Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway — Conclusion

It is pointless for me to bore you with tales of manly man adventure involving bulging biceps and tire irons. Or how for as long as I’ve owned airheads, the only way to get rear tires removed has required my sweetie Doris to pull the wheel while I leaned the bike over. Tales of manly man adventure hardly ever involve folks named Doris.

It is similarly unimportant for me to regale you with tales of how unskilled I am at the fine art of installing innertubes in an undamaged manner, having already established my bona fides as a well-intentioned but semi-skilled mechanic.

Suffice it to say though, that after no small perturbation, the bike found itself with new Michelin Pilot Activs where it required them.

And it was no small sense of anticipation that I fastened the Shoei’s chinstrap and tightened the retaining straps of my elkskin gauntlets when approaching the final checkride. I’d been working, more or less continuously, to return this bike to mechanical wholeness for the better part of 7 months, to get this motorcycle back to a state of mechanical perfection which, frankly, I had never known.

I volunteered to run to the supermarket for some ingredients we needed to make the next two evening’s planned meals.  With Frederick about 8 miles away, and some creative indirect routing, we could really run the beast through its paces, and know what we really had. With a completely refreshed driveline that worked, fully functional lights, instrumentation, luggage and fairing, and fresh rubber, it was go time.

Horine Road leads away from my house, and down towards the Potomac River. Like all of our local roads that follow streambeds, the road has flat, technical twisties that are great if you know ‘em, and can be hairy if you don’t.

I know ‘em, fortunately.

The last few corners before the road T-stops into MD 464 start as sweepers and then progressively tighten up. It’s a good way to triage one’s skills and see if this has the potential to be your day or it definitely isn’t.

So far, this was seeming like it was my day.

Even with the reserve one sensibly leaves with new rubber installed, the S was just eating it up. The new skins were allowing the bike to change lines like a bicycle – rolling in and rolling out was absolutely effortless. Once on line, the bike held it.  Drives out had a new authority – torque was getting directly to the contact patch without the waste that the now remedied transmission bearings, bad lash and slipping clutch had been squandering.

A brief blast up through the gears on 464 put me on the top of Lander Road. Lander is another one laner that leads down to the C&O Canal, and is incredibly technical. The game here is elevation — all of the corners — 120s, 220s — have apexes that are either at the bottoms or the tops of hills.   The trick here is to manage drive and make sure one’s lane position doesn’t put you too far out into the lane where you could become a pickup truck hood ornament on one of the many blind spots. You also need to be prepared to take an occasional whack in the shin or a forearm with a small errant tree branch in order to play this game.

This is really one of my favorite roads. On a modern supersport, especially any kind of multi, you’d be in way over your head – it would be too much bike on way too little road, and that kind of big power would be a more of a hindrance than a help. But on this little goat path of a road, the S is in its element – changing speeds and directions constantly – the agility and torque of the S was made for this. After about the fourth or fifth hairpin with a little wheelie punctuation on a low speed exit, reality itself seemed to take on an other-worldly quality, with all of the things within my sight seeming as if they were lit by some light from within.

Lander Road is only a short ride, and was too soon over.

Maryland 464 leads from the top of Lander down to the Potomac River and US15. There was a time, back before Frederick County became another poster child for bad planning and overdevelopment, when US 15 was one flat, arrow straight perfectly smooth piece of pavement with nobody driving on it between the Point of Rocks Bridge and US 340.  Before I left Baltimore to move here, I spent a few months commuting over this road, mostly on my /5, but once in a while in my departed 1971 8.0 Liter V-8 Cadillac. I can remember being behind one car out on this stretch of highway, taking the pedal to the floor for a two lane pass, and feeling the Gs as I got pressed back in the seat heading for somewhere well north of where the 120 mph speedometer ran out of numbers. I had that road to myself, and lots of room to stretch out.

Things are assuredly not that way anymore.

Congestion and development have dropped a few traffic lights where there weren’t any, and even a traffic circle is now where MD 464 drops in. There are still some straight stretches with great visibility, but one usually has lots of company.

But today, remember, was shaping up to be my day.

When I hit the traffic circle I had to sit for quite a while waiting to get my opening. When the gap finally appeared, I got in the gas, beat the northbound traffic to the entry to the circle, and found open pavement ahead as I shifted up and straightened the bike out headed up the highway.

I took third gear out to about 7000 rpm – thonk!

Fourth gear bit hard and I shifted to top at about 4200 – thonk!

I leaned forward slightly to get the bottom of my helmet inside the protection of the fairing, and went to the stops.   The hammering of each power pulse smoothed out as the rpms rose through 5000. With the revs up, instead of feeling like it was straining for every additional ounce of speed, the power and acceleration of the bike picked up momentum. Things got smoother, and the power and acceleration continued to build.

As the speedo quickly swung through 105 mph, and feeling like there was more than plenty left, I rolled out of the throttle.  This was, after all, a 40 year old motorcycle, and how much there was left in there was something I just really didn’t need to find out.

I already knew everything I’d come here for.

***

I’m sitting at my desk looking at an old Maryland MVA Title Certificate. It lists the date of issuance as July 7, 1994, and the mileage at time of issue as 74,115 miles. It has taken more than 20 years and close to 60,000 miles for this bike to finally close back in on the potential perfection that it had in it when it left the pen of Hans Muth and the Spandau assembly line in Berlin back in November of 1974.

It has been liberating to move beyond spinning wrenches in anger. I’ve spent most of my free time since putting them back in the toolbox stacking firewood.  I’ll admit I did do some wrenching, but it was to disassemble and regasket the woodstove that keeps my house warm in the wintertime. My biker intuition tells me that I had no time to spare in completing that job, as compared to the pace of the work to complete the R90S.

It was 47 degrees yesterday morning when I rolled the S out to go to the office. For a guy that thought it was still summer this was kind of a shock to the system, and made the cup of coffee I skipped a lot less important. As a refurbishment that started out with the notion of having a great bike to ride through this summer, I get the sinking feeling I’ll be lucky if I sneak in 5 good rides on it before I’m looking for Heidenau Knobbies and some snow chains for my LT. But seven months of productive work to get this bike where I always wanted it seems pretty insignificant over the 20 years of road we’ve shared.

***

There are lots of ways that one can get high.

One way is for me to really kiss my mate Doris, who still playfully loses her cool with me when the rush she provides proves overwhelming – even after 30 years – and I end up knocked down to my knees, sputtering, gasping and giggling because she’s just still too nice for me to fully process.  Lots of folks don’t get to have that for 30 days, much less 30 years. I appreciate it for the unique blessing that it is.

