39th Motorcycle Assembly
A lazy afternoon in late August. The Irish Rally. Southwest Ireland. We could hear the music long before our engines were killed, we had dismounted, or our helmets were removed. About 170 of us, starting in pairs at 30-second intervals, had been in the saddle since before 10 am; sure, we had enjoyed a convivial lunch. But by now, after riding the moors for over an hour, we needed a break.
As we descended to a time-check in the little town of Inchigeelagh, there, beside a leafy tavern on the sidewalk, was fellow contestant Dave McMahon, playing a Gaelic ballad on the accordion he perennially (and so carefully) carries on the back of his 1938 Rudge. Accompanied by Ariel-riding Len Ore on harmonica, the melodious exertions were enhanced by the rich baritone of the establishment’s landlord—a giant of a man who relishes his annual invasion by musical motorcyclists. The tavern’s interior is packed with contented riders, quenching thirsts, fulfilled by the challenge of County Kerry’s back roads, which, seemingly, consist exclusively of gradients, bends, and dramatic views. You can imagine, in context, how evocative that lilt sounds. That is but one memory from this exceptional four-day event, which discerning Europeans of a certain age regard as one of the world’s greatest two-wheel gatherings.
Top: A BSA and its rider take a break. Bottom: A Brough borders a bevy of bikes at the Orange Pub. (Click images to enlarge)
Long-running motorcycle events invariably contain an attractive mix of ingredients; but participants in the Munster Club’s Irish National Vintage Motorcycle Assembly are guaranteed a cornucopia. Hang on—but what’s an Assembly? We’re in Ireland, so we must rely on an affable Club official to translate the terminology. In typical Irish fashion, the euphemism is explained, “Well, we wouldn’t want the insurance folk asking too many questions, now would we?”
It was Bud Ekins’ fault I became an aficianado. I would catch the larger-than-life Californian in August, freshly returned from The Irish, while he resided a few days with Eric Cheney, producer of handcrafted moto-cross frames and Bud’s erstwhile travelling companion on numerous European MX tours back in the ’60s. Glass in hand, he enjoyed trading anecdotes in Eric’s garden; is it any surprise Ekins’ stories about the auld country inspired as much as they amused? Having competed in so many aspects of motorcycling, Ekins is inundated with invitations, but he is selective, and most are declined. The Irish, however, is one event on his personal calendar that is unfailingly attended—nevermind the long haul from North Hollywood. It also begs the question why, in comfortable maturity, one of the world’s most successful senior racers is motivated to travel 13,000 miles to ride yet another motorcycle over 600 miles of rugged horizon. Is this event, perhaps, something special? After just two rides, I can confirm that it is.
The concept evolved 40 years ago. Jim Morrissey was unhappy with a culture that saw the majority of bike runs tagged on the back of auto club events, too often as an afterthought. His frustration triggered a 1966 trip to the Isle of Man TT, seeking support for a stand-alone Cork-based event, for enthusiasts with pre-1961 machines, on a sympathetic time schedule. The idea gelled. Around 40 riders, drawn from UK and Eire, ensured the success of that inaugural Assembly.
My, did it grow! From that first single day, it soon progressed to two, and eventually to four, full days. The delightful-if-congested city of Cork, too, was rapidly outgrown. When entry levels exceeded 100, it became impractical to billet everyone involved under one sensibly priced roof, or to conduct a motorcycle “crocodile” of that magnitude to the boonies beyond. It is the region’s terrain, of course, that is the prime attraction, linked with the inherent charm of the organization. Latterly, they have located the Assembly at Kenmare’s splendid Bay Hotel where, amazingly, the whole contingent is comfortably accommodated. Competitors and organizers eat and sleep together, as it were, which generates a great ambience. In the same vein, attentive staff insists that “the biker week” is traditionally the high spot of their season.
