What were you doing on December 3 1981, at around 7.30pm? I know exactly where I was. Lying in a Herefordshire ditch, with a crumpled motorbike next to me. I’d been riding my Suzuki 185 GT home from college when I momentarily forgot that I needed to lean to go around a corner.
Not surprisingly, the surgeon wasn’t that impressed with my riding abilities either, as he slipped my dislocated shoulder back in to the socket with a nasty jolt. My father quickly disposed of the Suzuki and it was 33 years before I slid back on to the saddle, this time as a born again biker.
That’s the name given to riders who owned motorcycles long ago, only to end up wearing a business suit, paying a mortgage and having children with expensive hobbies. In my case, it was two expensive wives, a yacht and a string of inappropriate cars. Now, at 50, I have the time, money and inclination to have another go.
Things have changed a lot since 1981 – not least the bikes. Back then I had a few hundred pounds to buy my first set of wheels and I could only ride a machine up to 250cc.
Now my pockets are deeper and with a full licence, I can ride any bike I choose, up to 1000cc and way beyond.
Modern bikes are nothing like the machines I used to ride either. Apart from better engines, handling and economy, many are even designed to be comfortable. Touring bikes can be equipped with heated seats and handlebar grips, Bluetooth intercom, satellite navigation, bespoke luggage racks and much, much more.
Motorcycle manufactures have been quick to pick up on the born again biker trend, too. And to try to corner the market, many now offer updated versions of the machines that I used to ride all those years ago.
The only difference is that these new retro bikes now have some luxuries built in, such as electronic ignition instead of a kick-start, whisper-quiet engines and ABS brakes that help prevent you disappearing through a Herefordshire hedge.
So, if you want a genuine reason to wear a leather jacket in your fifties, like the idea of a turning back the speedometer to your motorcycling youth, here’s my choice of the top retro classics to help you become a born again biker too.
Riding a Harley is like buying in to a lifestyle, with a shop full of branded clothing and accessories to prove you are part of the gang. However, because the company’s heritage dates back more than 100 years, these are machines that genuinely deserve the tag of iconic.
My Softail Classic looks like it has ridden straight out of a 1950s movie. It’s been designed to appeal to people who were born around that time too, with lashings of chrome and a pair of studded leather saddlebags to match.
Although you’re sitting atop a big 1450cc air-cooled engine, don’t expect much in the way of performance. Like most Harley’s, the Softail is designed for low-speed cruising, rather than high-speed motorway treks.
The Softail sounds like a buffalo with asthma when I press the start button but that’s all part of the appeal. The gentle thud-thud is as familiar to bike enthusiasts as the roar of a Spitfire engine during the Second World War.
If you haven’t straddled a bike in a while, the sheer size of a Harley can be quite nerve-wracking. Suffice to say, I found the Softail remarkably easy to ride. It even has hidden rear suspension for some extra comfort (hence the name).
Despite my initial reservations, I loved the Harley. It’s Bruce Springsteen, Easy Rider and apple pie, all wrapped up in a stars and stripes flag. I want one for Christmas but I’ve still got some way to go before I opt for the bandana.
The Triumph may not have the road presence of a Harley but it still boasts an equally illustrious history. The Bonny is a replica of the classic British motorcycle ridden by rockers in the 1960s – just without the troublesome kick-start and oil leaks.
The 2014 Bonneville also comes with proper brakes and looks every inch as cool as the more expensive Softail. The T100 version features eye-catching chrome, fancy paintwork and retro scuff pads on the fuel tank.
Born again bikers often choose this Triumph because it’s relatively inexpensive to buy and very easy to handle. The low-slung seat, raised handlebars and forgiving 790cc engine won’t get you into too much trouble.
It’s also very easy to work on it yourself and doesn’t require that much attention. Like the Harley, all that chrome will need a good polish to keep rust at bay, but for many that’s all part of the experience.
I recommend the Bonneville to anyone who doesn’t want to splash out a lot of money on a bigger bike. They also hold their value remarkably well, so buy one and move up to something bigger when your confidence comes back.
The W800 is a direct rival to the Bonneville, with the same styling and retro lines that have made the Triumph such a hit with older riders. Compared to a modern bike, it’s pretty simple too, with just one instrument dial and a simple LED display.
Neither the Kawasaki or the Triumph are equipped with a windshield in standard form, so riding at high speed over long distances can be demanding. At 70mph I was gritting my teeth and wiping out squadrons of flies with my goggles!
The W800 takes motorcycling back to basics. It was the one bike I could always find an excuse to ride. It’s the lightest of all the bikes tested here and was perfectly suited to my small frame.
The W800 also has the most beautifully painted fuel tank of any machine I’ve seen. The two-tone paint and pinstripe set off the rest of the machine, which can be ordered with chrome or matt black exhaust pipes.
It’s true that Kawasaki doesn’t have a heritage to match the Bonneville but I’d recommend you try both and pick the one that suits your style of riding.
This beautiful Italian bike might look like a lumbering American tourer but it’s simply in a class of its own.
Why? Well, the California is stunning to look at from any angle and is pure motorcycling haute couture.
Panniers often ruin the shape of a bike but fitted on the Tourer model I tested they only added to the sleek design. The custom lines scream Harley-Davidson but the Guzzi has the advantage of being much rarer, giving it an air of exclusivity.
The Touring is a big bike and that 1380cc engine rocks the frame when you twist the throttle. Despite the size, once I had the machine upright, it felt easy to control and could cope with both low speed work around town, or long distance travelling.
The Moto Guzzi was the surprise package in my retro bike test. It’s the machine I miss most and is definitely the leader of the pack.