There’s nothing like a bit on the side. In fact, you can even let the better half in on it… Gonzo investigates
I climb the steps of the Dakota DC-3 C-GWZS and settle into a left-hand window seat. Peering into the late afternoon gloom, I spot the loan figure of the pilot, ‘Buffalo Joe’ McBryan, strolling out of the hangar in a sheepskin-lined brown leather flying jacket, collar turned up against the rain, as if he is walking off the set of a war movie.
Firing up the two Pratt & Whitney piston engines, the last commercially flying DC-3 from D-Day shudders into life and begins its slow taxi across the asphalt to one of the two runways at Yellowknife, bound on its 45-minute daily scheduled passenger flight to Hay River in Canada’s Northwest Territories, across the vast expanse of Great Slave Lake.
We are just 318 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and getting around the Canadian north can often be a hit-and-miss affair. Joe, founder of Buffalo Airways, knows this more than most, having made the first flight to Hay River around 1970 and has since made the journey well over 8,000 times. Props whirring, we take to the skies across the vast emptiness of this land, renowned for its unpredictable and often ferocious weather conditions that have swallowed pilots, passengers and their aircraft whole. It is a worrisome factor. Travelling at around 170 miles per hour, we are soon into thick cloud and heavy rain. If thunder is crackling around us, it is inaudible above the drone of the engines. Yet I know it’s there because the plane is pitching against the onslaught and lightning is piercing the darkness.
Commercial transport passenger planes are hit by lightning an average of twice a year. Whether or not the DC-3 had God on its side at this time I had no idea, but the prospect of one’s life being in someone else’s hands, however capable, can be disturbing, especially when the wings of the plane you are flying in are being lit up like sparklers on bonfire night. I try and relax, knowing that I have no control over my own destiny. Mine is in the hands of Joe McBryan, whose disposition is not exactly accommodating. Even his son Mickey admitted that one should never take his father’s word as gospel. Apparently once he told a reporter that the cockpits were so cold that his teeth ached, so he had them all pulled. It’s a great one-liner, for sure.
The reason I am recounting this story is because there are certain times in one’s life when we are happy to hand over the reins to someone else, someone more experienced, capable, reliable, whilst we take a back seat, or, in the case of this unfolding story, a sidecar. Of course, as dramas unfold, this won’t be anywhere near as gripping a story as the one I have just recounted, but all the same, it has been fun recalling it, when that sense of not being in control heightens one’s levels of anxiety and vulnerability.
I place my feet on the seat, my bum on the back, place my hands on the sides and slide into the cockpit, down and down until I am cocooned mere inches from the ground. To my right, Ben Matthews looks down at me, asks if I am okay, then fires up the Suzuki V-Strom, its engine parallel with my right ear. I am about to participate in a chauffeured trip in a combination around the Cotswolds, along A roads and narrow country lanes. Once free of the constraints of the industrial estate, Ben opens the throttle. Sitting so close to the ground, the road appears to rush under me, and I imagine reaching out and touching the hedgerows. Making an approach to a sharp left-hander, rather than lean across to his left, Ben sits upright and opens the throttle, lifting the sidecar. Suddenly I feel myself at what I imagine to be a precarious angle. As the sidecar wheel relocates with terra firma, I look up at Ben who is grinning (is that maniacally?) like a Cheshire cat. He then accelerates down the road, the combination as if charging like a demented cat with its arse on fire after having consumed a Carolina Reaper. The adrenalin rush is extraordinary, and addictive; like snorting a line of finely razored coke (apparently you can also use a bank card for this purpose). There are people I could ask, but I won’t.
Lifting the bike yet again and tearing along more bitumen, eventually we arrive back at base and this time I am the one carrying that same broad grin. To cite the not-quite-accurate Cheshire Cat quote from Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale, Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” I love that. I had no idea where I had been but had enjoyed every moment of the ride. And then just like that Cheshire Cat, Ben disappears, leaving only his smile behind.
The underlying question is, could I become addicted to sidecars? For years, experts believed that only alcohol and powerful drugs could cause addiction. More recent research has shown that certain pleasurable activities, including gambling, shopping and sex can also co-opt the brain, as the latter registers all pleasures in the same way. So, does riding in a sidecar equate to the same thing? Somewhere in my brain’s pleasure centre, something certainly stirred, but no, it didn’t originate thanks to a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or even a satisfying meal. It was a surge of adrenalin, sated by an extraordinary feeling of pleasure. And that is what riding a combination, an outfit, a rig, a hack, call it what you will, is all about, I guess.
