Not Letting Old Rubber Burn Out
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
In this day and age there perhaps isn’t a single young person who doesn’t dream about owning his or her own vehicle one day. If that person is a boy, more than often this ‘metal dream’ starts off with a motorbike.
The evolution of motorbike is an interesting one. The two-wheeled vehicles were first mass-produced and popularised by European countries and then the orient took the reins and developed it even further. Japan in particular became renowned for making good-quality motorbikes and they are still regarded as one of the best bike-manufacturing countries. As of late, there is a paradigm shift seen where in South Asia, India has emerged as the leading bike manufacturer in the region.
Almost every bike, scooter, and the electric scooter we see on the road in Sri Lanka now, are made in India. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing since technologies needs to advance making facilities affordable to masses, at the same time it is imperative that we don’t forget our roots. Around 50 to 70 years ago, bikes were considered an ‘English’ luxury in Sri Lanka only a few could have afforded. As time went by it seemed as if these once-popular English bikes are losing their popularity and dying a natural death but there are a few like-minded people who have got together determined to not let that happen.
Ceylon Classic Motorcycle Club in Sri Lanka (CCMC)
About two years ago in December 2019 the CCMC was formed by a group of enthusiasts who carry an undying passion towards these old English bikes in a bid to not let them disappear from our society. You may not have heard of this club but if you were in Colombo or Kadawatha last Sunday (21) you may have seen a bunch of gentlemen riding 22 classic English bikes in a parade and if you had stopped to admire these bikes you would have seen the CCMC logo on some of the bikes and the T-shirts these gentlemen were wearing.
Ceylon Today was at the Independence Square on this occasion to witness the intriguing and rare spectacle of a large concentration of classic English bikes in one place. After all the participants had gathered at the starting point with their bikes the organisers waited a while letting the passersby enjoy the rare sights of these bikes before rallying to Kadawatha — the end point of their rally.
First rally since the pandemic
Talking to the organisers we got to know that the CCMC in their short period of existence has organised ride events similar to this every Sunday. Then the COVID-19 pandemic occurred and everything had to be put on hold until further notice. Talking to the organisers we got to know that some of the bikes have come as far away as from Anuradhapura. Interestingly enough the owner has ridden the bike the whole way instead of transporting the rare and valuable machine.
With necessary permissions taken from the Police, the rally was held adhering to proper healthcare guidelines. At Kadawatha, they gathered at the jogging park where the friendly get together of members and an emergency fire drill took place.
The future plans of the club were discussed at the get together and the bikes were again put on display for the people to admire.
The organisers told us that the main aim the club is trying to achieve through these type of rallies is not just the fun and experience but to keep the memory of these old beasts still alive in our contemporary society. “Lots of youngsters these days don’t know that these are the bikes our grandfathers used to ride and they are still in existence and in working condition. We want to conserve these classic bikes and keep them running so the future generations can also witness these old but marvellous machines,” the organisers said.
They also said that lots of these classic bikes have been sent out of the country, sometimes for lucrative offers and other times merely because the owners had no idea how much the rusty old heap of metal in the corner of their garage actually worth. The club is trying to limit these classic bikes leaving the country and strives towards getting the Government involved in the conservation process.
Unique in their own way
Unlike bikes and scooters these days, classic bikes are simpler in design and easy on the eye. They aren’t riddled with stickers and intricate shapes. The headlights are almost certainly round in classic bikes and the gasoline tank comes in a conventional egg shape. However, as far as the differences go, these surface-level differences are not all of it. Probe a bit deeper and you will see that sometimes the only thing these classic bikes have in common with the modern mikes are the looks.
We talked to a few members to know more about some interesting bikes and here are a few selected ones for your information:
This classic bike with a 350 cc engine capacity is owned by Executive Committee member of CCMC, Tharindu Fernando. Built in 1940, this particular British bike is a limited edition, with only 10,000 bikes having been made in the whole world. “Initially, this bike was made to be used in the battlefront. The soldiers used this in the World War II and this is the fastest bike Triumph has produced. Out of those limited edition 10,000 bikes only, the first 1000 bikes had metre gauges on the petrol tank itself and mine is the 161st bike with tank-mounted metre,” Tharindu said.
After the colonial rulers left, these bikes among other military vehicles were left behind, and that is how civilians were able to get their hands on these unique bikes, Tharindu said.
When Tharindu bought the bike a few years ago, it had been in quite the sorry state. After years of restoration Tharindu managed to get the bike back on road and it is quite the sight to behold. “Although the structure is rigid, single-piston engine, and spring suspension this bike is such a comfy ride on smooth tarmac, just like riding in a European car,” Tharindu further noted.
