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  Well, Thanks for Asking
Friday 29 March, 2019

Well, that was a surprise. And, as it happens, he is well.

I received an email this morning from someone who has not only read some of my Blog entries, but took the time to dig as deep as Miniature Attack Dog? (Thursday 30 November, 2017 – see November, 2017 Archive).

Finn – the ‘miniature attack dog’ – is doing fine and has not suffered as a result of his experience in the garden that dark night. He may have been a little overwrought due to the ten days of fireworks going off, seemingly at random, earlier in the month.

Some 16 months on, he is more a ‘rub-my-tummy’ dog, but thanks for asking.

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Phil Kelly

Honda 500/4: The Masochist's Tale
Sunday 24 March, 2019

Written in early 1991 and published that summer. The bike in question came my way during 1981/1982. The non-PC language and attitude came with my youth and the target publication.

I was riding about on a Yamaha XJ900 in 1991 and I was acutely aware of just how poor a handler the Honda had been compared to just about anything available at the time of writing.

- o - O - o -

It was black. It had four cylinders, ugly ape-hangers, a lovely sound from the Motad 4 into 1 and a year’s MoT.

Also the night was dark and disguised the fact that the paintwork did a fair imitation of my neighbour’s garden path. Crazed? Charles Manson looked tame compared to this DIY paint job!

The bike, an L-reg Honda CB500/4, had been newly acquired by a friend of mine – we’ll call him John Smith – who stated that he’d bought it for £180 with 22 thousand miles on the clock. I made an offer. No, the bike was not for resale. As a result I was rather put out when I saw a stranger sat astride the bike in town one night later that week.

I pulled up alongside the bike and rider and struck up a conversation. When he told me that he had owned the bike for two years I then launched into a good-citizen-nabs-bike-thief-red-handed attack.

‘Is that what John told you then?’ was the reply from my would-be citizens arrestee.

The facts were that the real owner – the person currently sat astride the thing – had sold the bike to John for £200. Seeing as John was a longstanding friend he accepted £100 cash and a £100 cheque. The cheque bounced and the bike was reclaimed.

I made an acceptable cash offer. Off we went to the owner’s abode so I could check details (he showed me the paperwork regarding the abortive deal with John) and the bike was mine. It was also still unchecked in daylight.

Of course, you realise by now that John Smith wasn’t my friend’s real name. I didn’t have a bank balance up to paying the going rates for libel nowadays. John was a bit of a Walter Mitty. It taught me that you have to check all the details when buying a bike even from a ‘friend’. What if I’d bought the Honda from him and the original owner had tried to reclaim it?

Off came the ape-hangers and on went a pair of handlebars from a Kawasaki KH250. This gave me a bike that would run at 80mph all day with a riding position to match.

The rear shocks were Koni Dial-a-Rusts, er, Dial-a-Rides. The black painted springs had become unpainted rusty-coloured springs. They worked fine though. In fact they were probably the sole reason that the Honda gave me the impression that it was the best handling bike I had ever owned up to that time. The comparison, however, was against a number of Honda 125s, a seedy CD175 and a KH400 which was still in the garage. OK, so I was naïve!

The handling, on reflection now I have owned bikes ranging from Honda’s lowly MT5 to the blistering Kawasaki GPZ900R, was dead. The steering was heavy giving little or no feedback. The feel through the seat of one’s pants was non-existent.

To someone new to non-learner bikes all this translates to a secure feeling leading to angles of lean that have to be seen to be believed on a bike of this era. The truth of the matter is that the bike is on the limit and is about to dump the pilot on his ear without warning.

Let me illustrate the point. I was telling a couple of friends, one a Ducati Pantah rider, that I could circumnavigate a local roundabout, that served the local bypass, at a constant 60mph. The Pantah rider found this as believable as a Honda press release stating that they had beaten the CBX550 cam chain problems, or that VF750S camshafts were in future to be made of proper steel instead of balsa wood.

