In Which Pooh Figures It Out

I have a new test bike.

Which I love.

What it is is almost immaterial.

Almost.

Pretty, isn’t she?

OK, you got me.

It’s a brand new Royal Enfield INT 650.  A great motor, great sound, classic attractive looks.

I’ve been riding the wheels off it every chance I get — so far I’ve been able to thread in between hard freezes and a few snow squalls.

Call it Lieutenant Columbo syndrome: “There’s just one thing bothering me…”

The front end on the bike just felt…. unsettled.

The fork just seemed like it was chasing its tail … it was harsh, not confidence-inspiring… on the road it just seemed too willing to change directions.

The frame and suspension on these bikes are designed by England’s Harris Performance — blokes who have been building custom race bike frames since Nixon was President.  They are not knobs. Their bikes work.

So what was it?

ThinkThinkThinkThinkThink (Pooh Implied)

Today I was in the shop really inspecting the bike. At first, I suspected that something might be amiss with the fork – with a damper rod setup, it could be something as simple as oil volume or weight. The fact that this brand new bike had some wrench marks on the fork caps didn’t do anything to help my anxiety.

Has Somebody Been In Here Already?

But when I checked the preload settings on the rear dual shocks the light came on and stayed on.

The INT 650 has piggyback style shocks made by Gabriel. The shocks feature a bog-standard six position preload collar. On this bike, the right shock’s collar was set to the 5th highest preload setting. The left shock’s collar was set to the 4th highest preload setting.

After removing my palm from the center of my face, I went to my /5 and retrieved my shock collar wrench. I backed the preload off to an even 2nd position on both shocks — a setting I selected based on the assumption that I weigh a material amount of pounds more than the bike’s target market.

Was pretty sure what the result would be. On badly designed classic bikes a slow steering bike could be made a bit more willing to turn with a little extra rear preload – raising the rear end. On a properly designed motorcycle, raising the rear would make a good steering bike a nervous mess. The uneven spring preload wouldn’t have helped, either.

On the road the transformation was dramatic — quick steering, and good on the sides of the tire and on corner exit.

Now I can really enjoy this motorcycle.

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Mojo Tool

Motorcyclists are a superstitious bunch.

Starting with the Gremlin Bell.

Gremlins? Really? Nyaaah, What’s Up, Doc?

“Gremlins?!? What a Riot!!!”

I was watching a clip from a new documentary about the Isle of Man TT the other day, and one of the racers — while pulling on his riding gear — was talking about a good friend of his that had just been killed racing at the Isle.

“We try not to dwell on all of us that have died here. They would want us to go on. We ride for and with them that have gone before.”

Heck, I do that kind of thing myself.

So yeah, I may not yet have gotten to the point where I’ve sacrificed small mammals to the Riding Gods, but there have been a few times where things got so serious, I at least briefly considered it.

So when I found myself looking at my tool chest in the shop last night, it’s not at all surprising that it simply struck me how many of the tools in that chest had not originally been mine — they’d been given to me, or willed to me, or had simply appeared out of thin air in mysterious ways.

But I started to think about all the tools that had somehow come to me, and how each of them was somehow a talisman — or transmitter — of the skills of the ones whose hands had held them before me. And that thought kind of swept me away.

 

***

 

I’ve got a ServiceStar knock-off Vice Grips locking pliers that has never looked very good. They didn’t look good thirty years ago when they showed up in my tool box, and they sure don’t look any better now. But scratched into one side of the handle are the letters “NF” which have to be the mark of Neil Feather Neil is an artist and craftsman of the highest order — a maker of musical sculptures and unique instruments that all demonstrate the maximum possible levels of imagination, creativity, and no small measure of fabrication skill, besides.

When Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I moved to Frederick County those many years ago, we owned a house that had once been a country store — with the store building proper – gas pump island and all — joined to the home’s kitchen with an enclosed breezeway. The store had made a perfect studio and eventually, a florist’s shop for D, but when we first moved in it needed a little help.

It was a block building that had a full grocery store worth of inventory shelving attached to the block with masonry nails. It had been painted that lovely medium GI green that seemed to be so popular in the 30’s and 40s — and after someone had taken down the shelving it really did not present a smooth, attractive surface. Young Me had no skills, and Neal had more than a few, so he came and took up residence for a coupla few days while we crashed some drywall, paint and modern wiring and lighting into the dark beat old building.

After four or five long days mounting lathe to the wall, running romex, and drywalling and compounding the walls and ceiling, we had what appeared to be a brand new building. A few weeks later after the literal dust had settled, I found the vice grips in my toolbox. I remember thinking that if that tool brought me just half of one percent of the skill Neil had in using it, that would be some serious vice grips mojo.

So Neil, I never meant to lift your vice grips, but if you need ’em back, I’ll bring them by.

 

***

 

Upon refection, I have owned two absolutely terrible pickup trucks in my life.

The first of those absolutely terrible trucks was a FrankenTruck — its previous owner had combined the body from one of Chevy’s late 70s diesel pickups — which were do-it-yourself hand-grenade kits — with an older Oldsmobile 350 gasoline engine. I had gotten a smoking deal on it because the previous owner had become indisposed for about 7-11 years in Hagerstown.

And while that general description may sound somewhat plausible, there were a few details that were not exactly well-engineered, like twin gas tanks that had two fuel output lines but only one return line.