Tharindu has been an avid English bike admirer since he can remember. He has never ridden any other bike and has no intention of switching to another type of a bike either. “After the first 10,000 bikes were made the Triumph factory in which these bikes were manufactured, was bombed, making these are the only ones in existence. There are quite a few limited edition bikes like my one around the world but in Sri Lanka this is the only functioning
Some might think that BMW only makes cars but petrolheads know that the Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Engine Works Company) is popular for their bikes as well. The history of BMW bikes too runs as deep as their cars and one of the CCMC members own such a rare BMW bike. Malith Fonseka is the Assistant Secretary of the CCMC and he owns an iconic BMW R26. He has bought the bike about five years ago but was forced to buy another classic bike along with the R26 since it was a package deal. “I didn’t mind, I bought both because I loved this bike,” Malith said with a smile.
When compared to modern bikes the R26 has a world of differences. For starters, it doesn’t have a chain like normal bikes these days and instead, there is a differential at the rear wheel. “I am the third owner of this bike. The company only made 30,200 of R26 bikes and this is one of them. It still has the original paint job. Although it looks a bit rusty I don’t want to scrape the original paint just for the sake of a new lick of paint,” Malith said.
“English bikes are sturdy and good performers but at the same time they can be surprisingly comfortable. This bike is the same. On a good carpeted road it doesn’t feel like I’m driving a classic bike but a modern Japanese bike,” Malith revealed.
Apart from the iconic BMW R26 Malith is working on another project. “These days I’m restoring an Indian Chief 1920, 1,200 cc bike. It is not yet ready to be out on the road so I couldn’t include it in the rally,” Malith said.
BSA Golden Flash 650 cc
This unique bike has a sob story behind it. The bike was first owned by a white man who was living in Sri Lanka with his wife. It was manufactured in 1950 and was sold to a Sinhala gentleman for Rs 1,500 in 1952. Although it was a sizable amount back then, the sale was benefitting the buyer since the white man had thrown in a wireless radio to the deal as well. Perhaps this was because he was heart-broken over his wife’s untimely demise.
The current owner of the bike is a gentleman called Maxi who lives in Wellawatte. The bike was handed over to him by his father who had initially bought it off the white man. However, years of not maintaining it properly had taken quite the toll on it and restoring the bike to ride-able condition meant doing an engine overhaul.
Fun fact: BSA stands for British Small Arms, meaning the company that had made those bikes were in the business of making firearms for the war initially. When the war was at its peak, all parties could have used all the help they could get on their hands so the vehicles and bikes were also militarised and manufactured in weapons factories.
These military-grade bikes were brought to Sri Lanka to be of service to the British soldiers serving in the Royal Army bust since the independence, these vehicles and bikes were allowed to be bought by the civilians as the colonial rulers didn’t see any other use for them.
BSA WM 20
The owner of this bike is the Chairman of the club Rohana Lakshman who also had to do quite a bit of restoration work on this particular bike. “This was manufactured in 1939 and the only 125,000 of them were sent to British colonies to be used there. That’s how this particular bike found its way to me eventually,” Rohana said.
The BSA WM 20 too has a rigid structure with no shock absorbers and moreover, apart from the head and tail lights, it doesn’t have any other bulbs. This creates some problems when bringing the bike to the road but since it has already been registered it is not really a problem. “Old police officers know that this is how classic bikes are built but some new ones once in a way stop and inquire about lack of signal lights,” Rohana said.
This 110 cc firebird of a bike might not pack much power but back in the day it has been a race bike. When the current owner, the secretary of the CCMC Sugath Samarawardhana came across this bike five years ago it had been in a sorry state, in dire need of some repair work. “I had to do a complete restoration to make it road-worthy. Rims, spokes, parts of the engine; all had to be replaced. This is a two-stroke bike that was made in 1956 in Italy. As far as I know there are six other bikes like this in Sri Lanka but this is the only ride-able bike,” Sugath said.
A medical doctor by profession and a classic petrolhead by passion Dr. Kalinga Ginige owns a lot of classic cars and bikes, and is a member of not just CCMC but other similar classic car clubs as well. The classic bike he brought to the recent rally was the Velocette LE 200 cc classic bike which was manufactured and registered in 1953. Dr. Kalinga got his hands on the bike in 2021 and he took no time in restoring the bike to its original glory. His efforts meant that the bike was able to feel the tarmac again on the same year.
“The unique features of this bike include; horizontally opposing pistons, having no chain like other conventional bikes and instead a propeller shaft, three-speed hand gear system, and the body on frame build. This was originally used by the British Police a lot. When it was brought to Sri Lanka, the ones who went for this bike were pastors since the Velocette LE was quite popular back then for being so quiet and comfortable. This bike was also originally owned by a priest,” Dr. Kalinga said.
