I ride back from Heritage Rerstoration – Brentford to Camden – with the Vespa GT200 echoing off the concrete underside for the M4.  The re-growth of the 2cv seemed oddly familiar.  Even the echoes added to the mix of déjà vu and the feeling of an object-lesson in process.  As I pulled up to the lights at Western Avenue, drizzle spontaneously beading in the July humidity on my visor while the heat on my back from the sun made my lightweight Superdry jacket clammy, it came to me.  The tenacity and determination of three-years trying to get the 2cv built fitted exactly with my previous determination to do things my way.

On April fool’s day 1982 I left the dusty comfort of the BBC to set up my own television production business.  Several months before this I had been having early morning breakfasts with a possible investor at his table in The Connaught to plan the break.  At the time I lived a short cycle ride away in St Georges Fields, a gated complex of four-storey ziggurat blocks opposite Hyde Park. It had been designed and built by Group One in 1969 and one day, shortly after graduating from the film school, driving past the site while it was under construction I noticed a sign had gone up.  Underneath some exaggerated architects renderings of what it might look like it said: “Group One Housing Association.  Available, Spring 1970: one and two bedroom apartments”.  A housing association doesn’t sell property, it offers a share in the development which, in effect, becomes the deposit for an apartment.  It seems astonishing now, but having made some money flogging antiques I drove round the back, parked my rattly left-hand drive VW outside the site office, walked in and bought one lot of shares for £125…and then promptly forgot about it.

Time passed.  After getting a three-month contract from the BBC in 1970 I had felt confident enough to get out of the room I rented in mate’s flat and take out a lease (of sorts) on an attic flat in Bayswater from a landlord called Edward Ehlers.  Edward made a speciality of strategically buying condemned property, renting it out, then cashing-in when councils wanted compulsory purchase rights to rebuild a neighbourhood.  After a few months of living alone I started to share the flat with my girlfriend, Janice Everett.  It was tiny, but with my love of compact things, it gave me the opportunity and I set about optimising the space with fitted cupboards, fold down ironing boards – even building my own hi-fi out off Sinclair components.  Most of the material was salvaged from dumps.  For Janice – a textile designer – I converted one room into a studio including a Japanese-style dowelled-and-pegged shelf in hardwood to support a semi-professional knitting machine.

When in 1973 the council decided to knock the property down I had to fulfil my promise to Edward and get out.  With Janice needing more space I bought a sprawling Victorian garden flat in Sydenham for £20,000.  The idea was that it had a gigantic north facing room with big windows: ideal for her studio.  But, perhaps predictably, it rapidly developed into one of life’s mistakes.  Having already had a covert fling with Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto (who at the time was designing costumes for David Bowie) she never really moved in leaving me marooned in a part of London miles from my work and friends and the flat full of her unwanted stuff.  Instead she flew off to live in a New York loft with an Austrian artist called Alfons Schilling (someone who would later become quite a good friend).

I stuck it out in Sydenham for more than four years, buying a water-cooled three-cylinder Suzuki GT750 to commute to Shepherd’s Bush where I worked on Tomorrow’s World in the BBC’s Kensington House offices.  It was a ridiculously unsuitable motorcycle for commuting and after two years of grinding through traffic the Suzuki self-destructed – on a soaking wet night the ‘ball and ramp’ starter motor clutch suddenly engaged while I was doing thirty and erupted in a shower of metal fragments.  I pushed the Suzuki home and into the room that was to have been Janice’s studio.  There, as I fiddled with Japanese O-rings and alloy surfaces that refused to mate, swearing never to run a water cooled engine again, I rebuilt the block until I could ride it as far as the Honda dealer in Eltham and part exchange it for a tough little Honda N600 – a boxy yellow ochre air-cooled twin cylinder car – to continue my Shepherds Bush commute.  If the journey had been a snarled and tedious crawl on a bike, in a car, even a small one, it was hell.  Next I bought a Honda 250 trail bike that turned out to be a near perfect commuting machine and traded in the N600 for its snappier sports equivalent: a Honda Z600: the sporty version of the car in an egg-shaped bright orange body.  Z600s have turned into collector cars and are now worth good money, but mine worked for its living doing two long tours around Europe and many journeys to my sister in Gloucestershire.  It never missed a beat.  Being essentially Honda four-wheeled motorcycles these early Hamamatsu-built cars were astonishingly reliable, if rather crude in the suspension department.  The secret – as with all good vehicles – lay in its engine: a parallel twin with two perfectly swept 275cc barrels (just inside the ideal volume for a four-stroke engine as is the Citroen 2cv6’s 602cc twin) with an overhead camshaft driven by a hefty chain.  The all-synchromesh gearbox drove the front wheels and the whole lot was aluminium.  Being a Kei Car (a restricted Japanese category that doesn’t exist anywhere else called ‘keijidosha’ meaning ‘light automobile’) the Hondas were narrow and short, thus difficult to make elegant.  Honda faced this by creating the orange egg-shaped body for the Z that gave it a cute coupe look.  All very silly really, but great fun because the interiors of Kei cars were extraordinarily well equipped, and in the Z600’s case this meant aircraft type overhead controls for lights and other ancillaries.  It was in the Z that I drove past St Georges fields one day in 1974 and, fascinated to find out what had happened to my deposit, drove into the now well-landscaped estate and pulled up outside the office.  When I said who I was the manager immediately rose from his chair, shook my hand and asked where I’d been.  It turned out that a one-bedroom flat was waiting for me.  I could barely believe it.  After paying another £60 key money I left and when I got back to Sydenham started to pack up the big sprawling place I disliked so much.  It took another year to sell it, but when I did I was twenty-grand better off.  I banked the cash and took stock of my vehicles: the Honda Z, the Honda trail bike and a Solex.  I wanted something bigger.