That system created some operational complexity that was more in line with a multi-engine aircraft than it was for a Chevy Pickup.

Perhaps to make up for all the ill that truck did me in our time together, it did do me one favor — it introduced me to Russell Mossberg.

Russell is the automotive mechanic. Apart from working as a professional mechanic, Russell races a dirt track car for fun, where things tend to get smashed and broken on the regular, and the ability to perform routine mechanical miracles in no time at all is part of the required repertoire of skill. When I found myself needing to swap an engine — in my second absolutely terrible pickup — Russell told me to bring it to a shop he managed after lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon — after the shop had closed — and we’d have the new one in by dinnertime.

We did.

When I’d first purchased Terrible Pickup One, I needed to get it inspected to re-register it, and given the genuinely sketchy paternity of the vehicle, I wasn’t expecting a completely smooth ride.

When I took the truck to the Maryland Inspection station, Russell was The Inspector.

He completed his work around and under the vehicle, and came to me with the Yellow Inspection Sheet on the clipboard.

“I’m be truthful with you Buddy … you bought this truck? Anyway, there’s a list of things that I’ll need you to repair to obtain your inspection pass, and then there’s another list of things that you don’t need to pass your inspection but you need to fix later when you can afford it.”

Russell has never been anything but 100% truthful with me then, or ever, which is a rare enough thing in a mechanic that we should note it with sincere appreciation here.

<Sound of Angelic Choir Up and Under>

Two or three years of FrankenTruck operation later, I noticed a small coolant leak under the left nose – which from my prior GM ownership experience, likely just meant a loose lower coolant hose clamp. As I poured myself over the truck’s fender to reach down to the rear of the radiator cowl, I noticed a flash of something green sticking out from the bottom of the cowling. After tightening the suspect clamp, which had turned out to be loose, I fished my hand down and produced a nice, but clearly shopworn slip joint pliers.

Slipjoint

And while it’s theoretically possible those pliers came with the truck when I bought it, since only my hands and Russell’s hands were laid upon the truck since I bought it, those slip joints were most likely Russell’s. Having watched the man at work, and having worked occasionally holding his metaphorical coat, I looked upon these beat pliers as another gift.

If you want magical, mechanical pliers mojo, you should get it from an honest man who looks at 318 Motor swaps the way most people look at making a sandwich.

 

***

 

I don’t know a lot about Vernon Goyot. And truthfully, I think there was a lot that people who thought they knew him well didn’t know, either. At least, based on what I found in his basement, anyway.

Mr. Vernon, as the neighbors and local kids called him, seemed to be a pretty normal, go to work everyday and church on Sunday kind of guy. He had a wife — Miss Dolores — that he loved and a job where he was a printing press and linotype mechanic. He lived in an old neighborhood in East Baltimore — where Sweet Doris’ parents and grandparents lived — where people looked after each other, brought food when you were sick, and supported the survivors in any way they needed when the old ones finally went home.

Mr. Vernon was closer to Sweet Doris’ grandparents’ age than her parents’ age, so, when not long after we were married, Vernon passed away, I volunteered to help her folks clean out the old rowhouse. Real estate agents that know me always joke about me being ‘a basement man’, and this was no different. Old rowhouses tend to have panelling, and this one had substantial little storage closets in the basement accessed though hatches in the panelling. And there were tools everywhere. There was a converted fishing tackle box that contained machinist’s drill bits — a box I still use, though many of the older bits have been sacrificed over time to my projects.

But one box I found was different.

Apparently Vernon had gone to fight in Europe during World War II. One small box – about the size of a cigar box – had ‘Paris’ written on its lid, and amazing things contained inside. The box had a false lid — concealed by a wooden slide. With the slide removed, once could see a woodburned artwork — a nude of a rather well-constructed unclothed woman. A woman who, it appeared, had been created by combining an image of a random nice body with an image of Miss Dolores’ head.

Oh, those crazy French.

But the hidden compartment had other little treasures.

There were insignia that appeared to have been removed from German Military uniforms. There was a very small, easily concealable 7.6 mm CZ Pistol — which had the German Imperial Eagle, complete with wreath and swastika, etched into the barrel inside the shell ejection port. And there was a steel ring — dated 1914 — which was decorated with the markings of the Order of The Iron Cross.

A Soldier’s Souvenir

Clearly, before Mr. Vernon had been punching a clock, and holding down his end of a boring, normal life, he’d had his fair share of excitement. Excitement, that when it was past, got put down into the basement and forgotten.

You Don’t Say, Stanley….

This Awl – from the Stanley Works of New Britain, Connecticut — also came from one of Vernon’s toolboxes. It’s a classic example of a tool made well enough to last and work for several lifetimes. I’ve used this tool for so many jobs, it beggars description. Putting new holes in belts and leather riding gear. Fixing shoes — Starting screws.

It just keeps doing the job without drama. Sort of like Mr. Vernon.

 

***

 

I have, when riding motorcycles, stepped on or nearly stepped on more than my fair share of tools. The drill is almost always the same — running down through the gears coming into an intersection, put foot down, and be presented with a road present.

I don’t know why tools fall out of cars or trucks in intersections, but they clearly do.

