The night the Londoners rolled into town
It was one of those typical British summer evenings that live in the rose-tinted glass reflections of my life as a young motorcyclist growing up in a seaside town in South Devon, England (home of “Fawlty Towers” for any of you John Cleese fans). Warm, dry, and with the long lingering daylight that wrapped itself around the summer solstice, our small town’s pavements were packed with holidaymakers. As they meandered along the busy streets, the sounds of pinball and slot machines floated through the air, accompanied by the smell of cotton candy and popcorn. In the saddle of a battle-weary Yamaha XT500, on a night like this, my threadbare existence seemed to matter not, as the whole town was alive and I was out on the prowl.
I pulled over at the end of the High Street, and in short order the street was filled with the sound and vibration of lightly muffled big bore engines as a group of road warriors arrived and parked up next to me, pulling off helmets and bug-stained leather jackets. Barely nineteen years of age at the time, a small group of adult bikers had made the trip down from London, and there, right next to me in the line of bikes, was the most incredible machine I had ever laid eyes on. A black, Harris Magnum framed Kawasaki Z1000. With no fairing and a sleeping bag attached to the stock Kawasaki gauges on the headlight, the owner carried a large, heavy-duty chain over his shoulder with a massive padlock. Dirty jeans, scuffed leather boots, and white t-shirt under the black leather jacket, Nick as he introduced himself, had a few items of clothing strapped onto the passenger seat in a cloth bag.
Neale’s Yamaha XT500.
It was one of those motorcycle moments that will live with me always: This wild group of “real bikers” on full sized motorcycles riding all the way from London. In hindsight a journey of 200 miles is not a great feat of endurance, but for a teenager who rarely strayed out of his home county on his old XT it was an epic adventure. Bugs, oil and dirt stained their motorcycles, and as my old mother would have said, “they were a rough crowd.” I marveled at a Harris, the way the Reynolds 531 tubing wrapped around the monster engine, the svelte, two-person seat that looked just like a racing tail piece, and the four into one exhaust system jutting out from the side of the bike. I was mesmerized. Looking back, I don’t remember the other bikes, or riders, just that brute, black Harris Magnum.
It was the first Harris I’d seen in real life. Up till that point, my only exposure to the British frame maker was a poster from the MCN (Motorcycle News) of the famous Page 3 model Samantha Fox sitting on a Harris Magnum Kawasaki 550 in a set of tight leathers in a Crossbow calendar. As a very amply adorned young lady, it was certainly a very popular calendar at the time and the subject of a lot of lust for an unemployed, spotty 19 year old on a 28 horsepower single cylinder 500 with a car muffler welded on to replace the worn out stock exhaust system.
Samantha Fox, her Kawasaki Harris Magnum 550 Crossbow, and the poster that adorned many an English lad’s bedroom walls.
During the course of the evening, it was clear that Nick was the leader of the pack and we were soon joined by my nitwit mate Wibbly on his Honda XL125, who happened to come riding by. Talk of scoring some weed, grabbing some beer, and finding the guys a place to free camp were soon on the table, and some time later we led the Londoners to a quiet beach cove we could go to undisturbed. Firing up the XT, riding ahead of a group of fire-breathing superbikes, and holding court later around an open fire at a beach party was one of those magical evenings of youth that burn forever in the memory banks. And, today whenever I see an old Harris Magnum, Bimota, Spondon or Moto Martin- from the era when Japanese motorcycles were not the perfect machines they are today, and these small cottage industries could stay in business improving them- these memories come flooding back as if it were yesterday.
Later in life, I bought (and still own) a 1997 Triumph T595, with its silver Harris replica style frame, racing bodywork, and three-into-one exhaust. No prizes for guessing where the Triumph designer got his influences growing up, or what drew me immediately to purchase it. And as someone who has spent his life admiring and riding race replicas, I wonder in today’s crazy world what dreams are made when we pull our modern motorcycles up on the sidewalks of America. What thoughts will the engineers, designers, and riders of the future have? I hope, like for me, it inspires a lifetime of two-wheeled riding and all the amazing people and experiences that come along with that journey.