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

Now you can be forgiven for thinking that this is that big happy ending.

I had my bike of a lifetime, and had finally sorted it all out, and had even ducked a ticket that I fully deserved.

On screen Kitty Growls. Fade to Black. Orchestra Up and Under.

You can be forgiven for thinking that, but that would indicate you know exactly shit about motorcycles.

A motorcycle engine that has – time and time again, hit a brick wall of leanness and combustion detonation every time it had reached maximum power – is a motorcycle engine that has been most horribly abused. The in-cylinder shock waves that this leanness produces place unspeakable short duration peak loads on pistons, bearings and rods.

You might get away with this for a little while, but you’re not going to get away with it forever.

So it’s just a question of when.

I know this now.

I didn’t know this then.


I was taking a trip with another buddy of mine across the Alleghenies into Ohio, to visit the AMA’s Vintage Motorcycle Days.  Lee was originally from Ohio, and was going to meet his wife and kids at his parents place after the race meeting. They were taking the family pickup truck, and Lee would load up his bike in the back and back to Northern Virginia from Ohio with them. Lee was a huge dude, built lean and somewhere north of six-six, who was riding a restored Honda 500 Interceptor, so I couldn’t blame him for wanting to avoid another 300 plus miles of tall-man-tiny-bike touring.

When I rode into Mansfield, Ohio, the S seemed down on power, but I didn’t let it ruin what was a wonderful weekend of Vintage Racing and swap meet safari for me. Lee split early Sunday morning to go see his folks. About 3 o clock on Sunday I figured I’d better head towards home. I got my ‘Stich, gloves and helmet on and hit the two laners that would take me out of Mansfield and back towards the Ohio Pike.

About 12 miles after leaving the track, the bike developed a bad shudder, and the sound of the exhaust changed, and it wasn’t for the better. The Former Owner, Ham Primus, had fitted the bike with a Luftmeister combination Oil Temperature Gauge and Dipstick. It’s a charming period accessory that I don’t imagine one sees very frequently any more.

I was looking down under my left leg when the hammering started, and the Lufty Gauge went from its normal temperature reading straight through the red zone and off the top of the scale in about 10 seconds flat.  The engine cut out, and I pulled in the clutch and drifted off the side of the road into the parking lot of what looked to be an abandoned white painted country church.

I tried to restart the engine, which would turn, but clearly wasn’t going to restart. This day was clearly going to end up on the crash truck.



There was a payphone in the church parking lot. I knew Lee carried a cel phone, which was not as ubiquitous then as it is now. I called it. He answered.

I told him where I was. He knew the place exactly, and was about 10 miles behind me.

Do you ever feel like your luck is so good you could throw yourself at the ground and miss?

A half an hour later, we’d figured out how to get two bikes securely in that GMC, and were headed back east toward Maryland and Virginia with Lee’s wife and children. I remember listening to audiobooks of James Herriot veterinarian stories – All Creatures Great and Small – and enjoying it so much I was kind of sad for the ride to end.


When I did get out in the garage and pulled the left cylinder it was pretty obvious what had happened. I had one connecting rod big end bearing shaped like a fresh England Midands Chicken Egg, right off one of James Herriott’s farms. On its way out it had tried valiantly to take the crankshaft with it, so fixing this was going to be neither simple nor inexpensive. On a lesser bike this might have been terminal, but we’ve already seen that stubborn is my thing.

I was lucky enough to have a friend by the name of Darryl Messerle. To say Darryl is a little overqualified to repair these simple BMW motorcycle engines is a dramatic understatement. Darryl was the Master Tool and Die Machinist for the Ford Motor Company’s engines division for more than 20 years. Translation – Darryl made all the tools, fixtures and machinery that made all the engines before the robots got that job. Ford gave him his toolkit as a token of appreciation upon retirement – they were two seven foot tall oak chests filled with tools – made in Stuttgart, Germany – siting on red velvet in their drawers. My understanding of the retail value of those tools was about double what I paid for my current house.

