Triumph Bonnevilles Don’t Grow On Trees

Biker Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

THEY SAY if you remember the 1970s, you didn’t drink, because the ’70s was the last decade available to pissheads before we all got religion in the shape of random breath testing and the .05 limit. If you rode a motorbike back then, you didn’t have to do much to be pulled over and booked for something, but you had to be doing something really stupid before they’d put you on the bag and test for excessive amounts of blood in the old alcohol system.

If you kept it cool, didn’t give the finger to the coppers and made sure all your lights were working, you were generally safe.

Another feature of the ’70s was the inevitability of massive and well-planned strikes by rabid unions. Beer strikes were common at Christmas, petrol strikes always came before any holiday period, and bus strikes were all year round. Even the bakers went on a bread strike but only when you were really tonguin’ for a roast beef and pickle sandwich.

It was during one of those horrible petrol strikes that I found myself in a turd-barrel of trouble, and it was all down to the petrol strike, not my own youthful stupidity. See, me and a mate, Demon, had left the Steyne Hotel on Manly Beach very late one Saturday night, heading for Sweet Fanny Adams’ nightclub on Collaroy Beach. Demon was on his Suzuki GS-750, and I was on my 1950 AJS single.

“Your tail-light’s not working,” Demon told me before we’d even left the pub.

It’s a paradox, but having a red light shining on the arse-end of your bike on a dark night means you don’t get noticed; not having a light will get you well and truly noticed by the cops. The only place to buy a globe was a service station. Now, it was the height of the petrol strike so all service stations were closed; there were only a few all-nighters in Sydney and most of those were taxi bases, but even they were closed to the general public during a strike anyway. We had enough juice in the tanks to go everywhere but I needed a tail-light globe before going anywhere.

I hit upon a grand idea, and high-tailed it to my place just up the road in Fairlight. In my garage was a mate’s bike I was minding, and it had a tail-light globe for sure. The bike in question was a rough old Triumph Bonneville owned by Lindsay Apartheid, a South African mate who’d gone back to South Africa for three months to see his folks. Now, before Lindsay flew out to an uncertain holiday, he’d asked me to mind the Bonnie, as his lodgings in Darlinghurst was so suss, he was certain nothing of his would still be there on his return—if he returned. See, Lindsay Apartheid figured it was a 50/50 bet that upon his arrival in South Africa, he’d be called up into the army. He was sure they’d send him to Zimbabwe, give him a gun and say, “See thet bleck chep over there named Robert Mugabe—be a good chep and shoot him for us, there’s a good led.”

Lindsay had asked me to mind the rotten Trumpy for the initial three months but, if he got conscripted, with maybe a couple of years extension. Of course, he said if he didn’t make it through, the Triumph was mine.

Like I said, it was a bit of a dog-box; it went well, but was a ’64 motor in a ’71 frame, plus it had a fat 16-inch chopper wheel on the back. If you know your Triumphs, you’ll know that fat, 16-inch choppers wheels don’t really fit on the back, but with a fair bit of fiddlin’ an’ fartin’ they’ll go in. Usually, for chain clearance, the wheel is cocked out of line to the right, which, funnily enough, makes the bike steer off to the left when you let go of the handlebars. The blokes who ride Triumphs with fat back wheels usually become oblivious to the constant correction of steering right to counteract this handling aberration.

Irrespective of all this malarkey, the Triumph had a viable tail-light globe, and I was going to borrow it for that night. Lindsay had told me I could ride the bike anytime I wanted, but I was a bit leery about boozy nights on borrowed bikes—they always end in tears. The Trump hadn’t turned a wheel since Lindsay left. Demon shone his headlight into the garage (no electricity—how did we ever get through our youth?) and I fumbled, fell and swore foul until I found a screwdriver. I unscrewed my tail-light lens, put it down then unscrewed Lindsay’s lens, removed the globe and held it aloft like a holy relic. In the shadowy glare, I walked to the AJS and a crunching sound told me I’d stepped on my tail-light lens and crushed it to death. No worries—I’ll use Lindsay’s lens as well!

