At 8 a.m., on the Wednesday before Wheels and Waves, we rolled sleepily off the ferry at Caen on the northern coast of France and made for the Caen Périphérique – a dual-lane ring road filled with trucks and morning traffic – and took the first rural-looking exit in search of a place to consume a traditional french breakfast of coffee, pastry and cigarettes. This we found in no time. It was 9 a.m. and the sun was shining. A quick look at a smartphone map and we were off.
Almost. The Honda wouldn’t turn over. No power. Out came the toolkit.
The bigger the problem, the simpler the fix, so I went straight to the most obvious thing – the battery – and there found the earth cable barely connected. Easy enough. I tightened it and tried the bike on its kickstarter to get some power back into the battery – it fired, so I ran it for a couple of minutes then switched it off and tried it again on the electric start. It fired. 9.10 a.m.
Meandering south along tiny country lanes for a few miles set us en route to Flers to the south, via the D562. This is a beautiful, tree-lined, river-following stretch of road down which we sped in giddy spirits and made it to our next stop in no time, which was just as well: even through a helmet and earplugs, I could hear the unsilenced 400/4 running badly as we rode into town. It gasped its last as we entered a café-encircled square in the centre of Flers and freewheeled untriumphantly onto a shaded terrace, waiting forlornly as we ordered our second breakfast at 10.45 a.m.
Getting the toolkit out again was a lazy, pleasurable experience in these circumstances. It sounded like ignition trouble – “weak or erratic firing”, a workshop manual would say. You develop an ear for the difference between carburation and ignition faults over time and it’s especially noticeable with a loud exhaust ridden between tall buildings. The headlight and idiot lights were dim, too, so again I went straight to the obvious stuff: the battery earth on the engine, frame earths, the fuses and the 38-year old connectors around the charging system. Having a kickstarter will save a dead battery if you can fix the fault, as the bike is essentially its own charger, but the above checks resolved nothing and the dwindling current could barely raise a few sparks. Honda’s trademark three yellow wires from the stator to the rectifier – though showing the three-way continuity that should be present – were tinged the colour of well-cooked sausages, too. Worrying. The W stood quietly by, plinking as it cooled down, while I ‘hmm-ed’ and smoked and gazed at the loom, and Lincoln frowned. He generally works on his own bikes but has a blind spot concerning electrics, whereas I find them fascinating – especially on older japanese bikes with their elegant, ingenious wiring systems that need no microprocessors. Pondering the old-school separate regulator-rectifier setup, I went asking around and was directed to a large hardware place just a quarter-mile away, where I picked up a multimeter and five metres of spare wire.
I got back to the square and ordered more coffee, rolled another cigarette and got stuck in. The battery read 11.3 volts even when the bike would fire (usually after a few minutes rest) with occasional flickers on the meter’s screen to indicate momentary flashes of current, so it looked like the charging system was failing. Lincoln reported that switching on the headlight – which is mandatory in France – seemed to cut the ignition, suggesting that the switch was faulty and shorting the battery’s current to earth. This was possible, but with no consistent charge coming in and given that a weak battery will still provide a spark but not five amps for a headlight as well, I suspected that it was the extra current drawn by the headlight that was killing the ignition. I checked the switch for a short but found none, so I turned my attention to the antiquated regulator: it had been a while since I’d worked on one of these, but I remembered at least that its three wires are an earth, a positive and a connection to the alternator. All three had the appropriate continuity, but the physical state of its internals were pretty dire: corrosion had set in and here again were signs of overheating. Replacement must eventually prevail over repair, but a small town in an agricultural region seemed unlikely to provide something that could even be adapted for use here, let alone genuine rare motorcycle components.
Still, it’s impossible to fret on a beautiful day, I have always thought. In this novel and charming setting, especially, what might otherwise seem a problem became instead no more than an interesting diversion. The trees lining the square moved gently under a warm breeze, casting fluctuating patterns of sunlight around us adding to the dreamlike quality of the scene. The high buildings reached optimistically towards a scattered flock of rounded white clouds, ambling across a blue sky. Lincoln – a stonemason – studied the architecture and pointed out that these were actually perfect reproductions of 19th century french townhouses, not the originals: this region of France was the bombed-out, blood-soaked setting for some of the most horrendous conflicts of both World Wars. In September 1916, Flers was on the receiving end of the first ever deployment of tanks in warfare, when the town was subjected to massive artillery attacks during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Twenty-eight years later, in June 1944, 80% of this unfortunate place was destroyed again during the bombing of Normandy, before being liberated in August that year. Now, seventy years later, the town has not only dusted itself off and dressed itself well, it’s resumed its charms with élan. We ate and contrived a plan. A competent bike mechanic could take a single regulator-rectifier unit from a more modern bike and splice it into the Honda’s loom quite easily. It might take an hour or so to figure it out and make durable, soldered connections but that would be a negligible delay and, besides, it would actually constitute an upgrade. Out came the smartphone again. Naturally, for so pleasant a breakdown, we found a bike shop nearby. I gave the Honda a current transfusion from the W and off we went.
