The Nimbus

I’m the world’s worst motorcycle restorer. The first time I saw this vintage motorcycle it was just a rusting heap of bits. The bike had been partly disassembled for repairs which were never completed and to make it easier to store. The cylinder head and engine barrels were separated, the pistons rusted into the last place that they had been fired to. Old tobacco tins were filled with nuts, moulding gaskets, unknown components and thingamajigs. The pile of motorcycle had lived in various spare rooms and damp sheds from the late 1980s until 2004 when the restoration began. Although I didn’t really know what I was looking at, I knew that I loved it and wanted to ride it.

Denmark only ever produced one motorcycle and it was the Nimbus. Made between 1919 and 1960 the bikes were always well designed with innovative features for the time. The model you see here is the Model C and was made from 1934. This example was built for the Danish army in 1948 and was on the road with three engine rebores until, worn out it made its way into the boxes that came my way.

The engine is 750cc with four cylinders arranged inline driving the rear wheel with a mighty 18 horsepower through a shaft drive. The longitudinally mounted crank shaft runs the generator, which in turn drives the overhead cam that opens and closes the charmingly exposed inlet and exhaust valves. Another lovely feature is the fishtail exhaust that emits a pleasing burble. There are no welds on the frame as it’s made from flat steel bar, riveted together and wrapped around the petrol tank and engine, which acts as a stressed member. The forks are a very basic telescopic design with virtually undamped springs, sat in engine oil and rubber gaitors acting as the only seals. The rear suspension is taken care of by the really rather comfy sprung saddle. The machine bursts into life, in the only manly way for a motorcycle, by sole means of a kick start pedal.

The bike was and still is owned by my now ex-wife. She had bought and ridden it when she lived in Denmark and had toured around Europe before eventually importing it into the UK. The first time I saw it was when I went with her to remove it from a garage where it had outstayed its welcome. The masculine urge to go in a shed and fix things hit me hard. I immediately said that I’d rebuild it, but really I had no idea how to do this. I also had nowhere to work on the bike and no money. Being from Yorkshire I didn’t let the truth get in the way of the good story that I could see myself being part of. This native arrogance combined with stubbornness and so when I told everyone that I was going to do it, then really there was no choice but to crack on.

I’d ridden bikes on and off all my life since passing my test on a Honda CB125 in the 1980s. All the bikes I had were fairly modern and got serviced at bike shops if anything serious needed doing. All I knew how to do was change the oil. Bikes came to me to die not to be improved.

One day I discovered a motorcycle restoration course at a local college. I took the boxes of Nimbus and was able to keep it there. Every week I’d spend one afternoon cleaning rust off parts, stripping it down and putting everything in labelled bags. It wasn’t as glamorous as I’d hoped. No A-Team montage of progress, no welding masks and fountains of sparks. Finally though I started putting bits back together; rebuilt the wheels and forks and fitted a new steering head bearing.

Just as the momentum had started to build the course lost its funding and I had to move the Nimbus back into someone’s damp garage. I didn’t have the space, the funds or the skills to carry on. Children were born and started to grow up.

Several more years passed and the collection of parts moved through more damp garages. Finally a friend built a new garage next to his house and my project moved in. This was about three years ago and together we started to build the Nimbus. I now had enough money to buy parts and pay for the necessary engineering work. I still had little idea of what I was doing but luckily my friend did. I also had a vast amount of help via email from Lars at MC Nimbus. He gave encouragement, lots of technical information, photos and tricks of the trade and also helped me order parts from Denmark.

Fourteen years after taking on the project and we finally had a fixed machine. The Nimbus’ debut was supposed to be a racetrack appearance at the wacky races that is Dirtquake, where I was going to ride it flat track style around a speedway track. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory as the ancient ignition coil melted down, meaning that I didn’t even manage one lap. It was back to the shed for another year of frustration.

The next attempt at a proper ride was on a snowy day in December for the Sideburn / HebTroCo Winter Camp Out Party. It didn’t go well with the old girl stalling on the road and refusing to start without kicking over about 40 times…every time. When I did manage to get going, the throttle had to stay wide open to keep going. Red lights may have been run and I’m sorry if you were trying to drive round a roundabout or use a pedestrian crossing while you were “in my way”.

I gave myself a good talking to and got out the workshop manual. Stripping and rebuilding the carburettor as well as taking time to set up the ignition properly did the trick. The Nimbus now starts easily and runs. As always there are a couple of jobs still to do but I know the bike now and have learnt a thing or two.

You have to go through all of this to fully deserve the vintage motorcycle experience. You need to know your bike well to be familiar with the sounds and rhythms of the machine and this bond with your machine has to be built over time. You don’t just jump on and go and expect it to always work. It’s not someone else’s fault if something goes wrong. You can’t blame “the garage” or “the system”.

On a fine day with an open road and somewhere, or nowhere in particular to go, there’s nothing like riding the bike that you have made work from a pile of broken junk. Anyone who has an old bike will know this feeling and like me might have punched the air and shouted with joy whilst flying over the hill tops and round the bends. It’s not about efficiency or performance, money, luck or whether you deserve it or not. It’s a combination of creativity, optimism, suffering and disappointment, crowned with a supreme feeling of cool as it all comes together.

If you see the Nimbus out on the road, give us a wave (or perhaps a lift if we’ve broken down).

Ed is wearing a 1485 Field Jacket, Governor moleskin trousers, Garrison Belt and Moto Boots.

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