It was autumn, 1984, and a 1,400-mile road trip that would change Alan Brenkley’s life forever.
He’d endured a tough year, the death of his grandmother and a relationship break up hitting him hard, and he needed to get away, to recharge his batteries.
A plan was hatched to visit his brother, serving in the army in Germany, and he asked his friend Janet – who also had a brother in Germany – if she fancied riding pillion on his Honda CB650.
By the time they returned to their native Jersey from a somewhat eventful trip, the couple’s friendship had blossomed into something more, and they were married three years later.
All of which helps to explain why Alan has never been able to part with the Honda, a bike that’s bound up with his own personal history.
“So many memories”
“It’s got so many memories tied into it, and I think when you’ve got something like that the sentimental value far outweighs what the lump of metal’s worth,” he says.
“To a large extent it’s the story of my life, it’s the story of the family. The dings and dents – a lot of those are memories of things that have happened.
“Those sort of things are priceless; you could sell that and have enough to purchase a decent sports bike, but there’s no attachment and I think if you’ve got an attachment to a bike it makes it a keeper.”
Alan’s attachment to the Honda runs deep, not only because of that fateful trip with Janet, but also the memories of youthful escapades on Jersey’s famous Five Mile Road and snaking country lanes, and taking his children for trips around the island.
Now settled on the outskirts of Norwich after moving to the mainland in 1998, Alan chats freely about a difficult start in life, conquering his fears of biking and a growing passion that lasts to this day.
His father, Jim, tragically died five months before Alan was born on the island in September 1957 – but he did leave a legacy that first piqued an interest in motorcycles, if not an entirely positive one.
Wall of death
“I never actually got to meet him, but I had been told he used to ride the wall of death many years ago,” he says, one accident leaving him with a serious arm injury.
“So I had a sort of interest in bikes, but I was a little bit scared of them to be honest, and I didn’t go the usual route of 50s and things like that.”
It wasn’t until he was 21 that Alan first rode a motorbike, borrowing a friend’s under-utilised Suzuki TS250.
“I used that to get to work and back and thought ‘actually, I like this’, and bought a brand new Kawasaki KL250 the following year,” he says.
He passed his ‘up to 250cc’ test on the Kawasaki, and rode for the requisite 12 months without convictions before taking his ‘big bike’ test in 1983 on a borrowed Kawasaki Z400 twin.
Alan could now ride more powerful machines, and he handed over £735 to a friend who was looking to sell his 1981 CB650 to cut costs.
Still riding the KL250 to and from his work in the building trade, Alan kept the Honda in a friend’s rented garage and brought it out for fun runs around the island.
“At the time my friend had a CBX1000 and I went halves on the rent,” he says. “We were nicknamed the ‘Rally wax boys’ because the bikes were always kept clean and polished. A lot of bikes were sleeping outside and starting to show the signs of the salty sea air very quickly. Everything rusts very quickly, and newer bikes quickly showed signs of wear and tear.”
How much fun?
On an island just 5 miles long by 9 miles wide, and with a blanket 40mph speed limit, you may question how much fun you can have on a bike capable of well over 100mph.
But not everyone always stuck rigidly to that speed limit, and there was scope for longer rides on Jersey’s 320-mile road network.
“I wouldn’t say we were angels, I wouldn’t say we kept to the speed limit all the while, but we weren’t ridiculously stupid either,” says Alan.
“If we were going to give them a blast it would normally be very early on a Sunday morning on what they call the Five Mile Road, which is actually about three and a half miles long – it’s the longest road they’ve got.
“If you went down there early you’d have Ferraris and Porsches flying past, because everybody who’s got something with a bit of power wants to use it at that time.”
There is only one dual carriageway on Jersey, the A2, or Victoria Avenue, but the limit is still just 40mph.
“There was a hamburger shop at the end of it where most of the bikers used to meet, and then go for a ride through the lanes, which is half the enjoyment of motorbiking,” says Alan.
“You can go on to the A11 (in Norfolk) and ride at 70mph all day long, but it’s not really a challenge like when you’re getting into the back lanes and throwing it around a bit more.
“We’d end up quite often down at Gorey where they had a drive-in barbecue, have a steak and chips or something like that. It was the camaraderie as well, probably more so in those days than you see today.”
Alan and his mates, all young and strapped for cash, would work on their bikes together if something went wrong.
