Travel: What It's Like To Ride A 1957 Triumph Thunderbird Across Scotland, Wales, And England

What It’s Like To Ride A 1957 Triumph Thunderbird Across Scotland, Wales, And England

By Robert Nightingale
October 31, 2018

Photography by Amy Shore

The Great Mile Rally is a relatively young motorcycling event held in the UK and organized by Malle London, and if you aren’t familiar with it, you can get up to speed with coverage of last year’s ride. In 2018 the route changed again, and one of the enthusiasts responsible for setting up the multi-day two-wheeled trek over the past few years finally got his chance to ride it this time instead of watching everyone else do it from the seat of support vehicles. Robert Nightingale rode the #57 Triumph Thunderbird, the custom 1957 bike being the oldest in the group. Here’s what it was like according to Robert at the finish line.

Is this the first time you’ve entered the rally?

Over the past three years I’ve helped the Malle team research the route, but this was my first time riding along with a team—a completely different experience!

Can you tell us about your preparation?

The day before the rally, like most of the riders I was scrambling to complete the bike in time, finding last-minute spare parts that might break or rattle off. On the forecourt of The Classic Car Club in London, bits of the Thunderbird were littered around the bike, more and more custom and classic rally bikes were being dropped off every hour, which only added more pressure to the impending deadline.

I managed to fit a new oil-feed pipe, “new” custom California handlebars, bent the mud-guards out a bit to accommodate the larger off-road trials tires, fitted race plates, and gave it a fresh oil change. After a quick lap around the backstreets of Shoreditch past the BikeShed to test the brakes and the oil flow the bike was pretty much ready to go.

First thing the next morning we helped the professionals load the bikes into crates and onto the rally trucks. Strapped in tight, for the long and slow journey up to the Castle of Mey, located at the very northern tip of mainland Britain. It was a bit sad seeing my old bike leave for Scotland without me, like sending away the family dog and watching it stare at you out of the rear-window as it was driven away and out of sight.

What happens at the starting line in Scotland?

After 24 hours of driving north from London, we finally reached the top of the country in the support vehicles and set up in the rally camp at the northern tip. Overlooking the North Sea from the Castle of Mey, with the glow of the refineries on the horizon behind the islands of Stroma and Orkney, seals playing in the bay beneath camp; up there the coast line is pretty harsh and jagged, with few buildings on the land, the weather can do a full 180 in minutes, turning from sunshine to blizzard.

The team from the Nomadic Kitchen (Tom & Will) arrived that afternoon, after riding a pair of borrowed Royal Enfield Himalayans 800 miles straight up from London. As soon as they unloaded, they got out their knives, lit the fires and started prepping the first nights wild cooking feast. Then the 70+ riders descended on the Castle of Mey from all over the world (mainly Europe) for the afternoon check-in.

With fresh rally numbers on each machine, we left the castle as a pack led by Jim, the head groundskeeper at the castle, on his old BMW (after a quick change from his kilt to riding leathers). We rode five miles along the coast up to the lighthouse, perched on a slab of rock 250m above the lashing sea. The group of completely unique classic, cafe, and custom motorcycles snaked back and forth up the hill in single file, moving as one continuous machine, the headlamps lighting up the hill in the dusk. We road back along the coast and the local villagers had come out of their house to wave us past, very sweet. The feeling that the rally was about to begin was building.

What was the first full day of riding like?

I don’t know if the cooks made it to bed that night, I woke at 5AM and they were slaving away over the fire, knocking out a hearty wild-cooked breakfast for everyone. Rally mornings are always the most rushed, and the first day was the most chaotic of the lot; bikes and kit everywhere, riders running from tents to bikes, half dressed in leathers, toothbrush in one hand, with a coffee and spanner in the other, trying to find some odd component that they were sure they packed.

Eventually we threw our duffels into the support vehicles and headed to the starting line at the castle. Luck was already on our side and not a cloud hung in the sky. It was beautifully warm— when Scotland is good, it’s bloody great!

