zaterdag 10 augustus 2013

Bekentenis van een verzamelaar achter het ijzeren gordijn

Door Marcel

Als vervolg op het Letland avontuur, waar ik in beland ben door Juris, leek het me leuk om een stukje te plaatsen wat Juris ooit geschreven heeft over het restaureren en verzamelen van vintage motorfietsen tijdens de russische bezetting.

Confessions of an Iron Curtain collector: How i survived during the soviet regime.
By Juris Ramba  2008

Looking back on the bleak days in Latvia prior to collapse of the soviet regime in 1991, and how i survived them, we can now make yokes and laugh about it, but on would not laugh aloud  at the time,
at least not while the authorities or anyone you did not know well was listning.

My first ride on a two-wheeler was a moped that I rode into the sea at the age of seven because I did not know how to stop the engine. My first encounter with a proper vintage motorcycle was at the age of 11 when I rode pillion on a 1938 Royal Enfield Bullet.

The impressions were so strong that I traced, found, and bought this very machine when I was 23. This, I guess, was the moment when I can say I was bitten by the vintage bug. I passed my riding test at the age of 16.

My eldest brother had a V jatka scooter—a Russian copy of the Vespa—that he stripped down to parts so I could not ride it while he was away serving in the Soviet Army. What was I to do but reassemble it and start riding? When, in 1972, the police would not let me ride my bitsa bike built from JAWA and Pannonia parts because the handlebars were too wide, I took revenge by swapping it for a 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA, which I rode as I pleased, except in the Kurland region where the Soviet's SS20 nuclear rockets were deployed.  

Ramba in his shop during the Soviet years.

My next move was to swap the Harley for a 1935 CS1 Norton. This machine had a very special appeal because I admired this legendary British company and its products. I read everything I could find about motorcycling, and, as a university graduate, I had access to Latvia's international library services and could order books from all over the world. Because these books spent most of their allotted two weeks somewhere at the KGB screening rooms, I could only have one or two days to read them. I soon made an unofficial arrangement with friends at a photographic lab to have the books copied cover to cover on photographic film so that I could print them later and become a source of information and product dating for me and my motorcycle club mates on almost any British or American machine that could be found in Latvia.


Saying a winter prayer over a 1928 Henderson much in need of prayer.

There are lots of interesting stories about the ingenuity that was required to survive and succeed as a motorcycle collector behind the Iron Curtain. One such episode was when I made a Matchless Silver Hawk gear change gate and wanted to send it to a friend who lives in Edenbridge in the United Kin gdom. I proudly brought this part to the post office attendant and she asked, "Wot is it?" "A motorcycle part," I said, naively. "No way!” she said, “You are not allowed to send any motorcycle parts by post to capitalist countries!" "What can I send?” I asked.  "Sporting inventory, fishing tackle, etc," she replied. So, the next day I went to another post office with the same part bolted to a block of plywood. "What is that?" asked the attendant. “It's a fishing rod holder,” I explained with a straight face. The parcel was posted with no problem, and I can only imagine the laughter on the other end when my friend received his “fishing rod holder.” I received in return a kind letter from him, accompanied by a pair of special Velocette fishing rod grip rubbers. These, it turned out, were so much like footrest rubbers that I used them on my 1939 Mk VIII!


With his son Robert and 1926 Norton in 2003.

There were some less successful cases prior to the fishing tackle episode. A friend of mine from Weybridge wanted to send me a surprise gift for Christmas. It was an original Brooklands can for one of my Nortons. It turned out a nasty surprise for him when the parcel was returned unopened with a stamp on it stating "CONTENTS PROHIBITED," and to make matters worse, he had to pay 25 pounds return postage. I finally got that Brooklands can when I first visited the U.K. in 1989, and it now patiently awaits the restoration of my 1933 Norton International.


At the Pioneer Run on a 1903 Russia in 2003.

