It’s 1990 and in my sixth form common room there are only two bike mags which have passed the test and made it to the communal work avoidance station: Performance Bikes and the Used Motorcycle Guide.
Now try to imagine this: PB in those days was required reading. Close in spirit to Top Gear in its prime, the mag always managed to rise above its occasional pantomime daftness, expertly marshalled as it was by a team of motorcycle journalists possessed of great technical nous. And at the centre of it all was one Mark Forsyth, who made a name for himself amongst my mates as the magazine road tester to look up to. He had the most ragged knee sliders of anyone we’d ever seen. *Sigh*
Then suddenly, despite all those laugh-out-loud front covers (sample: £21,000 Bimota review entitled LOOK AT ME I’M RICH), PB went ‘off’, as all magazines tend cyclically to do as staff move on and corporate priorities change. Or maybe it’s just that we all grew up. Who knows – but even accounting for a case of retrospective gloss, I fondly remember old PB. It was the bike mag equivalent of Tiswas. Back then, I loved it.
But for all the budget and evident journalistic talent, even PB at its height still played a poor second fiddle within my group of friends to a plucky black and white upstart called the Used Motorcycle Guide.
Here was a different fish altogether. Founded in 1986 and driven by a slightly curmudgeonly sounding editor (one Bill Fowler who I have the feeling harboured the opinion that Honda’s CB450 Black Bomber would never be bettered by anything ever), the UMG was an A5 sized pamphlet that sprung directly from the terraces, being written largely by the readership itself. And many of those readers it seemed, were slightly unhinged couriers.
Lucky for us that they were. Each month we’d be regaled by stories of calamitous high mileage engine meltdowns, see the phrase ‘the whole plot’ serially overused, wonder at the evil intent of ‘cagers’, discover (euphemistically I presumed) how to deal with them by whacking their car roofs with tyre irons and repeatedly learn the lesson from their owners that you must never ever ever buy an old British motorcycle no matter what hardships may be wrested upon you in life. (They got that bit wrong anyway. I could be rich...)
Perhaps the best bit of the mag was the back page section, where Bill would riff on used bikes: legendary Twitter-length but heavily opinionated write-offs (and occasionally for something he liked, write ups) that many motorcycles might have taken years to recover from had it not been for the creation of Instagram and this current obsession with the cafeterian racing thing.
With its enviably direct readership link, a lack of advertising and an editor with actual fully formed opinions which weren’t reined in by worries over manufacturer tie-ins and press fleet access, you might call the UMG more than a simple bike magazine. In fact, refreshingly, it was much less than one.
In terms of presentation it initially had more in common with a DIY football fanzine than a glossy corporate monthly. It felt homemade; it looked homemade. And you could only measure the distance between its editor and his competition in planetary terms. Imagine that now? You can’t, can you. The UMG definitely wasn’t Tiswas – it was punk rock. And every other mag (PB being the honourable exception) was Bill Grundy in comparison.
I wrote articles for the UMG a couple of times over the years (as well as the Used Bike Guide) but I drifted away until a while back when I suddenly realised – d’oh! – it had disappeared. Just like punk, all that energy and vim had been washed away, as they say, like tears in the rain.
So where is editor Bill Fowler now? I have no idea. What became of serial character Johnny Malone and his CBR1000F is equally unclear. Is Happy Henry still wielding tyre irons from his pillion seat or has he finally been sectioned? And – conspiracy theory alert – was Malone really Bill himself? I think we should be told…
Hat tip to Bill Fowler for many happy years reading…
Postscript: Though it’s not clear who is doing it (their web address hints at a copyright issue over the name ownership), much of of the UMG’s content has been gratifyingly and painstakingly digitised over the years and uploaded to the web at this address: http://yewemmgee.blogspot.co.uk/
Seems legit so pop over and have a look. Five star resource.