The best champagne in the correct amounts can bring on a feeling that transcends mere alcohol. I have champagne and its cousin, cognac, to indirectly thank for some of the more fun, poorly considered (if considered at all) and transformational moments in my life.

As someone who deeply loves music and poetry I know that they, too, can be transformative – playing back whole universes and multiple lifetimes of memories and emotions that can also fully sever one’s relationship with the ground. There are songs and poems that I find so powerful that I cannot hear them without being moved to tears.

Heck, even a little herb, and getting all irie, mon, will sometimes do the trick.

All of these highs are perfectly right in their correct place and selected time.

But then there are those days.

Those days of grace where this story started, and to which now we come full circle.  Those days marked by runs down stretches of winding road where time itself slows down almost to the point of stopping, and where an old machine – now made new – and I communicate seamlessly with no intermediaries, no filters and no boundaries.  Where what skill that I have developed in my years in the saddle turns the physics of acceleration and braking, the edges of tires, footpegs and bars into something that is so close to flight that local raptors sometimes fly alongside to play as I ride. Where my emotions, my spirit, fly freer and higher than anything else I know.

And instead of being the end of the long highway, the very next time this boxer motor booms to life is really just the beginning.

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

After my hopeless eff-up of a clutch job, I put nearly 1,600 miles on, slowly looking to the hope that time and wear would rescue me from my own lack of mechanical skill. At a certain point, I simply resolved to replace the entire clutch pack, regardless of time, expense, or aggravation. While I was at it, my last set of Michelin Macadams were at the end of their life, so they would have to go, as well.

I hadn’t come down so long a road with this bike to pull up one step short of mechanical perfection. There had been a long list of defects and faults that had been painstakingly excised, and I could see the end of the road from here.

So I went to my computer, and sourced the parts that would be required to get this project home. A new set of Michelin Pilot Activs, in the stock inch sizes. Matching Michelin airstop tubes. Beemer Boneyard had a new Siebenrock Basic Plus organic clutch friction plate which used a lightened carrier – like those BMW had adopted for its newer twins – combined with an improved friction compound that was supposed to offer higher torque transmission and longer wear.  The lightened carrier should be good for a slight reduction of rotational inertia, and a faster revving engine, as well. Then I obtained a new heavy duty diaphragm spring, pressure plate, pressure ring and clutch bolts from a BMW dealer.

Now it was time to wait for the UPS man, and then try to clear enough time in my calendar to bring the entire job finally home.

***

Coming up to one weekend, the weather report absolutely sucked.

Now normally, weekends are time for camping trips, for yardwork, for trips to the C&O Canal Towpath, for motorcycle rides – for enjoying the beautiful outdoors that my Central Maryland home provides in abundance. Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve been riding motorcycles and bicycles in the rain, I’ve taken canoe trips in the rain, I’ve done more camping in the rain (and some in the snow!) than I’d really care to recall, and I’d be the first to admit that nature also has beauty in abundance when it’s raining, too.

But nature also provides cycling jerseys with brown stripes of mud up the back, cold sodden socks and boots, and sleeping bags with little yacht racing courses magically hidden within.

So it’s one thing to already be in the outdoors, and deal with what Mother provides with grace and cheer. It’s all together another thing to head out when it’s already a Beautiful Day To Be a Duck. And it looked like we had several of those days on tap.

So, given the plethora of other things we would not prefer to do in the rain, it looked like I had the time I would require to unwind my own dumnisnitude, and could tear into this bike for what one could only hope would be the last time for a while. And on the bright side, the fact that I had done this fairly recently, meant my knowledge was fresh and that some little procedural tricks to smooth the way were firmly in mind and readily at hand.

Finally, I did something that I’ve been thinking about for a great while, but had never done. I’d experimented with some disposable nitrile gloves when performing work like this. My experience was that most nitrile gloves had a life expectancy of about 25 minutes in this kind of use. My various bike supply catalogs had been pitching Mechanix brand gloves for years, so I went down to my local auto parts emporium – where everyone knows my name – and dropped $15 bucks on a pair. I do not regret that decision at all – coming inside after removing and replacing a transmission without reeking of sulfurous gear oil, with no dirt and oil under my nails and no cuts and bruises on my hands was a revelation. Although I’ll admit there may have been one or two places where a very slight reduction in dexterity was apparent, these gloves will be part of my mechanic kit from now on.

***

Out in the garage the drill was revisited. Tank and seat removed. Airbox, manifolds and battery out. Clutch throwout and cables removed, swingarm pivots out, driveshaft unbolted. Gearbox mount points undone, neutral light switch disconnected, and gearbox rolled out the left side of the frame.

Sounds simple, right? Wouldst that I could do it as fast as I can describe it.

I got my boxes full of new stuff from my suppliers and laid the parts out on a plastic sheet that had enclosed the new pressure plate during shipment. Stuff was laid down beside the bike in order, because, well, visualization helps.

So on my floor we had the diaphragm spring, pressure plate, Siebenrock clutch plate, pressure ring and six fillister head bolts.

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I also got the drawer out of my rather massive hardware organizer system on my workbench that contained the secret sauce for this job – my clutch tool kit. Six overlength bolts, nuts, washers and the Ed Korn centering arbor.

The old clutch came out easily – the six bolts were easy to remove against the spring tension, and the parts came right out when the last bolt came free.

My curiosity, of course, wanted a detailed examination of the friction plate and pressure ring. All things considered, it didn’t look that bad, but there were traces of where the moly grease had walked to the outside of the friction disk, and clear signs of local spot overheating and slippage on the matching pressure surfaces. It wasn’t bad, but it was bad enough. Suffice it to say a little moly goes a very long way.

I don’t own a micrometer, so I can’t tell if the old clutch was already under the minimum thickness spec. It would be great if it was, because then I would only feel about 38% as stupid as I currently felt for having had to do this job twice. I have kept the disk on my workbench, though. Next time I visit someone that I know owns one, you can bet I’m going to measure that friction plate.

Knowledge is power. This ain’t over till it’s over.

***

In one of BMW’s airhead boxer motors, installation of a new clutch pack is trivial if you have the tools and you’ve already removed the transmission. I placed the diaphragm spring into the recess in the flywheel and laid the pressure plate on top of it. The Siebenrock friction disk went into the middle and then the pressure ring closed the whole affair up. I ran three of the overlength bolts into their tapped holes in the flywheel, placed the centering arbor into the clutch splines, and then began running the bolts down to compress the pack against the spring tension. Once the spring was mostly compressed I started three of the short clutch bolts and then went around in a star pattern tightening everything up until the pressure ring was in full contact with the flywheel.

