As a motorbike-mad teenager, Colin Woodhams had two posters on his bedroom wall – a still from the countercultural biker movie Easy Rider, and a Fantic Chopper.
To a 16-year-old in the 1970s, the 50cc Fantic was the closest you could get to emulating Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s chopper-riding adventure through the American south.
So when Colin was looking for something to replace an unreliable Honda CB50, his first bike, opting for a brand new Fantic was “a no-brainer”.
More than 40 years later, the posters may have long gone, but Colin still owns the most outrageously-styled moped of the so-called ‘sixteener specials’ era, having saved the chopper from the scrapheap not once, but twice, along the way.
“I’ll keep it forever,” says Colin, now 59. “I’ll tell them to throw it in the furnace with me and it can go with me.”
By the time he reached legal riding age, Colin, who runs a successful construction company, was already an old hand on two wheels thanks to his home’s proximity to the local dump.
“I had ridden bikes since I was about seven or eight,” he says. “I lived on a farm and right behind us was a dump, and the amount of stuff that got chucked in there was amazing.”
Among the motorbikes discarded on the tip were some machines that would now be worth a pretty penny, including a BSA Gold Star 500cc, two 350cc BSAs, six Lambrettas, a Velocette and even a Scott Squirrel – “a really, really nice old bike”.
I shoved these bikes off the tip and down the road to home
They were all non-runners their owners clearly just wanted to be rid of, but to Colin they were a fascinating opportunity.
“I was like Stig of the Dump. I shoved these bikes off the tip and down the road to home, got them running and turned them into trackers I could use on the farm,” he remembers.
“I would take the cylinder head off, whack it with a hammer, squirt oil or fuel in there, push them in gear to make the piston go up and down and, generally speaking, they would run.
“I ruined most of them myself and pushed them back on the tip – they’re probably still buried there!”
After years of riding on private land, when Colin turned 16 he took to the road on the CB50 that would let him down once too often on his ride to work. It was time for the poster on his wall to become reality.
“I really should have bought an SS50, but when I saw the Fantic it was a no-brainer,” he says. “It was very different from all the others. Easy Rider was very cool at 16 and when you saw the Fantic, what could you do? It had to be.”
The bike cost £326 new in 1974, a hefty premium over its competitors.
“You could’ve bought two new Fizzies for that,” says Colin, referring, of course, to the best-selling Yamaha FS1E.
“A couple of months later they dropped the price to £226. I was not happy, especially as I had hire purchase on it!”
Initially, Colin’s relationship with the Fantic looked like lasting no longer than the average teenage romance – the pair parted company after about six months, with about £100 still owing on the HP.
A complete change of direction saw Colin buy a Lambretta Li125, spurred on by his older brother’s love for the scooters.
You could literally buy a Lambretta for 20 fags
“My brother’s five years older than me, he’d had Lambrettas and I got the bug when he had one so I decided to get one,” he says.
“At the time, nobody wanted them because they were out of favour after the sixties but before the mod revival. You could literally buy a Lambretta for 20 fags.”
It turned out to be not just any old Lambretta, as the proximity of a chroming facility for British Leyland led to Colin, and other local youngsters, taking full advantage.
“Loads of dads would smuggle in bits of bikes and chrome them in their lunch breaks,” he explains.
“Over nine or 10 months, I converted every single piece of it to chrome – frame, running boards, side panels, absolutely everything was in chrome.
“It was 1976 and the long hot summer, and I was stopped by the police who said ‘we’ve been after you for a little while’. I said ‘what have I done?’ He said ‘nothing illegal but you have to do something about that (pointing at the scooter) – we’ve had so many complaints of people being glared by that bloody bike.’
“They’d had 25 to 30 complaints, so from then on every time I took it out in the sun I had to smear it with Vaseline!”
Two years after selling the Fantic, fate intervened.
“When I was 19 this chap said to me ‘I’ve got your old bike in my garden’. I went to have a look at it and it was beaten to bits so I bought it back off him,” says Colin, who lives at Kidlington, near Oxford.
It looked so sorry for itself
“I thought, I can’t have that, it looked so sorry for itself. I remembered it brand new, nice and shiny, and now it looked like the frame was painted with Dulux.”
The dishevelled Fantic then spent more than 30 years living a peripatetic existence, moving from garage, to shed, and even an attic, in various states of disrepair.
“I put it in my shed, then moved back to dad’s and put it in his garage,” says Colin. “He moaned it was in the way and by then it was in boxes. Then I shared a house with a mate and put it in his loft, and in about 1988 he phoned me and said ‘do you want this bike, I’ve just tripped over it in my loft?’ I then put it in my shed where I live now.
“When I got it out of his loft, some of the parts had actually rotted away. I held the handlebars and they just fell apart – they’d rotted from the inside out, and it wasn’t even a damp loft.”
All seemed lost, especially with spare parts for the Chopper almost impossible to come by.
“I had bought a few spares for it in the early 1980s from a place in Dagenham, but you couldn’t get things like handlebars or exhausts.
“Not being able to buy the bits definitely put me off trying to restore it – if I do anything I have to do it properly, and it had been easy restoring Lambrettas because you could get every bit you need.”
But in 2013, fate intervened again to keep the Fantic alive.
“Before 2013, I didn’t have the will. Fortunately, I’ve got an engineering company that does work for me on the building side of things, and I spoke to him about fabricating some handlebars and other bits,” says Colin.
“I gave him my rotten handlebars and he made me a pair in stainless steel, as well as a stainless steel exhaust. The forks had rotted – I had to saw the bottoms off and rebuild them, and I went to Italy to source an electronic ignition.”
Gradually, the bike was being brought back to life four decades after it was last ridden in anger.
It’s better than new now
A new damper system improved the suspension, the gearbox was rebuilt, a brake light was added (the original didn’t have one) and it was upgraded from 6v to 12v.
“It’s better than new now,” says Colin. “When it was new with 6 volts, unless you were doing at least 6000rpm if you hit the horn it cut the engine out! Putting it together was a bit of a masterpiece.”
Riding the Chopper again was also something of a shock to a man who had grown used to riding monster bikes over the years, including a Harley Davidson 1800cc Electra Glide and a 5.7-litre V8 Boss Hoss, weighing 1100lb.
“The first time I rode it again was extremely embarrassing – people were laughing their socks off because they’re used to seeing me on big bikes. I don’t remember the Fantic being so small – I know when I was 16 I wasn’t 16 and a half stone, but I was never small!”
Colin’s own son is now 16 himself, and is itching to ride his dad’s pride and joy.
“He can’t legally ride it until he’s 17 because it’s derestricted – it pulls 45 to 50mph. I don’t think I’m going to let him though – if he drops it I think I will be heartbroken.”
I had the time of my life
So why did Colin keep this rotted carcass for all those years, in boxes strewn over garage, shed and loft floors, rather than let go of just one more motorbike?
“It’s the nostalgia – it brings back memories,” he says. “I passed my test on a moped, which meant I could carry girls on the back. I had the time of my life.
“Somebody did offer me £7,500 for it and I turned it down. I’ll keep it forever. I think people of a certain age, if they can get their hands on these bikes – the Gileras and Fizzies – they’re going to buy one to remind them of their youth.”
Colin’s Fantic – for so long a rusting shadow of its former self – now stands as his own permanent reminder of those first rushes of glorious youthful freedom.
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