Karen Wicks was 12 when her older brother Steve taught her how to ride a motorbike.
Those wobbly, jerky rides on a Honda CD175 sparked a passion for bikes that has endured for more than 50 years.
“I suppose I’m obsessed with bikes and I probably will be until the day I die,” she says, speaking on the phone from her north Lincolnshire home.
“My career involved bikes, I raced bikes and at one point I had a bike shop with my late ex husband.”
But of all the bikes that have crossed her path – those she rode as the country’s first female police motorcyclist, and those she raced in the two-stroke British championships – there is one that means the world to her, a Honda CB750K2 she bought brand new in 1975 at the age of 19.
It’s carried her all over Europe, taken her to work and back, and even starred in an episode of Last of the Summer wine.
Now, after a painstaking, 10-year restoration, the Honda has joined Karen, now 64, in a well-earned retirement, too precious to risk riding, stored in the dining room of her bungalow and only wheeled out for shows.
“People say you’ve got to ride it, but it’s been all round Europe and it deserves a retirement,” she says, likening the gleaming four-stroke to a piece of art.
“It’s like having a van Gogh”
“It’s like having a van Gogh. If I have to wheel it over a muddy field to get into a show I put cling film over the tyres, that’s how sad I am.
“It’s worth more to me than money, and I will never, ever sell it. One day it will go in a museum so that when I die it will always have my name on it. I need to leave it to a museum that’s not privately owned, so I’ve got to do a bit of research.”
Born and raised in Leeds, Karen became immersed in the biking world thanks to her brother, six years older and a “genius engineer” who is something of a legend in the two-stroke racing world, building bespoke bikes for the likes of British champion James Whitham and Neil Tuxworth, a long-time friend.
Karen remembers an 18-year-old Steve plonking her on the Honda CD and giving her instructions.
“He says ‘right, pull the clutch in, put it in gear, let the clutch out slowly, give it a bit of throttle, then when you change gear, shut the throttle off, pull the clutch in and change up’,” she says.
“I was screaming this Honda in first gear, he says ‘change it!’ and I say ‘I can’t do three things at once!’”
The biker bug
From then on, she was hooked, regularly ‘observing’ for Steve when he went trials riding, and having a cheeky ride when he’d finished.
Karen would have to wait until she was 17 and earning her own money to get a bike of her own.
“I came from a very poor council house background, and when I was 16 all my mates had Fizzies (Yamaha FS1Es) and mum and dad said we’ve no money,” she remembers.
“I saved and saved and when I was 17 I got a little 80cc Yamaha autolube 2-stroke for £90, nearly brand new.”
The autolube had a separate oil tank and would automatically mix it with the petrol, which caught out a teenage Karen.
“I rang Steve one day and said ‘my bike’s stopped’,” she explains. “He came out in his pick up and said ‘it’s run out of oil, you’ve seized it’. I didn’t know you had to put oil in…
“He bored it out and it went even faster afterwards. I took my test on that and kept it for a year.”
Having completed a secretarial course at college, Karen was working in a bank when she got the Yamaha, and remembers her manager’s words when she rode it to the office.
“He said to me ‘you will grow out of this silly habit one day’,” she laughs.
She never grew out of motorbikes, but she did grow bored of working in a bank, moving on to several secretarial roles before spotting an advert to join the police in the newspaper.
“You could either join the army or the police, just tick the box, fill in the coupon and post it off – so I did,” she says.
Karen was 20 at the time, and already in possession of the Honda CB750, bought for £1,020 thanks to a £500 bank loan, savings and the trade in value of a Honda 360 twin which had replaced the Yamaha.
“I went into the bank and said ‘can I borrow £500?’” she remembers. “He said ‘if you open an account with us with £1 we will lend you £500, and if you die crashing it we will just write the loan off’.
“I had an office job on £25 a week and the loan was £25 a month.”
She had lusted after the Honda since buying a copy of Motorcycle Mechanics magazine as a 13-year-old in May 1969.
“Spaceship of a bike”
“I was mesmerised by this four cyclinder, four carburretor spaceship of a bike on the front cover,” she says. “I saved and waited six years before I could afford my own, so I was truly dedicated to buy mine. I still have that original Motorcycle Mechanics magazine.”
And on April, 16, 1975 she took delivery of the bike that would take her all over Europe and stay with her to this day.
“I’ve done some research and it appears my 750/4 is the only one in the world which has been owned from new by a female who still owns it to this day,” she adds.
Karen remembers her first overseas adventure, to Assen on the Honda 360 when she was 18, the very first time she’d been abroad.
“I had my mate on the back, and a tent,” she says. “The following year when I got the CB750 we went again, and I’ve been going ever since, usually alone because people would always say they were going but ended up pulling out.
“I loved touring abroad, it’s been amazing. It’s a bug, and once you’ve got it you just keep going.”
