Time to Ride

Folks that know me know I’m not much on planning.

Some parts of life are better like jazz or a rocking jam band — improvisational — you know when to go big when the universe’s currents seem to be running your way.

When I woke up on Sunday morning in the Hampton Inn in Leeds, Alabama, one look out the window changed everything.

The previous two days had dawned grey and misty — allowing for a slow rise to awareness.

Today, the sun was starting out strong.

After two days of looking at and thinking and talking about all kinds of motorcycles, all I wanted was to feel the wheels gyroscopically spinning underneath me — the wind rushing around me.

It was time to stop looking at motorcycles.

It was time to ride motorcycles.

***

I had actually been hoping to swing by my Mom’s house for a surprise visit.

She lives just south of Charleston, South Carolina, and a visit would have done her good.

Nature, though, had sprung some unpleasant surprises, and those gifts had kept right on giving.

Most of South Carolina had experienced unprecidented rainfall the previous week when a tropical system had come onshore and remained in place for several days.

Columbia, the State Capital, located in the central part of the state was still mostly under water. There were two bridges on Interstate 20 in Western SC that were closed due to structural damage from the floods. And the single road that leads from Charleston to the shore islands south of town was still washed out in three or four places. With much of my potential route cut off, and one crucial bit of it with no detour possible, Mom was going to have to wait for another time.

***

I got my single saddlebag liner — an old Compaq computer freebee shoulderbag that just happens to fit the LTs cases like it was made for it — repacked and checked out of the Hampton. My local duty vintage-y riding gear — the Bell 500 open face, work boots and my denim jacket — went into the top case, along with the lightweight performance fleece I use for layering under my Roadcrafter, and my camera.

It felt good to be back in a pair of proper tall motorcycle boots, and my fully armored riding suit. The weather report showed sunny skies and a projected high somewhere in the lower to mid 70s along most of the route.

Like any pilot, I did my preflight inspection — checking tires, fasteners, and making sure we didn’t have signs of any new fluid leaks. This looked and felt like a day where the only limits were all internal.

I fastened the chinstrap on my Shoei, swung a leg over, and fingered the K12’s Flying Brick motor back to life.

***

There were lots of motorcycles coming the other way as I accelerated up the ramp onto I-20 west back towards Birmingham. Although it was still a little cool — in the high fifties — the air was crisp and dry, and it felt awfully good to take big handfuls of throttle again and let the Brick wind out in each gear and get some wind into those four long stroke lungs.

I turned north on I-459, the Birminham spur, and then north again on I-59, settling the LT in at a fairly immoderate 4000 rpm and and indicated 86 mph, gently stretching my legs, back, arms and shoulders to loosen my personal machinery up for the long run ahead.

There were more than a few well dressed folks on the road early that Sunday morning, no doubt headed for church.

I guess in my own way, so was I.

***

It was just so relaxed out there, with the sun pushing gentle warmth into my Roadcrafter, that I was back blasting through Gadsden, the previous nights stop, before the virtual blink of an eye. The deep green pine forests and roadside sandstone rockfalls were less spooky, downright pretty in the sunlight, and we were able to stay in the gas and well on the boil, comfortable at speed.

Coming back to Fort Payne, there was signage everywhere for the worship of some of Alabama’s favorite sons — the country band Alabama. There were signs for the Alabama Fan Club, Museum, Gift Store, Theme Park and Dee-votional Center. Ok, maybe I imgagined one or two of those, but it would have been an easy mistake to make.

On another day, or even later in this one, I might have been tempted to sing a little of that good old mountain music, but this morning’s theme was the easy roll, and roll and roll I did.

***

One of those things I’ve always noticed is that there is a often a clear visual indication of when one is moving from one state to another because there is a clear differerce between the one you’re in and the one you’re going to.

Far from being just lines on a map, surprisingly, different places are actually different places.

Western riders know this well — hit the border between Arizona and Utah, and the whole world changes colors. In that particular case, its kinda of a chroma slide from a whole bunch of reds through pinks to a whole different palette of creme and darks greys. Same sort of thing at the edges of West Texas and New Mexico, except the break is from sand-colored to things involving a lot more purple.

You get the idea.

A freaking long winding road of a way to introduce the notion that the same thing seemed to occur at the border of Alabama and Georgia. Might be a tad subtler than the Arizona-Utah segue, but its there nonetheless.

Running north from Birmingham, the forest lands are darkest green, marked by frequent outcrops of mostly crumbling shales, with an occasional sandstone incursion.

Hit the Georgia border just north of Hammondsville, Alabama, though, and its like somebody hit a light switch. Alabama’s hardwoods — Oaks and Maples and Bays and Polars and Elms — change over to Georgia Pine. And the roadside sedimentary shales and sandstones change to harder igneous rocks — what you might assume to be Granite but is actually a quartz monzonite. The harder stone means the land aquires more topography, more elevation — what had been little 40 and 50 foot roadside bluffs are now 400-600 foot igneous ridges.

Did I mention that my favorite teacher when I was in middle school taught Geology?

***

Travelling via Flying Brick does mandate taking a longer view. With a few hundred post breakfast miles already dispatched, I finally had some heat worked all the way through the powertrain, and Darkside smoothed out and indicated its willingness to head into higher speeds.

Dialing in a few more degrees of physical throttle opening — remember those? — I swept on across northwest Georgia. Interstate 59 runs in the bottom of a canyon between two of the aforementioned quartz monozonite bluffs, and with little wind and warm sun I was free to stay in the rapid transit zone and get into the meditative state where I spend my best travelling days.

Its hard to explain how something some completely immersive as motorcycling could somehow facilitate deep thought about life, the universe and everything, but for me it does. Its as if the portion of my mind that manages the complex physics and situational awareness of the ride somehow gets pushed to background — let’s call it virtualized — while higher cognitive functions find themselves operating in another level — a field now completely cleared of daily life’s distractions.

What are the things most important to you?

We each have a short list of the things that make us go, and on rides like this I can take all of those things and hold them before my perception and turn them over, take them apart and really get comfortable with them in my head.

Whether its just life, or love, or art or work, the ride helps me get to the bottom of things.

