“My whole house is my workshop,” Mangat Swaminathan said as a forewarning, opening the door. There was barely any place to stand in the living room – there were tools on the dining table and behind the television, and unopened courier packages on the couch. Between the old teak and cane furniture, all you could see were motorcycle parts. Embarrassed about the mess, the 70-year-old mentioned that his wife complains too, and added, “I have started clearing…”
In the walkway of the house stood a bike under a tarpaulin. Unveiling the machine, Swaminathan said, “This is a classic 1953 British model, Matchless G3LS 350cc.” Its glossy, winged ‘M’ tank badge shone in the sultry afternoon sun. In the garage, two more motorcycles draped in tarpaulin stood amid paint cans of all hues.
Swaminathan, a retired bank employee, is a keen collector and restorer of classic British bikes. It started, he says, as a hobby in 1970, and became a passion over time. Now in his older years, Swaminathan stays in Thiruvananthapuram from Thursday to Sunday, attending to his bikes – the rest of the week is spent in Ernakulam with family and teaching management students.
“I had about 18 bikes, but had to sell eight as there was no place to keep them. I have four here, three in Ottapalam, my hometown, and three in Ernakulam.” Every motorcycle he has ever restored and owned – including a shamrock green 1960 BSA CB33 and a 1956 AJS Model 16MS – is carefully documented in a photo album along with images of his children and nephews.
Swaminathan doesn’t commercialise his work. When he sets out to restore a bike, it is because he wants to. The process, as he explains it, starts with a scout somewhere in India informing him when a bike is available. He procures the machine in one piece, dismantles every component, gets the right manual from the owners’ club, and then lists every piece that has to be purchased or replaced.
Sourcing original parts is trying, even though Swaminathan is a member of the UK-based AJS and Matchless Owners’ Club, Norton Owners’ Club, and B.S.A. Owners’ Club. If these places fail him, he tries other accredited dealers and the internet. And if nothing else works, he gets the part made according to the specification. “Each nut and bolt is different in British bikes,” he said. It can up to a year to restore a bike.
Swaminathan points to a 1954 BSA 350cc BB 31. “I have known this since 1962. It was owned by one Mr Varunni, who used to go to the same bike workshop as me. I’ve had my eyes on it from the time I saw it, but the man was so possessive, he wouldn’t let even his children touch it. One day a friend called to say that Varunni had passed away. I immediately asked, ‘What happened to his bike?’ Varunni’s elder son had taken it to Calicut. A couple of years later, when I was on a bus from Guruvayoor to Ernakulam, while crossing Thrissur, I saw the bike in my friend Vijayan’s workshop and immediately got off [the bus]. The bike was then with someone in Chalakudi and not in great shape. With a little help from Vijayan, I managed to convince the owner to sell it to me. That’s how I purchased the bike 32 years ago.”
Collectors like Swaminathan refer to Millers’ Classic Motorcycle Price Guide, an annual publication which rates a vintage bike as excellent, good, satisfactory or poor. An excellent bike with original parts can fetch Rs 7 lakh to 7.5 lakh internationally, but sells in India for Rs 3.4 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. Swaminathan, however, was once able to sell a 1960 BSA CB33 for Rs 8.5 lakh.
As I was getting ready to leave, I requested Swaminathan for a photograph. Dressed in a crisp blue shirt and white mundu, he posed proudly with his Matchless G3LS 350cc. The septuagenarian and the machine made an incongruous pair – but then, photographs don’t always give the full picture.
All photos by Aparna Rajagopalan.