Forty Six

I went up to Summit Point yesterday, and I learned a few things.

Why I went to The Track and what I was doing up there will have to wait till later to fully relate, but a trivial thing I did learn is that hanging out in The Pits in full leathers – even on a not that hot sunny day – is a hot, sticky business. There was room for a lot more potable water than I carried in the hard cases of the R90S – I should have made better use of it.

After an enthusiastic R90S blast over the 30 miles of backroad twisties and US Highway that lies between Summit and The Shop, and after an equally enthusiastic shedding of my Vanson pants and jacket, and a perhaps more enthusiastic glugging of about 2 to 3 quarts water and some foodstuffs, my increasingly cogent thoughts – resulting from non-negative blood sugar levels – turned to some way of really cooling off a body that was still running marginally hot.

With the sun finally having set and the temperature having dropped just below 70 degrees, I grabbed my perforated jacket, helmet and gloves, and the ignition pin for the Slash 5. As my only bike without a windshield, The Toaster was the best way available to catch a much needed full body breeze.

As I threw a leg over, and turned on the ignition, I found it nearly unbelievable that my oldest motorcycle had somehow come to be forty six years old. If this bike was somehow old, then I was, too. Forty Six years old didn’t seem to have any effect on a motorcycle whose starter motor slammed into place like a light sledgehammer and heaved the big bore twin to life on the third compression stroke. And Forty Six years old didn’t stop an engine that came off the enrichener after only 10 seconds or so, and that settled into an absolutely even 1100 rpm idle. Some of this motorcycle’s seals might be a little seepy, but the hard parts were still as fit for purpose and almost as tight — 180,000 road miles later — as when they were designed.

There is almost nothing modern about a motorcycle like this, though. Ride-By-Wire? Only if the wire is a 16 strand steel Bowden control cable – which on the Slash 5 connects a gear-driven throttle cartridge to a pair of Constant Velocity Bing throttle butterflies. There isn’t a micro- or even a macro-processor, or anything digital, for that matter, anywhere in the machine. Everything – Ignition, Fuel Delivery, Instrumentation — is Analog – an ancient world where all of physics was continuous change – instead of a series of discrete values snapshotted every few milliseconds or so – there was this world which consisted of all the time in between that the digital world has dropped. If we ever have one of those Electromagnetic Pulse events that destroy all of our electronic technology, the /5 will be one of the few motor vehicles that will be left to run. Brakes? Both ends by drum, actuated by cables. People will joke that these brakes are ‘anti-lock’, but those people do not know how to properly adjust these brakes, and they would be wrong. The handlebars have two multifunction switches. Two. That’s it. Ignition – rather than by Bluetooth or even by key, is by a Bosch ignition pin that would have been common to every German motorcycle, scooter or moped made during a two decade postwar period.

You could look at such a machine as ‘obsolete’, but that would be missing an important point, which is that this 1973 BMW is still as much of a balanced thoroughbred of a motorcycle today as it was when Bob Lutz was pitching it and was pictured wearing tan-colored leathers on this exact model and paint color bike outside the Berlin Factory Gate sometime in 1972. Turning from neighborhood streets up the state highway towards Brunswick, in each successive gear the motor provides a lovely crescendo of thrust which combines with the bike rising front and rear under acceleration – each gear being literally onward and upward. Each gearshift is deliberate and percussive, with the suspension falling as the power is dialed off, and then rising once more as the power comes back on again.
Most BMWs I’ve ridden seem to have a really serene, unstressed spot in their rev bands right around 3900 rpm – in top gear the bike is loafing, and just riding that little aeromotor hum blithely along. Tonight the goal is to stay in that sweet spot – to just cruise along and drink in this perfect evening. The original mufflers on the /5 — are tuned to allow the tiniest bit of the low frequencies of the exhaust to rumble, while keeping overall sound pressure levels at societally responsible levels. The longer I’ve ridden motorcycles, the more I’ve come to appreciate the ability of a quiet exhaust not to rat one out when one is riding like a total knob.

Original Zeppelin-shaped Mufflers — there’s a lot of exhaust tubing in there…

I resolved to stay out of the bottoms and on the county’s straighter roads – this spring we’ve had a very active deer population, and lots of black bear incursions as well. These slightly bigger roads give me the best chances to see and react to these little potential deer or bear hugs that have a bad tendency to end badly. 180 West, 17 up to Middletown, US 40 Alt over Braddock and down to Frederick, and then Butterfly Lane and back to 180 West, coming back to Jefferson from the east. Forty miles of feeling the just cool enough to be pleasurable air coming through the perf on my leather jacket and listening to the boxer’s little aeroplane sounds.

Halfway up MD 17 to Middletown, the cooling temperatures must have hit the dew point, because suddenly the road was bordered by swirling wisps of fog, which grew as each mile rolled past. Far from being uncomfortable, the slight chill was entirely welcome – helping my elevated core temperatures back in the direction of nominal. Coming over Braddock Mountain is one of my favorite Slash 5 rides – at 60 mph the big sweepers that mark both the ascent and descent are challenging enough to let one know one is motorcycling without coming anywhere close to the Toaster’s handling limits – one can carry good speed and lean angle mid corner and enjoy instant punch from the meat of the bike’s midrange on the exits – if Disneyland had a ‘motorcycle attraction’ it would probably be a lot like this.

Coming back into Jefferson along MD 180 the evening temperature drop became more pronounced – the lowspots in the highway announced themselves with noticeably cooler air blasting through the perforated leather and standing up the hair on my arms and with slightly foggier spots necessitating the use of the tiny faceshield wiper blade built into the left thumb of my Aerostitch elkskin gauntlets. The /5’s boxer motor loved the cool, dense air – the exhaust thrum was a perfect meditative ‘Ohhm’. Three quarters of an hour of this top gear roll had cooled me down perfectly, and brought a nearly perfect state of calm to my spirit. Had this been an amusement park ride I’d have likely been asking Dad to ride it again.

It wasn’t of course, and the ride ended too soon. As I trolled back into my neighborhood I closed the fuel petcocks and stayed out of the throttle. My neighbors likely curse at the teenager with the drag piped Sportster that lives next door – those same neighbors would never know I’d been here. As I rolled into the open garage I pulled in the clutch and reached forward and pulled out the ignition pin before I came to a stop – in 1973 the ‘kill switch’ was still a new, or in BWW’s case, a future technology.

I rocked the bike up on her centerstand, and sat my helmet and gloves on the saddle. I walked over to the ‘Adult Fridge’ on the workbench, and grabbed a Real Ale Revival Grapefruit Nectar – a bracing cold one that would serve as a big exclamation point on what had been a perfect day. Before going into the house, I turned back to look at this old motorcycle – my ‘Alloy Girlfriend’ — time hadn’t done anything to make her less beautiful. Forty six years is nowhere near long enough to make this motorcycle anything but fun to take for a cool, relaxed evening ride.

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Big Starships and Little Airplanes

I’ve been lucky enough to be riding a lot lately.

I’ve had places to go, things to do, and when I didn’t, I rode then too.

I had to do a business thing, that had me burning some highway into Baltimore, a job that required the proper tool of my K-bike.  I’d be carrying business clothing and gear in the top case, and could store and lock my riding gear in the cases on arrival.

It was important that I be prompt, so I left a full 45 minutes of buffer time above the computed point-to-point time.

Of which I, of course, used a full 44 – arriving one single minute early and working as hard to remain centered and crisp as I can ever recall working.

