Biker Characters I Have Met

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton

AS ONE winds one’s weary way through life, people are met and paths are crossed. Characters of all different grades, ranging from kindly nut-cases to evil geniuses, will enhance your existence. Yeah, I’ve met some characters in my time, from fleeting meetings to life-long friendships. I try to see the best in people and adopt or adapt those good things to make my life easier/better/more fun.

One of those characters who had an impact on my life I’ll call Scappo because that’s what we all called him. ‘Scappo’ was a contraction of his much longer, much woggier surname; and regardless of the fact that he changed his name by deed-poll to a shorter, anglicised surname, the original nickname still sticks today.

Scappo was a good mate of my old mate Crusty, and to be truthful, I’m kind of glad I didn’t run with them before I eventually met them; it’s doubtful I’d still be alive!

Of the mob I ran with, I think Scappo was the first to actually get married and settle down; he had a couple of kids by the time I’d met him and definitely settled compared to the legendary stories I’d heard. Even though he hardly drank at all, he was still able to impress with outrageous behaviour when necessary.

I think a younger Scappo must’ve been one of those ‘lovable rogues’ we all hear about; you know the type — there’s the ‘right’ way to do something, a ‘wrong’ way, and then there’s the ‘Scappo’ way.

Before I knew him, Scappo was right into Kawasaki Triples, H1 and H2 models, the indecently quick but horrible two-strokes that smoked heavily and sounded like 10,000 tin cans (and pitched a lot of their riders off at speeds dangerous because of their evil handling traits). 

I’d heard all the stories of the heroically illegal drags at the Homebush ‘Brickies’, but by the time we became friends, Scappo’s toys were things like Kombi Campervans and sporting goods. Family stuff. At least he still rode bikes but was reduced to riding his wife’s bike, a borderline cool, late ’50s BMW R50.

Now that model Bee-Em, with its low-ish seating position and high-ish handlebars, is not a large bike, and Scappo was not a small bloke. He used to wear one of those big, billowy padded jackets, and when topped off with the full-face helmet, he always looked like he was shrugged down and giggling like Muttley the Cartoon Dog. With the Bee-Em so quiet, you’d swear all you could hear was “Hee-hee-hee” if ever you were riding along with Scappo.

Scappo’s attitude made you believe that his mechanical skills would go hand in fist with a lump hammer and a cold chisel, but nothing could be further from the truth; he was a thinker, a cool, analytical worker when it came to preparing bikes and even had a bit to do with fettling a bike which won the Adelaide Advertiser Three Hour Race.

Back in those heady days of the ’70s and ’80s Production Races, so many little legal (and semi-legal and even totally illegal) modifications to a showroom-stock bike could mean the difference between the winning bike and the rest of the field with their own variations of Last Place. Stuff like removing the pistons from a brand new bike and boring the cylinders to the maximum permissible oversize to take advantage of that few extra cubes a set of new, oversize pistons would bring. Stuff like removing the sealed wheel bearings on a brand new bike, ripping out the seals, flushing out the grease with thinners and re-lubricating them with light machine oil to reduce friction. Scappo figured the wheel bearings have to only last a few hundred kilometres so practice and the big race would be over just before the wheel bearings wore out. His theory was that age-old racing line that it didn’t matter if the bike fell apart after it had taken the chequered flag.

Scappo even came out to Amaroo Park to watch me race my AJS single in the early days of Historic Racing; at the end of the meeting, he told me to bring the bike to his shed the next weekend and he’d “have a look” at it.

I gotta tell ya; a few days in Scappo’s shed had done wonders for the old Ajay.

I was sceptical at first, as the man couldn’t believe there was no kill switch on the AJS and no positive manner of stopping the motor when you wanted to finish your riding.

“Most of the single cylinder Lucas magnetos of the early 1950s didn’t have a kill switch,” I explained to an incredulous Scappo. “If you wanted to kill the engine, you’d simply operate the valve lifter.”

“The valve lifter?” Scappo asked slowly and deliberately, speaking as a man who’d started riding on brand new motorcycles in the early 1970s when disc brakes and electric starters were just coming into vogue.

“Yeah,” I explained, “there’s a little lever on the handlebars you pull on and a cables transfers that down to the rocker box, lifts the exhaust valve, the engine loses compression and stops. Well, it would if I had the valve lifter fitted, which I don’t.”

And with the sound of “Bullshit!” ringing in my ears, Scappo hunkered down to the Ajay and tinkered and muttered for about a quarter of an hour before admitting defeat, then declaring: “There is no way of fitting a kill switch to this motorcycle,” and adding a further, but less confident, “Bullshit!”

