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

It seems obvious now, but it didn’t seem obvious at the time.

I needed a nimbler, lighter, more responsive motorcycle that was happier in dispatching traffic by whatever means necessary.

Doris, as usual, was the first to Mr. Slow’s garden party.

“You already have a nimbler, more responsive motorcycle. Why don’t you just fix up what you got?”

<sound of palm striking forehead>

For the approximate outlay required to put a down payment and register a new motorcycle, I could mechanically restore the S and ride a bike that would literally draw crowds and bike-paparazzi wherever it went. There was nothing with more soul that was more fun to ride regardless of pricetag, and it was already sitting in my garage.

And so, with the proper inspiration and support, a plan was hatched.


The first part of the plan was obvious.

The transmission was going to need to be brought up to spec. Without a way to transmit the bike’s full output reliably, anything and everything else was just a waste.

Other bits were functional, but mostly cosmetic.

Ham Pugnus had thought, for some reason, that changing things to make the bike appear more modern was somehow a benefit. This strange idea manifested itself through things like 1980s vintage footpeg rubbers and other rubber parts being slapped on over 1975 metal bits where they didn’t fit.  It also was very visible in the cheezy 80s vintage adhesive tank badges which had faded to an awful yellow, leaving one to wonder who had made off with the nice cloisonné ones that were there originally.

Then there was the Brown’s vintage backrest and rack combination which, while it was great for transporting kids – which I’d done with this bike – and for carrying a small cooler as a lunchbox — which I’d done with this bike – really made the bike look like the former Windjammer equipped touring refugee it no longer was, and really messed up the lines of the rear of the motorcycle.  The windscreen of the motorcycle was original, and at this point, it was an awful looking yellow mass of spider cracks that looked like a single bug strike could reduce it to fragments in a millisecond.

Then, there were the pure annoyances. The instrument clusters of the BMWs of this vintage were legendary for the manifold and repeated failures of the lights in the clusters – both the idiot lights and the gauge illumination – caused by BMW’s first use of a flexible printed circuit board which may have been , in retrospect, a tad too flexible. The gauge lighting in the S had never worked, and the oil pressure light was, too say the least, moody in the extreme. As someone who had already blown up one engine in this bike, I might have been a little sensitive about never knowing whether to believe it or not. I also wanted to be able to ride the bike after dark without having to resort to ‘Great Karnak-style psychic instrumentation’, so all of this was going to have to be sorted.  And while we were riding in the dark, a more modern headlamp was likely to be welcome as well.

Finally, the vintage Krauser luggage I’d obtained with the bike was neither attractive not practical. With the aforementioned holes burned in the bottom, more ugly 80s yellow stick-on roundels, and latches that were the locksmith’s equivalent of Russian Roulette – “Will your stuff stay in there this time? Do you feel lucky, Punk?” – there was clearly room for significant improvement.  As highly developed as my skills for retracing my route to find my stuff by the side of the road may have become, I felt it was time to develop other interests.


So I needed an Artist in airhead gearboxes. After brief consideration, there was only one guy (ok, maybe 3) that would do.

I first met Mark Delaney when he was a teenager that worked in Ted Porter’s independent shop. When Ted closed up shop and went to work for a major regional dealer, Mark went with him. During his stint there, Mark received extensive factory training to further refine the significant skill and care that he had first demonstrated while working for Ted.

Fast forward a few years, and Mark left the dealership to devote more time to his profession as a first rate Bluegrass Banjo man, and opened up a small independent BMW shop on the side. Mark was skilled, a careful craftsman, and produced first rate work. I gave Mark a call.

“An R90S? Sure I’ll rebuild your transmission. It’s great that someone is keeping these things in good running shape. When can you bring it by?”

I reorganized my garage so that the S would have the space and workbench real estate it would need for what would likely be a few weeks of tear down and re-build up. I degreased the entire powertrain and then spend a hot, dirty hour and some pulling the transmission from the bike. I ran the transmission down to Mark’s shop and only took about an hour and a half as two gingers compulsively talking Beemers when a normal customer would have been in-and-out in 10 minutes. He had a nice original matched pair of R80GS and R80ST in the shop, along with other really cool stuff.

After my wife called me on the phone wondering if I’d died, I bid Mark adieu and resolved to speak with him after he’d torn the transmission down.