Craftsman tools have always been crazy tough. If they proved not to be, one went to your nearest Sears, and they’d give you a new one, no questions asked. As a direct result, I’ve tended to treat any Craftsmen tools in my box with a fair amount of disrespect. This one got stepped on in an intersection more than 20 years ago — it has the name ‘Josh’ scratched – badly – in the plastic handle. I’ve used this screwdriver for a screwdriver, a pry bar, a chisel, a jack handle — heck, if there was an easy way to use it for a kickstarter, I would have. If you’re out there and reading this Josh, you can’t have it back. Given the not quite fatal amount if damage I’ve done to it, I’m not sure you’d want it, anyway.

Hand Armor

I’ve got a pair of armored Duluth Trading Company carpenter’s gloves. Like everything Duluth, they’re reasonably well made, and kinda spendy. So spendy, that I wouldn’t own them, except that I nearly ran over them coming into an intersection.

Yet Another New Law of Newton? – The Conservation of Wrenches

I recently had a kind of tool crisis when my prized BMW Motorcycle tool kit was soaked in water and badly damaged by rust. One of my tools that didn’t survive that trial was a cheap Chinese adjustable wrench. It had always served as the bonehead saver – where one needed to hold a nut of the same size as another nut when breaking something loose. When my toolkit had gotten immersed, because the adjustable had moving parts – in the form of the screw adjuster and the sliding jaw it worked upon – those parts had been fused by rust, and it couldn’t be saved. I’ll admit I got a bit verklempt as I tossed something I’d used for 30 plus years into the shop trash.

On my next ride out of the house, I nearly stepped on this BluePoint adjustable wrench. It was slightly larger and, frankly, much nicer than the recently departed — made of tool steel, black oxide plated — a much nicer tool.

I’ve said bikers are a superstitious lot. Believing that The Universe can send you signs — like instantly replacing a destroyed favorite tool — plays right into that.

 

***

 

Mr Vernon was a printing press mechanic. So was my grandfather, Wadi Shamieh.

Or at least he started out that way.

Wadi — who, like many immigrants, went by the anglicized name of William in an attempt to blend and assimilate — came to this country with his mother and eight siblings from an Ottoman-occupied Syria. Wadi’s immigration papers list his occupation as ‘Printing Press Mechanic’.

Upon arrival in New York in the earliest part of the 20th century, Wadi saw a much greater market opportunity in New York’s garment industry and retrained as a sewing and knitting machine mechanic. I’m guessing that his thought process was that a lot of people were going to need sweaters where this book thing was never really going to catch on – a decision that served him well, eventually owning his own business, William A. Shamieh and Sons, and positioning my dad to become a manager and part owner of a knitting mill and garment factory that was one of Shamieh’s best customers.

When I was bestowed a former family car as my first motor vehicle, my dad pulled some of Wadi’s tools from his own tool box and presented them to me. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but as time has gone by, the apparent power of those tools — and the significance of that gift — has grown in my mind’s eye.

Wadi’s tools reflected his personality and how he approached his work — a man who liked precision — I remember him being a man who spent a lot of time manually sharpening anything with edges. To hear Wadi was to hear the constant shing of his knife blades on the sharpening steel.

Wadi’s tools also reflected the industry of his time — all made in the 19-teens and 20s. His tools are all high carbon tool steel — incredibly hard, incredibly strong — all made in America. The way these tools are made, my grandson could still find himself using them, if by that time anyone fixes anything that doesn’t involve lines of software code.

Cotter Pins Fear Me

These 90 degree needle nose pliers are feared by cotter pins everywhere. They have a long reach, can get into tight spots, and their pivot points are as well machined as engine internals – they have no discernible slop. The number of small, precise mechanisms this pliers has serviced is beyond anyone’s recall. From needlebed cams on Groz-Beckert knitting machines to slide needle clips on my Del’Ortos, if it’s small, I can hold it with these.

Rugged

We take the concept of a reversing ratchet socket wrench for granted, but before it was invented ratchets only turned one way — and to reverse drive directions one turned the drive handle over and pushed something called a drive plug through to the other side of the ratchet. Wadi’s Walden Worcester drive handle – built in 1928 – is about the toughest ratchet drive I’ve ever seen. It looks like a tool that a guy 10 years younger than Fred Flintstone would have spun. Given that most of my serious wrenching is done on motorcycles, I don’t make frequent use of 1/2 inch drive sockets, but for things like motormount bolts, swingarm pivots, centerstand bolts and telescopic fork tops and bottoms, this one reigns supreme. The Walden is long enough to apply sufficient force, and utterly rigid — it just does the job, drama free.

Built Better Than Tank

I ended up with 8 or 10 of my grandfather’s open end combination wrenches — all in SAE sizes, although one set is dual labelled with SAE on one side and metric equivalents on the back. It isn’t as easy to make a tough wrench as you might think — one that won’t round off fasteners or bend in use. Ask anyone who had a 1970s or 80s Japanese motorcycle with a factory toolkit, it you’re looking for backup.

These wrenches — again, dating from the 1920s — are forged tool steel. As many times as Wadi wailed on them, and I have wailed on them, the working faces of the wrenches have no discernible wear marks after over 90 years of use.

 

***

 

No one taught me how to be a mechanic. Anything I needed to do, I taught myself.

Sure, there were Chiltons, Haynes, and then after the dawn of the Internet, user communities like the Internet BMW Riders, and then eventually Google and YouTube, where you could learn Brain Surgery by watching videos if you were so inclined.

My Uncle Dick – who is a professional mechanic – used to warn me not to take guidance in the mechanical arts from his brother, my father. His appraisal of dad’s level of skills was not flattering.