With my life running WFO — and multiple levels of consciousness humming along — its not to say that I don’t have enough cerebral capacity left to come up for long enough to consider that landscape the ride takes me through.

Looking at the massive stone domes rising above the roadway, I could see exactly why an artist might have seen the ghosts of the Confederacy living in the stone. These mountains had stood witness to more than one war — to our so-called Civil War, and the wars against the original Americans — and one could feel all of the souls in the stones.

***

With the revs up and the LT on big cruise, there’s almost not enough of Georgia to be worth talking about. Interstate 24, Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga are on you before you know it. The rather substantial Tennessee River spreads a whole buncha water off to your left as you curve yourself around the city. As I grabbed I-75 and shusssed northeast across Tennessee, the weather went back to that flat contrastless grey overcast that I’d seen mornings back in Birmingham. Coming out of Chattanooga’s extended metro area, I was somewhat struck by how developed the area was. There was a VW assembly plant, and plenty more accompanying industrial and commercial development. The road, was, on a Sunday noon, congested, and a made frequent use of my agility and acceleration in traffic. A few miles up 75 though, my nemesis, the bright yellow Gas Pump icon telltale came on, and managing reserve and range meant a stop for fuel in Athens, Tennessee.

I’ll admit I didn’t feel much like stopping, but Physics does impose some absolute limits, and taking on more liquid energy was a much better option than pushing an 800 pound motorcycle.

So a Shell station was found, and the ground stop ritual was repeated. 5.8 gallons of VPower. A trip to the comfort station, to see a man about a horse. 16-20 ounces of hydration — my fave, a diet Snapple Peach tea — and a few handfuls of nuts and raisins, and it was shields down, stands up and running back through the gearset, winding each gear out till I was back on the pipe in top gear running North again on I75.

***

Its at a time like these one can be forgiven for thinking — however briefly — that it was BMWs boxer that was the aberration, and that this Brick Engine, this Darkside, was truly their destiny. A Flying Brick K12 Motorcycle, in its powerband in top gear on good pavement, was as close as I’ll get to my own bespoke Space Program.

The thing is so long legged, so smooth quiet and comfortable at speed one could almost forget the raggedness of the concrete spinning by at closer than not to one one hundred miles an hour mere inches beneath my boots.

The traffic congestion slowly thinned out, but I spent much of this stretch passing and then being passed by folks for whom velocity management was just a theoretical concept.

I-75 intersected I-40, which heads East and runs through and around the City of Knoxville till it comes back to the base of the Mountains at White Pine and to I-81. From that point forward 81 does what it does for many hundreds of miles — running in a valley between the western and eastern arms of the Appalachian Mountains — following that rift from southwest towards the northeast.

Northeast towards Virginia, towards Maryland, and home.

***

There are a few places, at least on the southern end of the route, where 81 isn’t so bad, really.

Remember this, when we have contrasts available for your comparitive pleasure later.

The road is surrounded by scrub pine, and there’s enough topography and corners which are interesting at elevated speed to keep things interesting. The sun decided to break back out, and the temperature came up to the low 70s. I was able to open the closures on the neck of my riding suit, and with the LT’s windshield properly trimmed, run quietly and comfortably with the Shoei’s sheld racheted open.

This wasn’t half bad really.

It was starting to feel like a roll that could go on, well, for as long as I wanted it to.

***

It seemed like every exit was indicating ways over the mountain to Asheville.

I like Asheville.

There’s art, and good food, good music and fresh beer.

After the second offer I’ll admit I thought about it.

I mean I had no plan, and I wasn’t due back at work until midweek.

After brief consideration, I concluded I just wanted to be back with Sweet Doris, back in my own bed, wanted to get back home.

***

So my long legged smooth-aired top gear roll continued, threading between Kingsport and Johnson City, until my belly decided it had something to say.

As I rolled into Bristol — the city astride the Tennessee and Virginia borders — I was half way through the LT’s fuel range, and it was as good a time as any to fill my own tank. We’d have as much running time in the second half of the tank and we’d had in the first. It had the potential to be a very long day, and the LT wasn’t the only machine that needed to be kept running.

A billboard advised of a Subway sandwich shop — ‘Easy On, Easy Off’.

It was just as advertised, and I was able to steer straight of the bottom of the offramp and right into a parking space right outside the Subway’s front door.

It was the smallest Subway shop I’d ever seen, but heck, I only needed one turkey sandwich.

It’d do fine.

***

After 10 minutes of snarf, drainage and remount I was running right back up the ramp and enjoying the sensations of an entusiastic full power run through the LT’s gearbox. As I made the shift up to third, a tight group of four loaded travelling motorcycles swept past in the left lane, carrying what appeared to be lots of camping gear and significant speed.

By the time I got the LT into the the meaty part of top gear, that pack had put a fair amount of distance on me. Well, a mind with only six or eight concurrent things to do will seek opportunities for amusement, and reeling the rocketmen back in seemed like one way to do that.

So, on a bright sunny day with a well running bike, I lowered the windshield slightly, adoped a moderately leaned forward riding position, and started gently rolling into the throttle to see what it was going to take to stop these guys from just walking away from me.

At about 4100 rpm, the gap stopped growing.

On Darkside, that equates to about 90 mph.

Over the next 5 or so miles — miles that pass pretty quickly — I closed the gap to the point where I was allowed to take up a position at the rear of the column.

All my new friends, here, had New York tags. That destination would pack a minimum of 3 more hours further than I had to go, and depending on what part of New York, maybe a whole ot more.

Their riding appeared expert. They were running in a properly staggered column, with enough room between bikes to protect them from each other and close enough to at least attempt to keep other road users from cutting the column. They were all wearing proper all weather gear, and each bike looked to have full camping kit securely stowed aboard. The bikes — a few big GSs of modern enough build, and one guy with a Yam SuperTenere thrown in for spice.

To me, it seemed more than likely these four had started their day at Barber with me.

And so for a while 5 guys on fast motorcycles rolled together on a sunny day on Virginia Interstate.

And that was when it hit me.

All this dynamic rearraging of the time-space continuum was just too damn goal oriented.

