From the UK’s snaking country passes to the dusty deserts of the Middle East and mountain ranges of Africa, Mike Anthony has seen it all, riding tens of thousands of miles on a variety of bikes.
In his 20s, he would build Nortons from spare parts with his friend Don, hurled a vintage Model 18 round the racetrack, and instructed on the RAC/ACU national bike training scheme.
Dozens of bikes have come and gone, but just one has survived from those days – a 1961 Velocette Venom Clubman that’s barely turned a wheel in more than four decades.
Mike’s long career working abroad as a chartered civil engineer saw the Venom laid up for years in his mother’s garage in Newcastle upon Tyne, and then at his home in Suffolk.
Only after his retirement in 2019 was the 499cc four-stroke single, the first motorcycle to average over 100 mph continuously for 24 hours, fully reassembled from boxes of bits.
It is now just a renovated magneto away from hitting the road again.
“Loved the most”
“It’s the bike I loved the most, and I didn’t sell it, or ride it, because I was overseas for more than two decades,” he says, sitting in an office surrounded by radio transmitters and other tech, some of which he built himself.
“My whole life in the UK was on hold, and I didn’t need the money so basically it was just locked up.”
The Venom, one of just 5,721 manufactured by the Birmingham-based company, came into Mike’s life on February 10, 1975.
He was 25, and already a veteran of nine years of biking, starting at 16 on a C-type sports Lambretta bought for £5 from his German teacher at school.
A Villiers 3T-engined Panther followed, then a 1952 BSA Gold Flash Plunger, which he owned when he met his future wife, Margaret.
“Courting on a 650 BSA in the middle of winter in Newcastle is not recommended,” he says. “Just down the road was an Isetta bubble car, so I bought that and so that saved the courtship a bit. Even then, there was no heater or anything like that in it.”
While studying civil engineering at university in Newcastle, Mike would take the BSA on rides out with the North East Motorcycle Club, which he had joined at 17.
“I was running around with the big Triumphs and Nortons and some BSAs like mine, and we used to go across to places like Hardknott and Wrynose and frighten the old ladies going round the bends,” he says, smiling.
Ordered to sell
The Isetta made way for a Mini 850, partly paid for by his father, while Mike’s mother had ordered him to sell the BSA.
“She was a nurse and she spent a lot of time in hospitals nursing people who subsequently died due to brain injuries from falling off motorcycles with no helmets, most of the time, or just bad helmets,” he says.
“But my father had bikes in his youth and he was a doctor so I mostly got away with it that way.”
While helping a friend move from one flat to another, he spotted a BSA DB32 Gold Star abandoned in the back yard below.
“There was a 180mm brake poking out from a cover, and that could only mean one bike,” he remembers. “I got extremely excited, rushed downstairs and knocked on the door. It turns out it had been left there by the previous tenants, so I tracked this bloke down. It took me a while to prise it out of him.
“One time I went round he was plumbing in a new washing machine, and his wife was there. I said ‘the money I will give you for that Gold Star would pay for that washing machine with a bit of change’. Well, he was dead. His wife hated him riding bikes, that’s why he’d left it behind.”
After six months working in London, Mike was transferred back north to Manchester to work on the design of the new M67 motorway, plotting its alignment using a mainframe computer.
The Mini and Gold Star went north with him but, with a wedding planned, he and Margaret needed to raise money for the deposit on their first home, a terraced house in the city.
“We got £100 from her mother, and my parents agreed to help but my mother said I’d only get the money if I sold the Gold Star,” he says.
Mike’s mother had rendered him bikeless again, but not for long.
With his friend, Don, who had also moved to Manchester with his wife Hilary, Mike began filling his garden shed with various machines.
“Together we started collecting bikes again, mostly vintage Nortons,” he says. “We used to do garage clearances, take everything away, chuck most of it on the tip and whatever was left was useful. We both had sheds full of Norton bits from the 1920s to the 1940s.
“I also had a BSA B40 in full scrambles trim used for off-roading. Lots of tearing about on abandoned mineral railway lines and pit heaps – it was great fun.”
It was Don who influenced Mike’s decision to get the Venom.