That these hands have successfully rebuilt motorcycle top ends and had them run better afterwards – swapped bike engines and transmissions — done clutches — changed countless tires and brake pads — changed a sea of oil — makes me think that the gift of hands that can feel and that know — must skip generations.

Either that, or it’s the tools.

Hey, Hey, My, My

So, it’s been raining.

And raining.

And raining some more.

Yeah. Raining.

And because of my recently completed teardrop trailer build, all the Shamieh motorcycles lived outside through all five months of it.

An lest you think I am exaggerating about the experience of sustained rainfall rates, judge for yourself from this view out my shop door on an average day in May.

When the project wrapped, and the bikes came back inside, my K1200 showed no ill effects, with the possible exception of the LCD display on the bike’s radio, which absorbs moisture and becomes opaque. A little strategically applied alcohol pulls the moisture back out and the display becomes clear again.

My R90S — even with it’s Italian carburetors — pretty much shook it off.

My oldest alloy girlfriend – the R75/5 – really did NOT appreciate the experience. Either its Bing carburetors, simple fuel tank vent or some other secret route was admitting rainwater into the float bowls, and both carb jets and tune seemed to be suffering from deposits being left by the water. As if that weren’t enough, after low annual mileage and a bit of benign neglect had decided to pile on by having the valves decide they really needed to be adjusted as well.

If one looks up “Symptoms of BMW airhead needing valve adjustment” on the Adventure Rider forum , the first answer is: “Won’t Idle. Runs Like Crap.”

Yup. I got that.

Its not like an airhead valve adjustment is any kind of big deal, but it just meant the Old Girl was demonstrating her displeasure in every manner available to her.

The Toaster was going to need a full service — engine oil, transmission, final drive, forks, valve adjust, time and carb sync. First step was a thorough fuel system and combustion chamber clean – run a tankful of fuel with a strong concentration of good old Seafoam. Once that was done, the absolutely filthy contaminated oil could be changed, and the rest of the service could be completed.

Maybe, at the end of that, we’d return to having this be a fine running airhead.

And maybe she’d forgive me.

 

***

 

So, to move this along, the Toaster has been primary transportation. Anywhere I needed to go, the R75 is what I’d ride.

So its been to a lot of grocery stores, beer stores, autoparts joints, and delivered more than a few packages to the UPS terminal, given the nice flat parcel area described by the saddlebag tops and in between the short police saddle and the front of the luggage rack.

One day, while trying to fudge the idle adjustment – just to get the bike to idle, even badly, in the meantime — I made the mistake of pulling the bike’s toolkit. My airheads share a factory-ish toolkit — a third party oversize Cordura roll pouch, and all the stock BMW tools which were purchased grey market though Capital Cycle’s DC Storefront back in the early 80s – you know, so long ago that they all say “Made In West Germany”. There’s also a bunch of specialty tools and other little tricks of the trade — a four blade multi screwdriver, a Channel Lock expandable pliers, different feeler gauges, and some electrical bodge bits — a wire nut or two, spare Euro fuses.

The tool roll, though, had gotten wet. Really wet. Prolly more than once. The wet Cordura had then held the moisture up against the tools. The tool roll itself was mildewed and covered with mold. The tools themselves looked like something that had been pulled up from an ancient shipwreck – vague shapes trying to emerge from the rust.

My heart sank.

That tool set has been with two motorcycles, and kept them both fettled and running for a quarter million road miles and more than 30 years. Many of these exact tools would be hard to find — BMW fork cap pin wrench, anyone? — I could see ending up with a insufficient recreation courtesy of Harbor Freight.

I suppose that to make this story closed loop, I should have taken pictures of them in their unspeakable state. But it never occurred to me. It felt like some sort of hideous crime scene — there are some things that perhaps should just not be seen.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore set about running the Cordura tool roll though the washer, while I hosed down the tools with WD-40, and then spent a little time researching rust removal products.

 

***

 

According to fellow Internet users, what I needed was something called Evapo-Rust — an allegedly miraculous product that would set everything aright.

I’m from Brooklyn, so I’m skeptical, but one Slash 5 ride later, we had 32 ounces of the stuff. I cleaned the WD-40 off the metal surfaces, laid the tools out in a paint roller pan, and submerged everything in the cleaner, and waited for time to do its thing.

 

***

 

24 hours later, the less rusted tools had been restored to like-new condition. I rotated the remaining tools in the solution, and after another 24 hours, almost everything had been completely restored.

From Marine Archeology, Back to Usable Tools

There were a few small things that didn’t survive. After fusing all the blades together, I needed to replace the micro-size feeler gauges that I use to gap airhead pointsets. Fortunately, with both bikes equipped with Dyna Ignition Boosters, I don’t need to do that very often, and more fortunately, the exact same gauge I bought in 1985 is still a Pep Boys stock item at $2.79. I also had fabricated a special tool to remove oil filters – a small wire hook to reach in a get a hold of the filter — the wire I had used turned to dust once the rust had all been removed. I have a great deal of leftover wire from the teardrop project — I made one, and I’ll just have to make another.

Having been washed and reconstituted for the first time in 30 plus years, I rolled the toolkit back up and placed it back under the saddle of the /5. And while a day in the mid 40s might not seem like the ideal naked bike riding day, with the sun out, I couldn’t resist — I still had a some fuel system cleaner juiced fuel that I needed to burn off before I could take tools in hand and set this old motorcycle back aright.

