By on November 24, 2013

1927 Ariel 557cc
This simple story is true, as told to me by the redoubtable Malcolm Parry.

The road through the Dinas Maddwy pass leads high up the Welsh mountainside, snaking its way through the bracken nestled between craggy peaks. Look on a map, and you’d see it languidly slither up the hillside, the surrounding terrain marked with consonant-packed place-names of a sort unpronounceable without at least a pint of phlegm in the throat.

Here, in the still and lonesome bleakness, a clattery flatulence, a cacophonous blattering – the sound of a small displacement engine as busy as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. Up and around the blind bend comes an unlikely-looking and overladen yoke. It’s an Ariel motorcycle – 1927 model, 557cc side-draft single-cylinder – bolted to a homemade wooden sidecar, a kayak lashed to the sidecar, the whole contraption stuffed with duffel bags, tarps and what appears to be some sort of collie, helmed by a large man with a boy riding pillion.

The whole shooting match must add a quarter-ton to the Ariel’s normal carrying capacity, and the bike is nearly incandescent with the effort; were it a horse, flecks of foam would streak its flanks and eyes roll madly with exertion. At last, it can bear no more, and stutters to a halt halfway up the mountainside.

The man guides the bike safely onto the meagre shoulder, and cuts the coaxial handlebar-mounted fuel and air levers. The wind brushes fingers along the flanks of the silent mountain, the only sound the frenzied ticking of the overheated Ariel finally cooling down.

“Bloody shellac’s melted out of the bloody magneto,” the man says, producing a pipe and feeling for his tobacco pouch and matches. He pulls both from a breast pocket, charges the pipe, tamps the thick brown flake down with a judicious thumb and strikes the match, drawing deep. The boy, who has had to endure the occasional lump of hot dottle in the slipstream as a result of his father smoking the pipe upside-down on the main roads, watches this all carefully. Man and boy exchange a glance, then they get to work.

The kayak comes off and the collie, whose name is Wreki, after his birthplace in Shropshire, is released to terrorize the local rabbit population. Two spare tires, put in place to keep the eleven-foot homemade kayak somewhat stable, are set aside. They join a rapidly growing pile of dunnage, spare clothes, a tent, a battered primus stove, and – there it is, at the bottom.

The man grasps a worn handle and places a battered leather attache case beside the bike, where it settles with a muffled clink. Between pipe and unpacking, the Ariel’s single cylinder has cooled to a bearable degree, and the Lucas magneto can be reached without singeing the hairs off a forearm.

The man opens the leather case and begins removing tools: a trio of spanners, a pair of slip-joint pliers, a chipped slot-head screwdriver for prising, a folding pen-knife, and a battered ballpeen hammer of medium size. The horseshoe magnet that is both casing for the magneto and the housing for its armature proves no obstacle, and it’s soon apart. He turns the pieces over in big, deft hands, and sure enough, melted shellac has choked the commutator.

The handle of the pen-knife is cracked and faded, but its edge is as keen as any razor. Carefully, painstakingly, the man begins shaving the excess away in amber parings, pipe clamped in teeth, utterly focused on the task.

The boy looks up briefly at a Wreki’s frantic barking, but his attention soon turns back to his father’s work. Sixteen stone of beefsteak-fed British Midlands bobby, the man has a presence impressive enough to quell a scuffle just by quietly walking into a pub – yet he handles his carefully preserved tools with an precise delicacy. The boy knows his father will fix the bike. Given time and his well-worn tools, the old man can fix just about anything.

Reaching into the attache case again for a emery cloth, the man polishes the last of the melted shellac from the sparking area of the magneto, then bends to reassemble the armature. He times the magneto, tweaks the carburetor, and then gives the starter a laconic half-kick.

Thumpa-thumpa-thumpa and Wreki comes racing back through the undergrowth, tail sticking straight up like a periscope. The kayak is re-attached, the equipment needed for this three-week holiday is carefully stowed once again, the leather attache case tucked down deep in the cockpit of the sidecar.

The man tucks the kickstarter – its return-spring long broken – into a slung loop of inner-tube, turns the oil-control feed a click or two, pushes the Burman gearbox into first, gently opens the handlebar controls for the fuel and air, and away they go again. The bike thrums happily, Wreki barks at the passing scenery, the boy squints into the headwind, holding on tightly as his father opens up the taps.

They clatter off down the road, travelling at an ever greater clip as they reach the crest of the pass and the road flattens out.

Out of sight behind the next bend in the road, the Ariel’s cheerful raspberry grows fainter and fainter; the rabbits of Dinas Maddwy begin to poke heads back out of their burrows. Soon enough, stillness returns to the cloud-dappled mountain, the distant sound fading into silence, into time, into memory.

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12 Comments on “Sunday Stories: The Leather Attache Case...”

  • avatar

    This site just keeps getting better and better. Some achieve the difficult task of painting a picture with words. This piece does that in spades.

  • avatar

    This is a work of art.

  • avatar

    Thank you Sir .


    • 0 avatar

      Nathan, that was you? Only someone who has suffered the slings and arrows of an old Ariel, BSA or Jawa could have written this piece. Excellent. Content for adults. What a concept.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Absolutely brilliant.

  • avatar

    Nice story Brendan,it brought back memories of my misspent youth riding various Matchless 250cc and BSA Gold stars around Lincolnshire.

  • avatar

    It seemed as though I was there.

  • avatar

    Good job, Brendan, Dylan Thomas would be proud of you!
    I hosted the Vincent international rally here in Harrison some years ago. An old fellow limped in late on an ancient Vincent which was at least as old as him and asked for a campsite, a big hammer and a strong brick. Within an hour, he had the guts of the gearbox laying on a tarp under the bike and proceeded to straighten things with my 5lb mini-sledge. Foregoing the evening soirees, he was ready for the Vincent parade next morning. I was mightily impressed with his blacksmithing skills. They reminded me of an Ulster saying :- “Don’t force it. Use a bigger hammer.” I must take you to visit the eccentric Philip Funnell in Chilliwack. He’s always building weird motorcyle contraptions with scrap lumber and old leather. Of course, he’s ridden around the world twice, so he has some credentials. I was reminded of him at Sumas a couple of weeks ago when I saw an ancient, patched up Yukon BMW with a coffin-like sidecar. The only window(facing the rider), revealed two Huskies heading South for the winter. I have photos. Regrettably not from my new Nokia 1020 with 41MP processor.

  • avatar

    Yup. First class as usual Brendan.

    Excellence must be acknowledged, lest its practice fade away.

  • avatar

    It felt like I was there, shaving out the shellac meself.

  • avatar

    Beautiful article. In so many ways it epitomizes exactly the philosophy of our group, the British Motorcycle Owners Club, where we all have a Leather Attache Case of some kind for carrying a hand full of tools. Most of the riders of the new generation feel that a cell phone and a credit is the only tool kit that they need.
    I also remember driving that road in a ancient Fiat 500 not to many years ago.

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