The Triumph Motorcycle Story
A true story
Written 2010 and rewritten 04/2016 unedited
In 1956, I was 16 years old and had just received my Connecticut driver’s license.
I had a phone call from my good friend Richard Andrade, who lived on Springside Avenue in New Haven. Richard and I were good friends, as we both hid in the back of the same home room number 12 when we attended Sheridan junior high school. When no one was looking, Richard and I would sneak into the library behind us, and get the National Geographic magazines that had pictures of all the naked Africans.
Richard said that I should come over to his house right away to see a motorcycle he was thinking of buying. Richard’s home was on Springside Avenue and was built right next door to a lawn bowling court that the Italians called “Boche Ball”. The Boche Ball court was owned by a private club and they had a big fenced in area where they had alleys to actually play the game. Outside the fenced in area, was a large gravel parking lot, at the end of which was a wooden shed about 10 foot square that we assumed contained all their maintenance equipment and Boche Balls. The parking lot which started from right next to Richard’s house was about 400 feet long by 75 feet wide, and when the Boche ball people were not there during the week, Richard treated the parking lot as if it was part of his back yard.
When I arrived at Richard’s house, I saw Richard and his two brothers standing by a motorcycle. Knowing nothing about motorcycles myself, I was very curious, so I walked over to see what they were looking at. Well, I immediately recognized that there were right and left hand levers on the bike as they were very similar to the brake levers on what we called an English bicycle, and I had ridden them before.
I watched as Richard got on the seat of the motorcycle, just like he knew what he was doing, and he hit the foot starter which was on the right side of the bike, and the engine roared to life, which was all very exciting but I could see that Richard really didn't know what to do next, so he turned the key and shut the motorcycle off.
“The guy wants $500.00 for the motorcycle,” Richard said. So are you going to buy it, I asked him.
“Yes, I want to, but I don't have $500.00 right now.” Richard replied. “Why don't you buy it?” Richard said to me. I don't know how to ride a motorcycle, I replied. “It's easy,” Richard said. “Triumph is an English company so it’s just like riding an English bicycle.” he said, “This rubber thing on the handle is the gas, this lever is the brake, and this one is the clutch, and it’s as simple as that, and this foot kick thing down here is the starter, and this one is the transmission which you operate with your right foot, other than that, it is like riding a bicycle.” It was all a bit confusing, I wasn’t so sure which was the brake lever and which was the clutch lever, but I didn’t want to appear stupid. Richard got off the bike and I got on. He was right, it appeared to be very easy. My left foot held the bike balanced, and my right foot hit the starter lever just like Richard had done. As the engine started up, I released the clutch and the bike lurched forward, and everyone jumped out of the way. In my panic to stop the motorcycle, I accidentally turned the handle with the fuel and the bike went forward even faster. I was petrified, I knew I had to watch my balance, and I was now going pretty damn fast right down the middle of the Boche Ball parking lot. I knew I had to remember which lever was for the brake and which one was the clutch. That’s when I looked up to see the wood shed at the end of the Boche ball parking lot, it was getting closer. It was then that I remembered which lever was the brake and I squeezed it, but it was the wrong one, it was the clutch.
It was all over in a matter of seconds, the motorcycle at about 30 miles per hour proceeded through the wooden wall of the shed, with me on it. Fortunately the wall of the shed was built correctly, and the handlebars of the motorcycle hit the 2 by 4 wooden studs, and this stopped the motorcycle pretty fast, but it didn’t stop me.
Had the two 2 x 4 wood studs not stopped the motorcycle, I would have crashed completely through the shed. I sat there dazed still sitting on the motorcycle. It seemed like an eternity, and it took a few minutes for the adrenalin in my body to recede back to normal, and for me to realize that I was still alive and I didn’t see any blood, Richard and his brothers ran up and stared at me as I tried to extract myself, from the motorcycle and from the wall of the shed. There were pieces of broken wood everywhere. I could see that the head light on the bike was broken and the headlight housing was all bent up. There was also a bent and twisted front fender, several dents in the gas tank and a bent front wheel. The motorcycle was a mess. I was scared, I knew I must be hurt somewhere, but I was OK.