The wanton destruction and disposal of mileage for the sole sake of re-writing velocity times elapsed time just freaking stuck in my craw.

A man without a plan is a man in search of a journey, and this was clearly a plan that was all about destination.

Besides, in Southwestern Virginia, where 20 over is a criminal offense, what kind of attention could five guys doing their best impression of a Blue Angels flyover reasonably expect?

After a brief Hollywood flash-forward that involved flashes of Helicopters, wreckers, Oceans of Blue lights, and a purple-faced Virginia Trooper callng me “Son”, I decided that it was time to embrace my inner Lone Wolf once again.

So with some small regret I rolled back out of the throttle, gave back about 7 miles an hour, and watched as the New York Boys, over the next several miles, opened that gap back up and sped out of sight.

***

Having decided to join up with the Anti-Destination League, I was looking for a way to demonstrate my allegiance.

Being an author of a sometime academic or conceptual bent, being arguably ‘the best part’, I wrote that first.

So sue me.

***

So having just completed sacremental and simultanously useless miles, I found myself on the other side of Roanaoke, looking for a tankful of Hi-Test, a light meal, and the highway north towards home.

I hadn’t really planned to cover the entire ground in a day, but I was feeling good — energized — and the pull of my own bed and waking up beside Doris started taking on a certain authority.

And at the very point when one might be most in a hurry, the Goddess of the Roads is most likly to liberally strew manifold adversity directly in your way.

And so she did.

***

And on a very dark rural interstate, somewhere between Harrisonburg and New Market, Virginia, things went horribly wrong.

And didn’t show any signs of getting better.

Cresting a rise on I-81, I was greeted with the sight of the entire downside of the grade and then across the valley and up the next grade totally filled with the redness of taillamps.

Stopped taillamps.

After more than 700 miles of riding — most of it at enhanced velocities — my boots were resting on the pavement.

Stopped.

***

The backup — an awful, hellish mass of tractor trailers, RVs and me — proved to be about 12 miles long, and — working stop and go on a 850 pound motorcycle, took close to two hours to clear. The surrealness of the situation was maddening — Sunday night at 11 o clock at night in a very rural section of interstate — essentially stopped with hundreds of thousands of other sufferers.

I’ve been known — in DC congestion — to lane split or run shoulders for short distances, but this was different. The lanes and shoulders were narrow, and the stress of other drivers was palpable. People were moving out onto the shoulders and then finding them impassable at the overpasses. Other road users were not sympathetic about their plights.

We were probably about 3 minutes from widespread gunfire the whole time.

So, as little as it suited me or my state of mind, I just resolved to slog through this — measuring reality in cycles of the LT’s cooling fans clicking on and off, and hoping for the survival and preservation of my clutch hand.

***

Never has a man been so simultanuously overjoyed and furious to see the control lights of a highway work crew. Joy, cause this shit was over. Fury, because this overpass renewal had caused the single biggest highway backup I’ve ever seen — on one of the busiest interstates in the United States, at the rush at the end of a weekend.

As I finally cleared the construction control zone, my soul came back to the light as the revs gently rose and I tiptoed the heat soaked machine back to cruising speed — pulling precious cool air through the fairing ducts and radiators. After a few minutes I fell back into the groove – standing on the pegs, stretching, and the settling back down onto he saddle and the quiet air inside the fairing’s pocket.

***

Every one of my long southern motorcycle trips ends the same way.

I finally leave I-81 at Stevens City, and then run US-340 right to my Jefferson front door.

Runs from Memphis, Georgia Mountain Rallies, and now coming home from Birmingham, 340 late at night takes on the quality of some Thompson-esque savage flashback — the same curves, the same hills in the late night mist, and same sense of unease in the falling temperatures — knowing full well that that the road’s familiarity, combined with some level of fatigue, was what made it most dangerous.

***

Berryville, Virginia is a quaint little country village. Its quaintness suffers a bit, though, when they decide that right before your visit is the best time to run a massive road removal machine through all 6 miles of town in preparation to repave the day following.

Roads that have had the scraper run across them to remove the macadam are particularly treacherous. The grain pattern made by the machine traps and steers a motorcycle’s front wheel. Debris left by the machine creates ramdom gravel patches. And its all invisible just after Midnight, in the dark.

The Highway Goddess — known to be sometimes grumpy — was just trying to make sure I was still on my game.

I was.

***

The last minutes are just a blur. Charlestown, West Virginia. Crossing the Shenandoah and the Potomac, and then the wide clear highway through Brunswick and back to Jefferson.

I rolled into my driveway, rolled up to the garage door, and just killswitched the bike and leaned it onto the sidestand. It was stopped. I could put it away tomorrow.

I did some quick math after a look at the odometer.

832.

In more than 30 years in various saddles, it was my biggest single day ride.

Take I-81 out of it, and I can see over the horizon to how the 1000 mile guys do it.

Good to leave at least something on the table.

***

I’ve been to race meetings and rallies before.

But the Barber Vintage Festival is something else entirely.

The bikes are one thing, but its the spirit of the place that blew me away. The folks that come all share a love of the art and engineering and sensations of motorcycles — that grace at speed — from today stretching all the way back to the Roper.

That love encompasses knowledge, it encompasses craft, and it encompasses the skill to see things and make them metal that moves.

This crowd of people isn’t a faceless crowd — its a gathering of my tribe.

I waited a long time to come back to Birmingham.

I won’t wait so long again.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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Or this nice.

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Or as nice as this either.

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Or even this one.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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***

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.

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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.

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***

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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***

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

The Pits

After a very full Friday at the Barber Vintage Festival, hotel sleep, usually a problem, was, well, not.

Saturday morning I woke up when I woke up, a pleasant change from a life overfull with clocks and alarms.

The view out my window was another misty morning — the road to the Barber’s gate looked almost like a dream, except my dreams don’t have their traffic directed by Sheriffs with Authority Gold Wings.

I got cleaned up, geared up, and went downstairs to the Hampton’s lobby, looking for a cup of coffee and some Mini-wheats.