Technically, you could adapt and fit a different Magneto end-cap and rig up a ‘dead short’ to earth the spinning points arm and make a kill switch but that was more like hard work.

But soon Scappo had the cylinder head off the old Ajay, then the cylinder barrel. There was good and there was bad news: “That bore is fine, the piston is great and the rings are perfect; it looks like it was running pretty well.”

I was about to wobble my head smugly when he added, “However… the compression is leaking from the head to cylinder barrel joint, at the copper head gasket…”

Sure enough, when the magnifying glass and the micrometers come out, it’s easy to see the things you would miss if you didn’t know where to look.

As Scappo pointed out, the true head joint seal was supposed to be the spigot on the top of the barrel mating perfectly with the recess in the cylinder head face. Within minutes, I had been assigned the laborious task of lapping the head joint with grinding paste, and after a long time, the magnifying glass showed a perfect, all-round mating surface so the barrel was refitted.

And things got really weird and hi-tech when Scappo let me in on one of his tuning tips.

After returning from his kitchen, he presented me with a sheet of Alfoil and a pair of scissors. My brief was to cut a circular ring from the Alfoil sheet to equate with the 82 mm bore of the Ajay and a few millimetres more to make up the width of the spigot. It was a struggle but fitted perfectly. Then, Scappo produced the magic potion—a can of Silverfros silver paint which was applied to both sides of the Alfoil ring.

“Silver paint contains a lot of aluminium,” Scappo explained. “As soon as the engine starts, the aluminium in the paint cooks along with the Alfoil and… trust me on this one.”

I did, and more than three decades later, that’s still the method of fitting AJS heads for me. It does make it bloody difficult to lift the head for service, though; it’s sort of like the cast iron head and barrel are alloy welded together… or more correctly, soldered using alloy.

As the Ajay had been a dirt track racer before I became its third owner, the engine was already warmed over—high compression Sid Willis piston and big, beefy Sid Willis camshafts, coupled with better cylinder head breathing. Scappo determined the existing work done to the inlet and exhaust ports was fine, and did some magic with both inlet and exhaust valves. With the motor buttoned back up, it was time to take it for a test ride and, oh boy! What a difference in power!

Scappo had determined that my gear changing was a problem, saying I was missing gear-changes at the same place every lap. We whipped the box apart then he sent me home with a massive magnifying glass to trawl through the two plastic buckets of AJS/Matchless gearbox pinions that I had collected. Careful inspection had produced a complete, A-grade cluster of gears that were assembled perfectly and didn’t it make a difference!

The final two pieces in the puzzle took a while longer — lining up both wheels so they were in perfect alignment was fulfilling but nothing made such a huge difference to lap times than Scappo’s final instructions: “Fit a bigger, better front brake,” he said and that’s what I did, installing a single-leading shoe, 8-inch brake from a BSA Gold Star.

The difference all those improvements made was astounding: five seconds a lap around the old Amaroo Park circuit, and that came about by simply following instructions from someone who knew what they were talking about. It was another parcel of information I would take with me to improve my life.

For a while, Scappo worked in a major Suzuki dealer on the North Shore of Sydney and one Easter weekend, he borrowed a big Suzuki from the showroom floor to ride up to the Bathurst Bike Races. It was early morning and I was on my Norton with my best girl, The Goog, riding pillion. We were fairly motoring along down the dip in Pennant Hills Road when some durn fool Eejit in a car ahead started doing unusual stuff. Pennant Hills Road wasn’t a full three-laner in those days, and this dork was wavering between the two lanes, slowing down, speeding up. With no indication, the dickhead swerved fully into the left lane, so Scappo and I both pegged the throttles to blast past this prick. For his final trick, the dufus driver then started a massive swerve over to make a loony right turn into a side street. Self preservation kicked in for me and I slammed on the anchors while Scappo held the throttle flat to swerve around him. It was the closest I’d ever seen the front of a car come to side of a bike (and leg) without making actual contact. It was also the biggest swerve by a motorcycle towards oncoming traffic I’d ever seen. Scappo’s saving grace was not just his swerving and contortionist capabilities; the moron driver had, at the last second turned straight ahead again.

With Scappo powering back to the correct side, the idiot car driver was stationary in the oncoming lane, and I’d come to a stop beside his open passenger window. I shouted (loud enough to hurt my throat), “You should be ROOTED you DICKHEAD!” I’d never seen a driver more shocked or shaking after nearly causing a disaster.

