Symphony In Cacophony

      

It is not everyday that one gets to ride a bike that has done duty in the World War II and inspite of all the rattles, you still hum when you ride it
 

Text : Shahwar Hussain
Photographs: Ramesh Pathania


 

One fine wintry Sunday morning a few years back, I was leisurely riding a friend’s Royal Enfield Bullet 350 through Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. The roads in that area are very well laid out and the numerous roundabouts are a pleasure to negotiate. Actually it’s the roundabouts that are major attraction and whenever young motorcyclists lean on the curves, I am sure a majority of them must be thinking about Valentino Rossi and Company. At least I do.

Well, I was gently leaning on one such curve when something on two wheels just whizzed past me. It was much noisier than the one that I was riding but it glided ever so smoothly. It was an old pre war bike, that much I could identify but I wanted to have a closer look and opened up the throttle a little bit to catch up but the ancient thing kept going faster. Well, I was riding a bike that was five years old and catching up would be no big deal…or so I thought. And boy I was wrong! I had to push the Bullet very hard before I came parallel and waved him to a stop.

 

It was pre war motorcycle all right. A 1942 Triumph 3HW, 350cc single, to be precise. And the bloke riding it was Vikas Talwar who also owns a BSA 1952 A10 Golden Flash that’s in a pristine condition, a 1948 BSA BB31 and one Yamaha RD350. Riders of vintage and classic motorcycles seems to have an unspoken bond, a brotherhood and over the years Vikas and I ended up in the same club and the motorcycle trips that we undertook along with the rest of the gang were fun-filled.

During the World War II, Triumph had discontinued manufacturing of all other models except the the 3HW. German dive bombers flattened the Triumph factory during the blitz and it later on shifted to Meriden which is said to be the exact geographical centre of England. When the Japanese army, in its campaign against the allied army reached the north eastern part of India through Burma, the allied army transported a huge amount of military hardware in that part of the country. Most of the war era British and American motorcycles that we see with the various collectors came from the army dumpyards in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur.

 

Vikas had bought his Triumph 3HW quite a few years back from an old man in Faridabad in Haryana. The old man flatly refused to sell the bike but our enthusiast was hell bent on getting hold of it. By the end of a couple of months, the owner was so disgusted that he decided that it was better to get rid of the bike than to face the persistent devil that went by the name of Vikas. And so Vikas got the bike. It might be a coincidence, but the old man passed away a month after selling the bike. He was obviously very attached to it.

To put it very mildly, the 3HW was in a deplorable condition. It has been lying in the open for donkeys’ years and the elements have played havoc with it. The engine was jammed as the piston and the barrel had rusted tight. Some wise guy had taken away the spark plug and water had found a welcome way through to the barrel and ultimately the chamber.

The nuts and bolts were so badly rusted that the engine had to be taken to the machine shop to open them. Once the engine was dismantled, it revealed some more horrors. Rust had pockmarked the barrel in such a way that it resembled the walls in a war zone and the valves were also shot. The open inlet valve had corroded so badly that bits and pieces of the valve head had fallen off giving it an appearance of being much smaller. Needless to say the valve seats were completely gone. The only silver lining was that the piston was of standard size but that was a very small consolation.

Till a few years back, spare parts for pre war British bikes that landed in the thousands were rather easily available but that is not the case anymore. Vikas found a standard sized piston set rather easily but to use that a sleeve had to be put in the barrel and Vikas was not ready to do

that just yet. An original set of size 20 piston turned up after a wait of three months and after the barrel was rebored, it took in the new pistons and it certainly performs better than the engines that has sleeves in them. The fruits of patience can be sweet indeed.

   

Surprisingly, water in the chamber had not done much damage to the crankshaft and a slight polishing made it as good as ever. Even the big end bearing was fine but why take a chance. So in came a new bearing. New valves, guides and seats were fitted and while the valves were of British make, the guides and the seats were locally sourced. The 3HW was one of the few motorcycles of that period that had concealed valve gears and that probably saved the valve springs. Somebody had tried to crank the engine when the valves were jammed and as a result, one of the pushrods was bent.

