Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway

I just got back from the perfect ride.

The ride where everything is absolutely, fundamentally, inexorably right. 79 degrees, dry and sunny. The countryside green. Your mind is focused. Your riding, a thing of grace.

The vintage racer’s big twin below you comes off a big left hand 90, planted, stable and headed out briskly  — pulling hard and getting harder with 5000, then 6000 rpm winding by fast. The pressure from the bars in the palms of your hands is steady.  The blare from the engine echoes back from the nearby hills.

Any problem you or this bike ever had seems far, far behind.

One doesn’t get to this point, this shining perfect two wheeled moment, without a long road to ready you, to school you to recognize that brief moment when the whole universe finally surprisingly goes chrome on you.

And now that I’m here, I recognize that road for what it was, and what a story it really is.

***********

At root, it’s really all Billy Joel’s fault.

He can’t even claim ignorance or innocence, ‘cause I’ve told him so.

How that might be is a bit of a twisty road, so let’s go boots up and gas it, so you can understand what I’m talking about.

After I got out of school, work was a little scarce, money a little scarcer, and gasoline was showing my countrymen that our rides maybe owned us, and not the other way ‘round. A good friend of mine developed a taste for street motorcycles, so there were always some around. My roommate’s brother showed up to move in with us one day, with a Granada red BMW R75/5 strapped down to his moving trailer.

We helped roll it off and I couldn’t help but think the poor bike looked more than a little used. Dirty cases, a little oil seepage here and there. Cord showing in the middle of the rear Continental. I looked at the odometer – “31”, I said unconsciously aloud.

“That’s Two Thirty One, if you’re wondering.”

Rick rode that bike back and forth downtown to law school everyday. The starter motor, apparently, had not been on duty for at least the last one hundred thousand miles or so, but the bike started off the kicker in 2 or 3 kicks in all kinds of filthy, not in any way bike friendly weather.

Rick was the only guy I knew that I never had to pick up when whatever they were driving or riding quit on them.

***********

Everybody talks about the barn job. I really got to have mine.

After making the acquaintance of Rick’s toaster tank, I thought it might just be a good bike to have. My motorhead friend had a subscription to Hemming’s Motor News, and we were prone to spending many happy hours browsing the classified ads. Being of somewhat restricted purchasing power, and being thoroughly moto-addled, those ads were more often than not in the motorcycle section.

One March, we saw the following ad.

BMW R100RS Custom Twin Turbo. Built by BMW for Billy Joel. Low mileage, Pristine Condition. $6000. Call (XXX) XXX-NNNN

“Wow”, I thought, “I’ll bet that’s kind of cool. Area code is somewhere on Long Island – Billy’s neighborhood. Seems plausible. Hmm.”

Calendar pages fly away in cinematic wind. April’s Hemming’s shows up. New ad.

BMW R100RS Custom Twin Turbo. Factory Built. Formerly owned by Billy Joel. Low mileage, Perfect. $6200. Call (XXX) ZZZ-NNNN

Different phone number. Still on Long Island. Different Seller – higher price.

Two ‘wows’. Three ‘Hmms’.

May Hemmings.

BMW R100RS Factory Custom Twin Turbo – ex. Billy Joel. Low mileage, As new. $6400. Call (XXX) NZN-NNNN

Are you noticing a pattern here?

Same thing in June, and In July, too.

BMW R100RS Factory Turbo. Factory Built for Billy Joel. Low mileage, Factory. $6600. Ghost Motorcycle, Port Washington NY.  Call (XXX) BBB-NNNN

It didn’t take a genius to have an inkling of what was going on here. This was a motorcycle that likely sounded a lot cooler in principle than it turned out to be in practice.  Turbos on motorcycles are generally problematic, and on an R100RS, it would likely do way more harm than good to what was already a fairly refined motorcycle – imagine laggy throttle response, explosive top end, and all kinds of detonation and excessive heat, and you might be a third of the way to understanding just how bad this might really be.  Now imagine how this would work while apexing a technical corner and you might be two thirds of the way there. The Provenance – thanks Billy! – made folks conclude that if nothing else, they could make a little money on their new, but disappointing, likely unridable motorcycle.

My buddy and I had now seen the bike change hands 5 times in five months, and our curiosity was now sufficient to wholly overwhelm our limited judgment and small reservoirs of common sense. We got into my buddy’s Pontiac Grand Prix and drove from Baltimore to Port Washington at the fastest rate of progress consistent with not becoming incarcerated.

At the end of Toad and Toad’s Wild Ride up the Jersey Turnpike, we parked the car across the street from Ghost’s showroom, slammed the doors and began trotting across the street. Halfway across, we were dropped in our tracks – slackjawed – by the sight of a silver BMW RS with a strangely muffled exhaust note disappearing up the street in the other direction at a rate of speed that had recently become very familiar.

