VMCC  JOHN O’GROATS TO LAND’S END 13th  - 18th  MAY 1996
880 miles on a 1953 American Indian Chief Motocycle

When Don Mitchell’s brief call for volunteers to ride End to End, John O’Groats to Land’s End, appeared in the VMCC Journal last year, something in me clicked and I sent off my SAE immediately. 

So it seems did 75 other members, all bent on celebrating the Club’s Fiftieth Anniversary in spectacular style, and the entry list was quickly filled. Since I was born in the same year that Titch Allen founded the club, the event promised me the opportunity to celebrate my own half-century in a style appropriate for a lifelong biker.

Like probably so many other members with young families and demanding businesses my motorcycling has lately been confined to our excellent West Kent Section runs on Sunday mornings and rides to work on fine days. The thought of a really long ride and in the company of bikes of a similar vintage to my 1953 1300cc Indian Chief was very appealing. I have happy memories of Scottish and continental tours on my last modern bike, a 1971 R 75/5 which I now realise with horror would be classed as 25-year exempt.

Don Mitchell cleverly divided us into four groups leaving John O’Groats on four consecutive days and with different distances to cover, the survivors to all arrive at Land’s End on the afternoon of Saturday 18th May.   He also arranged all our hotels for us.

The Veteran and Vintage groups, each comprising more than 20 machines, left on the Monday and Tuesday.  Our Post-Vintage class of 11 bikes from a 1937 Brough to my 1953 Chief was to leave on the Wednesday while the Post War class up to 1970 had to do the run in three days starting on the Thursday.  Because the distance on the traditional route avoiding motorways is 880 miles it seemed to me that any of the direct belt drive veterans who made would deserve warm congratulation at least.

As winter turned to spring the practical implications of the trip loomed larger.  Ace Indian restorer and long distance rider John Hayes from Tonbridge who originally restored my Redskin 6 years ago was consulted at length and wisely insisted that I should import a correct 1953 repro windscreen and rear view mirror from California, and arranged for Mike de Biddulph of the Indian Riders Association to fabricate an ingenious luggage carrier that was not only QD but would also avoid drilling into the magnificent curve of the skirted rear mudguard which is one of the glories of this side valve V-twin.  I also decided to ditch the Barbour Thornproof after 25 years of black wax under the fingernails, and to invest instead in Goretex with garish reflective panels.


It was also dawning on me that, living in Kent, this was going to be a 2,000-mile ride covering three sides of our Island, not just the 880 miles I had signed up for.  I would certainly not descend to being trailered anywhere, particularly with three of my hero Phil Irving’s V -twins in our group!  


 Almost the final straw was the announcement by my wife’s employers that she should help start up a new factory in the Land of the Jawa for the crucial fortnight ending the 18th May.  My outstanding mother in law saw the dissapointment on my face and volunteered to look after our three children, while John was persuaded to prove his restoration by riding the first 325 miles to Newcastle.

A trial run in the Inter Section Rally proved that everything was working, particularly my right knee fresh from keyhole surgery on the cartilage, an essential adjunct to kick-starting 1300 cc with no decompressor.  Hot starting however was proving a real problem, culminating in a push start from the friendly bunch at the East Sussex checkpoint.  They clearly doubted that I would make it End to End, so they at least should read on!

The successors to British Rail conveniently sell their   bargain-priced return ticket from Sevenoaks to Newcastle in two parts, so having fine tuned the machine in a two day ride up north, John boarded the southbound Inter-City at about the same time as I boarded the northbound, passing each other at a combined speed of over 250mph somewhere in Lincolnshire, still contemplating the meaning of  ‘non transferable’ printed on our train tickets.

Monday morning was that magic first day of spring, clear blue sky in all directions
From my long time trail biking companion Peter’s house in Corbridge.   After endless breakfast coffees, I nervously set out on the great adventure, heading north on the switchback A68 towards Jedburgh.  The air was clear, there was a snowcap visible on the Cheviot and the satellite dishes on the farmhouses were pointing horizontally as if to emphasise how far north I was from the equator.