I did not let the large authority vehicle – a monster size blacked out Suburban with hidden blue and red lightbars – around here those beasts are either Secret Service guys or Maryland State Police Command or Detectives – that rear-ended someone HARD in morning traffic on I-70 East – causing a nearly half hour backup — manage to blow my cool.

Nor did I let the Baltimore County Roads Crew, that decided that the road that lead straight to my destination was a really great place to drop a few improvisational Jersey Barriers, closing it to all traffic – manage to blow my cool either, although of the two, they came closer.

I slid into a parking space in front of the office, did the ditch gear adopt business casual swap in the parking lot, smoothed the small thing that passes for hair in my case, and walked through the door, right on time, Pee-Wee Herman-like in that “I Meant To Do Thaaat.”

Business got done. In retrospect I thought it went better than it actually did, but I’m working double shifts lately to think positively.

Afterward, my new Harley-riding buddy Mike, who had played a critical role in getting business done, walked out with me to the parking lot. Upon seeing my LT, Mike was clearly struck, and struck hard.

“Holy shit, man, that thing is beautiful.”

As somebody that has been gazing fondly at this motorcycle for the better part of twenty years now, I know full well that Mike was absolutely right. Think of it like you think of the one you love – upon first seeing your loved one, there was a level of emotional stimulation for which there is no equal – twenty years on, the impact, while still there, isn’t quite the same.

Looking at the bike though Mike’s fresh eyes, though, I came back to that first blush of Bike love.  BMW designers, starting with the first R100RS, have modelled their aerodynamic bodywork on organic forms like the bottle nosed dolphin. My K1200LT, with its broad tank, narrow waist and integrated cases, is arguably the highest expression of that smooth, organic, fully enclosed aesthetic. The contoured stitching that Rick Meyer added to my custom saddle took that aesthetic one step further.

I’m not usually tongue-tied. All I could manage was a lame “Yeah, she is pretty, isn’t she?”

We made small talk while I geared up, and then shook hands before I turned for the road.

After a long winter that has had more than its fair share of various forms of suffering, I was looking over the bars at the sunniest of sunny skies, cloudless, windless, with a temperature in the mid-sixties.   With a departure time a full three hours in advance of Baltimore rush hour, I’d have 50 miles of familiar and wide open interstate as close to all to myself as one ever gets.

The Security Boulevard interchange is a little squirrely – if one gets on the Baltimore Beltway in either direction one enters after the Interstate 70 exit, creating a classic ‘you can’t get there from here’ scenario. This bit of spaghetti engineering necessitates a backtrack of about 3 miles into the city, where the end of I-70 was designed as a national security highway that lead directly into Social Security Administration Headquarters campus and original datacenter.  Hitting the bottom of that ramp provides a nearly uninterrupted shot 95% of the way back to Jefferson.  With all of the bike’s fluids and hard parts warmed from the run in, I just took the K12’s flying brick up to around 7000 rpm for every shift, listening to the intake shriek rise and fall as we went up through the gears.

This motorcycle is happiest at felonious speeds.  The frame and road gear were made for high speed cruising. These big displacement Flying Bricks have Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde split personalities. Keep the engine at 3900 rpm on cruise, and both the sound and vibration levels are absolutely serene at an indicated 83 mpg. Run the engine up past 4200, though,  and things get vicious. At that engine speed, the 4 valve heads really start to breathe, access to top gear passing power maxes out, and fuel economy actually improves.  But if you are running a K1200LT in top gear close to 5000 rpm, and you have to discuss it with a member of law enforcement, all you can do is giggle insanely and stick your wrists out submissively for the cuffs.

On this perfect day, I left behind all thoughts of anything but the next corner and my next move behind the bars. Even cars that were maintaining good momentum on the interstate were simply vaporized with a snap of the throttle.  The intake shriek of the big motor sang each jump to hyperspace. I was overdue for some fun, and I was having it now. With the LT’s adjustable shield raised to smooth the airflow over my helmet, wind deflectors tuned to keep the cockpit air bubble flowing out to behind where I sat, I was simply one with the roar of the motor – keeping the revs up in the power in top gear – crushing time and space to the point where I nearly arrived before I had left.

Sitting back in the garage admiring the view that had so affected Mike, I could not help but wonder at the durability and permanence of this engineering creature of speed.

Organic Much?

***

BMW’s boxer twins – like my 1973 R75/5 – were products of an earlier times’ simple and unavoidable business problem.

Imagine Max Friz, sitting in his cold office at BMW in the aftermath of the German defeat in the First World War, and the company’s mandated exit from the aviation business required by the terms of surrender.

“What in himmel are we ever going to do with all these machines that make airplane engine parts?

Then Max had a good idea.

The motorcycle motor which eventually came from Max’s Good Idea was 100% Airplane motor DNA.  The engine for the BMW R32 shared lots of design details from the aeromotors even if no actual part numbers may have carried across.  Even in modern times BMW shared components like pistons, rods and bearings across both cars and bikes, though, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least had this been the genesis of that thinking.  The boxer was just the simplest possible expression of radial engines like the 9 cylinder BMW engines that were then in their earliest phases of development and that hadn’t been ready by the end of the Great War.   Cylinders that sit opposed out in the cooling air. Valve gear that is easy to access and dead easy to maintain. Direct connection of the engine’s crankshaft to the driveline. Dead Square Bore and Stroke measurements, and valve sizing and cam profiles that put the engine’s torque peak well down in the rev band so the engine could make maximum thrust at conservative rotational speeds.

If you’ve ever flown in a Cessna 172 – which is an air-cooled Boxer 6 – and heard the short RPM ramp to power and the nice low drone of an exhaust note – then the sound of a BMW Boxer Twin seems immediately familiar.

So today, and a lot of days lately, I’ve been flying.

For some reason, I’m in an emotional state where my oldest motorcycle – the /5 – seems to be speaking to me the loudest. When I go for a ride I want to relax and empty the mind – and /5 Flying Low and Slow seems – counterintuitively – the fastest way to get to that particular there.

The Toaster is in prime running shape after its recent full tune up.   I’ve had the chance to run through a tank of fuel and fine tune the mixture and idle settings to an optimum state.

And out on the roads of the valley, running around 4000 rpm up in fourth gear, this old BMW seems to want to create echoes of times involving biplanes, open cockpits, leather helmets and flyer’s goggles.  The engine’s spread of power is broad enough to address most cornering, entering corners on no brakes and trailing throttle, and having the engine’s peak output available immediately as one opens the grip again approaching the apex.  Freshly tuned, it pulls crisply to higher revs, being eerily smooth at around 5000 rpm.

The subtle drone of the boxer’s engine echoes back – subtly rising and falling like an audio interference pattern – from the sides of the valley where Maryland 17 cuts through Coatesville on the way into Burkettsville.   I’ve joked with my daughter, who has been lately been exploring Buddhist practice, that I’ve always maintained motorcycle riding to be a meditative pursuit – the airhead is a whole bunch of ‘Ooooooohm’ without any ‘mani’ or ‘padme’ – it’s minimalist, and brutally effective.

With the sun falling on my face and the boxer’s meditative hum in my ears, I’m as close to peace as I’ve come lately, at least until the gas in this tank runs low.

… and Dirt Under The Fingernails

Having one motorcycle away in someone else’s shop and another one in grimy bits all over the shop floor is just mentally destabilizing enough for me to render me certifiably insane.

Now under normal circumstances, I probably hover just underneath the threshold of being certifiable — think of it as ‘unofficially and tending towards insane’ — but having two of my three motorcycles rendered simultaneously non-functional is just enough to push the mental tach needle into the red zone.