Then I removed the overlength bolts one at a time and replaced them with the other three clutch bolts. One all six were in place, I went around the horn and tightened everything to the final torque specification.

Done.

Sort of.

Now the whole teardown needed to run in reverse.

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First the gearbox goes back in place, and the bolts that hold it are hand tightened. Then there is the most finicky part of the job – getting the driveshaft bolts back into place and retorqued.

This is a tiny minefield – one has to operate in the 1 5/8 inch available between the driveshaft boot and the rear of the transmission.  If, heavens forfend, you should bobble and drop one of these bolts, it will very likely disappear down into the bottom of the driveshaft housing.

How I know this is something of which we shall never speak of again.

Except perhaps to say that if one were to have one of those powerful, tiny telescoping magnets that one sometimes sees in tool stores, it would be worth any amount of money at such a time and would be capable of transmuting deepest despair into the purest most unalloyed joy.

Remember, though, we shall not speak of this.

I was able, this time, to avoid such horrors, and got all four bolts threaded back up onto their holes in the output flange. To tighten these bolt back to spec, though, one has to relocate the swingarm up into position and reinstall the pivot pins, as one needs the resistance of the wheel and rear brake to push against.

My endurance is not what it used to be, I guess, because at about this time my ability to form usefully coherent thoughts and do bench presses with rear wheel and swingarm assemblies began to decline precipitously.

Dinner, blood sugar, beer and sleep seemed to be much better ideas than pushing forward though fatigue. I’d done one major dumbness pressing forward under such conditions recently, and was determined to keep my Dumb-o-meter pegged at ‘1’.

***

That night, my brain continued to mess with me in my sleep while it showed eyeball movies of scissors jacks and prybars dancing with swingarm pivots.

The next morning, though, with said brain actually supplied with energy and working, mental connections were far easier to complete.

After standing in front of the bike for all of about three minutes, the dim recollection of the rear brake trick flickered in my brain, and I hooked up the rear brake rod, stood on the pedal and watched everything line back up.

30 minutes later, the whole bike was back together. I fired the motor briefly to center the transmission, and then tightened up the 4 transmission mounting bolts.

I spent a few minutes checking my work, and as I was adjusting the free play on the clutch mechanism, the sun came out outside the garage.

Meteorology, to say the least, is an inexact science.

I pulled on a Bell 500 open face helmet I keep lying around for these little short distance test blasts, warmed the bike and went up and down the street in front of the house a few times. The clutch engagement felt great – soft, smooth engagement and clean disengagement. I stopped in the end of my driveway and checked the clutch free play again and did a final visual inspection.

I refired the motor and gently trolled though my neighborhood. If anything, with a clutch that actually worked properly, Mark’s gearbox seemed even more precise. I slowed down by the park at the other end of the neighborhood, dropped to first gear, and stopped. I engaged the clutch again and started smoothly – then I rolled the throttle open.

The bars went light in my hands as the ‘thock’ of the fork’s top out stops rang out.  Clearly we had entered the ‘zero driveline slippage zone’. I gave the throttle back and headed for the entrance to the highway with a big, evil grin on my face.

***

I only ran about 15 miles on the checkride, but it was quite clear that the R90S had been restored to its former feisty glory. The bike pulled hard from low rpms, and all of the top end was back, too. Shifting around 5500-6000 rpms revealed a gearbox that was nothing less than spot on perfect. My 2000 K bike does not shift this positively.

I ran down St. Marks Road, a pretty typical one lane country road that follows the bed of Catoctin Creek, and finally got to enjoy the sensation of steering with the throttle again, rolling off on the way in and back on on the way out. Over little rises with the gas dialed on she’d lift the front wheel.

Might I have gotten a little verklempt inside that Bell 500? It was probably just the wind leaking around my glasses.

Since I wasn’t in anything like full gear, I headed back to the garage to clean up the debris from the major tear down, so that I could regain use of my garage.

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

When the opportunity to fully test my work came at Monday lunchtime, I geared up in leathers and a full face and headed for the road.

Again, I tiptoed around my neighborhood, stopping for a brief roadside ‘has-anything-fallen-off-or-caught-fire’ roadside inspection. Having cleared pre-flight, I turned right on Maryland Route 180, and headed for my favorite set of near-the-house twisties. The first thing I noticed was a strange absence of noise from the cockpit, which had formerly been a rattling mess. Apparently, the rubber fairing seal provided a great deal more support and vibration isolation than one would suppose any mere rubber band was capable of. The cockpit now seemed far more solid and finished than it ever had previously.

With everything in the transmission newly installed, and no doubt requiring some bedding in, I was very judicious on my use of the throttle – smooth openings and no full honk for a least a few miles. Shifting the box at 5000 rpms instead of 3500 confirmed by initial impression – Mark Delaney had somehow built the best BMW gearbox I’d ever experienced from a collection of bits of questionable provenance. Shifts were positive, sliding into place with a firm, Teutonic thonk – thonk – thonk – thonk – right through the entire gearset. I was nearly ecstatic.

Ecstasy, though, was exceedingly short lived.

One of the characteristically wonderful things about a properly setup carbureted motorcycle – and a defining characteristic of the R90S – is the perfectly tractable bottom to top response curve that opening the throttle anywhere in the rev range provides. It has taken the designers of Fuel Injection systems a very, very long time to even get digital systems in the same game with as properly setup carburetors when looked at in terms of flexibility and tractability. If Fuel Injection tends to be digital — on/off — then a bike like the S is determinedly analog — a smooth continuum from less to more.

How this works is plainly evident on any tight, technical backroad. On my R90, one can begin opening the throttle slides just before the apex of a corner, and even if the engine speeds are somewhat below the engine’s torque peak, the exhaust note will go hard, the bike will set the rear tire, and will slingshot out the corner exit and up the next straight. Corner entries that are properly anticipated can be managed in a similar way through a judicious roll out of the throttle at the right point on entry. On rollercoaster roads with rises and falls on straights and corner exits the S bike will unload its forks, you’ll hear the ‘thunk’ of top out stops, and the bars will go light in your hands as the R90 power wheelies in any of its bottom three gears.  The broad torque of the S motor and its DellOrto PHM 38 Accelerator Pump carburetors make backroad dancing pure bike jazz.

This was that feeling that led me down the road of ministering to a tired, nearly 40 year old motorcycle. This was what sustained me while aching hips and knees were getting bashed around the concrete slab of my garage floor, and while my hands were getting bruised from wrenches and being knocked off frame tubes, and while my skin was absorbing enough grease and my own blood from manifold cuts and scrapes for me to despair of ever looking clean again.