The first fill of the twin tanks with  £5 worth of 4 star was in West Wood burn.  I knew that the success of this trip could hinge on what happened next with my first hot start.  Leaving the ignition switch on the tank turned off, I opened the throttle twist grip wide and gave the kick-start two of those classic long swinging kicks to clear out the two 650 cc combustion chambers, then ignition on, retard it with the left twist grip, grab a touch of throttle, find and pass compression, kick and yes! dogs barked, babies cried, tea was spilled into saucers and the old stone walls of West Woodburn once again echoed to the galloping beat of the only True American motorcycle.  Clearly my hot start problems had been banished by John’s careful tuning and as I crossed into Scotland at Carter Bar I was grinning inside my full-face helmet and suddenly confident that this was to be a Great Trip.

Heavy traffic in Dalkeith reminded me just how hard it could be to negotiate a strange city with a foot clutch, so I reluctantly postponed my first visit to Alan Forbes famous Motolux Indian shop in Edinburgh and headed on round the by pass to the Forth Bridge where a smiling attendant waved me through the toll booth, this bridge being free to motorcyclists.   Forbes has since told me that my machine had passed it first couple of years prior to my ownership as a static exhibit among the fruit machines in an amusement arcade in Edinburgh, so perhaps it was happy to take the by pass and avoid the scene of such indignity.

North of the Forth it’s the M90 and A9 all the way to John o’ Groats.   Motorways were invented to clear other roads of traffic so that bikers could enjoy them, so I started looking out for the old roads.  It was not difficult, because  ‘alternative tourist routes ‘ using just those old roads are clearly signposted all the way north, until the A9 itself eventually resembles a French D road.


For want of any better idea, I had booked that night into the Royal Dunkeld Hotel, already organised as our first night stop after the northern tip.   Before the Indian echo had even subsided in the courtyard, the manager had come out to greet me by name, showed be where to park beneath my room window and handed me a glass of sherry.  Clearly, a great change had come over the land of my ancestors since my last visit years ago!  Dunkeld   is a beautiful town and the hotel and its fare were outstanding by any standards.

Tuesday was another glorious day and I started out in high spirits, confident now in my 43-year-old machine, which was managing 55mpg and apparently using no oil, and running more smoothly than ever.   Past Blair Atholl,  I caught up with the impressive Brough outfit and  elegant 350 Douglas ridden by John Macdonald and James Milne from Blairgowrie .   When they slowed on one of the long A9 ascents,  I left them  and pressed on for our destination.  By mid-morning the brave veterans were passing in the opposite direction having stayed overnight at Aviemore, some crouching to reduce wind resistance, others perched perfectly upright enjoying the scenery.  Some less fortunate were already bobbing along on trailers.

The last fifty miles of coast road from the Dornoch Firth to Wick is a spectacular switchback, perfect for biking with hardly another vehicle in sight.  Beyond Wick is the longest 17 miles of the whole trip, the road winds over a treeless peat bog, the sky darkens, the wind blows like a hurricane, and I was thankfully warm behind my replica Roadmaster windscreen.

The John O’ Groats Hotel   finally appeared, but this was not quite the Northern Land’s End I had expected.  The Orkney Islands fill the horizon to the north with Stroma just two miles offshore; it’s rather like looking across the Thames estuary at Southend on Sea and Canvey Island from the Isle of Grain!

I parked next to Ian Lang’s immaculate Shadow and George Scott’s Matchless, which was standing in for his incomplete Inter Norton. David and Shirley Quartermaine arrived on their lovely Rapide with period Craven panniers, Merseysider Dave Kay on an AMC single, also replacing his unfinished Norton.  News arrived that Jack Butterworth’s big Vincent had DNF’d further south and would not be joining us, the other marques agreeing that two out of three wasn’t bad for the Stevenage twins.  The Douglas and Brough pulled in slowly, the copper head gasket of the Matchless powered V-twin squeezed out into the breeze.  John had the tank and rear head off in three minutes and we gazed sympathetically at the distorted copper. 