These little technical challenges find me nervously and compulsively surfing motorcycle parts sites and Ebay, making useless trips into the garage to look at the patient and then return to the office shaking my head, and pulling out my old Clymer manual — which is now essentially an unbound collection of formerly bound pages — to check my memory of long mastered clearances and torque values.

Until all of my alloy mistresses are back together and returned to function, my sleep is fitful and hard to come by — serenity is nowhere to be found.

 

***

 

After more than a few days of waiting for George Mangicaro’s phone call, the phone finally rang. The next day Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I hopped in our Ford and rolled down the 60 plus miles of country road between us and George’s shop, Gridlock Motors.

Upon arrival at the shop, Darkside was sitting outside, minus the lower fairings I’d removed to get them out of the way before my abortive attempt at repairing the broken exhaust stud.

At the shop counter, George produced the other, more troublesome bit of the stud that had proved too much for my skills.

A Troublesome Stud (or what’s left of it)

“Yeah, this really turned into a pain to get out of there — we resorted to a Dremel mini-grinder to get the broken EZ-out broken up, and then had to use heat and drill clear through the other side of the stud to get enough purchase to remove it. You’d have never been able to get it out of there – it was welded in place and chewed up the threads coming out. I ended up having to Dremel away a bit of the bolt hole shoulder, and then put in a TimeSert thread repair insert — it will be plenty strong.

By the way — how long has your rear main seal been leaking?”

“Since 2011. Once I saw moisture show up at the back edge of the bell housing, I drilled the drain hole in the bottom of the case. I’ve never had a lick of problem with it since.”

“That’s funny. I’ll tell customers once they start leaking, they might get ten minutes out of it, and they might get ten years. Once I saw the drain hole, I wondered if I’d worked on this bike before – I didn’t think anyone else knew that trick.”

“All the older BMWs had an opening at the bottom of the bell housing to let any leaked oil escape. They didn’t really change the design of the rear main but they left out the drain. I just put back what they left out.”

George’s bill was more than reasonable – a little over 4 hours labor to remove and replace the exhaust system, remove and repair the failed stud, and to install the other seven studs and the new oxygen sensor I’d supplied. The parts bill for eight new style studs, new style stud nuts and the copper exhaust seals was less than $50.

“You know,” George told me, “it probably wasn’t your fault, pushing a cold engine too hard, that this stud failed. Notice that the new stud lengths are shorter than the original parts, and that the nuts are also smaller and lighter. BMW’s computer modelling software found that the old type longer studs and heavier bolts – would actually oscillate at high rpms. If it went on for long enough, eventually that oscillation would snap the studs in half, and that’s what happened to yours. The new ones will not do that.”

For a guy that had been feeling more than a little embarrassed, along with a few hundred bucks poorer, I felt a little better knowing that.

I pulled my ‘Stich, elkskin gauntlets and Shoei on, threw a leg over Darkside and chased Sweet D, who had left after dropping me off, back north towards Jefferson.

 

***

 

Back out on US15, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the new Denso oxygen sensor had made a noticeable difference in both operating smoothness and throttle response. I was fairly gentle and measured in taking the bike through warm up — especially given the new thread repair. My experience with this bike is that the entire driveline doesn’t really reach full thermal equilibrium — with motor oil, gearbox oil, coolant and final drive oils at constant temperature – for nearly 100 miles. Traffic conditions, on a mid-afternoon in Faquier and Loudoun counties of Virginia, on a workday, aren’t really amenable to any kind of elevated pace anyway, so I tried to focus on maintaining some buffer from surrounding traffic, and just keeping things smooth and unstressed.

About 40 miles out of Opal, a few miles north of Haymarket and I-66, though, I got a look around the two tractor-trailer units I’d fallen in behind and saw broken yellow lines in my lane and at least 3/4th of a mile of open highway.

Failing to succumb to temptation has never been a problem I have.

Darkside had been loafing along at about 3400 rpm in fourth gear — I thumbed the turn signal, rolled the throttle wide open, pushed on the right grip and hit the passing beam switch twice. In less than a second, I was clear of the first tractor-trailer, and bathed in the Flying Brick’s signature intake shriek which was rising in intensity as the torque and acceleration continued to rise. I stayed in the throttle through the next second which saw me clearing the second truck. When the cab was a safe enough distance behind I gently began giving back some throttle and initiated a smooth roll back into my lane. As I shifted up into top gear I checked the speedo, which showed a speed well over the ton and a rate of acceleration that was only now gradually slowing. By my math a 55-110 split in about 3 seconds flat.

‘Sedate touring motorcycle’ my fuzzy Irish-Arab ass. Does anyone wonder why I love this motorcycle?

 

***

 

Back at the shop, I dropped both the motor oil and gearbox oil from their cases. Reviews of my maintenance logs showed that, as a result of time spent on the teardrop construction project  and the parade of OEM test bikes last year, that I’d only put a paltry 1500 miles on Darkside over more than 16 months since the last oil change. My logs showed motor oil that had aged out rather than failed on mileage.

My shame knows no bounds.

I completed the oil and gearbox service — changing the gearbox to a Valvoline 75-90 SynPower – and spent a few minutes replacing the lower fairings and bellypan.

During the road test the gearbox was shifting much better than the aged out conventional gear oil had permitted – shifts were faster, more positive.

I suspect that my near term working life will require me to be a great deal more mobile than my prior gig, which placed a premium on chaining me to my home office desk. At 19 years old and 95,000 miles on the clocks, this Flying Brick is ready to take me absolutely anywhere.

 

***

 

Now we were two up, one to go.

My replacement seal for the leaking ignition cam and the points, seal puller and replacement allen head hardware had arrived, so it was time to dive back in to getting the /5 back together.

I set up out in the garage and discovered the seal that had failed was actually loose in the seal bore – poking at it tentatively with one of my dental picks had it rocking visibly. Heat and time, it seems, had caused the material to shrink to the point where it was no longer effective. Even without heating the cases, the new Lisle Seal puller had the old seal in my hand in a flash.

When I went to clean up the points plate in preparation to reinstall it, though, it quickly became clear I had another problem.

My two airhead BMWs run a weirdo ignition setup that was a transitional technology between points and a full electronic ignition — the Dyna Ignition Booster. The Dyna setup is almost identical to their aftermarket electronic ignition except for one small detail. Where the full electronic units use a Hall Effect sensor to trigger the spark, the Boosters use the original points to trigger it. These units — which were common when these bikes weren’t museum pieces — have two benefits. The first is that the Hall Effect sensors are the most failure prone component of their electronic systems. The second is that in the event of a failure, the bike can easily be returned to stock points operation with the swap of two wires. Between my two airheads, these systems have provided hot, reliable spark for over 200,000 miles.

The negative, is there is one, is that some of the oddball characteristics of the stock points systems are also retained – such as the mechanical advance unit and the points timing plate. And with the timing plate in my hand, it was clear that this one was no longer serviceable in its current condition. BWM had, since dinosaurs ruled the earth, placed a small felt pad on a steel spring on the timing plate whose job it was to manage the delivery of an appropriate amount of ignition cam grease to the ignition cam. This one, it seems, had shuffled off its mortal coil. The spring was still there, but the business end of the felt pad was nowhere to be seen.

We Don’t Need No Steenking Ignition Cam Lubrication Felt…Oh, Wait, we do, actually.

And of course, brief research finds that no dealer or aftermarket supplier, US or European can supply either a complete points plate or the felt wiper. The Studs on Adventure Rider have, of course, found sources for just the raw felt for industrial applications, like knitting machines, and cut some to fit and riveted in place. The wrong felt though, at 6000 rpm, could do quite a bit of damage, so that wasn’t my first choice. I checked eBay, but the few available were either mad spendy — I am unemployed, remember — or in just as bad shape as the one I had.