And when, on that test ride, when I finally set up for a corner exit at about 3400 rpm, and firmly rolled the throttle open, that peak nearly moto-erotic experience was exactly what wasn’t there.

At the point where the S would normally dig in, grunt out a hard edged “WHaaaaaaah…”, and do that intoxicating slingshot thing, the tach needle snapped up, the clutch skipped out, and basically nothing happened.

I knew instinctively what mistake I’d made, what was wrong, and what I was looking at to set it right.

I felt as about small as I’ve ever felt. My disappointment knew no bounds.

***

I’ll admit I rode the bike this way for more than a little while. I’d experienced a few airhead clutches that were slightly subpar after this kind of service, and most of the time they ran through it. After a few miles, whatever contamination was present was worn off, friction surfaces remated, and all was right with the world. You can be forgiven, if this ever happens to you, for thinking that things might improve. You can be forgiven, but take it from me, things will never go back to being perfect. Over more than 1000 miles, things did improve slightly, and the rpm range where power could be used widened, but at root, this bike had been essentially gelded – the very bottom and very top of the usable rev range had been removed, and the essential spirit of this motorcycle had been exiled.

There was going to be more dollars and more quality garage floor concrete slab time required if everything was going to be set aright.

***

There were a few other things that required my attention in addition to the results of my own stupidity.

I had a set of factory BMW touring cases that – while they were cosmetically rough – were functionally far better that the Krausers that came with the bike. With the exception of one of the frame latches, which was visibly cracked and could be expected to expire sometime in the next 12 minutes or so, they were all there and would be perfectly serviceable after some care and attention. I ordered up a case latch – which had to come from Germany – and a rivet gun.

I’ve broken more airhead case latches than I care to recall. Every time it’s happened before, I would take the case to a dealer, who would sell me the latch and then charge me to rivet it on. I was determined to be as self-sufficient as possible here, and the $10 that a Stanley Works rivet gun cost me at my local Wally World seemed like a good investment.  A few minutes of practice and few minutes of attention repaired the frame latch on this case.

These cases, as mechanically sound as they might be, were distinctly not pretty. They’d been painted a highly metallic grey to match my /5, and then been subjected to roughly 15 years of boot scrapes, being banged off of bright yellow-painted parking lot divider pipes, having their front corners ground off by being touched down in corners, and at least one major crash where the /5 had taken a 20-30 foot slide resting on top of the left case.

After completing the latch repair, I rode back and forth to work with them for a few days, just to make sure they were going to survive in daily use. At that point, I finally smacked to the ugly limiter – hard – and went searching for a solution. The Adventure Riders came through again, as they had a whole thread about painting hard cases with pickup truck bedliner paint – complete with good quality pictures that convinced me these were going to look better than new ones when I was done.

And so we had another trip to Wally World. Their automobile department had Rust-Oleum brand aerosol bedliner paint in two colors – matt sand and matt black. I went with the black. Their hardware department had 3M Blue Painters tape. Total budget – $9.

Upon arrival home, I unbolted the case lids and lightly sanded them with a palm sander and some fine sandpaper. I washed them with a damp rag to remove the sanding dust and then spent a few minutes masking off the badges, reflectors, latches and trim on the cases. I took a large piece of cardboard and laid it outside on my lawn, and laid the saddlebag lids down on it. I coated the lids once, waited 20 minutes and coated them again. An hour later, they were ready to put back on the bike. I was absolutely stunned. They looked nothing less than great – Imagine what a brand new Krauser case looked like in 1975 and you get close, only the pebble effect on the surface was somewhat finer.  Even the spots where there were substantial gouges were essentially filled – one could only see them if you knew where they were beforehand. Best $10 fix ever, bar none.

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I mentioned Ham Pugnus’ attachment to bad 80s vintage adhesive BMW Roundels. This is a head scratcher, because the R90S is one of two 1970s vintage motorcycles that still had actual cloisonné enamel tank badges. Lord only knows, and I will not speculate as to what happened to the original ones from this motorcycle. BMW does still sell the OEM ones, but they retail for over $50 a badge. While I may think, in my purely biased way, that my motorcycle is attractive, it certainly is never going to be entered in, much less win, any vintage motorcycle shows. A certain regional enthusiast BMW dealer has commissioned some reproductions of the original cloisonné badges, and they are visually indistinguishable from the originals.  At $24 a side, I could rationalize it.

Installing them was straightforward. I loosened the adhesive on the yellowed badges with a blow drier. I passed a few strands of dental floss behind the roundels to serve as an improvised flexible hacksaw – it was quite effective at removing the old badges. After removing the old adhesive residue with rubbing alcohol, I used 3M automotive trim double sided tape to position and affix the new badges.

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It’s amazing how something as small as a tank badge can have an almost talismanic effect on the whole presence of a motorcycle. Whereas – with the yellowed, cheap badges in place, the bike looked sad, neglected – it now somehow had acquired a presence, an aura. This simple touch had taken us all the way from donkey to thoroughbred.

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

When Mark Delaney called me a few days later, there was almost no good news.

“Well, Greg, I know your bike is badged and titled as a 1975, but you have one of the infamous not-quite-ready-for-prime-time 1974 gearboxes.”

While I spoke to Mark on the phone, I walked out to the garage to look at my build plate on the headstock of the bike.  The build date on the plate was November of 1974, a few short months after the model year changeover. As frequently happens with BMWs, anyway, it was reasonable to assume that the changeover to the later style gearboxes, which had updates to the shift forks and the dimensions of the gearsets prompted by widespread failures of the original design of BMW’s first roadgoing 5 speed, hadn’t exactly coincided with the beginning of the new model year. The Works had 74-spec boxes left over, so they used them until they ran out.

“Your input shaft is probably serviceable, but if you mean to keep this bike for a while, it’s objectively toast. The 74 internals are basically junk, anyway, so it hardly matters.  What’s weird is that the bike does have the later sport upgrade shift cam kit, which makes no sense at all.”

Paging Mr. Messerle to the courtesy phone. Mr. Messerle, courtesy phone, please.

“Your best bet, given how much BMW gets for these parts – the input shaft is $475 alone – is to look for a good condition parts gearbox. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, but if we get a good one, it’ll be fine.”

We both agreed to take to the Intertubes, and see what might be found on the parts breaker sites and on E-Bay.

***

A couple of days later, my new smartphone – to which I was a very late adopter – lit up. It was an e-mail from Mark. There was an E-bay link, so I clicked it.