At the next petrol stop, Scappo’s only comment was, “Yeah, no, I had it all under control.

But that was better than the previous year on the Scappo Scale. I was racing at Bathurst so Scappo, always the opportunist, asked if he could borrow my Norton Commando road bike to make the trip to the Mount.

“Well, yeah,” I said, “but it runs out of rego the day before Bathurst and I don’t have the time to get the pink slip inspection.”

“You give me the rego money; I’ll get the pink slip and re-register it no probs,” he said.

Yeah, well, that was the plan. But when I met up with him at Bathurst, I thought things a little odd as I looked at the brand new registration label; it was the wrong month for my bike. The ‘lovable rogue’ had simply taken the rego label from his bike trailer, rubbed out the details (in the old days, the labels had Make, Model, Horsepower Rating, Engine Number and Registration Number typed onto a white panel on the label. He’d simply typed in the correct information on his wife’s typewriter and even the typeface was miles different to the genuine Roads and Traffic Authority blurb. He had just ridden an unregistered, uninsured motorcycle with a ‘Registration Label Calculated To Deceive’, into the greatest hotspot for cops v. bikers.

But that was Scappo for you.

Another character who enrichened my life was Rob Hart, better known as Rob the Rudge. Rob died a fair while ago but in his life, he was, oh, I don’t know — irrepressible.

Rob was so taken by the Rudge brand of motorcycle that he had numerous different models, including a 500 cc single-cylinder sidecar outfit which used to keep the bigger 650-twins honest. It didn’t matter what the situation, he always had a dopey grin on his dial and was always willing to help anyone out with anything.

Rob Hart and Mick Alton on Rudge Outfit at Lakeside.

Rob was one of those all-rounder engineer/fabricator/restorer types who could turn his hand to anything. The beautiful, high-level exhaust pipe on my Manx Norton was expertly sand-bent by Rob. It clung so close and tight to the Manx and was so tucked in but it cleared perfectly. The one-piece pipe and megaphone is held on only at the exhaust port by the original Norton ring, plus one 5/16” bolt at the rear. It has never fractured, never come loose and the whole exhaust can be removed in minutes.

Of course, as was the case with most of the old-style craftsmen, Rob’s sand-bent pipe prices came down if the customer was prepared to assist the process by supplying the muscle and keeping up close and personal with the massive LPG flame that could heat great lengths of sand-filled pipe to cherry red.

In fact, Rob the Rudge was a boat-builder by trade so it wasn’t just metal he could craft; he was also a dab hand at steam-bending wood for many varied applications even outside the boat-building world.

I once bumped into Rob in Mosman, in Sydney’s Lower North Shore. On racks on top of his truck were about 20 impossibly long and beautifully curved pieces of timber, and I even offered to help him carry each one up into an almost-finished building near Spit Junction. Each one was steam-bent into massive ‘S’ shapes, and each one started as a single plank of very expensive timber. It seems the architect had come up with a brilliant idea of using the most expensive timber as skirting boards to compliment the brilliant idea of ‘S’ shaped corridors, and of course, they couldn’t be nailed down and curved around ‘dry’ in case it ‘stressed’ the timber. Architects, aye?

I asked Rob if it would be an expensive operation for him and did he charge the customer enough to cover the cost of the job?

“Oh, my very word, I charged him,” Rob winked. “He wasn’t into bikes, so he copped full whack; the ‘brilliant architect’ price.”

Apart from the sidecar racing, the pipe bending and the wood warping, the thing that impressed me most about Rob the Rudge was when he took part in a 1988 Bi-Centennial road rally on his 1911 Rudge ‘Brooklands’ racer. This Rudge racer was a belt drive single-speeder with no gearbox or clutch, just a valve lifter to kill the motor was the difference between flying along flat-out or chuff-chuffing to a halt with a killed motor. It had no light, no legalities like mudguards or horn or even brakes. Well, it did have a kind of a brake on the rear, but not much.

Rob Hart on 1911 Brooklands Rudge at Lakeside.

The great thing about the rally was that it was from Darwin to Sydney, and Rob rode that crotchety old machine the whole way. The really cool part was that it had a registration label and was legal to ride anywhere in Australia. The supercool part was that when Rob and the 1911 Rudge arrived back in Sydney, it still had a month or so of legal rego, so the eccentric character decided the veteran motorcycle would be his daily rider until the permit expired. That would’ve been interesting in Sydney traffic. But that was Rob the Rudge for you.

Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

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