Angry Bees

I guess its time to admit that I’ve been living in the past.

It might be an idealized, nostalgic past, but its the past just the same.

I don’t want to generalize too much though, its not the entirety of the past that that I’m living in, its just the motorcycling past.

My newest motorcycle, a K1200 series longitudinally mounted inline 4 — is a 2000 model — it can’t already be 17 years old — which itself is a refinement of a basic design that debuted in 1983.

My Toaster tank /5 BMW — a bike I came by when I got out of college and the bike on which I wooed Sweet Doris from Baltimore — is a 1973 model — 44 years old. If one is honest, the Toaster really represents late 1950s state of the art motorcycle chassis design — Featherbed Knock-off! — as embraced by the conservative German designers after 20 or so years to make sure the basic idea was sound.

Drum brakes.

In defense of the conservative German designers, they are the best street application drum motorcycle brakes I ever used, but.

Drum brakes.

Such a motorcycle is a lot of things, but modern is not one of them.

***

It’s not to say that these old motorcycles are bad motorcycles, because they’re not.

My /5 is narrow, agile, torquey and simple. Hell, it’s still here and running reliably at somewhere indetermanistically north of 170,000 miles.

Indetermanistically because the motorcycle has turned out to be far more reliable than the odometer in its Motometer combined instrument.

But the /5’s two cylinder pushrod motor — originally designed with bushings in its valve rockers — only revs to 6900 rpm, and made barely 50 hp on its best day. It is an elemental motorcycle — but everything happens with a certain deliberateness of pace.

***

Its not like I’ve had no exposure to modern machinery.

I’ve had some seat time on a modern KTM — an 1190 Adventure — that was a real eye opener, and at the same time, was clearly connected with the classic large displacement roadster twins of the past. One had a broad spread of power across the rev band — it was a clearly a road motorcycle, full stop. The refinement of the chassis, suspension, yes, and electronics was the present, but you could still see the motorcycling past from there.

***

 

wp_20170213_08_28_49_pro

 

So there I was, looking at a tachometer face. A face that showed redline to be at 14,000 rpm.

This was going to require at least a little adjustment.

Sitting in my driveway was a 2004 Kawasaki ZZR-600. ZZR was Kawasaki’s Marketing speak for “We used to call this the Ninja but we redesigned a faster bike and still want to keep selling this one”. Arms race and branding aside, the ZZR carried a four cylinder, water cooled, dual overhead cam short stroke motor of vastly oversquare dimensions. Engines like this are meant for the race circuit — to be spun hard and made to howl on the straights.

The ZZR has a steel frame of a hybrid perimeter and beam type, one that is shared by all modern Kawasaki sporting motorcycles. Its an elegant design where the frame rails bulge around and envelop the cylinder head — simultaneously compact and strong. The ZZR has a conventional telescopic cartridge fork, a monoshock rear, substantial Tokico 4 piston brakes, and 17 inch radial tires. The riding position is two clicks shy of the racetrack, but bars are still low, and saddle and footpegs high.

This ZZR is one in which I have a small investment of time and troubleshooting effort.  It belongs to my daughter’s boyfriend, and after a fair amount of effort to return it to good operation and the road, I had never really had the opportunity to fully test the results of my work.

wp_20170109_20_45_37_panorama

When the weather had turned filthy, he had asked if he could store the bike here, so we squeezed it into my garage. The deal was, if I had possession of the bike, I would ride it. It hadn’t really been winterized, and had been sitting there for the better part of a month, when nature served up a freak 65 degree day.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’m still here.

***

Pulling on a Vanson racing jacket is somehow both comforting and strangely calming — its as if this leather exoskeleton, which exerts a whole body compressive hug, works like one of those yippy dog calming vests.

At least it works that way for me.

Think of that what you may.

With my helmet and gloves all strapped in place, I swung a leg over the red machine, and settled into the saddle. I spent a few quality moments adjusting the fairing mounted rearview mirrors — which had been folded in for storage — into a position to be hopefully useful. I turned the bike’s bodywork-integrated fuel petcock to its ‘on’ position, turned the ignition on and slid the handlebar mounted choke lever forward.

Upon activating the starter the bike fired immediately. Being impatient, I tried to work the throttle, and gently slid the choke back open, whereupon the bike stalled immediately.

A second try was better — I let the bike run on full choke for 30 or 40 seconds and then slowly dialed the choke off. And then what we has was a cold, lumpy but running idle — given a little more time and a little more heat, everything would be fine.

I pushed the bike off the centerstand, and flinstoned a K turn until I could drift down the driveway. Taking care to locate and remember the new footpeg position, I selected first gear, which occurred way more deterministically than I am accustomed to — it was almost as if the box was designed to use input power to engage the dogs — once the shift was started it kinda went power transmission on you.

I took the long route around my neighborhood — coming to terms with the bike’s low speed handling, behavior on and off the clutch, and braking.

At the intersection of Jefferson Pike, I made the left and headed up towards town, and past that towards Frederick.

***

It was pretty clear right off that my habit of sometime shortshifting a cold engine wasn’t going to work here. While the engine would take throttle at under 4000 rpm, things down there happened pretty slowly — it was going to take some heat, and way more revs to move things forward smartly.

Apart from that, the riding position that appeared ridiculous at first glance actually worked pretty well once in motion.

Although I have to imagine that the sight of me, with my youthful and trim rear end pointing up in the air may not have been the type of thing that is frequently seen in our little village.

I am under no illusions that chicks dig this.

At Jefferson, I had to stop for the light.

When it turned green, I gassed it.

180 heading east out Jefferson is a winding two laner that follows the contour of the ridge that divides Frederick and Jefferson. I ran the ZZR through the gears, shifting conservatively — for this bike — well below the real power, although it should be noted that my shiftpoints were higher than redline on both of my boxer twins.

The sound of this engine was a racetrack fantasy — the sound of a million angry bees — a raucous, metallic shriek in the middle of its rev band. Hard to imagine how many more bees it might have at its 14,000 rpm limits.

On the other side of the ridge I made the left into Mount Zion Road, and the entrance to one of my most cherished bits of twisty Frederick blacktop. If the ZZR 600 was a well-handling motorcycle, we’d know in the next three minutes.

Mount Phillip is the sort of road where only familiarity can let you run it — roadcraft is of little help where corners apex blind off the tops of hills, and crazy elevation changes obscure the road ahead. Top end power is also of limited use as there’s almost nowhere you can use it — this is a handling test, not a speed event. Even the initial right onto Mount Phillip is tricky — the intersection is a 110 degree turn, usually with a little loose stone, that leads into a very steep and immediate rise — too much throttle and too many revs too soon, and hairy wheelies can easily result. Folks that wish to remain rubber side down are advised to move well forward on their motorcycle here.

Coming off the top of the rise, the road makes a textbook racetrack left 90. I entered well outside, and with the revs up at about 7000, engine braked into the entrance, leaned the bike over and rolled the throttle out. For someone still learning the bike, the entrance was sharp, deterministic and bred confidence. The combination of relatively light weight, very centralized mass, and serious structural rigidity made cornering taut, precise and controllable. The riding position, as well, with the rider located far forward, weighting the front wheel, gave perfect leverage and control to work the front end.

The next several corners, another 90 leading into a sharp uphill right, leads to a hairball double apex that leads down off the other side of the hillside. After 4 real corners, and about three really good minutes, I felt as if I’d been riding this motorcycle most of my life.

***

After running the rest of Mount Phillip up to my bank in Frederick, gearing back up in the parking lot there was no question of taking the shortest route home. The only question really was “Had I bought enough gas?”.

US 40 West out of Frederick – The Old National Pike – is really a treat. It climbs up the mountain (Eastern US version) that sits between Frederick and Hagerstown, where the road immediately enters the forest of Gambrill State Park right outside of town. It’s green, it’s uncongested, with broad, sweeping curves on the climb. The sightlines are stupendous.

If you needed a place to stretch things out, 40 through Gambrill would be the place you’d need.

After clearing the I-70 interchange, I rolled the throttle open and surfed the big wave as the small four spun up into its happy zone. I was focused and comfortable enough to be monitoring both the tach and speedo intently, basically plotting a little dyno chart in my head as the Kawi loosed the bees, made tremendous MotoGP invoking, howling noise, and pulled third gear up the grade.