Needless to say I found myself leading the Pantah around the aforementioned donut to prove the point. I didn’t want to as the rear Avon was now of a square section through wear. This meant power through the bends was needed to stop the wobbles. I couldn’t back out and was please with the result of 65mph by the Honda’s clock.

Back to base Commander, mission completed.

During the debriefing Mr Pantah admitted that he couldn’t keep up as he felt his tyres were on their limit. The Pantah rider further admitted that I had impressed him with my balls-out two wheel drift technique. Er. . . drifting? Me? Swoon!

This is what taught me the difference between good handling, with feedback (know your limits and see them coming etc.), and dead handling, with zero feedback (what limits? Oops. Bye bye skin, hello gravel rash). When you’re cut off from the real world then any dickhead can go (too) fast. Ask any Volvo owner. . .

Watch the centre stand on left handers though – when it digs in it’s more effective than a JCB.

Tyres didn’t last too badly but the rears lose their tread in the centre only it seems. This leads to a wobble at 80-85mph. I clocked a lightly tuned and speedometerless RD250E at 90mph (15mph before the Honda’s top indicated speed) whilst I was flat on my tank with my backside over the pillion position to stop the wobble. Back at the pub, this led to the claim from the RD rider that he had ‘held his own against a bike twice his size.’ I wonder how many other bikes he ruined with his proven ‘tuning’ methods.

The tacho didn’t work. I had put this down to a broken cable. Instead it turned it to be part of the rocker cover broken off where it holds the cable end in place. Strange what one notices in daylight. It is a problem I’ve seen on other bikes since. It didn’t leak so it was left and the bike was ridden by ear, so to speak. This led to a problem that can be encountered by riders new to UJMs.

A few days into ownership of the Black Pig, as the Honda was affectionately dubbed, I was out riding with a chum on his Kawasaki Z650. Open road loomed ahead. Off he went. Off I went. The only trouble was that his bike had more ‘went’ than mine. The Black Pig was caned and responded by misfiring at high revs. As the bike was to be day to day transport, I left well alone as it otherwise ran fine. Mind you, every time that I wanted some fun the misfire returned to end it all, much like a woman’s headache.

The day came when I decided to fix the tacho. A bodge repair enabled the instrument to show me where the misfire occurred the next time I was out chasing the Z650. I was hanging on to 4th gear when it came back. I glanced at the tacho and decided to change up. How does 12,000rpm sound to you? Keeping the needle out of the red bit on the tacho stopped the misfire.

It brought home to me how easy it is to over rev a UJM, compared to 4-stroke singles and twins, or 2-stroke triples. Make sure the tacho works on any UJM you buy; especially if you haven’t owned one before.

Regarding maintenance – the 500/4 should be a doddle to look after. I emphasise the word ‘should’. All the right bits are in the right places. However there is a problem with the bits that hold those bits in the places that they should be.

Nuts!

And bolts for that matter. Every service item (assuming you are looking at a standard bike) is easy to get at but the nuts and bolts all seem to be made of that strange Japanese alloy known as Monkey Metal (85% aluminium, 5% zinc and 10% monkey shit).

My brake caliper started to seize on. I decided to remove it from the bike to clean it and inspect it. This, I decided, would be a good idea so I could replace the brake fluid and remove the mudguard to rustproof the underside all at the same time.

When one of the calliper mounting bolts broke off I was so surprised at the lack of effort that I checked for signs that it had been broken before and glued back in. No such signs existed. To drill out the remains of the bolt meant that the mudguard had to come off. This exercise left the remains of a further three bolts within the alloy sliders. After the second mishap the WD40 came out but to no avail. After the third breakage, applied heat seemed to be the answer. I got the feeling that this only made it easier to break the bloody things. Believe me, the remains were bitches to get out.

The whole thing went back together. New fluid was added and the system bled. Or that was the intention. Instead, the bleed nipple broke off! That was the hardest one to rectify.