After retiring, Darryl ran a BMW bike dealership for a while out in the Midwest. When I met him, he’d moved on from that and was living in Massachusetts. He took on BMW motorcycle projects, not because it was a business, or because he needed the money, but, I suspect, simply because he loved to do it.

I’d seen some bikes Darryl had restored or built. He was really good at what he did. His love was in no way misplaced.

Knowing that this little problem of mine was going to be a major project, I picked up the phone, gave Darryl a call, and filled him in on my sad story.

“Funny thing, that. One of my customers called me this morning. Said he’d been rear ended out on the 128.  Got pushed into the car in front of him. His bike is totaled – all sorts of front end and frame damage. It’s an R100/7. It’s almost exactly the same engine as yours – the heads, everything – it’s the last engine BMW made that has the cable drive tachometer.

Let me call you back.”

Later that evening, Darryl rang me back.

He’d arranged to purchase the salvage rights to his customer’s R100.  He’d done some beer coaster math and ”had a proposition for me.”

“Your engine, I figure is fourteen to seventeen hundred dollars’ worth of  just parts, depending on how bad it is. “

It was, by the way, bad.

“I’ve taken care of this /7 since it was new. It has 32,000 miles and is in perfect shape. I figure I can pull it down, replace the gaskets and seals, balance the top end, clean the cases up, heck, I can even paint the cylinder barrels, and once it’s in your bike, no one will ever know it isn’t the original engine except you and me.”

Oh, and you, now.

Actually, the cover on the oil filter door is completely wrong, but other than that, Darryl was completely right.

“I figure I can let you have the whole engine for $900. When can you come up and get it?”


Don’t misunderstand me.

I feel a little bit bad about replacing the engine in an original R90S. But to the present day, the original short block with its matching serial numbers sits on a service stand, under a dust cover, next to where the S is parked in my garage.

It is waiting for me to hit the lotto, so that we can transition into a universe where money has no meaning, and I can rebuild that engine into some crazy, lightened, hot rodded, fire-breathing monster.

But I was pretty sure that Darryl’s $1700 in parts was going to be way more than $2000 by the time we were all done, and I had a wife and kids in the home attached to my garage.

So I got in my pickup and headed for Massachusetts. I ended up stopping to visit my Dad in Jersey, and he decided to ride along up to Boston Metro West, where Darryl lived.

Once in the shop we briefly ogled a project bike Darryl was working on, and then loaded the engine into my pickup. Darryl being Darryl, he kept picking objects up and handing them to me, carrying on about how his shop “was a mess”, and this stuff was “just in the way”.

Some of the things I remember him handing me were things like… a perfect looking airhead crankshaft… a connecting rod set….

You get the picture… this was stuff I was never going to have any use for.

If Darryl’s BMW business had an Accountant, the guy would be having a continuous heart attack.

With the motor strapped down in the back of my Dodge, we all headed down to a nearby diner to grab some lunch. Darryl and my Dad really seemed to hit it off. The spent a lot of time talking cars, and what it was like to work at the plant, and the car business in general. They both seemed to have a perspective that American cars were no longer what they once were, and seemed to appreciate the contact with a kindred spirit.

I haven’t had many adult adventures with my Dad along. For what looked like a pretty pointless express ride from New Jersey to Massachusetts and back, the Old Man seemed like he had a pretty good time.

I guess I did, too.


2 thoughts on “Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway — Part Five

  1. MA, you say! When I was still a bmw motorcycle fanatic I had the good fortune to move to the then home of Digital Equipment, from Brookline, MA. Some may recall Digital? Almost every motorcyclist in that small town rode a bmw. It was uncanny; and damned handy. Glad you had good gear headed time with your dad. I’ve had a fair bit with my son, too. B~

  2. Pingback: Old School Touring | Rolling Physics Problem

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