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The Beattie Files: First love and a very warm ride

This was the precise moment when I knew I was doomed to ride motorcycles for the rest of my life. I was totally absorbed in the experience

(Ed's note: These are excerpts from young Beattie's book on some of the more colourful incidents in an action-packed life. See the end of the piece for more info.)

(Jan 2024, Chris Beattie)



“It’s an Ajay mate, needs a bit of work, but most of it is there as far as I can tell.”


It was covered in dust, overspray and cobwebs and lay forlorn and neglected in a dark corner of the panelbeater’s workshop. To anyone else it might have looked like a rusting relic beyond hope and mercy, but to me it was a veritable jewel. I was 14 at the time and needed a bike. Badly. I’d been bitten by the motorcycle bug after my mate Bruce turned up one day on a BSA 125 Bantam and let me take it for a flog around the local dirt roads where we lived 40km north of Auckland.


I’d been doing a bit of hay-bailing over the summer to earn some pocket money so I handed over the princely sum of $25, my panelbeater mate even delivering the 1946 AJS 500 single to my home at no extra cost.

Which is where it sat for a couple of weeks as I attempted to figure out what to actually do with it. Of course, I understood that a motorcycle was intended to be ridden. But in the case of my new acquisition, it seemed that there was a bit more work required to get it on the road than I first anticipated. Both tyres were not only bald – they were flat. The front wheel was minus a brake and mudguard, there was no headlight, seat or generator and no instruments to speak of.

The engine was actually intact, although missing an exhaust system. And there was no primary drive cover between the engine and gearbox, so the clutch and drive chain were totally – and lethally -- exposed. Plus, it had a rigid frame, so there was no rear suspension to soften the many potholes and bumps typical of local roads. There was definitely a bit of work ahead.


Nevertheless, I was totally absorbed by the task of getting the Ajay going. Which for the first week or so involved attempting to roll-start it down the side driveway at the side of our property, which was perched on the slope of a hill in farmland near the Pacific coast. Each time it stubbornly and frustratingly refused to utter even one hint of any internal combustion from the battle-scared big single cylinder engine. And of course, each and every attempt at getting it going also required pushing it back up the dirt driveway to the garage behind our house. If nothing else, it was great exercise, even if a little unfulfilling for the most part.


But with some help from a few older mates, including Bruce who owned the Bantam and who had just started a mechanics apprenticeship, we eventually figured out that a new sparkplug might help. Next time down the driveway it went bang … followed by more bangs. Given that the previous two weeks’ efforts had produced no signs of life, I was initially somewhat surprised to hear the motor actually running. I was equally surprised to note that the uncovered clutch, which was now spinning mere millimetres from my bare foot, appeared to be inoperable. The situation was highly inconvenient given my progress down the driveway was increasing rapidly. At the time we lived on a gravel road, with deep drainage ditches on both sides, one of which I was now approaching.


Another inconvenience that I discovered a second or two before impact was that we had somehow fitted the footbrake pedal over the footrest so there was not enough travel to operate the brake.


I was told later that my somersault over the handlebars was quite dramatic. The front wheel of the Ajay dug into the clay bank directly opposite the driveway so the bike stopped instantly – while I, plainly, didn’t. Fortunately, the land on the other side of the road was vacant, save for some scrub and a couple of trees, so at least I had a pretty soft landing.


But I was so elated that we at least now had the engine running, that I barely noticed a couple of grazes and bruises. We pushed the bike back up the driveway and repositioned the foot brake pedal, as well as adjusting the clutch cable. This time around Bruce was in the saddle (we had crafted a seat by wrapping a strip of shagpile carpet around the frame) as we pushed her back down the drive. It fired first time and as I stood by and watched, Bruce and the Ajay disappeared up the road in a cloud of gravel dust and engine smoke. Since I had yet to find an exhaust system, it was also making a hell of a racket. I was beyond excited and could hardly wait for Bruce’s return.


He eventually re-emerged out of the cloud and after making a couple more adjustments, pronounced the bike ready for my first ride. Plunging back down the driveway, with hands on bars and heart in mouth, I dropped the clutch and felt and heard the big thumper fire up. I was on my way!


This was the precise moment when I knew I was doomed to ride motorcycles for the rest of my life. I was totally absorbed in the experience as I rode all over the countryside, including along a couple of the local beaches, until the engine coughed and I switched over to the reserve fuel tank. I turned for home and barely stopped long enough to top up the tank before we were off again.

The bike was totally illegal, with no lights, registration, bald tyres and no hope of passing a mandatory warrant of fitness. It didn’t even have a sidestand, so I soon became adept at finding things to lean it against, like shops, fences, powerpoles and telephone boxes. I still didn’t have a licence, but I couldn’t have cared less. That feeling of freedom and power that only other motorcyclists can understand had me in its spell. I was utterly enthralled and remain so to this day, with each and every ride reawakening something of that spellbound 14-year-old way back in 1970s New Zealand.


Over the following few months I managed to round up an exhaust pipe here, a headlight there and various other parts until the old Ajay almost resembled a street-legal bike, although I never did get around to registering it. I had the occasional close shave with local cops, but inevitably managed to make good my escape by diverting across local paddocks or going for the occasional ride along a beach or over sand dunes. Which is how I also learned quite a bit about riding, particularly over the pretty agricultural local roads.


