Early stories of motorcyclists and their adventures in New Zealand are very few, perhaps because as a nation of motorcyclists we are more of ‘the doer than the talker’.
J. B. Hislop was one of those very early motorcyclists that was both, as he wrote about people, places and events that he encountered through his job as a Watchmaking and Jewellery representative or known more commonly as a travelling salesman.His real life stories are captured in his book Pure Gold and Rough Diamonds after he retired from the trade and were published in 1944. One of the chapters was dedicated to his trusty stead and was titled The Biography of my 1902 B.A.T. Motorcycle. It details some of his rides and problems incurred, and some of the more rugged repairs applied enabling him to continue to places where he could effect more permanent repairs. It is truly an amazing read and brings to light his efforts to finish a journey no matter what troubles were encountered. We have reproduced that chapter here as it is a very interesting read and is a tribute to a very early and keen New Zealand pioneer motorcyclist.
The Biography of my 1902 B.A.T. Motorcycle.
In wishing to record the good performance of a British machine, I will have to forget all about Central Otago’s glorious climate and when I found there was nothing so bracing and pleasant as a quiet tour over its tussocky hills, especially in the early hours of the autumn sunshine, when the crispiness of the air is at its best. It was my Central winter trips I enjoyed the most, and any mud I encountered could be classed as a puddle compared with the miles of Southland’s highways in the winter, especially the Clinton-Gore and Dacre sections, which as far as motor traffic was concerned almost isolated Invercargill from the north.
In forgetting my sales and sport, for a change, to recall only a few of the tests my machine was put to without once leaving me stranded, I naturally sent my thanks to J.A. Prestwick, of Nottingham, the makers of the J.A.P. engine, for getting me there every time. I need not remind my readers that “there” took much more getting to at that time than it does to-day. I am sure J.A. Prestwick never intended their machine to stand up to all the buck-jumping and crashing it survived in its five years’ touring through our mountainous country, burdened as it was by a heavy sample case, etc. The lads of to-day may also be interested in the make-up of a machine of so long ago, when there were no chain drives, or kick starters, and to start you had to push, and be very quick off the mark in your hop into the saddle, and in my case not to mention the high sample case I had to clear in doing so. My B.A.T. was imported at the cost of £72 in 1902 by my old friend, J.L. Passmore, a typical Dunedin business lad, whose name to-day adorns the key-stones of the many difficult bridges to success crossed by all the South Island Motor Associations.
The main features of the machine were its 7 h.p. twin J.A.P. engine with automatic intake valves, which could be replaced within five minutes. The magneto, which was shaft driven, was built into the tank, a perfect idea for re-timing, fording streams and wet weather journeys. The sight oil feed, very easily regulated, was about the first on the market. On several occasions I broke its glass in upsets, but I always carried a spare, which I cut from a small round bottle. Despite the big tank, I had to carry an extra half-gallon tin strapped to the frame, as at the time petrol could not be obtained at every farm or township. The back wheel, which was too light for our roads, had the belt rim attached to its spokes, causing them great strain on very rough going, but I soon had a heavier one fitted. I considered the spring frame perfect. The upright supporting the saddle rocked on two long levers coming from under the tank, and was supported by four very solid spiral springs, while the bottom end of the support was hinged to two large footboards, which also rocked with any motion from the saddle pillar, thus the springing idea was quite independent of the frame,. The front fork also supported an extra light fork with four spiral springs. This fork went round the back of the wheel in a straight line from its axle, and gave it a perfect seesaw motion in hurdling potholes or tussocks.
My solid sample case on the special carrier acted as back rest and with the long handlebars and their hooked horn safety grips I could sit well back and straight up in comfort, and not in the cramped jockey position you see to-day. But the long leverage on the handlebars did not add to the their strength when the machine had to be lifted out of an upset., or supported in heavy going, which it so often survived, and by the time I traded it in, when purchasing an Arrol-Johnston car from Paisley, Scotland, the handlebars were almost solid through being repaired in four places.
On one occasion, between Palmerston and Hampden, I was so often reminded of “Off agin’, on agin’, gone agin’ Flannigan,” on the greasy going that at last one of the bars just about tore right off with the constant strain of holding the machine up from a complete upset.
As luck would have it, I was close to the home of a farmer friend who obliged me with a few yards of wire clothes line. With this and a stout stick and a few farmer’s twitches I managed a makeshift repair to see me into old pal Jock Douglas’s smithy at Hampden, from where his good job saw me safely on the the way to a brazing plant at Oamaru.
The last time the handlebars let me down I was about to descent the very steep pinch on the top of the big Kilmog Hill, when the back wheel stand fell down and was making a great noise on the metal. Luckily for me on this occasion try as I would I could not get it to slam up and stay put, as I usually did without stopping, by reaching back and hooking it up with my heel. With the very little extra pressure I put on the handlebars in dismounting, they went right down and about gave me a knock-out on the chin as I went down with them. On lifting them back into place they came free at the crown head – a very awkward break to repair. By hammering a stick into the stub of the crown and down into the support, and applying a few more yards of wire which I hunted up with a file from an old broken-down fence, I was soon on my way down-hill and on to Dunedin, 18 miles away. I travelled at the slowest speed I ever attempted, with enough wire twitches and sticks decorating my handlebars to make a monkey cage. Had the stand not fallen down, I am sure any one of the many unavoidable pot holes would have snapped the crown head and sent me head-over-heels, and I did not usually dilly-dally down the hills. Don’t blame the machine, for the lads to-day don’t know what a rough road is like. They never have to ride on the cattle tracks at the side in an endeavour to doge a hundred yards of freshly-laid broken metal.