The old girl fired right up on the first compression stroke as it always had — although coming off of choke it was a tad finicky — it took a little extra throttle to keep things spinning. Once on the road, and with a little heat coming into the motor, the Old Girl seemed to be genuinely enjoying her resurrection. I kept the revs up and the throttle open, and headed towards one of my favorite roads — Elmer Derr road — a tight, twisty, technical road that runs along a stream canyon for about half its length, and then becomes more fun when it climbs away from that stream.

Follow the Twisting Line

BMW Type 247 air-cooled engines do run like crap with tight valves — at idle and transitional low engine speeds. There is a flip side, though. With the revs up, those tighter clearances translate to more lift and better breathing — right up to the point where the valve will no longer fully close into its seat and quickly self destructs. Trusting in an Aluminum German God that we were not yet that far down the road to destruction, I kept my 900ccs happily spinning in the fourth gear of its transplanted five speed box — coming through the Multiple Bang-Bang 90-90s coming out of the Elmer Derr canyon the /5 just ate it up — lightening the front wheel on throttle on every corner exit.

Its hard to explain, to the uninitiated, how a very old motorcycle can somehow never get old.

I spent a good bit of time, winding around the south end of the county, before my road bent back in the direction of the shop. With a choice between my secondary roads towards home and the highway, I did the opposite of what I normally do, heading up the ramp onto US 340 and toeing the old boxer up into top gear. It’s only after years of burning up highways on a more modern, faired machine that it really sinks in just how comparatively narrow and tiny my /5 really is.

With no plastic to intercede with the wind, I sought out distant muscle memories to find that perfect aerodynamic tuck — where my mass and the wind zeroed each other out. Taking the old boxer up to about 4200 rpm, the Toaster found a serenely smooth 73 mph — this was still the motorcycle that had carried a much younger me to New Mexico and Arizona from Baltimore and back again.

Heading up Dynamometer Hill, the Toaster even had enough steam to accelerate crisply in top gear, which is not shabby for a 45 year old motorcycle with nearly 200,000 miles on the clocks, and its factory original bottom end.

Looks Pretty Good For Her Age

Back in the driveway, the cold air had my head cleared and my heart high in a way that I don’t know any other way to find. Soon the air will be too cold for this bike to see the road on anything but a freak warmer day. Until then I’ve got some shiny wrenches to spin, fluids to change, heads to retorque and valves to adjust. After the freakishly stormy weather and all the time outside, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if my air filter housing conceals some leafy, furry or feathery thing that does not belong, either. I’ll go through the long-familiar tool-in-hand motions, and get everything back in tune and running sweetly.

I may not be able to make her pretty, but I sure know how to make her sing.

 

Classic

If you have a motorcycle, I’m betting you also have a leather jacket.

If you’re like me, you may have more than one.

I’ve got a pair of Vanson jackets — a Sportrider for cooler weather and a Supermoto Perf for when things get hot. I also recently scored a Tourmaster Coaster 3 which is a tad comfier and — with its broad white racing stripe – looks great in road test pictures.

But those technical jackets — designed primarily for protection — weren’t my first set of skins.

Sometime round 1975, when I was 16 or 17 years old, I was introduced to a talented musician — Eddie was a year or two older than I, and had been a banjo prodigy – sitting in for Jerry Garcia with his bluegrass group ‘Old and In The Way’, when The Dead was on tour. Eddie had talents far beyond music — he had already completed his Doctorate in Chemistry, and had a day gig working R&D for General Mills. But at this point in his life, and having experienced a nearly crippling automobile accident — where a motorcyclist being pursued by the NYPD had struck the driver’s door of his car at over 100 mph — Eddie had taken up the electric guitar, written some songs, and was looking to put together a band. I had some skills on the bass, could sing a bit, and got the gig.

My only negative – in the punk rock band that developed into ‘Eddie and The Accident’ — was that I was a bit of a nerd, with a personal sartorial style that cried out for a bit of third-party styling. Just before our first (and last) public performance at a CBGB Open Mike Night — “You Might Suck, But At Least We Don’t Have To Pay You” — I remember Eddie looking at me, in my jeans and t-shirt, and telling me to hold on a minute. Given that he was still on one crutch, it took him a few minutes to work his way down the hall to his room and return.

“Here”, he said, tossing me something that was dark and very heavy. “This will help with your look”.

That coat more than helped – I just became a frame on which to hang that Schott Perfecto motorcycle jacket — it was bigger and certainly had more visual presence than I did. That jacket — the one Brando wore in ‘The Wild One’, the one Schwarzenegger wore as The Terminator, and four of which festooned fellow CBGB denizens The Ramones — are the archetype that appears in the imagination of anyone that tries to imagine a picture to go with ‘Motorcycle Hoodlum’ or ‘Punk’. There’s a very short list of Icons of American Design – A Fender Telecaster, A Chevrolet Corvette, a Harley Davidson Sportster – but that Perfecto jacket certainly lives there, as well.

‘Eddie and The Accident’ didn’t really last longer than our five song set, although I did meet a few people at CB’s that night for whom I still have abiding musical respect.

That jacket, though, became my second skin for several decades.

Heck, it was such a fantastic motorcycle jacket that I have no doubt that it contributed to my initial decision to get a motorcycle.