Around 9000 rpm things were happening as quickly I felt they needed to be happening, so I thokkked the bike up into fourth — noting that the higher one spun this engine, the better it seemed to shift. I rolled the throttle back on and took a brief draught of fourth gear. As much room as I had, it was running out quickly, and the speedometer needle was well into ‘unsafe for conditions’ on a public highway. I thokkkked up into top gear and commenced giving back throttle until I was doing a reasonable impersonation of a socially responsible cruise.

Up here at highway speed, I was impressed how comfortable this motorcycle really was. The airflow off the fairing and windscreen was surprisingly smooth — weather protection surprisingly good. The ride was taut, but not punishing. One could sense the action of the four cylinder engine, but it was mere mechanical character, and not objectionable in any way.

Both the bike and its rider were utterly at ease, and adapted for speed.

***

The rest of the ride was backroad riding school.

From 40 I turned left down Harmony Road – a little snake of a road that lets one work the sides of one’s tires.

Then down Maryland 17 South towards Middletown — the entire route stringing together elevation changes and combinations of technical corners. The ease with which the ZZR entered corners, and the precision with which it held exactly the desired angle and desired line was an illumination.

17 leads towards home, so I didn’t take it.

zittlestown

At Middletown, I went west on Alternate 40. Alt 40 heads up another (eastern variety) mountain. With so few mountains available, I was going to hit every one that presented itself.

Alt 40 is a very old roadway, and where it goes over the ridge is a series of decreasing radius, banked switchbacks that look intimidating but are a gas when properly executed. The ZZR was able to turn in harder and deeper and carry about 25 mph more than my antiques with absolutely zero drama — at the apexes the bike was planted, on line and with tons of ground clearance remaining.

As we came down into Boonsboro, I was held up behind a minivan that indicated its intention to turn left onto Maryland 67 South which was also my intended route. Trolling south out of town, we came to a legal passing zone, and I indicated left, and rolled on to play another game of Third Gear Rocketry. I shifted up as the front wheel got light, with the shift setting the front back on the pavement.

At Reno Monument Road, I made the left back towards the ridge, and worked the tight technical climb with the revs up in 2nd and 3rd gear, setting speed in and out of corners with the throttle.

Marker Road took me toward home. The decreasing radius corners and hilltop apexes which are dramatic on the airheads were dead boring and nailed down on this Kawasaki — roadgear working so well to make it almost seem like mind control.

On the last leg of Gapland road, the ZZR dissected the bridge corners, and did it with style and a wonderful howl of IC exhaust.

On the final straight before home I rolled fourth gear open and the 90 or so my S will make was quickly vaporized — 45 or so more horsepower into roughly the same weight does have some effect.

***

Back in the driveway I found myself listening to the tink tink tink of the ZZR giving its heat back to the atmosphere, and quickly concluded that our 40 miles or so of road had barely scratched the surface of this bike’s capabilities.

wp_20170208_13_55_53_pro

 

I don’t think I ever revved the ZZR’s motor past 10,000 of those 14,000 rpm — leaving much of the bike’s power potential untapped and on the table. When riding this Kawasaki with its engine spinning up there, it simply ran out of room nearly instantly on any public road that I usually ride, well before it ran out of acceleration, ran out of speed.

The ZZR’s handling made my customary best twisty roads nearly trivial exercises — centralized mass, chassis rigidity, good geometry and sticky radials allowed me to place the bike exactly where I wanted it with minimal to absolutely no drama.

I’ll admit I’d found minimal use for the brakes, but the few times I’d deliberately ‘braked for effect’ they’d been pretty impressive — clearly more than enough power was available from the twin four piston Tokicos to overwhelm the front tire’s contact patch, if one was dumb or unskilled enough to put in a request for same.

Everything about the bike — from the howl of its engine, to my position on the bike that made attacking corners like breathing in and out, to the rush of its high end power delivery, to the big negative G’s on the brakes — sucked one in, encouraging more, harder, faster.

And while its cool to envision myself, wearing bright leathers with a waist size about three sizes smaller than mine actually is, swimming in the sound, slicing across corners with front tire skimming the pavement, dicing with Vale and Marc, its a fantasy with its home on a racetrack — on the street the bike is just out of its element, leaving too much on the table, yawning at anything remotely close to legal speed operation.

Its not even like the ZZR is some bit of 2017 vintage, European literbike exotica — there’s no EFI, no power delivery modes — not yet even a future wet dream of Inertial Management Units controlling lean angle sensitive traction control and antilock braking. This Kawasaki is a small displacement, commodity sportbike — an inexpensive, mass produced motorcycle that was actually an obsolete design when it built by a manufacturer that was just trying bleed out its investment in its tooling.

With all that going against it, its still a motorcycle that — transported back in time — would have probably walked away and won convincingly in any production-based class or even GP Racing until around 1977 when the design of the Yamaha TZ750 was finally debugged.

Modernity — in motorcycle form — means frames, tires and suspension that just work. It means engines that are designed to be routinely revved to ten and twelve thousand rpm and brakes that can pull the rear wheel clear of the ground again and again and again.

Its amazing, frankly, just how good an average modern motorcycle is.

Amazing, but simultaneously useless, at least when used on the road.

While it’s an absolute gas to validate that my years of roadcraft can instantly make the jump to more capable machinery, and to experience firsthand how far the bar has been raised, I’m not sure the temptation is enough to make me leave the motorcycling past for the future.

I’m OK with a run through the gears to the ton feeling like a thrilling trip to the edge, instead of that ton seeming like merely the starting line.

Some More Racing, Some More Customs, and The End of It All

Having seen and heard the Brittens run, and having walked through and oogled all of the racing paddock, it was finally time to just kick back, have a brew or two, and just drink it all in and watch some racing.

I left the pit area and went back to my bike.

Parked beside me was a perfect Laverda Jota 1000, whose owner walked up at the same time as I started putting on my gear. Laverda Guy was another local boy, who lived just over the Georgia Line.

“I hope you don’t mind me tarrying, but I’d really love to just hear that triple run.”

My short-time friend just grinned and then obliged me by gearing up and firing up his orange beast.

Start up behavior, with the bike’s three Del’Ortos, was just a variant of the cold blooded, too-large throated start behavior of my own R90s, which will usually stall on a cold start 30 seconds after the chokes are turned off.

Italian carburetors never disappoint.

So after the restart, and after oil flow had smoothed the operation of the top end back out, the big orange bike sat there idling lumpily, though taking blips of throttle with a rapid bark.

I bade him safe journey, and displayed the thumbs-up salute as the Jota rolled two gears worth of moderate throttle, doing just the tiniest bit of Italian Moto Opera.

I’m very glad I took the time to listen.

***

I rolled the LT around the Barber Perimeter Road, just sightseeing and happy to catch even a little breeze. One of my fellow big bike enthusiasts had told me that Ace Corner ticket holders had a paved parking lot across the road from the entrance, on the grounds of the Barber Racing School. Fellow Enthusiast had been right, and sharing a piece of pavement with a line of dozen track Porsches seemed OK to me, though I can’t vouch for how the Porsches felt about their new wheel-challenged neighbors.

I rambled back into Ace Corner, resolved to chill and try to stop drinking it all in before it drowned me.

I wandered up to the top of the hill, scored a burger and a Naked Pig — a nice pale ale from Gadsden Alabama’s Back Forty Brewing — and found myself a place to sit — in the shade and with a good view of the Carousel and the next two corners of the Track.

There were classes for small displacement singles and twins — close battles that played back the 2-stroke vs 4-stroke holy wars that had consumed two or three decades of motorcycle racing. There were larger displacement twins, which saw great sounding combat between BMW AIrheads, VTwin MotoGuzzis and classic Ducatis, with an occasional Triumph or Yamaha XS650 thrown in.

I thought the guys I was sitting next to were familiar, and they were. They were 5 or 6 members of North Carolina’s Tarheel Travellers BMW Club. They were frequent visitors to my local DC Area Square Route Rally, and this wasn’t our first beer-and-BS-session.

We watched some sidecar racing — which rearranged my mind — and a few more heats, including one for the vintage racing singles — the big booms of the Nortons, Gileras, Velocettes and Matchlesses echoing back from the treeline lining the park.

What really was a long afternoon somehow disappeared like water on a hot exhaust pipe — a moment that seemed like it could stay suspended forever disappearing in an instant.

As the sun settled lower the racing calendar wrapped, and the parade laps marked the end of the day.

