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Thursday, July 10, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

Set to scoot off to the Isle of Man

Maybe it's regression. Or “deja vu all over again.” Or simply a case of arrested development. But I just can't seem to pass up a good supermarket magazine stand these days without snatching a look at the motorcycle magazines deployed there.

There's no time, of course, for a full read while a prescription's being filled, or the trolley loaded up with veggies and fat-free this 'n' thats. But a brief rifle is all it takes to get the old juices flowing, and the memories flooding back.

For when I think about it, my personal world of travel really began with motorcycles. In the 1940s and '50s on the other side of the Atlantic, when British motorcycles ruled my world.

But have you noticed how popular and fashionable motorcycling has recently become in this country? Quite remarkably so, given the fact that the U.S. had for so long been a motorcycle wilderness with nothing but the Hell's Angels, a few dirt bikes, and the odd eccentric to prop it up.

Witness, however, the extraordinary Harley Davidson saga. From virtual bankruptcy to boomtime ... to saddles for the stars and suits. And this year celebrating its centenary in grand style with massive demonstrations of support. And pow-wows. And cross-country rides. Talk about hog heaven!

Look, too, at what the resurgent Indian motorcycles are up to in this area, with more than 14,000 fans showing up at the opening of a new Rossford store. (Did you know that Indians also have a very proud and lengthy racing heritage? And that Indians went 1-2-3 in the prestigious TT races on the Isle of Man back in 1911, defeating a boatload of Brits and Continentals in the process?)

And now, along comes another rebirth - that of the motor scooter. You can barely pick up a magazine these days without seeing a fashion spread or travel piece that features that perky, in-vogue Vespa (Italian for wasp, by the way), with shades of the classic, feel-good movie Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck tool around the Eternal City. O delizioso.

But scooters are making a comeback for some very practical reasons as well. They are high mileage and low maintenance. Versatile and inexpensive. They also take up very little space, and that translates into easy parking and easy stabling. With mechanical parts fully enclosed beneath colorful fairing, they can also be ridden in all kinds of weather. Combine this with a carefree, fun-in-the-sun image, and it's hardly surprising that scooters - in all their variations - are increasingly popular both as an urban runabout and as touring machine for the X-ers and Millennials.

I was a scooter man myself back in the late 1950s when they were neither very chic nor very spiffy, but rather an economic necessity used for daily commuting, the occasional jaunt in the country, and as a utilitarian alternative to the often unreliable and always overcrowded London bus and tube system.

It was a 125-cc Lambretta (long since defunct) that also took me on my first solo overseas adventure when, in 1960, I rode it from London to Stuttgart in southern Germany to start a new job - 600 miles in three days. In the dead of winter. With nothing but an old duffle coat, scarf, helmet, and goggles for protection against the elements - and the slippery Belgian cobbles and rain-swept autobahns.

But that same little scooter also opened up large parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland to all kinds of travel adventures over the next few years. Dependably and frugally, albeit very slowly, because even with the benefit of a strong following wind, you were lucky to hit 55 mph.

Even before that, however, motorcycles were an important, integral part of family life as Dad, who was a motoring journalist, used to take us with him whenever he went off to cover sporting events for his magazine. Both home and abroad. To a motocross in Belgium. A hill climb in Germany. Or a road race on the Isle of Man.

Unfortunately, the British motorcycle industry collapsed in the late '60s with the arrival of superior Japanese imports, and within a year or two, more than 30 manufacturers closed their doors. Dad's magazine died with them.

But that love affair with motorcycles persists to this day, and it doesn't take very much to revive it.

Well, next month the passion will get fully revved up, because we're heading back to the Isle of Man, where they've been racing on public roads since 1907.

This will be a less stressful visit, however. No early morning practices to attend. No big, noisy crowds. No screaming machines. Just a beautiful, peaceful island. Unpretentious, stuck in the '50s, with an amazing history of Vikings and seafarers and such. Where you can travel the countryside on all manner of electric and steam trains. And where horse-drawn trams still cover the sea front.

But there is little doubt that the moment I step off the ferry in Douglas, the island capital, motorcycle stuff will once again be on my mind!



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