Ancient History - Working as a Motorcycle Courier in Belfast

I haven't forgotten about this site, or given up on it; honest.   It's just that there are other things going on in life that have been taking up a lot of my time recently.  Not that many people will have even noticed if the site stats here are anything to go by.  As Arnie said, I'll be back........sometime!


I mentioned in my profile write up that I had once upon a time, in a land that now seems very far, far away, worked as a motorcycle courier.  For some obscure reason memories of that time came back to me yesterday, so I suppose it is about time to put some thoughts out there about working in that job, here in Belfast in the early 90's.  Just remember when reading this, that hindsight is a wonderful thing.   😁  

The motorcycle press of the time was full of adverts for the London version of couriering, promising £500 per week wages( a damned good wage at the time), and loads of work.  For anyone with a real passion for bikes, it seemed like the ideal job.  

Belfast had its own peculiarities, largely because the 'Troubles' were still a thing back then, although fortunately they weren't at their murderous height.  Technology was different too.  For example, where now print and advertising firms send proofs and other information to their clients by the likes of WeTransfer, sending physical copies was still the order of the day back then.  All couriers were paid by the mileage between the start and finish of the job, there was no basic wage outside of this.

According to stories in the motorcycle press of the time, long runs made the best money, and the same rumour circulated in this region too.  Here in Northern Ireland, such jobs were few and far between, and while they got you a good run on the bike, I did not like them.  This was for a few reasons. Firstly, you only got paid for the delivery journey, and there was little chance of picking up a job for the return journey.  Effectively, this halved your pay for long journeys because the return took time when you could have been picking up paying work, but still cost the normal wear and tear expenses along with uncovered petrol expenses.  When working in the Belfast area, there was a good chance of picking up a couple of jobs within the same area or along the route of an existing job so that you were in effect getting paid twice, or even three times (if you were really lucky) for the mileage you covered.  Still the majority of couriers loved and sought out the long runs.  Getting the jobs delivered relatively quickly also meant using major roads and motorways, and for me, these get pretty boring in a very short time.

When I started in the job, I was using my 1966 Honda Black Bomber as transport.   I had just fitted it with electronic ignition in an attempt to keep it running reliably, (made for the Bombers more modern incarnation, the Honda CB500T), but was having problems.  The battery kept going flat.  Contact with the ignition's manufacturers confirmed that it needed more current than the Bombers old 1960's alternator could possibly produce, but fortunately I was given the wreckage of two CB500T's, and found that the alternator from these was a straight fit into the Bomber.  Problem solved.  In the meantime, I had started to use my second bike, a Honda H100, and had found that my earning power was in no way effected by using the smaller bike.  In fact, the lower running expenses left more cash in my pocket at the end of each week, so it quickly became my bike of choice for couriering.  I was happier on the H100 too, since this helped preserve the Black Bomber for the weekends.

The bikes used by the other couriers were a very mixed bunch.  Long termers sensibly tended towards something with a shaft drive, like a Honda CX500, or BMW twin, but a great many others came and went through the firms high staff turnover (nominally we were self employed).  One guy for example took the job to try to pay for his brand new Suzuki RGV250, but because of the mileage involved in all weather conditions, and his use of cheap two stroke oil (undoubtedly brought on by necessity and really low wages), he soon found that he was wrecking the bike much more quickly than he was paying for it.  The comfort provided by an out and out sports bike like that, and the high petrol consumption must have been tough to live with too, and he soon left.  Speaking of comfort, another had a large Harley lookalike, but it was fitted with huge ape-hanger handlebars.  I asked him once what it was like to ride distance with his arms up in the air as the bars necessitated.  He replied that he had cruise control, and used to take one hand from the bars at a time, lowering them to his side and shaking them to get the blood supply to that arm working again!  It sounded bloody dangerous to me, and I walked away,  Needless to say, he did not survive in the game for long either.  Most new couriers came to the job treating it like some sort of motorcycle club.  They were there to ride at leisure rather than to maximise their earnings from the bike.  They arrived late and left early.  On Fridays at lunchtimes, the radio rang with repeated joyous calls of "Miller Time", as many of the couriers disappeared to the bar.  On the H100, I was regularly the second highest paid of the couriers, only beaten by one one of the long termers who had reserved a regular Sunday job at double time for himself.  

Working in Belfast was a bit strange back then.  We did a fairly large trade taking stuff from pop up solicitors offices (these were mainly, but not exclusively in Nationalist parts of the city) to the police interrogation centre in Castlereagh.  I presume that these were claims against the police made by the solicitors clients, and they wanted proof of delivery.  Another oddity which I presume was not repeated in other cities was seeing smoke plumes, and the related noises of explosions.  I got pretty good at estimating where these things were happening and then driving around the resulting traffic chaos.  I have to admit that on occasion I have ridden my bike the wrong way up one way streets on the pavement to get past stationary traffic resulting from 'incidents'.

One thing did bug me about the courier business.  The firm taking the calls had nothing but fixed expenses since they provided a warehouse, radios etc.  We the couriers, had nothing but variable expenses like petrol, wear and tear etc.  Yet, to encourage more business from their larger clients they negotiated discounted rates with them.  Some of these made the calls so badly paid that answering them was barely worthwhile.

On many days I would cover 300 or more miles on the H100 without ever leaving the Belfast city limits.  By the time I got home, the city's pollution had transferred to my face as a dirty mark in the shape of my visor opening.  God only knows what this has done to the long term health of my lungs!



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