In true Club style a fellow Member who conveniently worked in the engineering shop of the nearby distillery was telephoned and persuaded to produce a suitably annealed replacement, John being driven there by the comic pair of Liverpool ex-coppers, Dave Kay and tow car driver Frank.  With commendable cool, John returned with his gaskets, enjoyed a convivial evening drink in the bar, and replaced the head and tank after breakfast next morning!


The Hotel has apparently seen no capital expenditure since 1919, but this is more than compensated   by the hospitality of Brian Johnstone, land lord, raconteur, aviator and photographer and his excellent staff and cooks, who make this windswept end of the earth into a comfortable home from home.  After the rest of our party had gathered, and the Chief ‘s curvaceous bodywork was given its daily polish, we had a splendid dinner enlivened by Ian’s acerbic commentary on the Vincent world, fellow diners or anything else that crossed his path! 


Next morning we dried off our machines, lashed by a storm in the night, and after the group photo, set off for Dunkeld and points south.  Completely confident now in my Springfield twin, and knowing that it would all be downhill riding from now on, I really started to enjoy the trip, sometimes riding with two or three others, more usually by myself.   There is enormous pleasure in riding solo on a long run on a faultless machine, revelling in ancient machinery spanning the hills and valleys, free of telephones and appointments.  I suffer agonies if I ever drive in a car with no radio, but would never want one on a bike. In no time we were back to Dunkeld after a mainly sunny ride, and I hired a mountain bike for a long and steep ride on old tracks across the local hills to compensate for a lazy day in the saddle and to ensure a strong appetite for the traditional Highland dinner, which did not disappoint.  In three days I had now ridden my machine further than I had in the previous six years!

Thursday morning we headed west out of Dunkeld on superb and remote moor land roads to Crieff and Bridge of Allen, soon to be followed by the complex and highly urbanised route, which we had to follow to skirt east of Glasgow.   Cumbernauld and Airdrie and Carluke seemed to sprawl forever until open roads returned again after Lanark. 

A foot clutch on a big machine is always difficult in traffic, and because you cannot put use your left foot to steady the machine when pulling away, it is easier to turn right a T-junctions than left.   Second gear on the hand shift three speed likes to drop out when least expected, though the Indian will chug along at 12mph in top to compensate.  Seeing the Vincents parked outside a café in Lockerbie, I joined them for lunch and then stayed with them over the border at Gretna, through Carlisle and Penrith and over Shap  on the old A6.  I was surprised (though they were not!) when they pulled away on the long climb up the fell and I began to suspect that the left twistgrip was not advancing the spark sufficiently.  I caught them up on the downhill and learned later that my throttle was only opening ¾ because the spiral in the twistgrip, which allows those beautiful uncluttered handlebars, was breaking up.

Through Kendal   and   Carnforth   we approached our next overnight destination Lancaster, where we met the thing, which motorcyclists dread even more than Volvo drivers, a patch of spilt diesel.  The Quartermaines’ Rapide handled it like a machine designed by the author of Motorcycle Engineering should and just wriggled while the Indian hung out its tail like one of its flat track ancestors before thankfully recovering while I hung on to the wide bars. 

Ian on the Shadow would tear ahead of us occasionally only to be passed a few minutes later as he enjoyed a cigarette beside the road.   If I were a smoker I would not need to stop.   With its low centre of gravity   and unsprung throttle, the Indian  
Can happily be ridden hands off, while its windscreen would not extinguish the Zippo?   Our cheerful party enlivened the bland Pothouse, there were no mechanical maladies and the weather was remaining excellent.


