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Telegram from the Queen

(Travels with Guido series #295, by Guy ‘Guido’ Allen, Mar 2021)

jon Munn Indian

Turning 100 is a significant event in any motorcycle’s life

It was a simple enough plan. On the basis that I own a camera and have some vague idea of where to point it (this was not a competitive environment), I was appointed as the official calendar photographer for one of the local Indian clubs.

This does not involve the classic glamour shoot mix of beaches, bikinis and daiquiris under umbrellas. Which is just as well – there is only one member of the club who I think would look good in a bikini and it’s best (in the interests of self-preservation) that I don’t name them.

No, this was more your working motorcycle glam shoot. Good bikes, preferably in focus.

Bike number three on my list was a 1916 twin, owned by expat Englishman Jon Munn. He was mid-sandwich when I turned up, so I left him alone as I cruised his warehouse (coincidentally called the Old Classic Warehouse) of toys for trade.

Jeezuz H Kerrist. That was a bad move. Walking down row one (there were six), I’d made a mental note to buy four or five bikes. Worse, there was a boneyard or in-progress section, where I counted six Nortons in a row, looking for seats and tanks – except the Hi-Rider, which had that unforgivable parody of a factory chopper seat.

The sheer depth of what was available became mind-numbing. Yes, I’d love that Kawasaki ZR-1 MkI, or maybe the BSA Spitfire, and the Indian-branded Velocette was worth a look. Luckily, Jon finished his sanger just as muggins was reaching for a flogged-out credit card.

He strolled into view and wheeled the 1916 bike out, saying, “It’s a while since I started this, but it usually goes first kick and maybe I should take it for a run.”

It’s rare you get to properly look at a motorcycle of this age. Two things struck me immediately: it was long in the wheelbase, even for its time, which is typical of Indian; Though running primitive leaf suspension at both ends (in itself unusual for the day), the seat was also sprung. Which means it was stable and comfortable with what was effectively double suspension at the rear.

The brand doesn’t matter – for me it was fascinating to see how much effort the designers had put into making the rider happy. It’s easy to get this image of primitive motorcycles in hard times, when everyone was tough. They might have been, but here were a group of people building big and handsome motorcycles with a clear focus on comfort.

Given how bad some current cruiser motorcycles are on the cosseting front, you can’t help wondering what went wrong.

Sandwich digested, Jon suggested I hang around as he started the bike. As an owner of a 1947 Chief, the checklist and ceremony was surprisingly familiar. Neutral, set ignition to full retard, plenty of fuel, a couple of priming kicks, switch on the ignition and give it a serious swing. It fired up, was grumpy at first and sounded lovely as it warmed up.

Is there such a thing as sounding powerful? If there is, that’s what this one did.

It’s now well past 100 years old. Humans in Australia traditionally expect a telegram from the Queen when they tick over a century. Maybe it’s an email these days. In any case, I did ask Jon if he received a telegram from Auld Blighty.

He laughed. “No. Maybe I should have got one from Barack Obama,” he quipped. How about it, Mr O? It’s never too late…

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