Ben Matthews is, as you can imagine, no newcomer to this. As Managing Director and self-proclaimed ‘Chief Test Pilot’ of Watsonian Squire Ltd., he began riding on two wheels when he was four. But before I venture further into this story, let’s look into the past. The Watsonian Squire group can trace its history back to 1912, when Birmingham builder Thomas Fredrick Watson, clearly a man with a creative knack for inventions, developed a folding sidecar, little realising that his vision would go on to establish one of the longest surviving businesses in the British motorcycle industry.
The reasoning was pure logic. You couldn’t carry a pillion on a bike at that time as the suspension was not good enough and, of course, ladies were wearing skirts down to their ankles, so there was no way they could straddle a motorcycle, well, with any sort of decorum, anyway. So, the sidecar became an elegant solution for transporting your young lady. The problem was that for people in Birmingham, many lived in terraced houses with snickets (they call them ginnels round my way… narrow passageways between houses) running round to the back yard. Should they be fortunate enough to own one, people would prefer not to leave their combination parked in the street because of opportunistic thieves, but then a motorcycle and sidecar would not fit down the narrow alleyways between the properties. Watson realised that if he built a folding sidecar which concertinaed shut, you could squeeze it down the snicket. (Early sidecars were initially made with wicker bodies, which were later replaced by ash frames with plywood or steel panels.) As a result of this brainwave, Watson launched the Patent Collapsible Sidecar Company, where ‘collapsible’ was possibly not the most reassuring name he could have chosen. Anyway, he had a small factory in Balsall Heath near Solihull where he began the manufacturing process.
With the advent of the First World War, Watson turned to manufacturing sidecar platforms for use by stretcher bearers, carrying wounded soldiers back from the front line. Come war end, and tens of thousands of motorcycles became available to the General Public through the War Department, from Triumph to Royal Enfield, Douglas and Norton marques. Available at Army Surplus prices, suddenly the working man had transport available at an affordable price, and very soon people were utilising sidecars, particularly tradesmen, for carrying anything from milk churns to livestock to chimney sweeping tools… you could say the combinations were akin to the white van of its era.
In 1922 the company moved to Hockley, Birmingham, and eight years later was renamed the Watsonian Sidecar Company Limited. That same year disaster struck when a spark from a passing train ignited the cellulose store and the factory burnt to the ground. Undeterred, the following year the company moved to new premises in Griet, a sub-district of Birmingham. Yet again fate was not on Watson’s side, with the advent of the Great Depression infiltrating every corner of society. Lasting until 1939, little wonder it was nicknamed the ’Devil’s Decade’. Yet even during this dramatic period of national economic downturn, Watson continued, this time manufacturing bicycle sidecars. His roller-coaster ride carried him through to the Second World War when he stopped manufacturing sidecars due to the lack of materials available. Instead, he produced an assortment of products for the war effort, from camp beds to rucksack frames to canvas aircraft hangars. With a shortage of materials continuing after the war, Watson managed to get his hands on a couple of hundred drop tanks from Mosquito aircraft. Essentially, because Mosquitos were made from plywood and carried reserve fuel tanks, once empty they would be jettisoned. In a warehouse, Watson was to discover two hundred unused spun fuel tanks. The lozenge shape developed into what is today the Watsonian Prescott sidecar.
By the 1950s, fifty per cent of sidecars on Britain’s roads were made by Watsonian – and then came a licence change. Up until the 1950s one could only drive a three-wheeled car with a motorcycle licence if it didn’t have a reverse gear. Then the law changed so one could then drive one even if it had a reverse gear. Suddenly the Reliant Regal – the predecessor of the Reliant Robin – became available to anyone with a motorcycle licence. Cheap to tax and able to transport a family of four with everyone sat under the one roof, you could almost sense the nail being driven into the coffin for sidecars as cheap, affordable family transport. Then, to compound the misery, in 1959 along came the Mini and suddenly you had a small, affordable car that was oh-so cool. The resultant decline in sidecar sales from 1955 to 1965 was so dramatic that the DVLA stopped recording sidecar registrations, simply recording them as solo motorcycles. By this time, eighty per cent of Watsonian’s production was non-sidecar related. Instead, the company was manufacturing hardtops for MG Midgets and Land Rovers, roofs for buses and fairground rides.
