Castrati

When one has old motorcycles, one gets in the habit of not letting things go.

Letting things go is to surrender to entropy, and that way randomness and oily, rusty, non-functional wreckage lies.

This mechanical wreckage puts me in mind of how I’d look with similar mileage and neglect.

So you don’t.

Or at least I don’t, anyway.

These things can be substantial. Or strangely trivial.

But when they break, I fix them. Because one is a freak, but two is a trend.

I’m so not into entropy.

 

***

 

I was out riding the Slash 5 a while back, enjoying my favorite one laners out in the farm bottoms.

All was sunny, green — boxer drone omnipresent — I was in the zone.

My green reverie was dispelled by green and yellow menace — a big boy John Deere lawn tractor being operated with boundless enthusiasm and questionable situational awareness.

Tractors are not uncommon hereabouts, so my tractor interaction and avoidance skills are well developed and frequently exercised.

Most of them, though, are great big slow moving things which are pretty easy to detect and, except for their operator’s visibility challenges, behave in pretty predicable ways.

This one, though, was small, quick and had the distinct appearance of one that was being operated in top gear and at full throttle. While most lawn mowers — and despite the John Deere green livery, this was just a very big lawn mower — turn when they reach the end of their lawn to make the next cutting pass, this one was flaky.

It might make the customary turn. Or it might just blast straight out into my path and end up requiring its owner to replace its pretty yellow seat.

I don’t use my horn very often, but when I do…

So I resolved to announce myself, and pressed the Toaster’s left button, bracing for the customary gut punch percussive report of the trusty Italian-made Fiamm dual horns.

“Wheeeeeeze-bleep….”.

That couldn’t be right. So I pressed it again.

“Bleeee…wheeeze…..”

Sigh.

Being a recovering Catholic means one carries a lot of really bizarre images around in your head.

Upon hearing my horn, or more precisely the lack thereof, the image that flashed across my mind was…..’Castrati’.

In Catholic liturgical music, the most delicate soprano voices are provided by Choir boys who today serve their faith in this way until they hit puberty, and their voices crack.

But it didn’t always work that way.

In modern times, we’ve (mostly) concluded that one’s life and future family win compared with one’s expression of faith. But at one time if you sang beautifully enough, that choice went the other way. You’d get….altered … for Jesus, so that your voice could continue to sing his praises, and your life, well….

So cut back to the button, where my expectations were of power, of ‘A Fullness of Sound’.

I expected Pavarotti.

I got a 43 year old choirboy.

 

***

 

Fortunately, and likely not because of my thundering horn, Deere Man noticed me, and braked to a stop before entering the road.

The potential for our paths to intersect having been reduced to zero, I rolled back on the throttle and sped on up the road.

 

***

Back in the garage, troubleshooting was pretty straightforward.

Standing in front of the bike, I cupped my hand over the low tone horn of the low/high pair, inclined my head toward my hand, and pressed the Toaster’s left button.

No problem there.

I repeated the drill with the high tone horn of the pair.

I was treated to a comically pitiful and failing bleat.

Yup. That’s your problem right there.

I went into my office and Amazoned up a Fiamm ‘Freeway Blaster’ high tone horn.

 

***

 

Fast forward several days, and my postman provides me with the horn.

That evening, I popped it out of its plastic clamshell and learned a thing or two. Unlike my existing ‘Made in Italy’ horn, this one was made in a plant in Cadillac, Michigan. It was missing the cute chrome grille that probably hasn’t been made for 25 years. And it was designed to operate with two wires, not the ‘hot and frame ground’ method used by my antique example. To allow it to be used, the Fiamm guys had included a nice pre-wired terminal and jumper which would work in one terminal applications. After a few moments unsuccessfully searching for some “+”s and “-“s, I reviewed the minimal documentation, which stated that the horn “was not polarity sensitive”.

I walked out to the garage, a pulled a 10mm wrench out of the tool chest. I spun the nut off the existing horn, pulled the wire terminal off and removed the horn. When I went to drop the old horn in the shop trash — how many miles had this thing seen since 1985? — a full two tablespoons full of dirt fell out of the horn’s mouth.

wp_20170104_18_48_59_pro

I had prewired the jumper inside, so wired up the hot wire, tightened up the nut and was done — total elapsed time about 25 seconds.

I pressed the button.

The walls shook — we had Pavarotti, The Mighty Hammond Organ and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir all at once.

It might be a Cheezy Physics Trick, but it is a good one.

Each of these two horns is audible, but by itself nothing special.

But put two of them together, and the interference patterns made by the two selected notes create the kind of din you really want if someone is trying to kill you with their vehicle. 1+1 equals the sonic equivalent of the 5:19 to Moline.

Entropy temporarily vanquished. Bring on the John Deere Lawn Tractors.

Movement

Good riding is like dancing — to get to that magic place one needs to relax and sense and surf the flow of the road beneath you — not forcing things but becoming one with it. It can be hard to achieve the utter concentration of focus and selflessness — it sounds almost Buddhist — where as a rider you are both there and not there concurrently.

Some people can close their eyes, inhale deeply and just get there every day.

For others that place might be as remote as the surface of the moon.

 

***

 

In the middle of a stranglingly soul crushing work day, the internet bought me this.

Australian World Superbike Champion and all-round charming guy Troy Corser was racing at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed — piloting a 1935 BMW RSS works racer. The RSS was equipped with a rigid rear suspension and tires that were of comparable width to those on my mountain bicycle.

Yet there was Troy, piloting a more than 80 year old motorcycle, and instead of being mindful of conserving his priceless museum piece, was absolutely wringing its neck — riding it like he stole it — and keeping up a pace that appeared to be in the same zip code as a current superbike racer.

Troy was absolutely in the zone — limbs loose and graceful, body position low on the motorcycle, with the throttle mostly wide open and the bike moving around — demonstrating the unmistakable bucking movement under power of a rigid rear roadracer. If the bike had brakes Troy made absolutely no use of them. At points, both ends of the bike would completely break loose — something that seemed to faze Troy not a whit — he’d just gather up the bike with gentle inputs on the bars and go back to shepherding the RSS back in the direction of another Pole Position pace lap.

His riding was nothing less than a thing of beauty to behold.

The sound of that RSS motor spinning hard way up the rev band — that boxer aeromotor drone — was both familiar and evocative — a clear invitation.

I headed for the garage at my first opportunity.

 

***

 

Don’t get me wrong.

Troy Corser’s entire self is likely less than the width of one of my chubby legs. His worst day in the saddle no doubt eclipses my best.

But watching the old boxer moving around underneath him had me ghosting the sensations in my hands and feet and thighs, and I knew I could play back that magic I’d seen.

I knew just the place to do it, too.

I headed over the ridge from Jefferson — headed down to the Potomac and Point of Rocks. From there I rode Ballenger Creek Pike through the southern farms of Frederick County — tight technical stuff through the woods then opening up to run through pastureland.

I was headed for Cap Stein Road — a hedgerow-lined Colonial Era road that followed the property lines of those earliest Maryland estates.

Like many of these old roads, it gets right down to business, with a tight decreasing radius right hander less than 50 yards in. It’s like starting a fist fight with your best right cross straight to the face — there’s no mystery about one’s intentions after that.

Cap Stein is lovely because the next several corners combine grades and apexes — from the tops of some hills and the bottoms of others. The topography hides the corner exits, but this is by no means my first run down this road. I keep the R90’s motor spun up and on the boil — it is only for a set of bang-bang 90s that I’m forced to drop a gear to third for my entries.

