James May

James May column illustration: vintage flying

Bad air day

A common feature in a Sunday newspaper supplement is the one in which some person of significance describes his or her typical day. You know the sort of thing: get up at such and such a time, unlock the kids’ bedroom, eat this, do that, meet these people, and so on.

These articles drive me up the wall. For one thing, no one important ever seems to do anything, which makes me wonder how they came to be so influential that a newspaper wants to talk to them. Secondly, they’re always thinly disguised boasts about how free-trade the coffee is, or how sophisticated the home appliances are. There’s always far too much mention of the juicer for my liking.

So, by way of contrast, I bring you a life in the Sunday of a slightly sad middle-aged bloke with a debilitating enthusiasm for mechanical items powered by internal combustion engines. It’s not good and is intended as a warning.

The plan was simple. Make my way to the local flying club, using one of the nine modes of personal transport available to me, and go for a flip in the 10th, my little light aircraft. So, we begin in the garage with my modest collection of classic motorcycles.

Most recent addition to this lot is my 1968 Honda CB250 twin. I like old Hondas a lot, and had been looking for one of these for a bit. Eventually, I found one that a bloke had restored beautifully, but couldn’t make run properly, and so, exploiting his despair, I knocked him down substantially on the asking price on the basis that I’d be able to sort it back home.

And I did, after about three months, eventually tracing the fault to a tiny missing rubber bung inside one of the carburettors. The 250 burst into life, after a spot of fooling about with jump leads and a booster pack. It was even running on both cylinders! So, off I went.

But within a mile, I was rewarded with a damp leg, the result of petrol spouting from the carb assembly like some ornamental fuel fountain. But not to worry, because I have two more old Hondas. My early Sixties C200, for example; a simple machine of 90cc and an uplifting, prosaic experience. The least a motorcycle can be while still technically being one. This turned out to be as dead as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, that is, as a doornail.

So I turned to the 1972 CB500 Four, one of the finest products ever to come from Soichiro Honda’s bid for two-wheeled world domination. After reassembling it and extracting it from the back of the garage, I pressed the starter button and something exploded in the bowels of its complex four-pot motor. But at least moving that out of the way had given me access to the Moto Guzzi V11, which I’ve owned from new for many years and maintained fastidiously.

"The 250 burst into life, after a spot of fooling about with jump leads and a booster pack" 

Obviously, that didn’t work, because it was built near Lake Como in northern Italy, a place famous for ice cream and ancient chapels dedicated to St Anthony, the patron saint of things that are lost. So, finally, after several hours of trying, I was forced onto the seat of my Triumph Speed Triple which, being new, started immediately.

But then Woman turned up and demanded to be taken to the airfield as well and, as she hates motorcycles, this meant turning my attention to the cars. The old Bentley is a nice way to travel on a sunny day of fun, but technically it’s for sale as I’ve bought an old Rolls-Royce instead. And the fuel gauge is broken. Meanwhile, the Royce isn’t here yet, because it’s away with a man who’s re-laquering the cracked dashboard, after which it’s in for some engine work.

The Porsche, then. It’s my poshest car and a convertible to boot, and just the sort of thing in which a chap and his gal might arrive at an airfield. No, not the Porsche, because one of the windows has stuck in the open position, so it can’t be parked anywhere. And so, some three hours after I stepped out of my front door, we set off in the Fiat Panda.

And it didn’t end there. At the airfield, I uncovered my Luscombe 8 monoplane, an American-built machine of 1946 vintage. In its time, it was a radical aeroplane, the first all-metal light aircraft, something that could live outdoors without fear of the wings rotting away or anything like that. It is in excellent condition and has been rigorously serviced for its entire life, as you would demand of an aircraft.

I spent the usual half-a-lifetime on my pre-flight checks, fuelled up, strapped in and ran through the start-up procedure. The 100hp air-cooled flat four roared into lustful life. I taxied to the end of the runway, did some more checks for full power, oil pressure and all the rest of it and then opened the throttle.

Halfway down the runway, I was rewarded with what I regard as a porthole to the sublime; a view of a perfect English heaven, seen through the screen of a classic aeroplane in the moment it lifts from the grass at the historic White Waltham airfield. And then, at 800 feet, the engine cut out. Not permanently – it just faltered for a few seconds and then picked up again – but even so, I very nearly soiled myself. Five minutes later, I was back on the deck covering it up again.

The message here is really quite simple. All this old stuff is rubbish. None of it works properly. After almost a whole day of fart-arsing around with machinery, I was forced to conclude that the only dependable things in my life are an Italian car and a British motorcycle. No one would have bet on that.

And here’s the advice. Buy one new car, any car, and use that for everything. Then you can devote the rest of your life to something useful.


James May, Column, Honda

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