Aghhhh—screw-holes in the wrong place!

We were going to Fanny’s and that was that, so Lindsay’s globe and lens were refitted to his bike and the Ajay was left parked in the garage.

Lindsay’s bike felt great—more power than the Ajay—and the fast-drumming twin cylinder feel was certainly different to the Ajay’s singular kettle-drum thump.

We had a good time a Sweet Fanny Adams, but sadly, didn’t pull any chicks, so it was ‘hit the road’ time again.

We decided a ride to the West Head lookout via Coal and Candle Creek was in order; we headed north on Pittwater Road.

It was around the middle of the infamous Warriewood Straight that I decided to do one of my standard tricks—number 37b in the catalogue of dumb things to do on a motorbike. Number 37 in the catalogue is setting the throttle friction stop for 60 miles per hour, then jumping up and standing bolt upright on the seat. It looks really funny and never fails to impress. 37b is a simple variation, where you stand on the seat of your motorcycle going 60 miles per hour and flap your arms like you were a big, dumb, featherless eagle.

So midway along Warriewood Straight, with Demon following close behind, that’s just what I did. I jumped up, stood bolt upright and proceeded to flap my arms in an upwardly and downwardly motion. At this point, I remembered about the crooked rear wheel, and the fact that this Trumpy veered off to the left as soon as the handlebars were released. Up until that particular time in my short but exciting life, I’d faced many situations where a good, hearty “Uh-oh!” was needed and this was definitely one of them.

“Uh-oh!” I said, then leapt down very quickly. It wasn’t really quick enough and nowhere near accurate and I fell to the ground.

At 60 miles per hour.

This was going to hurt.

It did.

The last thing I saw was Lindsay’s Triumph changing lanes all by itself. Then, while still perfectly upright, it sent a bizarre shower of sparks in a giant rooster tail behind it. Hmmm, that usually only happens when the bike is on its side and sliding along.

I jumped up from the roadway the second I stopped sliding, then ordered everyone off the roadway because it would attract the cops.

That was my recollection of the post-fall events. However, in reality, things were slightly different. I got told the full story by Demon later that night but it didn’t sink in. The passage of time has now convinced me that on that Saturday night, I suffered a very serious concussion.

Thirty years after the event, a quick phone call to good old Demon proved his story hadn’t changed. Here’s what he said:

“There I was, following Kelly on the Triumph, and all of a sudden, he just stood up on the seat and began to flap his arms like a big, dumb, featherless eagle. The bike veered to the left, and he just fell, hit the deck and rolled and tumbled for so far I couldn’t believe it. The Trumpy changed lanes into the gutter lane, then changed lanes again into the gutter itself. When the primary case hit the gutter, a huge rooster tail of sparks flew out the back of the bike.

“I had to swerve a few times left, and then to the right to miss Kelly’s tumbling form, but I did see the Trump fall on its side on the footpath and do its own style of cartwheel, before it disappeared into a tree from its last bounce about 10 or 12 feet high off the ground. I finally swerved around Kelly, then looked back, saw him lying in the middle of the road and not looking too flash.

“Then I realised the huge pack of cars we’d raced ahead of from the last set of traffic lights was bearing down on him as he lay in the middle lane with no lights or damaged bike to give people a warning. I chucked a quick U-turn, switched on my driving lights, high beam, four-way flashers and anything else I could find and roared back the wrong way down the centre lane. Like parting the Red Sea, cars were going either side, while thankfully the ones in the middle lane stopped.

“I put the bike on the side-stand and jumped off to see what I could do. Kelly was spazzin’ out badly; his body was arching backwards quick enough and violently enough to be levitating off the ground a couple of times a second. I was trying to work out whether we should hold him down or let him work it out of his system, when in an instant, he leapt up like nothing had happened, ordered the car drivers to move their cars from that dangerously stupid position and told me having my bike parked the wrong way in the middle lane was bound to attract cops, so ‘MOVE THE BLOODY THING!’