The S moves around on its suspension as tires scrub and slide — I stay loose and let the wheels do what they do.

My old motorcycle and I are truly alive — straightening out a twisty roadway and making a wonderful noise.

 

***

 

After dropping back into the Middletown Valley, I rode Gapland and Broad Run at full chat back to the house.

As I stood beside the bike after shut down, I let the sound die down in my head.

Letting the bike move its way, while I moved mine — letting the road come to me instead of forcing the machine to it.

Never had 30 minutes been so restorative.

All of the cerebral noise of the day had been banished by the purity of movement.

We’re Here to Help

I got a love note — electronically of course — from my local Department of Motor Vehicles.

I found this somewhat surprising.

I had no idea they had such strong feelings, and certainly didn’t expect them to express them in writing.

Here’s what they said to me:

 

Important information about Maryland registered historic vehicles

Dear Historic Vehicle Owner,

As the owner of a historic vehicle, we want to make you aware of legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly that goes into effect on Saturday, October 1, 2016. It is important to know that this legislation will impact how historic vehicles may be operated.

Effective October 1, 2016, a Maryland registered historic vehicle may no longer be used for transportation to and from employment, school, or for commercial purposes.

In addition, historic vehicles with a model year of 1986 or newer may be subject to safety equipment repair orders issued at roadside by law enforcement.

Thank you for your compliance with this new Maryland law.

 

I’ll admit that I was taken aback by this communication.

What struck me right away was two things. First, was the fact that the state had elected to change the terms under which the registration had been applied for and granted. Changing the rules for something which had already occurred is the key feature of laws which get thrown out during judicial review. The second, frankly, was its lack of clarity and specificity.

Was ‘transportation to and from employment, school’ primary or repeated, routine transportation, or any one time event?

I’ll own two motorcycles that are registered as Historic motor vehicles. I have other non-historic, plain old motor vehicles registered in the my home state. I don’t put on as many miles as I used to, since a lot of IT work is home based or remote, these days.  I do sometimes go to corporate offices or client locations, but I am not a daily commuter.

But give me a temperate, sunny day when I have a local meeting, and I will, on occasion pick my 1975 R90S as the vehicle of choice. The R90S — which no one will deny is a historically important motor vehicle — meets or exceeds all modern highway safety requirements, can cruise comfortably well above posted speed limits, can carry my lunchbag, oh, and is fun.

Imagine one imaginary perfect spring morning, sunny and just under 70 degrees. I’m riding down an imaginary Maryland highway, when I hear the “woOt!” of a siren being blipped at me and see the blue lights strobing in my mirrors.

Imaginary me indicates right, pulls to the shoulder, shuts down, puts the bike on the stand, and dismounts.

By the time the trooper approaches, I’ve removed my helmet and sat it on the bike’s saddle.

“Good morning, Sir.”

“Good morning, trooper. Is there some problem?”

Now you might well ask yourself, why am I so seemingly well rehearsed in the details of having one’s motorcycle stopped by law enforcement officers while on the highway?

Then again, you might not be the inquisitive sort, and you might not remark on that at all.

“Sir, when I pulled you over were you …..going to work?”

Probably one more beat would go by than was altogether healthy before I could imagine a response.

“Oh, no sir, its waaay to nice a morning to be going to work. I was actually headed out to pick up some doughnuts.

Wanna Come?”

“No thank you, Sir. Be safe out there. Have a nice day.”

 

***

 

Look, I’ll cop to being an ethical human being that values and respects integrity and listening to it when it talks to you.

And it pains me to even consider this but I think we would all agree that there are some lies that fall into that category that William S. Burroughs used to categorize with the query, “Wouldn’t You?”.

I just never imagined myself being placed in position where — for my own preservation — I’d have to lie about… going to work…”

It still kind of makes my head spin just to give it voice.

 

***

 

I try not to get political, but sometime political gets you instead.

I don’t really know for sure which problem my legislature was trying to solve, although I have my guesses.

My best one is that they think that the state is losing out on registration revenue because some folks are registering their daily use vehicle as ‘Historic’ when that now covers any vehicle older than 1991.

Heck, my very first new car, a 1991 Mazda Protege, would be eligible for Historic tags.

Sobering, that.

Anyway, by that by trying to define ‘daily use’ or primary motor vehicle in this way that they would get those folks to cough up for non-historic, full cost plates.

But that definition fails to get the desired result or give law enforcement any tools to enforce it.

Lots of us that hang around here have historic motorcycles.

I’m betting that some of you even have…. historic cars (shudder).

How the state restricts your right to operate them is a big deal, so we want to make sure they get it right.

How much money I pay the state in registration fees would make your stomach hurt.

I have multiple non-historic cars and motorcycles. Any one of them is considered my daily use vehicle by the company that insures them all. So when I take one of the historic bikes out for a ride, the notion that my state can define certain uses as permitted and certain uses as illegal is just more than I’m willing to accept.

I’ve already written to my State Senator to tell him to write a law that fixes their problem but that this isn’t it.

I’mma fight. For my right.

To putt free.

The Promised Land – Part 5

At a certain point, visiting the Barber Motorsport Museum becomes an embarrassment of riches.

The human/biker brain can only absorb so much before it simply begins to overheat.

So, understanding that this brain may need to stop from time to time … like a truck climbing the Hakone Pass … to get the cerebral needle out of the red overheat zone, let me continue walking the floors of the museum and sharing some of the things that caught and held my eyes.

I’ll also apologise in advance for my obsession with anything with a boxer engine. When you’ve had at least one motorcycle with a boxer available to ride in one’s garage since 1983, it tends to color one’s perceptions of all things motorcyclic.

I’ll also cop to being a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s story, The Imp of the Perverse, describes perfectly that impulse within the human being of being unable to resist being drawn to anything somehow quirky, weird, nonstandard or self-destructive. Given a choice between anything good and anything somehow not good, Poe’s protagonist chooses perversely every single time, even despite knowing better.

If you’ve been reading Rolling Physics Problem regularly, you now fall into the category of a horse that does not need to be shown to this particular water.

The perverse, then, is the perfectly natural segue to the subject of one Alfred Angas Scott, and his motorcycle, the Scott Squirrel.

As an engineer brought up on steam power, Scott had no problem ‘seeing’ 2-stroke internal combustion power.

And designers and engineers that are unfettered — that are thinking out of the box, because no ever told them about the box in the first place — make the things that they, in the minds eye, can see.

So while some guys in Milwaukee were making stone-ax simple 4 stroke air cooled engines – driving things via variable tensioning of leather drive belts and wondering if a cam-driven intake valve might be a good idea, Alfred was some other where entirely.

Aflfred was thinking about big – by the standards of the day – 2 stroke power, water cooled, no less. Instead of dropping that engine into a bicycle – which was more or less what everybody else was doing – Al designed a chassis that optimized the location and roll moment of that engine, placing it as low and forward as could be managed. Drive was via a clutched, two speed transmission and chain. In keeping with studiously avoiding what everybody else was doing, Scott located his fuel tank underneath the rider instead of ahead of him. That location, again one that would provide mass centralization, is one that one still see used on modern street and race motorcycles.

If you squint real hard, and are willing to overlook details like the difference between rotary and reed valve intakes, you can almost merge the thing with the last production Yamaha 2 stroke streetbike the RZ350, as well as all of the 2 stroke twin racebikes that preceeded it.