***

I was resolved to hang round Ace Corner for a while — to talk to some people and see some stuff. I knew they had a band coming on later, and I wanted to just enjoy the bikey people and the bikey vibe for as long as I could.

There was yet another bike show coming on, and I spent a little time admiring the talent.

DSCN2606

I appreciated this custom /5 Toaster. I have one of these, too, but mine’s not quite so shiny.

Also in the Shiny Category was this custom Norton Commando, a machine that eventually took first prize as the Most Custom Cafe of all the Custom Cafes. With everything but the frame tubes naked polished alloy, I had to agree with the judge’s decision on this one.

DSCN2462

Also shiny, but in a completely different way, was Walt Seigl’s MV Agusta Bol D’or.

DSCN2463

Walt’s motorcycle looks as finished or more finished than anything Agusta has lately built. A complete testament to their heritage making use of their most modern hardware — the best of their past and the best of their future — another bike that would have me running to the phone to buy one if a space-freighter full of currency were to crash land in my yard.

Agusta would have built this if they only knew how.

Sadly, they don’t, but Walt Seigl does.

***

Unbeknownst to me, It seemed to be Honda 750/4 Day.

I’ve got a soft spot for the Single Cam myself,  but nice as mine was, it was nowhere this nice.

DSCN2671

Or this nice.

DSCN2672

Or as nice as this either.

DSCN2681

Or even this one.

DSCN2674

OK, so this one is only half a CB750, but the judges say it still counts.

***

Ace Corner was scheduled to rock into the nighttime, but the food vendors had gone.

You could still score Naked Pigs and Truckstop Honeys — more fun from my new friends at Back Forty brewing — but you couldn’t get any food.

Note to organizers — if you’re going to throw an evening long party where alcohol is served — to a large bunch of Bikers, no less, one might consider making sure that some food is available, even if only to serve as buffer for the drink people were likely to be puttin down.

I know my body, and this point wasn’t negotiable.

I started moving about the compound in search of someone who had been in a position to think ahead, and had come prepared for this.

So I do what any hungry man would do.

I followed my nose.

And my nose led me to the Vintage Iron Motorcycle Club.

Like me, the Vintage Motorcycle Club was made up of hungry men and women with old motorcycles. Hungry men and women who had multiple charcoal grills working up high, and were blowing grilled beef and vegetable smoke my way.

I introduced myself in that patently subtle manner that is a trademark.

“Hey, Dude. You in the food business? No? You wanna be?”

After learning a little about The Vintage Iron Club — which is based out of Palm Beach County, Florida — who seem to be really nice folk that share a certain illness of mine — I decided I really liked these folk and their attitude.

One of their party was a chef who normally worked on someone’s private MegaYacht, but was between cruises right now.

These folk were rolling big.

So I made ‘a small contribution’ to The Club, and even bought a few raffle tickets.

The Club, it seemed, was raising money for Charity — The Paley Foundation, who helps children with a certain serious orthopedic illness — and was raffling off this.

DSCN2680

Looking at it, all I kept thinking was it would be perfect for Finn.

“He’d look badass on that thing. And it’s just the right bike to learn on.”

The people who like to tell you things will tell you that visualization is the secret to success. That if you can see it you can be it.

I visualized that sweet Honda 350 Scrambler into my garage more times than I’m willing to cop to.

It was in the bag.

That shit don’t work.

Never has.

***

Anyway, after one of the only burgers I’ve ever eaten that I might be willing to admit might have been at least equal to my own (as well as several salads that were rocking good), I bade my new club brothers and sisters adieu, and found a cold Truckstop Honey and went back to chatting with random folk and seeing what I could see.

A few EZ-Ups to the right of Vintage Iron was an Artist, Makoto Endo, who was exhibiting his motorcycle paintings — which of course bespoke the eye of a moto-master, all Vincents and Nortons and Agustas and Kenny’s TZ, oh my. Makoto was also taking commissions on the spot and doing portraits of motorcycles that were presented.

DSCN2684

I spent some time watching him working on a painting of this nice /6 BMW with it matching Steib sidecar. From what I could see, Makoto could rightly claim equal parts of inspiration from Japanese calligraphic techniques and from the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. This kind of painting is active, athletic.

Painting isn’t usually a spectator sport, but for Makoto at Barber, it certainly was.

***

So we talked some more. Then we rocked some more.

DSCN2686

And had another Truckstop Honey, and talked and gawked some more.

DSCN2688

At a certain point, I kind of put my hands on my hips, leaned back a little, and drew a long deep breath.

“Man, I just can’t believe the things I’ve seen.”

The Pits – Part Three

Having finished my walk through the first row of the Paddock at the Barber Vintage Festival, I turned down the hill and into the middle of the three streets inside the pit area.

Being a Vintage Motorcycle Festival, I guess the appearance of a nearly completely vintage motorcycle race team should have been completely unsurprising.

DSCN2640

I mean, I guess if you’re going to campaign two vintage mid 1960s Honda racebikes, I guess you’re pretty much required to have the matching vintage lawnchair and mid 1960s Econoline transporter van.

The only thing missing is a vintage motorcyclist.

I’m available, if these guys are looking to complete their set.

***

Right across the way was a team that seemed to have a thing for Laverdas. They had this lovely Formula 500 Cup race bike.

DSCN2642

And if orange is your thing, why stop at one?

DSCN2641

***

Just down the row, was a team campaigning two of the most beautiful Norton racers I’ve ever seen.

They had this beautiful postwar Norton International.

DSCN2643

DSCN2645

Not being a Norton expert all I have to go on is the Telescopic Fork — the 30’s vintage bikes still had girder front ends. The International, with its shaft driven single overhead cam motor, became the basis for the Manx, a machine purpose-built to dominate the TT at the Isle of Man.

With its uprated double overhead cam 500 cc single, and it twin loop Featherbed frame replacing the International’s single downtube unit, the Manx became one of the more successful racing motorcycles of all time. The Featherbed frame was light, short, and rigid, at least by the standards of its day, and its performance in the 1950 TT, where Maxes swept the first six positions, confirmed the correctness of its design execution. The Manx would remain largely unchanged until the end of production in 1963.

This example is breathtaking. It is classic racebike porn — impossible to stop staring at. It has everything a racebike needs and nothing that it does not.

DSCN2647

DSCN2648

***

My rambles through the pits were interrupted by events taking place on the racecourse. At around lunchtime, The Lap of The Century was scheduled to occur, which features bikes that must be at least 100 years old. I headed towards the race control tower, which has balconies which offer a commanding view of the track.

As I headed for the stairway, these early Harley Davidsons — looks like one 1909 and one 1911 — were picking up some fuel in preparation for their lap.

DSCN2661

I must tell the truth. The Lap of the Century is somewhat less than thrilling.

For motorcycles that, in their prime, were good for a downhill tailwind enabled 65 miles per hour, a complete lap at an average of 45 per is running them at a pretty good clip.

But after watching racing laps that maxed out at around a buck fifty, the old fellers putting around can find you looking at your watch as you’re waiting for the pack to come back into view out of the treeline at the other end of the track. And maybe making a phonecall. And playing a hand of bridge.

Kidding aside, the thrill here is that these motorcycles are alive and running at all.

And the sweet syncopated thumps of all of these VTwins echoing off the forest at the edge of the park, combined with the sight of their muted paintjobs — browns and greys and bungundies — coming through the mist that still hadn’t completely cleared off — made it almost possible to believe you were somehow inexplicably peering back in time.

Reinforcing the illusion was the battle — or lack of it — out on the racecourse. I’ve seen this combustion fueled drama before. Just as at was in 1912, by the end of the run down the main straight, there were Hendersons and Indians battling up front, and Harley Davidsons following them doggedly home.

***

I also have to come clean, that while I wanted to see those century bikes run, it wasn’t the most important reason I’d found my way to the baconies of the Race Control Tower.

After the old ones were flagged in — one old Indian oil smoking impressively from every engine surface — the next scheduled event was ‘The Britten Reunion’.

As the bikes were started, warmed and made ready, my buddies from breakfast appeared against the pit wall.

DSCN2659

Then seven of the ten Britten V1000s even made took to the circuit to put on a little show.

The one thing that sticks out in my head is the sound. The sound of the Britten Vtwin is a flat, fast revving metallic Braaaaap — sounding vaguely like God’s Own Chainsaw.

