James May on: meeting your heroes

Posted by James May at 10:57 am on Wednesday July 18, 2012

For 10 years now, I have resolutely pursued a policy of not meeting Brian Cant. This isn't as easy as it sounds, because I was once at an event where Mr Cant was also present, and, as soon as I'd discovered this, I had to go home, just to be absolutely on the safe side.

Brian Cant is one of my top heroes. The narration of Trumpton and his singing of "Come buy my vegetables" would be enough to secure that, but there was a lot more besides. I don't doubt that Brian is a smashing chap in real life and when he's not being Mr Clamp the greengrocer, but he can't possibly be as great as I think he is. Then he would be the divine architect.

So it's best not to meet him. You should never meet your heroes, as I demonstrated years ago on TopGear TV when I drove the Lamborghini Countach. It had dwelt in my mind as the enduring afterglow of some passion long spent, like Byron's recollection of the sweetness of first love, and I ruined it by actually driving the thing, which was awful. A part of me sustained by blind romantic faith was ruthlessly slaughtered, and it was my fault.

It follows, then, that I should never own a Yamaha FS1E sports moped from the Seventies. God in his heaven, how I lusted after one of these when I was a lad. The thought of it occupied so much of my teenage nocturnal tossings that it probably arrested my sexual development. But it might have accelerated it.

Everything about the FS1E crippled my pubescent resolve to do something constructive: the shape, the colours, the smell, the simple fact that you needed a key for it, it had an engine, would go uphill of its own accord and down it at an alleged 120kph (actually more like 72). Nothing since has had quite the same debilitating effect, not even a Ferrari 458, and it's fitting that I've named that visceral sensation of desire for mechanical objects in honour of this ear-splitting, disc-valved, 50cc rin-bin-bin: The Fizz.

A bit of explanation for our younger readers. Back then, one could ride a motorcycle of up to 250cc, without taking a test, at the age of 17. But at 16, the British youth could ride a moped, a word contracted from MOtor-assisted PEDal cycle. What the authorities had in mind was exactly that: a bicycle with a strap-on engine of not more than 50cc.

The Japanese, and others, realised that they could simply build a proper 50cc motorcycle and equip it with nominal bicycle pedals to get around the rules, thus allowing boys to embrace the advice in Steppenwolf's greatest hit a full year earlier. When you're 16, being 17 is a lifetime away.

But, of course, I wasn't allowed to have one. My mother identified that sports mopeds were for yobbos and an elaborate means of suicide. Added to that, we should remember that most products of the Seventies - tie-dye, Spangles, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, the Allegro - were crap. And anyway, an FS1E cost Rs 16,000, which was enough for a house and a slap-up fish supper. And I shouldn't have one now because it is, in effect, Brian Cant as a bike.

So, it's purple and nicely restored. Richard Hammond has bought one, too, but his is brown, like a stubborn floater left behind by the general egress of Seventies effluence. We haven't yet had the opportunity to ride them to a kebab shop together, talk to some girls and have a fight, but it's only a matter of time.

What I have done instead is ride it around locally, trailing an evocative cloud of two-stroke smoke and lowering the value of property more effectively than any so-called ‘recession'. It's as I remembered them. Feeble kick-start, check. Tyres from a bicycle, check. Languid indicators, check. Bendy front end, check. Truly horrible metallic racket, check.

Look, I'm not really a misty-eyed nostalgist. The past has gone, and it was largely rubbish anyway. Most old cars and bikes are nothing more than a warning from history, like a book about Thirties fascism.

But there are one or two relics that really deserve to be dusted off and revisited. York Minster, for example. The FS1E is one of them, because it represented a first flowering of true personal freedom.

And if you didn't have one first time around, it still does. My life's work is complete.

TAGS// james may

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