Sunday, June 7, 2009


By John Joss

Nostalgia attacks as I fling my leg over this lovely Featherbed replica: all the old familiar sights and sounds, the identical saddle, throttle, footpeg and lever ergonomics. The sensations are immensely pleasing. I am transported back to my youth as if by magic, watching Geoff Duke and John Surtees on the Island. Take a deep breath. Force down the upwelling of memories and concentrate. The owner’s wife won’t let him ride it, ever. I am honored today.

Before we take the ride, may I ask you, please, not to be down on reproduction bikes. As readers know, one can buy complete bikes and cars of other eras, some built from the original drawings, and when faithfully executed they are as authentic as the originals. Often they are better, produced from superior materials and solving original design problems. Many ‘genuine’ bikes with pedigrees, matching engine and frame numbers, and all that jazz, contain modern parts that replace the ‘pure original.’ Start with spark plugs and keep going.

Last time I rode a Featherbed was on the Isle of Man, a long time ago. It was a 350, with reverse-cone megaphone that controlled exhaust and intake pulses for maximum engine performance. The 500-cc motor on this Francis Beart replica has been started by ‘motorized roller’ applied to the rear wheel, so today no run-and-bump calisthenics are required. Just as well, since I haven’t applied this technique in anger to a race bike in, ahem, several years. I lack the agility now.

The open pipe barks melodiously but without an idle setting in the Amal TT carb I must blip it continuously to keep the fire lit. The only instrument is the tach (see photo). In the nearby pits I see that the throaty bellow sits poorly with visitors, who flinch and put their fingers in their ears. Time to launch. Remember the routine: foot brake on the left, gearshift on the right, up for first.

Mechanical brake and clutch controls embody friction and feel unknown to modern riders who use hydraulics, but these Norton levers and cables have a decisive, honest quality, a strong physical connection. The sensation is a bit like the difference between mechanical, or even assisted-mechanical aircraft controls, vs. ‘fly-by-wire’ systems managed by a modern DFCS (Digital Flight Control System), for example in the F/A-18 Hornet I flew recently, that lack a genuine, direct feel. You’re flying a computer, not an airplane. Perhaps like trying to express emotion through a phone or screen, rather than in person. Not all change is progress.

I roll out onto the Laguna Seca track, accompanied only by the camera car, and proceed to savour five laps in splendid isolation. Doucement: those narrow tires are cold and unscuffed. The big TT Amal is maladjusted and won’t provoke a clean response at low revs, so I must crank it up a tad. There. I guess 50 smooth, linear horses, not like a modern racing two-stroke, with ‘light-switch’ throttle and minuscule rev range, or a race 600 with ‘Everest’ power curves.

I traverse the diabolical, downhill Turn 2 buttonhook and all the sensations of control and feel, conveyed historically by the Featherbed, come back in earnest. Compared with a modern race bike, this half-century-old design holds up well: honest and forgiving, great turn-in, ‘finishes’ the corners without drama. Those drum brakes? Don’t ask too much of them. By the time I reach the Corkscrew I know that I want this experience to continue forever. But Race Control has placed strict limits on my joyride: five laps or fifteen minutes, maximum.

Five laps in just twelve minutes. It passes like the sudden caress of a butterfly’s wing, a snatch of marvelous music or the momentary embrace of a woman whose scent lingers after a casual kiss. One longs for more. (Ref: “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”).