After waiting for some “royal cows” to cross the road, the log books were out, stamped, the flag dropped, the rally had begun. Teams departed in five-minute intervals, and my plan was to ride out as soon as the last team had left, to catch up with them.

My team departed an hour or so behind schedule, but it felt so good to finally be out on the road after the months of planning, logistics, and communications that went into it. I was riding with Team-7, two couples on a mix of modern Triumphs and Bobbers. We barely saw another vehicle for the first few hours of the day, hugging the coastline that rises and twists along the edge, one of the best parts of the North Coast 500 route.

The Thunderbird was pulling strong and running like clockwork, we made great time, and Stage 1 was pretty easy going overal. We only needed to turn right about twice, the rest the of the day was following one gorgeous tiny B-road down the entire western side of the Scottish Highlands, through truly wild countryside. In places the sea was a turquoise blue, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we were in Scotland the white sand beaches could be in the Caribbean. By the fourth checkpoint of the stage we had caught up with a few more teams, and met up with the BMW Motorrad team, led by Ralf and Lucas with photographer Amy Shore who was documenting the rally.

The seven-hour ride was ending faster than we’d expected, and the signs for Torridon started to appear. As we came across the small pass from Kinlockewe, we reached Loch Torridon and rode along it until we hit the night’s camp at the grand Torridon Estate. I kept an eye on the edge of the loch as we rode, as the last time we were up here on the research trip we spent an hour watching a family of otters fishing for trout along the bank.

Torridon itself did not disappoint. The estate is run by a wonderful Scottish-German couple that served up “Tartan Tapas” with local scallops and fish from the sealoch. After the rally briefing and the whiskey paring, the instruments were out, Scottish music started up, and somehow ended up in an impromptu Highland Games. After we were thrashed at a tug of war, I turned to something I was slightly better at, bike tinkering. The bike seemed to be doing well, it was keeping up with the modern BMWs, and she was in her element on these tiny twisty roads, much lighter than the new bikes I’ve ridden and quite easy to steer with your knees, keeping the bars straight and pushing the back end around corners.

What was it like on the second day’s stage?

On day two in Scotland we had an early start and after a breakfast served among the trees and the morning ritual of oil/coffee/briefing. Suddenly the midges (small, nasty little things that fly in swarms) decided to make an appearance, and within minutes we all had our helmets and visors on. The midges sped up our departure; log-books stamped, flag down, off we went. Another gorgeous day of sunshine greeted us as we headed straight to the highest pass in Scotland and the steepest legal road in the UK: the Applecross Pass. The roads around there are beautifully smooth and seem to have been laid out by a roller coaster engineer with a good sense of humor. Twisting up and down over endless hills: perfect.

The first hiccup of the day came when my friend Ravi’s Moto Guzzi had arrived at Checkpoint #2 at the start of the pass and decided to throw up all over the road. A big black pool of fresh oil beneath the bike, a leaky hose or a faulty clip. After 30 minutes of messing with it, our new friends from the BMW team arrived, looked at the hose and said “I’ve got just ze thing.” We all thought he was going to come back with a brochure for a modern BWM, but he came back with some very smart white plastic gloves, tools, and spare hoses. 10 minutes later, both teams were back on the road.

What a road. Getting to the top is one thing, but the view down into the valley with the Isle of Skye in the distance is amazing. The pass boasts a dozen hairpin bends as it progresses down the valley and as soon as I reached the end I just wanted to ride back up and do it all again. But there were more mountains to come…

Stage 2 was definitely a longer day, about eight hours or riding in total. We arrived at Checkpoint #3 at the start of Glencoe, the Great Glen. A breathtaking ride through that monstrous valley, imposing mountains on every side, the stags were grazing up on the heather and granite foothills; you’re riding through a whiskey advert! As we came to Checkpoint #4, I parked the bike up and noticed a new smell. With an older bike, there’s no warning light if something’s starting to go wrong most of the time. You have to use all of your senses, touch (certain parts!), listen, and in this case smell the motorcycle. Normally the bike has a gorgeous hot-oil aroma to it, but not at this moment.