The wipers for the older /2s are, of course, still available, so I spent a few hours trading e-mails with the estimable Craig Vechorik at Bench Mark Works – a Vintage BMW supply and restoration specialist – who pulled and measured one for me, but it was too wide to fit without further modification — in stock form it would foul the mechanical advance unit in the /5.

At the point where my anxiety was starting to creep up, fellow sufferer Al Browne took another look at eBay, and found a bike breaker in Wisconsin who had literally just listed one. It looked like it had only been on the road for 10-20,000 miles, tops, and was reasonably priced.

Thanks Al.

I jumped at it.

Three days later, the postman showed up, and I was back in the shop.

I cleaned up the new plate, greased up the felt, and reassembled the ignition system. I gapped the points — which, I gotta say, is a lot harder to see at my current state of chronological giftedness than it was as a 25 year old pup — and went to time the engine.

My first shot was nowhere close. Closing the gap from the .016 inch I had initially selected to a middle of spec .014 retarded things to closer to spec but the engine was still too far advanced. Closing down to .013 had me 2-3 degrees overadvanced but the timing plate was out of adjustment range – I couldn’t retard the timing any further. This isn’t an unknown problem – the original German-made Bosch points are NLA. The best repros are made by a German company named Noris, and their rubbing blocks are known to be a few fractions of a millimeter too large, which causes the timing to be too advanced.

After a suitable ThinkThinkThinkPooh, I pulled the plate and points back out of the bike and chucked it up in the vice on my workbench. I grabbed my cheap Dremel knock-off and the smallest diamond abrasive point, and went after the two slots in the plate which permit timing adjustment. Using this micro-grinder, I lengthened the timing slots from 4mm to roughly 5.5 mm, and then cleaned the parts off and reinstalled them. Upon restarting the bike, the timing was bang on.

(Break arm patting self on back)

I disconnected the battery negative lead, replaced the front engine cover, and torqued the cover fasteners, tightened the bronze tank retaining wingnuts, made sure the fuel lines were securely installed, and then reconnected the battery.

I trolled the bike around the block to warm it up, but the funky behavior on trailing throttle was still present, so I grabbed a 10mm box end wrench, my favorite Husky carbon steel miniature flat blade screwdriver, and prepared to perform the time-honored airhead carb synchronization ritual.

I loosened the throttle cable locknuts, and backed them off until there was freeplay at both ends. Then I started the bike and adjusted the carb butterfly stops until we had some semblance of an even idle. Then I lay down on the ground and engaged the idle air mixture screws, which I first closed, and then opened to about 1/2 turn. As I cleared 1/2 turn, the idle speed rose dramatically, so I had to back off the idle stop screw and then take another pass at the mixture screw. Clearly, for some reason I can’t fathom, the air mixture settings must have been way, way off. After 2-3 iterative passes on both Bings, I finally located the optimum air mixture setting and was able to fine tune the idle stop screws.

I gave the bike throttle from idle a few times – pickup was smooth and even. Letting go of the throttle I stood there and wondered at a perfect Putt-Putt-Putt-Putt-Putt 1000 rpm idle. I turned the bike off and locked the cable adjuster nuts down.

You have to love a motorcycle that can be tuned entirely by ear with a small flatblade screwdriver.

I went inside to grab my gear, leathered up and headed for Poffenberger Road.

 

***

 

Poffenberger Road is one of The Valley’s most notable unpaved roads, and home to several of the founding members of our ‘Friends of Rural Roads’ – http://www.ruralroadsfrederickmd.org/. Poffenberger follows Catoctin Creek for several miles and is the fastest way to get back to our slower history here in Frederick County. Ask why my /5 wears semi-knobby tires and Poffenberger Road is why. If my family must leave this place some day, this road is one of the few things I will absolutely miss.

Upon turning onto Poffenberger, it was clear that the county road crew had just been here for their spring visit — the road had a fresh layer of crushed limestone that had just been graded. The Flat Track racers that come to the Frederick Fairgrounds every Fourth of July for the Barbara Fritchie Classic would likely kill for a soft, tractable racing surface exactly like this.

This perfect dirt surface is the pass/fail test for carb sync on this big twin. Having started life as a 750cc engine, its 900cc cylinder barrels, combined with the small valves of the original 750cc heads, make for a low rpm-biased motor that is happiest in the dirt. I built this bike to be a true scrambler before ‘Scrambling’ was a thing.

Today, post screwdriver alchemy, all is right with this motorcycle and the world. Power is stong and even right off the bottom, and at 4000 rpm the engine is as smooth as its 4 cylinder cousin. I can pick my slides with the throttle, and back into corners off the gas. I run out of dirt – first on Poffenberger, then on Harley and Bennie’s Hill – long before I run out of desire to ride.

 

***

 

So now, there are three motorcycles in the garage, and three that are ready to ride anywhere. Many other things in my life might be presently out of balance, but I can take some small solace, satisfaction and fulfillment in my ability to take tools in hand and render machinery fully and properly operational (with certain previously noted exceptions).

If, in future, though, you happen to overhear me planning to take a year off from maintaining my machinery to pursue some other enthusiasm, please smack me about a bit until I recall the conservation of wrenching, and that there is inevitably a reconciliation that involves the completion of all the routine work that one incorrectly thought you had put off.

Sure, there are some small things that remain to be done. Both airheads need their gearbox oil changed but on naked or almost naked motorcycles, that operation is about a 20 minute job that involves the removal and replacement of two bolts. And after the little improvisation with elongating the adjustment slots on the /5’s timing plate, I think that making the same modification on the S’s timing plate is likely in order — that motorcycle is carrying perhaps 2 degrees of additional advance which helps under wide open throttle, but can be observed as some reduction in low-end torque and smoothness at steady rpms.

None of that is critical though — all of it can wait.

What the spirit needs most right now, though, is the quiet inside my helmet and in my soul that only a few hundred miles of a sunny day ride can provide.

Dirty Hands

I’ve got old motorcycles, so I fix stuff.

Now I’m lucky (I Think) that these old motorcycles are BMWs, and can sometimes go for long periods of time without requiring much in the way of sacramental ministrations from me.

But no machine made by the hand of man is perfect. BMW Motorcycles certainly are not. So in a garage where the average age of a motorcycle is currently 36 years, stuff is going to break.

 

***

 

I’ve talked about how — after skipping my normal warmup process and pushing my Flying Brick motor too hard and far too fast — I’d come back into the garage to discover two thirds of a newly liberated exhaust manifold stud.

I’d hoped to have an independent BMW mechanic buddy of mine attend to the failure, but his circumstances seemed to keep his attention distracted by a whole passel of other things. He’d gone miles out of his way to convince me I could affect the repair, and after a while, despite my candid mechanics self appraisal, I began to believe I could do it, too. My recent change in economic circumstances made me susceptible to arguments to frugality, as well. So I headed down to my local Harbor Freight, bought a set of reverse drill bits, a set of extractors, and some industrial grade penetrating oil, and set about the fix, man.

Let it be noted, that any story that begins with the phase “So I headed down to my local Harbor Freight…” has already formally set the stage for tragedy.

So noted.

I pulled the lower belly pan from the left side of the LT, and eyeballed the broken stud. It turned out to be the number 1, frontmost cylinder, in the farthest forward position. Of all the studs, it has the best access from directly below, not being fouled by exhaust headers, stands or any other stuff.

I laid down a few layers of heavy mover’s blanket down on the garage floor, got my drill and my LED worklight and dove in.