Triumph Tiger 110
Another Triumph bike we saw during the rally was Triumph Tiger 110 with an engine of 650-cc strong, owned by the Committee member Kasun Welikala. The bike was registered in 1956 and is one of the few bikes we saw in the rally with the iconic ‘Sri’ number plate. “Unlike many other military bikes Triumph and other British companies made during the time this one is a civilian bike. I bought this in 2015 from Pussellawa, Gampola. This is one of the latest, if not the last bike of this model that was registered by the civilians,” Kasun voiced.
Kasun has 10 other bikes, so it is safe to say that he is quite passionate about collecting old classic bikes. This must have come in handy when he had to import parts from abroad for the restoration process after spending quite a sum of money. “My dad is also a classic bikes enthusiast so I’m trying to carry on his collection and develop it in any way I can,” Kasun said.
Wishwajith Amarasinghe owns a BSA GB31 350 cc classic bike. What is unique about this bike and the way Wishwajith maintains it, is that it goes to show that with proper care, even a classic bike can be a day-to-day bike that could be driven on hours end instead.
Wishwajith lives beyond Anuradhapura — much closer to Mihintale to be precise — and for last week’s rally he has ridden his bike all the way from Anuradhapura. The story behind how Wishwajith came to own the bike is as interesting as how he maintains it.
Wishwajith was bitten by the classic-bikes bug at a very young age. Perhaps this was because his father too was an avid bike enthusiast. When he first heard about the BSA GB31 it was in 1998 and he was doing his A levels. “We went to see the bike and it was basically in parts. But I really liked the bike and wanted to buy it. One small problem, we didn’t have any money since we were school children and it was not as if we could have asked for money to buy a bike from our parents back then.
So all my friends and my brother got together, pitched in their pocket money and somehow managed to raise enough for me to buy the bike. After buying it, I couldn’t bring it home for obvious reasons so I kept it at a garage that was known to me. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to spend much on spare parts since most of the original parts were intact and needed a little mending rather than replacing. Other necessary parts I bought off Ebay. And by 2000, I managed to start the bike and ride it,” Wishwajith said.
He also has a BSA B25 Starfire but that is not fully restored.
Among the bikes that were paraded during the rally the oldest bike was owned by Damindu Fernando. The BSA 1920 packs an engine which has 500 cc capacity and was manufactured and registered in 1920. “My father bought this in 1992 from Kegalle and needless to say it was in a real sorry condition. Within the first year we managed to start the engine but the restoration took a little step back after that due to various reasons.
There was a rally in 2011 and we picked up the restoration process again to make it ready for the rally. I also managed to get my hands on the original side car that came for this model of the bike, although I didn’t come to the CCMC rally with that. Now the bike is in a very good condition. I have gone to Kandy on this bike, five times to Galle and to Colombo on countless times,” Damindu said.
The bike has carbide lamps instead of electric ones, no bulbs, oil needs to be manually pumped since there is no oil pump, four-speed gear box hand gear on the right side, the bike was made before oxygen welding was introduced so all the steel joints of the frame were connected by brass connectors, mudguards and all are riveted to the bike and petrol tank is welded using lead. As far as differences between the current bikes and what Damindu believes to be the oldest working bike in the country, the above-mentioned are only a few.
Damindu is a Committee member of CCMC and he owns about 100 classic bikes in his collection at the moment.
Another interesting BSA bike we came across was Kanchana Pradeep’s BSA B 31 350 cc bike which was manufactured in 1951. Kanchana has bought the bike only 10 months ago and that too had been more of a heap of metal rather than a complete bike. However he has managed to restore the bike completely within six months, thanks to some online orders that came through and understanding mechanics.
Passion needs a helping hand
The CCMC has about 62 active members and about 600 classic bikes registered in the club. The passion alone wouldn’t suffice for you to become a member of CCMC but rather owning an English bike which was made in between 1909 and 1970.
In terms of future plans, the club has some big things in the pipeline such as holding an exhibition at BMICH and upping their social welfare initiative to reach more in need but beside those ambitions, most importantly, the club is in need of recognition and Government intervention. A few years ago buying a part for a classic bike from abroad wasn’t that much of a task but now with the price increases and tax hikes it creates such a dent in one’s pocket. Conversion of ownership and registration is another area that is time consuming and truly discouraging.
The committee members are of the view that these difficulties can easily be solved if the Government intervenes and provides a simple solution. “This is not necessarily a cheap hobby. Restoration and maintenance costs money. The ones who are into this are willing to pay that money for the sake of their hobby but if the costs gradually go higher and higher there might come a time that even the most avid enthusiast might feel discouraged. We don’t want that to happen, we want to keep the legacy of these classic bikes alive and for that we can use every little help we can get, especially from the Government sector,” the committee said.
(Pix by Venura Chandramalitha)