I wish I understood the engineering enough to know why newer tech engines sound this way — Sweet Doris’ beloved and now gone Nissan 350Z partook of the same metallic sonic palette — but no motorcycle I’ve ever ridden or VTwin I’ve been near ever sounded like these Britten motorcycles sounded that day.

The various racers that piloted them took about 7 laps of fun — doing some good hearted dicing — snapping in and out of corners — and some bikey showing off. Although not being run in anger, the sight of one of them pulling a long, effortless fourth gear power wheelie coming down the main straight is one that’s likely to stick with me for quite some time.

The magic was too soon over as the Brittens were flagged off the track.

The track announcer did us all the favor of directing us to the Team Britten New Zealand tent, where all the motorcycles and the team would be gathered to meet with their fans.

He didn’t have to tell me twice.

***

The Britten pit was right to the left of the Control Tower, so I actually got there as the last several bikes rolled up and were placed on their stands.

DSCN2667

DSCN2666

I’ll spare people the endless spiel on the engineering on display on the bike — the Hossack front end, the underseat radiator, the carbon fiber, well, everything. The intent was so max out chassis rigidity, reduce mass to an absolute minimum, and centralize everything that was left. The radiator placement and narrowness of the machine minimized frontal area and drag.

DSCN2664

Watching them ridden one could directly observe the effortless, crisp handling that results — The Britten is the kind of motorcycle where if one can visualize your line, you’ve already ridden it.

I’ll admit I spent a lot of time just drinking the appearance of theses machines in. The more one looks the more one sees. I did what I could to make sure my mouth stayed mostly closed.

WP_20151010_12_08_23_Pro

If you owned one of these, people would have to have your meals brought to the garage.

***

Swag is just not my thing.

One of the joys of motorcycle travel is that in its most extreme form, you don’t have any room for swag, so temptation is futile.

I will admit that I have some simple grey jersey T-shirts with just the Barber’s logo on the chest, but nothing they sell is that elegant any more. The museum shop’s selection is awash in old iron and wind and complex graphics and is altogether too visually busy for my tastes.

No matter, I figured that Team Britten might have something worthy, so I ventured inside their pretty substantial tent.

Andrew Stroud — who had ridden Brittens for years — had been provided with a place of honor for his bike inside the tent. You can make of Andrew’s carbon fiber cane what you will. That’s racing.

WP_20151010_12_15_14_Pro

With Andrew’s bike was, well, Andrew. Along with this enthusiast fan, who, being at the racetrack was involved in the great fun of telling lies, which, judging from the gestures, were subject to getting continually larger the longer they were told.

WP_20151010_12_08_43_Pro

As I worked my way around to the front of the tent, the swag was on full display. Most of it was of minimal interest, but they did have some polo shirts which struck me as perfect. While appearing to be black, on closer inspection the weave was meant to resemble carbon fiber, and the shirt had a “Team Britten New Zealand” logo on the chest, and the Barber Museum’s Checkered Flag logo on the right sleeve.

Perfect.

So I got into line and readied my wallet for action.

When I got to the front of the line I my order was taken by a nice lady with an obvious New Zealand accent who, upon very brief reflection, turned out to be John Britten’s wife, Kirsteen, who then passed me off to another nice young lady to fill my order, who turned out to be Jess Britten, their youngest daughter.

I thought it was pretty cool to obtain my swag right from the source, in this way.

It’s also a pretty cool shirt.

WP_20151012_14_20_05_Pro

 

The Pits – Part 2

Having seen a small herd of custom motorcycles I didn’t expect to see in the Barber Vintage Festival’s Racing Pits, it was finally time to ogle some racing iron.

You know how they say “Birds of Feather Flock Together”? Well, the weirder the bird, the more this is likely to be true.

And to the normal motorcycle enthusiast, there is nothing weirder than racing sidecars.

DSCN2627

The Number 1 Formula 1 Racing sidecar shown here is the Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage Race team — piloted by Bernard Juchli and passengered by Kevin Kautzky.

Folks that are fans of Jay Leno’s new car show ‘Jay Leno’s Garage’ don’t need to be introduced to Bernard — who is Jay’s Chief Mechanic and restorer for his superb and massive collection of cars and motorcycles.

Diehard sidecar fans are likely light-headed from laughing at my use of the term ‘passenger’, when everyone knows the person who doesn’t have the handlebars in their hands is called ‘The Monkey’. Big Dog Racing’s Monkey, Kevin Kautzky, kind of breaks the monkey mold. Most Monkeys are like jockeys or crew coxwains – teensy weensy diminutive personages designed to maximize power to weight and minimize wind resistance.

Kevin ain’t no little girly-man-monkey, no sir. Maybe my own lack of stature is affecting my perception, but in his leathers and racing boots he must be a muscular six-foot six or six-foot seven, at least. Sizing him up I could visualize him wanting to make the chair’s tire stick at speed and being able to make it stick.

When I saw the Big Dog rig out on the circuit later, what I had imagined was easily confirmed.

***

Pitting with Big Dog is the Formula Super2 of Steve Stull and Heidi Neidhofer. Since once can safely assume that sidecarists are rugged individualists, it is not surprising that Steve and Heide eschew the conformist “Monkey” designation and prefer instead ‘driver and co-driver’.

Their Super2 bike mates the same liter class four cylinder engine of the Formula One machines to a shorter, lighter chassis. Where the Formula One feels like a cruise missile, Super2 comes across all aerobatic biplane.

Co-driver Heidi does conform to the more typical physical profile of they-who-doesn’t-hold-the-handlebars — more of a dead-serious-gymnast’s compact strength compared to Kevin’s pro-cornerback build.

The lighter, shorter and theoretically more agile Super 2 should be able to really embrace and exploit the Barber Circuit’s tighter, more technical sections.

And again, when I sat on the crest of Ace Corner later in the afternoon during the sidecar heat race — sitting in a spot where I could see the Carousel and the next two corners, Steve and Heide were like two manifestations of a single mind — Heide a constant smooth blur of motion on the rig, and Steve constantly on the gas and setting up for the next corner.

I’ll admit I was pulling for Bernard, but Steve and Heide were doing things with their rig in the corners that were rearranging the two-wheel limited perceptions of my mind. Their racer was carrying so much speed and exiting so hard that I found myself just giggling insanely just watching them and their chair as it just walked completely away.

***

In sidecar racing, one just really can’t get around ‘The Monkey’.

Their skill in controlling the traction available at the drive and cornering wheels is really what makes the whole unlikely thing go.

The sidecar chairmen and chairwomen have balls and skill I will never have.

Wandering down what seemed to be Sidecar Row in the Barber paddock, I came to something I had been expecting to see.

Unlike two wheeled roadracing, where the manufacturer had only experienced limited success, in sidecar racing BMW boxer twins had been utterly dominant for roughly three decades.

DSCN2628

Sitting out front of the Blue Moon Cycles’ shelter was this classic BMW kneeler racing sidecar. The motor in it looked like it could have been borrowed straight out of my Toaster.

One of the friends of the shop saw me deep in thought contemplating their kneeler, and walked up to chat.

“So will we see this out there running in anger today?”

“Oh, no man. His Monkey passed away last year. After 30 years together, I mean how could you?

He don’t race no more.”

You can not get around ‘The Monkey’.

***

Guys that race an old motorcycle must possess a certain level of inner strength and determination.

The older the motorcycle, the stronger that inner steel needs to be.

DSCN2630

If you’re racing a mostly unrestored 1913 Indian Scout — look at the surface rust on the frame and forks — you’re titanium.

If, in addition to your 1913 Scout, you are running 8 or 9 Nortons — motorcycles with a somewhat deserved reputation for a certain fragility when under stress — well, man, you’re Superman.

DSCN2631

***

I’d been watching a race over the pit wall as I wandered around the paddock. The class seemed to be basically ‘Classic UJM’, with air cooled transverse fours and twin shock rears. If you are a person of a certain age, these are your motorcycles.

You know who you are.

In that class, one guy was clearly smoother, faster and more in the groove than his competitors. He lead from the start, and smoothly stretched his lead so he came across the line completely alone.

DSCN2633

This guy, moto-writer Nick Ienatsch, was that guy.

“Ya gave me a great bike — all I had to do was not mess it up.”

He was visibly having a hell of a time, and was clearly as fast in the flesh as he is on the page.

***

Some people go GP Racing.

Other people like to ride pit bikes in the Paddock.

DSCN2634

Some people like to do both.

