Cold

There was a ring of ice fog around the sun.

Those of us that have grown up in snowy climates know what comes next, and if you are a motorcyclist, it isn’t good.

Never mind that it was 31 degrees out. I’d needed a ride since Wednesday, and I wasn’t going to let what was going to begin in about an hour keep me from some fresh air and acceleration to clear my head.

I reached into the very small library of very thin excuses for a ride and selected a trip to Frisco’s — one of my favorite artisanal beer sources. I probably needed a drink, too, given conditions, but of the available options, the ride was the more restorative and healthy of the two.

I told Sweet Doris From Baltimore I was going for a ride and would be back in about an hour. I was out the door with my helmet in my hand before there was time for any discussion.

 

***

 

The temperature had fallen to about 23 during the previous overnight — in the garage it was closer to that temperature than to the rising thermometer outside. I’d taken the opportunity to put my K1200LT — which is the best inclement weather motorcycle I know — onto the charger while my morning coffee was brewing. I knew I’d need every cold cranking amp we could muster to wake up the fat girl — who had been spending a lot of time sitting idle while I’d been riding the Royal Enfield test bike — and since I still hadn’t managed to catch up with Mark The Mechanic to repair the exhaust stud that had inexplicably committed suicide.

With my helmet pulled on and my gloves still sitting on the pillion, I turned the key, waited a few seconds for current to flow and stabilize, and then pushed the starter. The engine turned over – very slowly — for three or four compression strokes without firing. It’s at times like this I consider swapping this motorcycle to 10W40 oil year round, in place of the 20W50 I’ve traditionally used. On the second attempt the Flying Brick fired, and came immediately up to a nice steady high idle.

I pulled on the new pair of elkskin gauntlets I’d purchased with my Christmas gift money from Doris’ mom, and pulled the LT off the main stand, backed out of the garage, and headed down the driveway. After a few weeks exclusively riding a 430 pound air-cooled parallel twin, the contrast was a little hard to ignore.

 

***

 

For the most part, we all have to work. Some of us have the supreme luxury of doing something we love, while most of us have to do what we must to take care of our families.

I’ve struggled for years to try to make the jump from the second camp into the first without success – ending up in between with a foot in both camps. I’ve kept my technology and IT services careers paying the bills — mortgages, putting kids through college — while my Motorcycle writing and journalism have kept me going — able to do the draining work of commercial reviews and contract negotiations — it’s a delicate balance designed to keep me centered and alive while I continue to see many a younger man’s number come up from being unable to manage the stress of a loveless business.

Tuesday night, the e-mail account for my job popped up an early morning meeting request that I hadn’t expected.

“Meet Bill,” was the subject line.

“How thoughtful,” I thought. Bill was a new Division General Manager — the biggest of big dogs — and although I had been providing him with detailed opportunity analyses — a pretty high value task, which allowed him to direct our new business development process – we hadn’t actually been introduced or had any direct interaction.

Anticipating a video conference, I cleaned up some of the clutter on my desk, and chose a nice, neat oxford cloth button-down shirt for the morning.

When I dropped into the videoconference at precisely the appointed time the next morning, I was greeted by the face of a blond woman who I did not recognize. She clearly looked highly stressed and uncomfortable.

My personal awareness relay closed with a solid thunk.

Bill dropped into the call a few moments later, calling from a mobile phone with no video capability.

“I am sorry to inform you that your position has been eliminated. Your employment with Big Ass Company, Inc., has been terminated, effective immediately.”

Bill dropped from the call. He had not even addressed me by name. He was doing what he had to that day, and would have to do it several hundred more times before he could call it a day’s work.

I asked a few cursory questions of the HR Droid – not really being able to fully function intellectually given the ice cold shock of the situation. After dropping off the call – having been informed that Corporate IT would remove my system access and wipe my devices as soon as they had been informed of my termination — I had to switch gears fast to compose and send an email to the few co-workers who were my friends — it was a race between locked up brain, frozen fingers, and the guys that would kick off the script which — after nearly 6 years — would simply make me disappear.

 

***

 

Rolling the LT down the road, I had to reacclimate to the bike’s size and weight which was in the range of full double the size of the Royal Enfield I’d been riding for the last few weeks. The bike’s controls – hydraulic clutch and shifter – were stiff from the cold and disuse, and the Ohlins suspension units were almost solid from the viscosity of the nearly frozen damping fluid. I’d need to carefully warm the motorcycle for a while before things would acquire any sense of normal control feel or compliance – I also had to assume that both the engine and gearbox oils would be similarly useless.

After skirting around Jefferson, I rolled onto US 340 East, and kept the application of throttle gentle and the revs firmly in the middle as the LT slowly made progress up the ridgeline and headed out of town. After cresting the ridge – never having changed into top gear – I was all the way back down the other side before the Temp gauge hit the point where the thermostat finally opened, indicating the first stage of warm up had finally been achieved. I finally rolled up into top gear and gently accelerated the bike up into its cruise point at 3900 rpm and 82 mph indicated. Some real heat was finally coming into the heated grips, and the air coming into my helmet through the cracked visor was fresh and bracing — getting some fresh air in my lungs and some bracing delivered to my brain was the only close to sane reason for being out here on a grey, overcast sub-freezing day.

I exited 340 West at Mount Zion Road – which cuts across the South County on a wonderfully technical, twisty route that follows Ballenger Creek up towards Frederick. There is a pair of banked, decreasing radius corners that climbs away from the creek, and by the exit of the second one the shocks were working and it was clear why this motorcycle has been one I knew I could ride almost anywhere — the Telelever might not be BMW’s most modern piece of kit, but after three or four easy, precise transitions from left lean to to right lean it clearly works well enough for the on-road needs of most riders.

I did my stop at Frisco’s, where I took on some Victory Sour Monkey Sour Belgian Triple Ale and some Saranac S’more Porter. I’ll admit that I occasionally indulge in some Off Center beer styles, but looked at objectively, this had to be the oddest combination of brews I have ever left any store with. I threw a few polishing towels I had in the top case over the bottle tops, and then closed and latched the case, and headed back for the road.

My check of the weather radar before leaving showed I perhaps had about an hour and a half before the storm was scheduled to arrive, so I plotted an inefficient route home to make the most of the opportunity I had availble. With the engine and transmission finally warmed, I could now really open the throttle to enjoy what I came here for.

Rolling down New Design Road towards the south end of the county and the Potomac river, I was able to sustain the fat stuff towards the top of 4th gear – spinning at about 4200 rpm and about 70 mph. Despite its relatively advanced age – 19 years old and just under 100,000 miles – the bike felt solid and assured with the lovely intake roar taking me back to how Darkside was initially named.

At the river, I picked up Maryland 28 West and cut for Point of Rocks. 28 rolls over hills and farm fields in a lovely chase that give one plenty of opportunities to use the sides of one’s tires. From 28 I picked up US 15 North, where I quickly accelerated to cruise until the Point of Rocks traffic circle came up. Fortunately, traffic was clear so I dropped the Big Girl onto her left side, carved around the circle and headed up the big grade on MD 464.

464 is a straight, clear climb with good sightlines, and except for the extremely occasional wandering black bear is as close to devoid of hazards as any road in Maryland. I assumed a modest forward lean and gentle tuck, lowered the windshield to just below my sightline, and focused on my technique as we shrieked up the big grade — taking each gear out to around 7000 of the 8500 available, preloading the shifter, feathering the clutch and engaging the next gear cleanly with its characteristic BMW ‘Thonk!’.

By the time I’d cleared the top of the grade and engaged top gear – as we were headed back down towards the intersection with Lander Road – I was grinning in my helmet, mind cleared, spirit elevated.

If there was something bothering me when I left, I’ll be darned if I can remember what it was.

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Twins – Life With Royal Enfield INT 650

This is probably as good a time as any to admit that, until very recently, I was a British motorcycle virgin.

I know, you’re shocked.

It wasn’t like I didn’t have plenty of curiosity about the breed — I just didn’t have the opportunity.

Think of the classic British motorcycles – Norton Dominators and Commandos, Triumph Speed Twins, Tigers and Bonnevilles, Royal Enfield Meteors and Interceptors, BSA A10s. Although Classic Brit Iron has its share of singles — Velocettes, the Matchless G50 and the Norton Manx — and a smattering of V-Twins — Broughs and Vincents — after Triumph’s Mr. Turner had his epiphany in 1937, the vast majority of British motorcycles were built around the parallel twin engine — an engineering breakthrough that produced the power and torque of a V-twin in a form factor that had the mass and width of a single.

A 1970 Royal Enfield Interceptor, I Believe

Only one of my string of close riding friends over the years had a British motorcycle — a Last Edition T140 Meriden Triumph Bonneville — and as pretty as it may have been, it wasn’t the most dependable runner — and I generally endeavor not to borrow motorcycles that I either cannot start or that will provide me with the unplanned opportunity for a nice long walk home. Walt’s ‘Last Edition’ qualified on both counts. My maddening curiosity about the bikes that had carried Brando’s Johnny, McQueen, Dylan, The Fonz and countless other dudes way cooler than me would just have to wait until the right opportunity presented itself.