As the coffee kicked in, and I gradually became more aware of my surroundings, I realized I was sharing my breakfast bar with a half-dozen or so folks nattily attired in the uniform of Team Britten New Zealand, resplendent with images of the Silver Fern and The Southern Cross.

I resolved not to intrude, much as I might have wanted to. They likely needed their coffee as much if not more than I did.

As it turned out, I’d see more of them later.

 

***

 

I rolled the LT around the Barber perimeter road just to get a feel for what was happening, and decided that the Racing Pit area was where it was at, man.

I rolled up to one of the two security personnel working the west gate and asked whether I could get in.

“Sure, dude. But its foot traffic only. Find a place to park — plenty of spots up in that direction — and stop at the tent up by the trolley stop to sign a release and get a wristband. Then you’ll be good to go.”

Just what I needed, a third wristband to add to my Ace Corner Festival wristband, and my weekend admission Museum Wristband. WTF, what’s one more wristband? How to get a glove back on that hand was a problem that could wait till later.

So I headed up the ring road until I found a relatively flatter, harder looking spot, with other members of the LT’s tribe.

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I saw a lot of motorcycles over the days that I was on the road, but these two Honda Z50s had the Blue Ribbon Cute Prize completely sewn up. They also get some sort of Honorable Mention for the Motorcycle I Most Seriously Considered Stuffing In My Top Case And Making A Run For It Award.

One release form and one wristband later, I was flagged in by the same security guy and walked down the hill and into the Barber’s Racing Pit area.

Barber’s Pits are laid out in three broad avenues that are terraced down the front of the hillside. One gets the impression of scope, of scale, of a well-considered and well thought out organization.

In the morning mist that was stubbornly hanging in there, the first pit lane avenue seemed to stretch into the distance, into the haze, and right out of sight.

 

***

 

After a very full day roaming the collections of the Barber Motorsport Museum, one could be forgiven for somehow thinking you’d damn near seen everything that ever motorcycled — that the jug o’ wonder was down to fumes, mate.

You’d also be utterly, completely wrong.

If motorcycles sitting on pedestals, perfectly lit reveals them as art objects, as sculpture, there is a whole dimension of them that is left not even hinted at in that environment.

The motorcycle is only fully realized in motion, and preferably in a motion that takes the dynamics and physics of the thing out to their yawning limits, to that place where the slow motion dance of the contact patches just makes time itself stand stock still.

In the racing pit at the Barber Vintage Festival, that element is everything.

If what sits in the Museum are airbrushed pin-up girls, the bikes in the Racing Pits are straight-up hardcore racebike porn.

There are historic and classic racing motorcycles in the pits at Barber that are so quirky or weird that they are too rare for this museum or any museum. Those bikes, though, are out here with tanks full of Sunoco race fuel, fully safety wired, and sitting on a set of starting rollers, ready to rock.

These are motorcycles that get to live.

 

***

 

Walking down the high line of the Barber pit, I came to a team with a soft spot for Harley Davidson KR Flathead racebikes.

It wasn’t a small spot, either.

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These guys had enough bikes and equipment that they needed a full size semi to get to the races.

Each one of these KRs — built between 1952 and 1970 — is a treasure.

I counted 8.

This KRTT, the roadracing variant, is as elemental and purposeful a racebike as you will ever see.

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This isn’t 3 time Grand National Champion Joe Leonard’s racebike.

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It’s easy to tell, because all Joe’s bikes were hardtails. But the owners of this motorcycle clearly were fans.

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Joe seems to have returned the favor by being a fan of their motorcycle.

 

***

 

Right across from HDKRLandia was a truck from Colorado Norton.

These guys do nice work.

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There are people who believe that the Norton Commando is the most beautiful motorcycle that ever rolled on two wheels.

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I got no bone to pick with those people.

 

***

 

I’m prone to expressing opinions which are not widely held.

So no one here will be shocked when I do it again.

Most custom motorcycles do absolutely nothing for me.

The skill to design and construct a motorcycle which both effective as a motorcycle and fully pleasing to the eye is not as common a skill as most custom motorcycle builders believe it is. Many custom bikes do not improve the stock motorcycle on which they are based, while a small minority are actually so offensive as to be cause for the averting of ones pained eyes.

For the many custom motorcycles which add nothing to the art, there are, fortunately, that very small percentage that achieve things that no production motorcycle ever dreamed of.

The racing pits are not where you’d expect to see such motorcycles, but the Barber Vintage Festival is full of pleasant surprises.

 

***

 

There was only one Indian Larry.

Unlike a lot of Reality Show characters, Larry was simply real — there were no layers to what you saw on TV.

Larry built bikes that were meant to be ridden, and that appealed to him.

He had an artist’s eye, and an engineer’s hand. Brought up on a childhood diet of Von Dutch and Big Daddy Roth, Larry’s bikes were Choppers in a strictly old school sense — the goal was light weight, stripped, elemental design, big power and handling to take advantage of it. Like the original bobber and chopper guys of the late 1940s, if a part didn’t do something important, it came off. Fenders, electric starters, primary drive covers all got canned in the quest for the most motor paired with the least everything else. Everything left after that got metalflaked, flamed, pinstriped or polished.

Larry’s motorcycles, unlike most choppers, never had stretched or raked front ends, because such bikes were built for looks, and wouldn’t corner in the mountains where Larry loved to ride.

Since his passing, Larry’s shop continues to be run by his former partners.

I’ve spoken with Larry’s Men at The Big Timonium Bike Show. They run the shop from my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, and they seemed like standup guys, that took their work seriously, and seemed to take their fun pretty damn seriously too.

It seems that at 10:30 in the morning or so in front of their easy-up in the Barber pits, that they must have been taking their fun pretty seriously fairly recently.

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I have to interpolate their fun because while this beautiful, elemental old school New York style chopper — called Movin On — and several of its mates were on display, Larry’s Men were most assuredly not. While many of their compadres in the pits may have still been a little slow, these guys were no show.

It did give me a chance to enjoy the bike’s craftmanship — there were subtle question marks either cut into or engraved on every piece of metal — disk rotors, cylinder heads — and the exquisitely rich paint and stripe work. Even the saddle wanted to make a statement.