The seller was an outfit called WerkstattSF – a San Francisco-based independent BMW shop, owned and operated by a female master motorcycle mechanic. The shop has an excellent reputation, and it is my attention to add to that reputation here.

I looked up the shop page on the web, and called them during my lunchbreak from work.  I asked to speak to someone who had firsthand knowledge of the E-bay listing. The gentleman that answered phone told me that he had been the mechanic that had broken the bike down, and would be happy to answer any questions I might have.

Again, the Shamieh luck seemed to be running on a full charge.

The gearbox, he told me, had been pulled from a 1979 R65 with just under 50,000 miles. The bike had been taken in trade from a customer, and had been running and in use when it was traded. The gentleman on the phone had ridden the bike before agreeing to the deal. The bike had run well, and had shifted well.

“But of course,” he said, “R65s aren’t worth anything, so we hadn’t been able to sell it.”

So they’d decided to part out the bike.

The input shaft was in decent shape, all the seals had been sealing, the case wasn’t corroded, and the gear oil had been clean, devoid of excess moisture and metal bits when drained. And if I bought the gearbox, he’d personally make sure it got into the UPS that afternoon.

Let’s think about this for a second. If one wants to buy used BMW powertrain parts, one wants them from the lowest powered bike in the line – the 650cc R65 was the smallest, lowest horsepower bike BMW sold in the US. Low power means not enough power to stress and damage shafts and gear faces designed to transmit power out of a 1000 cc boxer.  The mileage was low, and the shop selling the parts had maintained the bike the parts were being pulled from.

In every way, if this was a bet, these were the best odds you were going to get – a best case scenario.

Imagine an imaginary ‘Shamieh Luck Odometer’ with the numbers spinning up faster than the human eye can discern.

I thanked the kind gentleman, more or less sprinted back to my desk in the office, and bought the gearbox. I had it drop-shipped to Mark’s place.

***

So I was forced to more or less twiddle while UPS got my metal from San Francisco to Maryland, and while Mark cleared enough space in his life to focus on my project on his workbench.

If there’s one thing I’m really not great at its patience while one of my motorcycles is scattered all over the workbench.  BMW used to use ‘Worth the Obsession’ as one of its advertising slogans, and I’m here to tell you that the peculiar form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that I suffer from while one of my bikes is broken – twitchy, unable to focus, eyes pointing in divergent directions and drifting further apart, nervous and jerky – is absolutely, completely, totally not worth it. It may not be in the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook of recognized mental illnesses, but mental illness it definitely is.

And if you don’t buy that idea, just ask Doris.

***

After what subjectively seemed to be centuries, Mark called me to tell me that he had completed my gearbox.  He related that the parts gearbox had been everything he had hoped it would be, and all the components he needed – the all three shafts and the associated gear clusters – had been in remarkable shape. He had combined the parts box shafts and clusters with new bearings and seals and my shift cam kit and case to produce something with which he was completely happy.

I told him I’d be over immediately if not sooner.

***

And so I found my increasingly aged-seeming and achy butt (and the rest of me, too) back out lying down on the concrete slab in the garage with tools in hand and a gearbox to reinstall.

In the scheme of things, it really isn’t that bad a job, with the possible exception of the effort and technique needed to line the swingarm bushings back up to reinstall the pivot pins and the fiddly nature of getting the driveshaft bolts and the associated boot back in place given the inch and five eighths of room that’s available for both of my chubby hands. The installations of swingarm pivots are actually trivial once one figures out that reinstalling the drum brake rod and activating the rear brake actually pulls the entire assembly almost magically into alignment.

If you’ve been struggling with this, you’re most welcome.

If your bike has a disk braked rear, then you’re on your own, and I can’t help you, son.

***

I’ve had a lot of fun at the expense of the man I’ve been jokingly referring to as Ham Pugnus – the ham fisted mechanic.

There are lots of areas of human endeavor where professions are thrust into close contact with people who exemplify the polar opposite of that for which they stand. You no doubt know what I’m talking about – the old saws, which I neither affirm nor deny – where cops spend so much time with criminals that they start to become them, where lawyers become sophisticated swindlers, where accountants become embezzlers.

I guess that I spent so much time contemplating the manifold mechanical misdeeds of Ham Pugnus, that I became him.

During the reinstallation of the gearbox, there is a simple step where the input shaft of the gearbox needs to be lubricated – in an exceedingly frugal and minimal manner – so that the clutch release mechanism will operate smoothly when the clutch is disengaged and reengaged during each gear shift.  Skilled BMW mechanics use a tiny acid brush to as to tightly control the amount of high pressure grease that is applied.

If one consults reference books on how to perform this task, they tell you two things – never overlubricate the coupling, and absolutely never ever lubricate the female part of the coupling.  Either of these two fundamental errors will all but guarantee that the clutch friction material will become contaminated, rendering it all but useless for its intended purpose.

The last time I’d done a BMW motorcycle clutch job was about 20 years previously. I’ll admit to being a bit tired at that point in the procedure.

Anybody want to take bets on what I did?

***

The rest of the bike went back together fairly quickly. I worked as carefully as a wanna-be Ham Fist can work — checking a few things twice, like the clutch and carb cable adjustments. During final assembly, I made a few final tweaks, like swapping the original matte black grab rail and sport rack back in place of the Brown’s backrest unit. Restoring the bike to its original lines was exceedingly pleasing to the eye, and made me wonder what I’d been thinking living with it the way it was.

Having completed reassembly, I rolled the S out into the driveway and fired it up.

I rolled through my suburban neighborhood, short-shifting the first three gears. With the understanding that BMW gearboxes generally were not designed with short shifting in mind, my first impression was that this gearbox was more precise than any other BMW gearbox I had ever experienced.

Those of you that know BMW’s motorcycles will no doubt vouch for the fact that their transmissions, while strong, have never exactly been paragons of refinement. This one, though, especially when one considers its provenance as a collection of components from at least three former gearboxes – that we know about – was really a testament to the skill and care of its builder. When operated with the proper deliberation that all BMW transmissions demand, this transmission went between gears with precision – positive shifts, with no banging or clashing of bits whatsoever, which was a pretty radical departure from at least the half dozen or so BMW boxes with which I could claim familiarity.

It was late on a Sunday night, so further evaluation of my work in progress would have to wait until daylight Monday.

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.

Next.

***

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.

WP_20140418_20_48_52_Pro

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.

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

One never means to buy a new motorcycle. As we’ve seen before, it just sort of happens.

