Date:15 December 2010
Father Adrian Knight wears black leather and a gold earring, and yes, he indeed mingles with an edgy crowd, but that doesn’t mean he’s put Heaven on hold. In fact, he carries out his parish duties with no less vigour than he explores his other passion – the motorcycle. Meet a priest who makes his own rules…
Building your own motorcycle from scratch is an impressive enough feat in itself. But when it involves no plans, a stationary industrial diesel engine, scrapped car parts and stainless steel utensils raided from your spouse’s pot cupboard, the project escalates from the simply challenging to the realm of minor miracle.
Conjuring up images of your average small-town parish priest, one generally visualises genteel tea parties, pulpits and starched dog collars – not a man of the cloth decked out in black leather, straddling a two-wheeled mean machine at raucous biker rallies. Then again, Father Adrian Knight is not your average clergyman. Currently serving as Anglican parish priest for the Robertson district, he’s also chaplain for the Ulysses Motorcycle Association’s Western Cape chapter. Their motto, “Grow old disgracefully”, makes perfect sense when you consider the organisation’s membership: it’s exclusively for bikers in the over-40s category (although to be honest, they’re not especially disgraceful).
Knight, now in his mid-50s, developed a strong liking for the twowheeled lifestyle long before entering the priesthood about seven years ago. He explains: “I have a lot of time for bikers… they have stood by me in the past when I needed it most.” Before being ordained, Knight studied ceramic engineering at university and went on to run his own successful mould-making business.
At first, his interest in motorcycles was pretty conventional. He bought his first scooter, a Lambretta Li 150, while still at school. “I wish I still had it,” he says wistfully. “Do you know what they sell for nowadays?” He acquired his next bike, a BSA 350, during his time at university in the UK – and the memory still gives him shudders. “It was a horrible bike. I spent most of my time getting about on my bicycle while trying to get the damn thing fixed.” But his luck changed for the better after immigrating to South Africa in 1983, when he bought what he still considers his best bike, a Honda CX 500.
Even then, Knight was a pretty conventional biker, with nary a thought for rallies and the biker lifestyle. In fact, he was a mature 39 when he bought a crashdamaged Honda Gold Wing and converted it into a chopper. At that point, the lurking nonconformist began to emerge. He extended the forks, fitted a monoshock rear arm, bolted on a single-seater saddle from a Vespa scooter, added “ape hangers” (custom handlebars) and forward-set footpegs. He recalls: “It was terrible to ride, but man, did it look good!”
On arriving at his first biker rally, the motorcycle’s throttle stuck, causing the engine to rev out of control. Needless to say, it was an impressive debut: the irrepressible cleric not only walked off with the “most despicable arrival” prize, but also won an award for the best “Rat Class” entry.
It was about this time that Knight had a flash of inspiration: he would build a diesel bike. His main hurdle was the high cost of suitable powerplants (“Sourcing a lightweight diesel motor is doable, but they are horrendously expensive”). Then someone at his bike club mentioned that Royal Enfield made a diesel variant in India. Deciding that local prices were over the top, Knight decided to arrange a holiday in India and ship an engine back to South Africa. However, just as he was about to leave, he discovered a biker in Johannesburg who had brought three of these bikes, branded Taurus, into the country. He’d already sold two to Namibians and intended to keep the remaining one for himself. Says Knight: “Fortunately, he had already exchanged the Italian-made Lombardini 4,5 kW engine for a larger 7,4 kW unit, so I got the bike I wanted, but with a bigger engine.”
Unhappy with the conversion job, he proceeded to reposition the engine, tilting it further forward to achieve a better fit in the frame. He remanufactured the mounting between the engine and gearbox, and improved the gear ratios. Although generally quite happy with the bike, he found its top speed – about 90 km/h – to be painfully slow (hardly surprising when one considers that it was designed for use in India, where the loads tend to be massive).
After vain attempts to make it go faster, and having sought advice wherever he could find it, he finally conceded that his machine was unlikely to ever break any speed records. In fact, someone spelled it out for him: “It’s an industrial motor rated at 7,4 kilowatts; it will give you 7,4 kilowatts. Don’t waste your time.”
His diesel-powered Taurus may be slow, but it’s proved to be an incredibly reliable workhorse in the 10 years that he’s been riding it. Says Knight: “Fuel consumption is about 40 km/litre, and it doesn’t matter whether you ride fast or slow, or carry a passenger. It could probably tow a trailer. I’ve ridden it from Cape Town to the Theological College in Grahamstown and back, and take it to all the local rallies. This bike has made me famous… everyone wants to hear how it sounds.”
But that’s by no means the end of Knight’s diesel bike story. About five years ago, while working in Bredasdorp, he came across a Chinese knock-off of a large industrial Yanmar diesel – and suddenly he was overwhelmed by a desire to build his own diesel-powered bike.
