Hidden Treasures: Classic & Other Old Bikes

Features Issue 62 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

"Vhroom, vhroom!" goes the bike and your only reaction is "Wow!" That's how it feels when you hear the sound of a 1961 BMW R50S . It took just one kick for Charles to start his beautiful motorcycle. When you come across a BMW, it makes you wish all bikes in the valley had that deep-throated growl, and not the irritating rattle of a Chinese imitation. If only wishes could come true.

In our search for old and classic bikes we were fortunate to have met Charles Gay, who rounded up seven. They are all superb specimens, the kind all bikers would love to get their hands on. I got my first glimpse of the 'Indian Chief' back when the "Peking to Paris Car Rally" made a stop in Kathmandu, and those marvelous vintage cars along with some classic bikes were lined up at the BICC grounds for all to admire. The 'Indian' was on view there along with a few other old bikes. This month it has graced our cover and what a bike!

Only a few of these bikes are seen on the roads around Kathmandu, although all of them are in running condition. Keeping these engines in shape is no easy task and restoring them can cost a fortune. The proud owners have been doing an admirable job preserving such treasures, even if they are rarely seen in public.

1972 BMW R75/5

BMW is an acronym for Bayerische Motoren Werke, which in English means Bavarian Motor Works. It is an independent German company that manufactures automobiles and motorcycles. BMW is also the parent company of the Mini and Roll-Royce cars, and formerly, the Rover.

In 1916, two companies, Gustav Otto’s Flugmaschinenfabrik (Aeroplane Factory) and Karl Rapp’s Flugwerke Deutschland, merged to form the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aeroplane Works). This company designed and manufactured aeroplane engines. Karl Rapp and Max Friz renamed the company and it became Bayerische Motoren Werke in 1917. Their new logo, a roundel representing an aeroplane propeller in the blue sky, is still used today on all BMW motorcycles and automobiles. It was BMW that manufactured the very successful and popular Fokker DV II. But in 1919, at the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles was signed and the Allied forces banned Germany from manufacturing aeroplanes. BMW then turned to motorcycle and automobile engines to sustain the company. In as little as four weeks, Friz designed the now-legendary opposing flat-twin cylinder engine known today as the “boxer” engine.

R75 means it is 750 cc. This is the bike that Charles rides around town and has been doing so for twenty years. It was brought in from Holland, and when he bought it around 1986, “It had already been rebuilt,” he says and adds, “Last year I had the engine completely rebuilt again by Krishna Shrestha who does all my bikes. He has his workshop in Sinamangal and has restored a lot of cars and bikes for westerners here in Nepal.” The good thing about Krishna is that he does house calls as well and has been working for foreigners for about 25 years. Charles has been as far as Pokhara on this bike and has ridden to all the edges of Kathmandu valley. Note the boxer engine on this bike.

“When I found the bike in Thamel, it had a sidecar, which turned out to be quite fun for children to ride in and handy for carrying cargo.  But in modern Kathmandu traffic it is extremely awkward to drive, losing all the advantages of a motorcycle, and keeping the main disadvantage, exposure to the exhaust fumes.  The chair hasn’t been fitted on the bike for many years now.”

1946 Indian Chief 1200cc
Of all the bikes featured in this article, the Indian Chief deserves the title ‘King of the bikes’. Its regal appearance and thunderous sound put it in a class all by itself. While we were waiting for Charles, the proud owner of the bike to bring it around to the backyard, we heard two kicks and the engine sprang to life.  Charles remembers, “There were a lot of these post-war bikes in Delhi and this one was brought up from there. It was about ten years ago that I found this bike in non-running condition and had it restored here in Nepal. Even the leatherwork was done here.”

The Indian Chief has a V-Twin engine, a left hand throttle and a right hand spark advance (on modern bikes this function is controlled automatically). There are many things different about this bike; it has a left foot clutch pedal and a right hand shift (with 3 gears). According to Charles, “It’s really difficult to drive on Kathmandu’s busy roads.” That is why he loved to ride it during the bandh days when the roads were open. “It likes to cruise in 3rd gear at 50 mph,” adds Gay. Looking back on its history; it had a sidecar, which was sold off as junk. That was really depressing for Charles, ‘a 1946 original Indian sidecar sold off as scrap’.

“In the 1940s there were only two motorcycle companies in the US, the Harley Davidson and the Indian Moto Cycle. Indian went out of business in 1953,” informs Charles. “Today, if you talk about the Indian, many people think you’re talking about the Indian Enfield. But this is the Indian Chief.”

Some journalists in the US visited the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum and were given a demonstration on a 1946 Indian Chief. They watched a group of expert riders struggling with the left-foot clutch and the right hand shifter. Dan Smith, resource development director of the museum explained, “Trying to start the bike on a hill was like suicide.” As Charles explains, you balance the bike with your left foot and hold it with the right foot brake. To move on, you have to lift your left foot off the ground to engage the clutch. At this point it is easy to fall over, unless you get moving immediately.

1961 BMW R50S
“It’s been in Nepal for 20 years at least. R50 means it is 500cc. The BMWs all have boxer engines which means the pistons are opposed and stick out on the two sides. This is the only one on the road in Nepal that has the Earls fork (the old style BMW fork),” says Gay.

1975 Nakajima Street Fighter
This is a classic Japanese bike, but sadly very little is known about its owner. He goes by the name “Pale Rider”. The only detail known about this particular bike is that it was brought in from England.

