James May on bikes, Top Gear and curry

He’s the one off Top Gear on the telly who’s neither a reactionary middle-England mouthpiece or a clinical study in expensive orthodontic treatments. He is James May

Mum and dad wouldn’t let me have an FS1E at 16
So bikes were a bit late entering my life although I’d always been interested in them. When I joined Car Magazine a journalist called Colin Goodwin had a BMW bike which whet my appetite again. I did a five-day course and passed my test in my thirties.

I had a Kawasaki 80 off-road bike as a kid
That’s where I cut my teeth. When I was a bit older I had a mate in San Fransisco who had a KH400 and a Bultaco – which I rode about on totally illegally. I had a mate at Lancaster University who had a CX500 and a CG125 which I used to pinch as well.

I did the test at the tail end of the 125 laws
I was lent a new CB500 for several months while I got back up to speed and readied myself for the test. I bought an old early seventies CB750 straight after I passed my test. I paid £2300 for it. I loved them as a kid but in reality the brakes were a bit shit and it was all a bit disappointing.

I currently own too many bikes
My garage is pretty full. I have a new Triumph Speed Triple, a Moto Guzzi V11 Sport in lime green, a T3 California Guzzi, a mid-nineties 900SS Ducati, a 1970s CB500-4 with four original pipes, a 1968 CB250K, a C70 (greatest machine ever), and a 1964 C200 – the pushrod one. I like Hondas as you might have noticed from that list…

If Soichiro Honda was alive, I’d have a few questions
I’d like to ask him about his fabled drinking sprees. Apparently he was prone to getting a bit messy and given to belting people on the production line with a spanner and punching his designers when they did things he didn’t like. He did things like invent a traction bed for people with back trouble as he was plagued by a bad back himself. I want to know if these myths were true. Clearly he was a bit nutty but a gifted engineer. Just one look at the race car he worked on as an apprentice tells you all you need to know about the man. The Curtis special had an aeroplane engine and canvas-belted tyres. Only a madman would have gone anywhere near it.

Most of my biking experiences have been scary, really
I’m not very good at riding bikes, to be perfectly honest. My balance is terrible and getting worse as I get older. I find it quite nerve wracking. But I don’t really have time to ride any more. My last scary experience didn’t even involve riding. I took the exhausts off the 500-4 to clean them properly. When I was bolting them back on I sheared the last stud when I was tightening the nuts back up on the headers. My torque wrench was too big or something. My whole world disintegrated. You have to examine the very kernel of your being when this sort of thing happens. I had to call a professional to extract the stud from the head.

My Optimate battery charger is my favourite tool
It’s a much-plugged-in thing. My toolkit is a precious thing built up over a very long time. For instance, I have a small hammer that was in my first kid’s toolkit, you know, one of those wooden box ones? It lives in the metal working toolkit along with an adjustable spanner that I made in a metalwork lesson. There’s pushbike stuff, Facom spanners, Vernier calipers – it’s a lifetime’s work, it really is. I’d rather a thief took my bike than my toolkit. It’s irreplaceable.

My first crash helmet was a Shoei
Given to me by a man with a big head. Arais fit my head better, though. I’ve now got a full face and open face Freeway one.

Last bike book I read was Mat Oxley’s Stealing Speed
And jolly interesting it was too. That’s the second time I’ve plugged his book in the press so, clearly, he already owes me a big favour.

Top Gear will probably never feature bikes again
The main reason is Clarkson and his sidekick Andy Willman don’t like bikes. But in a sense I’m quite glad. It’s a little subversive, guilty hobby of mine that I can keep quiet and it would spoil it if I had to work with them as well.

Best race I ever watched was at Goodwood Revival
I was a bit nervous about that nostalgia stuff, it can be a bit creepy and odd when people get too carried away with it. For this reason alone I was a little reluctant to attend the Goodwood Revival meeting. But I did witness the best race I’ve ever seen there. It was a wet race for post war motorcycles. These old giffers on crap tyres and terrible drum brakes rolled out and I didn’t expect much. They were racing really hard, though. The weather was awful and they were riding so hard. Humbling, really.

My top tip for someone new to motorcycling
Is to go and get the right kit first. Spend all the money on your crash helmet and whatever’s left on the rest of your clothing.

My dream ride wouldn’t involve carrying a passenger
I don’t like the responsibility of taking pillions. I’d have a Honda C90 and I’d ride it back to Japan, to its birthplace. If I had to share the trip with someone else I’d quite like to go with my photographer friend Steve Lovell-Davis who’d take nice pictures of the whole trip.

I’m very fond of beer and curry but not sherry
Beer’s the favourite but I’m also into the grape and the grain too. Curry  has come a long way since it used to be food you ate for a dare and it’s both an exciting and community-spirited thing to eat. I’m into the British type dishes like Chicken Tikka Bhuna, Chicken Madras, Keema Lamb that sort of thing, loads of poppadoms, big selection, although plain would be my desert island poppadom.

I wanted to fit a urinal in my house
It’s more practical than a conventional British toilet. I liked the idea but it didn’t go down too well with the ladies. Originally my house had a tiny room on the ground floor which would have been perfect but then that got swallowed up into a downstairs bathroom and the opportunity was lost which was a shame.

I’m not very good at riding bikes. My balance is terrible and getting worse as I get older