In March 1977 I was by now the star director on the BBC science magazine programme Tomorrow’s World and on my way to Bologna.  It was just another assignment.  The job: make a six-minute insight into how one man was transforming Italy’s industry in the teeth of communist-inspired union disruption.  The man’s name was Alessandro de Tomaso.  He lived in Modena where his American wife ran a hotel for wealthy car enthusiasts – mostly Maserati owners.  Alessandro had just wrestled Maserati SpA from the clutches the Michelin dynasty and promptly fired the workforce.  When I got there the factory was shut.

Making the film meant travelling with the sharply dressed de Tomaso from Modena by road to Mandello del Lario where the oldest company in his empire, Moto Guzzi, built motorcycles.  Under his Brioni suit de Tomaso packed a Berretta M9 in a tan leather shoulder holster.  It turned out he also owned Fabbrica Berretta d’Armi Pietro Berretta because he had recently bought-out the old owners, motorcycle builders Benelli SpA. De Tomaso was an Argentinian who had driven to victory in Italian Formula One cars made by OSCA, part of Maserati.  As a top industrialist with connections to the Ford family (he had built the fearsome mid-engined Ford-powered De Tomaso Mangusta one of the inspirations for the Ford GT40) de Tomaso had become known in Detroit, and eventually Italy, as “Don Tomato” because of his mafia-like management style.  De Tomaso was inevitably on the left-wing Brigato Rosso wanted list, hence the gun. Alessandro de Tomaso had also bought Innocenti, the Milanese company that had invented Lambretta scooters, and was now building under licence the BMC Mini that de Tomaso had just had redesigned to great acclaim through his recently acquired carozzeria Bertone.  This innovative hatchback redesign was the main reason for my six-minute Tomorrow’s World story topically pegged to British Leyland’s launch of its ill-proportioned and lacklustre Mini replacement, the Metro.  The show’s anchorman, Raymond Baxter, thought my intention to make a film about an Italian Mini rather than the British car was in characteristic poor taste.  At the Moto Guzzi factory with its heroic Fascist test track built into the side of a rocky outcrop above Lake Como, I took a ride on the company’s latest model.  It was called the Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR.  PR stood for Production Racer because the bike was a “homologation special”.  That meant just enough were being built by de Tomaso’s factory for it to qualify as a production bike, although it was really a thinly disguised endurance machine for 24-hour road races based on the earlier Guzzi 750 S3.  I was smitten.

Back in London I looked up dealerships for Moto Guzzi.  There were two – one in Guildford and another in Wandsworth.  The Wandsworth dealership was new.  Called Continental Motorcycles it turned out to be a tiny shop at 51 Huguenot Place – now an Asian dry cleaner.  It had one silver-blue Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans.  I wanted a red one, but this was the only version available so I bought it for the list price of £1200.  The following week it was registered TGC 971R and the next part of the story begins.

I rode the snorting Moto Guzzi to work every day and parked it under the bridge that crossed the car park at BBC Kensington House (now a hotel) in a spot just below Esther Ranzen’s office.  Ranzen, who by then was a sort of BBC godess, violently disapproved of the thunderous off-beat noise, often dispatching a young runner called Peter Bazalgette to complain when I warmed up the mighty 850cc V-twin engine.  In the end Phil Daley (known in the BBC as ‘Twice Daley’ because he had worked for Bayer pharmaceuticals) who was Head of the BBC Science & Features Department, ordered the bike to be parked in the street using the full force of a BBC memo copied to the controller of BBC2, Brian Wenham.  Wenham, who had a dry sense of humour and was known as ‘Wenmo’ because of his acerbic one-line notes to people, strolled over to have a look at the offending motorcycle and decided it could stay in the car park as long as it was parked next to the yellow Toyota 2000 estate car belonging to the editor of the Man Alive programme, Desmond Wilcox.  It was Wenham’s idea of a joke.  Wilcox was Ranzen’s husband.

