Sitting in a lounge room on the outskirts of Sydney, with a pile of primary case gaskets and a Joe Hunt magneto sitting on his coffee table, you can tell Peter Courtney is a bit of a bike fan. With over five decades experience on two wheels, Peter has been there and done it, and he has had some cool rides along the way.
So Peter, how did it all start?
I remember when I was six my mother gave me a jacket that had a picture of a motorcyclist on it, riding along a straight road to the horizon. I reckon I spent more time paying attention to that picture than I did to the schoolmaster. After that I remember my scoutmaster having a Triumph bike and sidecar, I had a ride in that and knew first chance I got I would have a bike.
What was the first bike that you owned?
On my seventeenth birthday I bought a two year old Triumph 6T. I bought that bike not even knowing how to change a spark plug, but I found I had a feel for the mechanical aspect of owning a bike. That thing was quite a bike, but I liked the Triumph bikes, still do now. I owned a 49 Speed Twin once, don’t know what was done to it but I could keep up with later model Bonnevilles up to about 60 mile an hour.
So you had the need for speed?
You could say that. A few months after I purchased my first road bike, I bought my first race setup. It was a Vincent Black Shadow sidecar outfit, bought in pieces for 65 pounds. There were boxes and boxes of bits with it, but luckily the owner supplied a parts catalogue and workshop manual with it. So much detail in the manuals in those days, if I had two bolts of similar length but didn’t know what went were, I could consult the parts drawing and match the number of threads on the drawing to see where the bolt went. I spent that winter sat next to my kerosene heater, polishing until the wee hours of the morning. I ended up having to sell that bike to pay for my speeding fines.
So you were a bit of a Vincent fan?
Definitely, I have owned 6 Vincent motorcycles all told, with two being Black Shadow model bikes. I used to race Vincent sidecar outfits whenever I could, I just came across a pair of Vincent intake manifolds in my shed the other day. When I owned a Vincent Comet, the 500cc engine bike, I would drape my army greatcoat over the back end of the engine so people would think they were drag racing a Black Shadow.
How many bikes would you say you have owned all up?
I’d definitely say over forty, easily.
Got any bikes you have owned that stand out in your memory, either good or bad?
I owned a 1946 Indian Chief, 1012cc ex cop bike. Most fun clunker I ever had. It was fitted up with a sidecar, and because of the left hand throttle, if you took a corner too quickly you could jump over into the sidecar, yet still have easy access to the throttle so you could stay on it coming out the corner. Useful thing that bike was, when I had to transport my AJS competition bike I would take off the sidecar body and mount up some flat boards. Then I would just have to strap the ‘compy’ to the boards and I could ride up to Moorebank to race.
One bike that the memory haunts me was a mid 70s Husqvarna 360 automatic. Rare as anything, but I could understand why they were, as I could never get the thing to run right. Even when I could get it up to speed it had no engine braking capability so it was no good for anything exciting.
How much had changed since you started riding?
Well back when I started riding, I always saw the motorcycle cops as nothing more than ‘bikies with badges’. I remember getting yelled at by a police cyclist while I was riding my AJS ‘compy’, getting told it was too loud. He had completely disregarded the fact I was 10 miles over the speed limit. That AJS was a hoot to ride though, one night I blew through two bikes sitting at a set of lights thinking they were my mates, turns out they were bike cops.
What about later on down the track?
I was the proud owner of a Kawasaki Z1R, I remember watching them in the Castrol 6 Hour and thinking ‘my bike can’t do that’. I pulled into a dealership not long after that and while talking to the service advisor had another fellow interrupt us, to tell me to ‘get rid of those Japanese Julius Marlowes and to get a decent set of shocks’. I took his advice, and I took some rubber off the footpegs getting the compound going in the rubber. Worth it though, it was like riding a different bike. It could lean into corners and handle, it was something else alright.
So you got a hang of the technical side of things?
Racing the Vincent bikes and the AJS helped a lot, but owning so many bikes helped out as well. I’m a truck driver as well, so being mechanically adept is handy as well. Sometimes I used what I had learnt in one area and utilised it in another. When I learnt I was going to be taking my truck to an area that is notoriously dusty, I got UniFilter up at Gladesville to build me a foam filter I could oil up, a much better option than the paper filter offered by the truck manufacturers.
So what is your current ride?
My bike at the moment is a 1956 Triumph T100. I picked it up last year at Shannon’s auctions, it’s just what I was looking for. Pre unit with TR pipes, the bike looks like it is going 100 miles an hour just sitting still. It came by way of Singapore, it was first sold in 56 through one of Triumph’s dealers over there. I’m a big fan of the Triumph bikes, and this one is definitely a beautiful example of a Trumpy.
What are you working on right now?
I have a lawn mower fitted up with a Villiers engine, just trying to put the last touches on it to get it to run right. I’m also working on my Kenworth truck, just picking away at what needs to be done to the old girl. The Triumph is just getting some electrical parts rebuilt. She will be as good as new, probably better.
This interview originally appeared in Retro & Classic Bike magazine.