We carried on the ride through Loch Llomand and the Trossachs anyway, and then down the coast to the extremely bizarre and beautiful Kelburn Castle where our rally camp was based for the night (the Castle was painted by a group of Brazilian street artists). As I turned up the drive to the castle, I wasn’t getting as much power as I would normally, or was it just my imagination. When you’ve been riding all day, 280+ miles, you’re tired and your mind can play tricks on you: “Maybe it’s me and not the bike?” The Nomadic Kitchen team were already at the fire when we arrived, roasting butterfly lamb. Dinner that night was a well lubricated affair, and back at camp we were greeted by a fantastic sunset over the bay.

My friend Calum and I had a look over my Triumph (which belonged to my late father) and we realized the throttle was misbehaving, sticking slightly, but nothing major it seemed, nothing to explain the smell or the power loss. At this point I should probably have taken that pre-rally advice and maybe given the bike a day’s rest…

Assuming you didn’t, how was the third stage in the Lake District?

Another early start and the good weather was still on our side. I knew this was going to be a long day, 300+ miles on the route card. I joined the last team to leave who were enjoying a leisurely start, but then it appeared that the old police-issue Moto Guzzi had snapped an alternator belt, so after some quick calling around, we located a shop 20 miles down the road where we might get one. We headed out on a brief detour to source belts and parts, adding an hour to our day. After we crossed the border and left Scotland for the Lake District, we were happily cruising for a few hours when I felt power suddenly drop on the Thunderbird. I limped along to the next turn, found a safe spot to park up, and found that for some reason the bike was only getting full power when in high or low revs, but nothing in the middle. I searched the electrics, then got word that the support vehicle was only a few minutes away. We looked over the bike, stripped the carb, gave it a clean, and then it seemed to be running just fine.

I caught up with my team at Checkpoint #3 and as we rode together down in to the Lake District the Thunderbird was back in her element, thrown from side to side up the mountain roads. The sun was shining over our fantastic afternoon of riding over the passes and along the lakes, dodging stray sheep, cows, and tractors.

Unbeknownst to us, late in that afternoon a lorry driver had fallen asleep on the M6, knocking out an entire motorway bridge. He was completely fine, but it shut down the motorway for 24 hours (the local newspaper the next morning called him the most unpopular man in Lancashire). All that traffic spilled onto every other nearby route, which meant thick traffic for 50 miles in every direction, and exactly in the area we were all trying to ride through. Luckily we were on bikes and could filter through the bad patches of it thanks to our relative size compared to the cars that had taken over.

What were the highlights of the fourth stage in Wales?

By Day Four you could start to feel the toll of the last three solid days of riding, 750-odd miles, and two countries were behind us already when we crossed over into Wales. I started that day with the BMW Motorrad team and the storm clouds kept threatening to break above us. A couple of times we stopped, threw on wet weather gear as a precaution, but most patches were just passing light showers, so we road as a pack through the winding roads of Snowdonia National Park, down the infamous A470 (voted the most beautiful road in the country) around the back of Mt. Snowdon and down through the valley.

By Checkpoint #3 we were joined by another team with a very fast Triumph Thruxton leading their pack. To keep up with them all I really had to press my chin to the tank, tuck the elbows in, and try to get another 10mph or so out of my own Triumph. Somewhere in Snowdonia my key must have rattled out, so I borrowed a small teaspoon from the cafe which seemed to do the trick of starting the bike just fine!

The weather still held, but as we left the Brecon Beacons the wind was picking up, bringing with it a kind of meteorologic energy that you feel before storms. Riding with three teams in our cluster now, 12 or so bikes altogether, we crossed the Severn Bridge at a furious rate. Riding in all three lanes, I’m not sure if we were actually going that fast or if it was the headwind that was bashing the bikes about as we rode across the huge suspension bridge; whatever it was, it was quite a departure from the quiet tracks of the Scottish highlands. I think the BMWs were politely humoring my attempt at keeping up with the pace, through my wildly vibrating side mirror I could just make out the image of Jochen grinning and riding along side-saddle on his cafe racer BMW and then occasionally wheeling it past me. I didn’t think being overtaken would be a highlight, but it was a great memory of that stage.

