OH MY GAWD, many blokes my age find it surprising we are still alive, given the heady cocktail of motorbikes, booze and fast times we grew up in. I’m still convinced that Aussies of my generation lived through the best times ever for young blokes. It was Fun, Fun, Fun! (’til the coppers take your licence away).
By the time I turned 16 years and nine months (the age you could obtain a Learner’s Permit to ride a motorbike) I was ready to rock and roll and hit life head on. For me, that year was 1972, and the times were certainly interesting and unusual. Australian life still featured many of the ‘good’ things from the ’50s and ’60s, and very little of the ‘bad’ things that came later. I mean, there were jobs all round because Australia still had a manufacturing industry and a healthy work ethic, there were no crazy diseases to worry about, and The Contraceptive Pill was becoming popular so horizontal folk dancing was more on the agenda (are ya with me?) Let’s see, military conscription and the Vietnam War were ending and a motorcycle boom time was a happening thing.
Yep, life was simple and good for a young tearaway. Lots of fun without the complication. Think about this: no mobile phones, no big screen TVs (and no colour TV or video recorders), no computers, no intrusive surveillance, no speed cameras, no 24-hour anything — none of that crap. And of course, there was no AIDS epidemic and no massive drug abuse problems.
But then there were the two things that had the biggest influence on how we young tearaways behaved. Firstly, there was no Random Breath Testing; and secondly, the prescribed content of alcohol you couldn’t have in your blood was a whopping 0.08, not the current 0.05, (or 0.00 for Learner and Provisional drivers/riders). And that, dear readers, was what made it so bloody dangerous for road users, especially the young, inexperienced and exuberant ones. Holy Moley! It’s a miracle anyone survived. To give you some idea, the NSW road toll for 1971 stood at 1249 dead. That’s a lot of dead people, like about ‘four’ times the recent NSW road tolls. People were getting bumped off at an alarming rate and unless you lived through it, you wouldn’t believe the lackadaisical attitude people had about pissed driving. It seemed everyone was drunk all of the time and I recall witnessing so many prangs where the driver (or sometimes both drivers involved) couldn’t even stand up once they climbed out of the mangled wreck. And so often, they were never hurt. How was that so? The general theory was that a completely pissed driver is totally relaxed, therefore bending and flexing more easily and avoiding major injuries.
There was one time, a rainy weekday afternoon, I was parked in the driveway of the Old’s house, the bike was idling and I was putting the helmet on, about to spear off down Allambie Road, when a drunken prick in a blue XP Falcon came over the blind crest on the wrong side of the road, gradually veered back to the correct side and then bounced off the gutter.
“Yeah, good onya, dickhead,” I yelled as I headed off down the hill too. I had a feeling I’d come across a wrecked Falcon not far down the hill. It didn’t take long — just two sets of corners later, he completely missed the right-handed bend and ploughed on straight ahead when he should’ve veered right. It was good luck and bad luck for some poor taxi driver who thought he’d do the safe thing and park his cab up on the footpath. The good luck part was that he wasn’t in the taxi at the time of impact; the bad luck was that the new HQ Holden taxi was hit so hard, the rear bumper and squashed boot were both up higher than the roofline. It looked ridiculous as the left rear coil spring was stretched out to about four foot long, but the most ridiculous sight was the drunken Falcon driver, standing there, thumbs in belt loops and looking perplexed. He’d clambered down from the roof of the taxi after flying through the Falcon’s windscreen in a swan dive. Despite being covered in broken glass, this idiot was completely uninjured.
Though drunks often come out unscathed, more often, they leave innocent victims hurt and hurt bad. I remember witnessing a drunk in a Toyota Crown clean up some poor young dude on a Honda Four. It was night time and I was walking towards home with a heavy load, the entire complement of newly-chrome plated parts for my AJS Single.
I’d spent my entire meagre wage getting two wheel rims, a muffler, exhaust pipe, pushrod tunnels and numerous other Ajay parts chromed. With the newspaper-wrapped parts distributed around my body (wheel rims over the bonce and resting on the neck, smaller parts in a backpack and muffler and exhaust pipe slung over the other shoulder like a soldier’s rifle. I had enough money to catch a train to Circular Quay from Premier Plating in Surry Hills, enough for the ferry ride to Manly Wharf, but no money left for the bus ride to Allambie Heights so it was Shank’s Pony for me.
