Ixion rides! Pioneering tales


Here’s a treat, Ixion sharing memories of some of his best, and worst rides. As always, when Rev Davies writes, the wise motor cyclists reads and enjoys (though when this essay appeared in 1911, and for many years after, it was not generally known that Davies was Ixion).

WHEN WE LOOK back over our riding experiences, it is very hard to say which were our pleasantest runs—whether indeed the long no-trouble journeys linger sweetest in our memories, or those terrible trials of endurance, way back in the dark ages of motor cycling, when we were up against it all the time. So, at least, it is with me. I particularly recall several rides which I described as awful when I tottered in home weary, wet, wrathful, and filthy, but which I would not to-day eliminate from my memory for all the petrol that ever flowed through a carburetter.
Several of those rides imply no blame of the machine, which was the principal actor. For instance, in 1902 I rode from Barnstaple to Bristol with a couple of novices, all of us mounted on the staunch old 2¾hp Excelsiors, which were then the machines par excellence. I had absolutely no trouble from beginning to end, but one of my companions was afflicted with a split inner tube when we left Bristol on the return journey at 4pm. We spent many hours alternately waiting for him and mending his tube. Long after nightfall we got him right. By this time the two of us had burnt all our carbide in illuminating his repairs. He promptly sped away into the gloom, and deserted us. More carbide was unobtainable. My remaining companion and myself trickled slowly and timidly along the twisty lanes of Devon in the darkest night of the century. Presently we lost each other, and finally we lost our way.

“I climbed down rocky and precipitous cliffs to fetch water in my cap.”

I spent a most lurid night. Now I clambered down rocky and precipitous cliffs to fetch water in my cap from attenuated torrents, in the vain attempt to resuscitate the sodden carbide in my generator, usually tripping over a boulder in the inky gloom, and spilling the hard-won contents of my rather porous cap. Anon I essayed mountainous hills on a quarter throttle, and collided with high hedges at the first corner. Often I lay down by the roadside—usually in a nettle-bed—and prayed for dawn. Finally, I reached home after twenty-four hours and two hundred miles of road, to start a fourteen hour working day.
Or, again, I recall the 1906 Land’s End-John-o’-Groat’s run, in which I secured the hardest-earned ‘gold’ ever awarded in the annals of motor cycling. Immediately prior to the start of the run, a certain two-speed gear had been (very badly) fitted to my 3hp Triumph. During that ride every conceivable trouble befell me, not once but many times. I had a score of punctures, I wore out countless exhaust valves, I was permanently afflicted with bad lubricating oil, and twice my chains jumped off and pitched me over the handle bar. When I at last got the engine running well the treacherous machine lay down under me at thirty-five miles an hour on a patch of grease and bruised every square millimetre of hide on my body. Next my engine sprockets flew off into a ditch, and it took me four hours to fake up a key and lock-nut after I had found the missing parts. After much perseverance I trickled into John-o’-Groat’s a ridiculous and lugubrious figure, with my overalls hanging in ribbons, my lamp tied round my neck with string, a spanner in one hand wherewith to clump the high gear clutch, a penny in the other to replace a broken exhaust valve lifter, and a crank pin so badly strained that the machine could not possibly have run three miles further!

Our valued contributor, Mr Basil H Davies, and the 1903 pattern 2¾hp Excelsior, with surface carburetter, which proved one of the most trustworthy of the many motor cycles he has owned.

Or, again, I recall a more recent ride from Northampton to Durham in torrents of rain and distinctly permeable overalls. On this occasion the machine behaved perfectly, and my bete noire was a worn engine pulley, in combination with three rubber belts, which did not fit it. Since that ride I know every dead leaf along the Great North Road by heart; for did I not spend the entire day cutting, drilling, and piercing under every green tree, while the pitiless rain entered the back of my neck and trickled icily down to the hem of my trousers. Not one of these runs would I have missed for all the gold of the Aztecs.
On the other hand, the triumphant straightaway runs, devoid of pneumatic, mechanical, or police incidents, have their honoured nooks in one’s reminiscences, and on the whole outnumber the hoodoo days even with such a careless and unlucky wight as myself.
Do I not remember a run—gigantic in those days–from Penzance to Maidstone about the year 1903, again upon my trusty old 2¾hp Excelsior? I do not think the machine was touched on this journey except to refill the tanks, and my recolection is that it never ran better or climbed so fast, while the weather was positively gorgeous. Still, there was a fly in the ointment. I left my sovereign purse on the dressing-table at Penzance and, after settling the breakfast bill at a Clifton hotel, made the sad discovery that I had only a few coppers remaining. As I banked at Oxford I decided to make a detour and obtain some

“My appearance evidently did not inspire her with either interest or respect.”

dibs. Of course when I got to Oxford the bank was shut for early closing day. By this time the blazing sun had robbed me of my never too plentiful wits, and, instead of knocking up one of my numerous acquaintances in the University city, I rode on like a man possessed into Surrey. By the I got into the Guildford district, I was raging for drink, and eke for food, but my parched brain was not sparking very freely, and nothing occurred to me except to call on a few friends living at intervals of thirty or forty miles apart. Being August, of course they were all away at the sad sea waves. At one mansion I did unearth the sister of an old college chum, but I had never met her before, and my appearance evidently did not inspire her with either interest or respect. I was lean, haggard, grubby, and wild-looking. So I weakly regretted her brother was away, and rode off still penniless, and, worse, with only a few inches of petrol in my tank.
Hereabouts I committed my supreme siliness. I passed the very gate of a house where my best and choicest pals were supposed to be enjoying a reading party near Shepperton–a party I was due to join the next week. But I had confused Shepperton with Sheppey, and imagined it to be near the mouth of the Thames, so the name ‘Shepperton’ on a signpost conveyed nothing to my bemused brain. They actually saw me from the garden, recognised me, and shouted—all in vain. Eventually, as I entered Cobham, my petrol ran out. Great men rise to emergencies, it is said, and this final urgency set my wits to work, albeit rather rustily. Selecting the nearest tavern, I chucked my machine against a wall, stalked majestically in, and addressed the buxom Hebe thus: “Miss, I have no money. Can I have a good dinner and a bed for the night?” She replied bluntly, “Certainly not!”
I was quite hurt, but her treatment of me was inspiring, and, dotty with thirst and sun and hunger as I undoubtedly was, I did not repeat my error. I walked to the White Lion, and handed my machine haughtily to the ostler, withered the various servants I met with my best Oxford manner, ordered the best bedroom, the best dinner, and the hottest bath the house could afford. Then I slept the sleep of the just. Next morning I was what the Scots call unco’ canny. I ate the biggest breakfast of my existence, thriftily replenished my tanks, put the machine outside at a comfortable distance from the door, and sent for the proprietor.
“Look here,” I said, firmly, “I have no money!” “Certainly, Mr Davies,” was the urbane reply, “how much do you want?” Imagine my forgetting that the White Lion belongs to the genial treasurer of the ACU–our one and only ‘Bath Road Smith’!

In the 1920s Ixion collected many of his yarns in two volumes, Motor Cycle Reminiscences and Further Motor Cycle Reminiscences. Original editions are rare but they’ve been reprinted and can also be found on line. Well worth tracking down.