I don’t know what became of my bike, but by the time I was in my second year at University in Leicester (1964), I had got it into my head that what I needed was a scooter. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford a Vespa or a Lambretta, the iconic machines beloved of the Mods, so I shopped around for something cheaper, and what I came up with was something called a Puch.
A what? Well, it looked bit like a Lambretta, but it was made by the Austrian Steyer-Daimler-Puch company. Perhaps I was impressed by the Daimler bit, and it seemed then like a trusty steed, suitable for local and long distance travel. Little did I know.
My cunning plan was to ride the scooter up to Leicester, where I was studying for a degree in French and Philosophy. London NW9 to Leicester is about 100 miles, so this was the first long haul test. The Puch was fine, but I soon found out that journeys longer than a few miles were a severe test of human stamina, for which I was simply not prepared.
One of the supposed advantages of a scooter over a proper motorbike was that you didn’t need to dress up as much – just a coat and helmet would do. A delusion of course. I hadn’t bargained with frostbite, for instance, and by the time I got to somewhere near Rugby I couldn’t work the clutch or accelerator hand controls without stopping for a warm-up every few miles.
My degree course at Leicester involved spending a year in France pretending to teach English to French kids and failing to become a fluent French speaker so, undaunted, I figured the Puch would be just the job for exploring over there too. So one fine day in 1962 I set off on the scooter down to Southampton to catch the P&O car ferry to Cherbourg.
By this time I had begun to realise that the Puch was not all I had hoped, or all the salesman had claimed. Several times it had failed to start, apparently due to an oiled up spark plug. It was a two-stroke engine of course – need I say more. The Italians seem to have cracked it, but maybe not so the Austrians. I began to suspect that Daimler should have stuck to making posh cars.
Another problem was that this model had one of the only electric starts fitted to any scooter. This should have been quite an advantage, but in fact it turned out to be just the opposite, especially as there was no backup kick starter. A triumph of designer optimism over common sense which reduced me to Basil Fawlty-like rage many a time, I can tell you. Running starts or abandonment were the only options, but that’s when another lie about scooters became all too apparent. They are not lightweight machines.
It did not to occur to me that the two major problems, oiled up plugs and lack of kick-start, were related. You may have worked it out by now – the starter battery was not up to the job of repeated starting attempts, especially as it was a 6 volt job.
You may also be wondering why I didn’t go down the abandonment road, or try to sell my Puch to another sucker. I suspect it was mainly pride, and a strange sense of loyalty that had sneaked in somewhere along the way. It would have felt a bit like abandoning a pet I guess. Besides, I had invested in a workshop manual by then and developed an interest in the internal combustion engine, albeit enforced by circumstance. (This was before Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance….)
Well anyway I made it to Cherbourg, en route for Caen, where I had been posted by the vengeful Professor Sykes, who probably took pleasure in dispatching me to one of the most dismal cities in France instead of Perpignan, which I had requested. But that’s another story. Good choice, prof. By the time I got to Caen I was once again frozen and to rub it in I was missing one of my two saddlebags.
For a while I did not get much use out of the Puch, as my lodgings were within walking distance of the collège Henri Brunet where I worked, winter was setting in, and I had a lousy timetable which made touring difficult. I also got a puncture somewhere in Caen and just left it parked up until I could get it fixed, which turned out to be quite a long time. I suppose I rather hoped someone would steal it, but no such luck.
Come the spring, my university pal Rhys came up from Baugé, where he was similarly occupied, and off we went on a scooter trip to the Normandy beaches for the day. Getting there was fine, but getting back was a disaster as the engine would not start yet again. After several running starts and some oily smoke a well-intentioned motorist stopped and kindly offered us a new spark plug – meant for a car. Instant miracle! Engine burst into life, and after more smoke off we set at a great lick. Until the engine overheated and seized just coming into the outskirts of Caen.
After that episode you would have thought I had learned my lesson, but I was fooled by a nice new spark plug, and made the final, and nearly fatal, error. I had always intended to visit the Bayeux Tapestry, so once more I set off, this time along the Cherbourg peninsular. The Puch was running brilliantly, but unfortunately I became a victim of the infamous lack of French road maintenance, and ran straight into a giant pothole coming over the brow of a hill, just as some maniac decided to overtake at speed.
By that time I had acquired a pair of tough motorcycle boots, but even so as the Puch went out of control and threw me off, I hit the road at about 40 mph and my left leg got trapped under the scooter. I felt the road surface grinding way flesh on my knee and ankle, but, as they say, felt little pain. Needless to say the overtaking car did not stop, but in those few seconds I was quite concerned that I would be clobbered by another vehicle coming over the hill.
I think I tried to get up, but luckily someone from a nearby farm found me and must have rung the emergency services. The first to arrive were two very disgruntled cops, who got on to their radio for an ambulance, without success. Now it was hurting, and blood was flowing, so they reluctantly took me off to Bayeux hospital moaning about blood getting onto their seats.
The upshot was four weeks hospitalised in Bayeux, only a few metres away from the tapestry, having my knee wound stitched without anaesthetic (do not try this yourself…..), anaphylactic shock, more dozy policemen, a mention in the local paper, falling in love with a nurse and being fed double rations by the mad nun who ran the ward, on the grounds that I was too thin. Hard to believe now.
Eventually I discharged myself against advice and accepted a lift back to good old NW9 with a lovely couple I knew at the university in Caen. And the Puch? Well, I think it got repatriated back to my parents’ place, but I have no idea what happened to it after that.
So what did I learn? In no particular order: that two-wheeled motorised transport, was, all things considered, a pretty bad idea, the importance of kindness above all things, some pretty obscure scooter-related French vocabulary such as une jante (a wheel rim) and un moyeu (a wheel hub), and a thorough knowledge of the collected works of Samuel Beckett (in French!), gained while in hospital thanks to another kind friend from Caen who rescued the books from my digs.
I have been a fan of Beckett and the literature of the absurd ever since.