I had put nearly 200,000 miles on my two airheads, and it seemed like I could be getting to a point where I might have been spending more time keeping them running than I spent riding them. It didn’t help that one day, as I was crossing DC’s American Legion Bridge, right at the peak of morning rush, that I grenaded a set of gearbox bearings in the S’s five speed box, which created a symphony of breaking metal sounds that I’ll be able to hear in my head until God’s own sidecar carries me home.  That I was somehow able to drift and steer the bike out of the traffic stream and down the ramp to the Navy’s Carderock research center before the adrenaline really kicked in is something I still can’t completely reconstruct.

I’d pulled the gearbox and sent it back to Massachusetts. A few days later, a beautiful custom constructed gearbox carrying wooden crate appeared back on my doorstep. Inside was a note.

I just replaced the bad bearings. It will get you going again. Go easy on it.

                                                                                                Darryl

This was kind of peculiarly out of character for a guy that was detail oriented enough to build engine building equipment.  I read into this that Darryl felt that this gearbox needed more attention than he thought I could afford, or that the parts that were required were going to take weeks to scare up, and that this was the best solution.

He was right though. The box was never right from that point forward. It would jump out of first gear when it was cold, and there was a vibration that seemed to speak of a gearset whose lash wasn’t properly set – in top gear it never seemed to pull as hard or spin up the way it had previously.

One day I was talking to my wife about this crisis of motorcyclic confidence – remember, I rode my bike everywhere on business, covering geography from Boston to Charlotte, DC to South Bend – and she just put paid to the whole thing.

“Why the hell don’t you do something for yourself for a change? You got a good job. You just paid off our truck. You ride everywhere. Go buy yourself a new motorcycle.”

Is there anyone here who would argue with this?

Didn’t think so.

BMW had just released their K1200LT. For a guy that had broken more BMW saddlebag latches and mounting frames than Doan’s has little back pills, the steel superstructure for the subframe and built in cases fitted to the bike spoke of a strength, practicality in my application and longevity that had the potential to carry me a long way down the road.

Apart from that, the love of my life is a full six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than me, and airhead passenger accommodations were not exactly cutting it. The pillion on the LT looked like the answer to a question we’d been asking fairly frequently.

The essential question though, was, did it suck as a motorcycle? I had ridden a few Gold Wings, and a Harley Dresser or two, and all of them were dynamic disasters – soft floaty suspensions, too much mass too far away from the inertial center, and handling characteristics that were total wrestling matches. In short, they did suck – would this?

Five minutes out of the dealership, I had my answer. The test loop that was identified by my local dealer has a series of bang-bang 90 degree left right combinations that are really common in the original 13 States. Historians I know tell me this road pattern is a direct result of following Colonial era property lines.  Coming out of the second set of bang bangs, I was leading over further than I think I ever had previously, and rolling the throttle gently as the bike passed its power peak in third gear, as the bike straightened up I looked down at the speedo and watched as the needle swung through 85 mph.

My first impression of the drivetrain on the K12 holds true today…. eerily glass smooth with torque that starts huge and continues to build until the very top of the rev range. Riding this motorcycle with the revs up is the most un-touring bike like experience imaginable. That powertrain, combined with a frame that has simply crazy amounts of structural rigidity, radial tires and swingarm suspensions front and rear, provides insane amounts of roadholding and rider confidence.

“Sold!”, was the thought that echoed inside my Shoei.

That didn’t keep me from putting another 50 miles or so of mixed interstate and back roads on the bike, just to make sure.

Or keep me from 10 minutes of utter confusion at a gas station as I tried to locate the fuel filler so I could avoid the limit the dealer had tried to set by sending me out with only three quarters of a gallon of fuel in a bike that was supposed to be good for getting from here to San Francisco.

And it didn’t keep me from thinking that the intake shriek that the bike made with the throttle wide open – something that I did more than a few times during the test ride — sounded exactly like Darth Vader’s Tie Fighter from Star Wars.

Did I mention I’m a bit of a nerd?

Consider it mentioned.

Buying this bike, I thought, would be like joining the Dark Side.

I shared the idea with a few friends of mine, thinking the idea was too parochial and arcane to ever stick.

Little did I know.

***

Upon my return to the dealership, I asked some hard questions about what it would really take to buy this bike.

The salescritter informed me that everyone that rode one wanted the loaded models, and that they already had 4-5 months backlog. Nobody, salescritter said, wanted the Standard model, in fact they couldn’t give those away, and had even lent one that hadn’t even been prepped to a local BMW Car Dealership to use as a visual aid.

“That one,” quoth the Salescritter, “you could have today!”

I will never understand a universe in which car and bike salespeople always have exactly and precisely the most wrong thing imaginable to say so readily at hand.

I wrote the dude in question a check after I was able to identify and leave myself an out.

“I’m going to come back on Saturday with my wife. We’re going to test ride the bike again, two up, since that’s really the entire point. If she likes it, and I still like it with her back there, we’ll take it. If any of those things aren’t true, you tear up my check.”

“Deal.”

***

Saturday, we went back. We headed out on the same test loop, two up.

Same corner, same result.

I picked the big girl up on the gas, and saw Doris smiling breezily over my shoulder.  She looked down to the instrument panel and her eyes got big.

With the power windscreen raised she was able to ride with her visor open and it was quiet enough to converse.

“Are we really going that fast?”

I nodded.

“Let’s go write it up.”

So we did.

newklt

***

I’ll admit that joining the Dark Side – owning a K Bike – has a way of changing one’s perspective.

Road trips that used to seem unnaturally long start to seem just about right.

Those trips to Boston, that seemed like Iron Man events on the R90S, start to seem like yawning warmups for something more substantial. My first ride to New England after breaking in the new bike I encountered one of those patented frog-strangling gully washer thunderstorms that, wearing a first generation Aerostich suit, leave one feeling like a friendly passerby had slipped a garden hose into one’s collar and then turned it on for about 5 minutes.  On the K bike, I just adjusted the shield, shut the air wings, and didn’t even slow down. After the sun came out, I noticed that just the ends of my elbows were wet.

<cue maniacal laughter – up and under>

The bike, after scoring a secondhand set of Ohlins dampers, was no slouch on a backroad, either.

I’ve only ridden in a BMW 7 Series sedan once, but the two experiences are pretty close together. Torque like it came straight from the hand of god, and a peculiar combination of taut-yet-comfortable suspension that allowed one to manage the road without having one’s ass kicked by it.

For reasons that are not important here, I ended up having two of these bikes, and just kept twisting the grip, replacing tires, and repeating, until I’d ridden close to 150,000 miles on them.

