12 September 2012

A Chill of Recognition

Panther owners know to leave the bike parked with the spark fully advanced

The inclusion of a Panther 650cc motorcycle and sidecar combination in Gooding’s Pebble Beach Auction in California brought a chill of recognition to me, having spent my childhood years frozen on to the back of such a machine. As my brother said (safe in the sidecar):  “You know, the Vikings’ idea of Hell was eternal cold.”

Gooding’s 1962 Panther M120 with a Garrard sidecar sold for a respectable $25,300, but you could have bought 465 of them for the price of the top-selling Mercedes-Benz 540K — $11,770,000.

Back in 1955, the 1950 Panther M100 and Canterbury sidecar that our family bought represented a huge step forward in our ability to get around. At last we could all go somewhere together, instead of Dad riding his 125cc Douglas Vespa scooter, and later his 150cc Francis-Barnett motorcycle, while mum and us kids took the bus.

The mid-1950s saw war-torn Europe scrambling back to some form of mobility. Italy had invented the successful Vespa and Lambretta scooters and sold the Isetta “bubble car” design to BMW, which promptly improved it. But most mini-cars were fragile, lumpy, fiberglass balloons, powered by two-stroke motorcycle engines, baking themselves to oily death under the body. They would all be swept away in about two years after Alec Issigonis’s Mini arrived in 1959.

Dad took the 1930s approach to marginal motoring, and as a WWII dispatch rider he was used to being exposed to the elements. At least nobody was shooting at him, or stringing piano wire across the road. The road tax for three wheelers was one third the cost of a car, or about a week’s wages for a student teacher.

Motorcycle gear was quite different in those days. Oilcloth jackets were favored for their ability to repel water, at the expense of making you look like you lived under the railway arches, around a brazier, drinking turpentine. But you had to retain body heat too, so a heavy overcoat was usually involved, along with gauntlets, goggles and a helmet. As a result, all-weather motorcycle riders resembled heavily padded dinosaurs, capable of limited movement on foot, unable to bend over and requiring assistance if they fell, like knights in armor, or the younger brother in “A Christmas Story”.

The Panther motorcycle was a dinosaur. First built in Cleckheaton, Yorkshire, in 1903, it evolved into the 600cc OHV single-cylinder Model 100 and later 650cc Model 120, with such a long stroke that the “sloper” engine was a stressed member of the frame, tilted forward to take the place of the down tube. The result was gobs of torque at low revs and a surprisingly long life. Rear suspension wasn’t introduced until 1954 and the “hard-tail” endured until 1957. “The chain lasts longer,” said Dad, dismissing rear suspension. The last Panther was built in 1968.

As our bike was a “hardtail” the only rear suspension for me on the back was the springs in my seat and my own organic padding. Saturdays meant tea at Saltwood with grandmother, about 15 miles along the south coast of England, come rain, shine or snow. I still recall looking over Dad’s shoulder at oncoming flakes in the headlight, noting there were no tracks on the remote back road he favored. Kips, our Yorkshire terrier, would be stuffed into the front of his huge coat, with just his head poking out. I recall Dad triumphantly yelling to Mum on one occasion, after haring down a long hill, with the bike vibrating and roaring like a Sopwith Camel — “72 mph!” — but mostly I remember being so cold that I thought the tiles on the bathroom floor were actually warm in our house without central heating.

Eventually, after my grandfather died, we bought a 1955 Hillman Minx station wagon and the Panther was sold to a giant of a man, a Mr Poyser . He was probably six feet six inches and about 18 stone and  Dad went to great lengths to explain how to start the bike. “Set the spark three-quarters advanced, raise the exhaust valve lifter, lift the decompression valve lever, so you can kick the bike over without it kicking back. When it starts, close the decompression valve and let it warm up.”

Dad complained that “the bloke wouldn’t listen.” Two weeks later Poyser called to say he expected to be back on his feet in a couple of months. The Panther had kicked back, and Poyser regained consciousness, lying on his back in front of the bike with a broken ankle.

As any Panther owner can tell you: Who needs a burglar alarm? Just leave it parked with the spark fully advanced. An old bike magazine explained the Panther even more eloquently: Two football teams line up for a kickoff. Looking at the opposing team, who have gigantic right legs, one player says: “We’re done for lads, it’s the Panther club.”

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