 

***

 

I’ve been following closely the stories coming out of Royal Enfield about the development of their new twin cylinder engine, and the motorcycles that would use it. Although Enfield’s operations were relocated to India a very long time ago, there is a direct line between the current operation in Chennai and the old HQ in Redditch. As Enfield’s development project wrapped, details of the 650 cc, single overhead cam, 4 valve per cylinder, air and oil cooled vertical twin began to fill in. With modern machining, fuel injection, and other tricks like a gear driven primary drive, 270 degree crank, counterbalancers, and a power assist/slipper clutch would provide RE with a classic appearing but fully modern engine that could put them right in the hunt to provide reasonably priced, classically styled and versatile motorcycles to people that didn’t see the motorcycle technology and arms races as producing unalloyed progress.

After well more than a year of talking with the nice folks at RE USA, I was finally rewarded with a scheduled and confirmed date for an independent vehicle transportation contractor to drop a brand new Royal Enfield INT 650 at the bottom of my driveway. And, after a late start in the morning the day after Thanksgiving, I heard a big diesel engine come out of gear in the street outside. I grabbed a hat and jacket and headed outside.

Ben – of A&B Transport – really had quite the setup. One of the last made Ford Diesel Expeditions, pulling a tandem axle car transporter trailer. We pumped hands and exchanged pleasantries as he lowered a loading ramp door off the trailer’s front right side. Inside was our Enfield — with its bright orange tank, chromed exhausts and gold painted components simply glowing — but it wasn’t the only treasure onboard. In the motorcycle wheel cleat next to our Enfield, was a vintage Yamaha YZ360, with its distinctive strapped gas tank. She was definitely not a show queen, this was a runner, and a well loved one at that.

But it was what was in the back of the trailer that was really eye-catching — a Shelby Cobra, with the expected royal blue and white Shelby Stripe paintwork — perfect, and not so much as a fingerprint on it. Ben shared that it was a replica — with a modern 5.0 liter Ford V8 for power — but other than that it was original spec in every way, right down to its wooden steering wheel and leather strap door hinges. I told Ben that after we got the Enfield unloaded and before he left, I’d like Finn to have a look at the car.

We got the ratchet straps on the bike undone, and Ben keyed the bike and went to start it up. It turned over more than a few times — and more than I would have expected, for a modern fuel injected engine — before it finally caught on about the fourth or fifth attempt. We ran the bike up the driveway and then I ran inside to grab Finn.

When we both got back to the transporter, Ben was in the process of showing off one of its tricker features — the entire left side of the trailer was designed to raise up on gas lifts so that a show car could be displayed without being unloaded. With the trailer — most of which was billet aluminum — opened up, the Cobra was doing a creditable pearl in the oyster impression.

After Finn and I had spent a few minutes checking out the auto jewelry, Ben sat into the driver’s seat, and fired up the 5.0. The sound from the open side pipes was internal combustion music at idle — on the throttle though, it was the whole orchestra.

We thanked Ben heartily for delivering our Enfield, and for showing us the car. He buttoned the transporter back up and dieseled out of the neighborhood. Even though my mother and father in law were expected for a post-holiday visit, I grabbed my helmet, jacket and gloves for a short indoctrination putt around the neighborhood.

I set out for about a 2 mile loop through the farmland behind my house – a loop that ends up back in town before coming back to my house. I headed down MD 180, and headed for Saint Mark’s Road — which is a lovely, bumpy, tight single laner which is the perfect place for any classic motorcycle. I immediately appreciated the broad, midrange based power delivery, and the revvy, easy lope of the 270 degree crankshaft twin. Suspension was a tad more taut than I’m accustomed to, but would turn out to have a reason.

As I headed back up out of The Bottoms, I noticed the fuel bar graph in the LCD insert at the bottom of the speedometer. It had only one bar, and that bar was blinking.

“Naaaah…” I thought, “Nobody would be so thoughtless as to ship a motorcycle with a completely empty tank.”

Actually, they would, apparently.

As I headed back up Maryland Rt. 383’s steep hill up to town, and the nearest gas station, the RE quit in the middle of the grade under full throttle, and I drifted over to the narrow shoulder on the inside of the curved ascent up the hill. I pushed the bike as far out of the roadway as I could, and then yanked my helmet and went for my cel phone.

I couldn’t have been more than a third of a mile from either fuel or my house.

“Finn,” I said when he picked up his phone. “Go to the shed in the back yard, get the gas can from my mower, get in your car and head down 383 toward the bridge. I’m sitting over on the left hand side of the road. Stinking bike didn’t have any gas in it.”

Humanity, of late, has had plenty of chances to either disappoint or amaze me, and today humanity came though. The road I was pulled over on is a massive, curving grade that most people drive with their accelerator foot on the floor, to try and make reasonable progress toward the top. It’s a genuinely dangerous place to get stuck, and even more challenging place to try and pull over. In the perhaps 5 to 7 minutes before Finn pulled up, three separate folks pulled over to ask if I needed help.

It’s nice to know had I not had any help I’d still have had help.

After Finn rolled up I took about a gallon and a half out of my mower can, and the RE fired right back up and carried a humbled me directly home with authority.

It sure wasn’t an auspicious start. I texted Ben to let him know why he’d had such a hard time starting the bike originally, which provided him with a LOL.

We had a few days opening with some noticeably warmer weather in the forecast, and I felt optimistic that with a little more preparation, and under less hurried conditions, Interceptor Life would be better.

 

***

 

My buddy Paul is a quintessential Triumph man — a little bit quirky, a little bit rebel, and cares not a whit about what you might ride and how you might ride it.

I’d made my own tiny contribution to Paul’s delinquency as a rider by lending him my /5. At the time, Paul had been riding an original 1980s vintage Honda CB750, which was not known for its tight suspension and steering control. After some limited and slippery experience on my BMW, Paul recognized and quickly acted on his compulsion to get a bike with some superior roadholding.

Paul located a very low mileage and unmolested 2008 Triumph Bonneville — the last carburetted, air and oil cooled Bonneville. His Bonnie combines all of the modern internal combustion engineering and better manufacturing of the modern Hinckley Triumphs with the simplicity and agility of the Triumphs that went before. It was arguably the best of all possible motorcycle worlds, and one he obtained under commercial circumstances that have significant overlap with outright theft.

Paul and I have discussed me taking his Bonneville for a ride. The willingness was there, but the opportunity hadn’t really presented itself.

I sent Paul a note asking if he wanted to go for a ride on Saturday. It was a chance for him to check out the Enfield. And a chance for me to benchmark it against its British Motorcycle cousin, the Bonneville.

 

***

 

After our little fuel level fandango, you can assume I was no longer making any assumptions about the preparation of the INT 650 test bike. I’d check the chain, air pressure in the tires, and any other setup items there might be — rearview mirrors, that sort of stuff. I was starting to be pretty sure that this bike was a pretty early — and likely pre-production example. For starters, the bike’s VIN ended in 149 — so this was likely the 149th unit built. Second, US DOT has some labelling requirements that identify the stock, certified tire sizes, and the designed tire pressure. When I went to look for the label — because there is nothing that will screw up chassis performance worse or faster than the wrong tire pressures — my little orange buddy didn’t have one.

A Pretty Girl

I spent some time on the Internet, looking for an Owner’s Manual. RE had a US and an International web site, both of quick claimed to be able to provide User Support documents. I know a little about tech, but neither of the two web sites seemed to be able to provide me with that manual — web code that asked you to register, and then log in, and then wouldn’t get you to the Manuals anyway. There was a Support E-mail form — I filled it out, telling them I was a US Motorcycle writer and needed the Manual to support a Magazine test. Crickets.

I could find recommended pressures for the Royal Enfield’s other motorcycle — The Bullet — but the recommended pressures were clearly not appropriate for modern tires and suspension — stock pressure for a 350 Bullet is 19 PSI in the front tire.

I was finally rescued by a Fast-fingered Brother in the Indian Motorcycle Press, who had been invited on a factory tour, and bagged cell phone pictures of the first two pages of the factory service manual, including — drumroll — tire pressures.

So thank you, Fast Fingered Brother, you provided, and my rechargeable inflator set things right.

We continued to exercise oblique strategies and creative thought — an excerpt from a Continental GT 535 Owner’s Manual showed me how to access the locked side cover and release the saddle. I hoped to find either a User’s Manual or, at minimum, the registration form I’d asked Ben the Transporter for and he hadn’t been able to provide.

Were those things in there?

I did get a fleet insurance form.

So No. Live dangerously.

I also spent a few moments with a 14 mm wrench, setting up the rearview mirrors. The rearviews are a classic type, having not one but two locking collars — one at the usual position at the stem, on the handlebars, and a second one located at the base of the mirror at the top of the stem. The setup is precise, sturdy, and once dialed in stays dialed.

After a trip back to town to fully fill the tank and set the bike’s trip meters, I was now confident of my setup (incorrectly, it would turn out) and ready to really ride.

 

***

 

Sunday turned out to be an almost perfect riding day — sunny, calm winds, and a high just under 60 degrees f. I generally try not to plan — but the rough non-plan outline was to head off towards Shepherdstown, West Virginia and then find the most oblique, inefficient, nondeterministic route back to Jefferson. Paul and I would switch bikes a few times during the ride.

It was an opportunity to really put some twisty road miles on the INT. A chance to get some feedback on the RE’s new design from a skilled rider with tens of thousands of miles in the saddle of a British Parallel Twin. And a chance for me for finally ride the Bonnie, and to compare the two motorcycles — two branches off the same family tree — head to head.