“He was already a Velo man,” he says. “We’d already done things like the Thistle and the Dragon rallies, two up on the back of his Thruxton while we were at university.
“We started looking in the Manchester Evening News and saw this bike for sale in Preston. We went up on his Triumph, bought it and came back down on it the same night. It had no generator and no lights.
“We came down the M6, then the M61, then the old A6, and we went past Little Hulton police station with it almost going dark doing about 60-odd in a 30 limit.
“They had Hillman Imp panda cars in those days and I remember watching one start up – I caught it in my left eye as I went past.
“He finally caught us up at a set of red traffic lights, but he was very kind. He said ‘slow down boys, I don’t want to be scraping you up, it’s a wet night.’ We said we were trying to get home before it rains and it gets too dark.
“So we got away with that. It probably didn’t have an MoT, like as not it had no tax. I could have had the book thrown at me.”
Mike added a generator from a Fiat 500, and a John Gardner voltage regulator and cut-out unit, and the Venom was in regular use as his “fast road bike”.
Soon after, no doubt to the horror of his mother, he took his first steps in vintage motorbike racing on a 1928 Norton Model 18 built from salvaged parts.
It didn’t go down especially well with Margaret either.
“She came with me to Aintree once,” he remembers. “I seized it round the back of the circuit, so at the end of the race I wasn’t to be seen and she almost suffered a nervous breakdown. She never went racing again.
“But I only fell off once in two years, and that was at Cadwell where I dug in a footrest on a corner.
“I had a lot of fun and learned a lot. It’s quite brave to be doing 100mph down Park Straight at Cadwell and then at the last moment sit up, cram everything on and slow it down by 30mph round Park Corner. If you get it wrong there you go into the gravel. It taught me a lot about riding.”
Tragically, in May 1976 Mike lost his great friend Don in a potholing accident in the Yorkshire Dales, the pair part of a six-strong team attempting to negotiate the water-filled passages (sumps) of the Langstroth Pot.
While Mike successfully negotiated the three sumps that gave access to an exit, three of the six, including Don, failed to follow him through.
It was a difficult time, and Mike helped out his friend’s widow by buying up all the bikes and parts in his garage.
“He was in the middle of building a bike, a ‘30s Norton ES2, and I put that on the track for the ‘76 season using brakes, tyres and expensive stuff off my 1929 racer,” he says. “I got my National racing licence with that.”
In the meantime, Mike was using the Venom – as well as various Nortons – on the road, until a snowstorm in February 1977.
“I got caught in a blizzard and I rode it home 15 miles across Manchester in virgin snow,” he says. “With its clip-ons and a very tall first gear, it’s not really the bike you want to be riding in the snow.
“I put it in the shed and got the Nortons out after that.”
The Venom hasn’t turned a wheel in anger since, one of four fully-assembled bikes that were stored in his mother’s garage in Newcastle when Mike first went overseas to work in 1978, first to Saudi Arabia and then to Hong Kong.
About two tonnes of Norton spares and a Triumph GT6 remained at home in Manchester.
A Yamaha SR500 was bought out of the crate in Hong Kong, along with a Honda Prelude, both of which returned to Manchester with Mike when he came home in the mid ‘80s.
For several months, he used the Yamaha to commute fortnightly from Manchester to a new job in Witham in Essex, finally finding a house in Creeting St Peter, north of Ipswich.
“There I had a 16x8ft shed, but also a triple car garage, so I reclaimed all my bikes from Newcastle and brought them and all the Nortons under one roof,” he says.
Another move, this time to Wokingham, followed, to a house with just a standard single garage…
“It ended up being packed floor to ceiling and from the rear wall to the door to get it all in,” says Mike. “By this time I was about 36 and a father of two boys. Realistically, I was never going to race again so I sold the race bike and all the spares. Now I was just left with the Velo and the Yamaha.”
When that job came to an end, it was back to Ipswich, and eventually Mike and family – a daughter had joined the two boys – eventually moved into the house he built and still lives in today.
Overseas assignments followed one after another from about 1995, taking in Jeddah, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Egypt, Bahrain and then back to the United Arab Emirates, where he remained all the way up to Christmas 2016.