***

There are lots of people that think that the Archetype and Highest achievement of the Racing motorcycle is the Classic British Single.

A lot of those people make the trek to Alabama for the Barber Vintage Festival.

The Classic British single take a lot of different types — Norton Manxes and Internationals, the Velocettes and Matchlesses — but they all share an elemental form that is the motorcycle reduced to its absolute minimum: a single cylinder, two wheels and a place to hold on.

Being a guy that thinks about simplicity and complexity, I got no gas with people that are willing to put themselves on the line to demonstrate that these simplest possible motorcycles are somehow a higher expression of what motorcycling means.

These are motorcycles that speak loudly to me. I can feel every power hit of these big singles as the grips grow wider in my hands closing in on redline. I can feel the front tire lifting free of the track on tight corner exits, and power wheelying coming across rises in the pavement.

These are hard motorcycles for hard men. The very notion of refinement — something that might temper their essential mechanical brutality — seems utterly alien standing in front of a Norton Manx.

***

The American Historic Racing Motorcycle Racing Association’s (AHMRA) Number Plate Registry identifies number 14x as belonging to Randy Hoffman.

I didn’t get the chance to talk to you, Randy, but if i had, I would have told you something you already know — that you have absolutely exquisite taste in motorcycles.

This 1938 Velocette KTT Mk VII is just beautiful — almost as narrow and light as a bicycle, except this bicycle has a substantial single cylinder engine, a girder front end, and a shapely fuel tank with perfect black paint and gold pinstriping.

DSCN2636

 

Single cylinder Vincent Comets are extremely rare in the United States. Rarer still are The Grey Flash, a single cylinder in full racing trim – essentially a one cylinder version of the famous Black Lightning. This one is a head-turner.

DSCN2637

The overwhelming impression one comes away with is that this Grey Flash is almost made of more air than metal — there’s almost nowhere where one can’t see straight through the motorcycle.

The tale that Vincent historians tell is that Phil Irving was busy at the draftsman’s table and accidentally superimposed two blueprints for the Comet’s engine on top of each other and realized that there was already the space required to install a second top end in the space behind the cylinder on the Comet’s crankcases. This flash of insight produced the Vincent Rapide’s V-twin, and changed the course of motorcycling history.

Looking at this Grey Flash, I can’t help but think of my son Finn’s new Buell Blast. Feel free to scoff. Everybody else does. Faced with a completely different problem, Eric Buell removed the rear cylinder from a Harley Davidson Sportster’s engine, and ended up in nearly the same place.

One approach was additive, and one was subtractive, but the two motorcycles — with their inclined singles and monoshock rears, are startlingly close to the same elemental solution.

***

Motorcycle enthusiasm can require sustained financial commitment.

Duh.

People will tell you — why are unknown people always telling us things? — that because of that hierarchy of self-imposed enthusiasm taxes — that the finest kind of boat, or the finest kind of airplane, is somebody else’s boat — somebody else’s airplane.

People have told me — there they are again — that the same sort of logic applies to owning any performance Velocette motorcycle.

DSCN2639

Looking at this one, though, it looks like any price would be totally worth it.

The Two Percent

You’re absolutely sure you know where I’m going with this.

I’m just as sure you’re absolutely wrong.

This isn’t some tale of the ‘More-Money-Than-Sense’ Club.

It isn’t some paean to how the other half — OK so the math has changed — the other whatever the percentage is now lives.

No, I’m just like you, buddy. No Thurston Howell III action, here.

Its not the 1% with all the money vs. the 99%.  That 1% isn’t growing and is never going to get any where even remotely close to 2%

It’s something else altogether.

***

 

Shopping for motorcycles is a very personal thing.

If you’re like me, the process is highly revelatory in a multitude of surprising ways.

The process of “what-is-it-on-two-wheels-that-i-like?” will shine a light on your engineering sensibilities, your personality, your sense of aesthetics,  your personal economics, the core of you that somehow balances function vs. form, the spiritual vs. the material, the part of you that embraces and envelops a tool and makes it a tranparent part of you — a thing that you operate without having to think.

And if, like me, you’re doing this with an eye towards a bike for one’s precious son,  it picks up another dimension. Some accomodation for his aesthetic. Simplicity. Tractability. Ease of use.

And there ain’t a lot of that about.

About 2%, by my estimation.

 

***

 

Another Day. Another Craiglist scan.

Most of it is just crap.

“Sick, Sick, Siiiiick R1. Custom Flat Black Paint Job.”

A crasher.

Nope.

“Harley Davidson FLHXTRMUI Ultra Custom”

Lead sled blingy dresser.

Nope.

“Stretched Slammed Rodded Ruckus. $9K”

Drag racing scooter, asking double price of new.

Nope and Nope.

A million japanese plastic wrapped sportbikes, high end euro tech tourers and ADV bikes, a million Harleys of various stripes. How many GSXRs and Hayabusas can there be, and why are they ALL for sale?

When my son Finn first saw a new Royal Enfield Continental GT, it was as if a great big relay had slammed shut, and delivered the full voltage of the elemental motorcycle experience to someone who had never really taken any notice of motorcycles previously.

Imagine it: A deeply finned chunky single cyinder air cooled engine, two spoked wheels, a long low tank, painted red, and a 3/4 saddle with a cafe style bum stop. You can see blue sky by being able to look straight though to other side of the bike, all around the engine, and above the rear wheel. Everything is made of metal.

continental gt

When the word ‘motorcycle’ flickers through your mind, this is the picture that flickers in with it. Two Wheels, handlebars, tank and a motor. If there’s some sort of International Signage Symbol for ‘motorcycle’, this is what it looks like.

Think Norton Manx.

There are so very few motorcycles that look like that any more.

More importantly, there are very few motorcycles that work like that anymore. Single cylinder or small displacement twins –high torque engines. Low weight and low width. Minimal electronics, and simple mechanical systems — easy to visualize, access, repair and maintain.

So if, you’re cruising the tubes of the global internetwork, most of what you see offered for sale is so much pure crap. Thousands of tons of plastic, chrome and electronics that might as well be a chest freezer or a game console before it will be something that will find itself stuck under the bum of anyone named Shamieh.

But all is not lost.

Only about 98% is.

If you keep clicking on things, eventually you’ll find this — what looks to be a fairly complete, original, straight appearing, unmolested, running 1966 Honda dream.

Pretty.

Dream

Probably nearly perfect to learn on.

How much money and garage space do we have? How much do we love ignition points and drum brakes? And who will attempt to explain this to Sweet Doris from Baltimore?

Serious questons all.

Let’s see what else is out there.

(Significant time elapses. Myriad plastic and blingy things are discarded.)

Ooooh.

More Honda Flesh.

This one a 1973. Really pretty. Stylish High Pipe.

More money. Still a points/drums bike. Better be on the lookout for a Dyna electronic ignition kit.

cl350Repeat. How much money, etc.

Let’s see what else is out there.

(Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Be one with time. )

A 78 Suzuki. A GS series twin. Doris owned one of these for a little while. It was nice and quick. Perhaps too quick for ‘the littlest one of all’. Hmm.  Still, this one looks really nice. Has disk brake! Still more money, though.

GS400Roll on.

(Pages from the calendar fly away, as if blown by the wind….)

Ohhhh, my.

Honda again — a 1984. This could be a really easy bike to live with and to keep running.  My college riding buddy Doug had the 700 cc version of this motor — a modern, 3 valve engine with auto-adjusting valves.  Light, narrow.  I think I’m in love.

VT500Is it too quick for my puppy? Am I being over protective about this? Am I being underprotective by not being willing to be a hypocritical jerk about the idea of Finn riding?

More serious questions.

(Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. That is the sound my boxers make when they’re up on the pipe out on the highway. )

Ooooh. Pure bike porn. Red. Shiny.

KRSWhat the hell is that doing in here?  Focus, man. You’re departing from the thread.

No bikes for you. Bikes for Boy.

(Theme music up and under.)

Hmmmm.  This prolly fits the bill. A CT100….complete and a runner. Like the C90 that Ed March has been riding around the world. More than once. Not sexy, but functional. Puppy friendly. Easy to understand. Indestructable.

ct110Have you ever seen the Discovery Channel’s “10 Greatest Ever Motorcycles”? Number 1 is the Honda Cub.

Spoiler alert. They throw one off a building. It still runs.

Did I menton it’s cheep? And it is,  against all odds, located in my very small rural town.