1958 Triumph Thunderbird 650 cc
“This Triumph Thunderbird 1958 came as a gift to King Mahendra from Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain. It was one of four, all of which were gold-colored until the Police Dept. painted them white,” informs Charles. They were shipped in from England in 1958, the year of their manufacture. Later, the police auctioned them off and a foreigner bought all of them. He scrapped one and restored the other three. Over the years they were handed down and eventually Gay acquired this one a few years ago. “I had it painted yellow again. This is the only one on the road today,” adds Charles.

Going into details, Charles says, “It has a vertical twin engine. The ignition is Lucas. All the cars and bikes in England have Lucas ignition systems and they are reputedly unreliable. Want to hear a joke? ‘Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators.’” According to Gay, there are some other Triumphs in Nepal, but none on the road today.

The company began in 1883 when Siegfried Bettmann immigrated to Coventry in England from Nuremberg, Germany. At the age of 20 in 1884, Bettmann founded his own company, the S. Bettmann & Co. Import Export Agency, in London. His original products were bicycles, which the company bought and then sold under its own brand name.

In 1886, the company became Triumph Cycle Company and a year later it was registered as the New Triumph Co. Ltd. and had the backing from Dunlop Tyre Co. Bettmann then acquired a partner, Mauritz Schulte who encouraged him to transform Triumph into a manufacturing company. Hence in 1889, they began producing the first Triumph-branded bicycles. Then in 1896, Triumph opened a subsidiary, Orial TWN (Triumph Werke Nuremberg) a German subsidiary for cycle production in Nuremberg.

By 1902, Triumph was producing its first motorcycle which was actually a bicycle fitted with a Belgian-engine. Then in 1903, when its motorcycle sales went over 500, Triumph started production from its unit in Germany as well. Initially, their motorcycles were based on designs of other manufacturers, but by 1905, they had come up with their first original design. The Triumph motorcycle was born.

1982 BMW R80GS
GS means it is a trail bike. “Of all the BMW trail bikes, this is the most famous and the most nimble,” declares Charles, openly admiring the motorcycle. “This can go anywhere a motorcycle can go. It came to GS means it is a trail bike. “Of all the BMW trail bikes, this is the most famous and the most nimble,” declares Charles, openly admiring the motorcycle. “This can go anywhere a motorcycle can go. It came to Nepal in 1985 ,  driven overland from England by a tourist. One of the expatriates bought it from the tourist and when he in turn left the country, it became mine.” This bike like the others was rebuilt by Krishna Shrestha. As in most BMWs, this 800cc bike has the famous boxer engine. Charles tells us, “I use it when I know there’s a bad road ahead. I once scared myself when I gave it too much throttle at a stoplight.  The front wheel jumped about a foot off the ground, a sort of inadvertant ‘wheely.’”

1970 BSA 650cc Thunderbolt Special
This was one of more than a dozen such bikes imported by Nepal for the Police Department. They were seen at the wedding of King Birendra in 1970. Later in 1984, they were released by the Police Dept. and auctioned off at their Head Quarters in Tangal. Several of these bikes were bought by German volunteers who were then stationed in Nepal.

“I got mine in 1990 when I bought it off a teacher at Lincoln School. It was white when the police were riding it and was later painted red,” recalls Graeme Cutting. “Originally it had a different saddle and different handle bars and was changed later. Most of these Police bikes were taken out of the country and this seems to be the only one on the road today.” He goes on to explain that such bikes are quite common in England and are very strong and reliable. Cutting has been up to Kodari and Dolakha with the bike and in the first few years after he bought it, it was his sole means of transport.

Reminiscing, Graeme talks of the days when he would be riding home in the wee hours of the morning from a gig (he’s a musician) at the International Club in Tahachal: “I remember riding through Durbar Square in the morning and we would sometimes see secret masked dances. Another time, there was a film shoot in progress.”

“Pushpa from Kamal Pokhari repairs my bikes for me and he’s a fantastic mechanic on whom I rely very much. His father I believe was the first motorcycle mechanic. Without Pushpa, I wouldn’t have been able to go on riding this bike. I get my spares from a guy in England.” Graeme has had to get the front suspension redone several times, but reveals that for the last 16 years, the bike has been very reliable except for some oil leaks. The bike has four gears and makes a lovely sound. On long journeys, he makes it a point to take plenty of spare cables as they are most likely to give trouble. “But every time I’ve had a breakdown, I’ve always had plenty of help from the locals. Had some great times riding with members of the ‘Shiva’s Slaves’. There used to be some fifty bikers going on these rides. We would have a picnic and in the evening some of them would ride to Pashupati for the Shivaratri festival.”

The Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) was a British manufacturer of vehicles, firearms and military equipment, and still exists as an airgun sports manufacturer and distributor.

At one time in its long history, BSA was the largest motorcycle producer in the world. Loss of sales in new products in the motorcycle division, which included Triumph Motorcycles, led to problems for the whole group.

BSA was founded in 1861 in the Gun Quarter, Birmingham, England by fourteen gunsmiths of the Birmingham Small Arms Trade Association, who had together supplied arms to the British government during the Crimean War. The company branched out as the gun trade declined; in the 1870s they manufactured the Otto Dicycle, in the 1880s the company began to manufacture bicycles and in 1903 the company’s first experimental motorcycles were constructed. By 1909 they were offering a number of motorcycles for sale. The BSA Group bought Triumph Motorcycles in 1951, making them the largest producer of motorcycles in the world at the time.