My father, who seems to understand these things, informed me at the time that the differing alloys used for bolts, nuts and fittings react badly to one another in some mystical electrical way that only the Japanese understand. It seems to me that if they had built their fighters during the Second World War the same way they would have saved the Americans the bother of shooting them down. It may also have saved them from The Bomb.

The same applies to the big hex-headed caps over the tappets. They round off even if you use the right sized spanner. I even had one break leaving the threaded part intact. It was removed with a hammer and punch, although by this time I felt a chain saw would have been preferable. Not for the bike you understand but for my own satisfaction.

Being a Honda, frequent oil changes are a must I’ve been told. I can’t say I’ve even had a bike give up through oil neglect though. Mind you I’ve never neglected oil changes as I’m not into destruction testing to find out whether this advice is correct or not. Either way, the aftermarket exhaust (tell me, anyone out there got one with standard pipes?) fitted will most likely foul the oil filter. Even if it doesn’t you may still need to remove it to get good access to the tiny retaining bolt. This is essential as it is just looking for an excuse to round off.

I’ve never found oil consumption a problem unless thrashed. This was true of the second 500/4 I was later to own along with the Monkey Metal problem.

Even crude carb balancing can be done without special tools. Remove the airbox (the hard bit) then adjust all the slides so that they lift at the same time on the linkage. Use your fingers down the throats of the carbs. Don’t laugh! This method is good enough to remove most of the clutch rattles etc. usually due to out of balance carbs.

Check for leaks around the cam cover. Retaining bolts do get glued back in after breaking. The trouble is that the rockers are held in the cover and their operation tends to want to force it up and off the head thus allowing leaks to occur more readily.

Electrics can be a problem in the wet. The Black Pig was capable of being a 500/4, a 375/3, a 250 twin or even on occasions a 125 single! Spraying lots of sealant up under the tank affected a cure. Don’t forget the outer HT leads unless you like high voltage jolts whilst wearing baggy, wet over trousers.

Having compared the 500/4 to Honda’s 400/4 I can’t see why the 400 commands so much attention. The handling isn’t much better, the engine is gutless (the 500/4 engine feels like a Harley when compared to the 400), the 400 feels more strained at high cruising speeds, is thirstier, slower. . . The list is endless. That should provoke a large mailbag!

Watch for rust under the petrol tank; also the mudguards as this can mean MoT failure, especially on the back where the rear light is mounted. Invest in a good stud extraction kit. Watch for botched electrics as the loom around the headstock gives problems, as on many older bikes, but with the wires a bit short and hard to deal with, thus leading to some fine, and no so fine, bodges.

The Black Pig finally had to go when it blew its head gasket. It started as an oil weep. It led on to bad starting. It became audible when revved up. It got to the stage where only bumping it stood any chance of starting it (hard when faced with bumping nearly 500lbs of recalcitrant Monkey Metal into life). I avoided taking it apart to fix because to do the job properly would involve undoing too many monkey nuts and bolts. In the end I sold it as it was.

Did I mention the cylinder head bolt held in with Red Hematite?

   

Phil J Wilkinson

Across Berlin
Thursday 21 March, 2019

I wrote a number of versions of this piece. It was originally much longer, and when I wished to target a travel magazine I found it needed to be shorter – much shorter.

So, from Across Berlin1288 (published in 2011) came Across Berlin440 which was published later that same year.

The version that appears up here was published in 2014, at exactly 500 words.

Then in 2016 a fresh opportunity came up when I was asked to write an amusing tale for another travel magazine, and Across Berlin831 was born.

All were published under the title Across Berlin.

- o - O - o -

Not long after the Berlin Wall came down I decided on a cycle ride to Turkey from Milton Keynes. The reasoning possibly involved beer.

The planning undertaken was minimal, although I did take maps. However, I was sure my nose was good enough to give me the direction I needed.

