Friday, 17 April 2009

A VETERAN IN THE FAMILY - 1909 Triumph Road Test

In October 2009, Australia's National Veteran Motorcycle Rally will be based in Albany, on the rugged south coast of Western Australia. This presents the opportunity to celebrate a landmark birthday in the Jennings family. The veteran Triumph, which has been in the family since 1972, turns 100 years old in mid June 2009. So we reckon a week long rally will be a fitting way to move the old Trumpy gently into the next century of its life.

When Dad passed away in 1980 most of the restored motorcycles and cars stayed in the family. The Triumph is now owned by my sister in NSW, and I am grateful that she and her husband will be bringing the Triumph across this wide country of ours to attend this rally. Unfortunately neither if them ride old bikes, so it looks like I'd better go along as well. A tough job but somebody's got to do it.

The receipt is dated 29/3/72 and reads:
“Debit to Chris Parkinson
Port Sorrell
Tasmania 7307

1 only 1909 Triumph motorcycle $500.00"

My father, the late Len Jennings, bought the Model H during a Vintage Car Club holiday in Tasmania. It travelled back to NSW on the Empress of Tasmania, carefully wrapped and secured across the fold-down luggage rack of a 1928 Austin sedan. Looking at the wording on the receipt, I think it was a pity there was “1 only”, as this old bike has been a continuing source of fun for numerous members of the Jennings family over the past 35 years.

It was restored by Chris Parkinson in the mid-50’s, and rallied constantly in Tasmania and occasionally on the mainland through the 60’s. By 1972 Chris decided he was too old to continue riding, hence the sale. When I saw it unwrapped for the first time, I was uncertain whether it was restored, or just remarkably well preserved. The nickel-plated parts had a golden sheen, not bright like chrome, the paintwork was tidy but showed obvious signs of wear, and the leather Brooks saddle and the toolboxes were wrinkled but well kept. All the original fittings, like cellulose handgrips, a downtube-mounted oiler for roadside maintenance, a fuel primer, pedalling gear, period kerosene headlamp, and town and country exhaust baffle on the end of the forward-mounted silencer were all there and working. This was indeed a rare find.
Riding the Model H is simple but demanding. Simple because there is no clutch, no gearbox, no battery, no generator and as a result, very little weight to manhandle. Demanding because there is no mechanical oil pump, no brakes, no suspension, no tyre adhesion and no acceleration to speak of.

Let’s do a bit of a road test so you might come to understand the pleasures of riding these basic, belt-driven, motorised bicycles.

As you approach the old Triumph sitting up on its rear stand, you notice the bicycle origins of its frame, wheel and pedalling gear. The footpegs are mounted well forward so as not to foul the pedals during the on-stand warm-up and when “light pedal assistance” is needed on hills. The gearing is adjustable over a narrow range by undoing a locknut on the crankshaft pulley and screwing the outer flange out to lower the gearing and vice versa to raise the gearing. This allows the belt to run deeper or higher in the crankshaft pulley and also means belt adjustment is required (not easy if you use an endless V-belt as I do). That gets rid of the gearbox. With direct driven machines there still comes a time when you have to stop both forward motion and engine, so a valve lifter lives on the left handlebar. That gets rid of the clutch.

Since coasting to a halt with valve lifter engaged and feet dragging isn’t very efficient in terms of braking distances, there are brakes fitted, front and rear. A stirrup brake operated by an inverted lever on the right handlebar looks after the front wheel and a rubber block which engages on the inner edge of the belt rim looks after the rear wheel. This is operated by a conventional sort of footbrake pivoted off the right footpeg. In practice, braking is marginal in dry weather and non-existent in the wet.

A small supply of fuel and a smaller supply of oil are stored in the long, narrow fuel tank. There’s a nifty sight glass built into the fuel tank and a plunger type oil pump built into the oil tank. The total loss lubrication system needs one shot of oil every ten miles and more frequently in mountainous country. This is fine but for the omission of a speedometer, hence no odometer. How’s your mental arithmetic? If your estimated average speed is 30mph and the terrain is flat, how often do you reach for the oil pump? Answer: every 20 minutes. Adjust the time interval for speed and terrain and if in doubt, over-oil. The worst that can happen then is severe power loss due to the flywheels drowning, and an oily left boot (it breathes straight out the centre of the crankshaft pulley).

