where the concept of a crash shift might come from. There is no clutch, so you have to shift from first to second and back to first as required as quickly as possible while taking off compression, even though everything is still in motion.
It’s a very different way of doing things on two wheels.
And I’m certain the people of those days would also have made about our modern motorcycles.
Of course, the bike had stood for a while and the first start was not that easy. The bike had to be pushed a bit against compression to get it going the first time. But once that was done, it started every time after only three to four paces of pushing.
It goes well but, for very obvious reasons, it does not have the go of a 250cc bike of even the past 30 years.
But it is enormous fun. And the most magical thing about riding the bike was knowing that you are hearing a sound and experiencing a sensation that dates to such an incredibly different age, when thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic young men were being sent to their deaths at the start of a most horrific conflict.