In 1984 Watsonian relocated to Brockley, in Gloucestershire, to an industrial site originally having been built as a D-Day hospital. With fewer casualties than anticipated, it became a prisoner-of-war camp and after the war a transit camp for displaced Poles. It remained a Polish village until 1961 before being turned into the industrial estate that you see today.
By 1986 Watsonian basically had lost its way, unlike Squire Sidecars, which had launched in the early 1970s, building sports-style sidecars with fibreglass bodies to go with the new generation of Japanese superbikes that had appeared on the market. Watsonian was to merge with the upcoming Squire company, which moved its production to the industrial estate, and the companies were rebranded as Watsonian Squire. Production began of a complete line of contemporary and classic sidecars. The company also produced a full line of record-breaking motorcycle trailers.
A certain irony was afoot here. With Watsonian continuing to manufacture sidecars circa the 1950s, the 1990s was to witness a boom in the retro bike scene, when suddenly everyone wanted a retro sidecar. Also, somewhat bizarrely, Squire, which originally was going to be the brand that saved Watsonian, gradually faded out, with the last Squire sidecar being made about a decade ago.
Still known today as Watsonian Squire Limited, you will find Watsonian open-topped sidecars throughout the world. Some are original designs, others are slight updates, but all retain the retro/classic look. Some have a platform chassis whereby the sidecar sits on top of the chassis, whilst others have a perimeter chassis where a steel tube goes round the outside of the sidecar, but all are built fundamentally with the same hydraulic suspension system. At the end of the day, the real skill lies in the fact that Watsonian can fit a sidecar to a motorcycle… properly. As one can imagine, there is nothing worse than a poor-fitting sidecar. People will buy a used combination with no idea whether it has been set up properly. Which is why several owners come to Watsonian to have their combination refitted.
From 1999-2012 Watsonian Squire distributed Royal Enfield motorcycles throughout the UK, successfully re-establishing the brand and selling thousands of new bikes through a nationwide dealer network. By 2012, the decision had to be made as to whether Watsonian was to remain a motorcycle importer or a sidecar manufacturer. The decision was made to focus on its core brand, building sidecars and motorcycle trailers, so the import side of the business stopped, although the company remains a main Royal Enfield dealer.
So, who buys a sidecar today? There are those that have grown up with sidecars, but that is a dwindling market. Then you have the committed motorcyclists with young children who want them to ride as a family… and don’t forget those with dogs. Yep. Watsonian also can provide a sidecar with a special loop attachment for a lead to be tethered to it. And let’s also not forget those people of a certain age who for various reasons their partner can no longer sit on the back of the bike or are no longer comfortable riding as pillion. And finally, there is the whole hipster scene where bikers who thought previously that sidecars were uncool or peripheral to motorcycling now think a combination looks uber-cool and fun.
Every Watsonian sidecar is built to order so a customer can pretty much specify what they would like within the constraints of the bodyshell. Interestingly, the popularity of individual sidecars can go through phases for no apparent reason. As an example, the Sterling sidecar that was launched a couple of years ago was attached to a BMW R18. Now, lots of BMW owners order the Sterling because they have seen one fitted. Similarly, Watsonian recently uploaded an image of a Prescott sidecar fitted to a Honda Rebel that they had completed for a customer. People will see how nice a combination looks and will want that same one. That’s the power of social media.
Today, the driving force behind Watsonian Squire Ltd is Ben Matthews, a man with a clear passion for the business and its future. Born in London and raised in Devon, he took a fancy to two wheels from an early age, his confidence growing alongside his enthusiasm for dirt riding, engaging in motocross and enduro. Interestingly, instead of picking up a set of spanners as a career, he opted for a set of kitchen knives, training as a chef. While all his mates were out on the beer at weekends, he found himself slaving away in a hot kitchen, although he admits to having loved the work. “My brother trained as a mechanic and I trained as a chef, yet I was always the one with oil under my fingernails; forever taking engines apart with an ongoing interest in mechanical things.”
Harglo Performance was originally started in the early 1970s in the West Midlands by Wilf Harris and Peter Glover as an importer and distributor of mopeds and spare parts. In the 1990s the business was acquired by Watsonian Squire owners Mike Raahauge and Peter Rivers Fletcher. Having spotted an advert for a position in the spares department, Ben applied and was successful, his timing being perfect as it coincided with Harglo becoming the British distributor for the Italian brand Malaguti, enjoying great success with their ‘Grizzly’ range of minicross bikes for young riders. During this period other brands of minicross bikes were added to the product range including LEM and DB Motori. With increasing competition from other sectors of the market, Watsonian’s owners looked to sell the scooter side of the business whilst continuing to provide spares back-up for the bikes still in use. By 2015 Watsonian-Squire needed additional production area to service the growing demand for their sidecars and the Harglo business was sold and relocated to Aberystwyth.