Turning off a busy street into a narrow alley, and following the walls of an immense, flat-sided white church brought us to the shop. It had that dealership look – matching livery, signage and window displays – that usually indicates a commercial approach to motorbikes and a preference for straightforward, quantifiable transactions. Inside, the guy frowned – not at the complexity of the task (I could do it myself if I had any unit that’d fit and some connectors), but at the inconvenience of having his abilities taxed by an irregular request. He wouldn’t even consider working on an older bike that his training had not explicitly covered. Asking for an hour’s use of his workshop and access to his parts stash might have tipped him into an unrecoverable meltdown at the prospect of unauthorised personnel in the service area, so instead we accepted his directions to another place a few streets away. This turned out to be an anonymous old industrial unit, which was stuffed like a goose with beautiful old bikes and was, of course…
The workshop of André Linais. Now here was a find. Parked at the door was a Suzuki S40, originally a hideous 650cc single cylinder factory custom, here – mercifully – carved into a minimal café racer. A promising start, given that specials builders pride themselves on their ability to cross-fit any component to wherever it may be needed. We walked in past a line of BMW boxer twins, a gang of BSAs, and assorted older Japanese bikes.
This was the type of old-fashioned bike shop where you’d expect to find a horde of reusable components salvaged from expired donors, which was confirmed on looking into the workshop area in the back of the unit: amid oddly-matched shelves piled with boxes of spares, the proprietor proved to be into his café racers – he had a stroboscope aimed into the flywheel of a beautiful, bright orange BMW special up on the bench.
Monsieur Linais – known also as ‘Dédé’ – paused in his work, walked over to us and listened calmly to my report of the breakdown and subsequent investigations. He said little, but had a tranquil, intelligent manner – just the type of technician I would want to entrust a bike to – and he was friendly enough, offering us coffee as he sent his younger assistant to check out the 400/4 and giving me permission to photograph his place. I followed the assistant out to the bike, telling him (in French) about the state I’d found the electrics in, but receiving no response. He pulled off the right sidepanel, kicked the bike into life and put a multimeter across the terminals: 14.1 volts. High-ish, perhaps, but certainly healthy. I silently cursed intermittent faults for behaving one way when inspected by me and another when taken to an official mechanic, and for making me look foolish. “Tell him about the headlight”, Lincoln prompted me. “Quand on allume le phare, ça fait couper le moteur” – I translated – “Il me paraît qu’il tire trop de courant, que le système de chargement ne supporte pas”. “Non”, he replied decisively, “c’est le bouton”, whereupon he switched on the headlight, immediately killing the engine and potentially proving either of us correct.
It’s not the switch – I’ve checked it, I thought, and besides, the charging system looks pretty well cooked.
The assistant then checked for a short in the switch, and found none. He now concluded that it was after all the battery, which was brand new. This seemed a dubious diagnosis in itself, and was far from the proper fix I was hoping we’d find, but Lincoln raised no objections and our friend jumped on the enviable chopped S40 and ripped noisily up the street in search of a new battery. We smoked and hung around; time passed. The fatigue ensuing from three hours of vibrating sleep on the ferry floor began to overtake me, so I made sure I’d photographed the place well and, clearing a pile of junk from a dusty leather sofa in a corner, laid down on it and went to sleep. The last impressions I absorbed when drifting off were the height of the corrugated roof above me, the old timber framework supporting it, and the arrival of a couple of people on bikes who came in and chatted to Andre.
Lincoln woke me up. The new battery was fitted, with a hefty charge both electrically and financially, and we were good to go. My nap had refreshed me, but it was now around 4 p.m. and we were only a short way into France, meaning another 200 miles or so had to be covered before we could sleep. I had no choice but to accept, or perhaps hope, that the new battery would save the afflicted Honda and that all would therefore be well, though the miles would prove to be long and the sleep an exhausted collapse, in a breathtaking location many hours later. But any doubtful fatalism on departure was seduced by the charm of travel, as it’s always exciting to move on from a stop when travelling by bike (and you may as well be in a good mood if things are going to go wrong). The familiar whiff of adrenalin shimmering through your perception as you fire up the engine and accelerate off to another place you’ve never seen, up another hill you didn’t even know existed and will probably never see again – these things intoxicate me every time and validate the holistic good sense of making trips like this one. The immediacy of life becomes simple and clear and there is only this: the bike, the direction and the mood.