I dunno. Maybe we could get the CT100 and the Ascot.

And the KRS.

Focus!

How much money do we have?

And who the hell is going to try to explain this to Doris?

Very serious questions, indeed.

Lovesong of the Flying Brick

1999_BMW_K1200LT_VD70677__Engine__id_215588_04

Is it wrong to love an engine?

If you’re a BMW motorcycle guy, is it an even bigger sin if that engine isn’t a boxer twin?

Are Airhead engines sufficiently sentient to know if you’re ‘cheating’ on them?

“Dude”, you’re thinking, “You’ve got an awful lot of questions.”

“Got any answers?”

The only job of a motorcycle engine is to move the motorcycle its installed in down the road. Seems obvious enough, but how it completes that task is an ingredient that could be used to bake a baker’s dozen motorcycle books.

Now there are lots of guys that will tell you that way too much is never enough. These are guys that think that tire-shredding, burnout producing, ‘wheelies-in-all-five-gears’ power is the only kind of power.

I’m not one of those guys.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are lots of sporting applications where too much and then some is exactly what you want.

Prostock drag racing?

Check.

AMA superbike?

Possibly.

But for motorcycles operated on the street, especially for transportation, rather than sporting applications, its not so much how much power an engine can deliver, but the quality of how that power is delivered.

Hold on to the hate mail, peoples — I know this zip code doesn’t have a lot of neighbors.

***

Its funny how a single extended family of engineers can be so damned consistent.

I’ve ridden briefly in other people’s BMW automobiles, and my limited sample supports the notion of a ‘corporate standard torque curve’.

The CEO of a small company I worked for long ago had a very anonymous looking grey BMW sedan parked outside his office window. The Big Boss was a very conservative management type who had gotten to the corner office as the finance guy. One day, after I had seen him eyeballing my R90S out in the parking lot, he uncharacteristically asked me and one of my managers to lunch.

“So,” he asked coyly, “So you know about bikes. Do you know anything about cars?”

As we walked up to the car, he stuck his key in the trunk lock, and it was just as the lid started to rise I noticed the discrete “M5” badge against the grey paint.

Inside the trunk, it was like F1 Disneyland. There were color anodized aluminum bracing structures everywhere — all with holes of various radii cut into billet. The battery was in the rearmost portion of the right fender — there was a dry sump oil tank and color coded lines in the same position on the left. The strut towers were connected with more billet bracing, and I remember more color — mostly Gold — on the strut units themselves.

“Let’s go for a ride. Buckle your seat belt.”

Never let the countenance of someone who appears to be The Alpha Accountant throw you off the scent of a motor maniac. As the very junior member of this crew, I was in the back seat. Our offices were in a part of Northern Virginia that still could be called rural at that time, and as soon as we left the parking lot and the wheels were straight, The Boss took the accelerator smoothly to the floor.

God is not directly involved in the action of internal combiustion in this world.

But if he was, he would be paying particular attention to the straight six motor of that M5. I don’t recall any wheelspin, but I remember thinking that this was likely a lot like what the Space Shuttle felt like on the gas — I was pressed back into the seat with what felt like several Gs, and I couldn’t get away from thinking that this was the Hand of God himself felt like if he was into acceleration — omnipresent, omnipotent, and getting bigger the longer one engaged with it.

Our company’s Big Guy was customarily an all-bidnizz, humorless sort, but as we made the shift into third gear, and with it, hyperspace, he was in full kid-at-Christmas, laughing out loud, full being joy mode — a man completely transformed.

It was my first drink from the well of Big Bavarian torque.

After many years of trying to get it sorted, that R90S that bossman had been eyeing finally came 100% on the pipe, and I found it lived there , too.

A buddy of mine scored a leased car for a steal — a gorgeous jet black /7 series. It had an M series set of factory widened rear wheels that cost more than both my airheads combined.

Another lunchime ride, another Millenium Falcon experience.

These “Legendary German Engineers”, it seemed, had a thing for “Torque Directly from the Hand of God” that seemed to inhabit and animate their products across models and even across different vehicles. I have no question that their former Aircraft engines and their marine engines all tap into this when they’re in their happy zone and on the gas. Folks have also told me stuff about their European market performance diesels that seem to support this idea, and perhaps take it to another, incomprehensible level.

***

And that is what brings me to the K1200 longtitudinally oriented, transversely rotating, sideways mounted 4 cylinder engine — lovingly referred to as the last of the ‘Flying Brick’ motors.

BMW Motorcycles are famous for many things. They are also be infamous for a somewhat smaller number of things. One of those things is that the first version of a product that hits the market is never perfect. Another one of those things is that development of that intial concept continues — doggedly, methodically — until it has been brought as close to perfection as anyone could possibly expect.

The BMW K series engines and motorcycles were first introduced to the market in 1983. The design was, in almost every way, revolutionary. There are tales of a test mule that used a Peugeot automobile engine mated to the driveline of a BMW boxer twin that was used to test the basic design concept. Once the basic configuration was found to be sound on the road, the design of a BMW engine and driveline could begin.

The starting point for the engine design was BMW’s Formula 2 4 cylinder racing engine, which had a reputation for bulletproof reliability when being run near redline for long periods of time. The Formula 2 engine — which displaced 2 liters — was scaled to 50 percent to acheive a displacement of 1000 ccs.

The K100 motorcycle’s 4 cylinder, water cooled engine was inline in the frame, with the engine laid over 90 degrees to the left, so that the cylinder heads of the engine were next to the rider’s left boot, and the crankshaft next to the rider’s right boot. This orientation, with the engine rotating transversely to the frame, unlike all contemporary inline fours, whose flywheels rotated inline with the wheels, maintained the roadholding and stability characteristics of BMW’s twins.

The engine, also in contrast to many of its contemporaries, was undersquare, with a longer stroke than its cylinder bore — this was a design necessity as every millmeter of bore added several millimeters to the overall length of the motorcycle, which was already long to begin with. This design imperative — make the engine short enough to fit in the motorcycle, even if it means an undersquare design — ended up creating the K-engine’s most significant feature — torque at every RPM.

Instead of a traditional frame, the engine was used as a stressed member, with steering head and rear subframes mounted directly to the motor. Power transmission was, as with BMW’s boxers, via a 5 speed transmission via driveshaft running in line with the engine crank down a swingarm on the right side of the motorcycle. Unique to the K-bike, though was that the swingarm was single sided – first via Monolever, and later via Paralever, which added an anti-torque reaction link, which controlled the rise and fall of the suspension under drive. Induction was via electronically managed fuel injection, which fed a very conventional 2 valve overhead camshaft cylinder head. Exhaust was via a one piece stainless steel exhaust system, with tuned headers and a catalytic converter.

Cars of this period were seeing such features coming into widespead use, but in motorcycles the combination of liquid cooling, fuel injection and catalytic exhaust was at the time completely unprecidented. The subsequent model year BMW introduced a three cylinder varient — the K75 — that used the same components and engine internal dimensions, with an added balance shaft, to acheive a 750 cc displacement.

Revolutionary advances almost always bring with them unforeseen consequences, and the K-motored motorcycles were no exception. The stressed member construction meant that any engine vibration was transmitted directly to the rider. The 3 cylinder K75s, with their balance shafts, became noteworthy as the smoother operating engine of the family.

The bike’s fuel injection system used an overdelivery and return line system where fuel that was not injected was returned from the injection rail to the fuel tank. In this process, unused fuel served as kind of a secondary coolant, with the fuel picking up more and more engine heat the longer the motorcycle was operated. Given the K-bike’s single wall aluminum fuel tank, filling it with hot fuel, combined with some less than optimum airflow coming from the bike’s cooling system radiators, made the bikes uncomfortably hot to ride, espcially in places like Texas and the American Southwest. It’s easy to understand how this might not have been noticable in the cool, damp German development test environment, but it didn’t make having one’s privates roasted if you were operating the bike in an American summer any more enjoyable.

The original K’s K-jetronic fuel injection used a mass airflow sensor — which placed a flap into the manifold airstream — to measure the velocity of air entering the engine. In practice, the sensor, expecially when dirty, became an impediment to air actually entering the engine, further slowing throttle response that was already not entirely thrilling.

17 years — which is the length of time between the introduction of the Flying Brick and the production of my K1200LT’s engine — is a virtual eternity in terms of engine development. And that eternity was more than sufficient to take the faults of the first K100 engines and correct them. The result, in my humble and completely biased opinion, is one of the most excellent motorcycle engines ever produced, and likely one of the most unappreciated.