We were chasing each other down the lanes of the Mendip Hills when we saw the welcome site of two rally flags up ahead. The guys from Sinroja motorcycles lead the Marshal team that day and waved us in with smiles. The landscape was completely different around here, the camp perched on top of the Cheddar Gorge on a large flat plane with gorges surrounding the area on three sides. Word spread that night that there was a full lunar eclipse, with a blood moon, but unfortunately the storm clouds had descended on the dark camp, so instead we hosted a motorcycle race.

The boys wheeled out the Mini Malle Moto, a half-thrashed monkey bike. They’d turned all the support vehicles around with full beams to light up the “track,” and one at a time every rider and marshall took a timed lap around the marker-bike and back. 10% didn’t make it across the start-line, and then the Belgian rally team proved that it was actually faster to run the route by foot and beat the monkey bike. After the race finished and the winners were awarded a cold beer, I was walking the Thunderbird back across to camp when I realized the tank badges must have rattled off somewhere in Wales. It seemed I was leaving bits of the Triumph on roadsides up and down the country…

Tell us about the final stretch to the finish?

The last day of the rally was supposed to be the shortest day, but the motorcycle gods had other plans….We woke to good news that the storm hadn’t broken yet, but big dark clouds still hung menacingly on the horizon, full of water—I guess on the last stage of the rally, you need a little drama, you don’t want everything to be too easy.

For the last day we had arranged for the press-marshal Rachel Billings—who was writing about the rally—to ride with our team to shoot 35mm film from my bike…. Slight problem: it wouldn’t start. After 30 minutes of tinkering and some kind words whispered to the bike, she suddenly roared into life. By that time all of the teams were now 30 minutes ahead of us so we jumped on and headed down into the Gorge. Ok, it’s not the Grand Canyon, but it’s a great ride! In the rough words of Bill Bryson, “England doesn’t have the biggest or the highest or the deepest of anything, but it does a lot with what it’s got,” and the county here is unique, varied and very pretty. Tiny postcard towns and castles connect the dots all the way from Wales to Devon and on to Cornwall.

On route to Exmoor, it poured with rain that was more or less relentless but Rachel wanted to keep going anyway, a trooper. The rain ended eventually and there was a faint hint of blue sky up ahead, and then the bike died. We rolled to a silent stop in an old school house drive. Out with the tools—so much for Rachel’s rally team photos. I was pretty sure we were miles behind the other teams. By sheer coincidence Calum and the support Land Rover drove by only 10 minutes later, and we went over the obvious things, then took out the battery, only to discover that the two new lithium batteries had fused together in some horrible hot molten mess. The bike might be out of the rally we thought, with only 150 miles to the finish line.

Luckily we weren’t in the wilds of Mongolia at night, but rather a Saturday in England, so we start calling up all local bike garages trying to find a classic 6V battery. After ten times hearing “no-go,” we find one on route that thinks they have some in stock so we quickly stick the bike in the trailer.

We found the old motorcycle shop, owned by a young guy who specializes in vintage Japanese imports from the 1980s…quite niche, but he has the battery! £6.50 later and it’s installed, the sun’s shining, and we’re back on track.

As we reached Exmoor, the landscape changed completely, a wild open moor, with animals running across the roads. We crossed the top and the bike seems to be struggling again, fine in high revs, but no power below that, it coughs, spluttering, then there’s just the sound of air rushing past. We rolled to a silent stop, again, outside an old garage that looked like it had been closed for decades. No network connection, Rachel walked up the valley, still nothing, I started going over the bike, no joy, the battery was completely dead.

