Living out a passion for Britbikes
Cape Town - Len Harrison has had a particular passion for classic British motorcycles since he was 15 years old.
That was 54 years ago, so they were just British bikes then, not quite deemed classic yet. It was 1960 and British motorcycles were at the height of their popularity. They were doing well in motorcycle sport, and were popular as a low-cost mode of transport.
The famous café racer scene had also set in, biking was a lifestyle choice, and life was looking good.
But there was a dark cloud on the horizon for the British motorcycle industry. It was a cloud that, a decade later, would envelop it and bring it to its knees, with only dedicated enthusiasts keeping it alive.
That cloud was the impending tsunami of highly competitive, affordable and cheap-to-run Japanese motorcycles that would flood markets and inundate racing events from about 1969.
But for people like Harrison, all of this didn’t matter, because the by-then classic British motorcycle was not just cheap transport or a quick thrill.
Harrison appreciates the characteristic designs that set these bikes apart from the rest. He loves them for their relative simplicity, for their quirks and eventually for the pleasure of taking one that is a basket case and turning it back into what it was meant to be.
But, as things mostly turn out in life, living his passion was simply not an option as he entered the adult working world in the 1960s.
Living in the English Midlands, in a small town called Badsey, Harrison became an employee at Massey Ferguson where he did project management for the company and focused specifically on setting up facilities for the assembly of so-called knocked-down tractors, for export.
He travelled often, with Poland, Libya, Syria and Morocco being some of the places where he went to help locals set up their assembly plants to build tractors.
But he reached a point where he saw the writing on the wall for Massey Ferguson – when he returned to England from Libya one day and found himself deskbound.
He explained: “We came out to South Africa for a look in 1980, and in 1981 we moved. I was appointed the project manager for an assembly plant being built in Vereeniging where tractors were going to be built for the fitting of engines from the Atlantis Diesel Engines plant.”
A colourful career followed, which eventually ended in Cape Town where Harrison retired at the age of 68 in 2013.
But motorcycles have always been there, in the background, waiting to advance to the foreground, to pounce and absorb time one so often thinks one will have free after retirement.
“I love doing this but there are some bad times too, certainly,” he pointed out this week from behind the frame of a partially assembled Triumph.
“The bad part is when you have done all you can to get things right and then, when you try it, it still doesn’t work.”
“This is an expensive thing to do. I always warn the owners who ask me to do their bikes for them not to think it’s a cheaper way of getting a motorcycle.
“To restore a classic could set you back as much as R100 000 if you aren’t careful. And it’s very difficult to decide what you can safely leave as is.”
The Triumph currently in Harrison’s home workshop came to him in pieces - in buckets with water in them, which meant a lot of work already completed was ruined and had to be redone.
Nearby, a BSA stood upright on its mainstand, seemingly in good condition, but quite a few issues still had to be sorted out. For one thing, the carburettors had to be refitted after a problem with their mountings.
Harrison also has a few motorcycles in his own collection. Interestingly, he uses a German machine, a 1978 BMW R80/7, as his daily ride when the weather is good.
“People scratch on these bikes when they don’t know what they’re doing. If you over-tighten something, you could strip it or distort its shape and it won’t fit properly again.
“It’s widely recognised that old British bikes leak oil. There are very good reasons for that. One can do something about it up to a point, but the potential is always there for seepage.”
He points to an area on the Triumph where such a leak could easily happen. It was simply a design flaw.
“Sometimes you find something broken that’s very difficult to replace, so you try to fix it yourself, but you can never be sure it’s right until you’ve tested the bike. And it can be very disheartening to get to that point and discover you have to take it apart again.”
In the majority of cases, Harrison works on bikes that are not registered after having been deregistered.
“That means I can’t ride the bike to make sure everything keeps on working. It does happen that the bike runs fine on the bench, and then it goes back to its owner, only to come up with a problem later. And when that owner is far away from you, well, you can imagine that’s a real problem.”
On these motorcycles, nothing is quite what it seems. A bolt is not just a bolt and a nut not just a nut.
The thread used in many cases is made to archaic imperial measurements, and bolts and nuts that need to be replaced either come at huge cost or have to be hand-made. Harrison revealed that, while parts were almost impossible to get in South Africa, and services such as chrome work often turned out below par, engineering services here were top class.
“You have to seek out the small guy if you want real dedicated attention to your work, but the people here are very good at what they do,” he said.