Feeling more than a little chagrinned at our apparently perfectly awful sense of timing, we resolved to try and buffer the blow by seeing what else Ghost might have to sell, in the unlikely event the Flipping RS was just the tip of their moto-iceberg.

That proved to be a life changing decision. Unbeknown to us, at the time, Ghost was a legendary group of wheeler-dealers whose good taste and judgment in Moto-flesh we only exceeded by their ruthlessness and utter lack of ethics in dealing with potential customers. Ghost, in short, had plenty of compelling motorcycles to sell, a brief catalog of which would make most collectors break down in tears.

My buddy a weakness for early 70s Moto Guzzis. Ghost, it seemed, has so many Eldorados and Californias of that vintage that it would have been genuinely difficult to pick one. There were lots of vintage Harleys – knuckles, pans, and some even older stuff that seemed like two wheeled versions of “The Money Pit”. Sal, the proprietor, who came off like 50% Biker Santa Claus and 50% Satan, had a beautiful Duo Glide – all the rubber on the bike – floorboard mats, grips, passenger peg covers — was bright white. Sal’s Glide had flexible headpipes like an old Cord automobile, and a gimbaled beer holder mounted on the handlebars.   How I know it was a beer holder is due to Sal’s pantomime description of “Time to go Ridin’” that had him whacking the throttle with his right hand while visibly downing a cold one with his left, all while cackling like a certifiable and currently certified madman.

The main showroom contained lots of other Euro stuff that, at the time, I didn’t appreciate – MVs, Guzzi Aerones, Ducatis.

With a little bit of prodding, they bought us up the block to the Annex, which was something that looked like an old barbershop that had brown craft paper taped over the inside of all of the windows so that no one could see what was inside.

This was for good reason.

The annex had all of the goods for lovers of the rare and odd, at least those that were properly funded for that love. In retrospect, me and my buddy were way over our heads, in terms of what we could afford, but we saw bikes that day that I’ve never seen since. Ghost had some war duty oddballs – a Harley XA, which was their reverse engineered flat twin BMW clone. Even rarer was an Indian 841 – a transverse, shaft drive, V twin in the configuration that MotoGuzzi later made famous. Both bikes were in excellent original condition and were runners. They had a few leather drive era HDs – singles and twins – and a running FN four.  They had several nice original Indians – a few Chiefs and a Scout or two.  There were a few Ducatis and a few road-going MV Agustas. When I confided to our guide that I had a fondness for the chrome-tanked BMW /5 that my roommate owned, he held up his hand in the international sign for ‘Stop’ and then motioned for us to follow.

He lead us back up the block to the main showroom, and into the back where there where storage shelves that were hanging from the ceiling that ended about 5 feet above the ground. He ducked into the darkness under the shelf, and emerged pushing a filthy, barely recognizable BMW R75/5 motorcycle. It was missing more than a fair number of parts – it looked like the headlight, turn signals and rearview mirrors had been scrounged for use other bikes. It had curry colored paint, which is one of those German design decisions that can only be understood in the context of a culture that sometimes permits a few too many Pilsners as part of balanced breakfast. Someone had (inexpertly) installed some bar backs and a tractor style solo saddle.    The paint was a mess, the mufflers were in rusty ribbons – repaired with rivets and beer can stock – but if you squinted hard enough, you could see – with its chrome tank sides, chrome hubcaps, and headlight with unified tach and speedometer – the neglected bones of a classic motorcycle.

“Does it run?,” I asked, which under  the circumstances, seemed a fair enough question.

It sure didn’t look, given the depth of dust, like anyone had run that bike today, this week, this month, this year, or maybe even this decade.

Our guide rolled the bike outside onto the sidewalk, opened the twin fuel petcocks, set the choke, and pushed the machine screw down that was temporarily standing in for the factory ignition pin.  He stepped down onto the bike’s oddball transverse kickstarter, once, then twice, and on that second kick, the engine fired, and went right into a shop manual perfect 1000 rpm idle.

I should mention that the toaster has never started on two kicks in the next dozen or so years that followed, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

“We’ll take it.”

So we negotiated a price…. Ok, so they demanded a price and we acquiesced. We agreed that they could have a week to rescrounge from other bikes the parts that they had scrounged from this one so that they could get the bike to pass the required New York inspection and be minimally roadworthy. So we got back into my buddy’s Grand Prix and drove back to Baltimore.

***

to be continued……

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3 thoughts on “Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway

  1. Easy there, Walker. This is the first five or so pages of a story that’s currently about 20 pages, and I’m not finished writing it yet. I figured that putting it out there in pieces was better than waiting for me to finish it.

    I couldn’t wait, either. 😉

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