Years of Motorcycling: A Few Lessons Learned

(as submitted for publication in The VME Nov/Dec 2006: when published it was retitled and missing the introduction and pictures)

Brian Laine

While I don’t manage to get to many VME events, I thoroughly enjoy old and new motorcycles. I did manage to attend one run a number of years ago (on my CBX Honda), and listened to the best symphony I’ve ever heard - the wonderful reverberating sound of all the vintage bikes starting up in the ferry on their way to Vashon.

Even though I’m a retired guy now, I’ve been riding and tinkering with bikes and motorized conveyances for about forty-five years. Here are a few of the lessons that I’ve learned through the years.

The prepubescent days:

  1. If you are a kid, and buy a beautiful aluminum transmission from an unmarked box at an auction, then install it on a homemade go-kart, you might learn that there are two speeds, high, and low. However low goes forward a few feet, then reverses and goes back a few feet, to forward again, and so on. See the note at the end if you need a hint about how this could happen.
  2. If your understanding uncle gives you a used lawnmower engine for Christmas, and if it has a built-in 2:1 gear reduction, at maximum engine speed it will just go fast enough to burn up that centrifugal clutch which you saved for, but not fast enough to engage enough to actually go somewhere.
  3. A kid can restore a $5 Cushman three-wheeler to beautiful condition, and then when the time comes to fire it up, it will run a significant period of time without damage, even if details such as putting oil in the crankcase are overlooked.
  4. If you own a couple of Cushman scooters in a row, then move on to motorcycles, it takes a while to learn that the throttle turns the opposite way from that of the Cushman.
  5. If your parents want you to be involved with sports and give you a football helmet, they are less than enthused when you fill in the ear-holes and repaint it to convert it to a motorcycle helmet.
  6. If your parents are anti-motorcycle, but you ask permission to buy a box of parts that look hopeless, they will OK it knowing that it will keep you out of their hair and it will never be able to be assembled. You can prove them wrong and resurrect a $25 B33 BSA 500-single.
  7. If you solid-mount a gas tank on a B33 BSA, then go trail riding for the day, then start it up at the gas station, the engine can backfire through the velocity stack, find a hairline leaking crack in the gas tank, and burn up the entire bike. Not all gas stations have fire extinguishers. The fire truck will arrive right after the aluminum fenders and carburetor melt and the tires and upholstery are gone. If you are desperate, you can bring it back to life again.
  8. If you buy a non-running Suzuki 250 T10 street bike, no matter how cheaply you buy it, you can’t pick enough strawberries or buck enough bales to afford the new alternator/starter combo that it needs in order for it to run again.

The High School/College days:

  1. If you have a BSA 125 Bantam, you soon discover that it has little power, even for your meager needs. However, you can cut the motor off of the transmission and install a Mac-8 go-kart racing motor with the three speed transmission. The wet clutch still works when run dry. However, if you install dual carbs on the motor, it is not possible to set the carburetors so that they will work properly in more than one of the three gears. Also, you have to find just the right buyer when you are ready to sell a bike like this.
  2. If you have a Tohatsu Sport 50, with claimed 15:1 compression ratio, it will run properly in only 5% of weather conditions, and will frequently suck the center electrode out of the spark plug. Inexplicably, these bikes have a 100 MPH speedometer.
  3. If you have a Tohatsu Sport 50, and time it just right, it will start, make a coughing sound, and then when you put it into gear, it will go backwards in three speeds. Yes, the motor will reverse itself while running.
  4. If you own a Yamaguchi 55 Scrambler (precursor to the Hodaka), it can run all day if you back off the throttle to just below the point at which the rings start making a horrible jangling noise. This is 53 MPH.
  5. If you own a Yamaguchi 55 Scrambler, and bungee cord your jacket to the back seat, when going 53 MPH the jacket can get sucked into the rear sprocket and lock the rear wheel.
  6. If you start a part-time motorcycle repair business out of your barn, and if you have customers, the nearest “real” dealer will convince your largest parts supplier to not sell anything to you any more.
  7. You will have at least one buddy who will immediately buy a more powerful bike than the one you just purchased.
  8. If you have a Solex MoPed, don’t park it in front of a milk truck that won’t see it when it pulls out, otherwise you will return from your early morning physics exam and find the crumbled remains of your ride home on the sidewalk.
  9. On a cold, stormy and rainy night, you can find a warm and dry place to ride closely behind an 18-wheeler, but police frown on that tactic to the tune of quite a few bucks.