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It was a message on which Larry and I could wholeheartedly agree.

 

***

 

The percentage of fabricated or aftermarket components on custom bikes range from shocks and an exhaust to absolutely everything.

This exquisite beast, designed and constructed by Analog Motorcycles of Gurnee, Illinois, is an absolutely everything motorcycle.

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The 1949 Indian Scout was the last new design introduced by the original Indian Motorcycle Company. Indian needed a lighter sporting motorcycle to compete with the then dominant Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs. Indian actually purchased a company — Torque Engineering — to obtain the rights to produce this engine, which was a two cam, pushrod OHV twin of just under 500cc. Take a look at the pushrod tubes, which are splayed wide on either side of the cylinder block, and you’ll see that this engine was not what you probably first thought it was.

The 1949 Indian Scout was met in the marketplace with resounding “Meh”. By 1953 the Springfield Indian plant was closed for good.

My focus on the Scout’s engine is significant, because that uncharacteristically non-V-for-an-Indian twin is the only bit remaining from the 1949 Scout in the motorcycle that Analog calls “The Continental Scout”.

Absolutely everything else, from the Trackmaster frame, to the one-off aluminum fairing, tank and seat, the paintwork, TZ750 wheels and the quadruple leading shoe racing drums is designed and fabricated by Analog, and bespeaks an artist’s eye. The Continental Scout is a beautiful cohesive whole that is far more aesthetically appealing and far more functional than anything that ever came out of the Wigwam.

 

***

 

I have never owned a MotoGuzzi.

I probably should have.

This is the stated position of several of my motorcycling family and motorcycling friends.

The synopsis of their insistent goadings is that the Guzzi is an elemental mechanical animal, that possesses the same qualities that drew me to my Airheads, only more so. And to be honest, even modern Guzzis seem to have been able to retain that mechanicalness, that analogness, when BMW itself seems to have mostly lost touch with it.

And it never really hit home until my walk through the Barber paddock brought me to the display area of Miami’s MotoStudio.

I’m pretty sure that MotoStudio would prefer for me to tell you how beautiful their Ducati Specials are.

But I won’t.

Even though they are.

I’d been talking to a friend of the shop — a guy from Miami named Sunshine. He told me that the shop’s proprietor and chief designer was a sculptor. Waking up every morning next to an artist and spending my fair share of time with other art school and creatives, the truth of that was right before my eyes.

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I mean, look at the thing.

Good sweet googly moogly, this is a motorcycle that is equal parts NASA, Empty Space, Tron, GM Big Block and Constantin Brancusi, for God’s sake.

Heck, maybe GM Big Block isn’t big enough — maybe more like Pratt and Whitney Radial — but no matter.

This motorcycle took my breath away.

It still does.

If I’d been the guy that hit the big Powerball, I’d have called up the shop and had them send this to my house, straight away.

The lines, shape and proportions of the thing are nothing short of perfect –the carbon fiber bodywork is clearly the work of a sculptor. The custom metal fabrication in the supports for the tank and the tail section aren’t far behind. The selection of road gear — suspension, brakes, wheels and tires — are top of top shelf. The visual presence of the motor and transmission — with its uniform matt aluminum finish — is nothing short of huge.

If my R90S BMW is a 9 or 10 out of 10 motorcycle experience, this motorcycle clearly goes to 11s.

Just looking at the thing its telling me about being leaned all the way in at the apex of a corner, tires scrubbing at their limits, huge power pulses coming through the bars and pegs, and lifting the front tire subtly on the exit as the power peaks coming onto the next straight. It’s unusual for motorcycles to speak to me, but the message of this MotoStudio MotoGuzzi is as clear as a Times Square Billboard.

When I got back from Alabama I was dismayed to find that I’d misplaced the business card that Sunshine had given to me — this is surprising because I’m usually pretty good with such things.

So if you’re out there, Sunshine, check in, man.

Cause even though I didn’t hit the Powerball, next time I’m in South Florida, I want to catch up, and see what else MotoStudio has that might take my breath away.

 

 

The Promised Land — Part 7

After the better part of a day wandering through the various collections of the Barber Motorsport Museum, it really was time to get back out in the fresh air.

As I headed back towards the light at the front of the Museum, though, there was one more area with some thrills to be had.

The Barber folk had a Legends of Racing area that concentrated on their unrivalled collection of Daytona winning motorcycles, with a few others thrown in for seasoning.

The Yamaha TZ750 was one of the most successful road racing motorcycles of all time. Using a 2-stroke powerplant that was essentially 2 stroked TZ350 engines siamesed together to make an inline 4 , the engine had an entirely deserved reputation for being a bit of a handful.

For a few races, Yamaha had demonstrated extreme hubris by installing the TZ’s 4 cylinder power unit into one of then two time Grand National Champion Kenny Roberts’ Dirt Flat Track racing motorcycles.

That motorcycle was that thing that Kenny was talking about when he famously said, “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing.”

In his characteristic terseness, Kenny described riding it thusly: “Finding grip was a problem.”.

Funny thing was, substituting pavement for dirt didn’t improve things that much.

It took more than five years of sleepless nights and endless brain explody for suspension engineers, for tire engineers, for frame engineers, before a road racing motorcycle could be constructed that could adequately manage the insanity that came out of that engine.

By then, TZs were still lighting up their rear tires, but at least as a pilot, it was possible to get that thing to at least go where you pointed it.

This machine, that was raced by Randy Cleek in the 1975 TransAtlantic Match Racing series, wasn’t one of those.

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This one still has a pipe frame, pretty skinny tires, and simple emulsion shocks and damper rod forks.

I find myself just looking at it, and in my head vividly hearing that shriek, and imagining the feeling of the bars going loose under my palms as the rear hazes the pavement under power.

I saw the last of the inline 4 2-strokes race when Yamaha leased one year old GP machines to a team that campaigned under a run-what-ya-brung-no-matter-how-nutz class called Formula Extreme. The Yamaha OWs absolutely dusted a field filled with Turbocharged Big Block Suzuki four stroke fours and other silly modified muscle bikes. Standing at the end of the main stright at Pocono and having the two Yamamha racebikes blow by nose to tail felt a lot like being overflown by The Blue Angels.

