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Wheels progress? Pull the other one

2011-03-17 10:32

TRIUMPH BONNEVILLE: Back in the 1960's this was the machine for which every biker lusted.

Readers who can think back for two score years and ten may be pleasantly reminded of vehicles enjoyed by the buying public in the year 1961. Two-wheeler enthusiasts would have most probably have lusted after a Triumph Bonneville similar to the one in the picture above.

A  wealthy family man may well have chosen something from the Jaguar stable... perhaps an Inspector Morse Jaguar Mk II, a model launched in 1959?

Let's clear the mental cobwebs a bit... 1961 was the year Britain applied to join the European Common Market, fossil bones were found right here in South Africa and pushed the origins of humans back millions of years and a  very young golfer by the name of Gary Player won the US Masters by a single stroke.

Less happy news on August 13 was that the infamous Berlin Wall, which was to divide Germany, had appeared overnight.


It was probably safe to assume the buying public back then could have imagined jet-propelled cars and commuters buzzing overhead (remember the Jetson family?) strapped to their own personal anti-gravs on their way to work by the year 2011?

Things HAVE changed but somehow they remain the same. Cars and motorcycles still work more or less as they did 50 years ago. That Jag Mk.II and today’s Ford Focus still have four wheels, a steering wheel and an internal combustion engine. Sure, the 1.6-litre Focus can reach 190km/h while the far more powerful Jaguar could barely reach 180km/h but, assuming each driver obeyed the speed limits, both take about the same time to get from A to B.

JAGUAR MK.II of 1959: Today's Focus 1.6i is faster and lighter - but does it have the class?

Yes, I know car technology is vastly improved - today's products are more comfortable, refined and easier to drive and have every convenience from aircon to "media interfaces" yet are really little more than an extension of your home. Carrying all that safety equipment (airbags, reinforced crumple zones, fancy braking systems), they have also become incredibly heavy. (The Focus actually weighs more than did the Jaguar...)

Motorcycles have, if anything, changed even less than cars. True, the owner of a 1961 Triumph Bonneville would have expected 180km/h from his machine but would be have been stunned had he known in some mystic manner that by the time he started to draw an old-age pension bikes such as the Suzuki GSX 1000 would be doing 300km/h.

And yet, power increases aside, motorcycles have remained more true to their roots than cars and most have acquired little of their luxury and safety equipment. Riding a bike today still means getting soaking wet occasionally but riders are far more “aware” of what’s going on around them because they know a mistake on the road will be far more costly.

One thing the driver and motorcyclist of 1961 would be shocked and dismayed about in 2011 would be the demise of the British car and motorcycle industry. Names such as Daimler, Jowett, Lea Francis, Lagonda, James, Ariel, Excelsior and Francis Barnett have long been forgotten - such a pity.


The motorcycle brands rested too long on their engineering laurels and failed to meet the tsunami of great Japanese imports that swept across Europe and eventually the world. Who can forget the value-for-money and trouble-free single, double and four-cylinder Hondas such as the C50 Cubs, Dreams and 750 K-Series  the 1960’s and 70’s?

Mismanagement, coupled with endless labour disputes, similarly contributed to the implosion of British car production. The last mass-production automaker, Rover, was finally cast aside by BMW just a few years ago.

Whatever, if there’s one positive out of all this, it’s worth remembering that in 1961 a Jaguar would have set you back £900 (then about R1800). With wages then averaging around £10 (R20) a week for many working-class people, it would have taken a lifetime to pay off.

For today’s average wage earner, the Ford Focus is a lot easier to afford!

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