In the early years with the Honda, Karen would travel to the Dutch TT, move on to Spa the following week and tour into Germany and down to the south of France.
“I had a little book where I’d write down all my routes and what I was taking,” she says. “I’d have everything on there, and cross things off – food, coffee, clothes etc – and then write down how much I spent in each country. I even took a suitcase once!”
Among her favourite routes is the Romantische Straße, which translates as Romantic Road and runs through the forests and mountains of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.
Idyllic touring routes
“It takes you through pretty, chocolate box German villages and past castles,” she says. “Also the Napoleonic route from the South of France up through Grasse on the French Riviera and onto Grenoble, which is a bikers paradise with lovely bends up through the sunny hills.”
Over the years, Karen and the Honda have also toured through the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, San Marino, Spain, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein and Monte Carlo, tending to avoid the “cold countries” of Scandinavia.
As well as the CB750, Karen has toured on all sorts of bikes up to 2017, including a Honda Fireblade, a CB600 and a Yamaha R1.
“I’m looking forward to touring again, soon after lockdown,” she says.
But back to 1976 and Karen’s first steps on a career with the police where, from day one, she was determined to force her way into the motorcycle team.
“When I went for my interview I said I wanted to be a police motorcyclist, and they just laughed at me,” she says.
“They said ‘we don’t even have women in the traffic cars let alone on motorbikes’. I said I was going to be the first. I was pestering them as soon as I joined.”
After an incident while policing at the Bramham Horse Trials, midway between Leeds and York, in truth, things could have gone either way.
“This lad was there on his police bike and I said ‘let’s have a go’,” says Karen. “He said ‘I can’t, we will get into trouble’. I said ‘let’s do it in the woods’, I hoisted my skirt up and put a on crash helmet and rode this bike around the woods.
“Someone saw me and I got dragged into the superintendent’s office when I got back, who asked me ‘is it true you were riding a police bike in the woods with your skirt up?’
“But then she said ‘I suppose I had better recommend you for the motorcycle division’. She backed me all the way.”
First female police motorcyclist
Karen undertook police motorcycle training in 1978 and became the first woman to join the bike unit in active service the following year.
It’s fair to say things weren’t always plain sailing for a woman in a male-dominated environment, especially in the less enlightened 1970s, ‘80s and even into the ‘90s.
“Some of the lads were OK, but a lot of blokes didn’t like women in the job, and the bosses were terrible,” she remembers.
“Throughout three decades, they never really accepted women on the unit. I kept being told women should not be in the police, let alone on motorbikes.
“And I kept getting worse bikes. I had 750 or 850 Nortons while the blokes were getting new BMWs.
“They kept trying to mess it up for me so I would make a mistake but I never did. Never, in all my time, did I crash a police bike, but I did used to crash my own!”
Crashing was also an ever-present hazard when Karen started racing bikes at the age of 29, riding two-stroke, 80cc machines in competitions including the ACU British Star Championship.
“I’d wanted to go racing since I was 15,” she says, but never had the funds required. “It was all about having the opportunity, but I was very determined because all I’d ever wanted to do was play with bikes.
“Even when I was 29 I had mates whose parents were giving them a £10,000 race bike, but I had to do it all myself.”
Between 1985 and 1988 she raced all over the UK on the ‘British Wicks’ bikes built by her brother, one of the highlights a fifth in class finish in a British Championship meeting at Snetterton.
“I won prize money – I thought I was a superstar!” she laughs.
The racing bug bit as hard as the biking bug had done all those years earlier, and Karen even squeezed into her leathers while pregnant with her daughter Stephanie in 1986.
“I was just pregnant, and could still get into my leathers, and it was September so I had to finish the season and get my championship points,” she says. “I didn’t tell anyone, because they probably wouldn’t have let me race.”
After Stephanie, named after Barry Sheene’s wife, came along, Karen came under increasing pressure to quit racing.
“What if you die?”
“My husband was screaming at me to pack it in,” she says. “I had got a baby and I had no money, and I was getting pressure from everybody, saying ‘what if you die?’
“But anybody who races – it sounds a shallow statement – but you don’t care. I know lots of people who died racing. People don’t get it. It’s very selfish, it’s a weird drug and I think only a few people get it.
“I did lots of silly things, like racing with a broken wrist, but they didn’t seem silly at the time. It was about passion and devotion.”
She eventually relented, selling her racing bikes and instead indoctrinating Stephanie into the world of motorbikes, buying her a Yamaha TY80 trials bike for Christmas when she was just seven.
“She thought Santa Claus had bought it and asked me what I’d got her,” she remembers. “I had to tell her I paid for it and Santa just delivered it.”
Stephanie has since owned “loads of bikes”, including a Suzuki GSXR600, well and truly following in her mother’s wheel tracks.