 

***

 

This isn’t what it looks like.

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What it looks like is Old Blue, Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling’s famous California Hot Rod road race Ducati, winner of the 1977 Daytona 200.

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But since Old Blue is actually sitting on a Persian carpet in a living room somewhere in New Jersey, one can be excused for the HumminaHumminaHummina Quadruple Take when one walks up on this in one of the museum’s corners.

What this is is Deja Blue, a completely accurate in every detail replica of Old Blue.

Since the Barber couldn’t manage to obtain the real thing, they made their own.

I will observe that their attention to detail borders on the spooky. It not only fooled me, but being guys with a flair for the dramatic, they rolled it out behind Cook Neilson, the pilot of the original bike, during a presentation he was giving and he was rendered absolutely speechless. Guys that know Cook will attest to the infrequency of such events.

The guys at Ducati liked it so much, they had NCR, the famous Ducati race shop, create the Cook Neilson Replica, known as New Blue.

 

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New Blue, Deja Blue, all this blue.

When all we really want is Old Blue.

 

***

 

Nobody needs to be told who Freddie Spencer is.

One of the most gifted riders ever, and the only one ever to win two Grand Prix racing classes — 250 and 500 — in the same year.

Freddie retired from GP after 1988, but couldn’t stay away from racing.

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This is Freddie’s 1991 AMA Superbike ride, a Two Brothers Racing RC30.

Freddie won the Camel Superbike GP held in the streets of Miami on this motorcycle.

The bike, like Freddie in his prime, is a thing of beauty.

I read an article by him lately stating his distain for motorcycles with electronic riders aids, and he sounded just like me — saying it was impossible to live in the moment with the robots watching your back.

When I say it, its an opinion.

When Freddie says it, some people might at least reconsider.

 

***

 

Miguel DuHamel is also one of the pantheon of motorcycle racing greats — right up there with Kenny Roberts, Gary Nixon and the Doctor.

The son of a roadracing champion, and a champion in his own right, Miguel is the second most winning AMA Roadracer of all time, bested only by Matt Mladin.

This is one Miguel’s many Daytona winners, this one from 1999.

 

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In 1999, Miguel was still recovering from staggering injuries suffered during 1998’s Superbike round at Loudon, NH. He had suffered an ugly, compound fracture of his left femur that had, for a brief time, caused doctors to consider amputation of the leg.

He was in such mariginal shape at Daytona that he came into the pits on one crutch, and had to be assisted to get astride the bike. Once there, though, his comfort level must have increased at least a little.

This is Mig’s CBR 600 F4, that he used to win the 600cc support race. He used the 600 race as a warm up — placing the CBR F4s 1-2 with Nicky Hayden on an almost identifcal bike in tow.

In the Superbike race Mig won one of the closest 200s in history – besting Mat Mladin by something like 0.14 seconds at the stripe.

Miguel was in such distress that he was quoted as saying “I didn’t even want to celebrate after that. If I could have rode my bike straight to the Hampton Inn and gone to sleep, I would’ve done it.”

Makes you wonder what woud have been possible if the guy was healthy.

 

***

 

Finally, I found myself back out in the sunshine, leaning up against the saddle of the LT in the parking lot.

I was turning over all of the wonders I had seen within, trying to commit them to memory.

There were two guys from Georgia whose bikes were parked next to mine. They lived a short ride away and had made a simple day trip down to the festival. We were shooting the shit and laughing, just reveling in the bikey atmosphere of the whole thing.

I’ve always indulged in dangerous sports my entire life — ice hockey, lacrosse, motorcycling. All are pursuits where significant things can occur in the literal blink of an eye.

My relative success in all of these pursuits likely has something to do with some relativistic time elongation thing that occurs when stuff goes horribly wrong. My perception goes into an alternate mode where everything occurs in super slo-mo, whether someone has just fired a hockey puck at my face, or the front wheel of my motorcycle has just decided it has had enough of this traction thing.

And standing in the parking lot at Barber that day, time went all rubber on me.

The thing is, my recollection of the thing is clearly asynchronous.

Simple physics.

Light is faster than sound. Not debatable or at issue.

But what I remember perceiving first was the “BANG!”– the explosive, metallic slam of something significant slamming insto the pavement.

I’d been looking up in the direction of the perimeter road.

But I’d been shitshootin’ with the guys, and wasn’t really paying attention.

The human brain probably wasn’t engineered to function like a DVR, but I clearly TIVOed.

At the “BANG!”, my brain went back a few seconds on the video stream and replayed what’d I’d apparently missed.

A standard motorcycle, two up, was running down the perimeter road toward the park exit — maximum speed 25 miles an hour — revs down in second gear. A good citizen, not a hint of moto-foolery.

During playback, the passenger slowly rolled off the motorcycle to the rear, her legs wheeling through the air as she dropped on her head and her shoulders.

And just as fast, the rear of the bike snapped sideways, and even fighting it, the pilot got slammingly high-sided, only letting go of the bars when physics could no longer be resisted.

The visual track and the soundtrack came back into full sync.

Me and the two guys from Georgia wigged.

“Shit! Did that just happen?”

The three of us sprinted up the bank towards the downed riders.

The young lady was already up, walking it off.

The pilot was in worse shape. He had rolled over the curb and into the grass, and had clearly taken a shot and was slow coming around.

One of the Georgians had the presence of mind to kill switch the bike, a newer Triumph Speed Triple. The left crank cover had broken cleanly in two, and oil — dude was a little overdue for a change, it seemed — was pouring onto the pavement. Another onlooker helped him get the bike up and moved to the side of the road.

It looked, upon inspection, that some soft luggage had gotten dislodged and sucked into the driveline, causing rapid and unmanageble adjustments to vehicle physics.

We helped the pilot sit up, but not get up, and helped him remove his helmet. His jeans were in ribbons, and both his knees bady rashed and bleeding.

I took a position on the upside of the accident, and the other Geogian moved to the downside, and both of us directed traffic around the bike, rider, debris and spilled oil.