His first trip off the island on the Honda was to Brittany, via Normandy, in France, a 14-mile hop by ferry, with a friend who had a French family.
The pair headed south, then west along the coast to Guingamp, avoiding a speeding fine thanks to his friend’s ability to speak to the police in fluent French.
“We came over the brow of this hill doing just over 80,” he remembers. “It was an 80kmh zone, but we were doing 80mph. My mate had a Guzzi V50 and it only had miles an hour on it, and he said in French ‘I was doing 80’, pointing to his speedo.
“The policeman clocked it, went off to the van, came back and said ‘cinquante, 50’ and let us go. We got away with that.”
Then came that epic trip to Germany with Janet, an old primary school friend.
“We met again through the bikes really, and we were just friends at the time,” says Alan. “I was visiting my brother in Germany in the army and her brother had come out of the army and married a German girl.
“They were fairly close, both between Hannover and Hamburg. I said ‘I’m going, do you want to come along?’. She got somebody to look after her daughters, and off we went.”
Of course, there were no sat navs in those days, only maps, and the pair set off in fine autumn weather.
Lost in Germany
“We got a little bit lost – it was only when we were nearly half way there when Janet said ‘you do realise I can’t actually read a map?’,” smiles Alan. “We eventually got there at the end of October, 1984.”
The journey home was far less straightforward, thanks to snow, ice, rain, and a distinct lack of preparation…
“When we went out there it was nice! We didn’t think of things like waterproofs or winter wear –
we were young and invincible,” he adds. “But the day before we came back, it snowed.”
After spotting a soldier riding a Bombardier 250, they pulled in at the next cafe and asked him if there was any chance of getting the bike into an army lorry and hitching a lift.
They located an articulated NAAFI lorry carrying food supplies, and Janet was dispatched to ask two Germans in the truck behind for help lifting the bike into the chest-high loading area.
“They didn’t speak English, so she decided to do sign language,” says Alan, Janet grabbing her bicep to, she thought, denote their strength.
“They got out of the lorry very quickly, and Janet said ‘they don’t seem too happy’. I advised her that the sign language was probably misread as a more carnal invitation, at which point she went bright scarlet, but they gave us a hand and we got the bike into the lorry.”
The couple joined the Honda in the pitch-black artic container, an unnerving experience as the lorry made its way from the outskirts of Hannover through Germany towards France.
“You could actually feel the lorry spinning at times on the ice,” says Alan. “It was a lairy journey, and I was thinking ‘if this lorry has an accident…’
“For the rest of the journey, we had rain, we had snow, but we worked as a team and we thought ‘if we can survive this together, we can probably survive almost anything’. We’ve been together ever since.”
The Honda remained in regular use, with Janet’s daughters Claire and Nicola, and their sons Gary and Terence, often taken for rides out from a young age, until the family swapped Jersey for Norfolk in 1998.
The move was born of a desire to buy their own home, something Alan says was nigh-on impossible with first-time buyer properties on the island starting at £250,000, and a maximum state mortgage of £125,000.
“You’re paying £130 a week rent for the equivalent of a council house, and you’ve got to save up £125,000 before you can get a mortgage and buy a house,” he says. “It was never going to happen.”
They could realise their dream in Norwich, but it meant leaving the Honda in a friend’s shed back in Jersey.
“I couldn’t justify spending money on my toy while we were buying a house here,” says Alan. “So I left it there for quite a few years and imported it maybe six or seven years ago.”
The bike came over on the ferry into Poole, and Alan rode it back to its new home, still its longest journey since arriving on the mainland.
“I thought ‘right, now I can spend a bit of money on it’,” says Alan, who has been working as a bus driver since 1999.
The Honda received new exhausts and a new ignition barrel, and Seastar Superbikes was tasked with getting the 650cc engine running sweetly after more than 15 years in hibernation.
“To make it concours there are still bits it would need,” says Alan. “The mudguards are a bit dented where stuff’s fallen on it in the shed, the plastic on the indicators is a bit cracked, and there are a few chips on the petrol tank.
“When I first moved in with my wife the guy upstairs had flower tubs and he’d pick stones out and throw them off the balcony. I pulled up one time and one hit the tank. I wasn’t impressed!
“But it’s a real bike that’s had a real life. If I wanted ornaments I’d get smaller ornaments to put in the house. It belongs on the road. It’s had a lot of years off the road and it’s got a lot of riding to catch up on.”
