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The Restoration Game

By C.H. de Whalley

Published in the New Scientist April 22, 1963.



Chris on Wooler Prototype

Fig. 1: The author on a Wooler prototype, 1948.


A special type of madness is required to see the virtues in ancient vehicles as outweighing their manifold disadvantages.  And to endeavour to restore a mouldering pile of corruption to its original beauty (mainly in the eye of the beholder anyway) requires a fixity of purpose of monumental fatuity.  In my own case, there must be added to this an arrested development, in that motorcycles rather than cars are the main interest.  A panegyric on the fascination of motoring on two wheels, or perhaps three (a very different case), would fall on either deaf or already converted ears.  On first contact with the motoring bug, one either goes under or immediately becomes immune.  Most recover from the disease (marriage is an excellent cure), but a happy few remain “carriers”.  Of these, a small proportion “go vintage” (a vintage motorcycle or car is pre-1931.  Veteran classification varies according to the number of wheels but is roughly pre-1914).


To some enthusiasts age is all-important, an 1898 tricycle is the ideal, to be nursed down to Brighton once or twice a year.  To others the propulsion of a clutchless, direct belt drive 500cc velocipede in trials or rallies up and down semi-impossible hills is the desired end.  Others consider that old motorcycles are not for riding, but for buying and selling.  And one man apparently considers that the right thing to do is to take them to bits and use the prettier parts to decorate his living room.  Myself, I am utterly fascinated by absurd mechanical complexity.  Let some strange monster of a machine appear on the market and I will move heaven and Earth to possess it.  Luckily for my family I am most invariably unsuccessful in these endeavours, for many richer men than I share this strange taste.  Examples of the type of vehicle that exerts such a hypnotic appeal are:

·        A Vauxhall 4-cylinder motorcycle of the early twenties.

·        A Scott “Crab”, designed to carry a machine gun in the first World War and converted to civilian use by means of a body enveloping both motorcycle and sidecar, and bestowing the appearance of a home-made car with one front wheel missing.

·        A Model H Matchless, so impossibly well-sprung (without benefit of damping) that it felt something like riding a hippopotamus at high speed in deep mud.


Financial considerations forced me into the gentle art of restoration, for the prices of utterly worn out machinery are not too high.  The net result is not cheaper, but amounts to a kind of never-never system-you never finish paying because, perfection being impossible, the job is never finished.  There is a sort of Fourth Bridge painting-effect too.  Some while ago I fell for the charms of a dilapidated Henderson, made in 1925 in Chicago, with a vast four-cylinder air-cooled engine of 1301cc.  This, together with the parts of three others, cost £4 10s.  I started real work on it three years ago, and have just reached the stage of fitting two or three parts together.


Henderson De Luxe

Fig. 2: 1301cc 4-cylinder Henderson De Luxe, made in 1925.


The restoration game must be played according to the rules, of course.  So far as is humanly possible the machine, when complete, must conform exactly to the catalogue specification (if indeed you can get a catalogue).  Copies of old motoring magazines must be hunted down, together with instruction books, contemporary photographs and advertisements.  Old gentlemen who rode the things in their youth must be found and remorselessly questioned.  The catalogue talks of “Packard Automobile cable”-so what was that like?  And again, were the cylinders really nickel plated and if so how far up?  Were they buffed or not?


One must do as much work as possible oneself: one man I know even does his own plating.  Brush painting (sometimes stoved in the domestic oven) is essential, and woe betide the scoundrel who endeavours to give his sprayed paint the verisimilitude of brushwork with a coat of varnish.  Cellulose is quite unthinkable.  The plating must be nickel, not chromium-plated dull and then buffed (none of your new-fangled bright nickel).  All nuts and bolts must be quite free of spanner blemishes.  Aluminium castings must be brilliantly burnished (regardless of whether originally they were or not).   Anachronisms like plastic-covered Bowden cables, pink sparking plugs, stiff nuts or PVC-covered wire must be carefully avoided.


The results, after a prodigious amount of work, can be quite staggering.  Some of the machines submitted for the Concours D’Elegance at the Vintage Motor Cycle Club annual Banbury Run are unbelievable in their beauty, and this after completing some 70 miles round Oxfordshire to a tight time-schedule.  The imagination boggles at the effort involved.  This seemingly unattainable standard, strange to say, only seems to spur one on to further efforts.  It discourages the wife a bit, though.


The appeal of vintage motorcycles is difficult to define.  Aside from extreme petrol economy and excellent accessibility they have no real advantages from the modern product.  Performance is sometime quite good, and a surprising degree of reliability is attainable (I once travelled 956 miles in two days on a 1926 AJS without trouble), but steering, suspension and brakes were dreadful by today’s standards.  However, the Heath Robinson appearance, the quaint oiling systems-viewed mostly through little windows and referred to as “spit and catch it”-the ingenious whimsicality of the accessories, the incredibly smooth transmission of a belt (until it rains, when it gets so smooth that the transmission ceases) and the delicate construction, all blend to a quite incurable addiction.  I must not omit the pleasant sensation of running a large slow-revving engine, as compared with the frantic buzzing, as of a berserk dynamo, from today’s minute power units.


Let me leave you with one thought.  Anyone actually completing the restoration of a vintage motorcycle has the subconscious wish that on a death his relatives will keep it under glass on the mantelpiece as a sort of memorial or family heirloom.  “That’s great-granpa’s riding contraption.”  In fact, of course, it will be left to rust again in the garden shed or given to the totterman.


1924 Seal

Fig. 3: 1924 Seal 4-seater.  This machine, which is something between a motorbike and a car, has a capacity of almost a litre.


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