“Some of the concerned motorists said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll call the police for you…’

“‘Yeah, thanks,’ we both said, as we both jumped of my Suzuki and pissed off from the scene, leaving the Triumph hanging in a tree about three foot off the ground, just swinging there in the breeze. It was so far off the road, I don’t think any of the concerned motorists even knew the spectacular fall was from another bike. I think they all thought just a pillion passenger had fallen off the back of mine.”

Yep, that was the same thing Demon told me some three decades ago. After leaving the scene, we went the back way up to Elanora Heights, to knock on the door of the house where my mate Skraps’ little brother Andy lived. Andy owned a big old ’55 Pontiac Coupe, and like a true mate should, had no problem being roused out of bed by two bikers who needed help lifting a bent Triumph down from a tree… usual story.

Admittedly, I was in a bit of a haze, but I do recall the trouble we had getting it down. The tree, while not a huge one, had copped a flying Trumpy right on one of the two main branches that sprung from the bough, which had split in two. The branch holding the Trump was laying over parallel to the ground, so the bike was lying flat and swaying lazily a few feet in the air. It was a lot harder than you’d imagine, so we just shook the tree and the bike fell out. By that stage we weren’t too concerned about further damage to the Trump, because, man—she was rooted.

I also learned something valuable to keep that night; as long as you take the back seat out of a 1955 Pontiac Coupe, you can feed a complete 650 cc Triumph motorcycle through the boot, into the passenger area and close the boot-lid! You never know when that snippet of info will come in handy.

Andy dropped me back at my place, and he, me and Demon lugged the badly bent Trump out of the boot and into the garage where it was propped up next to the Ajay. Even though the frame was bent, the tank was dented, the seat was torn and handlebars twisted, the tail-light globe and lens were still perfect.

I crashed out big time, still wearing the clothes I sorta still had on.

Arising in the morning, I took stock of things. I figured the back of the bonce had taken a fair old hammering, as the Cromwell helmet had a huge, depressed fracture about four inches across right at the back of it. The one-day-old pair of Lee jeans were go-o-o-o-o-o-ne but the funniest thing was the woollen jumper I was wearing when I hit the deck. I wasn’t wearing a leather jacket so the grey jumper was trashed. You know how wool goes with gravel rash, the way it curls up in a ball when it gets ground away? This jumper had no back left, just a roll of burned wool up near the neckband. The neckband was joined to the wristbands by two rolled-up, stringy strands of wool that were once sleeves, while the front of the jumper hung loosely like a baby’s bib.

The T-shirt underneath didn’t fare that much better. The whole ensemble looked ridiculous, but not half as ridiculous as my back—Jeez, I’d lost some bark off there.

I did have gloves on, but you know that knob on the back of your wrist? I’d flat-spotted mine like a bastard. There wasn’t much claret to be seen, just lots of that horrible, dry-burn gravel rash all over everywhere. Oh, and I was quite partial to passing out and dropping to the floor on occasions over the next few days. When you’re that age and that stupid, hospitals are for poofters.

After a painful shower, it was on with the overalls and down to the garage to get the Bonnie rebuild happening. The frame got straightened and repainted, the tank panel-beaten and repainted and the seat recovered. Lindsay got back to Australia to an almost new bike and, “Loved what I’d done to it.”

And the tree?

From that night on, I adopted that tree. It didn’t die, only grew stronger. It’s just that one of the main branches shot out horizontal for about three metres before turning skyward again. Every time I passed the spot, I’d point out “That Bloody Tree” to whoever I was with. The area has changed dramatically over the last three decades; the open paddocks behind the line of trees is now infested with fast food outlets, picture theatres and warehouses for the endless stream of imported goods that are destroying Australia.

And some time recently, within the last few years, some heathen of a local authority has come along and removed the horizontal branch. Vandals… mutilators of history… destroyers of legend—that was the tree that had a Triumph Bonneville growing out of it.

Biker Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

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