With the aftermarket exhaust Paul had fitted to his Bonnie, I heard the basso rumble at least a half mile before he hit the bottom of my driveway.

 

***

 

As a place to start a good ride, The Jefferson Pike heading west out of Jefferson doesn’t leave much to be desired. Heading away from The Shop, the road drops down dramatically though the greenest pastureland towards Catoctin Creek and Brookside Corner. The INT is so light and nimble that I ended up well inside of my intended line and had to correct at the apex. Coming back up the grade I rolled the RPMs on the 650 out, enjoying the feel and power delivery of the motor, and revelling in the sound of the Enfield’s engine as it mixed with the report of the Bonneville that was stretched out behind.

After clearing the circle at Brunswick, the road down into Knoxville is a mini-motorcycle amusement park — a series of descending, decreasing radius sweepers that terminate in the little village where the road then makes an abrupt right. Setting the INT on the sides of its tires — Pirelli Phantom SportsComps in a classic spec 18 inches at the front and rear — the orange bike was easy to keep on line once one had been selected. There was something about the bike’s transitional behavior — the turn in and exit on the power — that felt unsettled to me. It was subtle, but it wasn’t right.

The Pike ends with a weird, pre-uniform highway code left hand entrance ramp to US 340. With the RPMs up, both motorcycles had no problems picking their spot and moving smartly around and into existing traffic. Paul and I continued to roll westward — after clearing the bridges and intersections around Harper’s Ferry, 340 opens up, and the INT seemed right comfortable at a 75+ mph cruise showing just under 5000 RPMs in top gear. I’ve become pretty adept at finding body positions on naked bikes that minimize the CD of my substantial ass, and it was easy to find a spot where the wind supported my upper body without feeding input into the bike’s front end. The INT still had usable power on cruise in 6th gear, and good acceleration with a downshift into 5th. The 270 degree crankshaft engine’s character and vibratory feedback was spot-on — just enough to know one was riding a motorcycle — but not uncomfortable or objectionable in any way.

When Paul and I got to West Virginia Route 230, I indicated a stop, and found a good level and visible spot on the shoulder, where I killswitched the INT and set her on the stand. With the two bikes sitting nose to tail on the shoulder, the resemblance between them was uncanny — from the shape of their fuel tanks, through the construction of their wide-flange hubs on the spoked wheels, to the bench seat and the positioning of the tail lamp and turn signals perched on the back fender — the bikes might not have been twins, but were certainly cousins with a strong family resemblance. The only significant styling departures were the use of the more classic spec 18 inch wheels on both ends of the Enfield, where the Triumph sported a more modern 19 inch front and 17 inch rear combo, and the Enfield’s more modern upswept megaphone style dual exhausts in place of the Triumph’s low mounted peashooters.

Hubs On Any Proper Bike Look Like This

I gave Paul a quick briefing on the control layouts and specifics of the Enfield’s drive train — 6 speeds, slipper clutch — other than that the control layouts between the two motorcycles were nearly identical.

“Any questions?”

“Nope.”

“Then let’s ride.”

There’s a ‘Stop’ sign right after WV 230 leaves US 340 – immediately afterward the road turns into a pretty typical West Virginia Winding Road – tight, decreasing radius 90/90 combos, grades, and long straights shaded by trees. It was clear from the first corner that Paul felt immediately comfortable on the INT — he was leaned well over and in the gas. From the saddle of the Bonneville, the contrast between the two machines was immediately on full display. With its more than 200 cc displacement advantage, the Bonneville had a bit more urge lower on the tach face, but on a back road the two bikes were still pretty closely matched — The RE pilot might be spinning a few more RPMs, but neither bike was able to run away from the other. The RE’s 6 speed transmission – compared to the Triumph’s 5 speed – helped to keep the engine spinning in its happy place and keep it in the hunt. The Triumph’s engine — with its 360 crank and extensive counterbalancing was smoother than the Enfield’s mill — but it was almost too smooth — the RE felt like a motorcycle, where the Bonneville seemed to have become so refined it had all but lost its distinctive character. Steering on the Triumph — which had four degrees less rake on its front end, was noticeably slower, but with its wide bars the rider was still able to corner briskly enough on these twisting roads. The compliance of the Bonneville fork was worlds better than that of the Enfield, though. Although the two bikes weight are within 3-4 kilograms of each other, the Bonneville felt like a locomotive on a back road – heavy, stable, comfortable — where the Enfield felt more like a go-cart – taut, nimble, always ready to change direction with minimal rider input.

Although I might have had a tad more power available, keeping Paul in sight was not a trivial exercise – he was clearly enjoying the INT 650. Riding these two good handling, midrange power happy motorcycles we quickly put all of 230 in the rearviews, rolled into Shepherdstown, banged right and recrossed the Potomac headed for Sharpsburg. Maryland 34 is a wide open, rural highway, which helps me come to appreciate the Triumph’s smooth top gear power delivery.

On the far side of Sharpsburg, Paul calls for a stop. He swaps back to his Bonneville – I swing a leg over the bright orange INT.

“You got anything specific in mind for the route back?”

“Absolutely not. Do what the spirit says do.”

Paul was, apparently, receptive to the spirit, and after a fast pull up 34, breaks right at Keedysville on Dogstreet, then Nicodemus Mill, then King Roads. These are tiny, technical little roads with short straight blasts punctuated by single lane arch bridges which provide the rider with a chance to go all Flying Manxman if that’s what one is into. The INT makes rolling the throttle wide open on a corner exit a delicate thing of pleasure.

We continue to play find the smaller road, until we run out of county and Md 383 drops us out of a full throttle top gear run at a ‘Stop’ sign just yards from the shop.

If anybody smoked cigarettes any more, Paul and I would have both smoked one while we stood at the bottom of the driveway, all black leather and tilted heads drinking in the subtle shapes of two fuel tanks and the tink-tink-tink sounds of hot exhaust parts quickly cooling. But they don’t, so we didn’t, but their absence seemed palpable anyway. We had to settle for just admiring two really pretty motorcycles as a single malt, unblended treat.

It had been a great ride – a gift from the universe at the beginning of December – and we’d both been surprised a few times by these motorcycles and learned some things we hadn’t expected.

I told Paul I’d kept sensing that weird transitional cornering behavior — especially on corner exits — where the bike just seemed to want to wander. Paul tells me I’m imagining it — he didn’t notice it — and I resolve to take tools in hand, if necessary, to get to the bottom of it.

 

***

 

The bottom of it, as it turned out, was a very shallow pool.

A Royal Enfield INT 650 has exactly one point of suspension adjustment. And on my test unit, it was adjusted wrong. RE’s chassis for this motorcycle was designed by their newest wholly owned division, England’s Harris Performance. Harris’ success on the racetrack is legendary — many years worth of Yamaha 500GP bikes were Harris bikes. The INT’s fork rake of 24 degrees is pretty aggressive for a street-only motorcycle — my 70s vintage BMW S bike runs 27 — Pauls’s 2007 Bonneville runs 28. A BMW S1000RR, which is a track focused missile with every form of electronic stability control known to science, is 23.9.

On classic or vintage motorcycles — many of which had fork rake angles that were not deigned with agility in mind — it was a pretty standard shortcut to jack the rear preload, which would effectively reduce the rake and make the bike far more willing to turn in. On the Royal Enfield INT 650 — with a frame and suspension setup that was biased towards sporting dynamics — such a cheat was not only unnecessary, but would likely be counterproductive.

That would have been bad enough, but as it turned out, the preload collars on the twin rear shocks were set to two different settings — with the right shock set to five out of six and the left one set to four out of six. Reasonable engineers can and will disagree – some will say that the swingarm and rear wheel assembly will continue to operate as a unit even if the forces on it are unequal – others though will posit that such a configuration will result in a subtle bias in the direction of the less sprung shock — in this case, a tendency to come off of bumps with a slight left turn.

There was only one way to see if I was right, and that was to head back to the road.

 

***

I went back to the same stretch of the Jefferson Pike for a Moto-mullligan.

The transformation was dramatic. With the rear end of the bike lowered to the correct attitude and the preload evened out between the two shocks the Enfield was now a solid and stellar handler. All of the flaky transitional behavior was gone, and I began adapting my normally conservative big bike lines to what the INT Twin was demanding. Most of my cornering behavior had been pretty conservative – with early entrances and easy lines to the apex. With the INT apparently dialed in, I started delaying entrances and cutting harder. The INT , it seemed, really liked the whip — the harder I rode, the more settled the bike seemed — a conclusion which isn’t remotely surprising given Harris Performance’s heritage. Instead of picking up US 340, though, I decided to take the final exam — Mountain Road.

Welcome To Mountain Road

Mountain Road is another Frederick County Classic — it’s mostly a one lane road that cuts from the bottom of Knoxville up the mountainside back towards Md 17 North and Burkettsville. Mountain is tight, steep, twisty, dirty and bumpy. If a motorcyclist is looking for a workout for both the bike’s suspension and him/herself, Mountain is what the Doctor Ordered. Cutting up the initial grade the INT was doing precisely what it was told — I could put the bike within an inch of where I wanted it on the road, despite all the havoc being caused by the road’s uneven surface. In the middle section of the road, it runs through a forested section where a series of decreasing radius, downhill bends are camouflaged by the tree canopy. I ran the Enfield in wider than I have on any other bike, and then rolled the twin into corners with nary a complaint — the Pirellis gripped with zero drama, and absolutely nothing ever touched the pavement. It was even trivial to tighten lines mid corner. As enthusiastic as my cornering had become, the Enfield felt like it had plenty left in reserve — more than I’d ever find prudent on a public road.

