| 56-year-old Bill Griffin lavishes attention on his ancient two-wheeler in his Park Circus apartment. Picture by Aranya Sen
Standing incongruously at the centre of motorcycle enthusiast Bill Griffin’s second-floor Park Circus apartment, a vintage chrome Triumph gleams on pedestals amid a sea of nuts and bolts, spanners, wrenches, spray cans and toolboxes.
Built in 1909, this venerable British museum piece was salvaged from a Calcutta scrap heap earlier this year. Now, after lying unused in India since the days of the Raj, it is to be wheeled out and driven home in style. Lovingly polished and restored to antique splendour, the vehicle is set to become the oldest of its kind to cover a distance of 7,000 miles, when Griffin kick-starts its 75cc Carboretta engine next summer to embark on an inter-continental odyssey from Calcutta to London.
“The bike was a heap of rust when we found it,” says Griffin. “For the past four months, I have been reassembling it here in my living room. It is one of the last of its kind, and I understand there are only two others like it left in the world. Its features are entirely original.”
On May 15, 2004, Griffin is scheduled to set off from Raj Bhavan, clad in original, turn-of-the-century aviation gear, including goggles and leathers. At a maximum speed of 25 mph, Griffin anticipates the century-old Radco Birmingham Triumph model could be on the road for over three months. The veteran biker will travel without crash helmet aboard the two-gear vehicle, which has no headlights. So, being a nightrider is out, yet the plan is to cover an ambitious 150 miles a day.
Griffin will be trailed on the course of his trip by a logistical back-up team, headed by five-time national racing champion Bhupinder Chopra. From Calcutta, the Triumph will travel via Nepal and Sikkim, through the mountain passes of China, into Russia, and on through Poland, Germany and the Netherlands.
Crossing the channel, the rider will enter the home strait, heading for a finishing tape at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, alongside the city’s Marble Arch.
“I’ve worked with bikes since the Sixties,” confesses Griffin. “I was part of a big bikers’ set, known as the 59 Club. But I never did anything like this. The furthest I rode before was around 1,000 miles across Europe.”
Tinkering with the contraption taking pride of place in his living room-turned-workshop-showroom, 56-year-old Griffin contemplates a last historic adventure. “Between us, we’re over 150 years old, the bike and I,” confides the former restorer of historic buildings. “Plenty of sceptics are casting doubt on my chances of arriving home in one piece, but I’m confident we can make the distance. I’d never stripped an engine down in my life before, but I know that, if we break down, I can simply mend it by the roadside. The engine is that basic.”
Sponsorship deals are in discussion-stage with Maruti, while Ballygunge beauty parlour owner June Tomkins has also pledged finances. Griffin aims to raise a target Rs 1 crore for various fledgling charities in Calcutta, including Goethals Memorial Health Centre on Lenin Sarani. When — and if — he reaches London, Griffin has vowed to put the contraption up for auction in a bid to raise further funds. But it remains uncertain how willingly he will part with his labour of love. “What I’m really looking forward to,” he says wistfully, “is hearing the ancient put-put-put of that engine kicking into life.”