The Navy days:

  1. Never underestimate the power of God’s other creatures, however small. This was pointed out when a bee stung my riding companion Daryl in a personal area. After he exited the bike and rolled in agony holding his crotch in both hands, he went on to lead what some people might consider to be a normal life. We recently went for a ride (Daryl is 68 now), and he had a bee land on his nose in the helmet – more years of therapy will probably be necessary.
  2. A ’69 Norton Atlas will run thirty five thousand miles with minimal problems if you wire-tie the exhaust nuts to the head and are prepared to have the speedometer and tachometer rebuilt as they shake themselves to pieces every four or five thousand miles. Fortunately one of them is usually working as the other is being rebuilt. Why is it that you don’t notice the vibration on a bike like this when you are in your twenties?
  3. A ’69 Norton Atlas with Concentric carbs can and will have the carbs stick in the wide open position, especially when you are showing friends how it will do a burnout, and cause a successive crash. But the Navy hospital will sew you back together again, and you can learn how to install a kill switch on the handlebars rather than reaching for that elusive key under the tank.
  4. A ’69 Norton Atlas, on occasions at nighttime only and when cornering, will allow the light switch connector to fall off the light switch, and leave you in total darkness.
  5. If you ride too fast in the fog with a Norton, you can rear end a stalled car and bend the front forks and wheel. The forks can be straightened with a hydraulic jack between the engine and front axle. It takes a long time to accurately lace on a new rim, but it can be done if you stay up all night while on duty in the Navy. Note: if you have a buddy coming to work a few minutes after the incident, the shortened Norton can be put into a VW Bus before the fog clears, and leave the SP to deal with the other 30 cars, also leaving one person wondering why there’s a dent in his trunk lid the shape of a helmet, but not worrying too much since the front of his car is totaled.
  6. If you are in the service with short hair, you don’t want to show up at the Calaveras County Frog Jump in a Plymouth 4-door sedan with small hubcaps. You don't "blend."
  7. Bikes with a throttle advance on the handlebars will not start until the timing is advanced enough until the bike starts violently kicking back. This is a kind effort on behalf of the designers to give you some extra time to fiddle with the control before you ultimately wreck your knee again.
  8. In some policemen’s eyes, a dental mirror attached to the handlebars doesn’t cut the mustard.
  9. If you have a windshield angled just right, and travel just the right speed with a pack of cigarettes in your pocket, they can be individually sucked out, then create a formation of eight rotating cigarettes in front of you better than the finest juggler might do.
  10. John Deere green, even when obtained for free, is a poor choice of color for that repaint of the SL175 Honda.
  11. If you take the mufflers off of a Royal Enfield 750 Interceptor, then take a few spins around the block to listen to that beautiful music, then let your roommate take a spin, it allows the police to arrive just as he takes his ride (sorry Ron!).
  12. A Royal Enfield 750 Interceptor can put a hole in a piston, pressurizing the internals to allow oil to come out of every joint of the motor. Fortunately, you can individually take one head and one cylinder off the bike while the engine is in the frame.
  13. A Royal Enfield 750 Interceptor in poor shape will fire up on the first kick every time when cold, but when hot will require you to kick it until it gets cold.
  14. A ’64 Sportster in poor shape can not be started unless you kick it until it is warm. If you are a college student, and have two classes in a row, you must skip the second class if you expect it to be warm enough to start again.
  15. You can pull-start a ’64 Harley that doesn’t start cold with a Royal Enfield that does.

Shortly after college days:

  1. Beside the road in a remote area of Montana, you can use the factory toolkit from a BMW R50/2 to pull the head, scrape the carbon from a stuck valve, then reassemble the bike.
  2. You can wake up in a campground to the sound of humph, humph, humph,… and realize it is the sound of someone trying to kick start an old Harley. Eventually, after numerous kicks, through your tent wall, you will hear him say, “Sometimes it’s one kick, sometimes it’s a hundred.”
  3. A BMW R50/2 will always start on the first or second kick, except the one time when you are parked in the front of a ferry waiting to unload. You learn that a fully loaded BMW R50/2 is a heavy bike to push up the unloading ramp, but then it will start on the next kick.