***

It seems funny, in retrospect, but if the R90S is a German Shepard – fast, high strung and requiring a firm hand on the leash – a K1200LT is a cat.

The K–bike just doesn’t need you.

On familiar back roads, in corners where at 65, the R90S makes me feel like a MotoGP hero, the K-bike is yawning at 80. The frame is so rigid, the tires, brakes and suspension work so well, that it just feels like the K-bike doesn’t need any of your skill and attention.  Where the R90 is moving around on its suspension, requiring constant minute corrections at the bars and the throttle, the LT is just going. If its needs anything, it will send you an e-mail.

Its works so well, it’s dull.

And it took me a while – 150,000 miles of while – to figure that out.

***

During that time, the S did a lot of sitting.

If I wanted to ride somewhere local for fun, it came out, usually on sunny Sundays. Because of the suspect gearbox, I did go easy on it. Big throttle openings were reserved for 2-4th gear, where the bike would always reward with big power wheelies on backroad straights. I stayed out of top gear and kept the whole thing under 75 most times, because I knew that maximum horsepower up on top was where that gearbox was just waiting to explode again.  The bike looked somehow sad and neglected, and like it needed something from me that I hadn’t quite figured out yet.

I’ll admit I even considered selling it.

You may yell “heresy!” and throw tomatoes if you would like.

We all have our weak moments. This was mine.

I’d started a new job down in Northern Virginia, which is not exactly the friendliest environment for an 850 pound motorcycle that is happiest at a sustained 80 miles an hour.  I was spending a lot of time with my boots on the ground, and the fix, which was a little unseemly, was to start looking at these rides as combat missions, with as much shoulder use, lane splitting and dirt as the enemy – in this case, congestion – required.  And while the K-bike is good at a lot of things, this wasn’t exactly a core competency.

Don’t get me wrong – with someone skilled at the bars, the bike will do it, but its high stakes gambling, and not the sort of thing you’d want your women and children to witness.

I did some cost modelling. I played some scenarios. I even test rode some motorcycles.

What it came down to was I couldn’t even trade two motorcycles – the S and the LT – for enough to end up without a loan, even on a 2 or 3 year old used bike.  With two kids concurrently in college, it just wasn’t my turn for any financial extravagance.

No one saw any value in these bikes, it seemed, but me.

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

Upon my return to my little garage in Jefferson, the more I looked, the less I liked.

Ham Pugnus’ footprints were everywhere. With the tank pulled and the old engine removed, there was devastation as far as the eye could see. The bike’s wiring harness had been butchered – the process of mounting the departed Windjammer fairing had been performed in the most destructive manner imaginable. Rather than finding the correct leads where they terminated in the headlight bucket, our artist had split the harness under the tank where the bundle is protected by several layers of fabric tape, and then used electrical clamp style splice connectors – which partially split the original conductor to make the connection.

quicksplice

If there is one connector type one does not want to use for motorcycle applications, these are they. Their sins are manifold – they damage the original wire conductors, they breach the insulation, they corrode easily, and they have a tendency to fail when exposed to vibration.  Zero for four.

I’ve seen what happens, close up, when a motorcycle wiring harness fails catastrophically, whether through heat damaged insulation, vibration or other abuse – like this. If your idea of fun is putting out the fire that was formerly known as your motorcycle, be my guest.

nuclear_fireball

If this job was going to be done right, the whole wiring harness was going to have to go.

Indiana Jones has an unnatural fear of snakes. At this time in my young life, vehicle wiring was my snake.

Stripping this motorcycle down by removing every single connection was going to be a gut check moment for me. I was just going to have to ignore my whole cave full of snakes and somehow manage to be organized and calm – Rattler! – and get the whole thing back together correctly, or risk having my cheaply obtained prize turn into a pile of loosely related smoke leaking non-functional garage sculpture.

No pressure.

The wiring was not the only problem.

The /6 vintage motorcycles —of which the R90S is one — included the first disk brake system that had ever been used by BMW. For some reason, the BMW engineers were so scared of the whole notion, that they located the master cylinder underneath the fuel tank, where it was operated by a cable running from the hand lever. The system was short on feel, short on power, and encouraged folks to ignore the condition and maintenance of something they couldn’t see.  By the time the bike was 15 years old, this notion was revealed to be as silly as it currently seems.  Today, every single motorcycle has its master cylinder right up on the handlebars. The world has not ended. The stars are still in the skies.

My master cylinder, having suffered the fate of being ignored, and of having sat in a barn for several years, was not doing well. It appeared to be seeping from somewhere – whether through inaccurate filling or blown hydraulics – and the brake fluid was stripping the paint off the frame backbone and doing more damage to the relays and coils that sat underneath. The rubber brake lines attached to it didn’t look too happy, either. And while somebody that wanted to restore this bike for profit would have run right out and bought another one of these abominations, I just wanted my bike to stop with authority. I was pretty confident that an upgrade to more modern brake hydraulics, and maybe some stainless steel lines was not that difficult, and added that to my growing list.

I’ve had more than my fair share of conversations with mechanics.

One of the scariest things that ever springs from their lips is the phrase, “You know, while we’re in there….”.

‘While we’re in there’ can result in replacing a transmission just because it’s currently out of the car. It can result in the complete overhaul of a motor that went into the shop for a leaky valve cover gasket. I’ve seen ‘inthereitis’ end up replacing water pumps, timing chains, idlers, belts and hoses when investigating a squeak from the engine compartment.

This job was shaping up to be the mother of all ‘while-we’re-in-theres’.

***

By the time a detailed triage was done, I’d added a complete exhaust system and a clutch to the list of things that would be far easier to service while everything was apart.

I’d be dammed if I was going to have to pull the complete exhaust system again just to do an oil change. Of course, no job would be fun unless Ham Primus had destroyed something really critical to its completion. In this case, our man had stripped out 3 of the 4 nuts that hold the stock mufflers to the frame.

Did I mention that those nuts are welded to the frame?

Didn’t think so.

It is amazing what a tap and die set can do, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I located a set of brand new Bub mufflers, and some reproduction headpipes from an English supplier.

The complete clutch pack was all BMW – I assumed that with the entire power train out and the bike completely stripped that if I made sure that the entire driveline had been renewed, it would be a goodly long time ™ before I’d have to spin wrenches in anger and go in there again.

I have occasionally been guilty of extreme hubris.

***

All things considered, the R90S went back together far more smoothly than I had any right to expect.