Once I had several gear clusters made for 1920s and early ‘30s Sunbeams that I wanted to trade for much-needed parts for some of my own machines. Barter was about the only way to obtain rare parts, because one Pound Sterling was worth 200 Russian Roubles, which was a month's salary for a factory worker at the time. There was no way I could earn enough to buy precious motorcycle parts in the U.K., so I resorted to making parts to trade. I put these gears through the stickiest grease I could find and brought them to the main customs office in Riga with a receipt I had obtained previously from a motorcycle spares shop. I explained that I had bought these Russian motorcycle gears to send to som eone in the U.K. who had a few Russian bikes and badly needed the parts. My postage document was duly stamped, and I could proceed with posting the prohibited items. I knew that the Soviet customs authorities never liked grease, so when I offered to open the package and scatter the gears on the table for their inspection, the answer was, “No! Do not open it!" Even if they had required me to show these Sunbeam gears, I am sure nobody could tell that they were not from a Russian ISH 350 gearbox. In fact, nobody really cared what kind of gears they were. These were just stupid laws invented by the authorities to make life harder for those who aspired for change or something better in their lives.


On his 1937 Harley Knucklehead, a nine-year restoration.

Another silly episode took place with four tins of rather expensive Royal Blue cellulose paint that one of my Norwegian friends sent me for my 1928 Henderson De Luxe (It is pictured above prior to restoration). I received the parcel in an opened state. All the tins had been opened and someone had inspected the contents, probably by stirring trough it. One of the lids had not been replaced properly and as the parcel was turned ove r at the post office in Riga, the dark blue paint seeped out and painted the shelf and all the accompanying parcels as well. Fortunately, the official post office colour was blue at the time (today it is yellow). My Norwegian friend had put 20 plastic shopping bags into the parcel as packing material and to safeguard against leaks. Most of these bags were now smothered with blue paint, and the most amusing thing happened when I had to pay the customs duty for the parcel. Instead of paying duty on the paint, I was told I had to pay the amazing amount of 10 Russian Roubles duty on each of the 20 plastic bags, which, at the time, were regarded a status symbol and were retailing at around 10 Russian Roubles each on the black market! I had to pay this duty regardless of the fact that most of the bags were now painted blue and quite unusable as “status symbols.”


At the docks at Liverpool in 2007, on the way to the Isle of Man with his 1913 Rex-JAP and his son Robert.

I learned my hardest lesson when someone sent me Ervin Tragatch's motorcycle encyclopaedia and added a Vogue fashion magazine for the wife. I never received that parcel, maybe because the Vogue was forbidden material or it was just pinched as very desirable. I never again mentioned anything in my letters except information about the black art and magic of vintage motorcycles, which was a subject of no interest to the inspectors at the Russian post office. Just imagine that in these days all of the parcels I received from the West went first to Moscow then back to Latvia. But I had my happiest days when I found a fellow in the U.K. who was interested in trading old motorcycling books in the Russian language for recently published U.K. books about vintage motorcycles. The man was collecting information for the purpose of writing a story of the Russian motorcycle, but as far as I know he never finished it. At any rate, that was the start of my library, which has grown o ver the years, and may now be one of the biggest private libraries about vintage motorcycles in the Baltic countries.


Restoring his "grandfather's lathe." 

How, you might ask, were we able to restore vintage motorcycles when we were not allowed to own any machine tools? In fact, it was a criminal act for a private person to buy a modern lathe or milling machine. These were only available to factories under the control of "the proletariat dictatorship." My solution to this problem was to find a genuine 1937 VEF lathe. This was the famous collet lathe on which the VEF Minox spy camera parts were machined in Riga before the war. I rebuilt this lathe to its original pristine condition, the difficulty of which probably few people can understand. It took me the whole winter to scrape 0.5 mm away to get the lathe bed straight and like new again (pictured above). I will not dwell on all the other technicalities of how to rebuild a vintage lathe because it could go on for pages, but I can tell you that the job took two full years to accomplish before I became the proud owner of "my grandfather's lathe," which, as a vintage tool, would not be confiscated by the authorities. I even built my own enamelling stove, which I am still using today for baking enamel on frames, forks, and other parts. I built from scratch a sandblasting cabinet and a bead blasting cabinet, both with extrusion cyclones and dust separators. A piston compressor was replaced by a 30-year-old screw compressor which is still going strong after all those years.


