Freedom at forty-five
The transformation of becoming a teenager is very traumatic. Your mental state changes as dramatically as your physical appearance. And your needs change too.
Transport suddenly becomes essential as the world doesn’t just revolve around the bit of grass, bushes and a muddy stream just outside the front door. It is then that the explorer within starts to make a few tentative steps into the unknown.
I realise that in most cases this is only as far as the next group of shops but nevertheless the urge to get out of sight of the parents becomes paramount.
This is why, as a teenager I was gutted to not have a bike. I lived far enough from my school to miss out on activities that involved pointlessly hanging around on bicycles and although I was pretty fit (like all kids were in the seventies) I couldn’t keep up on foot when they all peddled off to the next crucial hanging about point.
The fact that I was not allowed a bicycle as a child, due to some old nonsense about not keeping up with traffic, meant that when I was sixteen and legally allowed to ride a powered vehicle I was transformed.
The day I first rode a moped was as important to me as the time when a caterpillar first emerges as a butterfly. Although anyone witnessing those first tentative miles would probably liken it to an hour old fawn riding a wasp.
I was given a choice.
My elder brother of two years (hello Mark) was provided with a gleaming moped on his sixteenth birthday. He chose a Gilera 50. A sturdy moped based on an accommodating 125cc motorcycle frame.
When I reached the magic age myself I was also offered a new ‘ped or I could opt for a ‘second-hand’ motorcycle at seventeen. As I was generously allowed to use Mark’s Gilera I decided to defer the gift for a year and use the Gilera, as and when I could. Mark rarely saw it again.
The sturdy design meant that it was a comfortable bike, which was just as well as I spent many a full day buzzing along for hours on end. The near 80 to the gallon meant that my wages could easily keep the tank full and my new found wanderlust was well accommodated. There was barely a road on the south coast that I hadn’t been down. Some started to show signs of wear from overuse!
Being Italian it was red and handled well. In those days only Italian metal could properly get round a bend.
The proper motorcycle design ensured that the only restriction was the stupidly positioned pedals. These were a moped requirement and although they both locked in a parallel forward position (not all did) they grounded far too easily.
Tyre technology was dire compared to today’s wide sticky compounds but this little solid bike could be predictably pushed to the limits of ground clearance and frequently was.
The downside was the top speed.
At forty-five miles per hour most sixteen year olds today would be over the moon. But this was 1975 and Yamaha had just released the FS1E, its new 50cc sports moped. And my mate Jeff had one.
The Fizzy was a strange slight thing, much like Jeff, but it had an enviable top end nearing fifty. It was probably only 48 but the 65 that showed on the Speedo meant that all spotty teens wanted one. And when they got it its little heart was pushed to the limit whenever ridden.
And then there was the Honda. Not the ubiquitous Cub step-through but their CB50 version of a mini-racer. This would speed at a shown 48, nearly as quick as the Yam, and my friend Dave had had one of these.
My Gilera, or should I say Mark’s Gilera, was beaten hands down. And as teenager’s brains do not allow them to temper the throttle all our ride outs together usually meant me following in a slipstream of blue haze and Castrol GTX.
Until I got to a bend, as the Jap bikes couldn’t handle anything other than a straight. Or when we had to ride up a hill as the screaming Japanese machines were so power stressed that they had no torque. Plus, when we started using the mopeds for their true use, picking up girls, the Gilera still went 45 with a passenger while the others wheezed along at 40. Ha!
So other than top speed and limited cornering angles there was nothing to beat the Gilera.
I acknowledge that the electrics, as a six-volt system, were inadequate, barely powering the headlight which used to beam only as bright as it was revved but they were all like that in those days.
However the fit and finish was good, reliability was excellent, it was as strong as an ox and the accommodation and comfort were first class.
So would I choose it if I had my time again? Definitely no. Haven’t you been listening? It only did 45 and that was all that mattered.
But in hindsight my memories are not of the seats, the colour, the handling or even the speed.
I was sixteen, confident, daring. Couple that with inexperience and the net result, as many found out, was falling off.
The halcyon days of the moped were marred by crashes. Copious amounts of them. And when you live through them they make great pub stories.
The first was typical.
After visiting my friend across town I decided on a detour on the return trip. On unfamiliar roads I would now be wary. At sixteen I was just plain carefree.
It wasn’t high speed, or even the appearance of a roundabout beyond the blind bend that caught me out. It was the panic braking that caused the spill.
Even today the road is so quiet I could have sailed straight on, but at the time, not knowing the terrain I grabbed loads of brake and locked the wheels. The inevitable occurred and I was sent sprawling on the tarmac watching the Gilera spin away onto the roundabout in a shower of sparks.
This itself, whilst dramatic, hardly warrants pub-story status. What added to this was a bus load of pensioners parked on the far side of the roundabout. Every one of these grey-coated souls turned to look at the fool lying in the road with his sideways bike still purring away.
