The Motorcycle Diaries / Part 13
Kawasaki GPZ 600r
So, my 500 twin not being manly enough, I felt it was time to acquire my first multi. I’d spotted a lean, mean Kawa 600 in a local bike shop and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was actually at a formal meeting at the Co-op Bank HQ building in Manchester and announced that I had to pop out “for an important call.” I rang the shop worrying that the bike might have been sold, but it was still there. They offered a good part exchange on my 500 so we closed the deal and they promised to hold the 600 for me.
The GPZ was a four cylinder, water cooled, 600r (the r was for “racing”, although I never did) with a full but slimline “sport” fairing. The handlebar controls plus the dials and gauges inside the top of the fairing had the business-like look and feel of a Spitfire cockpit. At its debut, this was the first of what became the new class of 600cc water-cooled “sports bikes” - the bikes that the really intense cafe racers fling around with edgy abandon on the bendy UK back roads. Water-cooled meant all the tolerances could be much tighter, raising compression and making the engine much more explosive. By the time I got it, of course, it was well behind the standards of the day but it was still beautifully vociferous and undeniably authoritative and, interestingly, the fading black and purple colour scheme was touched with a bit of pink colouring.
At only 100cc more than the 500, it had noticeably more presence. At 217 kilos, it was only about 20 kilos heavier but felt much much more substantial. But it never felt strained. That engine just churned away in any of the 6 gears with a hugely generous and forgiving power band. It felt just as safe and rock steady on the more sedate and winding back roads as it did doing the ton on the motorways.
In fact, apart from the fact that rear-views couldn't see past my elbows, perhaps not since the old BSA 650 did I feel so fully satisfied with a motorcycle. Without any modifications at all, it felt complete and competent and, most importantly, looked and sounded just right for me at that time.
The problem tended to be that all that “r” technology combined with the crouched riding position inspires riders to do foolish things. Taking that curve or slipping between those queues of traffic had to be done at speed, with braking applied as minimally as possible. I recall occasionally doing especially stupid things - like tail-gating Porsches at 130mph just to piss the tosspot bankster drivers off. One time I was belting down the fast lane on the M1 when traffic suddenly came to a stop! With tyres screeching and smoking all around me all I could do was slip into the space between the outside of the lane and the concrete barrier. I’d slowed dramatically but, finding this space unencumbered, I eased off on the brakes and began to throttle up again. Ahead I could see a car had, inexplicably, stopped in that fast lane. As I prepared to zoom past into the empty lane beyond, the driver opened his flipping door! With no time to react, I shot past, barely missing the murderous outer edge of his door and all but scraping the concrete barrier on my right.
But I also remember feeling totally focused when on that machine; watching as far ahead as humanly possible, knowing that reaction time was always going to be pretty limited at best. Wind and miles would flow by like jet streams; accompanied by the kind of buffeting I imagine one might feel towards the end of a long fall from an aeroplane.
On one occasion, early in the morning on an empty back road in the midst of strands of morning mist, on my way to the motorway for Leeds, I was totally alone and in the rhythm. I came flying over a slight rise and into a misty dip - and was suddenly confronted with a herd of cows straggling across the road!
How they got there god only knows, but there they unmistakably and immovably were. I clamped the brakes but worried that I might lose grip, slither into their feet, and bring big, kicking cow bodies down upon myself. As the bike fishtailed, I saw the glimpse of an opening in the herd. I distinctly remember feeling a cow body bumping off my right shoulder followed immediately by one bouncing off my left shoulder, and then I was through. Shaking and adrenaline pumped, I continued, more slowly, on my wobbly way.
On another occasion I was on my way to a conference in Rouen when, before I’d even got to the coast, the back wheel suddenly locked up. Fishtailing madly, I managed to stay upright and come to a stop at the side of the road. A quick examination revealed one of the brake pads had somehow broken up and got jammed against the rear disc. A bit of poking and prodding with a screwdriver and I managed to pry the remnants of both brake pads out such that the wheel could spin again. This meant, of course, that I had to complete the trip with only the front brakes.
Many months later I was living on a wide-beam canal boat in Bristol Harbour whilst working on contract for the City Council. I kept the bike up in one of the Council car parks near the office, but used it every day as I darted about the city checking on the various projects I was managing the funds for. On one occasion I was happily, probably too quickly, filtering through stalled traffic up the Gloucester Road, just north of the railway arches. As I was flitting past a stationary bus, a car, emerging from the side and cutting in front of the bus, suddenly appeared before me. Completely instinctively, within a millisecond, I did all the right things - shut the throttle and hit both brakes hard but not losing traction - and came to a halt, still upright, about a centimetre from the car’s door and staring into the face of the aghast woman driving.
Bob Marley once said, “You don’t know how strong you are until you got no choice.” Well I often felt I didn’t know how good a rider I was until I had no choice and, alarmed and shaken as I was, I was also pleased that my reactive neural pathways had, on this occasion and at long last, delivered to perfection.
Although I was working in Bristol, I was occasionally co-habiting with, Georgie, my wife-to-be, in Bath. Her little house stood down a little alley-way off the Lower Bristol Road. You couldn’t get a car anywhere near the place, but a motorcycle slipped neatly up there and I used to park it just below her bedroom window.
One October morning I looked out and noticed some broken glass in the alley. I looked more directly down to where I’d left the bike and, to my horror, it was gone!
I rammed on some clothes and dashed down stairs and out into the alley. Sure enough, the glass was identifiable as one of the lights on the bike. My beautiful 600 had been stolen. I followed more bits of glass to the top of the alley where some paint scrapes indicated that the bastards had dropped it, but the bike itself was nowhere to be seen.
The police eventually found it, trashed and twisted, and informed both myself and the insurers. It turned out that a little local shithead by the name of Daniel Chiverton had taken it for a joy ride and, fuelled with drink, smashed it into a wall. He was disqualified from driving for 6 months and did 100 hours of “community service”! When the “victim support” people got in touch to say “is there anything we can do?”, I said I’d like to meet the bastard, but the little shit didn’t have the balls for it and declined. (If you ever happen to be reading this Chiverton, I’m still keen to meet.)
In fact the insurers, without so much as a by-your-leave, whisked the bike away to some yard over by Hertford. They eventually offered me a paltry sum but wouldn’t return it if I accepted. I was insulted and incensed and rejected the offer, insisting that they return the bike back to Bath. Acknowledging that the cost of shipping it back could be added to a slightly enhanced paltry sum meant that they improved their offer and I eventually got nearer market value for it, but it was a sad time and I missed that bike.
For a few months, half-heartedly, I occasionally looked at other bikes. My local one man bike dealer, Terry, showed me a vibrant yellow wicked looking Triumph 900 "sport" triple and insisted I take it for a test ride. I did, and smooth and mighty as it was, I felt the combination of top speed, weight, and general explosiveness would ultimately be my undoing. I suspected I would end up indulging in stupid things and die cartwheeling across a road somewhere. It also had a slightly metallic sound like the old BSA Starfire of years ago, and a bit of a whine from the dynamo which was apparently completely normal put had the effect of getting in the way of the sweet sound of the triple's exhaust. “Sorry,” I said to Terry. “No probs,” he replied.
- The Motorcycle Diaries / Part 1
I can’t remember precisely when my obsession with motorcycles began. Possibly via my neighbours on the shores of the St Lawrence River.
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© 2019 Deacon Martin