Offbeat: Classic bike collectors and restorers in Thiruvananthapuram are in top gear despite the expenses and the difficulties in maintaining the vehicles in mint condition.
These days you’ll be lucky if you can spot a Norton or a Jawa or a Triumph, or any other classic/vintage motorcycle for that matter, cruising along the city roads, solid, and powerful in distinct contrast to the aerodynamic fluidity of new-age assembly line models, their engines thundering rather than “merely roaring”. “It’s an unfortunate situation really, when you consider that the city was once famous for its sheer number of classic motorcycles and expert restorers,” say Surjith U. and Anil Titus, well-known city-based collectors and restorers of classic and vintage motorcycles, especially British-made ones. They are two of the few remaining such experts in the city.
According to the duo, until the late 80s, the city was a thriving centre for classic motorcycles, largely because there was a fair number of British-trained mechanics who were experts in restoring these bikes that had been shipped to India by British officials and missionaries during their tenure in the country.
“Classic British bikes are heavy built and actually need very less maintenance when compared to other makes such as the Japanese bikes, which were built more for utility. As they age, however, classic bikes need constant and careful maintenance that cannot be done by just any mechanic. In the golden days, Bakery Junction used to have quite a number of reputed motorcycle workshops run by these expert mechanics, to whom classic motorcycles would be sent for repair and maintenance from across the State and even as far as Madras [Chennai] and Pune,” says Surjith. Anil, a former Navy man who now works as a manager in a hotel, runs a restoration workshop near Valiyavila (with his brother Baiju), that specialises in restoring classic British bikes adds: “Of the lot, the more famous mesthiris (local parlance for mechanics) were one Vanchikutty and one Lionel.”
Surjith, Anil and most of the collectors/restorers today are of the opinion that the numbers of classics, especially the British bikes, declined, in part, because of the lack of expert repairmen. “By the 70s most of the British motorcycle companies – it is said there were around 140 – either shut shop or were merged and then getting spare parts became a problem,” says Surjith.
“As it is even back then, Kerala always had fewer classic British bikes when compared to other parts of the country – simply because there weren’t too many foreigners here. Add to that a lack of expert mechanics and the unavailability and difficulty of sourcing spare parts, it’s not difficult to see why the numbers have come down,” adds Mangat Swaminathan, a retired chief manager of a bank and a keen collector and restorer of classic British bikes, who lives at Palkulangara.
Nonetheless, the remaining collectors/restorers seem to be a dedicated lot, often spending hundreds of hours – and sometimes years – tinkering on the bikes, not to mention thousands of rupees, to bring the bikes back to mint condition.
“It’s like raising a baby,” says Surjith, with a laugh, only half kidding by the looks of it. “It took me about a couple of years to restore the Dominator racer and it cost me about Rs. 1.2 lakh,” he explains. “The first thing a restorer requires is patience. There is no time bar on when a work can be completed. It’s a very expensive hobby too. You’ve got to be willing to loosen the purse strings quite a bit because most of the spare parts have no fixed rate. What the seller deems to be the price is the price!” says Dileep George, a civil engineer and motorcycle enthusiast who specialises in restoring and collecting classic Japanese bikes. The oldest bike in his collection is a 1914 model Rudge Multi Belt-driven that belonged to his father, the late George Verghese. “My interest in bikes was kindled by watching my father take care of his bikes. Thus far I think I have restored 30 or so bikes, the latest a Jawa,” says Dileep. “I wheel my bikes out once in a while. The Rudge, though, very rarely because it’s very fragile,” says Dileep.
Most of these enthusiasts admit that they are rather wary of taking the bikes out for a spin, and in case they do, they rarely let the bikes out of sight. “It’s like taking care of a white elephant! Let it out into the sun and it will get tanned. Also, security is a major concern. I’ve myself experienced and heard of several instances where people nick stuff – small parts such as footpads and fuel caps, all original pieces which are very hard to replace,” says Anil.
Why then go to all the hassle? With smiling faces they all reply: “Why, for the thrill of the ride!” But, of course.
Surjith is the proud owner of seven classics, including a majestic 1954 model BSA Golden Flash that belonged to his father, Udayakumar, and two mint-condition Nortons, one of which is a rare 1959-model Norton Dominator racing bike.
Anil Titus has a collection of eight bikes that includes, among others, a 1934 Norton, a Norton Dominator and a 1962 Royal Enfield 700cc, Twin engine
Mangat Swaminathan, who began collecting bikes with his brother Radhakrishnan in the 70s, has eight classics in his collection including a Matchless and a BSA.
Dileep George has in his collection a 1982 model Rajdoot GTS (nicknamed ‘Bobby’ for the Rishi Kapoor-Dimple Kapadia Bollywood blockbuster) and a 1978 Honda Monkey.
licence to thrill (Clockwise from top) A BSA restored by Swaminathan, Surjith on his Norton Dominator, Dileep George with his Honda Monkey and the Norton Dominator restored by Surjith