Except that those motorcycles were built in 1985, and Scott was working in 1905.

DSCN2581

DSCN2582

DSCN2583

Did the Scott work as a sports motorcycle?

Did the RZ?

Scott Motorcycles set lap records on the Isle of Man in 1911, 1912, 1913 and 1914, and won the TT in 1912 and 1913.

So yeah. It worked.

I talk a lot about the shared basic vocabulary of motorcycle design — two wheels and tank and a motor — think international symbol sign for motorcycle or Norton Manx.

Alfred Angas Scott managed to build motorcycles that went like stink without making use of any of that standard vocabulary.

***

I stop to look at this 1926 ABC, because, well, its a boxer.

DSCN2568

Upon reflection, its more than that, though.

The Sopwith All Brittish Engine company worked through the details of this familiar looking motorcycle in the early 19-teens, and was selling the bike in volume as soon as the First World War ended.

And in 1926, when they had seen more than a few R32s, they took BMW to court to enforce ABC’s Patent for this engine design. And lost.

What if?

***

Have you noticed its always about doing better?

A young Englishman named George Brough — the son of a motorcycle maker and a racer of more than a little skill — came by a little money when he came of age. George decided that if he was going to have a bike that was as good as bike as he was a rider he’d just have to make it himself.

Like every ripping good British bike story — and more than a few American ones too — the meat of the action moved to a few pints at the pub.

George and his dad Bill, along with the George’s mates, were raising the wrist in an attempt to conjure some inspiration. After enough rounds of inspiration had been consumed, and more than a few suggestions had been ridiculed and discarded, one of George’s mates had an idea.

“Hows ’bout we call it the ‘Brough Superior’?”

Bill Brough was heard to snort.

“I supposed that would make my bikes the ‘Brough Inferior’.”

Laughter ensued, but George was not deterred. The name stuck.

***

George’s bikes were handbuilts — stong stable frames and stronger engines. The entire bikes were assembled twice — once for fit and tune and then a second time after being disassembled for paint and plating. The bikes were guaranteed from the factory to achieve what were extremely elevated speeds for the 1920s — 80 mph for the SS 80 and 100 mph for the SS 100. Bikes that could not achieve those speeds on the road could be returned to the factory to be tuned by George and his mates until it could.

Broughs set several world speed records and became the single prized material posessions of TE Laurence, whose first Brough was named Boanerges — which means Sons of Thunder in ancient Arameic — and then six more until the SS100 that he died riding. At the time of his death, Laurence had an eigth Brough on order and being built for him.

Brough Superiors were built in tiny numbers — 3000 bikes over 22 years — by hand by skilled craftsmen. Looking at them is looking at an artwork — all chrome and brass plating, insanely deep black laquer — and a harmony of design that is unique.

DSCN2559

DSCN2560

DSCN2573

The Brough is the picture of ease and strength. From the saddle, in top gear they felt they could run up top until one ran out of petrol or ran out of road.

***

Mr Edward Turner’s Trumph Speed Twin motorcycle, first sold in 1937, became one of the most iconic motorcycle designs of all time, and formed the core of Triumph’s products until the end of the original triumph Engineering Company in 1980, and still has echos in the modern Heritage Twins sold by the sucessor Triumph Motorcycle Company.

DSCN2578

For a period before the introduction of the Honda CB 750, the Bonnevilles were the sales and racetrack leaders in the USA.

This Motorcycle is not a Triumph, though. Or a BSA, whose twin it more closely resembled.

DSCN2563

And you’d need to read the Tank badge to actually be able to tell.

Signs like the Kawasaki W1 and W2 motorcycles were the writing on the wall for the British Motorcycle Industry, and that writing was writ large. Companies like Kawasaki were completely capable of manufacturing products that literally beat the British at their own game. The W motorcycles were more precisely manufactured, had better tolerances and machining — companies like Kawasaki were able to identify design defects and promptly remedy them where their British counterparts seemed incapable. The resulting products were oil tight, and mechanically and electrically reliable in every way.

Put the British and Japanese motorcycles to functional comparison, and the Japanese bikes won, rolling away.

There would eventually be a rematch, but the original knockout kept the British motorcycle industry down for for decades.

***

I love motorcycles.

I also love electric guitars.

It is very rare that these enthusiasms combine, in my experience, except maybe in the stories of Peter Egan.

In real life, though, its exceedingly rare.

Hell, the case of designer and engineer Paul Bigsby might be unique.

I know Bigsby’s work from perhaps his most famous creation, the Bigsby Vibrato tailpiece.

bigsvy vibrato

Bigsby is actually once of the three or four most significant engineers in the history of the electric guitar, truly able to stand toe to toe with Les Paul and Leo Fender. In addition to the famous ur-whammy bar, Bisgby is also credited with designing the original pedal steel guitar, the first double neck electric, the first through-stringed electrics, and the shape of the headstock eventually used by Leo Fender on his Stratocaster guitars.

BigsbyGuitar1953

Bigsby was a metalcraftsman, and his products made frequent use of stout chromed steel and aluminum castings, usually with his name cast in using elegant script.

Once when I was attending a motorcycle show, I was presented with an American motorcycle that I hadn’t seen before. What struck me about it were some of the castings and cases, which made use of that same familiar Bigsby script.

“What are the chances?” I thought.

One hundred percent, apparently.

That motorcycle was a Crocker, and Paul Bigsby was their designer and engineer.

DSCN2579

DSCN2580

The Crocker was guaranteed by its manufacturer to be able to beat any Harley or Indian in any contest of speed. It was a guarantee that Crocker never had to pay out on.

Crockers were only built in minscule numbers from 1936 to 1942, and are now some of the most valuable and rare American motorcycles ever built.

Just goes to show that if you were an engineer living in California in the late 1930s, and knew how to design things made out of metal, go fast and guitars were likly both living in your neighborhood.

***

And now, a boxer weirdess interlude.

When you’ve laid wrenches on and been underneath more BMW boxers than Doan’s has little back pills, you tend to look at details. So here are some pretty weird and wonderful things that caught my eye.

This is a BMW R12 — a flathead boxer sold between 1935 and 1942.

DSCN2509

I freely admit that my direct BMW experience does not cover bikes built before 1970, so I’m out of my depth with bikes this old. What caught my eye on this single carb model was the chromed steel tube leading from the exhaust pipe nut back to the alloy exhaust manifold.

I’ve seen some modern vehicles that inhect small amounts of combustible mixture on the far side of the exhaust valve to promote ‘afterburn’…not for power but for cleaner exhaust emissions. This likely wasn’t one of those, but its purpose had me stumped and flailing back to the Googling thing.

The answer was a a bit of a surprise. The R12’s Flathead Setup was prequently used for a sidecar tug, and frequently in cold, crappy conditions, ’cause, well, its a sidecar. And in said cold, crappy conditions, the warm up behavior of the R12’s single carb setup, with its lengthly alloy intake plumbing was somewhat less than soul stirring. In short, the bike wouldn’t atomize fuel or keep it atomized worth a polished turd until some heat made its way back there, which, if conditions were cold enough or crappy enough, would happen right about well, never.

The solution was this little chrome pipe, which carried enough heat from the exhaust port/exhaust pipe junction back into the manifold to allow fuel to atomize and stay that way.

Problem solved.

***

With one problem solved. let’s talk about another boxer problem.