A small group of us used to hit the road on weekends and venture a little further afield, which is when I first had contact with the Hells Angels, which had a chapter on Auckland’s north shore, not far from home. One member in particular, Will Dillon, a Maori guy with a pirate-style metal hook for a hand, seemed to take pity on me and actually helped me tidy up some mechanical defects on the bike and offered the occasional tip on how to deal with the cops whenever I got caught.


Mixing with some of the other members soon exposed me to a more adult social circle – which resulted in a couple of other major incidents detailed elsewhere in this book. But I remember one in particular when a couple of members offered to accompany me to the local police station for my licence test.


Directly across the road from the cop shop was the Wade River Hotel, a pretty basic drinking establishment in the nearby village of Silverdale, which was one of the first pubs in New Zealand to bolt its furniture to the floor and only serve plastic drinking vessels due to the tendency of patrons to use them as weapons. The floors were bare boards and all the windows were barred. The only thing harder than the pub were the crowds that drank there.


On this particular day I rode on the back of Filthy Phil’s Triumph Bonneville. The idea was that I’d use Filthy’s bike for the licence test, since it was registered, but instead of pulling up at the police station, we parked in front of the hotel.


“I reckon ya need a beer to steady ya nerves for the test,” advised Phil. “You’ve got a few minutes to spare so no fuckin’ stress mate,” he grinned, exposing two rows of discoloured and broken teeth.


A calming ale seemed fine by me because I was a little nervous about the test given that the licencing cop was known to be a stickler for the rulebook and didn’t particularly like ‘bikies’.


After downing a couple of beers, I realized that I was already a few minutes late for the test so rushed out of the pub and across the road, leaving Filthy to keep the barmaid occupied.


“What the fuck do you want?” sneered the tester. We’ll call him Constable Bastard.


“I’m here to do my licence,” I grinned.


“No you’re fucking not,” was the curt reply as he continued to look down at some official paperwork. “I saw you just came out of the pub. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re on the piss you’re not fit to take the test.


“And another thing, I noticed you pulled up on the back of that sod Filthy’s bike. Don’t bother coming back unless you’re on your own. He’s fucking bad news mate. Do yourself a favour and find another riding mate.”


Advice which I ignored, of course. I was enjoying riding and partying with Filthy, Will and a few of the other local wild men, and despite being the youngest in the group I was treated pretty well. They even helped me work on the bike and taught me how to fix the occasional breakdown, which was a fairly regular occurrence on the Ajay. One thing English bikes weren’t known for was reliability, so I never left home without a good supply of spare parts and tools.



Eventually I got my licence and a few months later I was offered an AJS CSR 650 twin, a much more powerful bike that came complete with registration. But, similar to the old 500, it still needed some work. For a start, it had a large 6-volt car battery lashed to the seat with ocky straps, had no mufflers and a slight knocking noise which, memorably, became a broken crankshaft as I was riding across the Auckland Harbour Bridge a few weeks later.


On another occasion, it blew a head gasket just as I was leaving the mechanical workshop where I had started an engine reconditioning apprenticeship. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal except a portion of the head gasket exited the engine and sliced through the fuel line. Which in itself also wouldn’t have been such a big deal – except that sparks from the engine then ignited the escaping stream of fuel. All of a sudden I was mounted on a two-wheeled flame thrower!


With traffic backing up as flames spewed onto the road, I quickly assessed my options. I knew the fuel tank wasn’t bolted onto the frame, so leaned the bike on its sidestand, lifted the tank off the bike – with the fuel line still pouring out liquid flame -- and thought for an instant about throwing it off a nearby railway bridge onto the tracks below.

Luckily, there was a motorcycle shop a block down the road. One of the customers had seen what was going on and alerted the manager, who came running up with a fire extinguisher. He quickly snuffed out the fire and left me to consider my next move. I could have left the bike at work and arranged a lift home, but it was a Friday night and there was a ride on over the weekend that I didn’t want to miss.


I had a close look at the engine and realized that I might just be able to nurse it home. All I needed was another length of fuel line.


I managed to get to the bike shop just as the manager was locking up.


“Mate, thanks for helping out back there,” I said. “Ummm, I’ve had a look over the bike and I reckon I should be able to get it home if I can just get another length of fuel line,” I explained, laying the still smoking length of plastic tube on the counter.


The manager prodded the smouldering, blackened fuel line, before looking at me and shaking his head.


“Mate, firstly, there’s no fuckin’ way known I’m selling you another fuel line. That fuckin’ thing will go up again as sure as shit,” he said. “Wheel the fuckin’ thing over here and I’ll look at it in the morning.”


Which is what I did. Ultimately, the 650 and I spent a few happy months together travelling all over the North Island, before I eventually sold it to move to Australia.


But I still look back fondly on the old 500. It was an angry, evil, ornery mongrel of a bike that tried to kill me on more than one occasion, and left me regularly stranded on the side of the road. But a bit like a first romance, it set a flame in my soul that no fire extinguisher will ever put out.

(More to come...)


beattie book

The excerpt is from Beattie's wild and woolly book. So far as we know it's had one brief print run and he's threatening to do another. Watch this space.

In the meantime he can be contacted by email.

More at The Beattie Files home page

Travels with Guido columns here

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