It was one of these patches round the bad corner on top of Saddle Hill that upset me in the only spill that made red show through the knee of my pants. What a cropper that was as the machine landed on the side of the tank, from which the brass boss protecting the bevel drive on the magneto protruded about an inch. This boss was held in place by three solid bolts which were ripped off, and the shaft drive, a soft 14in. steel rod, was bent into a figure “S”. However, by using my heavy King Dick spanner as a hammer, and a post on the roadside as an anvil, I soon had it straight again. There was no shortage of handy bolts and nuts in my kit, which had seen more stranded motorists than myself on the road again, and I soon effected a good repair, as the timing of the spark was a very simple matter on this machine.
On one occasion I returned with a strap of iron reinforcing my cracked fork. It was a blacksmith’s job done in Alexander. There were no garages in those days, but all the same it was a very tickling job that would stick such good blacksmiths as my old pal Bill Becker, of Oturehua and many are my happy memories of such really good fellows all through Otago.
It was at Alexandra one day I received a wire from one of my good Maniototo friends to return for the week-end. It was very nice down there, and if any of my good pals on the plain can “pick it”, I can hear them say, as they smile “I bet it was!”
Off I went on the forty-mile jaunt in a following gale. I was cutting across the top end of Ida Valley, near Wedderburn, with a mile long cloud of dust tailing me, when up shot a sheet of flame from the carburetter. Talk about a cat on hot bricks! It could give me no points in a split second action from off my fast moving machine. I had no idea I could hop it intentionally so fast, although many a time I have managed it much faster when I could not help it and had to land where I was thrown. Off went the petrol supply, which was very handy, and in landing I swung the machine on to its side with the tank to the wind, and the old buck rabbit was never born that could beat me at scraping dust as I smothered the fire with it. The petrol pipe had snapped at the intake, causing a good flow on to the silencer. With a piece of packing and copper washer, which I filed and reemed and fitted below the break, which I also filed to fit, I was soon on my way again, rejoicing at the results of another wayside repair. Man, that was hot one, and I trust one more wont weary my readers.
I was on my way down from Puketoi Station when, with a wallop, I bounced into an irrigating ditch which when dry was very hard to notice on the white roads. As I continued a little slower, I noticed the machine had developed a very springy action. On examination I found I had broken the crank case bracket. A very careful mile or so saw me pull into old pal Davies’ farm, where with a good twitch of fencing wire I was well set for the next twelve miles to the Ranfurly Engineering Works.
Many a motorist has broken his springs on those traps, which the farmer soon piped under the roads as they became owners of cars. I have already mentioned the Kyeburn ditch, which left me with only seven firm spokes on the belt rim side of my wheel; but it saw me there all the same.
My first machine was a 3 1/2 h.p. Triumph, and what a beautiful job she was! British to her bark. But I soon wished for more power on the long and tricky hills, such as the Capburn at Tiroiti, where a small river and a sharp corner block a run at it. Bridges were very few and the streams very numerous. I managed my first attempt at the Capburn Hill, but not without enough puffing and blowing to send the Central goods train through the tunnel in its bowels. This hill is by no means the longest in Otago, and a dozen or so of its length would not see you halfway over the Crown Range at Arrow, which is the highest road in New Zealand, being 3,677 feet.
My next trip saw me mounted on the B.A.T. and was I glad of the extra power, where a quick pick-up is so necessary. Its steel and leather whittle belt did not slip when driving it through streams, and extra links were so very easily fitted. Snowdrifts were its only barrier, but they were very seldom met with. The only way to get over them was in a sideways herring-bone fashion by lifting the front wheel forward about two feet and pressing it into the snow, and then the same action with the back wheel. It was a slow and heavy job, but nothing like as awkward as I found pulling the machine on its side through a barb wire fence, when one day I mistook the short cut track down through the paddocks to Moa farmhouse. I could not go back, as part of it was ploughed, which did not bother me down hill, but to try it going up was out of the question. However, Mr. Farmer enjoyed the joke from his yards as he watched me at his fence, and was quite satisfied so long as I had not strained his wires too much, although it did cost me a spot of petrol.
I could continue for pages, but to refer to the blowing- out of three silences, new pulley wheels, etc., would only add to the variety in the every-day life of my good old machine. I am sure there is not a more reliable engine made than the J.A.P., which is tested in the number of motor cycle manufacturers who build them into their own pet idea of what a perfect machine should be, and its a great testimonial when so many of them choose it to supply their machines’ heart-beats to success.
The B.A.T. was not a heavy machine in comparison with the big American Harleys and Red Indians, which a few years later came on the market, and I classed it as a feather-weight beside a French machine my pal Dick soon regretted buying. It was a four-cylinder shaft-driven tractor, and he could have it for me, as you had to be a champion weight-lifter to manage it at all in the case of an upset in the soft going. He was pleased to trade it in, and it was a very queer name he had at times for his cumbersome F.N. foreign machine.
Dick and I were great friends, and many a good yarn we had in his back yard at Eden Park, Gimmerburn on motors, which were his hobby. However, as the best of friends must part, he eventually became the owner of my five year old B.A.T. (Best After Tests) motor cycle.
A few years later the Great War No. 1 shook the world, and causes me in these stories to record a very sad memory, when I refer to my good pal Dick Weir, who paid the supreme sacrifice in France.
J. B. Hislops book, a very interesting read if you can find a copy.