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What's Under The Bonnet?

By Paul Michael
7th August, 2012


I’m the kid who spent hours in the garage with my dad tinkering with my bicycle while my dad tinkered with his bikes and cars over the years. When I think back there was quite an array of British and Japanese bikes and mostly British cars that underwent many repairs and upgrades, and sometimes, much swearing at when they didn’t do what dad was expecting.

As I grew older, at the age of about 14 I think, my dad bought me a cheap car for Christmas – to work on. It was a non-runner, and so I spent hours, and hours, getting it running. After I got it roadworthy, my mum used it for work. So then I turned my attention to motor bikes.

I hung around mates who were often 3 or 4 years older than me, and they had bikes. The older ones had Kawasaki 250s and the younger ones had Yamaha FS1Es – Fizzies. I spent most of my time, as did my mates, at Chris’ house. Well, in his garage actually. I don’t think we ever went in his house. There were now lots of bikes being stripped and put back together in Chris’ garage.

As time went on, my mates passed their bike tests and their bikes got bigger. The fizzy sounding sewing machines turned into thunderous monsters of the road, and it seemed there was no end of widgets and gadgets you could buy to customise these machines to your unique taste.

When I got to the age of 16, all I wanted was a bike. I was saving as much as I could. In those days you left school and went to work. I had a low paid labouring job, so the saving was tough-going. Then, at Christmas, once again, my parents surprised me. I could see the wheels under the make-shift cover they had put over it. I rushed over and pulled the sheet off, and there it was in all its glory: a bright, garish blue, 50cc scooter!  Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, my dad handed me the crash helmet: an open faced bright orange model. I couldn’t even hide behind a visor.

I don’t think I have experienced such diverse emotions all at the same time since. I was truly grateful for the present and the money they must have spent. I couldn’t wait to get out on the road and get a taste of freedom. But my god, I do not want to be seen on that!

Luckily my enthusiasm for bikes, and a few pay rises later, enabled me to move on up, pass my bike test, and, among a few rebuild projects, I got a more suitably attired machine or two. I rode bikes for quite some time before the car driving test beckoned when I was 24.

My first car was a Mini Ranger kit car, based on the frame of a much older Austin 1100, like this one but in bright yellow: It was similar to the Mini Moke featured in the Jeremy Clarkson video below.


I absolutely loved it. Not just because I had the freedom to get out and about with lots of mates rather than just one on the back of a bike, but mainly because it needed lots of work to get it running properly. I repainted it, rebuilt the engine, fitted a new Webber carb, tarted the wheels up, stuck a chrome exhaust pipe at the back end and, the piece de resistance, I fitted a lovely walnut dash sought from a Triumph Dolomite.

The thing about the dashboard was that it had a warning light dial for the indicators, oil warning light, main beam, etc. Importantly, it had a low fuel warning light. Because the car was easy to get into – just a flap for a door – it was easy to nick. So I had a ‘secret switch’ hidden in under the dash that when set in one position the car would run. When in the other position, the electric fuel pump would shut off, the fuel warning light would come on, and you therefore had just a carb of fuel. This was tested for real when it got nicked one night and the thief got just 400 yards up the road. The policeman who was around when I went to pick up my car an hour or so later, when the pubs shut at 11pm, was well impressed.  He thought that I should patent the idea.

I was talking to someone in work recently, both of us reminiscing about times gone by and how you used to have to play around with a thing called a choke to get your engine started in the mornings. Engines used to sometimes flood, so you had to push the throttle to the ground (open it up on a bike) to let air into the carb chamber, and then on into the engine. He, being a bit older than me, could remember cars with advance/retard controls that you had to manipulate to stop your engine from pinking or running too rich. I recalled older British bikes that had decompression levers so you could kick-start the engine over with a fair degree of ease. Then we started comparing war wounds, still apparent from all those years ago, from turning over car engines, bike engines, boat engines and lawn mower engines – and the bastard engines that kicked back when you least expected it.

I haven’t ridden a bike, aside from a push-bike, for some time now. I’m the family guy with a neat family car. There’s no choke, yet it starts first time – every time. There’s a tool box in the boot, but I’ve never used it. I take it for its MOT every year, but it normally passes. If it fails, it’s for some technology I can’t touch. When I open the bonnet, after checking and topping up the oil, water and other fluids, and perhaps an engine / plastic bits clean-up, I just look at it. I have no bloody idea what to do with what’s under the bonnet any more.     


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