One might wonder why we love boxers so much if there are so many problems.

Stop wondering that.

These are not the droids you are looking for.

Anyway, classic BMW boxers have pushrods. Pushrods which ride in tubes. Pushrods that ride in tubes which, if you keep them long enough, are sure to leak.

Just the thought of leaking pushrod tubes has my mind’s eye supplying an image of buddy Paul Mihalka. Paul was working his desk at the BMW dealer one day, when I had made a stop at the parts department for two sets of pushrods seals.

“What have you got?”, asked Paul.

“Some pushrod seals.”

The rest of Paul’s presentation was in pantomime, but its meaning was crystal clear.

With one hand, Paul held the invisible screwdriver — with the other, the invisible hammer. The invisible hammer smacked the invisible screwdriver, driving in, without a doubt, the invisible retainer with its leaking invisible pushrod seal.

“Tink Tink Tink.”

Paul had a huge smile on his face. He knew that any BMW rider older than 5 seconds old knew exactly what those motions meant, having done it more times than anyone could remember — think of it as a boxer lover’s secret handshake.

So that is why this motorcycle, built by Reg Pridmore Motors of Ventura California as a Daytona Racebike, is so interesting.

DSCN2525

Reg, who, it can be assumed, knows a little about boxers, was fairly confident that the top ends of this race motor would need to be removed and replaced fairly often, and would be operated under thermal and mechanically stressful conditions that would routinely cause pushrod sealing to fail.

So, rather than re-comitting to a life filled with hammers, screwdrivers, punches and “Tink Tink Tinks”, Reg or one of Reg’s men resolved that he could do better.

DSCN2524

It took all of the aforementioned 5 seconds of me looking at the motor of the RPM Racebike for a Giant Looney Toon Lightbulb to come on over my head with a giant high amperage relay closing sound — “ZZZZntThunk!”. The RPM Guys had threaded the pushrod tubes and done some fancy close order welding to join a flanged retainer to a threaded collar. The only thing between what they’d done and perfection would have been to add a set of flats for a wrench.

To pull the top end, one only needed to spin the retainers up the tube. Upon reassembly, spin back down. Develop a leak? Take a 1/4 turn on the retainer to place a bit more pressure on the seal.

Brilliant.

Now if you will excuse me, my Slash 5’s pushrods are leaking, and I feel a good “Tink Tink Tink” coming on.

***

This next item is only marginally boxer related, but bears a short mention anyway.

All of my boxers – being aged – have made use of tubed tires. The Metzler natural rubber tubes that I prefer always come with a vavle stem cap that includes a little stem service wrench, which allows one to make sure the valve cores are seated properly to avoid leaks, and to remove the stems when tires are being mounted.

3-5g-Brass-Access-Valve-Cap-w-O-Ring-and-Schrader-Valve-Core-Removal-Tool-USD

I had assumed that said freebie, which I always ensure to have on my bikes, was some sort of tire manufacturer good idea.

Looking closely at an R32, I saw this.

DSCN2565

Clearly original, clearly cast bronze, and clearly over a half pound of metal.

Two conclusions. One – Boxer guys like valve stem tools. Two – tire balance is a modern concept.

 

 

The Promised Land — Part Four

Most folks that know me, even the ones that know me well, don’t know that I still have a Honda.

Much as I wish it was one of their thoroughbred racing machines – like the exqusite RC30 – this one is a far humbler machine.

Its a 160 cc SOHC Two valve single, and run flat out it’s good for a little under 7 hp.

When my little HRZ216 is WFO, I try to imagine that I’m running the Honda RC166 250/6 with its signature shreik, or the RC30’s gear driven cam whine.

But no matter how hard I try, I just can’t.

***

When someone tells you they have a Vincent, the mere thought of it is enough to send chills up your spine.

The Vincent, Stevenage.

The immortal. The legend. Richard Thompson’s Black Lightning and Red Molly, the Red-Haired Girl.

Hunter Thompson’s half reverent and half looney characterizations of The Black Shadow — equal parts myth and bollocks.

Marty Dickerson roaming the land wiping up drag races with his Rapide in every town. Rolly Free in his bathing suit, forever in flight on the Black Lighning at Bonneville.

Just say “Vincent” and at very least, the mind conjures up something like this.

DSCN2504

But nothing like this.

DSCN2497

But yet.

DSCN2498

It is.

Look at it, for god’s sake. It has to be the most singularly beautiful and well designed/well made lawn mower you’ve ever seen in your life.

The cutter deck is made from 2 aluminium castings. The front and rear axels ride on swingarms that are also cast alloy. Look at the precious tiny Amal carb.

The handle is a large diameter tube that doubles as the fuel tank.

Again, Eric Buell to the courtesy phone, Eric Buell, courtesy phone.

Does your Briggs and Stratton have a cast aluminum crankcase with radial cooling fins?

Didn’t think so.

***

What a cast aluminum gem of a yardwork machine like this tells me is that Motorcycles have always been a lousy business proposition.

The historic metaphorical roadside of our sport is littered with the corpses of the many Design and Engineering Geniuses that could not figure out how to sell enough of their most excellent creations to make a freaking profit.

I understand the variables of business — R&D, materials cost, labor cost, tooling. I understand that one needs to have full control of those variables to compute a price at which the products can be sold to make money. Sometimes customers just don’t show up.

But to have built something as elegant, innovative and fully realized as the Vincent Rapide, and then to have found oneself trying to sell lawnmowers trying to broaden one’s market feels a lot like Bob Dylan having to play kid’s birthday parties to make rent.

The mower was not the only such attempt to break into new markets to save the company. Vincent actually demonstrated more innovative thinking when they developed the Amanda water scooter — one of the first recongnizable personal watercraft.

Again, it was elegant and precient in that it created a design that was decades ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it was also a few less decades ahead of really understanding exactly how fiberglas worked. Issues with heat management inside the Amanda’s hull had a bad habit of compromising the Amanda’s hydrodynamic integrity.

Neither lawnmowers nor personal watercraft could save The Vincent.

To make money selling motorcycles didn’t require that one created a performance at all costs, stout engined, smooth running, long-legged, high speed luxury jewel of a motorcycle.

It meant exactly the opposite, in fact.

***

It really is the Lesson of Henry Ford.

That lesson nearly wiped the entire motorcycle industry off of the industrialized western world.

And the lesson is to make money selling motor vehicles, one needs to use the least expensive materials that are feasible, to drive every possible efficiency into production, and sell the vehicle for the lowest possible price, so that every one that wants one can afford one.

In the case of cars, that meant a Model T Ford. It had just enough motor to make the thing go, and very little else.

In the case of motorcycles, that meant thinking small. And thinking about lots and lots and lots of those small motorcycles.

***

There are lots of ways to get to small and cheap.

In the 1920s, it meant things like the Johnson Motor Wheel, which you could order as a kit made to add to your bicycle, for $97.50 out of the back of Boy’s Life Magazine.

DSCN2506

The Motorwheel is a fairly sophisticated thing for a simple bicycle clip on engine. The opposed twin 2-stroke is pretty heavy power by clip-on standards, most of which are singles. The rear wheel drive with its chain and sprung cush drive is also pretty trick.

The whole setup worked pretty well, and they sold a fair number of them, until they ran smack into the actual titular Henry Ford of Henry Ford’s Lesson. When the motorwheel cost a hundred dollars (plus a bicycle) and a Model T sold for three hundred, sales kinda fell off the table.