After finishing off Mountain and picking up Maryland 17 north, I ran the bike hard up through the gears — making my changes at about 6500 RPM and setting up at about an 80 mph cruise when I hit top gear. About halfway to the tiny village of Coatsville, there’s a classic set of big radius 90/90s — there’s always a section of gravel on the exit of the second one, which given the hand laid stone walls on the inside of the road helps to keep one honest. I got in to the first corner at right around 60, and managed the bike on the throttle — with a good blast of acceleration in the chute between the two corners, and then running on engine braking to get in the second one at about 55 and staying slightly wide to avoid the gravel patch, which was right where it always was.

I finished my test loop by coming back down Burkettsville Road back to Jefferson, working the amazing sets of corners at each of the places where the road crosses Catoctin Creek. The Orange Menace continued to amuse and amaze — cornering on rails while making the most of its revvy, raucous motor.

 

***

 

Since that day, I’ve done exactly what I promised the nice folks at Royal Enfield I would do — riding this motorcycle everywhere I could and every chance I got. The only limitation I’ve had forced on me is I haven’t been able to do really long distance point-to-point travel because I have no heated gloves, no windshield, and its been consistently colder than most people consider survivable motorcycle riding weather. But for the first hour and a half to two hours, a combination of natural insulation, ability to handle cold and raw cussedness has enabled me to have as much fun as I can recall having on a motorcycle.

The bike isn’t perfect — as a brand new, clean sheet of paper design, it’s nearly impossible that it could be. But it’s so close that I have to give the design team at Royal Enfield a tip of the hat for creating a bike that has so much personality that it just makes one want to ride at every opportunity and for no reason other than to have more fun riding the thing.

dsc_0018

Motorcycle Begins With Motor

Taking care of one of these Royal Enfield 650 Twins — our INT 650 or its café styled brother, the Continental GT 650 — at least looks to be a total cinch. The engines are air and oil cooled. Valve adjusters on the SOHC 4 valver are screw and locknut type working on the ends of roller cam follower rockers. The roller followers should keep wear to a minimum and the screw adjusters make the adjustment as easy as it gets. The engine has an easily accessed car type cartridge oil filter — it’s a pretty good size one, too — so oil changes should be nearly trivial. The throttle and the clutch both have cables.

Adjust and lube your chain. Lever on new tires. Change oil. Repeat.

In the time I’ve had the bike, it’s spent a lot of the time being enthusiastically wrung out — RPMs up in the 5-6000 range for extended periods of time. The 650 has felt solid, felt happy there — it’s smooth, cooling properly, maintaining proper clearances and making good usable power there. It is not consuming any oil. RE’s 650 feels like a confidence-inspiring, solidly engineered and thoroughly modern engine.

Enfield certainly seems to be willing to properly back that confidence — both 650s come with 36 month, unlimited mileage factory warranties.

Both 650s also make use of a slipper/power assist clutch pack. I haven’t been able to obtain an engineering drawing of the clutch assembly to help visualize what’s going on, but I can clearly feel the mechanism – usually a ball and ramp set up of some sort – operate through the cable when the low effort and easily modulatable clutch lever is initially pulled in with the engine running.

Most riders would never even notice it, but to an ‘Old Bike Guy’ — which for clarity involves the chronological gifts of The Bike and not The Guy — the microscopic ‘click’ one feels through the clutch lever feels exactly like the first of sixteen cable strands in one’s clutch cable letting go.

Call it a personal failing, rather than an engineering one.

On the flip side, the operation of that clutch on a winding road feels like a magic trick, a cheat. It didn’t take long to figure out that on a really gnarly corner entrance, snapping off what would be a plaster inducingly ill-advised number of downshifts on a dry clutch would produce a very light and self modulating amount of engine braking that made it far easier to manage one’s corner entry line and attitude. All my corner entries on the 650 started having a soundtrack of the twin on a lovely overrun burble.

Speaking of burble, the INT makes Proper Motorcycle Noises. It is by no means obnoxious, but the combination of the 270 degree firing order, and a properly tuned exhaust provide for a nice muted rumble and the previously mentioned burble. Triumph Paul went out of his way to tell me that the Enfield sounded much better than his Bonneville had with the factory mufflers which he no longer had.

It also has a proper dual horn. I have a freely disclosed bias for motorcycles whose horns covey authority.

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Classic Analog Instrumentation

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

There is the small matter of The Name.

Everywhere else in the world, this bike is called the Interceptor 650. All of the press pack pictures show sidecover decals that say ‘Interceptor 650’ where this one says ‘INT 650’. It makes perfect sense, as Royal Enfield first sold a motorcycle called ‘Interceptor’ in 1962. American Honda – by dint of its line of VFR Motorcycles, sold here starting in 1982 — owns the US Trademark though, so RE has a bike called the INT that I will inevitably refer to accidentally as The Interceptor and who the heck can blame me?

If you are the sort of person that chooses to ride your motorcycle in cold weather the 650s will do that willingly. The coldest morning start I tried was at 28 degrees f. – it had been colder overnight – and the bike spun with authority on the starter and fired on the third compression stroke just like it does when its 70 outside. It was immediately ready to ride away with no cold running issues.

I’ll freely admit that I’ll ride motorcycles with my revs restrained and minimal throttle in neighborhood streets or in tight confines like parking lots. The INT didn’t appreciate this rider behavior — under 2000 RPM my twin ran a little bit unevenly. I suspect this is one of those pre-production issues that an FI mapping update will likely slay. On the gas, though, no one will remember that or care a whit.

The brakes on the bike are absolutely beastly. The ByBre brakes — produced by Brembo’s Indian subsidiary — appear everywhere these days — lower displacement motorcycles by BMW and KTM both use ByBre brake components. The front caliper on the INT looks for all the world like a 80s-90s vintage Brembo gold line two piston caliper — and in concert with the 320 mm full floating disk and braided steel line — stops like one, too. The front brake generates as much braking power as this chassis can safely use — and does it in a way which is easily modulated and controlled near the limits. If you blow it, there is Bosch ABS to back you up, but if you need to brake harder than this setup permits, you’ve already crashed.

Brakes By Brembo – ByBre – and ABS by Bosch

Maybe this is another subjective thing, but the fork on our test really needs another look from the design team. While I understand that Harris Performance might lean towards racetrack suspension settings, the fork is just too overdamped for street use — while on smoother pavement the front tire will just stick, on bumpier surfaces there’s just too much shock being passed to the suspension and to the rider. It may be stiction, and it may be damping rod orifices that are just too small, but a little bit more compliance would go a long way towards more comfort on the street. If this were my motorcycle, I’d be ordering up a set of RaceTech Gold Valve cartridge emulators and taking wrench in hand, stat.

I’ll admit that the racetrack vibe from the 650 is so strong, I couldn’t help but think that as a platform, these bikes would make for a great spec racing series. And if I thought this way on the upright INT, it would have been ever more noticeable on the sportier Continental GT. If people will race CB160s, one could certainly race these. These bikes will certainly be affordable — the INT’s price is $5799, while the Continental’s is $5999 — and a hot-rodding supply chain is already forming for the bikes. Enfield USA has already been working with S&S to create power parts for the 650. The stock state of tune was deliberately engineered so that the bike could qualify for the lowest tier of international tiered licensing requirements — and an S&S-modified RE 650 has already set a FIM Bonneville class Speed Record at a tick over 150 miles an hour. So Enfield USA, I’d be burning up the phones to sanctioning bodies — with WERA or AMRHA, where it would make for a natural support class — trying to figure out how to get these motorcycles out on the track and banging bars.

 

***

 

Somewhere in a Product Planning Team Room inside Royal Enfield, there is at least one person that becomes very, very happy if one suggests that this motorcycle might become accessible to and popular with young, new motorcyclists.

And here, at Rolling Physics Problem Labs, we take this part of the testing very seriously, indeed, so we keep – on our staff – Finn, a calibrated, certified germ-free and highly unlikely to wad your bike young new motorcyclist to evaluate the Youth Appeal of test motorcycles. In the interests of transparency, said Test Youth’s daily rider is a 2016 CB500F Honda, which is a motorcycle — at least from the spec sheet — whose size and performance are in the same neighborhood as the INT. And in the interest of still fuller transparency, the Test Youth is a future looking Youth who, especially after his recent Tesla automobile test drive, would probably be OK with a Zero electric motorcycle.

In this context Youth may not be a fully ideal test subject, but he’s what we got.

On another freak sunny day The Test Youth got tossed the keys, and he geared up and headed off. He looked good, sitting upright on the saddle. One can just see he has great clutch and throttle control (or at least I can, anyway) and knows how to manage his position on the bike.

He’s a natural, which means if he inherited those traits, Sweet Doris from Baltimore must be some kind of rider.

Upon his return, I asked him about his ride.

“Should have worn plugs — it’s loud. Liked having the power down lower, though. Corners great. Still like mine better, though. It’s quieter and more comfortable.