A fellow enthusiast supplied an original set of pushrod. That’s what is called brotherhood of vintage lovers I guess. Oxidisation has left some very ugly sores on the barrel fins and it took ages to smoothen these out with a thin diamond file. People tend to overlook these small details but uneven barrel fins certainly affect cooling.

 

Compared to the engine, the gearbox was in a relatively better condition. The gearbox was packed with grease and thick gearoil and this probably saved the pinions but the bearings were not that fortunate. I have seen lot of classic bike enthusiasts who pack the gearbox with grease only in the belief that the grease reduces the friction and save the pinions. But this is not always the case. Gradually the grease gets accumulated to one corner of the gearbox and leaves the pinions high and dry causing extensive damages. The gearbox was stripped, cleaned, rebushed and with new bearings performed as good as new…well almost. This 3HW has one of the smoothest gearshifts that I have come across in a classic bike in a very long time. Anything more than a soft foot will engage a false neutral while downshifting from fourth to third gear and it can be very annoying indeed.

The tin work needed major surgery. Both the mudguards were rusted and instead of wasting time making innumerable trips to the auto spares market of Delhi’s Karol Bagh, Vikas just got new ones fabricated. The rear mudguard has two pieces and has an elevation running through its length. The welder has done a commendable job of perfectly matching the elevations of the two pieces. The front mudguard had no such breakup and that must have made the work that much easier. During the World War II, many of these bikes were used by the dispatch riders and because of this reason there are two foldable panniers. The bottom half of both the panniers were rusted badly and had to be fabricated using 16 gauge sheet metal. The tank looked fine but on closer inspection resembled a tea stainer. Water in the tank had done the job well and the entire bottom had to be patch welded.

As with all British bikes of that period, the 3HW also had 6 volt electrical system and starting was by magneto while the Lucas dynamo charged the battery. The armatures of the magneto and the dynamo had to be rewound and their field coils retaped and now the sparks were long and blue.

 

 

Unlike the modern bikes, where you just start and go, you really have to ‘ride’ a classic bike. Its true to the Triumph 3HW also. Starting is by the familiar decompress and kick drill that was common to all four-stroke 350cc and 500cc singles of that period. Riding is fun and you sit very much where the single saddle seat wants you to. There is very little place to maneouvre once you are seated. If you are looking for a soft ride, forget it. The Triumph has a very basic suspension system. The front has the girder forks with auxiliary tension springs and adjustable trailing links while the rear is rigid. The only form of damping that is available is springs under the saddle seat. While the ride is okay on smooth roads, it’s a bone shaker on rougher roads. Since the rear is unsprung, an unsuspecting rider can easily be thrown out of the saddle seat if the bike hits a pothole. It had happened to me a couple of times but the bike held its line. The 3HW has a low centre of gravity and this allows the rider to lean sharply into curves.

 

Vikas had sourced a Smith’s chronometric speedo from somewhere and it is doing a sterling duty. The speedo was not a standard fitment at that time. From the seating position, the speedo and the headlight seem miles ahead and it is a freeky sight to see the girder forks working overtime as the front wheel keeps bobbing up and down vigorously. The bike was originally fitted with an Amal carburettor but since a new one is hard to come by Vikas just fitted in a Mikuni from a Bullet 350 and it is doing yeoman service. The bike has been done up in metallic paint and lots of chrome but they are not period jobs. This is a military bike and had no chrome on it and was originally painted in drab olive green but Vikas decided that he was entitled to a little modification.

The speed of the 3HW is no embarrasment and on last month’s vintage run up the hills of Shimla, it left all the other motorcycles behind including a 1960s Enfield’s Bullet and a 500cc Norton 16H among others.

The feel good factor works to the limit when you ride this bike. Smiles from fellow road users are never in short supply , nobody wants to go one up on you and very few motorist honk like crazy from behind. Some well meaning friends have told me that the airfilterless carb makes a hissing sound and there are other clanking sounds from the body and engine too. Well these may be irritating sounds to them but to me there is symphony in this cacophony. And I am sure I am not the only bike fan who feels this way.