That Perfecto had a tough life. It served as uniform for a number of Rock and Roll bands. When I did get my first motorcycle – a slightly cruisered-out CB 750 — it did contribute to scaring defenceless civilians with a high production values sense of Hollywood Badassery.

Living in the seam between motorcycling and rock and roll, the Perfecto picked up enameled biker pins to customize it to my tastes — a BMW Roundel, a Rickenbacker 4001 Bass, and a K100RS. It wasn’t treated with respect — ’cause I knew it was built to take whatever I could dish out. If I needed to lie on the pavement to fix a car or motorcycle, I wore the Perfecto — rolling around on macadam didn’t even put a mark on it.

As good a motorcycle jacket as it was – windproof, warm, and tailored for the riding position – it wasn’t up to modern protective standards, and my changing body over the years eventually sized me out of wearing my Size 38 Schott.

When my son Finn began riding, he even wore it for a while until we found him a more versatile and protective textile jacket.

So, when I got a promotional e-mail from Schott the other day, I’m afraid I found it unintentionally hilarious.

It seems the Good People at Schott have decided that beating the living crap out of one’s Perfecto for more than 30 years is just too much trouble for some people. A Schott Perfecto jacket is a made in the USA, handmade craft object — a new one will set you back $750 to $900, depending on one’s selected options and choice of available hides. But, if you want one as thoroughly roasted as mine, they can sell you one, but its going to cost you extra.

These Specially Vintaged, artisanally distressed Perfectos can be had for the low price of only $1240 – or about 5 Franklins more than a regular ‘new’ one.

On the positive side, your properly broken-in Perfecto will be ready about three and a half decades before mine was, and is likely to still fit you by the time it’s fully worn-in.

Looking at my jacket, resigned to a sad life in the hall closet, it seems I should be looking to find it a new home on a thinner biker or rocker. So if you know somebody just about to break out with a new band, I think I’m in the position to make a deal.

It’s either that or e-Bay. I gots bills to pay.

 

Clunk

Shamieh’s Shop — after the completion of the Teardrop Camper V 2.0 Build — has slowly been returning to normal.

Tools have been re-organized and put away. Spare lumber, plywood, aluminum trim and other leftover materials have been organized, stored or scrapped. After the upcoming ‘festival of organizing fasteners’, I even hope to someday see the top of my workbench again.

Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Seriously, though, with all three resident motorcycles and Teardrop V 1.0 back inside, there is a certain serenity that has returned to the ‘Adult-Cave’.

Or there was, until just after a high-speed K-Bike run to the drugstore that I recently undertook on behalf of a sick family member.  This type of duty is seldom anything but stressful, but on a 76 degree sunny day, with about 20 miles of mixed divided highway and rural backroad to run, and pressure on to make it quick, my K1200LT, which has been sadly neglected of late, seemed like the perfect hammer for this nail.

And nail it I did — after taking the mile or so between my shop and the highway to gently get some heat into the motor — I rolled the Big Girl onto US 340 East and rolled each gear deliberately out until we hit the top of Dynamometer Hill at peak torque at the top of fourth gear pulling somewhere toward the ton.

I returned medicine to The Afflicted in record time, and the Process seemed to have been therapeutic for The Courier, as well. I got back, pharmacy bag in hand, with my cobwebs blown out, thoughts clear, and a strong curiosity about why I’d waited so long since the last time I’d had a blast like that.

After determining that the medicines obtained had provided my loved one with the required relief, I went back to the shop for my customary machine walk-around that follows any hard outing.

Sitting under the lower fairing of the K12 was a dark object. It seemed somehow familiar.

Finding One Of These Under Your K-motor Is Never Good

After brief consideration, I knew where I’d seen one of these before. It was an exhaust stud from the K12’s cylinder head — the bolts that held the exhaust headers in place on the lower side of the motor’s left side.

To be more accurate, it was half of an exhaust stud. Not a great feeling, seeing as how the other half of said stud had to be assumed to be broken off inside the head, where it’s removal and replacement were likely to be delicate, unforgiving, and requiring of extreme skill.

This job was not the ideal opportunity for mechanic’s on the job training.

A quick flick of my cel phone – which triggers its built-in LED light — confirmed it was one of studs retaining the Number Two Cylinder’s header pipe.

I really couldn’t shake one thought, though. With all of the other places this bolt could have fallen off, what was the likelihood of it taking its leave at home, in its parking space. More likely, it had come loose on the road, and gotten lodged in the belly pan, only falling to the ground in the Centerstand Jiu-Jitsu.

After a little research, I reached out to Mark Delaney – a factory certified, former dealership mechanic who was now a professional bluegrass musician who now works on motorcycles on the side. If there was ever a man who had the demonstrated skill and sensitive hands required for this job, Mark was that man.

The more I thought about it, the more I suspected he’d have to do. If one stud looked this bad, the rest of them had likely turned to shit as well — Ted Porter’s Law says why fix just one when it’s about the same amount of work to fix all eight. The one piece exhaust system would need to be removed – the fuel injection system’s oxygen sensor screws into the header’s collector. Mine was factory original at 90+ thousand miles… while we were in there, maaaaan….

Who knows where this will lead? Any time one starts breaking into a 20 year old, nearly 100,000 mile motorcycle, surprises are probably the rule, rather than the exception.

So the K12 is down, until I take the ride to drop it off at Mark’s Shop in Odenton.

I do not dig this kind of drama. You might though. Stay tuned.

