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Project 9 at the Moulin Rouge, Paris ...
... and at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin ...
... and in Morocco, North Africa
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John Storey has covered over 300,000 miles on his 125cc D1 Bantam since he bought it back in 1965—ten years after it rolled out of BSA's Small Heath factory. That works out at just shy of 7,000 miles a year, which is a significant piece of roadwork by any rider's standards.
But once you start laying down those miles on a roadmap you get a wider perspective on just how far this man has travelled - which is pretty much most of mainland Europe and a good chunk of North Africa. We’re talking about France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland.
Not necessarily in that order.
And when that lot was done, John did most of it again. and again, and again, and found a few other places that he’d missed.
He’s travelled most of England, Wales and Scotland too. In fact, he once did the entire 790-odd mile run from Land’s End to John O’Groats; a saddle-sore sojourn that would be hard mileage even on a modern high speed bike, never mind a machine that was built primarily as a ride-to-work hack back in the days when Britain had just won the war and was still trying to work out how to pay for the peace.
In short, his bike is a truly humble and unpretentious mount; a lowly construction of steel and aluminium that’s been out in all weathers, in all seasons, up hills, down dales and across deserts.
Best of all, it's still running. A little wheezy, perhaps. A little uncertainly. But still a viable piece of machinery.
Aged 67, John, a retired engineer, hails from Ealing in West London. He now lives in Letchworth Garden City, Herts. He wasn’t the Bantam’s first owner. He picked it up for ten quid the year they planted Winston Churchill (1965), and forked out another twenty to get it roadworthy. It needed
a tax disc and an MOT certificate. He also had the
“It was an ex-Post Office bike,” said John, “and came from Eastbourne in East Sussex.” Which means it already had plenty of miles on it before he got it; just a hundred thousand or so. “But it wasn’t GPO red when I bought it. It was blue, and I’ve kept it that colour ever since.”
John calls the bike Project 9. But why?
“Because it’s my ninth bike.”
Now on its second—or is it third?—engine, John has, as part of an on-going battle to keep Project 9 on the road, bought and borrowed parts from various sources; so much so that it’s hard to say exactly what’s original and what isn’t.
“I don’t have much money to spend these days,” he explains ruefully, “which is part of the reason I do all my own servicing. But then you have to know how to do that when you’re travelling. I’ve fixed the engine many times at the side of the road.”
In a bus shelter once, for instance.
He also recalls repairing the forks by streetlight at 5.00am in Mannheim, Germany during one journey back home in 1974. On another occasion (1967) he slammed into a pothole in Rimini in Italy and had to get the spanners out again for a full frontal strip.
There have been emergency gearbox fixes, clutch lash-ups, makeshift electrical repairs, cables bodges & dodges, breakages, ordinary punctures, and any amount of kerbside jury-rigging. And after that, at convenient interludes, the full repairs are done.
“The good thing about the Bantam,” said John, “is that it’s a nice easy-to-work-on bike. You don’t need many tools, and the engine comes out of the frame very quickly. It’s very good on fuel too, but isn’t fast. Not that I ride it very quickly, anyway. If I get past 40mph I feel that I’m thrashing it. But usually I just cruise along at around thirty and get around 80mpg. That’s where it’s happiest.”
So when did he find the time for these trips?
“Every year between 1967 and 1974 I spent about two weeks holiday travelling,” he says. “Then I had another go in 1978, and then in 1980, and ‘83 and ‘84.”
In 1995, John decided to see what the Channel Tunnel was all about and went to Europe again travelling to Dinant in Belgium where Sax, apparently, invented the saxophone
But he isn’t merely joyriding when he’s out on his adventures. Although it clearly is a joy. He’s actually a man on a mission.
“Classical music,” he explains. “Verdi, Britten, Mahler, Wagner, Vaughn Williams, Berlioz, Puccini, Bach, Mozart.”
Like his Bantam, the list goes on and on and he has an impressive collection of classical works in his flat.
“I’ve visited the birthplaces and graves of most of the great composers,” he adds. “And I’ve been to many of their houses too. I like to discover the places that inspired both them—and various poets—to write.”
His knowledge is impressive, all heavily cross-referenced and mentally indexed. Mention a country or city, and he’ll tell you a story. Such as the birthplace of Beethoven. Or a tale of Coleridge crossing the Alps. Or the condition of Verdi’s statue in Milan. Or some anecdote related to Wilfred Owen’s battlefields in Northern France.
His journeys have been recorded on an old and battered Olympus Trip camera. Modestly, he reveals the dozens of torn, water-stained, faded, yellowed snapshots. The Brandenburg Gate. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Arc de Triomphe. A patch of scrub desert in North Africa. John O’Groats. A trip to the Moulin Rouge.
You can see Project 9 (but never John) in pretty much all the shots (many of which have got his distinctive half-out-of-the-frame signature). They’re not good pictures, not by any stretch of the imagination. But in another way they’re great pictures; hugely resonant memories of a life well-lived and captured in tiny celluloid frames.
Some of the best moments were in Italy.
“There are some marvellous roads there,” said John. “The views are tremendous, the roads magnificent, and if you like renaissance art, it’s a must.”
One of the most worrying moments, however, was in Czechoslovakia back in the Spring of 1968 when the Russians notoriously crushed an uprising against communist rule.
“I was in Prague when that happened,” said John. “Suddenly there were battle tanks rolling in and panic everywhere. The Czechs told me that I ought to get out immediately, and I thought that was a good idea. They didn’t know then exactly what was going to happen—or how bad it was likely to get. Nobody did. Only, there wasn’t any petrol to be had. Not at first anyway. But there was a sort of whip round and finally I managed to get my hands on some, and I was hurrying out of there. I liked the Czechs.
“The German border, which had been suddenly closed, opened the following morning. So I got through it sharpish and made my way across to Switzerland. It was frightening at the time, but I’m glad I did it.”
On the road, John stays wherever he finds himself. Guest houses or pensions very occasionally. But usually he just sets up a makeshift canopy and snuggles down and sleeps beside, or under, the bike.
He carries an amazing amount of equipment. Tools (including various pullers). Maps (everything this side of the sun). Guide books. Phrase books. Something to read (poetry for instance). A maintenance manual (not that he really needs it). Spare parts (“you have to take it all with you, you see.”). Camping gear. Spare clothes. Wet weather gear. Plus, of course, all the raw optimism in the world.
Nothing, it seems, fazes him.
He was arrested in Yugoslavia; had his tools pinched in Paris; has had to deal with sudden engine lock-ups; mad truck drivers; the Russian army; a few spills; and no end of seemingly mindless international bureaucracy. John's been around.
“Only, I haven’t travelled abroad for a few years now,” he says, wistfully. “There are all the hassles with the authorities to worry about. And the insurance. And I’m not working now either.
"The local police keep stopping me too," he said, "and the MOTs are harder to get now that they've got a new tester at my local MOT station. I'm not sure what I'm going to do."
So he bides his time restoring old clocks and revisiting the classics from the comfort of his living room and racking up even more miles on his other mount, a 50cc Norman Nippy that he's managed to wind 40,000 miles onto with various trips to the North of England plus the occasional Welsh tour.
Moreover, he’s got his eye on Europe again. There are still roads to travel, and there’s still life left in Project 9. And there are still places he hasn’t seen.
Not many, mind. Just some.
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