Karen settled down to a life of working for the police and touring on the Honda in her free time, and it was while policing the filming of Last of the Summer Wine in a village near Huddersfield that her bike got its 15 minutes of fame.
“It was filmed on the moors and in the streets of a real village and we’d be paid overtime to make sure the crowds didn’t invade,” she says.
Fifteen minutes of fame
“They were filming the episode where Compo has an ex-girlfriend, a rough bird on a motorbike, looking for him, and I could hear the producer or director saying ‘this bike doesn’t look in keeping with the nature of the scene, it’s too modern’.
“I went up and said ‘you looking for a bike? I’ve got the right one for you’. They sent someone round, took a polaroid of it and the next day they used it and gave me £300.
“I said ‘do you want me to ride the bike?’ but they said ‘no, you don’t look rough enough’. The ‘girlfriend’ was actually a 6ft 4in bloke with a wig on.”
The episode in question was filmed in 1994 and screened in January 1995, and you can see Karen’s bike in Once in a Moonlit Junkyard here.
Having seen the bike on TV, Karen decided it needed tidying up.
“It looked a bit rough, so I thought ‘right, I’m going to restore it’,” she says. “Instead of stripping it all down I kept riding it for a long time and started buying stuff and storing it under my bed.
“I must’ve had a crystal ball because if I had not have done that I would never have got the bits, because you can’t get them now.
“I had a manual with all the part numbers and used to go through it saying ‘I will need these, and these’. If I’d done it the other way round I’d have been stripping it down and then wouldn’t have been able to get the bits.
“I used to get little phone calls to say a new crank case is in, a new exhaust, a new tank and seat. The same with the clocks – I managed to get them, and they were the last ones.”
Over the years, every time Karen crashed the bike she would rebuild it with non-standard parts – like different forks and wheels – and paint it a different colour.
But for this final restoration, she was determined to return it to its original state.
For a variety of reasons the restoration that began in earnest sometime in 2008 took a full decade to complete.
The frame was sent away to be powder coated, coming back “like a Christmas tree in a Christmas shop, sparkly and gorgeous”.
“It snowballed from there,” she says. “I had to do everything I could to make it look fantastic.”
The restoration was interrupted by, among other things, a house move, knee and hip replacements, and Karen’s restless mind.
“I’d get bored of it for a while, or go and do another hobby for a bit and then come back to it,” she says.
“I’ve always had too many hobbies. I used to go shooting, bought a sports car, had horses – I’ve always wanted to do all sorts.”
Race against time
There was, however, a long-term plan: to have the bike ready for the 50th anniversary of the launch of the CB750 in 2019.
Unfortunately, Karen’s calculations overlooked one crucial fact: that the bike had been launched in Tokyo a year before the UK, and so the true anniversary was 2018.
“I thought there was no rush,” she says. “I had had a knee replacement and could hardly walk and was due to have a hip replacement.
“Then, all of a sudden, Dave Silver (a Honda parts dealer) is advertising on his website ‘who’s coming to the 50th anniversary in 2018?’ I was ‘what?!’ so I rang him, and he said it was originally launched in Tokyo in 1968.
“I said ‘but my bike isn’t ready and I can’t do anything because I can’t walk!’”
Suddenly, there was very much a rush, and it was time to call in some favours.
She put in a call to her friend Tuxworth, the former Honda Racing team boss who happens to live locally.
He put her on to a man called Howard, a friend of Neil’s and “an old bloke who deals in lawnmowers”, and who turned out to be “godsend”.
“The bike was a rolling chassis and it just needed all the bits put back on, so I asked Howard if he could finish it off,” says Karen.
“I was just about to go into hospital, and when I came out I wasn’t allowed to walk for six weeks.”
New hip, “new” bike
Howard got the bike ready and, six weeks after leaving hospital with a new hip, Karen was able to take her first steps – just a few days before the anniversary celebrations, more than 140 miles away in Suffolk
“I was still on crutches, but ended up driving all the way down to Suffolk in the motorhome,” she says.
“I couldn’t even wheel it, and had to be helped on to the stage to get the trophy for the best-presented bike.”
That was when Karen made the decision that she would never ride the Honda again.
“I picked it up and I said I can’t ride this bike, it’s cost me about £10,000 to do and it’s absolutely mint,” she adds.
“I thought ‘if I crashed this bike I would never get the bits again’. I just can’t risk it. If I want to thrash something I’ve also got the R1 that I bought new in 2005.”
These days, while the Honda has petrol in it and is started regularly, its days out are restricted to being wheeled on and off a trailer for shows.
And while it remains a wonder of late ‘60s engineering, to Karen its value lies in its history and its memories.
It is a physical embodiment of a 50-year love of motorbikes that has embroidered her life with thrills, spills and unforgettable adventures.
Karen says: “I think I’m very girly, but I just had this passion for motorbikes that started when I was 12 and has never gone away.”
And you can be sure that it never will.
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