I got one of Grandpa Wadi’s mechanic’s punches, and nicely centerpunched the broken stud end. I got my reverse drill bits, chucked a fine one up in my Bosch 12v drill — a very precise, small, light tool — and executed a nicely straight hole right into the middle of the stud. I took the next size up, then the one the size after that and enlarged the initial pilot. I then hosed the whole operation down with the penetrating oil, and left the job for the next afternoon. For a bit of delicate work — especially considering the exhaust was still in place – this was going pretty smoothly.

The next day I resoaked the stud in pentetrant, and after leaving it soak for a few, took an extractor, threaded it into my pilot hole, and immediately became that guy — Bang! the extractor tip sheared cleanly off.

Please supply your favorite stong oath of any culture here.

After some deep and embarrassed thought, I called George Mangicaro at his shop – Gridlock Motors – and confessed my manifold sins and inadequacies, and begged for mercy. Or if he couldn’t supply mercy, at least better tooling and equipment to unmess the mess I’d helped make worse.

I pulled the rest of the belly pan so George wouldn’t have to deal with that. While the lower bodywork was stripped, I installed a set of new spark plugs since access was now trivial. Plug readings on the ones that were removed indicated that inside that precious engine, all was operating optimally.

Looks like the textbook illustration marked ‘perfect’ in the tuner’s guide.

I had a nice ride taking the LT down to Warrenton. The Brick’s smoothness and ability to deliver big torque at highway speeds never gets old.

Here’s hoping George’s better preparation, training and skill translate directly into better luck.

 

***

 

The R90S continues just to be a stone. After a recent ride, I finally seized the opportunity to get some clean oil into the old girl after the drowning she took last summer while the big teardrop build was going on. In a good half hour I changed the oil and filter and she ran noticeably quieter and more smoothly with motor oil having lower water content in the cases.

Case closed, your honor.

So with one motorcycle fully ready to ride, I went to the back of the garage and set my sights on the /5. The poor old thing had been running poorly. For a bike that I’ve ridden since the early 80s, and which has 180K or so showing on the clocks, running like crap was something the bike has never really done, so my attention was fully engaged. I assumed that being thoroughly drowned in four or five months of Maryland Monsoon, combined with a little benign neglect, had produced this unfortunate turn of events.

It would turn out to having nothing to do with that at all.

I undid the two bronze wingnuts that secure the rear of the bike’s fuel tank, then popped it off and sat it in the tank saddle fixture I have on my workbench. One has to love a motorcycle that can have its fuel tank removed in under three minutes.

I pulled the left carb intake tube, then the left airbox cover. There was a very old K&N reusable gauze filter installed, which, given my recent education in their usefulness as filters, was removed and unceremoniously binned in the shop trash. I threw out with it two fairly good size mud dauber wasp tubes that had also been in the airbox. I used my LED micro flashlight to look into the right side intake, just to make sure that there were no other oddball foreign objects sitting in the carb’s intake venturi. There’s weren’t, so I dropped a stock air filter in the housing, and buttoned everything on the intake side back up.

I disconnected the battery’s negative lead, and then prepared to pull the front engine cover. With my 3/8 ratchet and allen head bit the three bolts that secure the cover were out promptly, and then I pulled the engine cover free from the rubber seal that secures the tach drive in place. Immediately, it was clear that something was not quite right.

As soon as the cover tilted away from the case, oil began pouring out onto the exhaust crossover. I am, you may have observed, somewhat precise in my use of language. This, it should be noted, was not ‘seeped’, ‘dribbled’ or ‘ran’ — this was ‘poured’. The shop manual and troubleshooting pictures I referenced a short time later will show a little oil collected on the engine case lip under the points plate and wryly observe that ‘this may be evidence of a cam seal failure.’ This wasn’t that. If the theoretical maximum volume of the entire points cavity is, let us say, 5 fluid ounces, there was at least three if not four full fluid ounces of motor oil in the /5’s points housing.

As I scrambled to find something really absorbent, I kept thinking the same thing over and over.

I don’t know how it ran.

Diving In

Since my whole theory of the case had now been thrown summarily out the window, I was on the hunt for more data. I pulled both spark plugs — sure enough, both were dark, sooty, indicating weak spark, which is certainly what they had with the points operating submerged in oil.

I finished the work that could be completed without the new parts I was going to need. I pulled the left cylinder head cover to check the valve clearances. Rocker end gaps were in spec, and both valves were a little tight. I passed on retorqueing the studs — at 180,000 miles and 65,000 miles since a major top end overhaul, I’m pretty confident that this engine is stable and ‘run-in’. I opened up the clearances in both valves, replaced the cover, and then rotated the engine through 360 degrees and attended to the other side. On the right side, rocker endplay was also fine, and only the exhaust valve was out of spec. A quick adjustment, replace the cylinder head cover, and it was Gojo and laptop time.

A little Internet time later I had a line on a new seal, a seal puller, a set of new points, and some allen head screws to replace the flatheads on the timing plate, which after 46 years, are a little worn.

Looking at the timing cover, it was clear that oil had been working its way down onto the front of the engine – there was a fair bit of dirt and oil accreted on the bottom of the cover. There were also six or eight carbonized Marmonated Stink Bugs in the cover. Another mystery – I have no idea how they could have found their way in there.

When the postman finally comes, we’ll remove the points, timing plate, pull and replace the seal and then put new points in and retime. I’ll end up having to completely resynch the carbs, as all of the richarding around I did to try and get the bike to idle will have thrown things off horribly when there’s good spark and airflow again.

Given how far this old motorcycle has carried me, setting it right — given how little is required — is the very least I can do. I’ll keep her rolling and ready to ride again for as long as fortune and luck hold out. More than that is a road too far ahead for me to be able to see.

 

Kaleidoscope

It seems like my life lately has been like the grittiest part of a hockey game — reality has thrown down its gloves, pulled my sweater over my head, and been wailing away with the free hand putting big bruises on anything and everything it can reach. They say bad things come in threes — nobody ever told me whether that extended as far as the threes themselves coming in threes, but based on direct observation of a small data sample, I think that is a logical corollary.

I’m sure after some sutures and a few hours iced up, everything will be just fine.

In this kind of ‘No Fun’ environment, my motorcycle rides have taken on increasing spiritual and mental health importance. Fortunately, with the K-bike down pending repair of it’s lost exhaust stud, and the Toaster running suboptimally pending completion of a full tuneup, at least my R90S is in perfectly fine running order.

That my most highly tuned motorcycle — and one with Italian carburetors at that — would prove to be, well, reliable, might be the first concrete sign that my luck might be taking a positive turn.

Last Wednesday – at a break in between ‘thump’ mini-blizzards and ice storms – the clouds slid cinematically back like scrims in some Wes Anderson movie, the sun came out, and the sky went brightest blue. There’s only so much end-to-end power-networking and extreme job search one man can possibly stomach, and the sun coming in the office window was like my Pavlovian Bell – I started leaning forward in my chair, right wrist twitching. I accepted the instant message from the universe to my autonomic nervous system, grabbed the cute piston and connecting rod keyring that holds the S’s key, and headed for the door.

Swag for a Charter Member of The Piston Broke MC

The S has likely been sitting for six to eight weeks — between bad weather, the residency of the Royal Enfield 650 twin, and a bad case of the blues. I’d had the foresight to put her on a charger a day or two back, so we had at least a fully charged battery to count on.

The S has become zero drama. On the second press of the starter, the big twin fired and went straight to a solid high idle. I spent a few moments wrestling the cuff and straps of my insulated textile winter gloves — they’re not quite fully broken in yet — and then swung a left over, rolled her off the stand, and rolled out of the driveway and turned into the sunlight.