With the restored stars for the Freedom Monument of Latvia.

The top of the Freedom Monument, over 42 meters high

When Latvia became independent in 1991, I could finally start buying proper machine tools, and my workshop started really flourishing and expanding. It is still expanding due to my cylinder head rebuilding business, which is constantly growing. New modern technologies and tooling are added every year and only those "who have been there" can really appreciate what this newly-found freedom feels like. Think of it, the freedom to work with one's own tools! Because I so much appreciate this freedom, perhaps my proudest accomplishment is that I was chosen in 2001 to do the restoration and bronze welding of the stars on the famous Freedom Monument (pictured above) in preparation for the 800th Anniversary of the City of Riga. For welding and brazing, I used my Henrob torch, the only oxyacetylene torch of its kind in Latvia at the time. Not only is this Freedom Monument (pictured here) important to me as a true patriot of Latvia, but it symbolizes my lifelong quest for the right tools for the right jobs. This was never easy under a system that questioned the actions and motives for everything we did, even when it only involved trying to restore the old motorcycles we loved.


Ramba today on his Rex-JAP.

Born in 1951, Juris Ramba became Chairman of the Vintage Motorcycle Section of the Antique Automobile Cub of Latvia at the age of 27, the same year he became the only member of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club of Great Britain from the Soviet Union. From 1989 to 1992, he served as President of the Antique Automobile Club of Latvia, and in that capacity attended the First World Motor Museum Congress in Great Britain in 1989. Between 1985 and 1992, he organized a series of rallies for the Riga Motormuseum, and he acquired many rare motorcycles for the Museum, including a Vostok Grand Prix road racer.  In 1990, he became a delegate to the Federation International de Motocyclisme where he served until 1994.  After Latvia declared its independence in 1991, Ramba formed his own engineering company, Ramoto Ltd.  From 1999 to 2003, he served as the Vice-Chairman of the European Motorcycle Union Vintage Working Group.  From 2003 through 2007, he founded and organized the Round Kurland Rally for vintage motorcycles.  He has a private collection of a dozen rare motorcycles, mostly of British and American brands. He has written for Motohistory on several occasions, and is pictured here on his 1913 Rex-JAP, a restoration previously described on this web site (see Motohistory News & Views 2/15/2007).


Receiving the Harry Mack Trophy in April 2008.

Editor's comment:
I was on the Management Council of the International Motorcycle Federation (FIM) during the Soviet era and when The Wall came down in 1989. Immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, new faces began to arrive at the FIM, from Belarus, Estonia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and other former members of the Union. One of the first of these newcomers I met was Juris Ramba, and I learned immediately that we shared an interest in antique motorcycles and motorcycle history. Ramba's dedication to the movement, under the conditions described in his account above, is hard for most of us to comprehend. Now that he is free to travel and communicate openly with other enthusiasts, he has become one of the leading lights for vintage motorcycling throughout Europe. He is a member of the European Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, he has visited meets in the United States and made many friends, some of whom have travelled to Latvia to attend his Round Kurland Rally. Even when restoring bikes under difficult circumstances, his workmanship is exquisite. In 2007, he received the prestigious Footman James Cup with his 1913 Rex/JAP at the Castletown Vintage Rally held on the Isle of Man during TT week. And, on the 6th of this month he was awarded the Harry Mack Trophy (pictured above) by the Vintage Motorcycle Club of Great Britain. About these top awards, Ramba says, “These are the light at the end of the tunnel of my bleak times behind the Iron Curtain.” Juris Ramba is a man I feel honored to know. He should be an inspiration to us all.