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PHIL SMITH

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From 1940s to 1960s: My Introduction to Motorcycling

When I was "kneehigh to a grasshopper" and the handlebars of the average motorbike were still way above my head, I can remember being enthralled at the sight of motorbikes, nearly always with sidecars fitted, that used to park in the streets of Chilwell near where I lived.  I can remember lots of Harley-Davidson V-twins with their exposed pushrods which operated overhead inlet valves; I used to love to watch the rider start his machine and loved to see those pushrods jumping up and down and those rockers pushing down on the valves.  Of course, at that age, I had no clue at all of what the various moving parts were called, I just loved to watch them.  I can also remember that one nearby industry had a few old hand-shift BMW Boxer-twin machines which hauled huge box sidecars.  The BMW R75 had two gear levers beside the tank on the right hand side.  One selected the four forward speeds of the front gearbox; and one selected reverse gear. Another lever down on the right changed between high and low ratios in the gearbox back at the differential. This machine had eight forward and two reverse gears.  I only learned the intricate details many years later ... to me as a little guy it was amazing enough that the bike had three gear-shift levers!  This model of bike also had an enormous dome on top of the fuel tank.  I learned much later in life that this item was the air cleaner for the motor.

ottar_kevin 001.jpg (150026 bytes)My uncle Ottar was forever tinkering with his motorbikes in the back yard and patiently  explaining such things as, "This is the piston ... this is the cylinder ... this black stuff is carbon ... etc.," even though I didn't really have much of a clue about what he was talking about.  But most importantly, a love for motorbikes began to grow inside.   In the picture at right Ottar Abrahmsen on the left is showing Kevin Tomasini his Calthorpe of unknown vintage and unknown engine capacity.  From the photo I can see it is a side-valve with the magneto fitted out in front of the frame down tube.  The bike was fitted with the then-standard girder forks ... telescopic forks were still exceptionally rare.  I remember watching Ottar working on this bike over and over again.  This picture was taken in the back yard at 9 Bloomsbury Street Chilwell, Geelong.  On all photographs on this page, click on the thumbnail to see a larger photo with greater detail.

As I continued to grow, my dad rode motorbikes and I fondly remember peering around him to watch as he stripped and re-built motors and generally kept his bikes well serviced.   Many times I got to ride behind him on the pillion seat; my dad was never into sidecars.  I especially loved the run from Geelong to Bacchus Marsh and back.

speed-twin (55065 bytes)In about 1960, Dad's Triumph Speed Twin (500cc OHV Parallel Twin) motorbike caught fire as he started it outside Auntie Annice's place in Chilwell and was quite badly burnt before the fire brigade put it out.  He had it brought home to Belmont where we then lived and bought a second-hand Norton 600cc OHV Single to ride to work on while he re-built the Triumph.  Many, many nights we worked in the shed through to the wee small hours of the morning as that Triumph was gradually repaired, repainted and reassembled.  I think the most amazing thing to me while rebuilding that bike, was to see the inner workings of the sprung hub.  The photo at right is not my Dad's Speed Twin but it is exactly identical in every way including the colour scheme.  My love for all things mechanical was continuing to grow.  And during this time I gained an excellent understanding of the innards of a motorbike engine.

My dad bought all of his new motorbike spare parts from Pratt & Osborne Motors at the corner of Moorabool and Myers streets in Geelong.  When I was just a little kid, he introduced me to Norm Osborne.  Little did I guess then that I was going to be dealing with Norm and his son Allan long after my own dad was dead and gone.  And if I had occasion to go back to Geelong with a motorbike today, more than fifty years later, I would still ride up to that corner to see whether any of the people I once knew at Pratt & Osborne are still there.  I should imagine Norm would have passed away years ago and Allan has probably well and truly retired by now.

I think Dad knew for sure he had a motorcycling son when he looked out his office window one day and saw me going past helmetless as pillion passenger on a BSA 500cc single which had picked me up while I was hitch-hiking.  I was about 16 years old at that time.  When he got home that night, Dad tried to tell me off for riding on a motorbike without a helmet.  At the same time I could see in his face that he knew that if he were me he would have done the same thing.

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This page was last updated on 07/02/08 at 07:15:25 Hong Kong Time.

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Copyright 1996 - 2010 Phil Smith, all rights reserved. All contents in this web site are provided as is without warranty of any kind. Phil Smith expressly disclaims any liability from the use of any information in this web site.

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Note that the e-mail address for Phil Smith (also known as "Doctor Disk") has been changed to phil DOT drdisk AT gmail DOT com with effect from 18th March 2006.  To use this e-mail address, in your e-mail program's "To" field, type out the words in blue replacing " AT " with "@" and replacing " DOT " with "." so that there are no spaces.  Sorry for the inconvenience, but my junk mail had passed 1,000 items per day.

 

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