Finding myself in Berlin, on the way, I decided to take a train to Poland for a break.

A super-flexible, cavalier approach to planning and my poor language skills led to me being in Berlin at Schöneberg instead of Schöneweide, with only an hour to make the journey across Berlin before my train departed.

The difference in the two place names didn’t register while grabbing a bite to eat instead of making my way to the train station in good time. To me, a ‘Schöne’ was a ‘Schöne.’

I arrived at the small Schöneberg S-Bahn station and was unable to find the main terminal from where to catch my train to Poland. I asked a few Germans who all thought I was mad. Who in their right mind would think that trains left Schöneberg to go anywhere outside Berlin?

A German, understanding I was in trouble pointed out my error. He realised I was in danger of not making Schöneweide in time. He tried to give me directions; suggesting an appropriate route to take. Unfortunately there was a lack of communication between us due to the fact that I didn’t understand his German.

I hadn’t managed to secure his name, yet my new German friend was going to lead me across Berlin from Schöneberg to Schöneweide!

I had no money on me other than Sterling which had been recovered along with my travel documents after I had left my belongings on a park bench after my arrival in Berlin the day before. My faith in help for travellers was high.

Having previously walked and cycled everywhere, I didn’t understand the train ticket systems. I need not have worried as my German friend did all the purchasing – with his own money – taking four different trains on our rush across Berlin. This was akin to guiding a stranger from Bletchley to Newport Pagnell and then on to Wolverton, while paying for all the buses used on the way.

On the final train leg to Schöneweide I tried to make my benefactor take Sterling for the tickets he had paid for. I assumed the looks received from other passengers were down to the nature of the German being spoken by the two of us.

Eventually the reason I was unable to understand his spoken German finally dawned on me: he was drunk! Schöneweide was only a couple of stops away and my guide got off.

I see from the Berlin S-Bahn/U-Bahn map in front of me as I write this, the journey is simply two overland S-Bahn trains, with a single change at Friedrichstrasse.

Although the event failed to turn my hair grey, the intervening years have come managed quite well...

   

Phil J Wilkinson

Bricks
Saturday 16 March, 2019

This was written for a writing competition, Christmas 2012. All we were given was the title, Bricks, and a 1,000 length word limit. My entry was 363 words.

It didn’t fare well. I tried too hard. No one got it.

However, just after the competition I added the final line that appears in the version that follows. Had I done so before submission, then it probably would have made more sense.

I have plans for it.

- o - O - o -

Yesterday some friends and I were involved in a train crash. To be more exact, we took part in the rescue of a sheep from the wreck.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me, it wasn’t just a sheep; there were others on that train. No, the sheep in question was the nearest placed to me, and the cow, dog, horse, chicken and dolphin were nearer to my colleagues.

I’m not sure why the dolphin was on the train.

Upon our arrival the train looked like a wreck that had never been a train in the first place. We helped the giant squirrels round up the occupants released from the chaos and we transported them all back to the farm.

I’m not sure why the dolphin lived on a farm.

Once we arrived the animals disembarked. The sheep went to the sheep pen, the cow went off to read a book, the dog had some dinner and the chicken rode the horse to go off and look for some help to fix the train. The dolphin flew across to the farmhouse to let the farmer know they were back and safe.

I’m not sure how the dolphin could fly.

The sheep got lonely because no one came to the sheep pen to speak to her. In order to attract some attention, the sheep started barking and performing loop-the-loops above the farm.

The cow ignored the sheep and carried on reading. The dog looked up then returned its attention to its dinner. The giant squirrels went over to the stables for a rest now it was empty and the horse and chicken were gone. The dolphin discussed with the farmer what to feed the giant squirrels.

I’m not sure why the dolphin was so concerned about the giant squirrels.

My friends and I sat assembled in the farmyard. What with all the activity of the farm animals and the dolphin, we became redundant.