Not easily discouraged, and fairly imgainative sorts, the Johnson Brothers slapped a lower drive unit and a propeller on the Motorwheel’s twin, and they were instant leaders in the outboard boat motor business.

In the basement of the Barber, outside the restoration shop entrance, is a collection of roughly a dozen Johnson Outboard Motors of similar vintage. When I visited, I remember remarking to myself that there seemed to be few limits to George Barber’s internal combustion enthusiasms. I didn’t realize, until I researched this story, that those Johnson Outboards — with their shining brass fittings — were two, four and six cylinder configurations of that same Motorwheel twin clyinder engine.

I didn’t know it then, but those outboards were just the rest of the Motorwheel story.

***

The Johnson Brothers were far from the only people who tried to rule the world by putting engines on bicycles. A few years and one world war later, the same idea occurred to the Marx Brothers.

“That’s the most rediculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

<Knocks ash off of cigar>

Not so fast, Captain Spaulding.

Ok, so maybe it didn’t occur to all the Marx Brothers, but it did occur to one Herbert Marx, known better as Zeppo.

Most folks older than a certain theshold age know Zeppo Marx, the corny satiric ‘Straight Man’ of the Marx Brothers comendy team. What most folks don’t know is that Herbert was an engineer, and when he tired of being the least funny Marx Brother and the butt of their many jokes, he started an engineering company called Marman Products.

Zeppo figured he could do better than working a gig where his brothers had named him after a monkey.

Marman Products, established right in the middle of Southern California’s Aerospace manufacturing hub, had two major products. The first was the Marman clamp, a seemingly simple but ingenious clamp that would eventually find uses in everything from aircraft intakes — especially super and turbocharged ones — to being used to secure the Atomic Bombs that were dropped on Japan — to becoming the tool for anything NASA built that had to come apart on command.

marman clamp

In all liklihood, you have one of these things somewhere on your motorcycle. The examples used by NASA are a little more interesting, from an engineering perspective, as they updated Zeppo’s original design — which used either a standard nut or thumbscrew ‘wingnut’ to secure them — to what NASA called a ‘Pyrotechnic Actuator’.

Mere non-NASA mortals would refer to that as, more simply, an exploding bolt.

If, like me, as a kid you watched every televised NASA spaceflight, you saw these pyro activated Marman clamps drop the fuel and oxidizer lines from every space vehicle on launch, and allow every booster stage and space vehicle to separate after engine burn-out.

That humble, but exacting clamp design allowed Marman Products to become Aeroquip, one of the largest hydraulic and pressurized system vendors in in the world, and allowed Herbert Marx to retire to Palm Springs with a net worth many times more than all the other Marx Brothers combined.

Clamps, while interestering, are not why you and I are here, though.

Being that Marman products was operating in the exact center of the aeronautical design and manufacturing universe of Southern California, we have to assume that at some point, Herbert Marx was shown a US Army Air Corps target drone. That target drone had, as the Johnson Motorwheel did, an opposed twin 2 stroke motor.

There was, I surmise, the sound of a relay closing, the spinning of cerebral gears, a phone call to Schwinn Bicycle of Chicago Illinois, and then this.

“Ding!”

DSCN2505

PeeWee Herman’s ride has nothing on this.

Power, compared to the Johnson, was markedly up — 3.5 hp to the Johnson’s 1. The Marman has a nice springer front suspension — which was common to the bicycles of the time — and a cable operated drum front brake, which was not common but undoubtedly necessary. The headlamp looks to be automotive spec and the Chrome Tank with ‘Shooting Star’ logo would be a nice touch on any motorcycle of any vintage.

Like the Johnson, the Marman was also sold as a kit to be added to the user’s own bicycle. Schwinn did design and sell a bicycle — the MP97, as seen in this example — specifically for this conversion, which could be done and sold complete by any Schwinn dealer.

***

Now clamping motors on bicycles is hardly a unique idea — it had been happening in one form or another since the first internal combustion motors.

But when the same idea concurrently occurred to someone on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, it was the first pitch in what was going to turn into a whole new ball game.

DSCN2499

The idea of appropriating war materials and turning them into motorbikes was again repeated. In the case of the Marman, it was a drone aero target motor. In the case of the Honda Cub D, it was an engine from a Tohatsu generator set that was intended to power combat communications gear. Other examples of military gear turned Motorbike abound — the original Lambretta and Vespa scooters were also found object bikes — the powerplants were made from the internal combustion starter motors for large aircraft, and the choice of those scooter’s signature small, fat tires was driven through re-use of tail landing gear wheels from fighter planes.

Different fighting forces leave different things lying around after wars, and bikers will turn them all into something to ride.

***

After selling more than 15,000 of the little mopeds into the destroyed economy and infrastructure of post-war Japan, Sochiro Honda and his partners decided they could do better. They’d been experiencing customer complaints that root caused to issues with the bicycles — bearing failures, stability, brakes — over which they had absolutely no control. The only way out of frustrated customers was to design a frame and suspension that was meant from the start to be a true motorcycle.

And so they did.

And like all Version 1.0s, the Honda Dream Model D was not quite 100% when it was released to the public. The frame and suspension, which borrowed heavily from the design of pre-war BMW single cylinder motorcycles, used pressed steel stampings for structure with a plunger rear suspension. The Dream Model D was powered by a 98cc two stroke, which was noisy and down on required power. It offended Sochiro Honda’s engineering sensibilities — he once characterized the Model D motor as looking “as though it’s been cut from a bamboo tube with holes drilled. ”

Honda assigned Kiyoshi Kawashima, an engineer from the Hammamatsu manufacturing plant, to design a 150 cc 4 stroke single. The Engineer tested the resulting mule on the Hakone Pass, which was more or less the steepest and longest incline in all of Japan.

As the Test mule was able to pull up to peak power in the taller of its two available gears, Kawashima began to think that this was going to work out. The Engineer was also glad that this day would see pouring rain, so that he had some extra safety margin in the cooling departrment with this unproven engine. The little single even managed to run away from the pre-war Buick that carried Mr. Honda and his Marketing Guy, one Mr. Fujisawa. Upon reaching the top of the grade with no siezures and still delivering peak power, Mr. Honda was hugged by his drenched wet Test Rider/Engineer.

Embarrassed apologies were offered for soaking down Mr. Honda, but they had a winner.

DSCN2500

Really, all of the ingredients of the modern Honda motorcycle were all present.

Firstly, 4 stroke power. Then, robust, simple designs that made high power per displacement and were inexpensive to manufacture and purchase. These were well designed, well manufactured, oil tight and, by the standards of the time, supremely reliable motorcycles.

Behind that Second Dream, there were 60 Million Cub singles — the highest volume single motor vehicle ever made — and millions more 125 singles and 175 cc singles and twins.

DSCN2564

Honda continued to blaze trails with their 305s, 360s, 450 twins, 500s and eventually the 750/4.

In the hands of Sochiro Honda, motorcycles went from being a ‘lousy business proposition’ to being the world’s largest producer of Internal Combustion engines by volume — rationalizing low cost production had allowed the company to prosper beyond imagining.

Honda even made my HRZ216.

Only the lawnmowers weren’t built to save the company.

There were made because 4 stroke Honda power was powering the world.

 

The Promised Land — Part Three

When I finally snapped out of my Britten-induced reverie, I decided to start at the beginning and then work my way forward through the motorcycling continuum.