The car park is dedicated to competitors’ machines, so, for five days, this area resembles a race paddock. The hotel’s enthusiasm extends to floodlighting “the pits”, for as long as it takes, allowing the fettling and repair of machines; many of them fitted, remember, with Lucas equipment. It is the Munster Club’s philosophy that, irrespective of how complex a mechanical problem, it is paramount that the bike and rider reach Starter’s Orders the next day. Once, when someone’s crucial fender-stays went missing, a handy chromed bar stool provided near-perfect raw materials. Out on the course, riders frequently conk out, miles from civilization, only to be collected by one of the vigilant sweeper trucks. After an effective fix, they rejoin where convenient. Then there is the apocryphal tale of how a bent-forked machine was kept mobile after a nearby playing field’s steel goal posts were used as replacement stanchions. “Well, you see,” I was told, “the football (soccer) wasn’t starting ’till October!” The rally’s reputation grew, gathering entries from the Continent, the United States, and Japan. Ultimately, enrollment was capped at 170, but by 1990, the event had become so popular that newcomers had to wait a couple of years; nobody minded, for they knew the delay was worthwhile. An eclectic selection of machinery is spread across four classes: pre-1914, pre-1930, pre-1947, and pre-1961, as well as divisions for both two- and three-wheelers. A handful of single-speed belt-drive riders are the heroes, inasmuch as the steeper slopes often require either pedal assistance, or running beside. Upon reaching the summit, the problem then morphs into slowing the beast on equally sharp descents.
A number of challenging mountain crossings are deliberately included. The Healy Pass is a glorious cocktail of hairpins and cambers, virtually traffic-free, where higher-spirited riders can pretend they are “‘Canonball” Baker, Dick Mann, or Kenny Roberts, depending on the era in which they enjoyed their formative years. Other favorite road sections are The Rings. In this part of the world, Rings are highways that follow the coastline around a peninsula, laced with cliff drops, spindly bridges, and scenery to die for. Given southwest Ireland’s geography, the Rings require concentration and can take two hours to traverse. In 2004, on the spectacular Ring of Beara, I was in convoy with Drino Miller and Bud Ekins in their 1955 Panther 120 sidecar and Dave and Sylvia Bickers in their 1958 BSA Gold Star sidecar. At the halfway coffee stop, we could not help but concur that Highway 1’s Big Sur has worthy competition. Dave Bickers, two-time European MX champion in the ’60s, is yet another former racer totally hooked on the Irish; this was his fifth.
The average day’s route is 150 miles, at a not-so-easy 24 mph. Road surfaces are blacktop all the way, though narrow and bumpy across moors and through forests. A first time competitor from the United States was caught short one time when he misunderstood a Dublin rider’s description of the opening day’s route. He was assured it contained “miles and miles of divided highway.” When he traversed the route, the American was utterly perplexed by so many roads less than nine feet wide. He duly confronted the Dubliner at lunch break, grumbling that these roads could barely accept two bikes, side by side, and if cars came the other way, it necessitated stopping—not to mention the road’s center, which was either a permanent grass strip or a ridge of granite chippings. “Ah, yes,” came the reply, “that’s what we mean, you see, by a divided highway!”
The logistics of the en-route catering are impressive, whereby the Club daily reserves 300 nourishing feasts for riders and crews, and as well as for their own personnel, at the best of the tourist inns dotted along busier highways. Due to staggered starting intervals, meals need to be served on a rolling basis, midday through midafternoon. Potentially chaotic, the agenda works like clockwork. In a nice tribute to the rally’s founder, riders pay for refreshments with vouchers called “Morrissey Currency,” and Jim’s daughter Barbara is a component and glamorous part of the present-day team. Very few entrants ride only once, thanks to magical routes and truly interesting stops. Combined with the ongoing fellowship, these factors are the magnet that prompts constant revisits—even from the fellow who got hopelessly lost in 1999, and innocently asked an ostensibly helpful Kerry-man in a Killarney hostelry for directions to the lunchtime checkpoint. Yes, he still returns each year, despite having been advised, “Now, if I were you, I wouldn’t be startin’ from here!”
The 40th Assembly will run—Tuesday through Friday—in the third week of August 2006. Here’s hoping to see ye there….