In the summer of 1978 I was in his office working on a Tomorrow’s World special about the revolutionary new fly-by-wire Airbus 320 when Dr Jonathan Miller popped his head around the office door and said he wanted to chat.  Miller had been trying (and failing) to find a way to present a series about man’s perception of the human body.  Large sums of money had been wasted trying come up with a way to do it.  He had heard that I – often seen walking around Kensington House wearing jodhpurs, leather officer’s boots, a pudding basin helmet and goggles – was good at visualising complicated ideas.   Two years after this first encounter I had directed and edited Miller’s thirteen programmes, now called The Body in Question.  Almost all of it had been filmed on Stage 2 at Ealing Studios where The Lady Killers and A Night to Remember had been made.  Standing outside those historic green painted stage doors the silver-blue Moto Guzzi had been an exotic and rare curiosity attracting the attention of any passing motorcycle enthusiast from the leather-clad actor John Gielgud on his BMW R90 to the diminutive ETU shop steward Tommy Moran.  But on a practical level the Guzzi had given me huge flexibility.  It had carried me between the locations, the office and the studios running rings around his executive producer, Karl Sabbagh, who shuffled about in taxis. During one of the rare foreign location shoots for the series in Rome I had persuaded the sharply dressed Italian electricians from Mole Richardson to take me to a performance motorcycle wholesaler for a pair of racing Imola exhaust pipes and two 40mm chokeless Del Orto carburettors.  The electricians closed the shop door and quietly reminded the shopkeeper that I ‘knew’ de Tomaso.  The parts were handed over as ‘gifts’ and taken out of Italy as ‘film equipment’ sans duty.  They considerably upped the performance of the Moto Guzzi…

In the summer of 1980 on a warm Sunday lunchtime I was burbling west along George Street in central London on the Guzzi when an oncoming Mini turned right in front of me.  The bike buried itself in the front of the car and I flew over the roof, landing in the road, bruised and with a fractured wrist.  At first the two blokes in the front seat of the Mini, who had been arguing over a map, would only speak Hebrew, but once the police motorcyclist arrived on his BMW it turned out they were cockney carpet dealers.  It was clear their insurance company was in for a hefty rebuild…

I rebuilt the Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans in a garage attached to the grace-and-favour house of the late Lord and Lady Frazer on Regents Park’s Inner Circle. After he lost his job at KJ Motors my father and mother now lived there.  They had worked out his retirement caring for Lady Frazer until she died.  As is usual with servants of the Queen’s favoured gentry my parents were moved into a grace-and-favour cottage of their own on the Inner Circle.  Lord Frazer had been blinded in the First World War and founded the RNIB, hence the title.  The large white tiled garage where his chauffeur’s pre-war Daimler Fifteen had been stored and where the Guzzi was rebuilt had originally been designed as the abattoir for mad George III where the deer that were driven up to his carriage window so they could be drunkenly shot with his gilt bow and arrow were butchered and hung.  After their death, the Frazer’s spooky and not-quite-empty old house was filmed by me for the opening scene of the thirteenth and final Body in Question episode as a creepy metaphor for the dead human body.  This metaphor acted as a curtain raiser for the infamously bloody post mortem scene in which Jonathan Miller dissected a very fresh human corpse, but after three day’s filming under hot lights it hadn’t been so fresh.  The electrician who was up a ladder above the corpse on the hot morning of filming fainted while trying to put spun glass on a 2k backlight for Jonathan’s head and fell off his ladder into the open chest.

Once the series had been transmitted I completed the rebuild of the bike with the addition of an imported ‘works’ close-ratio gearbox (it came in a wooden box with the Moto Guzzi eagle stencilled on it in black), high compression pistons, a racing camshaft, new front forks and a new paint job in black and red.  It was now to full PR specification – in effect ‘race-ready’.  When the bike was first started the constabulary in Regents Park called round to find out who owned the large calibre machine gun they had heard.  Back on the road and now working on the flagship BBC Horizon science series, I found my office occupied by a young female researcher.  The brightly dressed researcher rode a zippy orange and black Suzuki 125TS trail bike and looked a bit like a Manga doll.  The producer’s film she had come to work on was an idea that he had cooked-up about the technical tangle behind the deceptively simple Underground map designed in 1931 by the electrical engineer, Harry Beck.  It would be a film about London Transport, a typically British patch-up job that had lumbered the capital with a hopelessly complicated mass transit system in need of massive modernisation (a bit like the way de Tomaso’s Bertone bodywork elegantly covered BMC’s engineering lash-up).