For now, the Honda is used for runs out to biker pubs like the Ox and Plough and bike meets at Whitwell and Reepham railways station.
“It still puts a smile on my face,” says Alan. “Whichever bike puts a smile on your face under the helmet, that’s the bike you should be riding.
“I’ve got two and a half or three years before I retire, and it will be used a lot more then.”
Surprise Gold Wing
It will share the load with Alan’s Honda Gold Wing, a surprise Christmas present in 2012 from Janet and another bike with an emotional connection.
“When my brother, Jim, died of cancer, Jan thought ‘you know what, Alan’s always wanted a Gold Wing – nobody’s promised a tomorrow’,” he says.
Alan had ridden on the back of a Gold Wing as a young man, while recovering from a broken leg suffered in a judo bout.
“While I was in hospital, my biker mates would gather round my bed and discuss where they were going for rides,” he says. “When I got out, I asked if I could go on the back.
“He said ‘but you’ve got a broken leg’. I said ‘well, you’re not going to fall off are you?’ It was like an armchair and I said then that one day I’d get one.”
Unknown to Alan, Janet and Terence put down an order for the Gold Wing at Norwich dealer CJ Ball, and asked if it could be delivered on Christmas Day.
On the big day, a couple of friends came round to visit, and Alan thought “there’s something going on here”.
“One of my mates turned round and said ‘there’s something for you outside’. There was a van parked in one of the driveways a couple of doors up. It wasn’t CJ Ball’s van, but then Chris (Ball) appeared and wheeled out a brand new Wing.
“I had a big smile. I was glad I hadn’t just bought a box of chocolates or something like that for Janet…”
Since then, Janet has joined Alan in the biking ranks, passing her test and starting out at the age of 57 on a Honda Shadow 750 before moving on to her current VFR 1200.
In the summer of 2019, the couple toured Italy, Alan on the Gold Wing and Janet on the VFR, a 3,000-mile round trip in 10 days.
“That was one heck of a journey,” he says. “We had everything, torrential rain, blazing hot sunshine, storms.”
While the Wing, with its sat nav, stereo system, and luxury seating, is clearly the bike for such long-distance trips, it’s the CB650 that Alan turns to for fun on Norfolk’s country roads.
“I will take the 650 and thoroughly enjoy it,” he says. “The Wing, you definitely feel that you’re hustling it, even at 60, on those narrow country roads.”
As chairman of the local branch of the Christian Motorcycle Association, Alan feels he has a duty to ride responsibly, to set the right example.
“We’ve normally got the white cross on the back of our jackets, so you’re advertising that you’re riding for your faith,” he says. “Are you going to ride at 70, 80, 90mph on those lanes? No. It’s just not going to happen.”
It’s something he sees too much of, remembering one ride out with an unnamed group in north Norfolk.
“They disappeared in Aylsham as we were trying to come through the junction – just gone,” he says. “We met up again at Blickling Hall and one bloke who was playing tail end Charlie on a sports bike rode past and was gone. We were doing 60 and we didn’t see them again.
“It’s not if they have an accident, it’s when. I saw on Facebook that the following day, they had gone out to Hunstanton – apart from one, who had ended up in hospital after a crash.”
Alan plans to keep riding the CB650 long into his impending retirement, and may one day pass the bike on to his younger son, Terence, who rides a Kawasaki ZZR600.
Even when it was laid up in a shed for all those years, there was never a time he considered selling it.
“The CB is always going to be a part of our lives,” he says, with Terence sharing his father’s sentimental outlook on life.
“I think he would like to keep it – he’s very similar in a lot of ways to me. He’s got the sentimental aspect of stuff and likes looking at memories of his childhood and stuff like that. He’s also a mechanic which helps because he’ll be able to keep it running.
“He has memories of going on it a few times, including when he was two and a half and I had to pick him up from nursery school.
“Janet’s car was in for service, so she’d taken mine and the bike was my only transport. I put him in a little helmet, gloves and jacket, had a body strap hooked into my jacket and tucked his hands into my pockets and did the zips up.
“When I got home he chucked his jacket on the floor and said ‘I went on daddy’s motorbike!’ Janet said ‘you did what?!’”
It’s memories like these that make a forever bike an irreplaceable part of family history.
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