The Beef – Vegetarian Edition

I find, as I accumulate more unwanted birthdays, that I am starting to have a perspective about the harm that people and institutions do to each other that I did not formally have.

As a younger man, I was an optimum combination of hot headedness and naiveté — I was absolutely sure that taking the fight to someone that had done wrong and shining the bright and objective light of knowledge on their person would be sufficient to get them to change their behavior.

Now, though, I am just as sure that one cannot teach anyone anything.

If someone consistently visits harm upon your person and upon others, my righteous indignation and instruction is likely not sufficient to get them to stop — evil is their chosen way, and one’s attempts to reform them will likely only make their behavior worse.

So it is with that accumulated wisdom that I tell this tale. It is a tale of an organization that was presented with an opportunity — having wronged a customer — to do right and correct their mistake. And having been presented with that opportunity to right a wrong and do good, that organization tried to double down and re-screw said customer.

Class will tell.

There’s just one critical difference to my telling of the tale. Since nothing I do will make them change, and revenge is not my motive, I will decline to name the offender. I have no desire to make the animosity (who knows, maybe its indifference — maybe they just treat everyone equally badly) that apparently exists between us worse, and since what is published on the Internet exists — like some visions of the Deity — ubiquitously and eternally, I will choose here to rise above the fray and concentrate on the story, rather than condemnation of the guilty.

 

***

 

Back in 2014, I had decided to complete a mechanical refurbishment of my 1975 BMW R90S. This activity, which should be understood as something discretely different from ‘a restoration’, was just an attempt to correct some deferred maintenance issues, perform some functional improvements, and render the motorcycle suitable for everyday rider duty getting back and forth to my job – which required me to commute about half the time to a location in Reston, Virginia. Now I had a completely reliable motorcycle — my K1200LT — but traffic conditions were necessitating combat commuting tactics. On any given day, I might be lane splitting, running shoulders, or even running a secret, sub-rosa dirt road to get home from Northern Virginia, and under those conditions, I was willing to surrender a little comfort and mechanical robustness to make use of a motorcycle which weighed nearly 400 lbs less than the LT.

So many wrenches were twisted and more than a few dollars were spent. A completely new gearbox was assembled to correct the manifold failings of the leftover 1974-specification gearbox with which my early 1975 model motorcycle was originally assembled. I replaced the rusted out seat pan and failing saddle with an artisanal fiberglass pan and saddle combination made by FlatRacer of London, UK. I replaced lots of worn rubber bits, and refurbished a set of 1980s vintage BMW Touring Cases — aerosol Pickup Truck Bed Liner Paint is your friend — so that they looked better than new. I even obtained a Dark Smoke Zero Gravity windscreen and sourced the inner fairing headlight sealing gasket my bike had never had. Overall, what had been a tired and ratty looking motorcycle was now looking and riding sharp.

Sharp, except for one niggling detail.

The Previous Owner — that shady character always guilty of manifold motorcyclic sins — had repainted my R90S. When this was done, the PO had added insult to injury by buying and installing a set of 1980s vintage BMW Tank badges — which at the time, were cost cutting adhesive jobbies printed on an aluminum substrate and then sealed with a clear vinyl overlay. The injury part being important here because most R90Ss were built with high quality, cloisonné enamelled badges that were likely to outlast the motorcycle and show up looking new when they were discovered by archeologists centuries later. The replacements were cheap, they looked bad, and after somewhere more than 25 years in situ, mine looked roasted.

I figured if I could locate a set of original specification badges or reasonable quality reproductions — I was never intending to show this motorcycle — then the bike would have a little piece of jewelry that might allow it to feel better about itself.

So, to the Internet I went, looking to see what was available. BMW, to their infinite credit, still had the original specification cloisonné badges in stock, although they were priced at bit higher – at about $50 a side — than I would have preferred to pay. An enthusiast dealer with whom I had a long-standing relationship, though, had what appeared to be quality reproductions on their website.

These BMW roundels are a classy upgrade to the standard stick-on ones found on most models. They are ceramic and metal, a process called cloisonné enamel on a nickel-silver substrate. Emblems like these were an original feature on one model only, the R90S (1974-’76). Now, with these replicas, your bike can have a bit of that legendary panache too.

At a tick over $20 a side, these were perfect — premium appearance at a rationalizable price. I ordered a pair. After removing the old ones with dental floss and using 3M doublesided tape to mount the new ones, the old girl was definitely holding her head up.

And so it went until my recent teardrop camper construction project.  With the entire space within my garage consumed by materials and the trailer, all three of my motorcycles spent about 4 months being stored outside, with mostly benign results.

As the project wrapped up, I moved everything back inside, but noticed something unexpected and disappointing. On the side of my R90 that was pointed toward the sun, the supposedly cloisonné badge had essentially turned to crap. The ‘better’ side, upon reflection, didn’t look that great either.

Real Cloisonné Doesn’t Look Like This

Fortunately, any doubts I had about this being somehow a predictable result of weather exposure were quickly dispelled when I compared those former badges to the factory badges on my 1973 R75/5, which does have real cloisonné badges, and despite having been treated with no care whatsoever for the past 45 years, including having spent the exact same last 4 months outside, looked a tad patinaed, but otherwise none the worse for wear.

