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A Day of Triumph for British Bikes

October 31, 1987|GORDON BLACK

A few minutes before 8 a.m. Sunday, John Studden will pull off an old blanket covering his shiny silver-and-black Norton Commando motorcycle. Then, carefully maneuvering it out of the garage adjoining his tract home in Newhall, he'll prime the gas, fold out the kickstart, and jolt the engine into a roar. Wearing a favorite leather jacket, jeans and helmet, Studden will head south 10 miles to Hansen Dam for the eighth all-British Ride and dual-sport ride that gets under way at 9 a.m.

Several hundred other owners of British motorcycles will join Studden at the park, and by midafternoon there will be a large number of British bike aficionados--spectators milling around the machines that have now become collectors' items.

"British bikes go back to the essence of motorcycling," said Dave Destler, editor-publisher of British Car and Bike, a 30,000-circulation magazine started in Canoga Park less than two years ago. "The simplicity of it, with the rider understanding the machine and feeling part of it."

"There will be a lot of bikes at Hansen Dam that are virtually unknown to today's motorcyclist," explained Pat Owens, an organizer of this and previous rallies. "It's an opportunity for people to mingle socially and enjoy the thing they like, British motorcycles, which are totally different from the product being sold today."

Long before Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki or Yamaha became household names, British motorcycles ruled supreme.

Youthful Fantasies

As a youth growing up in '60s England, Studden always dreamed of riding a throaty-sounding Norton Commando motorcycle. On this side of the Atlantic from Studden's hometown of Redruth, in southwest England, ownership of a big British bike was also the stuff of countless youthful fantasies.

Lighter than their American counterparts, motorcycles such as the Commando, the Triumph Bonneville, the Velocette Venom, Vincent Black Shadow and BSA Gold Star became symbols of a carefree life exercised with speed and skill.

Today, those motorcycles and dozens of other British models are long out of production, but attendance at Hansen Dam will be evidence of the thriving interest in them.

Some participants will come by motorcycle; others will bring motorcycles on trailers. Some will ride the 70-mile course to Acton and back, some will just look and chat.

"There are some people who never bring their bikes out except for these kinds of rides," said Clyde Earl, a mechanic with a 40-year association with British bikes.

"There's camaraderie and goodwill," said Cindy Rutherford, a mechanic who has driven the back-up vehicle around the ride's course. "It's good to talk to people who talk Limey, who understand it's OK to have an oil leak."

Equally, being a motorcyclist at one time meant sharing in the camaraderie of the activity.

"If you saw a bike parked outside a restaurant, you went in and talked to the person," recalled Owens, an instructor in motorcycle repair at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, and lifelong rider.

Memories of these glory days of motorcycling is strong among the large numbers of riders who piloted British bikes in the '50s and '60s. For them, mention of a Vincent Black Shadow or an Ariel Square Four is a fond reminder of the past. Younger riders, such as 36-year-old Studden, are more inclined to recall recent restoration efforts.

Studden's tale of breathing new life into an abused Norton Commando Interstate is not untypical among the scores of riders who have restored British bikes.

"Somebody had ridden it in from out of state," he said. "The gearbox was broken in two pieces."

Ensuing hours of careful restoration transformed a tired 1974 model bought for $600 in 1982 into Studden's pride and joy, the estimated $3,000 bike he'll be riding Sunday.

According to Destler, Studden is typical of the "hands-on enthusiasts" who are bringing new life to old British bikes. And California, with its ideal motorcycling weather, has the largest concentration of old British makes, he said.

Southern California's association with British motorcycles extends more than 50 years. The late Bill Johnson, a revered name in local bike history, began selling 1,000cc four-cylinder Ariel motorcycles from a showroom in Pasadena in 1938. But popular interest in such bikes as AJS, Matchless, Ariel, BSA, Velocette, Vincent, Triumph and Norton did not develop until after World War II.

"1946 is when it really started around town," said Earl, who began working on British bikes at the Sirkegian Brothers workshop in downtown Los Angeles in 1947. "By the '50s, the interest had really taken off. You either rode a British bike or (U.S.-made) Harley-Davidson or Indian machine. And a lot of people did not want those big, heavy American bikes."

Five years ago, Triumph, the last British manufacturer to have a presence in California, closed its office in Placentia. Far from signaling an end of an era, it marked the beginning of a revival. Demand for British bikes has forced up prices and reduced the supply.

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