No-one came to the rescue, presumably assuming I was OK or dead, with neither option needing their involvement. I just lay there. I wasn’t hurt. A bit shocked perhaps but mainly because this was my first off and I hadn’t yet worked out what to do.
Later experience of these things taught me that you are allowed to get up if you want to but I didn’t know that. In fact later on getting up too early was the problem but you’ll have to read about that in my CX500 page.
On this day I lay there wondering whether an ambulance should come, or a policeman or my mother.
I must have been there for some time before I realised my mistake and rose, dusted myself off, picked up the bike and rode away.
I remember waving to the crowd on the bus, trying to promote an image that it was all planned and I’d be back around again for a repeat performance should they cheer loud enough. One or two waved back but I wasn’t about to do it all again. I rode off in to the distance, a bit more carefully from then on.
It was the first of too many spills which punctuated my early riding days.
I recall another moment in those early days during a ride out to Bournemouth with Dave. It was a fine summers day and we fancied an ice-cream and a gawp at some girls in bikinis so we set out on the forty mile journey, an epic at moped speeds.
I hadn’t had the bike long, it must have just had the new handlebars fitted after the bus-stop episode, as the bike still wore its L-plates. Unusually, and the only one amongst my friends, I later took the test to be able to ride L-plate free. This got me stopped by men in white cars with orange stripes quite a lot (you do remember the days when plod drove marked cars don’t you?) but it did allow me to take all my girlfriends on the back (not all at once though).
The L-plate was significant. In fact crucial to the event. The rear one was mounted attached to the Gilera’s number-plate by a Meccano strip and during that tortuous journey had loosed itself and started rattling. Most would have ignored it, hoping that it would detach but the rattling irritated me.
At this point I should have pulled over and attended it in safety at the side of the road, but as we were riding solo I was struggling to keep up with the Honda ahead. Stopping was out of the question. So I inspected the problem on the move.
Imaging the scenario, a real don’t try this at home moment. I’m doing forty-five, yes that speed again, leaning back to fiddle with an L-plate that is mounted low and behind the rear wheel. If Gerry Cottle had seen me I would have been signed up there and then.
But I didn’t fall off. Not whilst checking the plate. The trouble started when I settled back to look forward. I was still doing forty-five but now there was a pavement directly ahead. Not that the road had changed, just my course.
I did what anyone would do at that time, I hit it fair and square! The front went airborne and came down on its side, with me half underneath. Luckily the tree-lined avenue was more gap than tree so I came to a slow but mercifully recoverable stop.
I was a bit sore and felt stupid but got back up to ride again. After all, Dave hadn’t noticed and was ploughing on regardless. I had to make up time.
I lifted the bike back onto the road, re-selected neutral and re-started the stalled engine. It started, as usual, first time so I pulled in the clutch to select first gear – and the cable broke.
The impact onto the softened tarmac pavement was taken by the clutch lever which had filled with a tarmac blob that severed the cable when operated. I had no clutch.
No problem, clutches are for pussies anyway. I snicked it into gear and shot off after Dave.
Dave was devastated. He had missed the spectacle and more importantly our chances of pulling were blown. I wanted to go straight home to miss the weekend crowds but Dave wanted his ice-cream. So we went to the beach side and had ice-cream, his topped with crushed nuts, mine with strawberry sauce and gravel rash.
This was eventually followed by a mad dash back home along a crowded bank holiday route with no clutch. I figured that all I had to do was keep going, so that’s what I did. I never dropped below thirty, timed all the traffic lights perfectly, went straight through the roundabouts whether the nearby cars were stopped or not and got all the way to a set of lights in Southampton before a stop caused me to stall. Some forty miles later. It is amazing what feats are achievable in the face of adversity.
I suppose, in hindsight, I’m rather fond of the Gilera. It took me on adventures I had never had before and accompanied me through a harrowing time of growing up. I learnt to ride solo, corner, take passengers and crash. It was an important time and the moped played its part without complaint.
I handed it back to Mark when I got my Yamaha trial bike at seventeen and started all the adventures again but it was the Gilera that kicked it all off. And in quite a dramatic manner.
I suppose it was a bit like a teenager itself in a way.
Author: Vince Poynter
From the bikes section of the vinceunlimited.co.uk website dated 6 Feb 2018
First Published: Version 1.03 in Feb 2005, with photos added in 2018
The first image shows my double denim clad brother Mark sat astride his new Gilera moped in 1977
The second image show the moped under my posession in 1978 during a trip with my friend Jeff on his yellow Yamaha FS1E. Italian style meets Japanese power.
The third image shows me fiddling with the exhaust pipe of the Gilera, obviously demonstrating admirably that I am a fully qualified trained mechanic, able at least to hold a motorcycle part with just one hand.