For much of this time, Mike was off bikes, but the purchase of a Honda CBR600F reawakened his interest, and that gave way to a BMW 1150GS, followed by an R1200GS.
In 2009 he hatched a plan to ride back to England from Dubai on the 2005-model R1200GS.
“This was when the banks stopped trusting each other and credit became very difficult, and construction projects immediately faltered,” he remembers.
“Nevertheless I received permission for a month off without losing my job (the MD was a former Z1 owner) and in the last days of April took a ship from Sharjah to Bandar Abbas in Iran.”
Mike rode six days across Iran, four days across Turkey, pausing for three nights in Istanbul, and then through Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, across the Italian Alps and into Austria and a weekend stop in Bavaria.
From there he pressed on to Mannheim, then across France and the final leg home to Suffolk, after 9,500km and 18 days on the road.
“Trip of my dreams”
“It was the trip of my dreams,” he says. “Would I do it again? Well, no, but I did enjoy the experience.”
Further tours followed, including a trip to Cape Town in 2011, more than 3,500km on the east coast of Australia on a BMW F800GS the following year, 5,000km through Spain and Morocco a year later and, in 2016, the big one, inspired by the Long Way Down book.
He and his friend Alex rode 10,000km on a pair of F800GSs from Dubai to Cape Town during October and November, including six days on a 40metre trading dhow from Salalah in southernmost Oman to Berbera in Somaliland.
“The bikes were left with the Motorrad dealer in Cape Town for service and new tyres and stored for free,” he says. “Then in June 2017 we returned, reclaimed the bikes and rode north through South Africa to Namibia. There is not too much tarmac in Namibia, so we rode mostly on dirt roads all the way to the Angolan border and back to Cape Town, another 7,175km.”
By then, Mike had retired and finally had the time to turn his attention to the old bike languishing in his garage in Suffolk.
“On a previous holiday visit I’d had the engine apart, put it back together and had it on a shelf,” he says. “I had discovered a little note tucked in the fins which said ‘set valve clearances and ignition timing’. Several years later I get back to it ‘ah right’. I just set it up in the vice and did that.
“Apart from the motor, by the time I finally started on it, the rest of it was in bits. The forks had got rusty so I got some new stanchions, but otherwise it was pretty much OK. I just cleaned it up, took the frame to the powder coaters, and found a centre stand, which it never had.
“The electrics were pretty much as I built them in the ‘70s.”
With the Venom back in one piece by 2019, but suffering teething problems, Mike turned his attention to the other bike that had stayed with him for many years – the SR500.
On the day of our interview, the Yamaha had just been delivered to its new owner. So why sell that, but not the Velocette?
“Well, I took the SR for an MoT in September 2019 and returned it to the garage,” he says. “I took it for an MoT again the other day and it had done 41 miles. I’m not using it, am I? It’s a nonsense – what’s the point?”
You could argue the same applies to the Venom, but the bike Mike rode home from Preston with his great friend Don means that little bit more.
“I’ll keep it for a while longer,” he says. “With that bike, I’m looking back 50 years. I had a lot of fun in my 20s, racing bikes, and I was on the national committee of the Velo club.
“Biking’s about mates”
“I’m still a member now, and biking’s about mates. It’s nice if you can be one of the fraternity, as it were, but you need the bike…
“I’m 71 years old, and I’m pretty fit for a man of my age, but for how much longer? Velos are not easy to kick start, and there are people having to go out and buy electric Alton starters. But if you do the slightest thing wrong it destroys it.”
One day, then, the old bike will have to go, and Mike feels it’s unlikely that sons Geoff and Richard will be the ones to take it on.
“Geoff turns out to be a seriously good rider, but Richard seized a Fizzy one night on the A14, dropped it and very nearly got killed by a truck,” he says. “So he’s not big on bikes, though he is trying to get a licence again so the three of us can go for rides.
“But I don’t know whether they’d be interested (in the Venom). I think the day I get tired of it it will be offered through the Velo club. It’s got to go to an enthusiast. I never sell a bike to anybody that’s not going to appreciate it. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.”
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