Traipsing along like a human display stand, I heard a strange sound behind me. Swivelling around like a confused Dalek, I saw some drunken old prick in the Toyota straddling the median strip, scraping the underside of the Crown and leaving a trail of sparks as he crested the hill in Condamine Street, Manly Vale. Then, the moron came off the median, swerved to the footpath side where I was.
“Hey, I’m walkin’ here,” would’ve been similar to what I yelled, as the prick glanced off the gutter a few feet away from me. Then, he made a monstrous swerve to the right as he headed towards the intersection of Campbell Parade. The prick did the swoopiest swerve into Campbell Parade, just as some poor, unfortunate bastard was riding his Honda Four southbound on Condamine Street.
WHUMP! Honda Four Guy T-boned the Crown big time. He flew straight up in the air at least 15 feet, then came down next to his Honda on the roadway.
The drunk in the Crown had continued on into Campbell Parade at walking pace as I unloaded my chrome-plated overcoat and checked up on the Honda Four Guy. For the acrobatics, he was a bit stunned but it looked like his main worry was a broken collarbone and a bent bike. The poor dude had no idea what happened and wondered why he crashed so I took off up the road and hunted down the drunk.
A hundred or so metres away, I confronted him as his head was rolling around on the window ledge of the driver’s door, dragged him out and marched him back to the scene.
“I’m just an ordinary sort of bloke,” he mumbled as if it was some kind of mitigation.
“Yeah, mate, and that’s an ordinary sort of bloke you came close to killing right there,” I spat.
Pretty soon all the cops, amboes and towies were involving themselves, but the funny part came just as I was leaving. Even though the amboes were administering first aid to Honda Four Guy, he couldn’t help himself. “What sort of bike is the chroming for?” he asked. Yep, a dedicated biker, alright.
It’s here I’ll have to admit I was just as guilty as the rest of the population when it came to being an arsehole on the roads of NSW. But, through a wonderful loophole, I never lost my licence. See, the plan for a mild-mannered biker was to stay on a bike Learner’s Permit for as long as you could because you didn’t accrue demerit points on L Plates and there was no learner bike capacity law. Any teenager old enough for a Learner’s Permit was allowed to ride any suicide machine he wanted. The Demerit Points system was introduced in NSW in 1969; lose 12 demerit points and you lost your licence. Provisional licence holders were only allowed one point so make one tiny mistake and that was your licence gone for three months. That’s why so many young smart-arses such as myself would get bike and car L Plates, do the car test, get the car P Plates and stay on bike Ls. That way, if you didn’t ever drive cars, you could stay on the bike Ls and get booked as often as necessary on two wheels while your car licence could go through the treacherous Provisional period unmolested.
And by Cheeses, didn’t I cop some fines.
Somewhere in the archives, I have a wad of infringement notices, every one I ever received, and didn’t they add up to some dollars: Exceed Speed Limit (by a bit), Exceed Speed Limit (by a lot), smooth/unsafe tyres (many), excessive noise, not display L Plate, Carry Pillion Passenger, No Front Mudguard, Not Signal Intention, Inoperative Lamps; the list went on like I was the world’s worst bastard or something. Totalling well over a thousand bucks (when $100 was a huge fine), the feisty wad of fines would’ve lost a full licence many times over, let alone a Provisional bike licence. But not a single point was lost. Can’t do that now, though.
However, even though I hadn’t lost any points, someone in Licence-land must’ve been paying attention to the details and I duly received ‘The Letter’. As I read the first official nasty letter of my life, I imagined it being spoken in an East End London thug accent. It said something like, “Hullo Kelly, you’ve been a naughty boy, and we would like you to attend this here road safety lecture at the Police Driver Training School at St Ives… or else!”
Whoops, they were finally onto me. The lecture was for young riders/drivers who had lost their provisional licence or had done something really bad. The letter also strongly suggested to bring a parent or guardian to the gig, so it was a few weeks later that the Old Man and I attended a big lecture on a Thursday night. As if to reinforce the attitude of the era, the Old Man came straight from the public bar of the Hotel Manly where he’d been having his usual after-work sesh with his mates; he picked me up on the way through and then we motored out to the St Ives Police Driver Training School for my date with destiny.