I headed for the elevator, and rode up to the top floor to scout the joint.

I spotted what looked like early and pioneer cycles on the third floor, towards the front of the building, so on the trip back down I got off there and walked over.

At the entrance to this part of the museum sat a Hildebrandt & Wolfmuller — one of the Ur-motorcycles, and the first to be manufactured and sold in quantities larger than one. The motorcycle, considering that it was produced between 1894 and 1897, is surprisingly sophisticated, with a two cylinder water-cooled 4 stroke of just under 1500 ccs. The fuel tank is more or less where we find it today, situated between the rider and the steering stem.

Other design elements are less sophisticated — the engine’s connecting rods are directly connected to the rear wheel and spin it directly. The valve cams of the engine are also mounted around the hub of the rear wheel — opening and closing the valves as the wheel spins.

DSCN2530

Braking is via wooden shoes.

Really. The brake shoes are convex surfaced wood blocks that are pressed against the surface of the front tire via a handlebar mounted lever and rods.

DSCN2532

Modern riders complaining of brakes with ‘wooden’ feedback are hereby advised to stop their whining and get back to riding.

In the location modern riders associate with headlamps, the Hildebrandt & Wolfmuller had what was essentially its air cleaner — a cold air intake, which the designers saw fit to locate a far distance from the hot cylinders and the hot surface ignition. On the air intake cover, the designers located their trademark, in an early precursor to what we now know as the tank badge.

Because the motorcycle was built in Munich, the company wanted to communicate as many visual elements as possible that would allow customers to associate this bike to the city in which it was made. And because it was made in Munich, home of Octoberfest, there simply had to be a beer.

DSCN2531

It is unlikely, despite the advisability or lack of same of combining these two things, that you will be able to purchase a motorcycle with a beer as part of its branding today.

Something undefinable has clearly been lost.

 

***

 

As I turned to the right away from Munich’s Best, I was greeted by something even more cool — the 1869 Roper Steam Velocipede.

Imagine the love child of one’s favorite steam engined railway locomotive and a pre-safety bicycle hickory framed boneshaker — iron rimmed wooden spoked wheels and all — and your mental picture will be pretty close to the fantastic machine which completely devoured my full visual attention.

Steampunk design is a modern fashion affectation that spends a lot of time attaching copper, brass and wood to things in an attempt to make them look old without having much impact on function.

Every steampunk object you’ve ever seen looks instantly and perpetually ridiculous after you’ve beheld drop dead serious steam-powered engineering.

DSCN2533

Consider for a second that the year is 1868 or so, and nobody’s ever seen a motorcycle. Heck, almost nobody has even imagined one. Yet here, the engineer has independently arrived at most of what we currently recognize as the entire motorcycle design vocabulary — two wheels, with the engine suspended beneath the frame between them. The throttle is operated by a rotating the entire handlebar. The ‘fuel tank’ in the case of a steam engine, is the water reservoir for the boiler, and it, like the Hildebrandt, sits directly behind the steering stem. In one oddball improvisation, the tank doubles as the saddle.

The brass and rivets of the boiler are nothing short of spectacular. The location of the boiler’s compact smokestack begs serious questions. There is almost no visual clutter — there are two steam lines, two cylinders with direct drive, a valve, a single gauge, the hickory backbone frame, and wooden spoked wheels rimmed with iron.

Its minimal, spare and purposeful. Every single part is there for a single reason.

Steampunk that, mofo.

As I was literally standing there shaking my head, one of the museum’s docents walked up.

“Man, that is just a wild thing. Does it run?”

“I know, isn’t it? Well, they say everything in the museum can be running in an hour.

Not so sure about this one, though”.

We were just two guys standing there, letting the same thoughts wash over us of this crazy brass contraption sitting there huffing smoke and hissing. Two guys, both looking at that smokestack, and contemplating its proximity to bits to which some of may have deep personal attachment.

We were just two guys sharing a hearty, knowing laugh.

“So, your telling me there’s a shortage of volunteers to ride this one?”

“Might be.”

“Well, look man. I ain’t scared.”

I gave him one of my cards.

“If they need someone to ride this thing, I’m all in.”

He looked at me like you’d look at someone that you wanted to make sure you didn’t miss too much afterwards.

“Good on ya, dude. I’ll let ’em know.”

 

***

 

Walking over to the early motorcycles collection was simply an embarrassment of motorcycling riches.

Right off, I was greeted by a 1913 Flying Merkel — a big V Twin, looking original, unrestored, its originally bright orange paint patinaed and spotted with rust. It looked like someone had just ridden it in here and just parked it.

Just lovely.

DSCN2535

There were Indians galore.

A 1905 Camelback — lovingly restored in Green. A 1912 TT and a 1922 Scout, both original in their patinaed Indian Red. Both twins looked like well loved and just ridden bikes, with many more miles, many more years and many many more stories left in them.

DSCN2536

DSCN2537

DSCN2538

Across the room I was greeted by a lovely 1913 Henderson Model B — one of the lovely long tank 4 cylinder models. I have a serious weak spot for these motorcycles as well as for some of their engineering cousins — other 4 cylinder American motorcycles of the nineteen teens and twenties like the Ace and Pierce. These were motorcycles that were designed to be powerful, elegant comfortable transportation before that market was disrupted completely by some guy named Henry from Dearborn, Michigan.

DSCN2539

The Henderson is beautifully designed. It’s floorboards and powerplant make wonderful use of aluminum. Its engine is compact, elegant. Its ignition switch is a lovely little bit of the machinist’s art in brass. The longer one looks, the more one sees.

DSCN2541

DSCN2542

DSCN2543

***

Walking away from the Henderson, I was greeted by a display area set up to honor the heroes of early 20th century American Boardtrack racing.

The display area is an actual small section of banked board track. The unevenness of that racing surface is something you really do need to see to understand. A little imagination and you can sense the sweep and the speeds attainable on the straights of such an oval.

Or is this just wildlife in its natural habitat?

The bikes there were familiar to me, having spent a lot of time staring at the very same bikes when they were still parked nose to tail in the middle of the floor back at the dairy.

DSCN2546

I’ve written about them before and what I wrote those years ago is really tough to improve on.

There is a small dual display of old enemies – matching Harley and Indian 8 valve board track racers from the earliest part of the last century. These were machines designed for all out speed with no thought for anything else – not steering, not stopping, not even living to race another day, if it meant losing. These machines have fixed carburetors – there is no throttle plate, no slide. The carb is designed to run WFO all the time. There are no brakes whatsoever – no fronts and no rears. What control there was was provided courtesy of an ignition kill switch similar to what was used in the radial rotary engines of the aircraft of the First World War. To modulate speed, one pressed on a piece of spring steel mounted on the handlebar. When the spring grounded on the handlebar, it turned the ignition circuit off, and the bike would slow. Take your finger off the spring and it was WFO again. Truly the earliest manifestation of the digital motorcycle – either on or off, everything or nothing, with nothing available in between.

Think about that for a while, then re-evaluate any tractability concerns you may have about your present motorcycle.

Of Course, those who could know tell me that the racers of the time never used that switch anyway. It’s not surprising that lots of people got killed, on a very regular basis, racing boardtrack.

Those bikes would be rude enough, if that was all there was, but that’s just the beginning. Neither bike has anything you’d really call an exhaust system. The Harley has the exhaust port in its cast iron cylinder head just dumping right into the atmosphere through an oval hole in the casting though which both exhaust valve stems can be seen with no exertion whatsoever. The Indian, always a more refined breed, has a set of slash cut pipes that are maybe 2 and a half inches long – just long enough to turn the flames downward the necessary 60 degrees to keep from setting one’s leathers on fire every second that the sucker was running.