“It looks like you just bought yourself a motorcycle.” Richard said, and that’s how a 16 year old boy that never rode a motorcycle before became the proud owner of an early 1950’s Triumph 650cc Bonneville motorcycle, even though it was all bent up like a pretzel. That evening, I brought the bike home in the trunk of my father’s 1952 Pontiac, The next day, as I stood the motorcycle up in front of my back yard garage, I studied the damage. It was pretty bad, but I knew that I could fix it up. I knew I was able to repair the bent headlight housing, and as far as the gas tank and the fender I had always wanted to learn how to do auto body work, so all the dents gave me a chance to try my skill.
Richard said he heard about a shop in West Haven that specialized in Triumph Motorcycle parts, so we took a ride out there. When we got there, I could see the motorcycle shops owner wasn’t very excited about meeting us. He could tell we didn’t have any money. Especially when I asked for the price of a used front wheel and tire. He was a short wiry Italian guy about 50 years old and he wanted to sell me everything I needed brand new, but eventually he saw that fixing my Triumph up would probably take all the money I had, so when he finally realizing he couldn’t get rid of us, he eventually slowed down, and helped me find the used parts I needed. After several weeks, with his help finding used parts, I was able to put the motorcycle back together. When I was ready for paint, I knew about a guy who was doing body work in the barn behind his house in the town of Bethany. It was just up the road from me so I took the parts that needed painting up to him and he said he would paint everything in multiple coats of black lacquer for only $10.00.
Once the parts were painted, I reassembled the bike and seeing as I was practicing pin striping, I set about pin striping the entire bike in red and white designs, and the bike came out beautiful. Father had brought home two pieces of stainless steel 2-1/2 inch diameter tubing, so I took off the dented original
Triumph mufflers and I welded the stainless tubing on in place of them. This made the bike more than twice as loud as it was before. As soon as I heard it, I was sure that everyone within several miles of my house knew I had a motorcycle, I was real sure of it when several of them started complaining to my parents. So that’s when I started walking the bike down the hill from my house to Whalley Avenue, before starting the bike up.
The Triumph bike looked and sounded really powerful, so everywhere I went, guys wanted to race me. They thought that because that bike looked and sounded so hot, that it was fast, but unfortunately the bike wasn’t that fast, and I don’t think I ever won a race, it was really kind of embarrassing. So one day I asked the owner of the motorcycle shop about how I could make the bike faster. He showed me a bike he was working on and said he was building it for a customer to race. He told me I could bore the engine from 650 CC to 900 CC, and he said that I could install racing camshafts. He gave me a book that showed step by step how to soup the 650 CC Triumph engine up. Winter was coming, and I was earning money, so I decided to take the motorcycle apart and bring it down into our cellar where it was warm, and my dad had a nice workshop bench set up. So over the winter I did everything the Triumph dealer and the book told me to, and I souped up the engine on that 1950 Triumph motorcycle. It was a real accomplishment, considering that all the nuts and bolts were metric sizes, and I didn’t have even one metric wrench. Come spring time I enlisted my father’s help and we tried to walk the motorcycle up the cellar stairs. Well it wouldn’t fit, I had assembled the motorcycle never thinking we couldn’t get it up the cellar stairs, so eventually I disassembled it again, brought the pieces upstairs and reassembled it. I had always heard the joke about the fellow that had built a complete boat in his cellar with no way of getting it out, well I could see how it happened and it wasn’t a joke anymore.
So here it was 1957 and I had spent every penny I had earned, but I felt it was all worth it as I now had a 900CC Triumph racing engine.
That week I took the bike to the parking lot at Jimmy’s hot dog restaurant in West Haven. That was where everyone that had a fast car or motorcycle hung out. That evening, there appeared to be a couple of fellows that had brand new Harley Davidson motorcycles. The bikes were about the size of my Triumph, not the big heavy Harley motorcycles I was used to always seeing. They said it was a new model motorcycle called a Harley Sportster. Well that evening I raced one of Harley Davidson’s new sportsters and I think it was twice as fast as my Triumph, so that evening, I knew that my Triumph motorcycle racing days were over before I had even started.