I’ve had my fill of grey, cloudy, overcast, breezy, low, dramatic scudding clouds, borderline British riding conditions — it had been so long since I had seen the sun from the saddle, that I almost didn’t recognize what it was. It took more than a few minutes for my dazzled, too much computer eyes to recalibrate to non-simulated, totally analog reality. As the big twin finally got some heat in it, the lovely, also analog intake growl when I rolled open the long throw throttle slides helped to focus the mind and firmly cement us in the now.

If you’ve been hanging with me long enough, you probably have a pretty detailed mental map of the maze of riding roads that spiral around my house. After running 383 down into Burkittsville, I ran back up the mountain to the War Correspondents Memorial, and then gently made the hairball 45 degree right turn back down Arnoldstown Road.

Trees, in The Valley, have not yet started to get their leaves. I have a weeping birch in my back yard that is spring’s canary in the coal mine — it has produced some early buds that support the notion that Puxantawny Phil might actually know a thing or two.

In the bright early afternoon sun, the leafless tree branches were producing clear shadows on me, on my bike, and on the surface of the road. And as I rolled the big S bike methodically up through the gears, in blasts of acceleration — punctuated by the solid, tuetonic steel thonks of the S’s 5 speed — the images of the tree branch shadows on the road combined with the flashes of sunlight on my shield — rolling at us at ever-increasing speed — became hypnotic, almost psychoactive, in a way which just might be contraindicated while motorcycling, depending on one’s perspective and values.

Coming off the side of the mountain, there is a stop sign before one plunges the rest of the way down the grade. Keeping the big twin’s revs up, we were launched down another seeming monochrome, greyscale tube, with the shadows of the branches flashing by and blurring the boundaries between rider, bike and road. We did the stairstep dance of speed — accelerating then going neutral for a second as the bike slid to the next gear — three big thonks punctuating the pauses between the G forces of big torque. The black and grey of the branches in shadow rolled at us and over us faster and faster until — hitting the top of fourth gear — we blasted out of the shadows and shot into the sun and into endless blue.

Just like being shot out of a gun, Bubba.

I’m an old New York City rocker — all I could hear in my head was the climax of the giant jam that is Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ — which sounds exactly like breaking free, becoming weightless — with Tom Verlaine’s guitar sounding like little stars floating down all around you. If you don’t know the song, go listen to it — it’s a rare kind of sonic gem.

Upon my return to the shop, I did feel lighter, looser. The tension, the anxiety of what I’ve been going through had been excised by those brief, psychedelic blasts.

Once again, my motorcycle proved to be a machine that is designed to move its rider. It’s just endlessly surprising that the most dramatic movement sometimes has nothing to do with one’s position in time and space.

Finn and Greg Do IMS DC

I’d been looking forward to the IMS Washington DC Motorcycle Show. I’ll admit that I’m not much of a motorcycle show guy – I’m more of a motorcycle ride guy. This was different, though. My normal wintertime motorcycle fix is supplied by the Traditional Timonium Motorcycle Show (Hon!) — which is a combination dealership demand generation and discounting imbroglio, custom bike and chopper/artbike show, and no holds barred monster swapmeet. I’ve found some of my favorite hand tools in that swapmeet. The Timonium show is crowded, chaotic — the parking lot is a freaking deathmatch — and, like nearby Baltimore, is a little bit gritty and human scale.

The Timonium Show is for bikers, hon, and ain’t no bones about it.

The IMS motorcycle shows, on the other hand, are a bit higher production values, have participation by the motorcycle manufacturers, and — at least to my IMS-inexperienced eyes — appeared to be the big time.

Because of my increasing communication and coordination with the Press and PR people from the motorcycle manufacturers, it was clear the IMS was where the deals got done – it was kind of a rolling moto-convention that – if you were lucky – came to your town and allowed you some real face time — a rare modern occurrence — with one’s buds in the business.

I’d been getting the e-mails — “If you’re going to be in Long Beach…”. “Next Week in Miami…”, so I set my plans, got my credentials, and wrote it in thick Sharpie marker on all the calendars.

 

***

 

When the appointed weekend finally arrived, I spent a little time fishing to see who might want to go with me. Sweet Doris from Baltimore evinced little to no interest – it was a opportunity for a ‘Girls’ Day Out’ for her and our daughter. Finn, on the other hand, was all up and all in, so a boy’s bonding day it would be. Although Friday was the so-called ‘Press Day’, Finn had classes, so we settled on Saturday, and set the bones of our plan.

Saturday morning — with a 24 degree start — I drove my Ford down to Finn’s place in Greenbelt, picked him up at his front door, and drove us both 3/4s of a mile to the adjacent metro station.

Greenbelt is the end of the line, so there was a train sitting on the platform when we walked in. We got on the train, sat down, and five minutes later the train started talking — “I am a seven thousand series train… please step away from the left side doors….” — and 25 minutes later we exited the train at a metro station that was technically inside of the convention center building where the show was being held.

Civilized.

The Walter E. Washington Washington DC Convention Center is absolutely enormous. There are at least 2, and maybe 4 main exhibition spaces. There are also somewhere north of 180 large meeting rooms — enough to ‘Death by Powerpoint’ the entire population of Earth. Inside this cavernous complex, the IMS Show — filling most of a single hall — rattles around in the Convention Center like a beer can pull tab that accidentally fell in the can. After a brief stop at the Press Credentials booth – where I introduced Finn – who was holding the camera – as ‘my photographer’ – we got our pair of press passes and entered the hall.

Look, if a little stunt was good enough for Hunter S. Thompson at the ‘Mint 400’, then it is damn well good enough for us.

Well, it’s certainly bright and shiny….

The American Honda set-up was right inside the door. They had brought pretty much everything they made – which was great, as it afforded us the chance to eyeball and butt-test a lot of models about which we had questions. I rolled up to the their booth to check in with the Press Liason, Collin Miller. The Honda Men politely informed me that Mr. Miller had grabbed an earlier flight home yesterday.

If your life had Microsoft Windows Error Sounds, this one would have gone “GLAAANK!”. Meeting with Colin was one of my primary IMS objectives, and it had been apparently wiped clean by the prospect of another Saturday back in Southern California.

I resolved to just roll with it, but it did set the tone for the rest of the day.

The Africa Twin Adventure Sports – A Motorcycle I Previously Lusted Badly Until I ‘Sat’ on It

I went straight to the Africa Twin Adventure Sports. I really wanted to love this motorcycle. And I really could love this motorcycle, if riding never, ever, involved stopping. After managing to throw a leg cleanly over the bike without breaking a hip, Finn and I were more or less hopelessly consumed by laughter, after the near impossibility of me getting my feet, or even a foot, solidly on the ground became apparent. My old days racing bicycles taught me to track stop — to sit on a two wheeler at a completely standstill. On the ATAS, I managed to sit, stopped, with at least a full two inches of air under each boot. We would have pictures but the photographer was laughing too hard to achieve critical sharpness.

The NC750X – possibly one of the most practical motorcycles on the planet. Between huge storage space in the ‘tank’, optional DCT and 70+ mpg, commuting warrior me would definitely want one of these

The 2019 Kawasaki Supercharged H2R: I don’t know whether these gobsmacked guys were looking at the horsepower rating or the price, but either way, ‘Sticker Shock’ definitely applies.

Supercharged!

Kawasaki W800 – Kawa returns to its roots with a ‘Britbike’ style vertical twin. Nice, but not $4000 nicer than the Royal Enfield 650 I just tested.

