Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway — Part Two

The following Saturday, I rose early and took the Amtrak from Baltimore to New York’s Penn Station, and then the Long Island Railroad from New York out to Port Washington.  I had my leather jacket on, and my helmet, gloves and the tool roll from my Honda under my arm. When I got back to Ghost the Slash 5 was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the dealership, and we started and warmed it up to make sure it would at least get me out of town.

Once inside, Sal confided in me that he had ‘obtained’ a set of original mufflers for the bike. The methods that had been used to ‘obtain’ these mufflers were left deliberately vague, and I thought it best to ensure that it stayed that way. Sal produced two oblong bundles – wrapped up in the New York Times – and unwrapped one to produce a virgin new, correct OEM Cigar shaped muffler for this bike.

No one was going to dispute that I needed a new set of mufflers, but I had spent pretty much every dollar I had available for the bike and the train ticket, so an upsell was only going to be of limited effectiveness on me.

“Fa You,” said Sal, “a special deal … only $350 apiece!”

“Sal, Buddy”, I can get a set of Bub mufflers for this bike for $135 all up. I just spent all my money on the bike. I’m not worried about show quality or correctness, I just need a bike to ride. It’s not a negotiating position, it just is. If you’ll take the $135, you have a deal. If not, well I’m sure you’ll find somebody else that needs them and can afford them.”

Sal took the $135. If my concerns about how these mufflers had been ‘obtained’ had any legs, that $135 was all margin.  But Sal wasn’t a sorehead or anything about it.  Ghost had made out pretty well on the bike, so in business, you can’t come out on top on every transaction, right?

At least not right then, anyway.

So I laid my jacket down on the sidewalk outside and proceeded lay down on it to remove the four allen head screws and two clamps that hold a BMW exhaust system in place. The work went quickly, and almost without a hitch. As I finished tightening up the last clamp, I went to put the 13mm wrench back in my tool roll, which had been positioned back behind my head. Only my tool roll was no longer there – somebody had jacked it.

As a lone wolf rider packing rubber band arms and all of 128 pounds, I figured that making a fuss in a store manned by a dozen scary-looking, bulky beardy bikers wasn’t my best play, and decided it really was time to get the hell out of Port Washington, and hoped that I wouldn’t need tools for anything else between there and Baltimore. At least I had one 13/17 MM Honda Combo wrench and a pocketknife in my jeans pockets.

So I geared up, fired up the Slash 5, and headed for the Long Island Expressway.

***

I’ll admit that my first ride on a BMW motorcycle was a bit of an eye opening experience. It was immediately clear that the cock-and-bull-sounding story that Sal had told me about how Ghost obtained this motorcycle – involving New York State seizing this and two other BMW bikes from an estate for back taxes – was no cock-and-bull story.  It was also clear that the late departed had departed from the likely effects of being about 300 pounds overweight. Fork springs and shocks that were completely clobbered – even with only 24K miles on the clocks – clutch and brake shoes that were completely glazed, and the sacked saddle springs on the cop saddle all told a very clear story. Somewhere between Jersey City and Edison – as an ex-pat New Yorker I should know the Turnpike exit numbers – both the tach and speedo needles decided to go AWOL, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to occur if you’re a bike that has likely been sitting under a back shelf in a bike shop for seven years without running.

But if you could get past these little fly-in-the-ointment annoyances, what was there, under scratched up curry paint and weird modifications designed to make our bike into a cruiser, what was there was a smooth, torquey motor that was perfectly happy to cruise at 70 or 80 miles an hour for as long as you were willing to sit on it. And the longer and harder I ran it, the happier it got… a fresh tank of gas improved things still further… and it got happier still, making a straight line of progression that stretches right to the current day.

****

Fortunately, in the early 1980s, Capital Cycle Corporation was a grey market BMW parts importer that was located on Champlaine Street in Washington, DC. One session of draining some McEwan’s Edinburgh Ales and pulling numbers from their catalog was enough to get the Toaster in shape for the next 15 years or so of service as my daily transportation, travel mount, and girlfriend (now one and only wife) wooing machine. I made one trip down there and came back with a new set of fork springs, a set of Koni 7610 Shocks, a new Motometer combined speedo/tach, and a underseat toolbox and German solo police saddle.    They also had a set of stock alloy handlebar clamps to replace the chopper-refugee bar backs. The counterman, who sensed I was likely to become a good customer, also presented me with a set of factory wrapped chrome fork caps as a gift on my exit. Given the uncharacteristic amount of chrome on this particular BMW, it was a thoughtful gesture which I readily accepted. Three hours in the garage was enough to make the /5 perfectly roadworthy and so it was.

