SI Vault
Robert Wintner
April 16, 1979
I traveled to London in the late '60s and bought a motorcycle with the money my mother had given me to keep for an emergency. It was a BSA 650 Lightning Rocket, one of the last of its kind, and though plagued with vibrations, it could go as fast as I wanted to take it. Two carburetors, chrome fenders and a bulbous fuel tank that was chrome on top and fire-engine red on the sides distinguished the Lightning Rocket. Gold starbursts, one on each side of the tank, were on all BSA motorcycles; lightning bolts shot forward from the starbursts, gold flames spurted out behind. I drove it at 140 mph once, something over 6,000 rpms, I would guess.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 16, 1979

In France A Young American Cyclist Encounters A Wise Old Craftsman

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

A motorcycle can be driven clutchless if the driver is sensitive to engine sound and can hear when the engine and transmission are ready to take a shift. Even so, shifting is not smooth but must be muscled up and down with an unavoidable crunch of gears. The cable had to be fixed. So we limped into Biarritz, John driving the BSA since he was the far more experienced driver. I drove the Triumph.

We soon discovered that no word in provincial France translates to motorcycle. The word moto encompasses anything with two wheels and an engine, from mopeds to Lightning Rockets. Our best prospect, we were told, was a moped fix-it shop somewhere in the back alleys of the town. We found the shop. Its door opened directly onto the street and mopeds poured out like hatchling mantises. Tired and hungry, we saw little indication of hope, only dozens of 50-cc. mopeds.

But an old man—old but not aged—came to the door inquisitively, nose up to the sound of big motorcycles like a hound scenting game. He was over six feet tall with yellow-white hair and a flushed red face, in the center of which was a great French nose. He wore a once-white jump suit, and his hands looked like cypress knees, gnarled and weatherworn. As he watched us, urchins tumbled out of the shop and swarmed around us and the old man, tittering and touching the big motos. Bruno spoke to the old man, and we showed him the limp clutch lever, the broken cable. His brow wrinkled. He scratched, then spoke to Bruno. We heard the word " London" and were prepared when Bruno gave us the news: the clutch cable was a one-piece part, from the lever to the clutch. The old man had none to fit, but if he called that day to London, a new one would arrive within three weeks.

We hung our heads, mumbled maledictions and paced in circles. The old man watched, then raised both hands and conveyed to us that we should leave the moto with him overnight, go find a place to sleep. We asked him where we might unroll our sleeping bags, and he directed us to a bluff off a secondary road that overlooked a beach partially sheltered by half-grown bushes and small trees.

"Allez!" the old man laughed. "Vite! Vite!" shooing us back from all the urchins who howled when we three mounted the old Thunderbird, burdening her shocks springless, and rode off around the corner. We stopped and bought a big can that was labeled SAUERKRAUT in small letters under a large picture of sauerkraut and sausage. That's for us, we agreed, and bought mustard and bread and two bottles of wine but drank one on the curb for fortitude before mounting up again.

We made camp and discovered no sausage in the can, so we ate sauerkraut and mustard sandwiches on fresh French bread, drank wine and smoked Gauloises. The sandwiches were memorable, and we drank and smoked ourselves quite free of broken clutch cables and the high cost of France. We awoke in morning mist to find snails sliming across our sleeping bags like cartographers. More sandwiches and wine and cigarettes for breakfast, then into town for coffee.

At nine we arrived at the shop. The BSA still sat out front exactly as it had been left. The old man, bright-eyed, ruddy-faced, came out on hearing us and raised both hands as though we were all the best of friends, finally united again. He and Bruno spoke and walked together toward the BSA, hands waving in communication. One hand squeezed the clutch lever to show us it was repaired. Incredulous, I squeezed it, too, then saw what he had done. Each thread of the cable, maybe 20 strands, had been welded back onto the metal plug from which it had been severed. Delicate as clockwork, the threads were attached so the cable and splice could slide through the eighth-inch cable guide as smoothly as before.

John and I examined and reexamined it. The old man would not look at his work again but walked back into the shop with Bruno. When Bruno called us in, the old man led us to the back of the garage, then even farther back to a part of the shop that was not a garage but rooms for quiet after-hours. The walls were covered with photographs of a man over six feet tall with dark hair and a big nose, wearing a jump suit and standing in front of one motorcycle or another with a trophy in his hands. There were 100 motorcycles in 100 different pictures. Then the old man showed us his trophies, or the few that were left, bent, dented and tarnished.

We walked out front again and asked to settle up. "Combien?" I asked.

"Cinq francs," he said.

Continue Story
1 2 3