Even 45 Year Old Cloisonné Looks Like This

Since I had all of the documentation on the buy, I sent a picture of the melted badge back to the dealer where they’d been purchased. My communication was pretty straightforward. Whatever these badges were made out of, they were not the cloisonné they were represented to be. Melted Glass doesn’t remelt in the rain at 90 degrees f.

I asked for them to stand behind their product. If they thought it was just a fluke with this batch, they could just replace them. If they thought this might happen again, they should sell me a set of OEM badges with a credit applied for these.

I quickly got a response indicating they thought I’d be better served with some OEM badges, which they offered to me at a price of $68. They asked if that would work for me.

I quick check of my other online parts sources indicated that BMW’s MSRP for the part was $49 – a number that looked suspiciously like the difference between the quoted price and the amount of the credit they expected to have to issue on the transaction. In short, they had marked up the part so that after issuing the ‘credit’, I’d still be paying full price.

I responded to their offer with a single word – “No.” No context. No explanation, just “No”.

Five minutes later I got another e-mail, stating that they’d “checked their part numbers” and some song and dance about the part number being cross referenced, and an offer to provide the part for $49.

Shame on me, but after seeing the white flash for several minutes, I thought it better not to respond.

The proprietor of this business has, on occasion, directly questioned me as to why they don’t see so much of me any more.

This is why.

Riding motorcycles – on almost every level – involves trust.

Trust in one’s skills. Trust in one’s gear. Trust in your machinery. Trust in the people who provide parts and services that keep your bike operating properly.

And in the case of this one dealer, there was just no trust any more.

At a certain point, it became more important to separate me from as much money as possible from each transaction, with no regard to the quality of what was sold, or the quality of the service that was provided, or any concern whatsoever for the value I obtained. If I had issues with something they sold, rather than view it as an opportunity to make things right, they regarded it as an opportunity to double down and charge me again.

I don’t want anyone like this having anything to do with my motorcycles — these machines on which my life depends.

You might. But count me out.

The Control Freak — or Letting Go of the Clutch Lever: Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission

I spent the better part of two decades working to become a Jedi Master of Motorcycle transmissions. Preloading shifters, feathering dry clutch levers, matching RPMS, optimizing drift and drive entering and leaving corners – seeking the smooth.

All of that, apparently, counts for nothing, now. The robots have come, and they are our masters.

When Honda asked me to evaluate their Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT), I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Operating the gearbox and the focus it demands is one of the pleasures of proper motorcycle operation, and one I from which I took great pride.

Still, there are times when that focus can become a chore – like while stuck in congested traffic during a commute or worse still, hitting a huge construction backup or accident delay during a long tour. Sadly, we all don’t get younger, and clutch hands can and do wear out, and what do you do then? With The Gold Wing’s DCT offering an F1 style manual paddle shifted mode, one has the option of doing the shifting if you want to, and not having to if you don’t want to.

The DCT is an outgrowth of Honda’s 2- and 4-wheel racing programs. DCT is technically a manual gearbox, but a manual gearbox where the forks and selectors are operated by electronics and hydraulics. If that was the design’s only trick, that would be enough, but the real genius is the transmission’s dual clutches. The way the gearbox is constructed, the first clutch controls 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th gear, while the second clutch controls engagement of 2nd, 4th and 6th gear.

Honda 7 Speed Dual Clutch Transmission

To effect gear changes, the transmission controls have already engaged the next gear during an upshift, and simply disengages the first gear clutch while simultaneously engaging the second gear clutch. The bike is never out of gear, for even a millisecond, and there is never any break in forward momentum while accelerating. Same thing happens while decelerating, only backwards.

You can’t do that, no matter how much The Force may be with you, Mr. Jedi Motorcycle Transmission Master, and your back seat passenger, who has smacked helmets with you an infinite number of times, knows it too.

Thumb the Gold Wing into ‘Sport’ mode, with the DCT in automatic, and find a long empty stretch of rural highway. Roll the throttle wide open and the DCT will simply amaze you with a series of seamless, peak power shifts that keep the bike hooked up and hauling, front tire skimming the pavement through the shifts into 2nd, 3rd, 4th… In its selected environment, and demonstrating clear intent and aggression at the throttle, the DCT is simply amazing.

Like all things managed by software, get tentative, though, and things could be better. In the bike’s default ‘Tour’ mode, automatic shift decisions always carry too few rpms. The bike always has the torque to bull through it, but it feels like emergency acceleration is just out of reach (although with automated downshifts, it really isn’t), and the engine feels less than smooth when it clearly is at higher rpms.

‘Sport’ mode is better with shift points – holding the engine in the middle of its output and making decisions which more closely mimic my own – although after hard acceleration it tends to hold onto a gear way too long when the throttle goes neutral to closed. Both modes will occasionally snap off a downshift just after corner entry if you’re coming in off the gas, which was a behavior which had me saying non-G-rated words.

Fortunately, the system has the ability – even when in automatic mode – to accept user overrides from the paddles, so once I got in the habit of snapping off a downshift before I started corner entry all was right in Wing World.

Where the system really shines is in ‘Manual’ mode, though. With all of the shift decisions being made by a skilled rider, the DCT is magic. The Robot is faster than you, he’s smoother than you, and he never misses a shift. On a flowing two or four lane highway the system is responsive, smooth and powerful – taking repeated seconds out of shifting in ways you could have never appreciated until they were gone.

The Robots may be here, but the humans still have a thing or two to show them.

 

***

 

This article was originally published in the September/October 2018 edition of Motorcycle Times.