Peggy and the Bantam

By Ashley Blair

In 1950 Peggy Iris Thomas bought a rigid framed D1 Bantam and christened it “Oppy” from its registration plate OPE811. And why, you may ask, did a girl from Liverpool choose a Bantam? Well, the colour just happened to go nicely with her new corduroy jacket! Within a few weeks of buying Oppy, Peggy set out with her friend Prudence Biggs as pillion to ride 4,500 miles around Scandinavia. That wasn’t quite enough of an adventure for Peggy because in 1951 she sailed to Canada to start a ride around North America.  She left Halifax heading west with $US60 in her pocket. As well as Oppy, Peggy had with her Matelot, a 60 pound Airedale that she had trained to jump into a box attached to the carrier.

The Bantam also managed to carry a tent, stove, cooking gear, food, water, tins of dog food, an air mattress, a sleeping bag, spare petrol and oil, a lunch box full of tools, a variety of clothes – and a typewriter!  Not surprisingly she had to replace a broken rear axel and have the wheel rebuilt on her trip. Peggy had a limited budget and her diet was usually spaghetti and tinned beans. She found camping on the prairies somewhat bleak and welcomed the campsites in the Rockies that had running water. Peggy had encounters with bears, black and grizzly, as well as chipmunks.

She made it her business to call in on as many BSA agents and dealers as possible on her travels even when she did not need any spares or advice. A Montreal dealer not only cleaned and overhauled Oppy for free but gave Peggy some much needed advice on maintenance. In Calgary a dealer decoked Oppy, a procedure that Peggy was later able to do herself. She worked over the winter in Vancouver saving hard. On a fine June morning she left heading south, looking forward to the sights she would see in the United States and the people she would meet. All these thoughts vanished very suddenly when smoke and flames appeared beneath her. She braked hard, scrambled off and leaned Oppy against the curb as Matelot leapt for the pavement. A bucket of water brought by a passerby saved the trip. Her rucksack with wet weather gear had slipped onto the exhaust and ignited.

While in the United States she had a problem with the twist grip late at night and in a less than reassuring part of the city. She called the police who sent a mechanic out to help with a temporary repair that was enough to get her to a campsite. Next morning she went to the motorcycle shop that had been recommended, only to be told that they didn’t touch “those Limey bikes”. She went to a second dealer where she found that the owner was in the army and only returned at weekends. The owner’s mother got involved and it was a visitor to her place who finally solved the problem. They reached Mexico City before heading for the Atlantic where they took a ship to Florida. They stayed at Florida Keys where Peggy again worked to build up her savings before heading for New York.  Oppy the D1 Bantam had racked up a total of 14,000 miles while in North America.

 

Peggy Iris Thomas was called “the  queen of long-distance Bantamites” by Peter Henshaw in The BSA Bantam Bible. Peggy wrote about her trip in Gasoline Gypsy, which was published in the United States in1953. In 1954 it was published in Britain as A Ride in the Sun. In 1955 and again in 1956 it was published in German as Peggy braust durch Amerika which translates as “Peggy roars through America.”  Peggy showed clearly that it is possible to have both fun and adventure with a B.S.A. on a very limited budget. A review on Amazon says that, “This must rank as one of the most famous motorcycle travel books of all time, but it is not that well known and deserves better recognition. This is an amazing adventure that captures your interest in people and places as well as the bike.”

The last chapter in her book is called “Next Stop Denmark” and after her North American ride she did go back to Denmark where she married a Danish engineer, Carl-Erik Sorensen. They had met during Peggy’s ride in Scandinavia and became engaged, by post, while she was in Canada. Peggy was in the Royal Navy Women’s Volunteer Reserve in WW2 and died in an accident in France in 1982. Her books are now very rare with the price of Gasoline Gypsy ranging from $NZ1, 210 to $NZ1, 927! There was one for sale as a ‘buy now’ on EBay in December 2010 for $NZ946 making it one of the most valuable BSA-related books. However, if you just want to read A Ride in the Sun you can get it on inter-loan from your local library for only $5.

Peggy was the inspiration for former Wellington resident and long distance rider Gordon May to ride his Bantam, which he named “Peggy,” from the UK to Egypt and back in 2010.  The full story of this adventure is on Overland to Egypt. Gordon has had permission to reprinted Gasoline Gypsy and we can now buy copies of Peggy’s book from his website http://www.gasolinegypsy.co.uk for a much more modest sum than the first editions.

Quotes from Peggy:

“half the fun of owning a machine is to mess around with it and try to do your own repairs.”

“My little B.S.A. is a strange beast, she will go out of her way to pick up nails in her rear tyre when on a beautiful smooth highway, but given rough treatment on a bad road she will run along contentedly for mile after mile without any sign if wear or strain.”

“for sheer fun and care-free delight I found there was no more practical and economical means of transport than this little motor-cycle.”

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