Second order of business was to get the instrument cluster working. I invested in a great deal of electronic contact cleaner spray, found a source for LEDs to replace the incandescent bulbs, and then prepared a place on my kitchen table to do brain surgery. I pulled the cluster down, first removing the rear case, then the protective housing underneath. All of the bulbs and bulb holders were not in ideal shape – contacts were visibly corroded, and all of the bulb holders were mechanically loose.

I used the contact cleaner to remove all of the visible oxidation, and replaced all of the incandescent bulbs with the LED replacements.

I spent some time researching fixes to the circuit card, and discovered that folks has been making and using electrically conductive shims to make the contacts more reliable. Ideally, thin copper foil – formerly used for circuit card fabrication – would have been the hot ticket, but with the all-but-collapse of Radio Shack, my purchase options were limited. Understanding it was a compromise, I settled on Aluminum foil, which was available from the drawer behind the kitchen table.

I made tiny shims by cutting the foil to the correct length, and then folding it over until it was narrower than the contact area of the bulb holder. If you’ve had one of these bulb holders in your hand, you know: a) how small that is and b) how hard that is to see for a bog normal 55 year old. I replaced the all of the bulb holders, used a magnifier to make sure that there was no foil hanging out somewhere where it shouldn’t be, and then reassembled the cluster. I went out to the bones of the bike and temporarily rigged a ground for the battery. I turned the key. For the first time since I’d owned the bike, all of the lights were lit – illumination, idiot lights, everything. Riding after dark – at least with full information — was actually going to be possible.


Since it appeared we were going to be riding at night, a modern headlamp was the next order of business. The High Intensity Discharge (HID) system I’d put in the K bike had been some of the best upgrade money I’d ever spent. In this bike, though, I really wanted something self-contained, with no external ignitor or ballast boxes that needed their wiring fished into a crowded headlamp bucket.

The first thing I considered, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, was an upgrade Light Emitting Diode (LED) headlamp that Harley Davidson has just released, which they called, in their typical he-man hyperbolic fashion, ‘The Nightcutter’.   This headlamp unit, which had been developed for their Rushmore series of modernized touring bikes, was a very elegant piece of engineering. It was a completely self-contained unit that was exactly the size of a normal 7.5 in diameter sealed beam headlamp, and was connected with the same H4 headlamp connector used in most classic motorcycles, including the R90. In my application, it would have been trivial to place this unit into my headlamp trim ring in place of the existing lens and reflector, plug it in to the stock headlight connector, and snap it on. The specifications on the thing looked great – it used about 40% of the current of the stock halogen bulb, and where the stock lamp produced about 1,300 lumens, ‘The Nightcutter’ made about 12,000 from its combination of 2 vertically stacked projector units and two horizontally arranged fill units.

‘Nightcutter’, indeed.

And one can buy this unit in any Harley dealership.

There are just two problems – one small one and one big one. The small one was the kind of spacy appearance of the thing. Imagine four cat eyes stuffed inside the standard lens and you get the idea. I wasn’t going for stock appearance, though, so I was OK with that. The big one, though, was the he-man hyperbolic price of the thing, which was right up against $500 for a headlamp. For a custom builder with a paying customer, it would have been a no-brainer.

For me, though, and my goal, it was a deal killer.



I’d be the first to admit that a great deal of what I know about motorcycles has been taught to me by my friends on the Internet BMW Riders List Server. This was another one of those.

I shared on the list that I’d been looking at the H-D Deer Vaporizing setup, and one of my list brothers forwarded me a link to a thread on the Adventure Rider web bulletin board.

The ADV dudes and dudettes were working with one of their members who was an engineer, and who was designing a very elegant LED upgrade unit to replace H4 motorcycle halogen bulbs. Again, it was completely self-contained, used about 10% of the current, made almost no heat, and produced more than 3 times the lumens of the stock headlamp, and made that light in a completely daylight color temperature, compared with the very warm yellow of the stock lights.  It was only about a half inch deeper than the stock bulb, and best of all, it was about 10% of the price of the HD unit.

I ordered on from the manufacturer, a company called Cyclops Adventure Sports, as fast as my little fingers could click stuff.

Upon receipt, I was fairly sure we had a winner.


In preparation for several tasks inside the S’s cockpit, I removed and discarded the original windscreen, which surprised me by coming out in one piece. I undid the fairing’s upper mounts, and tilted the entire fairing forward for some working room. Then I removed the headlight trim ring and disconnected and removed the stock headlamp.

