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

Life really does serve up some weird twists, and here’s where a good one starts.

I’d been through a time in my working life when I’d had a few more job changes than might be optimum.

At my current gig, we had a few members of management that were pretty serious BMW car nuts. The two of them owned M5s, which are a kind of car that indicates serious commitment.

Does your business sedan have its battery and oil tank in the trunk?

Didn’t think so.

Anyway, the younger of the two execs kept seeing my Roundels in the parking lot and one day asked me to keep an eye out for a bike for him.

Since the request represented something fun that wasn’t likely to have adverse career consequences – “Yessir, Mr. Vice President, sir!” — I readily agreed.

Some time passes. One day I’m looking through the Washington Post’s motorcycle classifieds, which used to be embedded in the Sports section.

1975 BMW R90S. Located In Point of Rocks, Maryland. $2000 OBO. Call (301)NNN-NNNN evenings.

Now Point of Rocks is the next town over from my town, and which I passed through daily during my commute.

I took the paper to see the VP.

“Chris, I really think you oughta go take a look at this.”

I explained to him how special an R90S was, just to provide some context so he could make a good decision.

He asked me to set up a meet, which I did, and a day or two later he tailed me home from work.

We rolled up to the address, and walked across the street. The property was a farmette with several barns and tractor sheds out back. Our seller greeted us and walked us around back.

Sitting in the equipment bay of one barn was our R90.

When one buys a vintage or classic motorcycle, the ideal state is all original, unmodified and unmolested.

This motorcycle had definitely been molested.

Probably more than once.

Motorcyclists, as a species, modify their stuff.

That motorcyclist was clearly in evidence here.

The bike was clearly a runner, and had been somebody’s real motorcycle that had been used on the road, and changed to suit the tastes of its owner.

I might add that said owner’s tastes were questionable at best, but they were clearly his tastes.

The R90S is famous for many things, only one of which is its factory airbrushed two tone paintwork.

This one had been repainted. The color was an almost restrained dark Royal Blue, that has some subtle highlights of Goofy Grape metallic purple. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

Some of the work was weird – someone had gone to the trouble of painting the rear subframe and swingarm housing. Weird stuff would continue to be theme of this motorcycle – every place where the previous owner has turned a wrench I have continued to find weird shit until the present day.

Someone had also gone to the trouble of polishing the sandcast engine cases and the final drive housing, which are not supposed to be polished.

The bike had an aftermarket 2-into-1 exhaust system that looked remarkably similar to the factory system on the new BMW Oilhead motorcycles.

There were signs that the model’s signature bikini fairing had recently been reinstalled, and other signs that an aftermarket Windjammer touring fairing had been there previously – marks on the frame where the supports has been installed, and signs of the required modifications to the wiring harness.

While it wasn’t exactly pretty, it wasn’t exactly ugly either, and it was an apparently complete, running motorcycle.

At this point the VP Speaketh.

“Looks rough. I haven’t got the time for this. You know these things. I’m outta here.”

<Sound of solid German car door closing. Bark of inline six. Gravel being thrown.>

Silence.

***

So here I am, having not intended to buy another motorcycle, standing in front of a barn in Point of Rocks, with a guy selling a motorcycle that I’ve wanted my entire riding life.

Considering I lived right around the corner, had ridden in a motorcycle that was the same basic configuration, from the same manufacturer, and likely less than 5000 serial numbers from the bike being sold, it was a pretty easy case to make that I could be trusted with the bike for a test ride.

The bike started pretty briskly, although its warm up performance was more than a little cold-bloodedly lumpy. This, time has shown, is just a characteristic of the DelOrto accelerator pump carburetors, which are happiest when the revs are up and the throttle slides are either WFO or on their way there. The notion that one might be stopped or have to idle had apparently never occurred to them.

I headed up Ballenger Creek Pike, and the bike seemed to be running reasonably well. The gearbox worked, the motor took throttle well, although the suspension – especially the fork – seemed to be a little more taut than that of my /5. There were problems, though.

The front brake rotors were trash – likely totally warped. The bike was grabbing and releasing on the brakes to a dangerous degree – rotor warpage is not unknown on the BMW disk brakes of this vintage. The lighting and idiot lights on the cluster were mostly AWOL. And upon a second look after my test ride, the tires were aged out and probably shouldn’t have been ridden on.

Our conversation was short and to the point. The notion that this bike was somehow special or collectable was never mentioned or acknowledged. The owner showed me 6-8 milk crates that had parts that had either been taken from the bike or should have been on it right now. There were some period touring accessories – a Brown’s Ride Off centerstand, and a matching backrest and luggage rack.

There were some Krauser Hard Cases with holes that had been melted in the bottom by some previously ill-advised and now departed aftermarket mufflers. There was the suspected Windjammer and all the oddball stuff, like naugahide covers for the stock headlight, that went with it. They all were included for the price paid for the bike.

I told the seller that I was going to use the bike for daily transportation.

I was.

That between the front brake rotors and the tires, it was going to take me at least 800 dollars to get it through Maryland inspection.

Which it did. And more.

And I offered him $1200 for the bike, which I assumed he wouldn’t take.

He didn’t hesitate.

