In the fall of 1988 I had the blues very badly. I had been at the University of London for nine years and I wanted to find another job. I felt depressed at the thought of being stuck in London with a three-year old kid. I caught some kind of viral ME thing, and felt as weak as a kitten for a year. My gall-bladder decided it did not like pizza or curry, which is like discovering that the man who has been servicing your bike can't stand motorcycles, and is secretly adding sugar to your petrol.
There was that, and the fact that London traffic had become so highly stressed that car drivers no longer saw a man sitting on a Puch Maxi, a free citizen of a free country exercising his inalienable right to occupy slightly more road space than a corpse in a coffin. They saw a space in the traffic. Mr. Jaw-Locked A. Commuter saw a clear, uninterrupted view of fifteen feet to the car in front, and every atom in his tired, frustrated being shrieked at him to drive into it before someone else did. The fact that I was already sitting there no longer seemed to register. I felt endangered. I needed a tonic. I needed a motorcycle.
At first I wanted a Yamaha SRX600, a big single with retro TT racer styling that reminded me of the Ducati 450 I'd always wanted. I looked at several, but they were still relatively new on the market and the second hand price was higher than I wanted to pay. I was not impressed by the way they weathered - every cadmium-plated fastener seemed hell-bound on the road to rust.
In November '88 I popped into a bike shop in Leytonstone to see what had come in, and the XV750 SE had arrived that morning. It was £1000. The speedo said it had done just over 6000 miles in 4 years.
I crawled over that bike for an hour. I checked every inaccessible nook and cranny for the kind of dirt buildup that would indicate that it had been used for more that 6000 miles. I looked for gasket weep. I looked for discoloured alloy. I looked for oxidisation. It was clean. It looked almost clean enough to be new.
The SE was the precursor to the Virago. It is a tighter, tidier bike, with some elements of US custom styling, but nothing too absurd. It had a non-custom stablemate, the TR1 (see below), which had the makings of a budget Ducati. I liked the rear monoshock - I reasoned it would wallow less than was typical in bikes dating from the early eighties. My XS750 triple developed into a splendid wallower after 5000 miles.
|The TR1, which had a chain rather than a shaft drive. Why?||The XV750 SE, practically identical apart from the handlebars, longer forks, restyled tank, sidecovers, rear mudguard, tail-light, seat, and shaft drive.|
The engine is basic. Two valves per cylinder, and an overhead cam. It is hard to remember a time when 100 bhp per litre was considered to be outrageous, but there was a time, and 60-80 bhp per litre was the norm. The XV750 was reasonably powered for 1981, when it was introduced, but today 55 bhp from a 750 cc motorcycle is lamentable. A modern sports 750 will produce more than twice the power, and weigh 30 kg. less than the XV750's dry weight of 211 kg.
I rode the XV750 around London for a few months, but I managed to find a new job with Hewlett Packard in Bristol, and moved there in April 1989. From then on the bike spent most of its time in the garage. I would religiously MOT it each year, drive it to a couple of bike shows, and that was my motorcycling. The furthest I went on it was Yorkshire. Most of the reason was the handling.
I now know the problem was the tyres. The bike was running on its original 1983 Avon Roadrunners, and I think the rubber had gone hard. The bike skittered all over the road like a nervous horse. It thought white lines were snakes, and yellow lines were worser snakes, and at each corner it was sure it could smell wolves. I kept telling it there were no wolves in England, but I had to steer it into corners like a man with an invisible sidecar. On a couple of occasions the back wheel slid out on corners, and only a speedway-like stab of my foot kept us from joining the real horses on the other side of the fence.
Things went further downhill (metaphorically) when the fork seals went and leaked oil over the new brake pads. I was fond of saying that the bike didn't handle, didn't go, and didn't stop. It was a deathtrap. Even after the seals were repaired and the pads cleaned, the front brakes wouldn't tell the front wheel to stop. They whispered. They shyly proposed the mildest of retardations. They wheedled, and nagged the front wheel. They even complained of headaches at bedtime. "You are a very bad front wheel," they would mutter primly like a Victorian governess, "And if you don't stop immediately I'll tell Mama!".
All these problems have been cured. A pair of Pirelli radials has utterly transformed the handling, and the bike has stopped worrying about snakes and wolves. New pads have fixed the brakes. I have fitted a new and lower set of handlebars to improve the riding position. I added some unbaffled drag pipes (see photo above right) in place of the stock exhaust, and the bike now sounds like a dump truck. Not the quiet sort of dump truck that you can hear from several hundred yards away. I mean the noisy sort of dump truck with a rusty exhaust that chugs around all day outside the window of your holiday hotel in Turkey. Loud pipes (as the sticker solemnly declares) do save lives. They also abort calves, set off car alarms, and may be the cause of reports that a maniac with a 0.50 calibre machine gun is stalking the Ministry of Defence complex at Abbeywood.
A curious fact. When people who know nothing about bikes see my bikes, they instantly prefer the XV750 to the Fireblade. It looks like a real bike. A proper bike. They have seen the Fonz, and no way did Fonzie ride a bike made out of processed takeaway curry cartons and recycled plastic soft drink bottles. The Fonz rode a proper bike. So did Arnie in Terminator 2, and Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, and Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. You can't leap over barbed wire into Switzerland on a Fireblade. You don't hear an aetherial chorus of George Thorogood singing Bad to the Bone wherever you go on a Fireblade. You can't be the mad, bad Biker of the Apocalypse (from Raising Arizona) on a Fireblade - it doesn't have a shotgun holster for a start.
I can explain that the Blade is lighter, develops more than twice the power, and cost nine times as much. It doesn't seem to work.
South-West Custom & Classic Bike Show in Shepton
Mallet, probably in 1995. Douglas (left) and Owen
This was the first time the family came, and the last. The cost for a family to camp on-site for the weekend is criminal. If you feel tempted there is a proper camp site at Glastonbury a few miles away, and it is located on the slopes of the Tor. You couldn't pick a more pleasant place. The facilities are better (let's face it - rain is the closest you'll get to a shower at the Showground) and you won't have to lie awake all night listening to mad bastards revving their engines.
now 12 and bigger than his Mum, so I suspect this picture
was taken in 1991 or thereabouts.
The XV750 is wearing the original equipment exhaust system, probably because of the yearly MOT exhaust-swapping ritual that causes so much fun and amusement in the biking community.
|It is a
narrow bike. The clutch is light, the centre of gravity
is low, and it has none of the turning problems of a
faired bike. I wouldn't say that the engine is fabulously
torquey, but the gearing is right for town traffic, and I
don't think I've known the engine to snatch because I was
in the wrong gear. In other words, the XV750 SE is a
first-rate commuting bike (what I originally bought it
Even with the new Pirelli tyres it is still a little twitchy from wind buffeting at 95mph, but I ride at that speed routinely on the M5 and I have no concerns about the handling. I've lowered the handlebars, and that helps at speed. My only gripe is that the drag pipes reduce ground clearance on right-hand bends. The sparks are cool though...
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Copyright © Colin Low 1997