The working days:

  1. If you take the summer off after college to go on a road trip with your BMW R50/2, it is hard to explain to prospective employers why you aren’t employed all those months after you graduated.
  2. If you stop in Seattle during a summer-long road trip on a BMW R50/2, decide to work over the winter to get funds to head out again in the spring, you might find yourself still there over thirty years later, with a wife and three grown kids. However, when you retire, you can hit the road again.
  3. If you marry a wonderful woman who promises to let you get a new bike when you are forty, she will let you do so earlier when a spanking new ’81 Suzuki GS850 shows up at a dealer for a bargain price in ’83, even if it slows progress on that house you are building - the kids are still padding around on plywood floors and there are no interior doors yet. Later on, she also lets you display that ’75 Norton Interstate in the house.
  4. If you own a Honda TL-250 and leave it home while you are at work, eventually your 12-year old son will figure out how to fire it up on his own. He will learn that “water hazards” can be deep enough to submerge the entire bike, but it can be made to run again.
  5. Don’t expect to find a room in Victoria BC on a long weekend without reservations, and when you finally do find a place to crash, check to see if they have an automatic sprinkler system first. The sound of Shhhhhhhh… in the middle of the night is not good and requires immediate relocation.
  6. A CBX Honda is wonderful to look at and ride, but even in your working days you can’t afford a new factory exhaust system.

The retirement days:

  1. Restoring a Triumph 500 Daytona is a great project, but if you decide to do your own CAD plating on the fasteners, you quickly learn that there are eight sides to every bolt and nut, there are many bolts and nuts, and you get several chances to clean, buff or polish each side of each bolt and nut.
  2. As you get older, you find that the best vintage British bike that you can buy is made in Japan and is called the Honda GB500. A little button eliminates the need for kicking, but everything else British is still there except the leaks and breakdowns.
  3. If you become enamored with the new Sportster with rubber mounted motor, buy it, but then decide your blood is still flowing with British-bike genes, you can make it look like the Harumph (Harton?) in the picture nearby.
  4. Even though the new 1200 Sportsters at the time are the fastest and best handling Harley (except the V-Rod/Buell), you can be told by “big” Harley riders that a Sportster is “half of a real Harley,” or “a great girl’s bike.”
  5. Don’t use even a small amount of air pressure to help find the location of a seep from a gas tank. The tank will slowly become a grotesque version of its original shape.
  6. After you visit a dealer on a road trip for new tires, then do a couple hundred miles of high speed mountain riding, you may find the front brake caliper swinging loosely from its hose. Double check the work of even the pros. Of course for the typical VME rider, this is a good reason that “real” bikes are equipped with drum brakes.
  7. Sticking a big magnet under your bike helps set off traffic sensors.
  8. As you age, and you really want to go somewhere, you find that a BMW R1150/RT makes for a great ride in all conditions. Gotta have a few oldies in the garage though too, just to look at, tinker with, for those shorter trips, and to learn new lessons.

Looking back:

Save those old cycle magazines. Not only do they make for a great occasional trip down memory lane, they allow you to research those prospective purchases of old bikes for yourself and your buddies. Also, when you sell a bike, save that service manual, I don’t know how many times I’ve foolishly ended up with the same sort of bike again only to learn that it won’t make you young again and to remember why you sold it last time – fun nevertheless. Save those Whitworth wrenches too.

  • Speaking of old magazines and their advertisements, I’ve learned that no matter how much you dream about it, even if you own a Norton, the “Norton woman” of the ads won’t really come knocking on your door. However, I haven’t given up hope, I’m still alive, still have a Norton, and in my dreams when she comes she won’t have aged (neither have I, except on the outside.)
  • Old bikes with no hydraulics and no battery are great collector bikes. As long as you put fuel preservative in, they are always ready to go, regardless of how long they have been sitting.
  • If you have experienced a lifetime of one, two, four and six cylinder bikes, somehow you are drawn back to the one and two cylinder bikes the most.
  • Most of your best memories of motorcycling involve adventures in remote areas, and frequently involve times when you have little to no money, and the bike breaks.
  • I hope my lessons will augment your own – may we never stop learning.

    Note from lesson 1: Could high be “spin” and low “wash?”


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