Both bikes are hardtailed, with spring leather saddles like a racing bicycle’s. All of the valvegear – pushrods, rockers and valvestems – is outside the engine cases, and lubricated by a total loss oil pump that was operated by the rider with a plunger.

It’s no surprise that boardtrackers were in one big hurry to get to the checkered flag. Between having your hearing permanently shattered, being sprayed with hot oil, having a leather plank pounded up your ass, and having yellow and blue flames shooting right out the left side of the motor into your lap – getting to the line first was a matter not of competition, but of not wanting to spend one more second astride the beast than one had to, regardless of what anybody else on the track might have been doing at the time in question.

 DSCN2548

DSCN2547

DSCN2545

As I walked slowly around the Indian 8 Valve, doing my customary bob-and-weave dance, jockeying and turning my head to get better views of details like magnetos and hand oil pumps, I became aware of a man roughly half my age doing exactly the same thing.

“My god,” he said to me. “Isn’t it absolutely beautiful?”

I had to agree that it absolutely was.

Spend a little time gazing at the cam chest and the case for drive for the magneto drive, and you will find yourself, like the two of us were, absolutely hypnotized. The aesthetic qualities of these early Indians, especially the racers, are sufficiently compelling to recall one of my favorite characters from Robert Heinlein, who was a research scientist that was essentially held hostage and controlled by letting him gaze briefly into the interior of a piece of rare ancient Chinese porcelain.

“It is my dream to someday own one of these.”

I had to agree that that was a really good dream.

I didn’t want to let on, though, that, especially if me specifically meant one of these 8-valvers, it would be a difficult dream to realize. Very few of these bespoke racing motors were built, and when they have changed hands so has hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

Still, it is a beautiful dream.

 

***

 

I found myself leaving the Barber’s pioneer motorcycle area, headed towards the light coming from the wall of glass that made up the entire rear of the building.

There were lots of things to stop and admire along the way.

A 1916 Henderson Super X Twin. A 1922 Henderson DeLuxe four cylinder It’s easy to see, looking at these bikes why even 75 years later there was still enough enthusiasm for the marque to try to revive it. The bikes had their own unique design vocabulary — they were plain, functional machines that yelled of the muscle they could bring to bear to spin the planet under one’s wheels. The painted rims, the unique through-the-fender springer front end, the avoidance of bright plating — these were no-nonsense rider’s machines, and they still are.

DSCN2551

DSCN2550

DSCN2549

There were also more compelling machines.

A 1917 Indian Light Twin — powered by an inline mounted boxer twin. For backroads and trail work its hard to imagine a more useful or beautiful motorcycle. Like many such attempts to make small displacement motorcycles in the US, it died in the marketplace fairly quickly.

DSCN2552

There was also a stunningly restored Pierce Arrow Four — executed in bright red paint. Every Pierce I’ve ever seen was painted black — correct or not this one was beautiful. Inspired by the Belgian FN 4 cylinder, the Pierce continued that company’s tradition of building the best engineered and most painstakingly assembled luxury vehicles of their times.

I’ve seen Pierce Arrow automobiles as well as — and I kid you not — some early ‘Traveling Coaches’ — early RVs before the concept had even been born — and all of them speak of the same obsession with quality and fine materials. There is a Pierce Coach in the RV Hall of fame in Indiana that was originally built for Mae West, and I’ve never seen anything with wheels that had so much brass, crystal and porcelain.

This Pierce was no different. Designed in 1908 / 1909, when all motorcycles were singles or twins, with atmospheric inlet valves and leather drive belts, the Pierce was an Inline 4 with a T head and spring closed inlet valves and shaft drive. Its backbone frame that doubles as fuel and oil tanks is still used in modern motorcycles.

There are actually a fair number of mechanical or functional resemblances between that Pierce and my K Bike.

DSCN2553

Decades ahead of its time, it was too expensive for most mortals, and after building barely 500 examples, each at a loss, the Pierce Motorcycle Company declared bankruptcy.

This motorcycle, though, has a halo. It bears looking at for a goodly long time.

 

***

 

After I’d drunk my fill of the Pierce, I walked to the windows at the rear of the museum.

Again, the aesthetic vision of the museum was front and center.

From the glass wall, one could see much of the racetrack — in architectural terms, both the track and the museum had been sited in a way to bring the outside inside. One could only really come to understand the stationary motorcycles behind you, if you watched them driving down Barber’s steeply dropping Corkscrew corner and up the straight behind the museum.

All of us standing at the windows there had the best seats in the house.

DSCN2558

 

The Promised Land

I’m guessing that people don’t ever get to sleep late at Harley Rallies.

This is an informed guess directly resulting from empirical observation.

Every motorcyclist that stays in hotels on the road has got a different system for ensuring the security of their ride.

In this case Biketoberfest Dude’s Ultra, his system was to leave the bike under the hotel portico, right where it could be seen by the folks working the front desk. Setting aside for the moment that this placement puts it right in the line of fire for exhausted or inebriated people who are looking for a room, it guarantees that when said tired/drunk people run your bike over, at least you’ll have a witness.

Everybody has a different response to real or perceived risk.

Anyway, more importantly, this location placed said Ultra directly under the window of my room.

103 Cubic Inches of Basso Profundo, viewed objectively, are probably a better Biker Alarm Clock than a lot of things that have woken me up in the past.

When that bad boy went “Wheeeeeee- potato-potato…” there was no going back to sleep.

I went over to the window to check conditions, now that I was awake, and saw that my Black Van Security Force had already departed under cover of darkness, leaving my KLT unprotected. My best guess is that they were FEMA auxiliaries — CERT stands for Citizens Emergency Response Teams — and they were heading towards the flooding that was now afflicting much of South Carolina.

Things looked much cloudier out than my recollection of the weather report had led me to expect.

No matter though, it’s not like pressing on was somehow optional.

Nothing to do but hose off and gear up.

***

Down in the misty parking lot, I took my towel out of the topcase, and dried off the saddle, grips and windshield.

A nice fellow who was policing the parking lot and I performed the ever popular, beautiful and evocative “Wow! I never saw a BMW motorcycle before…” ballet.

Its steps are familiar to many of you.

Straight out of the parking lot had us on I 59 beating south through the mist towards Birmingham.

It even sprinkled in a few places.

Rain only exists, though, to allow one to appreciate one of the finest fairings in all of motorcycling. Dial the windshield height in with the power adjuster, adjust the wind deflectors under the rearview mirrors, and nothing short of Noah could dampen you or make it seem less than perfectly natural and just that one should be riding in this stuff.

Of much more concern was that the weather wouldn’t clear off and it might affect events at the Park.

I needn’t have worried.

***

I live in a green place. I’ve travelled to green places. This fall, Central Alabama had to be the greenest, moistest place I can remember.

I’d seen lots of pictures of the racetrack at Barber that hinted at it, but being there was another thing entirely. Between the pine forests, the grassy areas it was just a symphony in green.

It felt like if you stood in one place too long, the cracks in your skin would grow moss.

I had about an hours run to get The Barber, which isn’t even far enough to warm the brick up, but it is a lovely way to start one’s day.

I kept expecting to see armies of bikes headed in my direction.