Less than a minute went by before the local Sheriffs, stylishly riding their Authority Model Gold Wings, arrived on scene and took control.

I checked up with one of them — “You got this?”.

I got a thumbs up from LEO and and walked slowly back across the road, hearing the sounds of one of the ambulances coming in, having been pulled from its station beside the racetrack.
***

 

I left the track, cruised an exit up the Interstate and into Leeds proper.

I found a nice family-run mexican restaurant, and had some absolutely great tacos al carbon, a rellano, and a Dos Exxis.

I kept looking at my canvas cargo work pants, and thinking how inadequate they were — given what I’d seen — if Physics decided it had had enough with me. Thinking about how often that I rode like that, and how much faster I usually rode than the 25 mph I’d seen could produce such damage.

I headed back to the Hampton, and tried to wrap my head around the last 24 hours, which contained more motorcycles and motorcycling than any other single day of my life.

As I fell into an exhausted sleep, I kept thinking — “This ticket on my wrist is good for two more days… two more days… two… more …. days…..”

 

The Promised Land — Part 6

I am a child of the 70s.

And if there was a better time to be coming to motorcycling I can’t think when that was.

Sure, there’s propably a case to be made for the present, but the motorcycle arms race of the 1970s demonstrated a grander sweep of possible solutions — motors, chassis, suspension and braking — and a pace of sustained advancements that I think dramatically outpaces the electronics-led improvements of present day street motorcycles.

Now not all of those ideas were keepers — ‘They can’t all be zingers…’ — Is there anyone in the house that really misses their Kawaski Mach IV?

Show of hands?

“Not you, Rick…”

Ok. Except for that guy, no-one.

But think about it.

Honda changes everything that anyone at the time thought they knew about motorcycles by introducing an overhead cam, in-line transversely mounted 4 cylinder motorcycle. This is a configuration that comes straight from Italian Exotics — Gilera, MV Agusta — and Honda’s own Grand Prix Racing Motorcycles.

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This shit be straight from outer space, Jackson, and one day it shows up at your dealer for $1495.

They were not absolutely perfect motorcycles, but they were damn close. Honda took the high output per displacement which they got from high rpms, and added displacement to that.

The front brake calipers — this was the first production use of a motorcycle disk brake — needed rebuilding a bit more often than later designs. The cam chain adjuster mechanism was definitely a Version 1.0, as Dick Mann discovered with his CR750 when it lasted 201.5 miles in a 200 mile Daytona race. The dual ignition points setup was just-fiddely-average for the day and was much improved by aftermarket Electronic Ignition upgrades.

But all that aside, it was smooth, and powerful and felt like the hand of the gods in the small of your back when one rolled on the throttle. My CB got over 70 mpg at 72 mph, and could do it for as long as I felt like doing it, or slightly longer.

The early examples of the CB, like this example, had sandcast, rather than die cast engine cases.

Honda wasn’t sure this “750 Dream Thing” was actually going to catch on, so they hedged their bets by not investing in the die development costs for the cases. They built the first few bikes with the low volume, labor intensive sand casting process, so if the bike sank without a bubble in the market, the company wouldn’t be out the tooling costs.

They needn’t have worried.

The power, ecomomy and comfort of the CB750 changed the perspective and frame of reference of the entire two wheeled universe.

***

Having seen what a Daytona 200 win in 1970 had helped Honda do in the marketplace with the CB 750, they guys over at Ducati figgured they could use some of that stuff, too.

A crash devlopment program created the original beast of a 750cc desmo valved motor. The factory brought in English racing chassis whiz Colin Seely who wrapped the beast in the bare minimum of steel required to fling it down he road and keep the wheels pointed and carving when it went around corners.

Which it did.

The Ducati men took their 750 SuperSport to Imola, where the open layout helped them run flat out to finish 1-2.

And the success of that model helped them birth the 750 SS supersport model, and later the 900 SS model, which was intended to be more of a sports tourer.

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Further racing success in the hands of racing hero Mike Hailwood at the Isle of Man resulted in another race replica, the Mike Hailwood Replica.

 

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The tracks of that first 750 SS motorcycle, with its large displacement desmo twin, and forward weight distribution, are visible still as Ducati’s motorcycle architeture to the present day. Going around corners better than the fours put Ducati on the map and helped to keep them there.

 

***

 

You will start to notice a pattern, here.

Yes you will.

Somewhere in Berlin, yet another Motorcycle Company Executive decided they needed to do some Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday thaang.

Only that motorcycle company was BMW, who hadn’t really been a force in roadracing, well, ever, really.

They had their US Importer, Butler and Smith, work with Rob North to build with a one off Formula 750 racer as a test mule, to see if on-paper torque and steering stability would translate to the reality of the track.

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It did.

Reassured, the Factory designed and built the R90S, and went back to the track.

And, as every BMW nutjob knows, in the hands of Steve McLaughlin and Reg Pridmore, the R90Ss finished 1-2 at Daytona, and came back to the marketplace as the Missile Du Jour.

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The R90S may not have had the horsepower of its rivals, but could get every pony to the ground, and held that speed through corners.

There are still people who will swear it is the best motorcycle BMW has ever made.

 

***

 

As we have previously said, not every idea about going faster is of equal quality.

Have you seen the old Saturday Night Live routine about the Blue Oyster Cult recording “Don’t Fear the Reaper?” — “More Cowbell?”.

Friedl Münch was a motorcycle designer for whom “More Motor” was “More Cowbell”. No matter how much of it there was, it still wasn’t enough.

Didn’t matter that, perhaps, there wasn’t enough brakes, frame or strong enough wheels in the world to deal with it, if Friedl could lay hands on more motor, he would build a motorcycle out of it. And it maybe doesn’t rise to the overall level of silliness of the modern Boss Hogg motorcycles that come with Chevy 350 truck engines, but using an NSU Prinz automobile engine was still pretty silly.

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The Munch Mammoth, just like the Wooly Mammoth, proved to be a dead end on the tree of motorcycle evolution.

 

***

 

In go-fast tech, Kawasaki, and to a lesser extent, Yamaha, tried amped-up street two stokes.