Thing is a lot of fun, though.”

 

***

 

So there you have it.

The Thing IS a lot of fun.

So much fun that my BMWs have mostly sat unridden in the time the Royal Enfield has been here.

So much fun that on a cloudy, dark grey-skyed day today that was struggling to make 40 degrees, I suited up and fired up the twin. I have really internalized the appeal of motorcycles like this — light, narrow, simple — and now understand what all those BritBike guys were going on about.

It had gotten really cold overnight, and it had produced a few road conditions that were a tad out of the ordinary. We just wrapped up a year where The Valley got 75 inches of rainfall, so we have gotten accustomed to having water running across or over things it normally does not run across or over. Most of the bigger farms around have at least once place where drainage from a pasture has created a very small but persistent new stream crossing the road.

Last night, all those shallow streams across the road froze solid. I’d get some warning of one of these coming because my county highway guys had been laying down heavy salt to melt them out. I’d see a few grains and know to back down. I am glad I am not one of those guys that’s out at first light to get to work, cause that guy would have gotten more than his fair share of pants soiling extended zero traction moments early this morning.

Out on Maryland 67, the longest straightest road around, I ran The Interceptor hard up though the gears, and stretched my last shift out till well above 80. Your Royal Enfield INT will do The Ton, making it clearly worthy of its Interceptor name. She really is quite comfortable maintaining a 75-80 MPH top gear cruise, which means it can travel anywhere in America or anywhere else.

Headed back to the shop I elected Mountain Church Road, which is an absolutely gnarly one laner with a questionable and highly variegated surface that runs over a well forested mountain. There’s lots of change of elevation, blind treelined corners, and workout for the suspension on this thing that probably once was a path for goats. It’s the sort of road that to be willing to ride it you need to accept the likelihood you will get whacked in the shins and elbows by an occasional errant tree branch, at least if you are staying on your own side of the road. I was standing on the pegs but crouching down — getting me quite the workout, but having a blast nonetheless. In this environment the Royal Enfield is in its element – solid, agile, making good motorcycle sounds and steering precisely around corners or road obstacles on the gas or on the brakes.

On this cold afternoon, this Enfield 650 has all this rider needs.

 

Responsibility

Before the winter Holidays overran everything else in life, I needed to go for a ride.

No matter how cold it may have been out, a blast of bracingly cold air what just what my body and spirit needed, so I ‘Stitched up, grabbed my Shoei and insulated gloves, grabbed the key to The Interceptor, and headed for the road.

I’ve been putting a lot of miles on the new 650 Royal Enfield, and the harder I ride it, the better I like it.

In the long run, we’ll see whether that’s a healthy mindset to take into every ride, but no matter — giving it the whip would be what we were going to be doing today.

While both the bike and I were warming up, we backroad danced over Lander Road – a one lane twister in the woods — tight, bumpy, technical and a lot of fun at any speed. In the tighter stuff the INT 650 felt exceedingly taut, narrow and nimble — the best line though any corner started late and cut hard. Riding this way got both the bike’s and the rider’s muscles loose and operating quickly.

Once warmed, we emerged onto US 15 South, where it was only a mile to Point of Rocks, The Potomac, and one of my favorite pieces of pavement anywhere, Lovettsville Road.  For most of its length, Lovettsville is an open sweeping country highway — the kind of place where a motorcycle’s handling is front and center. At the Lovettsville end, there are a pair of really challenging slightly off camber 90s that are at least half the reasons I love this road.  It is still remotely possible to have the road all to one’s self, and if both the motorcycle and the rider are working well that day, one can ride into the back side of Lovettsville, Virginia, feeling as a wing-footed riding god.

Lovettsville RD

Lovettsville Road

Even the turn off of 15 is kind of hairball — it’s a more than 90 degree right, and its literally off to the races from there. I ran the Royal Enfield’s 650 twin up to 6000 in every gear, and worked to keep my upper body loose to keep from feeding bad input into the front end — to relax enough to let it work.  And work it did — we were on one of those rolls.

As I cleared the ridgeline where the road runs away from the river, I came up — quite expectedly, given the pretty brisk conditions — on another rider.  Based on what I could see, my fellow traveler was slight of stature, likely female, and was riding very precisely and very conservatively — she was on the right part of the road in every corner, was looking in the right places and keeping speeds down. Sensing the possibility of a relatively new rider, I slapped myself about a bit to lower my overall levels of testoster-enaline, and adopted a respectful following distance. I wouldn’t be applying any pressure that might force a bad decision.

Remember, this is my road, and I knew well there were several safe and legal passing zones past the midway point of the run.  So I rocked back on my heels, stayed well back, and waited for the shot.

In the first passing zone, we had an inconvenient car. In the second, solitude.

I put on my left turn signal, clicked the Enfield’s passing beam twice, and then rolled the throttle wide open.  I ran the 650’s fourth gear all the way out — shifting at about 6600 RPM of the 7100 available — and stayed deep in the throttle after shifting up into fifth.  I left lots of room before completing the pass, and concentrated on opening up  the largest gap possible before the road tightened back up coming into town.

So gap we did, and after another half minute or so, I started to setup for the sharp corners where Lovettsville Road comes into Lovettsville.  One of the things I’ve been enjoying about the Enfield is its slipper clutch – which allows one to shift down — even through several gears — and the hardware will manage two-stroke like levels of light engine braking without upsetting the chassis on corner entrance.

Lovettsville Bang Bangs

The Big Right Hander That Bites

With the big right coming up I flicked down from fifth to third, loosened up and then rolled the bike hard in. I got the throttle starting to open just before the apex, and then rolled open and motored out. Just at the point where I was setting up for the second corner, I saw something in my rearview mirror that you never want to see from your motorcycle — I saw a headlight trace that moved straight and smartly directly left.  The only headlights that move in straight lines on motorcycles are on bikes that have crashed.

I’d rather not discuss how I know this.

You probably have a personal favorite unprintable strong Anglo-Saxon oath. I know I applied plenty of mine, and loudly.

Having wrapped my intermediate level cussing class, I took the front brake up to max – determined the road was clear, and did a rolling 180 and headed back toward the corner.

By the time I rolled up, the owner of the house on the corner was already trotting across the left lane, and our rider was up and brushing dirt off of newly abraded knees.  I parked my bike in my lane with the turn signals on, while talking to the rider, who was stating the subjective opinion that she was uninjured.

I’ve been that rider. I’ve told people who were trying to help me some pretty goofy shit that was pretty demonstrably not true.

These assertions appeared to be a bit more grounded in fact than some of mine were, so all three of us set about righting the motorcycle and getting it across the road into our helper’s driveway.  He pointed out — and rightly so — that this spot in the chute between two corners was very dangerous.

“Folks,” he said, “just don’t pay attention.”

Point taken.

After a bit of wrestling – the bike was in gear, and one fork leg was roasted — we got the bike across the street and out of the line of fire.  I trotted back to the Enfield and got it into the driveway.

Our downed rider was checking her Kawasaki’s aftermarket GP style short exhaust canister.  It may have had a slight scuff, but its position directly under the bike seemed to have shielded it.

“Just dropped $600 on this. Uh!”

“You better tell me you weren’t chasing me.”

“No! I’ve been riding the speed limit. I just got these tires — it just stepped out.”

I looked at the new skins – the back tire wasn’t scuffed in at all – brand new virgin rubber — mold release compound and all was everything off the center of the tire.

“Oh, yeah. Until new tires have been gradually scuffed in, these things are treacherous.”

“You mean I have an excuse? It wasn’t just me?”

“You got an excuse. You got a way to get out of here?”

“Yeah, I got a truck. I got people. I got three weeks before I got to go back to college to get this fixed. Thanks for coming back, though.”

“No thanks required. I wouldn’t leave any rider in the road.”

She dialed her cell phone.

“Hi Mom. Is Dad there?”

I know full well that if Finn were ever to find himself in this kind of predicament, his phone call would play out exactly the same way.

I pulled my gear back on as the phone call continued, and then mounted back up, and continued into town.

I don’t know how I could have felt more terrible.

Protestations to the contrary not withstanding, I keep thinking that had I not come along, our rider would have entered that corner a few ticks slower, and wouldn’t be out some fork tubes, some plastic, sore knees, an upset Mama and a pair of jeans a few days before Christmas.

We all ride our own ride. I get that.

That crash can simultaneously not be my fault, yet I can still be responsible.

I have a college age son that rides. I have too good an appreciation of what this had to feel like from the other side.

I was a bad example on the road, and a patronizing asshole for thinking you got sucked in chasing me.  I got nowhere to hide.

I hope that you really are OK, and that you (and your Mom — Dad sounds cool) get past this so this can be one of the mistakes you get lots of chances not to repeat.

In Which Pooh Figures It Out

I have a new test bike.

Which I love.

What it is is almost immaterial.

Almost.

Pretty, isn’t she?

OK, you got me.

It’s a brand new Royal Enfield INT 650.  A great motor, great sound, classic attractive looks.

I’ve been riding the wheels off it every chance I get — so far I’ve been able to thread in between hard freezes and a few snow squalls.

Call it Lieutenant Columbo syndrome: “There’s just one thing bothering me…”

The front end on the bike just felt…. unsettled.