“The problem with diesels is that once they get to about 7,4 kW, they’ve got to go to multiple cylinders. If you look at a side-by-side configuration, by the time you’ve added a cooling fan, flywheel and all the other peripherals, you end up with an engine that’s much too wide to fit into a motorbike frame.”
Recalling that Yanmar produced a V-twin diesel, Knight began trawling the Net in search of a cheaper imitation. “I eventually found a Chinese firm that made a 15 kW V-twin that was going for about R4 300, so I ordered one. I couldn’t lose on the deal. When I told a guy at our local co-op about it, he offered me R12 000 on the spot.”
Knight began working on the bike during his days off. Working to a design loosely based on the classic 1935 Indian Sports Scout, he had two major criteria: it had to be affordable and easily maintained. That decided, he opted to use car components wherever possible, simply because they were cheaper.
Knight quickly realised that the driveshaft was on the wrong side, so he removed the flywheel and switched it over. He then installed a ring gear to be driven by the starter motor, and a belt drive linking the engine to the clutch. He also modified the cooling fan for a better fit and placed air ducts on the inner side of the engine cover to direct the airflow for optimum effect.
For the gearbox, he modified a unit from an old Mercedes-Benz, explaining: “Some car gearboxes are actually quite small once you’ve removed the bell housing.” It required a fair bit of work, though. First, he had to mount a bearing on the input shaft so it would accommodate the clutch from an old Honda 750. He then had to modify both the bearing and clutch to join them together. Finally, he fitted a sprocket on the opposite side of the gearbox to drive the rear wheel. “It took me six months to get it sorted out. But it’s good engineering; I’m confident it will work.”
In keeping with his unorthodox inclinations, Knight chose an unconventional approach to the frame design. Eschewing plans, he placed the engine and gearbox on his garage floor and drew chalk lines around them to ascertain the frame’s basic dimensions. He then assembled and welded the various components as he went along. “I’m sure the Japanese don’t build their bikes this way, but it certainly worked for me.”
The rear wheel was sourced from a scrapyard and originally belonged to a Ford, Knight thinks (he chose a car wheel simply because fat bike rims are so expensive). He then fitted a narrow-profile 175 tyre because it was narrower than the rim and would naturally form a curved profile. “Anyway,” adds Knight, “the bike’s large footpegs aren’t going to let me lean the bike over much.” And the front wheel? An old motorcycle rear wheel, naturally.
Intending to stay as faithful as possible to the original Indian design, he was faced with the challenge of keeping the rigidprofile tail (those old bikes scorned wimpy suspension systems) without sacrificing every vestige of comfort. His solution: fabricate a swing arm and fit a rubber ball taken from a Mini’s suspension system. Inspiration for the front suspension was derived from modern BMW bikes, but instead of using a shock absorber and spring, Knight decided to use a leaf spring linked to a swingarm. He comments: “As far as I know, this has never been tried before, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t work.”
For the hydraulic rear brake, he fitted a drum taken from an old VW Passat and a master cylinder from an old Mercedes. The brake fluid reservoir was fashioned from an inverted stainless steel salt cellar, with a brass knob to make it look more “aesthetically pleasing”.
Attending yet another biker rally, Knight met someone who had equipped his machine with a VW Beetle headlight inside a monstrous chrome housing. Needless to say, he wanted one. To make the housing, he inflated a balloon until it was the right diameter, then covered it with papier-mâché. Allowing it to dry, he popped the balloon, cut off the front of the papier-mâché and applied a layer of glass fibre on the inside. Once it was cured, he soaked it in water to remove the paper, then used resin filler to give it a smooth finish. Because the housing was so large, he could easily fit all the bike’s electrics inside.
Deciding that he didn’t want to deal with rusted chrome, he opted for stainless steel components on other parts of the bike, sourcing much of it from “surplus” kitchen utensils. He used butter dishes for the side mirrors, a dip tray as a flywheel cover, and a meat dish for the instrument console – and those are only the utensils he can remember. Says Knight: “Do you know a really good source for stainless steel? Try looking in your wife’s pot cupboard. Pat (his longsuffering wife) is still convinced that there’s a tokoloshe or something in our house, stealing her stuff.”
It remains a work in progress, and Knight is clearly in no hurry. His next job is to fabricate a fuel tank from glass fibre and design an exhaust system, using mild steel with a stainless steel sleeve. That accomplished, he’ll put everything together and try to start the engine. He plans to wrap up his bike project once he’s completed his straw bale house in about a year’s time. “I’ve really enjoyed this project. If the motor runs, it’s a bonus. As far as I’m concerned, this bike is a work of art.”