They never did materialize.

If this was rush hour in Birmingham, that never showed up, either.

After a lovely quiet hiss in the mist, and brief jogs down I 459 and onto I 20 the sign for Leeds and the Barber rolled up.

***

Rolling up the ramp, it was clear that this part of Leeds was pretty compact, efficient.

There was a large gas station and convenience store, which was good, cause my reserve light came on coming out of the light.

There was the Hampton Inn, there were some unpaved parking lots, a few office blocks, a sign for a Bass Pro shop that I’m pretty sure was back there but was completely hidden in the woods, and The Barber’s Entrance and Signage.

As a sometime victim of overdeveloped Mid-Atlantic Urban and Exurban sprawl, it actually felt a little sparse, like what was coming here hadn’t shown up yet.

If you’re a guy that wants to open up a motorsports themed roadhouse tavern with a decent tapline, there could be an opportunity here.

After taking on another fuel load, I went over to the Hampton, where I managed to get them to check my Aerostich and my Shoei full face.

I took a denim jacket and my old Bell 500 out of the top case — figuring if I even saw 2nd gear for the next several days I’d be fortunate, and headed left out of the parking lot up the short shot of highway and made the right into the Barber.

***

The mist never did clear off, and it still felt like it might rain again any minute.

I’ve been to a lot of large rallies and motorsports events — inevitably one ends up on traffic backups, running stop and go, wondering why you ever wanted to get stuck in this mess.

That misty Friday mid-morning in Birmingham seemed as far from that as I can probably imagine.

That right turn was a turn into something that seemed almost unreal. The Barber’s driveway is a winding country road — sweeping lefts and rights with changes in elevation — an idealized amalgam of a million other riders’ roads and a perfect way to arrive at the Park. In the deep green and eerie quiet of the pine forest, swapping from one side of the tire to carve the other, with only one other rider in sight, it all seemed almost like I was imagining it.

Until I arrived at the gates at the top of the hill, where I was enthusiastically flagged through when I flashed the band on my left wrist, and was then directed to the left into the Park’s Perimeter Ring Road.

Abrupt change in gears.

This was where everybody else was.

***

Poof!

We’d gone from nobody and no bike to every bike in the universe. The Barber Ring Road looked a little like Hanoi rush hour.

Well, that is if in addition to a gazillion scooters and small bore tiddlers, you were willing to stir in a wild admixture of early to late sixties Hondas, prewar Nortons, Velocettes, 1920s Vintage Indians and I’m pretty sure I even saw someone riding a small bore Douglas opposed twin.

I decided to just take a sighting lap of the place to try and figure out what was where.

Barber from space

Off to my right was the Stainless Steel Monolith of Museum itself, with its parking lot filled with motorcycles of every ilk.

Up the hill took us past the Barber Performance Driving School, with a few Porsche Track Cars scattered out front for flavor.

I rode under the Checkered Flag Gateway that normally marks the entrance to the racetrack complex proper. I had to stay focused to keep the swarm of Honda Z50 Monkeybikes running on all sides of me to keep them from getting stuck between my teeth. Off to the left was clearly the Mother of All Swap Meets — it appeared to stretch off towards the horizon. Now I’ve been to the swap at AMA Vintage Days, and that has claimed to be the Biggest Swap ever. I’d need to rely on Satellite Imagery to settle this score, but suffice it to say this sucker is huuuuuge.

Running up the hill we went past the Fan Zone and vendor areas. On the right was the entrance to Ace Corner — a VIP area with food, adult beverages and the site of the custom bike show. Then it was past the Proving Grounds — a test track that KTM had converted into a closed course New Bike Demo. Then it was down the long straight that ran on the high ground above the track — past the extensive racing pit area, across the ridge that had a commanding view of the track, then back down hill to the right, past campgrounds, past the Japanese Vintage Motorcycle Club Campout, and back down to the facility entrance where the tour had started.

Since I had an Ace Corner pass, I figured I would get off this bike and start to look around. I looped another half a lap around the perimeter road, and made the right turn into Ace Corner.

***

It was then that I found myself on the wrong side of fashion.

As I rolled toward the tunnel under the track and into Ace Corner, a gentleman I can only call Hipster stepped into my path, palm outward in the Universal Police Sign to “Stop!”.

Now what constitutes a Hipster is a subject of much animated debate. Is it descriptive? A form of adulation? A pejorative? No matter.

If you are wearing Darkest Green Ray Ban Wayfarers on a cloudy day, and your hair style, with help of much pomade, sits even taller than my Bell 500, then regardless of what it means, you are most certainly a Hipster.

Me, I only know that the purpose of hair stylings are the avoidance of helmet head, and the two approaches — mine and Hipster’s — are certainly incompatible.

“Stop!” Quoth the Hip One. “You can’t bring that thing in here. It is much too new. Only customs and cafes can come in here. You will need to park that …somewhere out there.”

The Hip One motioned dismissively with his finger toward the vast expanses of unimportant stuff back over my shoulder, spun neatly upon his pointy boot, and strode determinedly away.

Now this was kind of a shock to the system.

Most folks that behold my LT for the first time express wonder and admiration, not scorn and disdain.

This was clearly a different universe than the one in which I normally voyaged.

***

So, thusly relegated to to the great unhip out there of unimportant things, I looked for a place to park Darkside where she would be safe from the ravages of gravity on wet, soft ground, and where she would be inconspicuous among a group of motorcycles of similar size, shape and mission.

I must admit, at least in the realm of the second concern, I failed utterly.

DSCN2442

My neighbors in the parking lot made my LT took even bigger, chubbier and more massive than it already does. And these Honda Groms were the first sign that utterly adorable cute micro sized motorcycles were the perimeter road ride of choice here at the Barber.

Adorable, yes.

Hip enough to be allowed entrance into Ace Corner? No.

How about fast?

DSCN2444

I think you have your answer.

***

Any way, now riding only Shank’s Mare, I hoofed it through the tunnel and into Ace Corner. On the other side of the tunnel was a small show ring with two lines of bike show entrants, a few vendor EZ-ups, and a refreshment hut and small stage. It was biker cute, with scooters and small bikes almost everywhere.

The first bike inside was a beautiful Honda 250 GP replica — a lovely custom mash-up of all of the most visual cues of early Honda GP racers — insanely long, low tank, red and silver paintwork, bum stop long saddle and … a dustbin fairing!

Did any Honda GP racer ever have a dustbin fairing?

Anyway.

DSCN2447

DSCN2448

Beautiful eye candy.

Until you find yourself reading the info sheet on the saddle and find that the builder is 11 years old.

Then its brain candy.

***

I find myself drawn to a beautiful 50cc Aermacci.

DSCN2449

There’s a fairly tall and leathery dude hovering nearby as I photograph.

“Yours?”

“Naah. My girlfriends. Everybody always takes pictures of hers.”

“Well, Ya gotta admit, it is cuter.”

“Yeah.”

***

I walked up the steep grade towards where I could hear the sound of racing engines.

At the top of the hill, they were setting up for another show, which, while sparse now, looked to be shaping up nicely.

I walked over the hill, where some bleachers and folding chairs were set up under the shade of some pines, with sightlines to about 5 of the corners on the Barber Circuit.

There were caterers grilling burgers. They had standing fridges full of cold micro brews for the beer snobs and PBR tallboys for the beer not-snobs.

We were gonna watch some racin’.

Hard to see how any of this could hurt.

DSCN2452