The fork just seemed like it was chasing its tail … it was harsh, not confidence-inspiring… on the road it just seemed too willing to change directions.

The frame and suspension on these bikes are designed by England’s Harris Performance — blokes who have been building custom race bike frames since Nixon was President.  They are not knobs. Their bikes work.

So what was it?

ThinkThinkThinkThinkThink (Pooh Implied)

Today I was in the shop really inspecting the bike. At first, I suspected that something might be amiss with the fork – with a damper rod setup, it could be something as simple as oil volume or weight. The fact that this brand new bike had some wrench marks on the fork caps didn’t do anything to help my anxiety.

Has Somebody Been In Here Already?

But when I checked the preload settings on the rear dual shocks the light came on and stayed on.

The INT 650 has piggyback style shocks made by Gabriel. The shocks feature a bog-standard six position preload collar. On this bike, the right shock’s collar was set to the 5th highest preload setting. The left shock’s collar was set to the 4th highest preload setting.

After removing my palm from the center of my face, I went to my /5 and retrieved my shock collar wrench. I backed the preload off to an even 2nd position on both shocks — a setting I selected based on the assumption that I weigh a material amount of pounds more than the bike’s target market.

Was pretty sure what the result would be. On badly designed classic bikes a slow steering bike could be made a bit more willing to turn with a little extra rear preload – raising the rear end. On a properly designed motorcycle, raising the rear would make a good steering bike a nervous mess. The uneven spring preload wouldn’t have helped, either.

On the road the transformation was dramatic — quick steering, and good on the sides of the tire and on corner exit.

Now I can really enjoy this motorcycle.

Mojo Tool

Motorcyclists are a superstitious bunch.

Starting with the Gremlin Bell.

Gremlins? Really? Nyaaah, What’s Up, Doc?

“Gremlins?!? What a Riot!!!”

I was watching a clip from a new documentary about the Isle of Man TT the other day, and one of the racers — while pulling on his riding gear — was talking about a good friend of his that had just been killed racing at the Isle.

“We try not to dwell on all of us that have died here. They would want us to go on. We ride for and with them that have gone before.”

Heck, I do that kind of thing myself.

So yeah, I may not yet have gotten to the point where I’ve sacrificed small mammals to the Riding Gods, but there have been a few times where things got so serious, I at least briefly considered it.

So when I found myself looking at my tool chest in the shop last night, it’s not at all surprising that it simply struck me how many of the tools in that chest had not originally been mine — they’d been given to me, or willed to me, or had simply appeared out of thin air in mysterious ways.

But I started to think about all the tools that had somehow come to me, and how each of them was somehow a talisman — or transmitter — of the skills of the ones whose hands had held them before me. And that thought kind of swept me away.

 

***

 

I’ve got a ServiceStar knock-off Vice Grips locking pliers that has never looked very good. They didn’t look good thirty years ago when they showed up in my tool box, and they sure don’t look any better now. But scratched into one side of the handle are the letters “NF” which have to be the mark of Neil Feather Neil is an artist and craftsman of the highest order — a maker of musical sculptures and unique instruments that all demonstrate the maximum possible levels of imagination, creativity, and no small measure of fabrication skill, besides.

When Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I moved to Frederick County those many years ago, we owned a house that had once been a country store — with the store building proper – gas pump island and all — joined to the home’s kitchen with an enclosed breezeway. The store had made a perfect studio and eventually, a florist’s shop for D, but when we first moved in it needed a little help.

It was a block building that had a full grocery store worth of inventory shelving attached to the block with masonry nails. It had been painted that lovely medium GI green that seemed to be so popular in the 30’s and 40s — and after someone had taken down the shelving it really did not present a smooth, attractive surface. Young Me had no skills, and Neal had more than a few, so he came and took up residence for a coupla few days while we crashed some drywall, paint and modern wiring and lighting into the dark beat old building.

After four or five long days mounting lathe to the wall, running romex, and drywalling and compounding the walls and ceiling, we had what appeared to be a brand new building. A few weeks later after the literal dust had settled, I found the vice grips in my toolbox. I remember thinking that if that tool brought me just half of one percent of the skill Neil had in using it, that would be some serious vice grips mojo.

So Neil, I never meant to lift your vice grips, but if you need ’em back, I’ll bring them by.

 

***

 

Upon refection, I have owned two absolutely terrible pickup trucks in my life.

The first of those absolutely terrible trucks was a FrankenTruck — its previous owner had combined the body from one of Chevy’s late 70s diesel pickups — which were do-it-yourself hand-grenade kits — with an older Oldsmobile 350 gasoline engine. I had gotten a smoking deal on it because the previous owner had become indisposed for about 7-11 years in Hagerstown.

And while that general description may sound somewhat plausible, there were a few details that were not exactly well-engineered, like twin gas tanks that had two fuel output lines but only one return line.

That system created some operational complexity that was more in line with a multi-engine aircraft than it was for a Chevy Pickup.

Perhaps to make up for all the ill that truck did me in our time together, it did do me one favor — it introduced me to Russell Mossberg.

Russell is the automotive mechanic. Apart from working as a professional mechanic, Russell races a dirt track car for fun, where things tend to get smashed and broken on the regular, and the ability to perform routine mechanical miracles in no time at all is part of the required repertoire of skill. When I found myself needing to swap an engine — in my second absolutely terrible pickup — Russell told me to bring it to a shop he managed after lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon — after the shop had closed — and we’d have the new one in by dinnertime.

We did.

When I’d first purchased Terrible Pickup One, I needed to get it inspected to re-register it, and given the genuinely sketchy paternity of the vehicle, I wasn’t expecting a completely smooth ride.

When I took the truck to the Maryland Inspection station, Russell was The Inspector.

He completed his work around and under the vehicle, and came to me with the Yellow Inspection Sheet on the clipboard.

“I’m be truthful with you Buddy … you bought this truck? Anyway, there’s a list of things that I’ll need you to repair to obtain your inspection pass, and then there’s another list of things that you don’t need to pass your inspection but you need to fix later when you can afford it.”

Russell has never been anything but 100% truthful with me then, or ever, which is a rare enough thing in a mechanic that we should note it with sincere appreciation here.

<Sound of Angelic Choir Up and Under>

Two or three years of FrankenTruck operation later, I noticed a small coolant leak under the left nose – which from my prior GM ownership experience, likely just meant a loose lower coolant hose clamp. As I poured myself over the truck’s fender to reach down to the rear of the radiator cowl, I noticed a flash of something green sticking out from the bottom of the cowling. After tightening the suspect clamp, which had turned out to be loose, I fished my hand down and produced a nice, but clearly shopworn slip joint pliers.

Slipjoint

And while it’s theoretically possible those pliers came with the truck when I bought it, since only my hands and Russell’s hands were laid upon the truck since I bought it, those slip joints were most likely Russell’s. Having watched the man at work, and having worked occasionally holding his metaphorical coat, I looked upon these beat pliers as another gift.

If you want magical, mechanical pliers mojo, you should get it from an honest man who looks at 318 Motor swaps the way most people look at making a sandwich.

 

***

 

I don’t know a lot about Vernon Goyot. And truthfully, I think there was a lot that people who thought they knew him well didn’t know, either. At least, based on what I found in his basement, anyway.

Mr. Vernon, as the neighbors and local kids called him, seemed to be a pretty normal, go to work everyday and church on Sunday kind of guy. He had a wife — Miss Dolores — that he loved and a job where he was a printing press and linotype mechanic. He lived in an old neighborhood in East Baltimore — where Sweet Doris’ parents and grandparents lived — where people looked after each other, brought food when you were sick, and supported the survivors in any way they needed when the old ones finally went home.

Mr. Vernon was closer to Sweet Doris’ grandparents’ age than her parents’ age, so, when not long after we were married, Vernon passed away, I volunteered to help her folks clean out the old rowhouse. Real estate agents that know me always joke about me being ‘a basement man’, and this was no different. Old rowhouses tend to have panelling, and this one had substantial little storage closets in the basement accessed though hatches in the panelling. And there were tools everywhere. There was a converted fishing tackle box that contained machinist’s drill bits — a box I still use, though many of the older bits have been sacrificed over time to my projects.

But one box I found was different.

Apparently Vernon had gone to fight in Europe during World War II. One small box – about the size of a cigar box – had ‘Paris’ written on its lid, and amazing things contained inside. The box had a false lid — concealed by a wooden slide. With the slide removed, once could see a woodburned artwork — a nude of a rather well-constructed unclothed woman. A woman who, it appeared, had been created by combining an image of a random nice body with an image of Miss Dolores’ head.

Oh, those crazy French.

But the hidden compartment had other little treasures.

There were insignia that appeared to have been removed from German Military uniforms. There was a very small, easily concealable 7.6 mm CZ Pistol — which had the German Imperial Eagle, complete with wreath and swastika, etched into the barrel inside the shell ejection port. And there was a steel ring — dated 1914 — which was decorated with the markings of the Order of The Iron Cross.

A Soldier’s Souvenir

Clearly, before Mr. Vernon had been punching a clock, and holding down his end of a boring, normal life, he’d had his fair share of excitement. Excitement, that when it was past, got put down into the basement and forgotten.

You Don’t Say, Stanley….