Finn Tries The ‘This Might Just Be Too Small For You’ Section of the Kawasaki Booth.

Suzuki Doesn’t Phone It In – A mint condition 1981 Katana 1100. The bike that the R90S designer, Hans Muth, designed next. “PLEASE DO NOT Sit on Bike.”

The 2019 Katana. Pretty cool. But.

If you’re going to do more than phone it in, you might as well bring Alex Rins MotoGP Bike. Ho hum.

That’s a lot of Carbon

Would YOU be comfortable with that open clutch basket spinning at 18,000 rpm just in front of your toe?

Yeah, another picture of it, cause, Gawwd, look at it.

 

It was at this point that something struck me. It wasn’t so much about all the motorcycle manufacturers that were here, but at all the one’s that weren’t. Motorcycle manufacture is actually a pretty small business, with perhaps about 12 major manufacturers. So it’s great, that Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki flew the flag at DC IMS. Oh, and my buds at electric motorcycle maker Zero, were too, down at the other, more interesting end of the hall.

But here are the OEMs that took a pass on DC, as a show destination: Harley Davidson, Indian/Polaris, Yamaha, Triumph, KTM, Ducati, MotoGuzzi, Aprilia and Royal Enfield. Now some of these brands were represented by local dealers, but the makers were not there to talk to riders and generate their own buzz. Heck, the only BWW in the whole place was a rat rod 1973 R60 that was in the small custom bike show. I don’t know if this was a lack of confidence in DC as a market, or for the IMS show or US market in general, but I have to think that some of the no-shows were in places like Long Beach and Miami.

The Vintage Guys Score Points: A Nice 1965 Matchless G15 – Bit of a Norton Mash-up with a Norton Atlas engine.

One of Three Really Nice Norton Commandos: Our Photographer Did Opine That The Vintage Guys Had More Appealing Help at Their Booths.

One Local Dealer Displayed This Lovely Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer – One has to Love The California Hot Rod Colorway.

 

At the other end of the hall, Finn and I sought out Robert Pandya, who was running the ‘Discover the Ride’ attraction — an unthreatening, inviting, easy entrance to learning to ride. Robert had worked with IMS, with Zero Motorcycles and with Total Control Training to put people who had never ridden before in the saddles of some Zero Electric Motorcycles. The Zeros, of course, have complete software configurability via any bluetooth smartphone or tablet. So these trainers, with the standard no transmission, no clutch direct drive of all Zeros, had their engine outputs dialed way back and their road speed limited to a point where even a brand new rider could have them circling the indoor track confidently in about three minutes. Personally, when I had my Zero test bike, I used the Zero App to turn the whole bike up to 11s, and might have never thought of this, but it makes perfect sense — a stroke of genius. Robert told us that Discover the Ride had the longest line at the show — a 90 minute wait that stretched all the way to the other end of the hall — and he did. More importantly, their information was showing fantastic conversion rates — up to 65% of the folks that took their first ride were planning to buy their first bike – “65% of folks that take the ride come in thinking that motorcyclists are ‘other people’, and leave thinking that they are.”

Robert is absolutely driven to get new people involved in motorcycling. Like a lot of folks who employ oblique strategies and who are well out in front of conventional thinking, the hardest part is in getting less astute people to just open up their minds and listen to the idea. In 10-12 weeks of running Discover The Ride Robert has helped make thousands of new motorcyclists. Industry heavyweights just need to look at the numbers and then figure out how to do lots more of this.

Another local dealer — Motorcycles of Dulles — was at the show with some Indian and Triumph motorcycles.

Indian FTR 1200 Street Tracker with Carbon Fiber Body Kit. Ooooh.

New Triumph Speed Twin. Thuxton Go with Bonneville Seating Position. Also Ooooh.

The Thruxton R – Upside Down Ohlins forks, Ohlins shocks, Brembo Radial Brakes. Perhaps Two Oooohs.

This Young Man Has Fine Taste In Motor Cycles.

Alloy strap tank, polished upper triple clamp, monza gas gap. How long do you think it will take to remove the safety message decals.

 

At this point, Finn and I were more hungry for a burger, having bikeshowed through lunch, than we were for any more motorcycles, so we Yelped up a joint called the District Tap house, which looked to have a great Tap Line, and had the additional benefit of being open at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon.

As we walked the block and a half to our burger, we came up behind two guys that were wearing every conceivable piece of KTM Sportswear — orange KTM logo jackets, hoodies, adventure boots, buffalo plad hipster lumberjack shirts done in KTM Orange — the works. Both of them had their head hanging down and displayed body language that looked like somebody had just shot their dog — there hadn’t been a single KTM in the entire show.

“Look Finn — it’s the two saddest KTM riders in the entire world.”

“Oh yeah. Heh.”

So, motorcycle companies that didn’t come to DC. Your fans showed up. Where were you?

Essence – Royal Enfield INT 650

There is a certain undeniable, immediate poetry to riding a motorcycle.

On a perfect sunny afternoon, on a properly twisted road, dancing with the double yellow line is so completely immersive that it becomes meditative – one can achieve a state of grace where nothing else in your life or even in an increasingly distracted and distracting world can possibly intrude.

There is a certain type of motorcycle that is, at least in my eye, most appropriate to this kind of mission. That motorcycle, first, must itself not be trying to distract the rider from their attainment of backroad enlightenment. All you rides with 11 inch LCDs in the instrument panel with SatNav, trip computers, Bluetooth music and Apple Car Play, kindly exit here. Supersports, GT Sports Tourers, and Brobdingnagian Adventure bikes are encouraged to follow.

What I’m talking about here are elemental, essential motorcycles. Two wheels, an engine, and a place to hang on. Everything the rider needs, and absolutely nothing they do not. If that motorcycle is narrow, light and allows one to see light through the frame, so much the better.

Bikes like this used to be everywhere – the CB450 Honda, the later CB350s, Norton Commandos, Triumph Bonnevilles. If you’re looking for such a motorcycle nowadays, there is very little made out there that will catch your eye.

Royal Enfield Motorcycles – of Chennai, India – wants to change all that.

Royal Enfield’s INT 650 – which is called the Interceptor in the rest of the world, but not in the US, because Honda of America owns the trademark, despite RE having produced their first Interceptor in 1962 – and its close cousin, the café styled Continental GT 650 – are classically styled, affordable middleweight motorcycles that want to put a generation of new riders on motorcycles that capture that essence of the ride.

A Pretty Girl

Royal Enfield began – in 1901 — as one of the foundational British motorcycle manufacturers. After a massive order from the Indian Government for police and military bikes in the early 1950s, Enfield UK authorized an Indian licensee to assemble the machines, and then to manufacture components. By 1962, there was no more UK Enfield, and all of the motorcycles were built and assembled in Chennai. Royal Enfield can accurately claim to be the oldest motorcycle company to be in continuous production.

Royal Enfield in India built two motorcycle lines – The Enfield Bullet in both 350 and 500 cc displacements. The bikes came in various states of equipment – olive drab military models, classic models with lots of chrome and pinstripes, everyday rider standards – and sold by the hundreds of thousands if not the millions in India.

The Bullets, though, were somehow strangely stranded in time – they were travelers from the 1930-1950s high point of the British Single – that had somehow avoided being changed. Royal Enfield, though, with some new ownership, investment and management, began to position itself to move quickly ahead. First the powerplant of the Bullets was updated – going to unit construction and implementing electronic fuel injection. Then, RE worked on a special project with England’s Harris Performance – who have been designing custom racing frames and complete motorcycles – including Yamaha’s Factory GP Bikes — since the early 1970s – to design a more capable motorcycle around one of their new Unit Singles. That motorcycle became the RE Continental GT 535 – a bike that RE appreciated so much that they then purchased Harris Performance.