As with the Body in Question, the quickest way to get around the London locations for filming turned out to be aboard my now-insane full-blown Production Racer.  Unable to tick over because of the racing bell-mouthed chokeless 40mm carburettors; lethal in the wet because of its semi-slick racing tyres; back-breaking because of its stiff racing suspension, uncomfortable because of its narrow suede saddle; rapid because of its close-ratio gearbox, the Manga doll gamely climbed onto the machine and wrapped her bendy limbs around the producer to avoid being shot off the back under acceleration.  It all turned out well.  We got married – eventually.  In 1982 having left the BBC to start my own production company that expanded on the back of the newly launched Channel Four and my knowledge of industrial culture, particularly of Ford, I was commissioned to make films about it – including the Ford C100, a failed attempt by the company to regain the glory of the GT40 at Le Mans.  As I made more money and my fearsome red Guzzi languished under its covers, I set about restoring an expanding a fleet of rare and often bizarre Italian motorcycles.  In 1987 with no space left for storage I sold the 850 Le Mans PR to European Motorcycles in Shepperton in part exchange for a thirty-year-old BMW R69 as used by TV camera crews to cover the Tour de France (European Motorcycles was run by Steve, son of Jack Lilley, the famous motorcycle trials champion of the mid-sixties).  The BMW R69 he sold to me was the same type that I had first owned in 1970.  That bike had been matched to a Steib 501 open sidecar.  Before I had the Guzzi I had ridden the whispering German combination daily into the BBC when starting my career as a young film school graduate.  One day I had been stopped by the then head of department, a mock-furious Aubrey Singer, who said that if he’d wanted to work with people driving machines like that he would have joined the Wehrmacht – a sentiment echoed by ex-Spitfire pilot and Battle of Britain ace Raymond Baxter!

As soon as it appeared in Jack Lilley’s showroom the gleaming 12-year-old Guzzi was spotted by the owner of an Italian car concessionaire in Egham.  From 1989 the heavily modified, but rather beautiful red and black Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR would stand in the concessionaire’s showroom window alongside the equally beautiful cherry-red Ferraris, and on sunny weekends might even go for a spin.  But when the company was sold the bike went too – back to Jack Lilley’s in Shepperton.  After that, the trail goes cold until the very same Moto Guzzi Le Mans 850 PR pops up again near Manchester.  The name of the new owner is Michael Martin.  With no history to go on Martin had little idea of the bike’s internal modifications, but to his credit left it largely unchanged except for a flimsy Ducati-style racing fairing.  Then in late 2002 he advertised it for sale in Classic Motorcycle Magazine and it was immediately spotted by Darryl Fenton in Cornwall.  Unlike Martin, Fenton knew his stuff.  He had read a magazine article I had written describing my painstaking upgrade of the Guzzi.  After a call from Fenton, Martin agreed to ride the Guzzi from Manchester to Bristol where he could meet Fenton off the train from Cornwall.  It was 11 November 2002.  Fenton paid up and rode the snorting Guzzi 160-miles back to his home in Padstow.  The stubby (and illegal) Imola exhausts had gone so Fenton fitted chromium pipes, but apart from that and some over-enthusiastic touches of red paint on things like brakes and shock absorbers the big Guzzi carried its unique and thundering character intact.  Even my hand-made leather and suede saddle had survived.  But on the 30 September 2010 on a curvy road near Padstow, Fenton missed a corner, threw the big Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR into the scenery and destroyed it.

The story was going to end there, but it was then I got an email from Darryl Fenton.  The Guzzi was on life-support and revivable.  He was sure it would live.  The months ticked by.  Another email arrived.  This time the news was better.  TGC 971R was a rolling chassis with new factory parts.  Then another email, with more pictures.  The work was detailed and time-consuming, but the big muscular Guzzi was upright, although rather disappointingly returned to more conventional looks.   Once back on-board any niggling concerns Darryl had harboured about the bike’s damage vanished and the uneven thunder of its vee-twin motor swept him away again, just as it had smitten me all those years ago in Mandello del Lario.  Occasionally, after storing it over the damp Cornish winter months, Darryl told me he had fleeting thoughts of selling the thirty-six year old bike.  His annual ride to the MOT station puts paid to that…