This Awl – from the Stanley Works of New Britain, Connecticut — also came from one of Vernon’s toolboxes. It’s a classic example of a tool made well enough to last and work for several lifetimes. I’ve used this tool for so many jobs, it beggars description. Putting new holes in belts and leather riding gear. Fixing shoes — Starting screws.

It just keeps doing the job without drama. Sort of like Mr. Vernon.

 

***

 

I have, when riding motorcycles, stepped on or nearly stepped on more than my fair share of tools. The drill is almost always the same — running down through the gears coming into an intersection, put foot down, and be presented with a road present.

I don’t know why tools fall out of cars or trucks in intersections, but they clearly do.

Craftsman tools have always been crazy tough. If they proved not to be, one went to your nearest Sears, and they’d give you a new one, no questions asked. As a direct result, I’ve tended to treat any Craftsmen tools in my box with a fair amount of disrespect. This one got stepped on in an intersection more than 20 years ago — it has the name ‘Josh’ scratched – badly – in the plastic handle. I’ve used this screwdriver for a screwdriver, a pry bar, a chisel, a jack handle — heck, if there was an easy way to use it for a kickstarter, I would have. If you’re out there and reading this Josh, you can’t have it back. Given the not quite fatal amount if damage I’ve done to it, I’m not sure you’d want it, anyway.

Hand Armor

I’ve got a pair of armored Duluth Trading Company carpenter’s gloves. Like everything Duluth, they’re reasonably well made, and kinda spendy. So spendy, that I wouldn’t own them, except that I nearly ran over them coming into an intersection.

Yet Another New Law of Newton? – The Conservation of Wrenches

I recently had a kind of tool crisis when my prized BMW Motorcycle tool kit was soaked in water and badly damaged by rust. One of my tools that didn’t survive that trial was a cheap Chinese adjustable wrench. It had always served as the bonehead saver – where one needed to hold a nut of the same size as another nut when breaking something loose. When my toolkit had gotten immersed, because the adjustable had moving parts – in the form of the screw adjuster and the sliding jaw it worked upon – those parts had been fused by rust, and it couldn’t be saved. I’ll admit I got a bit verklempt as I tossed something I’d used for 30 plus years into the shop trash.

On my next ride out of the house, I nearly stepped on this BluePoint adjustable wrench. It was slightly larger and, frankly, much nicer than the recently departed — made of tool steel, black oxide plated — a much nicer tool.

I’ve said bikers are a superstitious lot. Believing that The Universe can send you signs — like instantly replacing a destroyed favorite tool — plays right into that.

 

***

 

Mr Vernon was a printing press mechanic. So was my grandfather, Wadi Shamieh.

Or at least he started out that way.

Wadi — who, like many immigrants, went by the anglicized name of William in an attempt to blend and assimilate — came to this country with his mother and eight siblings from an Ottoman-occupied Syria. Wadi’s immigration papers list his occupation as ‘Printing Press Mechanic’.

Upon arrival in New York in the earliest part of the 20th century, Wadi saw a much greater market opportunity in New York’s garment industry and retrained as a sewing and knitting machine mechanic. I’m guessing that his thought process was that a lot of people were going to need sweaters where this book thing was never really going to catch on – a decision that served him well, eventually owning his own business, William A. Shamieh and Sons, and positioning my dad to become a manager and part owner of a knitting mill and garment factory that was one of Shamieh’s best customers.

When I was bestowed a former family car as my first motor vehicle, my dad pulled some of Wadi’s tools from his own tool box and presented them to me. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but as time has gone by, the apparent power of those tools — and the significance of that gift — has grown in my mind’s eye.

Wadi’s tools reflected his personality and how he approached his work — a man who liked precision — I remember him being a man who spent a lot of time manually sharpening anything with edges. To hear Wadi was to hear the constant shing of his knife blades on the sharpening steel.

Wadi’s tools also reflected the industry of his time — all made in the 19-teens and 20s. His tools are all high carbon tool steel — incredibly hard, incredibly strong — all made in America. The way these tools are made, my grandson could still find himself using them, if by that time anyone fixes anything that doesn’t involve lines of software code.

Cotter Pins Fear Me

These 90 degree needle nose pliers are feared by cotter pins everywhere. They have a long reach, can get into tight spots, and their pivot points are as well machined as engine internals – they have no discernible slop. The number of small, precise mechanisms this pliers has serviced is beyond anyone’s recall. From needlebed cams on Groz-Beckert knitting machines to slide needle clips on my Del’Ortos, if it’s small, I can hold it with these.

Rugged

We take the concept of a reversing ratchet socket wrench for granted, but before it was invented ratchets only turned one way — and to reverse drive directions one turned the drive handle over and pushed something called a drive plug through to the other side of the ratchet. Wadi’s Walden Worcester drive handle – built in 1928 – is about the toughest ratchet drive I’ve ever seen. It looks like a tool that a guy 10 years younger than Fred Flintstone would have spun. Given that most of my serious wrenching is done on motorcycles, I don’t make frequent use of 1/2 inch drive sockets, but for things like motormount bolts, swingarm pivots, centerstand bolts and telescopic fork tops and bottoms, this one reigns supreme. The Walden is long enough to apply sufficient force, and utterly rigid — it just does the job, drama free.

Built Better Than Tank

I ended up with 8 or 10 of my grandfather’s open end combination wrenches — all in SAE sizes, although one set is dual labelled with SAE on one side and metric equivalents on the back. It isn’t as easy to make a tough wrench as you might think — one that won’t round off fasteners or bend in use. Ask anyone who had a 1970s or 80s Japanese motorcycle with a factory toolkit, it you’re looking for backup.

These wrenches — again, dating from the 1920s — are forged tool steel. As many times as Wadi wailed on them, and I have wailed on them, the working faces of the wrenches have no discernible wear marks after over 90 years of use.

 

***

 

No one taught me how to be a mechanic. Anything I needed to do, I taught myself.

Sure, there were Chiltons, Haynes, and then after the dawn of the Internet, user communities like the Internet BMW Riders, and then eventually Google and YouTube, where you could learn Brain Surgery by watching videos if you were so inclined.

My Uncle Dick – who is a professional mechanic – used to warn me not to take guidance in the mechanical arts from his brother, my father. His appraisal of dad’s level of skills was not flattering.

That these hands have successfully rebuilt motorcycle top ends and had them run better afterwards – swapped bike engines and transmissions — done clutches — changed countless tires and brake pads — changed a sea of oil — makes me think that the gift of hands that can feel and that know — must skip generations.

Either that, or it’s the tools.

Hey, Hey, My, My

So, it’s been raining.

And raining.

And raining some more.

Yeah. Raining.

And because of my recently completed teardrop trailer build, all the Shamieh motorcycles lived outside through all five months of it.

An lest you think I am exaggerating about the experience of sustained rainfall rates, judge for yourself from this view out my shop door on an average day in May.

When the project wrapped, and the bikes came back inside, my K1200 showed no ill effects, with the possible exception of the LCD display on the bike’s radio, which absorbs moisture and becomes opaque. A little strategically applied alcohol pulls the moisture back out and the display becomes clear again.

My R90S — even with it’s Italian carburetors — pretty much shook it off.

My oldest alloy girlfriend – the R75/5 – really did NOT appreciate the experience. Either its Bing carburetors, simple fuel tank vent or some other secret route was admitting rainwater into the float bowls, and both carb jets and tune seemed to be suffering from deposits being left by the water. As if that weren’t enough, after low annual mileage and a bit of benign neglect had decided to pile on by having the valves decide they really needed to be adjusted as well.

If one looks up “Symptoms of BMW airhead needing valve adjustment” on the Adventure Rider forum , the first answer is: “Won’t Idle. Runs Like Crap.”

Yup. I got that.

Its not like an airhead valve adjustment is any kind of big deal, but it just meant the Old Girl was demonstrating her displeasure in every manner available to her.

The Toaster was going to need a full service — engine oil, transmission, final drive, forks, valve adjust, time and carb sync. First step was a thorough fuel system and combustion chamber clean – run a tankful of fuel with a strong concentration of good old Seafoam. Once that was done, the absolutely filthy contaminated oil could be changed, and the rest of the service could be completed.

Maybe, at the end of that, we’d return to having this be a fine running airhead.

And maybe she’d forgive me.

 

***

 

So, to move this along, the Toaster has been primary transportation. Anywhere I needed to go, the R75 is what I’d ride.

So its been to a lot of grocery stores, beer stores, autoparts joints, and delivered more than a few packages to the UPS terminal, given the nice flat parcel area described by the saddlebag tops and in between the short police saddle and the front of the luggage rack.

One day, while trying to fudge the idle adjustment – just to get the bike to idle, even badly, in the meantime — I made the mistake of pulling the bike’s toolkit. My airheads share a factory-ish toolkit — a third party oversize Cordura roll pouch, and all the stock BMW tools which were purchased grey market though Capital Cycle’s DC Storefront back in the early 80s – you know, so long ago that they all say “Made In West Germany”. There’s also a bunch of specialty tools and other little tricks of the trade — a four blade multi screwdriver, a Channel Lock expandable pliers, different feeler gauges, and some electrical bodge bits — a wire nut or two, spare Euro fuses.

The tool roll, though, had gotten wet. Really wet. Prolly more than once. The wet Cordura had then held the moisture up against the tools. The tool roll itself was mildewed and covered with mold. The tools themselves looked like something that had been pulled up from an ancient shipwreck – vague shapes trying to emerge from the rust.