Inside an R90S headlamp bucket, even a half an inch is precious real estate.  I spent some time relocating the ends of the chassis and handlebar switch pod wiring harnesses – SNAKES! – to create the small clearance required by the combination heatsink and fan unit on the rear of the Cyclops LED unit. Once I was confident that sufficient clearance had been created so that the heatsink was not going to be in direct contact with any conductors – no small feat in so confined a space – I hooked up the H4 connector, replaced the headlight trim ring and snapped the headlamp bucket closed.

I reconnected the temporary battery chassis ground and test fired the new lamp.

<Sound of heavenly hosts up and under>

I can tell you that when a nearly 40 year old motorcycle powers up with a high RPM cooling fan ‘WHirrrrrr’ like a modern piece of network gear it’s more than a little disconcerting.

But the light that comes out of this unit is absolutely startling in its quality. The Cyclops unit makes the brightest white light I’ve ever seen from vehicle lighting – it tiptoes right up to the edge of blue without actually being blue. My conspicuity on the road has increased dramatically… No one has cut me off since I installed the new lighting. Beam formation is great – no spill to the sides and no glare to blind oncoming drivers. And the brightness is staggering – I can see things off to the side of the road I never could before, and amount of light coming back from newer-tech road signage and reflectors is amazing.

This is a bulb that makes three times the measurable light, at a more usable color temperature, using 10% of the current, and will likely last longer than I will. When Cyclops makes a H3 – which is what the highbeam on the LT uses, I’ll buy one of those, too.


Given the ‘while we’re in there’ nature of the work in progress, I mounted a few adhesive wire anchors to underside of top shelf of the fairing’s cockpit. When the bike had been purchased the fairing had two gaping holes where the voltimeter and quartz analog clock had been. The ‘Green Valley Dairy’ portable swapmeet – in the form of the milk crates fulla stuff that came with the bike – had spat out, at various times, both of the original instruments, although only the voltimeter had survived until the current day.

What happened to the original clock is a story unto itself, but I’ll tell that one another time.

I’d had to scramble to find a dealer that still had the accessory wiring harness in stock many years back, and I probably hadn’t done the most detail-oriented job of installing it.

The word ‘expedient’ comes to mind to describe that process.

With everything apart at this point I cable tied the harness up out of sight for a far more finished look.

As an aside, in perusing the parts diagrams for the bike, I’d noticed that the bike had been originally equipped with a gasket that sealed the bike’s signature bikini fairing to the outside of the headlamp shell. My bike has never had that gasket.  I included it on my shopping list when I bought a great quantity of small rubber bits and other worn out or missing items. After closing the headlamp shell I installed the gasket and sealed the inside of the headlamp opening to the outside of the headlamp.

Finally,  I had identified a nice dark smoke accessory windshield from Zero Gravity. Zero Gravity’s primary business is windscreen for modern hypersport bikes and racetrack machinery. Most of their stuff falls into the electric neon-colored sharp angled extreme sports design school.  Amusingly, at least to me anyway, the oldest motorcycle for which they make a fitment, is the BMW R90S. I guess at least the principals of ZG understand who is the daddy of all modern sportbikes.

Their windscreen is exactly the same shape as the OEM unit, is made of slightly thicker material, and was a darkest smoke bordering on black, and was able to be fitted with the stock edge molding.  Given that there are several reasons – about thirty five pounds of them –  why I didn’t anticipate spending much time trying to navigate at speed from underneath the bubble, I thought it would be a nice dress up item with no functional show stoppers. Finding a full matched set of nylon screws and nuts was not as simple as it should have been, but once in possession, I removed the bubble from the bag, gently hand inserted the screws and tightened the nuts, and then carefully tightened everything, starting at the center and working to the edges. A few minutes of refitting the stock edgemolding, and it looked like we had a winner.

Or, at least it looked like a Winner if one could overlook the large gaping hole in the frame where the transmission had been.



To continue reading, Part Nine of the story can be found here…

The previous part of the story can be found here….


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

  1. Pingback: Clunk | Rolling Physics Problem

  2. Pingback: Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway — Part Seven | Rolling Physics Problem

  3. Pingback: Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway — Part Nine | Rolling Physics Problem

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