BMW went after the faults of the orginal bikes and slayed them one by one. The 1988 introduction of the K1 — an oddball bike that was part top speed streamliner and part sport bike — introduced a more modern 4 valve cylinder head. Bosch components introduced a new FI system — the Motronic — to replace the K-Jetronic — and went to a more modern closed loop with hot wire air sensor system that ditched the mass airflow sensor flap. The combination produced an engine with markedly better throttle response and a really noticable power step when the flow impacts of the 4 valve heads kicked in at about 5500 rpm. All these improvements — as well as a new AntiLock Braking system — were then adapted from the K1 and shared with the rest of the K-bike line.

Engineers kept revisiting the engine’s displacement and internal dimensions, and continued to eke increases out of the tiny spaces with which they had to work — using methods like thinner cylinder walls and higher speed coolant pumps to shrink the dimensions of the cooling jackets until the original 67mm bore and 70mm stroke of the K100 had been maxed out to the 70.5mm x 75mm of the K1200 series. I remember reading an analysis of the K12 engine in a motorcycle magazine — it might have been Kevin Cameron — who observed that the long 75mm stroke, combined with the bike’s 8750 rpm redline, produced a piston speed that was the highest one that had ever been measured in any production street engine, car or bike.

history3

The K12 series engineers also made several additional changes that took the Bricks from quirky machines to fully developed, optimized products. As appealing as the frameless design had been, it was simply not sufficient for the increased power and suspension loads made possible by modern radial tires. The K12 motorcycles adopted a cast aluminium frame that was rigid enough to do anything that was asked of it — and with it the amount of vibration that reached the rider was reduced to effectively zero. That frame was combined with modern full wrap bodywork that engineered both the flow of heated air from the radiators away from the rider, as well as allowed for an insulated shroud around the fuel tank that also kept cockpit temperatures comfortable.

history4

BMW’s engineers, in short, spent a decade and a half completly developing the K-series engine, which simultaneously creating motorcycles that made the best of that powerplant while shielding the rider from their negative personality traits.

Which brings me back to that engine.

An old racer I knew once told me, “It doesn’t make any sense to make more power than you can get to the ground.”

And its exactly that thinking that defines how the K12 LTs behave on the road.

At any sensible engine speed, opening the throttle produces as much torque and acceleration as is possible to use outside of a short, police officer induced trip to jail. A total of 90 some foot pounds isn’t huge, in an ultimate sense, but it is more than sufficient to move these bike’s significant mass in a pretty authoritative manner. The evenness of the torque delivery is also striking — at no point in the curve does it produce less than about 72 foot pounds. These characteristics, when combined with the smoothness of the engine and frame unit, makes the bike sneaky fast — there’s very little sensation of speed, but there definitely is speed.

I posted a ride report to the Internet BMW Riders after my initial test ride. Reading it again today its clear that all of this was gobsmackingly obvious after about five miles in the saddle. Being a bit of a geek, the combination of a very pronounced intake shriek and the sensation of being launched made me think of Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter from the first Star Wars movie. I spoke of being seduced…..by the Dark Side. Apparently, a lot of folks understood exactly what I meant.

Overall, it is that sense of effortless fitness for purpose, refinement and huge thrust that marks the whole K12 experience. The length and mass of the engine and its placement forward in the frame loads the front tire to a degree that makes the bikes extremely sure footed. The evenness of power delivery and careful selection of flywheel mass create a power delivery character that is tractible in every way — one is completely in control of what is happening at the rear contact patch — and the bike makes complete use of all the power it puts out.

I’ve ridden K12s in LT and RS configurations back to back, and I’m not going to tell you that the RS isn’t fun, because it sure as hell is. There is more power and more torque, but it is located further up the powerband. The rider can go from things happnening fast to what-just-happened-there-crazy-fast, but you have to have the skills and discipline to keep your revs up to enjoy the whoosh. The LT trades some of the top end for a flatter curve, and for more thrust off the bottom. For a Sunday sport rider, the RS is a treat — for everything else — the torque tuning of the LT engine is more flexible and more versatile. There is no wrong gear on a backroad — its just twist and go whereever you happen to be.

The cruise behavior of the engine is a revelation, as well. There is a designed in ‘sweet spot’ at the engine’s torque peak just under 4000 rpm. At this rpm there is almost no vibration, making tank-to-tank riding possible, yet as everywhere else, a turn of the throttle makes everyone else on your road select relative reverse, and brings the horizon up stat. If you’re in more of a hurry than that, a smart downshift gets one instantly to the very top of the engine’s output, and then one gets a dose of the motor’s signature intake howl and had better have a long stretch of open pavement firmly in view, because the here/there transition will occur with Sci-fi abruptness.

Cruising at 5000 rpm in top really brings out the engine’s inner racing monster… engine sound is full-on racetrack, throttle response improves, and counterintuitively, the fuel economy improves as the 4 valve head hits its flow happy zone. Problem is, if you’re going to do this a lot, you’re going to go through a lot of tires, and you should make sure that your bail money is stashed at home where someone can easily find it, because any subsequent conversation with the constable is going to be somewhat unpleasant.

The Flying Bricks possess one other quality, and that is a nearly impossible degree of mechanical robustness and stability. In the more than 100,000 miles I’ve had these bikes — I know I am but a mere K-bike lightweight, a no0b — I’ve been under the engine covers a few times and it always strikes me how the engine internals look like they’ve factory new — having never been run. All of the casting faces are clean — there’s no sign of any sludge, carbon or staining anywhere in sight — hard plated surfaces are shiny, with no wear patterns on the visble valve train components, cams, buckets. I’ve seen that kind of mechanically halo-producing ‘eternal life design’ a few places before — ususally in old Mercedes engines that have already been through more than three-quarters of a million miles and are found on the workbench to not need anything.

The K12 engines look like that with no miles, and they look like that with 100,000.

My current ride has just over 85,000 miles on it. I do let professionals work on this valve train. Their worksheets indicate only 2 of the 24 valve adjustment buckets have needed to be swapped in that time.

My K engines have not used a a single atom of oil.

I don’t know anyone who has worn one of these engines out. Good men have tried. The three people that have tried the hardest to wear flying bricks out have had their bikes killed violently at that hands of others at very advanced ages. Paul Glaves had a K75 that had well over 300,000 miles on the clock when it was struck and totalled by a car. Another mileage big dog from the DC area — Don Arthur — had a LT that was just coming up on 300K when it too was struck by another automobilist. Paul Mihalka had traded in a K75 to a local dealer that used it for a service loaner — it was well beyond 300K when a customer totalled it.

How far might these bikes have gone? Its like the Tootsie Pop and their “How Many Licks?”

Reality keeps biting so that we never get to find out.

***

Don’t misunderstand me, these bikes are far from perfect to live with.

They’re kind of tough on tires.

There are certain maintenence procedures which, due to some of the ‘semi-planned’ nature of the K12’s engine and frame packaging, are a little challenging.

Removing and replacing the fuel tank — even with some high tech pressurized bronze fuel line disconnects installed — is harder than it should be.

Changing the front shock is fun.

Getting to the upper bolt of the rear shock is also fun.

Changing the crankcase breather hose — which is a rubber part which is exposed to enough heat to make it fail repeatedly — is still more fun.

Did I mention the factory shop manual recommends the use of a shop crane to assist in lifing the frame off the motor for that job?

I changed the ABS Controller on one once.

I can say without fear of ridicule, that it made me cry.

More than once.

***

But that stuff is complely forgotten the minute you roll the throttle open.

The clouds part. The Hand of God emerges. He places his hand on the small of your back.

And deftly shoves your ass straight out your left ear.

And does it again, every time you ask, for a half million miles or until you lose interest, whichever comes first.

I’ll freely admit that the seeming ease with which it does this somehow strips the experience of some emotional component.

A full throttle run through the gears on my R90S is ecstatic, soul stirring — every sensory input, every power stroke colludes to make you feel deeply: “I am going hella fast.”

The same experience on the K is all Joe Friday: “Just doin’ my job, ma’am”.

And that’s how, I think, that what is objectively a magnificent motorcycle engine gets given universally short shrift by riders and moto-scribes.

By makeing whatever you ask of it just seem too damn easy.

 

Dizzyland for Gentleman Motorcyclists

I just returned from a family vacation.