So to avoid the embarrassment of losing any more races I started riding the rural back roads of Woodbridge and Bethany, Connecticut. Those were the days when you hardly ever saw another car or motorcycle on those perfectly paved country roads. Because the Triumph motorcycle had a knob in front that allowed you to tighten the steering up, it made it easy to ride the motorcycle with no hands on the handlebars, and not only that, but I found that the motorcycle could be guided by simply leaning to one side or another. I had never thought that I would be riding a motorcycle for miles with no hands on the handle bars, but here I was doing it, and when that started to get boring I started standing up on the motorcycle seat. I did it just as I had seen it done in the circus and on television. I never gave it a thought as to what would happen if I hit a bump and fell off.
One evening, I decided to take a ride to Jimmies Restaurant in West Haven, and I did. At about 11 in the evening on the way home from Jimmies, it began pouring rain very hard. I was riding behind a two tone brown 1954 Chevrolet loaded with a bunch of girls, in the back seat. I saw two of the girls were looking at me riding in the rain behind them. We were still in West Haven, heading towards New Haven and we were going about 40 miles per hour when, suddenly the 1954 Chevrolet slammed on the brakes for no apparent reason. I was perhaps 75 feet behind them, and when I applied the brakes on the motorcycle, it didn’t stop. The road was too slick because of the rain. I was wearing motorcycle boots, and as the motorcycle skidded out from under me, it fell to the left, I pushed the ground with my left boot and righted the bike, but it was already out of control and the bike fell to the right. so I hit the ground with my right boot. But the motorcycle was now spinning around wildly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a big plate glass window of an auto agency. And there was an alley about four foot wide next to it. I knew I was going through the plate glass window. They say that when you are about to die, your whole life flashes before you, and at that very moment I saw myself in a clean hospital bed all taped up with casts on my arms and legs. The motorcycle was now spinning out of control and it was still pouring rain, and the last thing I remember was seeing my reflection in the plate glass window.
Don’t ask me what happened next, because I don’t know. But I was in the alley, the bike was laying down underneath me and I was still holding the handlebars, both the left and right handle bar had been ground down about an inch. The motorcycle was still running, and it had completely stopped raining. So here I was straddling the bike, and besides from shaking like a leaf, I appeared to be alright, no blood, no broken bones, so I lifted the bike up and I could see how narrow the alley was, I couldn’t imagine how the spinning motorcycle fit in there.
I drove back onto the street and headed towards New Haven. As I got to the intersection of Derby Avenue and Forest Road, the 1954 brown two tone Chevrolet was sitting there waiting for a red light. When they saw me coming, I saw them locking their car doors. They must have thought I was going to kill them. They knew that I knew they had slammed on the brakes just for the fun of it. They didn’t know it I wouldn’t have the strength to kill them even if I wanted to.
This near catastrophic accident got me to thinking about just how dangerous motorcycles could be. I was lucky I survived the crash into the Boche ball shed, and I wasn’t hurt. Then I had survived this spinning crash into the alley without a scratch.
Well, it was several months later, when I was doing general maintenance on the motorcycle in my back yard. I had lubricated all the areas that needed grease and I had loosened the big knob that tightened the steering. I had loosened it with all the intensions of re-tightening the knob after lubricating the steering shaft, but I forgot to tighten it, don’t ask why. I then took the motorcycle for a test ride around the block. I drove down the street in front of my house and took a left turn. I intended to make another left turn at the next corner. I could see a milkman’s Divco truck coming towards me. In those days the Divco trucks were popular as the folding doors remained open and the driver stood up while driving, this allowed the driver to stop, jump out and make a delivery. Since there was plenty of time for me to make my left hand turn before the Divco milk truck would be at the intersection, so I sped up to about 40 miles per hour, and sharply turned my handlebars to the left. Because I hadn’t tightened the steering knob, the handlebars turned in to the left and the front tire did the same, and the Motorcycle completely flipped over. I don’t exactly know what happened. I was laying on the ground, completely entangled with the motorcycle, but I didn’t feel any pain. The Divco milk truck pulled up next to me. The milkman looked down at me and said, “Are you alright”. I said, I don’t know, as I tried extracting myself. The Milkman said, “I never saw anything like that, you completely did a flip in the air, are you sure you are alright.
I wasn’t hurt, burned or anything, so I stood the bike up, and walked it the rest of the way home. I put it in front of the house with a sign $600.00, and I never rode a motorcycle again.