I first came across Muhammad Kamran and his 1940 Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) on a friend’s social media page. Reading about an 82-year-old single-cylinder Second World War-era BSA motorcycle, making a 1,250 kilometre round trip from Lahore to Malam Jabba in Swat, had me keen to know more about the man, and his machine.
As luck would have it, assignments took me to Lahore mid-April, and I was able to meet Kamran at his workshop in Sultanpura.
I was expecting a greying senior citizen, and was instead greeted by a boyish, smiling young man, who immediately settled down to chat about his love for machines. Turns out, Kamran has been a motorcycle enthusiast for decades, and has rescued many older machines that otherwise would have gone to the scrap heap.
I have a special regard for angels like him. His days are spent servicing and fixing automobile air-conditioning systems, and weekends are devoted to the vintage two-wheelers he acquires, and who sometimes ‘acquire’ him! A bit like stray puppies and kittens that walk into our life.
An air-conditioning technician from Lahore rescues and restores vintage motorbikes in his spare time. But unlike those who simply hoard, this hobbyist often feels the call of the road and rides the machines as they were always meant to be
He has restored countless motorcycles over the years, both for himself and many satisfied customers. I was shown a sparkling Triumph in green and gold. It looked almost too nice to be ridden. And to me, that is a pity!
However, when time allows, Kamran goes off on long distance trips on his trusty BSA. His first foray was to Kashmir a decade ago, and that gave him the confidence in his machine to undertake many more journeys, culminating in this year’s trip in spring to the mountains of Swat. The BSA performed flawlessly, and that earlier long road trip inspired him to repeat the adventure this year.
The first leg was a non-stop 475 kilometre ride to Mardan in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The next morning saw them arrive in Malam Jabba, a mere 150 kilometre stretch, but one that took them up the twists and turns of the famous Malakand pass into Swat. Leaving Mardan (altitude 1,000 feet above sea level) in the morning, the BSA reached Malam Jabba late in the day. This hill station is located at 9,000 feet!
The BSA M20 is a single cylinder 500cc pre-War design. It was used extensively by the British army, navy and air force, and many were shipped to India for use by the British Indian Army. Its front suspension is not the telescopic oil-damped forks of today; the M20 makes do with a single coil spring-mounted in the centre above the front wheel to control the bumps coming its way.
Adjustment is via a pair of knobs on either side, to loosen or tighten the springing. The rear wheel has no spring and is mounted in a rigid bracket to the frame. Any springing to the rider’s backside is via two small coils under the bicycle style seat!
These trusty machines were then auctioned off at the end of the War, and saw decades of use on the roads of India and Pakistan, later quietly retired as smaller, more modern, fuel-efficient motorcycles and scooters arrived from Japan and Europe.
I recently came across a phrase in an automotive book: ‘minimum intervention’. This means doing the minimum amount of bodywork to a machine to keep it roadworthy and preserve it for future generations to enjoy.”
Kamran’s particular BSA is an unrestored example. While all its mechanical parts are in perfect working condition, the bodywork has not been restored or painted. The ‘patina’ look, that to the uninitiated may look scruffy and worn down, is highly prized by enthusiasts.
Patina is a word that originated in the antiques industry, and is used to describe the worn leather on a sofa, the missing polish on an armchair, or the cracks on an old watch strap. The faded paint, scratches and dents of life, like the scars on our own faces and bodies, tell a story and, by constantly restoring a machine, as Michael Walker quotes a patina guru in Patina Volkswagens, “you can paint a lot of fun out of a vehicle.”
I recently came across a phrase in an automotive book: ‘minimum intervention’. This means doing the minimum amount of bodywork to a machine to keep it roadworthy and preserve it for future generations to enjoy.
Kamran says it is best to keep the machinery running and enjoy the ride, as opposed to hoarders who buy and hide them away. He detests the ‘black holes’ these hoarders’ houses have become.
We discussed the need to keep the hobby affordable and out there, as opposed to within closely guarded elite circles that exclude the common citizen. And, of course, wherever dreamers get together, the dream of a motor transport museum is not far from their thoughts. The University of Engineering and Technology (UET) Lahore is across the road from Kamran’s workshop and has a sizeable collection of machinery and motorcycles. However, so far, no one has taken the step to create a museum. We agreed that such a space would encourage private collectors to loan their vehicles and motorcycles for display.
I thought I was going to write about Kamran’s journey to Swat, but I realise that his journey is more than just travelling from point A to B. It is also the story of one man, who cherishes his hobby and, unlike hoarders who buy machines and lock them up, this young man from Lahore will, every so often, hear the call of the road, and take off with his friends to places less travelled; certainly less travelled by an old machine that is exactly twice his age! Sure, the machine looks scruffy, but it also oozes a certain charm. Every dent and ding tells a story of its long passage through life.
Kamran says machines have a soul too. I am reminded of that tagline of a famous watchmaker: “You never actually own a [watch brand]. You merely look after it for the next generation.” Perhaps we too should reassess our relationship to vintage equipment.
Use it carefully, and stop constantly trading it in for a newer model. Maintained properly, it won’t let you down, and your care today will allow the next generation to avail a chance they otherwise would not have.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 19th, 2022