Suddenly a spaceship landed and the chicken returned on the horse. They all got on board the spaceship and flew off together with the dolphin at the controls.

I didn’t know dolphins could pilot spaceships.

But that was yesterday.

Today we are a boat; such is the life of a building brick!

   

Philip O'Hara

The Nightmare Bike Buy
Thursday 7 March, 2019

Written 1989, and published 1990. The magazine didn’t use my title; instead going with Nightmare Buy. Worse, they didn’t use the name I wanted it to appear under (read it and you’ll see why I wanted to use a nom de plume).

By the time I bought the bike written about in this article, I had developed a passion for large engined motorcycles. In particular, I had an almost irrational love of air-cooled, across-the-frame, four cylinder, one litre Kawasaki machines.

Apparently, in this instance, the process of buying a motorcycle involved the use of blinkers. This posting is exactly as this piece was published.

The scary thing about this particular article is that ALL the material facts are true and unembellished. Yes, it was as bad and as frightening as described. Actually, it was worse as my life savings of the time were at stake. . .

I have never seen any vehicle quite as dodgy as this one since. It would be difficult recreate an evil monster like this again and I pray it was a one-off. . .

- o - O - o -

It was a cold and wet miserable Saturday afternoon. It had been raining that morning when he withdrew £1,000 cash from his building society account. He had waited the four days they had insisted on and had grown impatient. Armed with this and a further £200, plus a determination not to return home empty handed, he set out to search the relatively local dealers for a bike more able to send him into an ecstatic state from the raw power than his 200cc hack.

I had the job of piloting the hack back if we were lucky enough to come across a suitable mount. Luton was attained and the search began. The first two dealers visited contained either over-priced rubbish or over-priced exotica. The third contained much the same but in the far corner lurked what looked like a Z1000ST liveried as a green Lawson Replica. The dealer said they had just taken it in part ex and the price would be £1,350 after it had been through their workshop.

It had a 510 Roadrunner rear tyre, H-rated on a 130mph bike, but he seemed blind to the implications of this. It was a sign of things to come. The dealer wouldn’t come down below£1,300 so we left to look elsewhere – most of the dealers we tried must have just given up work as estate agents so inaccurate were the descriptions in their MCN ads.

After several hours of fruitless searching, when we were both absolutely drenched, and after a well knackered VF750 was tried (the last straw), it was back to Luton.

After much hustling the dealer finally agreed to let the bike go for £1,200 provided that he took it as it was, without either a guarantee or MOT. At the nearest petrol station, he blipped the engine and the throttle cable snapped. Recourse to the toolbox fixed it up so there was a quarter turn available, enough for a heady 50mph. The trip home was otherwise without trauma, the nightmare then began.

The weather improved, so the next day the new owner started to clean it up. He found that the front discs were plain when they should have been drilled and that the front wheel didn’t really fit in the front forks properly. It had felt okay only because it had been bolted together with huge force. Would the MoT tester notice when bolted back together?

Then, it was decided to remove the rear shocks to clean up the springs. On one side the shock was held on by a single nut; the other stripped and whacked on with a large hammer. But that was nothing, the other shock had two stripped threads and gasket sealant had been used to hold the nuts in place. Upon polishing the engine cases it was discovered that the CDI pick-up cover had a hole the size of a 2p piece and the alternator cover had a securing screw missing; a fact that was to cause major horrors later on.

The following weekend the bike was sent for MoT. On the way to the testing station the owner noticed that the front wheel was buckled! A quick U-turn followed – the centrestand removed and the bike once again ridden to its MoT. The tester noted that the pilot light was missing as the unit had been replaced by a car headlamp, and the front brake light switch wasn’t there and that it needed a centrestand fitted so he could test the wheels. . .

The brake switch proved a bitch to fix as the casing was broken – a bodge eventually sufficed. The shock nuts were super-glued in place. A different MoT station was tried and it passed, although the tester did mention the missing pilot light, along the lines that one was fitted when he tested it. . .