The last missing piece needed to produce a thoroughly modern motorcycle– from an engineering standpoint – was a new engine. And the result of RE’s first twin engine design project since the company left England – a 650cc, single overhead cam, 4 valve per cylinder, air and oil-cooled vertical twin – is nothing less than a stunning achievement. The 650 twin, which is slighty undersquare at 78 mm x 67.8 mm, uses a 270 degree crank and counterbalancers to deliver good strong torque right in the middle of the rev range — which makes the engine’s 47 horsepower and 38 foot pounds of torque feel a lot quicker than the brain says it ought to. The engine’s 270 degree crank makes power delivery mimic that of a V-twin – with uneven spacing of power pulses — with the engine revving quickly and providing a great exhaust sound, even on the OEM exhaust system. The 650’s engine design has yielded an engine with genuinely attractive character – smooth at high rpm, with just the right amount of vibration designed in, and punchy and quick to rev on the throttle. Every time I hit a corner exit all I wanted to do was roll the throttle wide open.

647 ccs of Air-cooled, SOHC, 4 valve Goodness

Engine Cutaway

The air-cooled engine should be both well-understressed and easy to maintain – it uses screw and locknut valve adjusters – and there is clearly way more power potential in the motor than is provided in stock tune. The engine’s output of 47 hp was specifically chosen to allow the bike to qualify for the lowest tier in several countries’ tiered motorcycle licensing schemes. RE has already supported a team that went out to Bonneville in September, and ran a modified 650 up to a new class record at a tick over 150 miles an hour. So if you’re the type of guy or gal that wants to do some hot-rodding, this engine will welcome it.

The 650’s Bottom End with 270 Crank

SOHC, 4-valves, and Home Mechanic-friendly Screw and Locknut Adjusters

The INT 650’s Harris-designed chassis uses the Continental GT 535’s design as the starting point – wheelbase is about 30 mm longer – but the general concept is the same – a modern, enhanced execution of the famous Featherbed dual downtube steel tubular chassis. The INT’s mid mount footpegs hang off a steel fixture that is designed to be swapped for one which supports the Continental GT’s rearsets – one mounting point – two different ergonomic setups. Steering head angle is a quick-steering 24 degrees, with 18 inch tires at both ends – a 100/90 in front and a 130/70 at the rear – sporting Pirelli Phantom SportsComp tires and built around Excel alloy rims. Front and rear suspension is by Gabriel, with 4.3 inches of fork travel and 3.5 in the rear. The only suspension adjustment is for rear preload.

Brakes are provided by Brembo’s Indian subsidiary — ByBre. All brake lines are braided stainless steel with a twin piston caliper with 320mm disk up front, and single piston caliper with a 240 mm disk up front, managed by a Bosch AntiLock Braking system. Both calipers are finished in the attractive gold paint that Brembo used on their sport bike calipers back in the early 2000s, paint which is also echoed on the rear shock gas reservoirs – providing a little moto jewelry for those after-ride bike gazing sessions.

Brakes By Brembo – ByBre – and ABS by Bosch

Gabriel Rear Reservoir Shock – Gold Eye Candy

Fit and finish and appearance of the motorcycle are really world class – our test unit was finished in a bright orange paint RE calls “Orange Crush” – the paint is deep and lustrous with no orange peel. The bike sports a reproduction of the RD tank badge that dates back to their Constellation model of 1959, if not further. Chromed parts are bright, and cycle parts are painted with either a black or light grey tough enamel finish. With the exception of the fenders, there is very little plastic anywhere. The narrow, flat bench saddle is finished off with a diamond pleat pattern. Instrumentation is limited to the essentials – analog tach and speedo, a very small LCD fuel bar gauge, with indicators for neutral, oil, highbeam, charging and ABS. Were I was to take one of these motorcycles home with me, I would spend a few more dollars for the optional chromed fuel tank – which takes the INT from merely very attractive to out-of-the-box Vintage Bike Show winner look alike.

‘Orange Crush’ Paintwork – You Should See the Optional Chrome Tank

Pilot’s Eye View

Classic bike analogies stop the minute one thumbs the electric starter, however. The 650 mill fires on the third compression stroke every time, no matter how cold the weather may be, and settles immediately into a high idle with no noise from the valve train and just a hint of fuel injector whine. Blips of the throttle produce instant response, with a bassy exhaust note that pushes all the right biker buttons. Pulling in the cable operated, slipper clutch and toeing the gear driven 6 speed transmission down into first reveals a positively shifting, short throw gearbox – I had no missed shifts or false neutrals in an extended time testing the motorcycle.

And on the gas, the 650 is a flexible, torquey, good sounding motor with a broad spread of power – usable power starts at around 3000 rpm and gets genuinely grin producing at around 4500 before starting to trail off at about 6000. In our time with the INT it spent most of its time happily spinning around 5000 rpm which produces instant throttle response and seems to bother the engine not one whit. On the highway, the INT is easily able to cruise at 75 or 80 in top gear with passing power available. During our test we averaged a bit above 50 miles per gallon average.

The bike’s brakes are absolutely stellar – the front single disk has great feel, terrific power and is easily modulated.   I was able to get the front tire right up to howling in simulated panic stops without triggering the ABS – there if you need it, but the master cylinder, braided lines and caliper make all of the setup’s power available and easily controlled.  The rear brake is something I barely used – the bike’s slipper clutch allowed me to engine brake into hot corners without being concerned about rev matching or braking loose the rear on corner entrances.

The INT’s cornering manners took me a little while to come to terms with. Call it a character flaw that I respect and do not want to crash other people’s motorcycles. Riding conservatively, on smooth pavement the INT was close to magical – easy to turn-in, and held a line well. On some rougher, tighter, country roads, the bike’s fork and shocks seemed a tad overdamped – transmitting some road irregularities to the rider and occasionally prone to being knocked a little off the intended line. My inner lightbulb came on brightly when I ratcheted up the aggression level, and started to really give the twin the full berries — Harris Performance’s racing pedigree was on full display here – absolutely wail on the bike, and it settles down completely. Apex late, turn in harder, open the throttle more and sooner and the INT comes into its own, able to adjust and even tighten up lines mid-corner with no drama. I had underestimated this motorcycle, and it taught me something.

With its single cylinder Bullets, Royal Enfield had been strictly a niche manufacturer in the United States motorcycle market. In a market characterized by an explosion of motorcycle categories, and preoccupations with engine displacement, irrational speed and electronic gadgets, their humble singles were a truly an almost eccentric acquired taste. The Royal Enfield INT 650, though, is a complete departure from RE’s prior US offerings.

Completely ignoring RE’s long heritage and prior offerings, and evaluated on its own merits, the RE INT 650 is simply an elemental, classic motorcycle that uses a bare minimum of modern engineering and technology to produce a bike that captures the essence of motorcycling. I can hardly recall a motorcycle that has been as much fun to ride as the INT. Every time I have taken this bike for a ride I’ve been smiling ear to ear every charge I took up though the gears, every time I braked hard to setup for a corner, and every time I came back after a blast around the valley.

The Royal Enfield INT 650 looks great, sounds great, and is an unadulterated blast to ride. At an MSRP of $5799 – including a three year, unlimited mileage warrantee, including roadside assistance – the only question might be why you haven’t got one yet.

 

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Portions of this story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 Issue of Motorcycle Times. All rights reserved.

An extended riding impression of the Royal Enfield can be found here.