Needful Things

The older I get, the more of an affinity I seem to have with old things. And not just things from my ‘era’ or youth either; even older artefacts from bygone times which have somehow, against all the odds, survived into the 21st Century.

Today we live in such a fickle, fashionistic and disposable society that nothing seems to last very long. When it’s broken, worn out, or in need of a little TLC (or sometimes just because it’s fallen from fleeting fashion, been usurped, outmoded or outdated) we simply throw it away and replace it.

But I’m here to tell you that recycling (or in this specific case re-cycling) can be a fun and worthy endeavour: a chance for you to bring something from a bygone era back to life, exercise your creativity, and own something you can bet not many of your friends will have (or be able to get hold of). Moreover you might learn something about that object, the people who made it, or even about yourself in the process.

I’ve always wanted a motorcycle, ever since I was a kid; and I’ve always ‘fixed things up’ (mostly through necessity). I’ve often thought about taking on a bigger restoration project like a classic car, but never had the time, the space and the money all at the same time. Recently though, I decided a bike restoration was feasible; and a great way to kill two birds with one stone (i.e. restore something and have something to ride at the end of it).

Living in the UK, a classic British bike seemed like the obvious choice. However prices of even unrestored examples of the most iconic and desirable models from classic British marques continue to escalate, year on year; and the ‘hot rodder’ in me wanted to make something out of nothing as far as possible. So I settled on the humble and ubiquitous BSA Bantam; the small, utilitarian motorcycle produced by BSA in various incarnations, from the late 1940s until the early 1970s.

Unable to locate a complete bike in need of restoration nearby, I took the decision to buy up all the old second hand parts I needed (which are still reasonably plentiful) to build one from the ground up, starting with just a bare 1953 D3 model frame. This fitted my scheme to make something out of nothing; essentially take a bunch of old, unloved scrap parts and bring them back to life again. It also meant I was free to mix and match parts and eras of Bantam production to create the bike I wanted to build.

Most of the parts have come via eBay. The frame came first, then a D7 front end, and 175cc D7 engine (in instalments). Plunger units for the semi-rigid rear end, and a couple of old wheels/hubs followed; and once I had a dented old D3 tank sitting on the frame, I already had what you see here – something which is starting to look like a motorcycle.

Of course some parts are unsalvageable; and will have to be replaced with new or remanufactured items; and there is a lot of grinding, blasting, cleaning, painting, rebuilding and servicing needed to make other things serviceable and presentable. But even in their dirty, raw, neglected state there is something beautiful about these parts. First of all, there is no plastic. Everything is metal, simply and honestly (but often ingeniously) engineered, with evidence of human hands and the human eye in their machining, fabrication and construction. Yes – there is dirt and rust, but there is also patina – wear and pitting and bloom which testifies to decades of service.

 

Finding some parts has been problematic; but also part of the enjoyment – an ongoing virtual archaeological hunt for treasure which occasionally surfaces from the depths of somebody’s shed, outbuilding, garage or attic and makes it onto an auction site listing. And at the end of the day, what can’t be bought can often be made; fabricated from steel bar and tube by hand with tools: brackets, spacers and clamps. Researching the history and evolution of this particular motorcycle has also been a necessary but enjoyable part of the project; and brought me into contact with like-minded weirdos who like nothing better than old cycle parts.

The machine is slowly but surely taking shape; a late-forties/early-fifties style competition/trail bike with a plunger frame and teardrop tank, with concessions to usability made with later forks, brakes and engine. Aside from having some of the parts media blasted to completely remove the dirt and rust, I intend to do (or more accurately learn to do) everything else in the process of the restoration myself; welding, painting, lacing the wheels and rebuilding the simple two-stroke motor.

When it’s finished, I’m sure I will have something to take both pride and pleasure in revealing to the rest of the world; and a satisfaction that something old and neglected will have life once more. So next time you’re looking for that special something, to fulfil a need or desire, and perhaps to set yourself apart from fickle fashion, why not give something old and timeless a second chance? It might not be a motorcycle or a car; it could be a bicycle, a guitar, a camera, a dolls house or a piece of furniture. Do yourself and the rest of the world a favour: hunt out a needful thing.

 

ian@tbumag.com

 

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