It was pretty standard (boring) as far as Road Safety lectures went, mainly because all us young arseholes already knew everything about everything. There was a fair and varied collection of young people present, most with one or both parents along as sidekicks, and those oldies looked like the only ones paying attention and taking things seriously.
Then it got a little more interesting when the overly large Police Sergeant lecturing the class of speed demons presented a reflex testing machine, and invited various young and bad drivers/riders to have a try. The machine looked like an arcade driving game with a driver’s seat, a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, brake pedal and a dashboard and speedo from a 1965 XP Falcon. On a nicely back-painted glass screen was the road ahead spearing off into the distance and smack bang in the middle of the screen was a fairly good rendition of the rear end of an FJ Holden. Right in the middle of the humpy boot lid, right where it is on a real FJ was the single red brake light which would occasionally light up bright. That was the signal to get off the gas and onto the anchors; a large, digital readout would record your reaction time and tell all those watching how responsive you were.
Naturally, a lot of the young blokes, being the rev-heads they were, recorded some reasonable reaction times initially, but after a few attempts, they seemed to get worse, not better. That was mainly because the crusty old bastard of a copper running the lecture would hover over the subject’s shoulder and engage in a bit of idle chit-chat. They all got distracted and it showed in their reaction times. Hey, yeah, just like a P-plater with a carload of mates. I was a wake-up to the crusty copper, and basically ignored his waffle and concentrated on the job at hand. Natch, my reaction times were pretty darn good and stayed good.
Now, I’m not being sexist here, but the next irresponsible young driver on the test rig was stunningly pretty young girl with long blonde hair and a short black miniskirt.
She, more than anyone else, showed off how bad her driving would be out on the highways and byways. All eyes were on her as she took the test; that might have been because she had really long legs and tight, grey woollen sweater that looked so good (okay, a little bit sexist, but that’s all…) She was foot on the gas and blissfully sailing along her imaginary highway, the copper was hovering over her shoulder and speaking in smooth, mellifluous tones about nothing in particular when the red brake light on the FJ Holden shone bright and proud. At what felt like about a full second of brake light, and no reaction from her, the motley crew of about 30 naughty P platers and their parents were either gasping loudly or slamming their right foot down hard on an imaginary brake pedal. At probably two and a half seconds after the light came on, the copper yelled out: “BANG! You’ve just run up the backside of the car in front!”
The audience gave a startled jump from the volume of the copper’s utterance, and the poor lass freaked out, almost sobbing as she did the Walk of Shame back to her seat. Bad driver for sure — nice legs, but…
Around about then, the old copper was on a roll. “I’d like some of the parents to try doing the test,” he said cheerily before focussing on my Dad who had been busy resting his eyelids for at least the previous five minutes.
“How about you, sir? He asked of the Old Man.
“Huh, wha?” Dad muttered before clumsily getting to his feet and sauntering over to the testing machine.
From the smug look on the copper’s face, it seemed this was a regular part of the theatrics of the Monthly bad drivers show at the St Ives Police Driver Training facility. My Dad was about 47 years old by then and the copper scoped him out: “Hmm, tired businessman, mid-to-late forties, slightly overweight and probably been at the pub for a few shandies after a hard day’s slog at the office,” The copper would’ve been dead right too. He probably thought Dad’s best days were behind him, and was a perfect patsy to show the rest of the parents even they weren’t as good as they once were…’
The Old Man seemed focussed too, and the copper warbled on about nothing in particular. The Brake light came on… Stomp! A brilliant reaction time that would have had a drag racer impressed.
“Hmm, not bad,” the copper said, before setting off the red light again.
Stomp! Another good reaction time from Dad — exactly the same time as before.
Then again: Stomp! And again: Stomp.
Fair dinkum, the Old man pulled off about six near-perfect reaction times; the copper looked a bit crestfallen, like the demonstration hadn’t gone to plan.
At the end of the lecture, as many people stuck around for tea and bikkies, the copper sidled up to Dad and asked: “You’ve done a bit of car racing, haven’t you?”
“No, sir, not me,” Dad replied, and he wasn’t lying; he hadn’t. Mind you, he did play Rugby Union for NSW, represented Australia in Rugby League (at the same time he played Grade Cricket in Sydney), and was the undefeated Navy Boxing Champion of the South Pacific Fleet near the end of World War II. He was an all-round sportsman who had great reflexes that never really left him until the day he died. Jeez, I miss him…
Road Tales By Kelly Ashton