I spent a week under canvas in the Pisgah National Forest in the mountains of Western North Carolina. My wife, youngest son and I took our simple folding tent trailer to a lovely wooded federal campground with zero bars of service on anyone’s cel phone.

We used the camp as a base of operations to art tour, see music, eat and drink our way around Asheville, which was very civilized and lots of fun.

We also resolved to spend some time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as we Shamiehs have been touring each and every one of these National Treasures, and as one of The Great Parks east of the Mississippi, we were honor bound.

But as we motored in our white work pickup towards Cherokee, something unpredictably and inappropriately bikey spontaneously occurred.

We were rolling through Maggie Valley, North Carolina, when I saw a small roadside sign.

“The Wheels Through Time Museum.3 Miles Ahead on Right.”

“Oh,” I said, “This Place is Legendary. Can we stop and walk around?”

My wife and son looked at each other with the face of recognition that they were about to bear witness to me in the abject depths of Moto-depravity. But it was vacation, and everyone is just supposed to roll with it and have fun whenever and wherever it occurs.

It was agreed without hesitation that we should.

We rolled across the bridge into the place, and tried to find room for our Ram Truck amongst the Myriad Harleys.

I walked briskly up the ramp and into the facility.

A nice gentleman who was sitting on the porch greeted us, welcoming us to the place. I was a little wild eyed, breathing hard, and walking kind of fast, so I didn’t pay much attention to Dale Walksler, whose marvelous motorcycle collection this is.

So Dale, I’m genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I was less than social, but I was a little overexcited.

I’m sure you know how that goes.

WP_20140717_13_21_30_Pro

The Wheels Through Time advertises itself as ‘The Museum That Runs”.  The nice lady that sold me my ticket said “Everything in Here is Made in America, and everything runs.” When you have a HD service area that looks like this:

WP_20140717_12_56_22_Pro

which appears to have at least two cylinder barrels, two cylinder heads, and two pistons of every engine Harley Davidson has ever produced, and your spare parts supply has so many original OEM pistons of 1930’s vintage in Original factory boxes that you sell them for Museum Swag, keeping them running doesn’t appear to be as big a problem as it might be for the rest of us.

This is in no way to minimize what an extraordinary accomplishment and amount of work that represents.

And is in no way to even imply that Harley Davidsons are the only motorcycles Dale treasures.

There is simply too much in The Wheels — motorcycles, memorabilia, artwork, automobilia, and just plain weird shit — to even think of covering it all in anything short of a  full length book.

But I will share a few things that caught my eye, or in some cases tugged at my heartstrings. Other things might catch yours.

One of my fellow Internet BMW Riders has strongly urged me to go to Dale’s if the chance ever presented itself. I don’t remember who you are, but thank you anyway.

And if you ever get the chance, and you love motorcycles and motorcycling, you should too.

Oh, and Dale, if you can forgive my bad manners, and would like me to write that book to catalog the museum, please let me know. It would be a labor of love.

WP_20140717_13_30_32_Pro

This 1903 Indian, which is all original, may well be the oldest running Indian Motorcycle in existence.  Using a dry cell battery for ignition, it has won a race for 100 plus year old motorcycles at the Barber Motorcycle Museum Vintage Festival multiple times. Try and imagine what it was like to have to go — likely to your drugstore  — to obtain a new dry cell and a can of ‘petroleum spirits’ to get ready for a ride.

WP_20140717_13_28_15_Pro

The 1903’s Younger Brother — this one, I believe is a 1909 — is also something to be stared at for quite some time.

WP_20140717_12_53_12_Pro

This Indian, which is believe is a boardtrack racing sidecar outfit, is also exquisite.

Dale has a series of early 1900s American Fours — Hendersons, a Pierce Arrow, a pair of Aces — any one of which are pretty enough to take your breath away. Taken together, its enough to have you calling for medical assistance. The Pierce, especially, is a wonder of unique design and engineering.

WP_20140717_13_06_28_Pro

WP_20140717_13_07_03_Pro

WP_20140717_13_07_38_Pro

WP_20140717_13_08_20_Pro

WP_20140717_13_08_31_Pro

I make no bones about being a BMW guy. Accordingly, anything with a boxer engine will get my attention. During the Second World War, the US War Department — the precursor to our Department of Defense — placed orders with both Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles to produce shaft driven bikes that would be able to function on the same desert battlefields as the BMW M75s and Zundapps that had been outperforming the US’s chain driven military motorcycles.  Harley’s response to the challenge was the XA, a boxer-engined shaft drive motorcycle. The Wheels Through Time has several XAs as well a few things that were made out of XAs.

WP_20140717_12_48_25_Pro

This one is bone Army Stock.

WP_20140717_12_44_00_Pro

This one is full civilian custom, right down to the chromed springer front end.

WP_20140717_13_09_55_Pro

And this one has been transformed into a race car, where it appear to be entirely comfortable and like that was it’s intended engineering purpose.

Indian’s answer to the same challenge was their Model 841. The 841’s configuration was a transversely mounted, 90 degree V-twin with shaft drive. This configuration would be made famous by MotoGuzzi about 25 years later, but all of the Guzzi’s ingredients were present and accounted for in the 841. Harley Davidson’s XAs are rare — they were built in limited numbers and deployed into combat theaters in even more limited numbers. In contrast, the Indian 841 is barely more than a rumor — there was a short run of machines that were built and purchased, but none were ever deployed by the military. Seeing one is rare — a complete, unrestored one that runs….

WP_20140717_12_46_47_Pro

In between the hundred of bikes are — heresy! — a few cars. My first car was a 1971 Cadillac Sedan with an 8.0 liter V8, so I have a soft spot for this 1930 Cadillac V-16 Coupe. The motor is nothing short of awesome, the style of the body is elegance defined, and anything with a rumble seat and this kind of potential for velocity had to be all kinds of fun.

WP_20140717_12_43_02_Pro

WP_20140717_12_43_22_Pro

I said there would be weird shit, and there is weird shit in spades.

WP_20140717_12_40_08_Pro

There is a Harley Engine in this spaceship. I’m completely bereft of any ideas as to what I would tell the motor officer if he pulled me over driving this thing.

WP_20140717_12_41_08_Pro

This is the most unusual tandem bicycle I’ve ever seen.  When one considers that fact that both sets of handlebars are linked together and steer the bike, so that both riders need to agree and coordinate where they want to go, all of a sudden it becomes a bit more obvious why you and I haven’t seen more of these.

WP_20140717_12_59_17_Pro

Weirder still is this Harley Davidson XSIS — Xtremely Stationary Ice Saw. Necessity and an HD are the mother of invention.

WP_20140717_12_58_41_Pro

On a related note, and only marginally less weird is this Indian-powered ‘MotorToboggan’, which may well have been the world’s first snowmobile.

WP_20140717_13_37_38_Pro

And holding down the perpetually weird, not-sure-if-it-wants-to-be-a-car-or-a-bike category,  A Ner-a-Car feet forward, step through motorcycle.

The second floor of the museum is devoted largely to motorcycle competition.

WP_20140717_13_11_41_Pro

This pair of racing leathers that belonged to Cal Rayborn stopped me in my tracks. Cal was one of the American racing greats who we lost too soon. Standing before Cal’s skins, I’ll admit  I may have become a little verklempt.

WP_20140717_13_10_34_Pro

One of Scotty Parker’s AMA Championship winning Harley Davidson XR 750 dirtrackers.

WP_20140717_13_10_13_Pro

And finally, one of the few Harley’s that I’ll admit being attracted to — the XLCR Café Racer. This bike is kind of like a distant cousin to my R90S — the same DelOrto accelerator pump carburetors, bikini fairing, and aero tailsection, Milwaukee style, as opposed to Berliner Style. An all-for-speed pose with solid, heavy motorcycles. Great fun.

By the end of the too short hours we spent there, I had to search out my family, who were enjoying themselves far more than they thought they would. My artist wife Doris was in love with several antique photographs and advertising art, and my son Finn, who is just dipping his toe in the motorhead water was finding all sorts of obscure gadgets and iron to ogle.

The pictures I’ve provided here barely scratch the surface of the Wheels Through Time’s extensive collection. The more you know about bikes, especially bikes made before 1930, the more amazing the collection and its correct period staging will become. I heartily encourage a motorcycle trip down to the Great Smokies, and plan for a day with my bike-addled friends in Maggie Valley.