It was always going to happen. Conceding to middle age could only mean one thing – I was going to buy a motorcycle. Not for me, though, waddling around the bike shop ogling at the latest superbike, my goal was to reclaim lost youth by purchasing the bike I owned as a boy.
And when I say boy, I mean it. For I am of an age that places me among the very last who could pass their test at 16 then legally ride a bike with any power output – and not have to wear a crash helmet. I remember to this day the buzz of turning up at school with my hair frizzed out at 90 degrees. How cool was that for any Lower Sixth upstart growing up in the early Seventies?
The bike of my dreams at the time was the Triumph Thunderbird. The problem was I couldn’t afford one; at about £150 for a largely clapped out example they were beyond my reach. But when a Thunderbird-ish looking Triumph emblazoned with “Bike of the Week, £99” appeared on the forecourt of Luton motorcycle shop Coburn & Hughes, the deal was as good as done.
Mistaking “Bike of the Week” as a euphemism for “bargain”, I handed over the cash for what turned out to be a 1962 500cc Triumph 5TA Speed Twin. So began the ride of my life. Friends, girlfriends, good times, bad times – all, in some way or another, would become referenced in terms of my 5TA and the places it took me.
I only owned the bike for a couple of years before shoddily rebuilding the engine, which then promptly blew its barrels off, a common occurrence befalling any wannabe Triumph mechanic not in possession of the thin ring spanner needed to properly tighten the nuts between barrel and crankcase. By now an impoverished student, I decided to sell it to my local dealer, Sid Mularney. Sid was famous for three things; his Manx Norton TT racing machines, a workshop with a resident spanner-throwing poltergeist and driving a hard bargain. Consequently, I walked away miserable with just £22.50.
Fast forward 40 years and everything has changed. Triumph 5TA Speed Twins are now unquestionably objects of desire. As the motorcycle that set the standard for parallel twins, examples of the 5TA now change hands for anything up to £6,000. I was fortunate to pick up mine, fully restored with only sensible modifications such as 12-volt electrics, for £4,500.
How much has been spent returning the bike to its current condition is anyone’s guess, but labours of love such as this are not about cost.
Owning a classic motorcycle is pure joy, especially when a chunk of your own history is inextricably linked to the type of machine in question. I can honestly say I get more pleasure riding my 5TA at 45mph than I ever did while cranking over my modern Triumph at the speed limit. Far from the blandness I cannot help associating with modern bikes, the 5TA involves and absorbs me totally in the ride.
The handling is predictable and speed has to be gradually coaxed out of it, but just glancing down at the famous Triumph nacelle and the grab-the-bull-by-the-horns handlebars still sends a shiver.
I’ve given up with the spanners, though. Happily, we’ve got a great classic bike specialist locally (take a bow, Andy) so I really have nothing to worry about.
Except which bike to take out today. That’s because the bug has hit me hard, and a Thunderbird just like the one I always wanted came up for sale recently. It looks great alongside the 5TA in the garage.
Triumph 5TA Speed Twin
Engine: 500cc overhead valve vertical twin-cylinder engine
Launched: 1937 Olympia Motorcycle Show, price £74.00
Last produced: 1966
Notable features: Triumph "bathtub" rear panels and "centurion"-style front mudguard (not all models)
Notable achievement: lap record at Brooklands in 1938 at 118.02mph (record still stands because Brooklands was not used for speed events after the Second World War)
Notable customers: the AA, Metropolitan Police, British Army