And while they were fun, a combination of factors — wicked peaky, wheely-prone, high-siding powerbands, motors that were prone to full throttle seizures (fun! Right, Deryle? Right Bud?) , and eventually environmental regulations made the Machs and YZs as extinct as the Mammoth.

 

***

 

Once one has started to max out output options for internal combustion powerplants, there are a very limited number of ways left to still faster. Either make more RPMs, or make more mixture move through the engine through better intake and exhaust breathing. Predictably, the Honda men were willing to try both.

Honda’s racing motorcycles adopted V4 motors, which they incrementally developed to new heights. In F1 and Endurance Racing, the VFRs, with their state of the art frame and suspension, and mass centralized drivedrain, had considerable success. The handbuilts that came out of Honda Racing Corporation had gear driven cams, rocket science headwork and tuned exhausts that would allow the engine to scream all day long around 10,000 rpms.

The, going back to their favorite page from the Honda playbook, just as they had done with the 750/4, they took Freddie Spencer’s racebike, and they brought a series production version of it to the street – essentially homologating their best racebike as a production machine.

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DSCN2519The Honda Men just love this play, it should be noted. They’ve just done it again, with their RC213V.

People in production classes who didn’t have one said manifold bad words.

For its brief shining moment, that VFR was the fastest production motorcycle ever made. I was a very new rider when they were introduced, and the thing came off as pure rocketship racetrack refugee — clearcoated magnesium cases, perimeter frame, monoshock rear, four active piston brakes — that sound it made from the valvetrain on the gas.

Might seem cute, now, but there was nothing like it at any other dealer, then.

To my young eyes the VF1000R had a halo and floated a full foot off the paved ground.

I might have personally lost a little ground clearence and picked up a little patina, but the VF hasn’t changed a bit.

 

***

 

If the VFR was Honda’s RPM play, then the NR750 was the breathing play.

Honda has always felt that their engineering skill could enable the 4 stroke powerplant to win any contest of speed.

Motorcycles like the 250/6 GP bike proved that, in 4 stroke engines, getting the most valve area per engine displacement would always produce more power, and one’s valve area was linked to number of cylinders. So if we assume any set number of valves per cylinder, then for a fixed displacement, a four will always make more power than a twin, a six more than a four, an eight cylinder more than a six, and so on.

Ergo, to go fast, you need more valves. To get more vavles, and their combustable mixture moving area, you need more cylinders.

Or do you?

Grand Prix racing regulations had evolved to limit cylinders in GP Bikes to no more than 4.

For a good bit of the 1970s, the GP world was ruled by 2 stroke power, that had an advantage in power per displacement.

Engineers at HRC felt that beating the 2 strokes was an engineering problem that they absolutely would solve.

There was no doubt.

The moment of illumination came when one of the engineers realized that what was limiting the number and area of valves per engine cylinder wasn’t the size of the cylinder.

It was the shape of the cylinder.

The easiest way to make a piston and cylinder that can seal the force of combustion gases is to made them round.

But it ain’t the only way.

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By making the cylinder and piston pair a long oval, a 187cc race engine cylinder that formerly could accomodate 4 valves, could now accomodate 8.

Sure, you’d need to make a few other small adjustments, but that was not a big deal.

You’d need to use 2 connecting rods per piston so the whole mess wouldn’t twist in its bore.

And you might have a few problems with getting piston rings that were round in some places and flat in other places to do the things that piston rings need to do, like seal and sit flat in the piston lands without fluttering or twisting.

But no big deal.

Despite the Honda Men’s confidence, it was a big deal.

The engine would go through 3 major design revisions before it achieved competitive levels of output and reliability, but despite some highly visible and embarrasing public failures, it eventually did, winning a 500 mile GP in Japan at Suzuka.

And once again, having created something truly unique and bordering on the magical, Honda Racing Corporation made another RC series model available for the street.

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Their pride at the effort required to make this thing work could not be contained,

 

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The thing was the Honda NR, signifying New Racing, and it carried the oval piston 8 valve engine and all of the other structure and handling magic they could throw at the thing. At $50,000 1992 dollars, there weren’t a lot of qualified customers, but there were some.

 

***

 

The Honda NR engine was essentially a V8 that racing rules had forced to be packaged as if it was a V4.

Of course, absent racing rules, if you really want a V8, you just make one.

Giancarlo Morbidelli wanted a V8, so he made one.

The Morbidelli Company was a company whose primary business was the sale of woodworking machine tools.

But after work, in a back room, Giancarlo and three of his mates built really fast motorcycles, and then took them racing.

No one had told them that it was impossible that four Italian guys in some back room could beat the men from Honda, and Yamaha, and MV Agusta.

And since no one had told them, they didn’t know, and promptly went out and did just that.

Morbidelli Racing motorcycles won 4 World Championships, and demonstrated creative design thinking and precision machining that made them successful on the track.

 

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The Morbidelli 750 GP bike, for example, was an aluminum monoquoque structure, designed to achive unparalleled lightness and rigidity.

After leaving racing, Giancarlo wanted to achieve something that would eclipse all the other motorcycles of Italy — Ducati and MotoGuzzi. He wanted a motorcycle that that was faster, smoother and more comfortable — truly a refined rocket for men of wealth and taste.

And the V8 was the way.

 

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The 850 cc, 32 valve DOHC V8 made use of the Morbidelli Company’s exqusite skill in precision machining, as seen in their woodworking machinery. The engine and its internals were as nice as any swiss watch.

They had to redo an inital body design approach that reminded people of Star Wars droids, and not in a good way.

Version 2.0 was much better, with flowing lines, and, befitting a woodworking company, had a nice walnut dashboard.

 

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Looking at it, it struck me as if someone had taken the motor out of my K Bike, made it much smaller, and then put two of them back in the motorcycle. Only the overall finish of the Morbidelli was much better than mine — thin, even seams, even alloy cases, deep chrome, great paint.

At $60,000, the market was minscule, and the line was shut down after building just three examples.

It prolly felt just like sex on the gas, but it became another example of art and commerce not wanting to be on the dancefloor at the same time.