“Deal.”

I tried to make sure I didn’t let on just what I was feeling. I didn’t want to blow it.

I told him I’d have to go to the bank to get the cash. I’d be back the next day to pick it up.

The next day I pulled the license plate from the /5, and had Doris drive me back to the barn. I used my reflector wingnuts to put the plate on the bike, did the deal, and tiptoed the 6 or so miles back to my garage.

It was time to take wrenches in hand and see what we really had.

***

All things considered, things didn’t appear to be that bad.

Of course, things are not always what they appear to be, either.

First item of business was to do basic service on the bike and see if we could get it through inspection.

The motor oil, transmission oil, driveshaft and final drive oils were changed. The oil change revealed that the beautiful appearing 2 into 1 exhaust blocked the oil filter door at changes, making it necessary to loosen the exhaust every time one wanted to perform an oil change. That would have to go. Other than that, the only obvious flaw was a stripped out driveshaft drain that had been tapped to the next size and repaired with the drain bolt from a Chevy, everything looked pretty normal. That bodge of a repair was pretty easy to spot because of the SAE drain bolt and due to the fact that I’d repaired the /5’s drain in exactly the same way. I also drained and refilled the fork oil, which looked like it had been in there a bit longer than optimum.

I did some tuning, in setting valves, replacing the points, setting timing, updating to Bosch Blue ignition coils, and fitting the bike with a Dyna ignition amplifier, which basically converts the bike to electronic ignition with the OEM points serving as a low voltage ignition trigger.

There was other weird stuff. Unlike the Slash 5, which has beautiful alloy turnsignal housings, the S has black fiberglass reinforced ABS plastic housings. The rear housings on this bike were crazy loose, to the extent that when one revved the engine, the turn signals did a demented dance of death. I pulled the lenses, and tightened up the tiny 7mm bolts to absolutely zero effect. It took a goodly long time to realize that the steel straps that located the rear signals on their chrome steel shaft had been installed upside down, and after 5 minutes of remove/reorient/reinstall, all was well.

In retrospect, the bike was talking to me – desperately trying to tell me that the previous owner was a danger to himself and others ( and TO ME!!!!! ), whenever he took wrenches in hand. It was a message that would take a fair amount of repetition before dumbshit here finally and completely internalized it.

Both wheels were pulled and the rotors were removed. I had done a little research and determined that buying a set of factory replacement rotors was a crapshoot. Knowledgeable mechanics told me that many of these rotors suffered from a manufacturing process that placed unreleased heat stresses into the material during manufacture. After a few heat cycles, the stresses would be released and the rotors would deform to the classic – but useless – potato chip form. A racer that I know had advised me that there was a Ducati shop in the Chicago metro area that had invested in the computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinery required to fabricate their own rotors from cast iron blanks for their shop’s race team. Motor Cycle Center (MCC) was the only shop in the known universe that would actually remachine existing motorcycle brake rotors, because they had the skill and equipment to remove the tiny amounts of material that was required to bring warped rotors back to truly flat.

After a phone conversation with their master machinist – since sadly passed – I boxed the rotors up and sent them back to Villa Park. Fast forward a few days and the box comes back, along with an apologetic letter that “he was sorry that he could only get one of the rotors accurate to within one thousandth, although he thought that might be close enough.” He’s used a machinst’s marker to identify the one that was “0.001” out by marking it on the carrier.

20 years and 60,000 miles later, that 0.001 is still visible on that rotor carrier, the bike stops dead solid like a fighter plane’s carrier arrestor hook, and my master machinist was right that it was “close enough”.

***

After levering on some new Dunlops, reinstalling the rotors, and installing some EBC pads and a brake bleed, I sought out someone to perform a Maryland Inspection on the motorcycle.

A wise old biker once told me something that I will gladly share with you.

Paul told me, “Whenever you want to get a bike inspected, always take it someplace where they have nothing that they can sell you.”

That advice marked the wise old biker as truly wise, indeed, so I took my motorcycle up to Harley Davidson of Frederick to get inspected. As I rolled up to their service bay, sitting outside the service entrance was a beautiful silver BMW K1000RS, a motorcycle which is part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. That K is sculpture, and there’s no bones about it.

“Can I speak to the Service Manager? I need to arrange for an inspection.”

“I’m the Service Manager. Name’s Ted.”

“Hi Ted. I’m Greg. Man, whose K is that?”

“Oh, that’s mine. Sweet, ain’t it?”

Turned out I was somehow on friendly territory.

Net/Net was I ended throwing Ted the keys – Road Test, of course – and grabbing a comfy chair in the Harley Service Lounge. Twenty minutes later I had an inspection report that required me to install clamps on my gravity feed fuel lines and install reflectors that were visible from the side on the rear of my motorcycle.

There is a WalMart with its auto department less than one half mile away from Harley Davidson of Frederick. After 15 minutes I had located, bought and installed fuel line spring clips and some adhesive reflectors on the sides of my Krauser bags. 10 Minutes later I had my inspection certificate and was back out in the parking lot removing the spring clips. 10 Minutes later I was at the Frederick DMV and 10 minutes later I was putting my plates on in the DVM parking lot.

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