It soon became apparent the bike was losing or burning a lot of oil. One night the bike was left on its sidestand in the garage instead of the mainstand. A puddle of oil was the result. Investigation revealed that oil was coming out of the alternator cover where the bolt was missing.

On inserting a suitable screw it was found that the thread appeared to be stripped. It was worse: the lug on the main engine casing was missing. Worse still, on closer examination an area was found to be filled with car body filler and painted over. Two more lugs holding the crankcases together were missing as a result. As the engine featured a roller-bearing crank, running oil pressure was low, so little leaked when running, but when the oil level rose above the ‘repair,’ then it just oozed out.

A decision was made to cover up and sell, claiming ignorance. He had to, he had bought a dog and the barking was keeping him awake at night. The filler was painted over and a little dust added to subdue its freshness. The oil wiped off easily, all he had to do was not to use the sidestand any more. An ad was placed in the press at £1,300 – not too cheap, so as to avoid suspicion. The owner was really willing to go down to £1,000 just to get shot of it.

One phone call resulted. The punter turned up, seemed not to have ridden anything bigger than 100cc and was given a quick thrash around on the pillion. He wanted it – it did look damn good on first glance. He had been very lucky to get rid of it so easily, all the faults bar the shock absorber mounts should have been spotted by the wary, and indeed, he would have normally seen them easily; but, as they say, love is blind and in that respect bikes aren’t that much different to women.

The dealer, it must be said, may not have known the bike’s true condition. It’s possible that in the rush to off-load yet another highly priced megabike, the Zed wasn’t examined properly when taken in as part-exchange. After all, it looked mint at first and ran like a dream. The dealer had been saved a lot of trouble, though whether he knew or not was not certain.

Just remember, don’t go by appearances, check everything you can and take along a friend who doesn’t like the type of bike you are seeking to buy, so as to inject a little objectivity into the process. You have been warned.

   

Phil Wilkinson

Police Need to Look at the Job
they are Doing
Saturday 3 March, 2019

Written February 2017, and published that same month in my local newspaper.

My contribution, under that name, has the same formula: take a notable story from the previous week’s edition and run with it as a sort of Commentary Piece.

The title is never mine when my material is used in my local newspaper. My title was merely the date of the edition it was written for, and not as clever as the one devised by the editor.

- o - O - o -

It is interesting how many people claim the cutbacks and austerity measures have no direct affect upon them.

Our local police refuse to examine CCTV footage to catch a criminal who threatens the people and property of Leighton Buzzard on the grounds that they cannot justify the cost. Inadequate funding seems to be an acceptable reason for the police not to do the job everyone thought they were supposed to be doing.

According to the police, it was a ‘low level’ crime, thereby ‘proving’ that they are right to shirk their responsibility to the public. Sadly, that ‘low level’ offender might be the person who slashes your tyres next week.

Or kicks your dog.

Austerity: the practise of cutting funding in an effort to satisfy accountants without regarding those who are directly affected.

Some still claim that it doesn’t affect them because they do not visit the town centre, or whatever. It might be worth them remembering that when caught one mph over the speed limit by a camera and prosecuted because issuing tickets goes towards making up the funding shortfall. As budgets tighten; trigger points are reduced if they increase income.

Of course, in this case, there is a simple solution: have the victim look through the CCTV footage to pin down the incident and present the police with a five minute window. Unfortunately, the owner of the CCTV images would then be breaking the Data Protection Act by allowing a third party without legal authority, access to the recorded images. But laws that are in conflict are just our government’s way to lighten our days.

As time goes on, there will be those who will suggest that doing the job for the police is the way forward. In fact, some might make the case that we dispense with police forces all together, saving their cost to the Taxpayer.

Cue vigilante groups parading up and down our high street. I just hope they don’t accidentally break any shop front windows as they wave their pitchforks about.