Book Review: Henry Cole – A Biker’s Life
Bikes, cars, military trucks, junk, TV shows, tea – there’s a lot going on in Henry Cole’s life. But there’s more to it than motorcycle collections and daytime TV fame. A lot more.
Henry Cole leads a charmed existence. The privileged Eton schooling, the life nearly thrown away to heroin addiction but somehow turned around, the globetrotting TV career, celebrity mates, motorcycle and car collections, and a perfect family.
You might be thinking right now, ‘why should I read the story of an over-indulged toff?’. But it would be missing the point. Because, with the exception of the expensive education, everything that Cole has surrounded himself with has been created as the result of his hard work, putting in a 12-14 hour shift, every day of the week.
So this is less the story of a motorcycling celeb and more about one person choosing to live life a certain way – and it’s a way of living, heroin addiction aside, that is surprisingly inspiring. Especially seeing as he has managed put motorcycles at the very heart of it.
Deeper than it first seems
Like watching many of his TV shows, you don’t really need to concentrate when reading A Biker’s Life – the chapters are fairly short morsels, perfect for weary minds that just need a snack of motorcycling goodness before drifting off to sleep – or digest in one long binge of chatty prose.
It’s clear he’s a had a lot of fun doing what he does, but in all the light banter and mateyness – Cole is very much a blokey bloke – there is a darker undercurrent. He talks frequently about the effects of his early years’ heroin addiction on his life. There is a suicide attempt, and he has been surrounded by death, losing many close friends to drug addiction and motorcycling accidents. He claims to no longer speed on public roads, a consequence of a near-death experience with an Alsatian standing in the middle of the A3 and the implications for his family should he be involved in an accident. He is however not adverse to throwing himself down salt-lake flats to pick up land speed records on vintage Brough Superiors.
He talks candidly about his diabetes and its effect on his life; how his children were difficult to conceive. He’s also candid about his mistakes, burning £15,000 ‘ruining’ – in his words – a streetfighter that was probably about perfect when he bought it. Anyone hoping for one long tale of life as a celeb, will be disappointed. This is a real life.
A story of privilege and hard-won success
Born of aristocratic old money parents, he went to England’s most famous public school, Eton, as did an old relative William Gladstone, Prime Minister. The connection is why his own motorcycle company is called Gladstone Motorcycles. He also has a T-Shirt business, Oily Rag, and his own TV company that makes his World’s Greatest Motorcycling Rides and Shed & Buried shows.
What comes across is that this is a guy who works hard and takes advantage of any opportunity that is offered to him. He’s had a lot of luck and a fair bit of misfortune, but there can be no doubt that, unlike his TV persona, he’s a grafter.
Prior to his on-camera motorcycling and shed-dwelling adventures, Cole has spent a lifetime working in TV, mostly behind the camera. Tales include being there when Michael Jackson’s nose fell off his face during filming and accidentally selling a soft-porn TV series for 14 times more than the price he thought he’d agreed. It’s a very different life to the ones most of us lead, and for that reason, it’s worth a read.
Misadventures on and off two wheels
Luckily for us, the book is mostly about his obsession with motorcycles and, to a lesser extent, his other vehicles. Between many of the chapters there are introductions to some of his collection of vehicles, including his Brough Superior 1150, Russian sidecar outfits, Honda Cubs, military vehicles and even a 1952 Reliant three-wheeler delivery van.
Video: A few of the bikes Henry Cole has collected over the years, including a surprising favourite.
Peppered throughout his life stories are words of wisdom learned from spending over 30 years and it seems hundreds of thousands of miles in the saddle. Much of it is, erm, sage: to avoid the dog on the A3 he rode straight at it, doing 130mph, ‘Aim straight for them. They will move.’
While that particular piece of advice might be questionable, he is spot on in other areas. Exploring the subject of born-again riders buying R1’s with their banking bonus, he is 100% correct in saying they ‘haven’t built up enough experience to react quickly enough on a bike that can do 0-60 in 2.6 seconds. Go back to basics,’ he says. If you’re 50 and haven’t ridden since the 80’s, you need to go back and literally re-learn: ‘You need to ride a motorcycle you are not scared of. Even if you rode around like a lunatic in the 80’s, you still need to go back to basics because everything has changed since then – the roads, the motorcycles and, most especially, your reaction times.’ Well said, Henry.
As part of his commitment to living a charmed life, at least three times a week, he takes a cup of tea and he sits in his 1928 Boat Tail Riley Racer taking stock of how he has got to where he is. Because he can, and you would too, if you had worked your way to owning such an object of desire.
For some reason, opinions can be divided on Henry Cole – follow his own social media posts on the launch of this book and you’ll see almost as many bikers have strongly negative views on him as those who love his output. Whichever way you vote there’s one thing everyone should agree on – he’s found a way to put motorcycles at the centre of his life, and for that, he deserves a nod.
Get yourself sorted:
A Biker’s Life – Misadventures on (and off) two wheels, by Henry Cole, is published by Quercus and available now.