Friday morning entailed negotiating south Lancashire, I avoided the temptation of the M6, but I can see why they built it, and the A49 into Cheshire was a welcome relief for an aching clutch foot.  I had not realised until this trip that DoT no longer considers A roads to be routes to anywhere when there is a motorway within 30 miles.  Through signposting seems to have been abandoned along with mileage boards, it is no longer sufficient to have a good idea of where you are trying to get to.

The ride through Shropshire was glorious, on bendy empty roads, and the day was only spoiled by an ineptly marked diversion in Worcester which caught and frustrated nearly all of us.  I missed the best value accommodation of the trip at Newport Towers on the A38 by staying with family near Stroud. 

Saturday was the last day and I was determined that I would reach the far tip of Cornwall even if I had to push!  Having agreed to meet my brother and his young family on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, I tagged along with the AMC singles that were being led by Dave Kay.  Who better to follow on a tricky route than a policeman?   Not on this occasion, as I realised as we left Bristol   at sea level on the A38! Turning back I eventually found the top of the Avon Gorge, my frozen nieces and their patient parents, in spite of a complete lack of signposting.  The toll keeper confirmed that there were no signs to the famous bridge because there was no car parking, so tourists were discouraged!


 Taunton and Exeter were soon passed, and then it was the long and now mainly dual carriageway A30, all the way to our destination, assisted by a strong and warm tail wind.   I had imagined that on this final day I would be meeting machines from other groups, but by the time the Cornwall border was crossed I had seen only one.  It was not until Penzance that I finally caught up with the 1910 and 1913 German Wanderers bravely ridden by Dirk and Peter Peshken.   Their graceful technique was inspiring to watch, while reflecting that a 1913 Indian would have had a 1000 cc motor, rear suspension, clutch, chain drive and a two speed box - it would also have been much more expensive.


A few miles short of Land’s End I suddenly caught sight of the sun glinting on the Atlantic, but as I whooped with joy the engine spluttered and died - in my excitement I had forgotten to switch over tanks!   Now that it really was downhill all the way to Land’s End, I coasted a little way in neutral, enjoying the silence before releasing
the foot clutch in top to finish the trip to that reliable V-twin beat, driving  round to our reserved area  between the  Hotel and the cliff edge.

Ian on the Black Shadow had got there first, and the rest of our group soon followed, all of us sharing in the buzz of achievement.   None of us had crashed, fallen off or broken down and our group at least had never got wet.  Later we all assembled for the Celebration Dinner, a magnificent event with superb food and affordable wines served in a delightful conservatory style restaurant with a dramatic view of the sun setting over the Atlantic.  Carefully packed clean shirts and shoes were retrieved from the depths of panniers and an outsider would never have suspected that we were bikers. We should have mingled to hear tales of the other groups’ adventures, but a week of bonding meant that we commandeered two tables for the Post Vintage group, signed each other’s menus, and saw the evening out in style.

Riders and supporters were all presented with commemorative mugs while successful riders earned certificates, speeches were brief and amusing, and those of us not staying at the Land’s End were bussed back to our respective hotels.

Having successfully completed two sides of the triangular journey, I now had to get home.  In the night the wind changed and brought with it a torrential rainstorm, which was to continue for the length of the A30 and A303 as far as the M3.  On Dartmoor it fell as snow, helicopters were rescuing walkers, but I ploughed on with my front 5.00 x 16 making a bow wave, hiding behind my marvellous windscreen, pushed forever homeward by a powerful tailwind, and arriving back in Kent mid afternoon after a 325 mile ride.  

My 1953 Indian Chief   had run perfectly, used only two pints of Kendalls 50-weight oil in 1,850 miles and recorded exactly 55 miles per gallon.  Curiously this was the same figure that the AMC singles were getting and was also claimed by the two Vincent riders.  Phil Irving would not have found it curious at all - to an engineer fuel consumption is a product of frontal area, drags and speed and does not relate to engine size.  He would have wondered, however, why we were all riding so slowly!


Tom Falconer
VMCC member no 12049.