My heart sank.

That tool set has been with two motorcycles, and kept them both fettled and running for a quarter million road miles and more than 30 years. Many of these exact tools would be hard to find — BMW fork cap pin wrench, anyone? — I could see ending up with a insufficient recreation courtesy of Harbor Freight.

I suppose that to make this story closed loop, I should have taken pictures of them in their unspeakable state. But it never occurred to me. It felt like some sort of hideous crime scene — there are some things that perhaps should just not be seen.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore set about running the Cordura tool roll though the washer, while I hosed down the tools with WD-40, and then spent a little time researching rust removal products.

 

***

 

According to fellow Internet users, what I needed was something called Evapo-Rust — an allegedly miraculous product that would set everything aright.

I’m from Brooklyn, so I’m skeptical, but one Slash 5 ride later, we had 32 ounces of the stuff. I cleaned the WD-40 off the metal surfaces, laid the tools out in a paint roller pan, and submerged everything in the cleaner, and waited for time to do its thing.

 

***

 

24 hours later, the less rusted tools had been restored to like-new condition. I rotated the remaining tools in the solution, and after another 24 hours, almost everything had been completely restored.

From Marine Archeology, Back to Usable Tools

There were a few small things that didn’t survive. After fusing all the blades together, I needed to replace the micro-size feeler gauges that I use to gap airhead pointsets. Fortunately, with both bikes equipped with Dyna Ignition Boosters, I don’t need to do that very often, and more fortunately, the exact same gauge I bought in 1985 is still a Pep Boys stock item at $2.79. I also had fabricated a special tool to remove oil filters – a small wire hook to reach in a get a hold of the filter — the wire I had used turned to dust once the rust had all been removed. I have a great deal of leftover wire from the teardrop project — I made one, and I’ll just have to make another.

Having been washed and reconstituted for the first time in 30 plus years, I rolled the toolkit back up and placed it back under the saddle of the /5. And while a day in the mid 40s might not seem like the ideal naked bike riding day, with the sun out, I couldn’t resist — I still had a some fuel system cleaner juiced fuel that I needed to burn off before I could take tools in hand and set this old motorcycle back aright.

The old girl fired right up on the first compression stroke as it always had — although coming off of choke it was a tad finicky — it took a little extra throttle to keep things spinning. Once on the road, and with a little heat coming into the motor, the Old Girl seemed to be genuinely enjoying her resurrection. I kept the revs up and the throttle open, and headed towards one of my favorite roads — Elmer Derr road — a tight, twisty, technical road that runs along a stream canyon for about half its length, and then becomes more fun when it climbs away from that stream.

Follow the Twisting Line

BMW Type 247 air-cooled engines do run like crap with tight valves — at idle and transitional low engine speeds. There is a flip side, though. With the revs up, those tighter clearances translate to more lift and better breathing — right up to the point where the valve will no longer fully close into its seat and quickly self destructs. Trusting in an Aluminum German God that we were not yet that far down the road to destruction, I kept my 900ccs happily spinning in the fourth gear of its transplanted five speed box — coming through the Multiple Bang-Bang 90-90s coming out of the Elmer Derr canyon the /5 just ate it up — lightening the front wheel on throttle on every corner exit.

Its hard to explain, to the uninitiated, how a very old motorcycle can somehow never get old.

I spent a good bit of time, winding around the south end of the county, before my road bent back in the direction of the shop. With a choice between my secondary roads towards home and the highway, I did the opposite of what I normally do, heading up the ramp onto US 340 and toeing the old boxer up into top gear. It’s only after years of burning up highways on a more modern, faired machine that it really sinks in just how comparatively narrow and tiny my /5 really is.

With no plastic to intercede with the wind, I sought out distant muscle memories to find that perfect aerodynamic tuck — where my mass and the wind zeroed each other out. Taking the old boxer up to about 4200 rpm, the Toaster found a serenely smooth 73 mph — this was still the motorcycle that had carried a much younger me to New Mexico and Arizona from Baltimore and back again.

Heading up Dynamometer Hill, the Toaster even had enough steam to accelerate crisply in top gear, which is not shabby for a 45 year old motorcycle with nearly 200,000 miles on the clocks, and its factory original bottom end.

Looks Pretty Good For Her Age

Back in the driveway, the cold air had my head cleared and my heart high in a way that I don’t know any other way to find. Soon the air will be too cold for this bike to see the road on anything but a freak warmer day. Until then I’ve got some shiny wrenches to spin, fluids to change, heads to retorque and valves to adjust. After the freakishly stormy weather and all the time outside, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if my air filter housing conceals some leafy, furry or feathery thing that does not belong, either. I’ll go through the long-familiar tool-in-hand motions, and get everything back in tune and running sweetly.

I may not be able to make her pretty, but I sure know how to make her sing.

 

Classic

If you have a motorcycle, I’m betting you also have a leather jacket.

If you’re like me, you may have more than one.

I’ve got a pair of Vanson jackets — a Sportrider for cooler weather and a Supermoto Perf for when things get hot. I also recently scored a Tourmaster Coaster 3 which is a tad comfier and — with its broad white racing stripe – looks great in road test pictures.

But those technical jackets — designed primarily for protection — weren’t my first set of skins.

Sometime round 1975, when I was 16 or 17 years old, I was introduced to a talented musician — Eddie was a year or two older than I, and had been a banjo prodigy – sitting in for Jerry Garcia with his bluegrass group ‘Old and In The Way’, when The Dead was on tour. Eddie had talents far beyond music — he had already completed his Doctorate in Chemistry, and had a day gig working R&D for General Mills. But at this point in his life, and having experienced a nearly crippling automobile accident — where a motorcyclist being pursued by the NYPD had struck the driver’s door of his car at over 100 mph — Eddie had taken up the electric guitar, written some songs, and was looking to put together a band. I had some skills on the bass, could sing a bit, and got the gig.

My only negative – in the punk rock band that developed into ‘Eddie and The Accident’ — was that I was a bit of a nerd, with a personal sartorial style that cried out for a bit of third-party styling. Just before our first (and last) public performance at a CBGB Open Mike Night — “You Might Suck, But At Least We Don’t Have To Pay You” — I remember Eddie looking at me, in my jeans and t-shirt, and telling me to hold on a minute. Given that he was still on one crutch, it took him a few minutes to work his way down the hall to his room and return.

“Here”, he said, tossing me something that was dark and very heavy. “This will help with your look”.

That coat more than helped – I just became a frame on which to hang that Schott Perfecto motorcycle jacket — it was bigger and certainly had more visual presence than I did. That jacket — the one Brando wore in ‘The Wild One’, the one Schwarzenegger wore as The Terminator, and four of which festooned fellow CBGB denizens The Ramones — are the archetype that appears in the imagination of anyone that tries to imagine a picture to go with ‘Motorcycle Hoodlum’ or ‘Punk’. There’s a very short list of Icons of American Design – A Fender Telecaster, A Chevrolet Corvette, a Harley Davidson Sportster – but that Perfecto jacket certainly lives there, as well.

‘Eddie and The Accident’ didn’t really last longer than our five song set, although I did meet a few people at CB’s that night for whom I still have abiding musical respect.

That jacket, though, became my second skin for several decades.

Heck, it was such a fantastic motorcycle jacket that I have no doubt that it contributed to my initial decision to get a motorcycle.

That Perfecto had a tough life. It served as uniform for a number of Rock and Roll bands. When I did get my first motorcycle – a slightly cruisered-out CB 750 — it did contribute to scaring defenceless civilians with a high production values sense of Hollywood Badassery.

Living in the seam between motorcycling and rock and roll, the Perfecto picked up enameled biker pins to customize it to my tastes — a BMW Roundel, a Rickenbacker 4001 Bass, and a K100RS. It wasn’t treated with respect — ’cause I knew it was built to take whatever I could dish out. If I needed to lie on the pavement to fix a car or motorcycle, I wore the Perfecto — rolling around on macadam didn’t even put a mark on it.

As good a motorcycle jacket as it was – windproof, warm, and tailored for the riding position – it wasn’t up to modern protective standards, and my changing body over the years eventually sized me out of wearing my Size 38 Schott.

When my son Finn began riding, he even wore it for a while until we found him a more versatile and protective textile jacket.

So, when I got a promotional e-mail from Schott the other day, I’m afraid I found it unintentionally hilarious.

It seems the Good People at Schott have decided that beating the living crap out of one’s Perfecto for more than 30 years is just too much trouble for some people. A Schott Perfecto jacket is a made in the USA, handmade craft object — a new one will set you back $750 to $900, depending on one’s selected options and choice of available hides. But, if you want one as thoroughly roasted as mine, they can sell you one, but its going to cost you extra.

These Specially Vintaged, artisanally distressed Perfectos can be had for the low price of only $1240 – or about 5 Franklins more than a regular ‘new’ one.

On the positive side, your properly broken-in Perfecto will be ready about three and a half decades before mine was, and is likely to still fit you by the time it’s fully worn-in.

Looking at my jacket, resigned to a sad life in the hall closet, it seems I should be looking to find it a new home on a thinner biker or rocker. So if you know somebody just about to break out with a new band, I think I’m in the position to make a deal.

It’s either that or e-Bay. I gots bills to pay.