With the scooter side of the business gone, Watsonian turned its attention to Royal Enfield, becoming the main importer. In 2000, Royal Enfield manufactured a 5-speed left-foot gear-change and three years later introduced the lean-burn engine, to comply with emissions rules. “When the fuel-injected models came along, we thought the market could be massive,” recalls Ben. “We constructed a barn on the site to house both classic and fuel-injected models. We launched the bikes in March 2009 and by June had sold 500. I was just getting on the ferry to attend the Isle of Man TT when I received a phone call stating that a bike had undergone a catastrophic gearbox failure during a dealer’s open day. That resulted in a massive recall. Mike, my business partner at the time, myself, and Rob our general manager spent that entire summer driving round dealers collecting bikes and bringing them back to Brockley. We had to do a complete strip-down of the engines, which resulted in us employing 12 agency staff to complete the work rather than get the dealers to do it. To be honest we never fully recovered from that, it was a continual hard slog.”
Watsonian’s owners were convinced the future for sidecars was limited and so were constantly on the lookout for additional business opportunities that would help support the sidecar business. According to Ben, the irony was that, by 2012 and with Royal Enfield stalling, customers continued to contact Watsonian for sidecars even though the company was not engaged in actively promoting them. Then the Eureka! moment. Why was Watsonian seeking new business opportunities when there was one was right under their nose?
By 2013 Watsonian owners Mike and Peter were contemplating retirement. Mike asked Ben if he was interested in buying out Peter as he himself was not quite ready to retire. Taking up the offer, Ben remortgaged his house and worked alongside Mike until he, too, retired, when Ben took over Watsonian in its entirety. “I got rid of stuff that wasn’t selling, so that was pretty much all the Squire range, and yet every time we tried to do something modern, it didn’t work! The motorcycle market gradually changed in our favour, with people riding bikes such as Bonnevilles and Heritage BMWs, and our product range was just right for them. Suddenly we became a fashion item. And long may it last!” Watsonian updated its chassis to cope with bigger-engined machines, developing fitting kits and sidecar mounts so they were much stronger, yet still retaining the original look. “A lot of people are under the impression that having a sidecar is something you do when you get old, and yes, it can extend people’s riding career by 15 years. Also, it offers the reassurance of a stabiliser effect, says Ben.
“I came here as a very keen motorcyclist, both on- and off-road. I love working in the industry, but it does spoil your hobby. For the first few years I was always out on a bike at weekends, but seeing bikes all day, you do lose some of that passion for riding all the time, although I do love riding a combination. And, yes, I do have a trail bike at home, which helps reminds me how much I love it.
“It is possible to visit the factory and see the people working on your sidecar, so the buyer can become involved in the process. Littler wonder, then, that sidecars are often referred to as ‘sociables’. When buyers do come here, they can spend as much time as they need as we explain to them what the differences are in riding a combination. When they get their heads round it, they are grinning from ear to ear.”
Now, who does that remind you of… No, not Ben, or the Cheshire Cat
Watsonian Squire Ltd 72 Northwick Business Centre, Blockley, Moreton-in-Marsh GL56 9RF
- With special thanks to Dan Sager of The Fabulous Baker Boys PR for his invaluable input
I can’t leave you without mentioning Mr Watson’s Café, parked up by the side of the showroom. Yep, it’s an old double-decker which has been completely revamped, with the cooking area downstairs and on the upper deck a seating area. The hot and cold food is made fresh to order and you can treat yourself to a range of food, from breakfast baps (or load yourself up with two sausages, two bacon, beans or tomatoes, mushrooms, fried egg, toast, and even add hash browns and black pudding) to jacket potatoes, hot dogs, paninis and loaded fries (bacon and cheese, chargrilled veg and cheese, pulled pork, chilli, bacon and cheese). Even dogs are welcome (with treats)! Seasonal hours, so it’s worth checking first (Mrwatsonscafe@gmail.com). Plans are afoot for an open day at Watsonian once a month on a Saturday from the Spring with combination experience rides available, so if you are popping along at any time, check out the café, too. Well, it would be rude not to…