I remember spending a good deal of time, in that era before digital cameras and ubiquitous camera phones, walking around the bike with a yellow legal pad and a Number 2 Ticonderoga, writing down every single electrical connection on the bike by connector number, wire color and position. Where routing looked chewy, I drew pictures.  All in all, my Snake Anxiety – bordering on full blown Serpent Paranoia – served me well. I was so overprepared that a kindergartner could have rewired that bike with those directions. Those 5 or so sheets of legal pad are still folded up in my shop manual and I still refer to them from time to time.

A friend of mine that did a small side business in used BMW parts and/or parts of questionable parentage turned out to have complete factory wiring harness for the S in his inventory. A modest sum – about a quarter of what BMW wanted – changed hands and the hardest part of what I was looking to do was sitting on my workbench.

The master cylinder upgrade was a known issue with these bikes – so much so that certain enthusiast dealers had kits that contained all of the parts required to make the swap look factory. The kit which I obtained had a Magura handlebar mounted master cylinder from a newer R80, a junction block which accommodated the original brake light switch and mounted on the frame backbone where the old master cylinder had been, and a set of brake lines – one rubber to run from the handlebar to the junction and two stainless steel lines to run from the junction to the calipers. It was an elegant solution that didn’t require any rewiring or re-engineering. Everything plugged right in and just worked.

I shared my plans for this bike with another bike business friend of mine, and he gave me that ‘Stop’ gesture and disappeared into the back of his shop. He reemerged several minutes later with a dusty piece of metal in his hands.

“Been looking for a good home for this. This is a San Jose BMW fork brace – this tubular steel structure is a direct bolt up that replaces that stamped bit that currently holds your fender. Much stronger – bike will corner and brake much better.”

san jose fork brace

Another small number of dollars changed hands.

He was right of course. It did and still does.

***

Replacing the harness turned out to be nearly trivial.  I ended up placing the new harness alongside the old one and only removed one conductor at a time, replacing each one with its new equivalent. After about two hours, I re-wirewrapped the main harness into place on the frame backbone, and had a much deserved beer.

My blood pressure had remained nominal. There was no sweating, shaking or cursing.

The snakes, it seemed, had all be entirely slain.

It was a watershed moment for me. I had approached something of which I was irrationally afraid, and breezed right through it.

Breezed, anyway, if all this stuff worked when the rest of it went together.

These days, I’ll rewire anything.

You stand still long enough and I’ll rewire you too.

The motor went into the frame fairly easily, when you consider I was working solo. I remember having a few salty words getting the rear motor mount to line up, but a jack and some patience sufficed. I torqued the motormount bolts to spec and continued on.

The engine harness was connected to the chassis electrics and the starter cover from the old motor, with its R90S badges, was installed.

There were several special tools required to get the new clutch pack in place. One tool was a set of over length clutch bolts and matching nuts  that were used to remove the old pack and the wrench the new one into place against the tension of the diaphragm spring.  Those bolts came from a supplier called Maryland Metrics — MM  is still around and has saved my Beemer-wrenching rear end countless times between then and now.  The overlength bolts were screwed into the flywheel, and then the bolts were run down their length to compress the clutch pack. Then the stock length bolts could be inserted and torqued to spec.

The other tool was a centering arbor – designed and built by a gent named Ed Korn – that ensured that the clutch pack was assembled with all of its components properly aligned and ready to rock.

The whole transplant – with the right tools – was done with an efficiency that would have been impressive trackside.

The brake kit was extremely straightforward, and introduced me to the joys of bleeding hydraulic systems – remember, the Slash 5 was stopped by two drum brakes, actuated by cables and rods.

The transmission, swingarm bearings, driveshaft and brakes went together smoothly, and after some tap work on the frame’s mounting bolts, the new exhaust slipped in place.   After a little delicacy getting it aligned, the fork brace was wrapped up. By this time, it was fairly late, so testing would need to wait for tomorrow.

When I got back to the garage, I rolled the bike into the driveway, set it up on the main stand, turned the fuel taps, and then inserted and turned the key. The telltales on the dashboard – at least the ones that worked before — were all properly lit. There was no flickering, no hissing sounds and no smell of insulation smoke.

This was looking good.

I made sure the bike was in neutral, set the chokes on the DelOrtos, pulled in the clutch, petitioned the lord with prayer, and pressed the starter button.

On about the forth compression stroke, the big motor fired, gave a snort and quit.

I pressed the starter again, and the motor caught and went into the signature DelOrto lumpy idle.

I rolled the throttle gently a few times, and it took throttle and revved.

It looked like we had a motorcycle.

***

In fact, we did have a motorcycle, which I rode almost every day for the next 10 years or so.

It wasn’t exactly pretty, and there were still some details that would have driven a purist crazy, and some things that drove me crazy.  Unlike a lot of BMW twins, this bike was NOT refined. Where the /5 was glass smooth at certain RPMs, this bike was making power, and it told you about it in no uncertain terms. You could feel each power pulse, and the frame rang like a bell, at most legal speeds. For things to really smooth out and straighten up in top gear, you needed to be pulling over 5000 RPM and hanging out in a zip code that began somewhere around 90 mph.

If the /5 was easy, Proud Mary, the S bike was rough.

But rough as it may have been, it was a solid motorcycle, stable and trustworthy.

During those miles, I learned a few things. Given the miles I was putting on, I did some dumb things involving tires. I fitted reinforced touring tires – Dunlop 491s. I fitted tires that were larger than the OEM sizes – 4.00-18 rear and 3.25-19 front.  Both dumb things made the handling of the bike into a truckish wrestling match, and were quickly discarded. Light bias tire in the correct sizes – Michelin Macadams proved to be the best – transformed the 90S into a virtual bicycle on back roads – the bike moved to the correct lean angles without thought and held them solidly. The Macadams are the most tractable tires I’ve ever had on a motorcycle – they communicated so clearly and linearly when they were going to begin sliding, and the rate of slide increase was always very linear. Spinning the rear wheel under control was simple. I even discovered – more or less by accident – that with the now braced fork and the Macadams, that one could gently drift the front tire to scrub speed on corner entrances, a very modern racebike trick that I assumed was well outside the capabilities of my Antique sporter.

I assumed wrong.

I even used the bike to commute back and forth from Maryland to Boston, when my consulting job was finding work there and not here. I remember running I-78 in eastern Pennsylvania on one of these runs, and hitting a thunderstorm so intense that the tractor-trailer drivers were pulling off and stopping by the side of the road.  I remember being out on this huge grade, pulling up the mountain, with everyone else stopped, and the constant strobe light explosions of the lightning, and the wake the bike was putting off in the standing water on the roadbed.

boom

That bike felt solid, planted, and like it would never miss a beat and would run like this forever.

But then I turned to the Dark Side.