Accentuate the positive

WHETHER we like it or not, our annual visits to the UK are pretty well inevitable for the immediate future. My mother, now 91, is over there still alive and kicking and so’s the wife’s, so I understand it’s part of my duties to disappear over the blue horizon once in a while, to go and sit with her and chat. It’s no hardship. We both enjoy swapping stories. There might even be the odd glass of sherry. And there are other benefits.

This time I’m going in the northern summer, I’ll be visiting friends, seeing some things, and taking in two or three rounds of the British Superbike Championship. So unlike the last half a dozen visits, I won’t be heading for the local pub bent double against the blast of a winter gale to spend the evening huddled over the fire with my teeth chattering while the locals complain about the unseasonal warmth. For this visit, too, there’s one more consideration: the wife isn’t coming along so that reshuffles the pack again, particularly regarding transport. Hitherto, we’ve routinely come out of the airport, jumped straight onto the Hertz courtesy bus and trundled off in search of the hatchback du jour we’ve booked for the duration of the trip. No car for me this time.

Now, I realised before I began looking that rental bikes would be more expensive than cars. We all know bikes are more costly in most respects: it’s one of the penalties exacted from us for the joy of belonging to a privileged minority. But I also thought our eternally strong dollar might deliver some benefits. So when I discovered that a 600 Hornet, for example, costs around $450 a week to hire in Britain – some 50 per cent more than your average cheap and cheerful hatchback – I began to wonder.
And when I saw the reference to the take-it-or-leave-it $1150 insurance excess, I started to revise my plans altogether.

Yes, there are cheaper hire alternatives, but I really don’t fancy making the 500km from the family seat to Yorkshire on a 150cc scooter. And so, plunged into a mood of deep despair, I reviewed the situation and began to consider everything, excluding cars, from bicycles to British Rail (train travel is good if costly in the UK, but it won’t get you within 20km of Cadwell Park or Oulton Park). I came out the other side wondering whether to buy a bike over there.

For a matter of weeks? Pure fantasy surely. Well, maybe, but it’s worth a look, I thought. The benefits? My bike, I can do what I like with it; and I could resell it later or, if I can find someone with a little spare garage space, hang onto it for the next trip. Disadvantages? For the money I’d have to spend, whatever I bought wouldn’t be very grand. No pannier-equipped FJR1300s, for example. And on-road costs would have to be found and paid. I did the sums. To come out in the black, I’d need to buy something and add insurance and tax (rego) for less than the cost of hiring.

Call it $1800 or, in local lingo, eleven hundred nicker. I started thinking, an event in itself. For the kind of short- to middle-distance riding I’d be doing in the UK, unlimited cubes wouldn’t be needed, which was just as well, because I wouldn’t be able to afford them. Nope, I’d need to look at the unloved and unlovely to find what I needed. Yam 350LCs/400s, most Jap 600s, anything Italian, these would be out. I’d have to look into the spurned ranks of the unsuccessful and unpopular.

Now, unsuccessful is one thing, and as often as not there’s a good reason for the judgement; unpopular is something else, and usually has more to do with prejudice than engineering. Unpopular is also local, so while you and I might think bike A to be so much rodent’s ordure, the Brits might lap them up – and vice versa, naturally. My first thought was a BMW R80.
The last of the line, the MonoLever model introduced in 1985 is as good a lightweight touring device as I can imagine, and all but forgotten except by those fortunate enough to own one. And there was one pretty well straight away: a 1987 model in good trim, 32,000 miles on the clock.

Too good to be true. Well yes, but only just – the asking price was $2600. Next, I started looking at the Honda NTV series. Water-cooled single-cam V-twin. Shaft drive. I can’t remember whether these came here or not. The 600 was released first, then the 650. I rode a Honda GB 650 press bike in the middle 1990s and thought it pleasant enough.
There are a few around too, starting at around $1500. I looked briefly at MZ 250 two-strokes, immediately remembered billowing clouds of smoke and an irritating tinny sound, and moved on. I looked, more lingeringly, at the few CB77 Hondas on sale, remembered I didn’t have $5k to spend and moved on again.

Finally I got to Suzuki SV650s. Millions around, not expensive even when new. And sure enough, a long list of useful bikes with few kilometres on board and not so old. Found a faired bike going for $1500 and an unfaired example in comparable condition for $1350. Honda XBR500, did you say?
Don’t be silly, the Brits love singles. Or so I’m told. Watch this space.

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