The carburettor is a crude twin slide device with only one fixed jet. The air slide is used to richen the mixture for starting, but unlike modern carburettors, it cannot be fully opened once the engine is warm. It always has to be juggled in conjunction with the throttle slide to give even running. On the handlebar-mounted twin lever assembly, it is best if the shorter air lever always lags the longer throttle lever setting by about half an inch. Adjust according to the weather and the old girl’s mood on the day.

Ignition is by Bosch magneto, mounted forward of the engine and above the silencer. The manual advance is rod-operated with a lever mounted on a serrated boss on the left side of the fuel tank.
Pedalling gear and a valve lifter make starting easy. Just turn on fuel, flood the carburettor, half retard the spark, push the throttle about an inch from rest and the air lever about half an inch, climb aboard, engage the valve lifter and start pedalling. Once you’ve built up some momentum, drop the valve lifter and your ears should be greeted by a gentle chuffing. If not, keep pedalling whilst fiddling with throttle, air and spark settings and she’ll eventually start. You might have noticed that we’re not actually going anywhere yet, because the bike is still on the rear stand.

Leave it run for a minute or two like this and adjust the settings for a nice, fast idle. Then engage the valve lifter to stop the engine. Now, DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING until your helmet’s on and you’re ready to wheel the old girl out onto the street. Choose a flat or downhill stretch to start on, throw a leg over, engage the valve lifter and start pedalling. Heavy work, isn’t it? Although the bike itself is light, pedalling ain’t easy, because you’re driving all the heavy engine internals around, as well as the back wheel. Within twenty yards or so, you can drop the valve lifter and you should once again hear that gentle chuffing. Now you can start to accelerate. Sorry, let me rephrase that. Now you can open the throttle and air slides and advance the spark. You’ll soon discover that these old machines don’t accelerate as such. You adjust throttle settings then sit back and wait for the old engine room to respond. Eventually you’ll detect a change in the rate of progress.

For your first ride around the block its best to go anti-clockwise (for counties where you drive on the left side). That way you only have to make left turns and there’s a chance you can come up to the corner, throttle back, brake, look, then turn left without actually having to stop to give way to another road user. The advantages are obvious, and it’s a great way to hone your skills of anticipation and timing. When you become really proficient, you can even forget the throttle back bit and just use the valve lifter to ease off as you approach the turn then feed it back in as you pass the apex and power out of the turn. Exciting stuff at 15mph, with the bicycle frame flexing under the ‘g’ forces and the beaded edge tyres at the meagre limits of their grip. I hope you remembered to check your watch when you left home. Don’t forget, one shot of oil every 20 minutes and more often if it is hilly.

Assuming this is a big block, we’ll negotiate a few more day to day hazards. Potholes for one. The high pressure tyres are unforgiving, the front suspension useless (did you ever wonder why Triumph built girder forks with a horizontal spring that only allows fore and aft movement?) The Brooks saddle provides a little spring movement, but if the road is rough, brace yourself on the pedalling gear and be prepared to get out of the saddle. The footpegs are too far forward to be of any use in this department.

Refuelling is an art. The fuel cap is a 1 inch diameter threaded cap. Your standard bowser nozzle is a good inch and a half diameter. The fuel tank holds about six litres. Your standard bowser delivers that much fuel in about 3 seconds flat. So you need a small plastic funnel and a very steady trigger finger to refuel an old Triumph. But you won’t need much money.

Other road uses are another hazard. People just don’t appreciate the long braking distances and the inability to accelerate or travel comfortably at any speed over about 35mph. So they tailgate you. Then they gawk at you as they overtake. Then they travel slowly right in front of you so all the ankle-biters can gawk some more out of the back window. As if you don’t have enough to think about, you’re expected to smile, wave and honk the horn in between concentrating on throttle and spark settings, time interval between shots of oil, intersections, corners, hills, strange new noises, potholes, stray dogs and the like.

There must be something very soothing about the gentle chuffing of an old side valve single, unencumbered by harsh chains and gears, because once mastered, riding is so much fun you’ll find it impossible not to smile, honk and wave at every little ankle-biter along the way.


Veteran fan said...

Beautiful description John! You are right of course, once you try riding a veteran, you can't give it up. No other bikes can bring as many smiles to my face.

Cheers mate
Pete Young

Anonymous said...

Hi John, a fine and informative story indeed....would you please check out, I would love to have your story and some photos of your Trusty next to my own 1909 model which,incidentally, is also called " the old girl"..Regards,

ruud said...

Hello John, a fine and informative story indeed! Please check out , I would very much like to add your machine to my pictures!