That motorcycle took me everywhere. I rode it to New Mexico and Arizona from Baltimore, and toured the Southwest, including some unpaved mountain roads and forays into the desert that I know now were not exactly smart. I may have been down a little on power, but that bike did it all with grace and aplomb, and never, but never left me on the side of the road.

As an aside, it did try once to strand me on my way home from work in Baltimore City, but it was not successful. I broke a throttle return spring on one of the Bing Carburetors, and shut down and stopped by the side of Orleans Street by Johns Hopkins Hospital.  All the rowhouses along the street had their copies of the Baltimore Sun sitting on the marble steps, in a plastic bag wrapped with rubberbands. I jacked two of the rubberbands, wrapped them around the ends of the throttle butterfly linkage, and rode the rest of the way home with everything working like it was factory.

So if you were a Baltimore Sun subscriber living in Orleans Street in 1986 and got your paper one day without the rubber bands, it wasn’t the Sun’s fault. It was me.

I am truly sorry, but I have no regrets.

***

As good a motorcycle as an R75/5 is, they were never known for being exactly exciting, much less thrilling. Balanced, yes. Surefooted, yes. Long Legged, yes and yes. All virtues, but excitement did not really appear on that list.

As a BMW noob, I set about learning the history and the lore of the Marque, and it’s a very short road that leads one to Reg Pridmore, and the R90S racers that won the first two American Motorcyclist Association Superbike Racing Championships. For those of you that aren’t familiar with BMW motorcycles, until very recently, the boxer-engined motorcycles they make have been characterized by agonizingly slow, methodical development of the same engine platform. The benefits of this tight fisted, conservative approach to engine development – which actually extends across BMW product lines, like using the same connecting rods and bearing shells in auto and bike engines – is that it is trivial to interchange parts between boxer models made between 1972 and 1995, and while somewhat less trivial, folks have transplanted engines and transmissions from that period back into BMW motorcycle chassis dating back to just after World War II.

What this meant to be is that the technology and character of an R90S was always one or two parts swaps away from being achieved. If I couldn’t buy an R90S, well then, I certainly could make one. And being a certain sort of good natured demented, I pursued that goal with fervor for at least a decade. After I had rolled the odometer well past 100,000 miles, my (then) independent mechanic, the now renowned Ted Porter informed me he was closing his shop to go to work for a major new dealership.

What this meant to me was that I was not going to be able to afford Ted’s services very shortly, so any major mechanical work that was being contemplated for this bike needed to be done RIGHT NOW. Ted had a fair inventory of hop-up parts, and given his planned cessation of activities, he was dealing, and much of it went into my motor. Ted sent my cylinder barrels to a Harley flat track shop in Wisconsin called Superior Motorcycle who pressed out the cast iron cylinder sleeves and re-sleeved the engine with chrome-moly steel liners that were lighter, harder, and sized for 900cc rather than 750 ccs of displacement. From Ted’s hot rod shop fire sale came R90S pistons and rings, titanium wrist pins, bronze valve guides and hardened steel valves.  Ted knew a machinist who drilled out the bronze bushings from the motor’s rocker arms and replaced them by press fitting some off-the-shelf Timken needle bearings that radically lightened and reduced the rotational inertia of the entire valve train. The flywheel was sent out to Randy Long mechanical services in Pennsylvania, who radically lightened and rebalanced it. Once I got the bike back from the shop I removed the airbox castings and set them in the vice in my workbench and used a drill to reproduce the hole pattern used in the airbox of the R90S. This provided much better breathing and a much more pleasing intake sound from the saddle.

These changes radically changed the nature of the bike. Throttle response was much more immediate – the bike could be effectively steered with the throttle on both corner entries and exits. There was dramatically much more low end torque – I’ve won rally slow ride contests with this bike carrying my teen aged son as a passenger.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that 75,000 miles later, that bike consumes no oil (although it might leak a little), has such good ring seal that fresh oil stays bottle-clean for more than 2000 miles after a change, and starts as well and runs as smoothly and quietly as when it rolled out of Ted’s shop. If I didn’t express appropriate thanks and appreciation then, Ted, I’m doing it now. Well done, man.

But the entire adventure was clearly a mixed blessing. BMW methodical development meant that much more motor was now out of balance with the frame, suspension and brakes (BRAKES!) that had been just enough for its former mellow, balanced 750 cc engine.  It was now easy to feel the frame flexing in corners as the motor came on the pipe – hard to miss the fact that the excellent drum brakes were clearly trying to cash checks that couldn’t be written trying to haul this engine down from speed more than a time or two on back road runs.

Oh yeah, and after blowing up two of the /5’s four speed transmissions, I got the message that maybe the stock transmission and bearing sets were not strong enough, and was forced to install a more robust later 5 speed box.

Getting an R90S, it seems, could only happen one way, and that was to get an R90S.

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