After 20 minutes or so a little voice popped up from the hedge behind the garage: “Need some ‘elp?” A small older gentleman in a blue baseball cap came through the gate, smiling. I explain the bike problem, he tells me he owned a similar model once. He rubbed his big mechanics’ hands over the engine and says “Well, let’s try and fix it.” He heaves open the sliding doors of the ancient petrol station and I notice the faded paint on the inside walls: “The Black Cat Garage”. Inside, he had a load of old bike parts, some possibly working, some hanging from the ceiling, but he has a workbench full of tools—this might be the best place we could have broken down in the whole of England! He had an industrial battery charger, but after no success with the old 6V, our new friend Fred says he has an idea, and pulls something out of an old scooter. We put it next to the Thunderbird and with makeshift copper wires and it kicked over on the first try! Fred wouldn’t accept a penny for the battery, and we wrangle it into the battery box on its end, holding it in place with gaffer tape. We thanked him again, loaded up, and headed off down the green tree-lined tunnels of Exmoor.

To make it up to Rachel for that last five hours of riding in the rain, three dead batteries, two garages, and four pairs of soaking gloves, I suggested we stop on Dartmoor for a quick bite to warm up. After the pitstop, we went to start the bike and found nothing but silence. The rain started spitting again, so I reluctantly called the support vehicle, but Calum’s two hours south, almost in Cornwall. A rowdy group of young male wedding guests at the pub came out of the back of the pub, and they all have an opinion on how we can start the bike. Moments later they’re taking turns to help me push the Triumph to the top of the hill, across the bridge and bump starting me across the river. On the 15th go, it came back to life, they cheer, Rachel downs the last of her drink, and we’re back in the game, again.

A few hours later as we crossed into Cornwall, the rain started up in full but I saw a familiar Land Rover in a country lay-by. After nine hours on the bike and six of them in the rain, Rachel wisely swapped her seat on the bike for a drier one in the support vehicle.

As I pulled away determined to complete this rally on the bike I started it with the rain only got worse, and my last pair of gloves were fully soaked through when the Thunderbird started to misbehave. As it had for the last few days off and on, it only ran at full revs, then I realized I’d lost the lights, and then the front brake gave up. I saw the sign for Helston and Lizard Point: the end point. Only 17 miles. I’m not about to give up now, so keeping the bike at full revs, I hammered it down the lanes, taking all of the roundabouts in third gear. I considered taking the more direct route across the middle of a roundabout once, rather than around it, but thought better of it. Hunched on the saddle, trying to keep the water out, I watched the odometer count down the last 17 miles, shouting out at each mile marker for a morale boost “15….14….13!”

Finally the sign for “Mile End” appeared, the last mile south on mainland Britain. I arrived at Lizard Point just after sunset at 9PM, four hours late to the final checkpoint and the finish line. No one in sight, the rally flags had long since been cleared away, but it felt so good to be there, gazing over the sea at the end of a long day. The poor bike though, bits missing, smelling bad, no lights, exhausted, and in dire need of lubrication—we had a lot in common at that moment.

Any parting words about the experience as a whole?

When I got back to the rally camp from the finish line at The Lizard, the afterparty was in full swing, fires were lit, drinks were flowing, with with a gail still howling across the Cornish peninsula I walked into the food tent like a half-drowned cowboy. I was the last to leave Scotland and the last to arrive at the finish line, but once I started riding those roads with my team, there was no way I was going to miss out and take a rest day. Things went wrong, bits fell off, but I wouldn’t change anything, that’s not how adventures like these work. The dates have already been set for next year’s route—June 24-30th, 2019—and if you’re interested in joining us more information can be found on our site. 

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5 years ago

Just a superb read. I would love to have “gone along . . .”
All the best,
Kirk F. White

dave wakaman
dave wakaman
5 years ago

Looks like a good trek. Congratulations and well done to all who completed the route. However, surely there’s some issue with the photography as the roads look dry in almost all the shots!

Chad C.
Chad C.
5 years ago

That’s great bedtime reading, inspiring. Such a beautiful part of the world, looks worth the cold temperatures there. Makes me long for another bike. I’ve been promising myself another for ten years, but I’m 45 and my five year old isn’t growing up as quickly as people said he would… I would, however, like to pass on to him the combination of bike, privilege, inclination and grit required to complete an event like this .

Off to sleep I go, gotta work early.

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