The Beef – Vegetarian Edition

I find, as I accumulate more unwanted birthdays, that I am starting to have a perspective about the harm that people and institutions do to each other that I did not formally have.

As a younger man, I was an optimum combination of hot headedness and naiveté — I was absolutely sure that taking the fight to someone that had done wrong and shining the bright and objective light of knowledge on their person would be sufficient to get them to change their behavior.

Now, though, I am just as sure that one cannot teach anyone anything.

If someone consistently visits harm upon your person and upon others, my righteous indignation and instruction is likely not sufficient to get them to stop — evil is their chosen way, and one’s attempts to reform them will likely only make their behavior worse.

So it is with that accumulated wisdom that I tell this tale. It is a tale of an organization that was presented with an opportunity — having wronged a customer — to do right and correct their mistake. And having been presented with that opportunity to right a wrong and do good, that organization tried to double down and re-screw said customer.

Class will tell.

There’s just one critical difference to my telling of the tale. Since nothing I do will make them change, and revenge is not my motive, I will decline to name the offender. I have no desire to make the animosity (who knows, maybe its indifference — maybe they just treat everyone equally badly) that apparently exists between us worse, and since what is published on the Internet exists — like some visions of the Deity — ubiquitously and eternally, I will choose here to rise above the fray and concentrate on the story, rather than condemnation of the guilty.

 

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Back in 2014, I had decided to complete a mechanical refurbishment of my 1975 BMW R90S. This activity, which should be understood as something discretely different from ‘a restoration’, was just an attempt to correct some deferred maintenance issues, perform some functional improvements, and render the motorcycle suitable for everyday rider duty getting back and forth to my job – which required me to commute about half the time to a location in Reston, Virginia. Now I had a completely reliable motorcycle — my K1200LT — but traffic conditions were necessitating combat commuting tactics. On any given day, I might be lane splitting, running shoulders, or even running a secret, sub-rosa dirt road to get home from Northern Virginia, and under those conditions, I was willing to surrender a little comfort and mechanical robustness to make use of a motorcycle which weighed nearly 400 lbs less than the LT.

So many wrenches were twisted and more than a few dollars were spent. A completely new gearbox was assembled to correct the manifold failings of the leftover 1974-specification gearbox with which my early 1975 model motorcycle was originally assembled. I replaced the rusted out seat pan and failing saddle with an artisanal fiberglass pan and saddle combination made by FlatRacer of London, UK. I replaced lots of worn rubber bits, and refurbished a set of 1980s vintage BMW Touring Cases — aerosol Pickup Truck Bed Liner Paint is your friend — so that they looked better than new. I even obtained a Dark Smoke Zero Gravity windscreen and sourced the inner fairing headlight sealing gasket my bike had never had. Overall, what had been a tired and ratty looking motorcycle was now looking and riding sharp.

Sharp, except for one niggling detail.

The Previous Owner — that shady character always guilty of manifold motorcyclic sins — had repainted my R90S. When this was done, the PO had added insult to injury by buying and installing a set of 1980s vintage BMW Tank badges — which at the time, were cost cutting adhesive jobbies printed on an aluminum substrate and then sealed with a clear vinyl overlay. The injury part being important here because most R90Ss were built with high quality, cloisonné enamelled badges that were likely to outlast the motorcycle and show up looking new when they were discovered by archeologists centuries later. The replacements were cheap, they looked bad, and after somewhere more than 25 years in situ, mine looked roasted.

I figured if I could locate a set of original specification badges or reasonable quality reproductions — I was never intending to show this motorcycle — then the bike would have a little piece of jewelry that might allow it to feel better about itself.

So, to the Internet I went, looking to see what was available. BMW, to their infinite credit, still had the original specification cloisonné badges in stock, although they were priced at bit higher – at about $50 a side — than I would have preferred to pay. An enthusiast dealer with whom I had a long-standing relationship, though, had what appeared to be quality reproductions on their website.

These BMW roundels are a classy upgrade to the standard stick-on ones found on most models. They are ceramic and metal, a process called cloisonné enamel on a nickel-silver substrate. Emblems like these were an original feature on one model only, the R90S (1974-’76). Now, with these replicas, your bike can have a bit of that legendary panache too.

At a tick over $20 a side, these were perfect — premium appearance at a rationalizable price. I ordered a pair. After removing the old ones with dental floss and using 3M doublesided tape to mount the new ones, the old girl was definitely holding her head up.

And so it went until my recent teardrop camper construction project.  With the entire space within my garage consumed by materials and the trailer, all three of my motorcycles spent about 4 months being stored outside, with mostly benign results.

As the project wrapped up, I moved everything back inside, but noticed something unexpected and disappointing. On the side of my R90 that was pointed toward the sun, the supposedly cloisonné badge had essentially turned to crap. The ‘better’ side, upon reflection, didn’t look that great either.

Real Cloisonné Doesn’t Look Like This

Fortunately, any doubts I had about this being somehow a predictable result of weather exposure were quickly dispelled when I compared those former badges to the factory badges on my 1973 R75/5, which does have real cloisonné badges, and despite having been treated with no care whatsoever for the past 45 years, including having spent the exact same last 4 months outside, looked a tad patinaed, but otherwise none the worse for wear.

Even 45 Year Old Cloisonné Looks Like This

Since I had all of the documentation on the buy, I sent a picture of the melted badge back to the dealer where they’d been purchased. My communication was pretty straightforward. Whatever these badges were made out of, they were not the cloisonné they were represented to be. Melted Glass doesn’t remelt in the rain at 90 degrees f.

I asked for them to stand behind their product. If they thought it was just a fluke with this batch, they could just replace them. If they thought this might happen again, they should sell me a set of OEM badges with a credit applied for these.

I quickly got a response indicating they thought I’d be better served with some OEM badges, which they offered to me at a price of $68. They asked if that would work for me.

I quick check of my other online parts sources indicated that BMW’s MSRP for the part was $49 – a number that looked suspiciously like the difference between the quoted price and the amount of the credit they expected to have to issue on the transaction. In short, they had marked up the part so that after issuing the ‘credit’, I’d still be paying full price.

I responded to their offer with a single word – “No.” No context. No explanation, just “No”.

Five minutes later I got another e-mail, stating that they’d “checked their part numbers” and some song and dance about the part number being cross referenced, and an offer to provide the part for $49.

Shame on me, but after seeing the white flash for several minutes, I thought it better not to respond.

The proprietor of this business has, on occasion, directly questioned me as to why they don’t see so much of me any more.

This is why.

Riding motorcycles – on almost every level – involves trust.

Trust in one’s skills. Trust in one’s gear. Trust in your machinery. Trust in the people who provide parts and services that keep your bike operating properly.

And in the case of this one dealer, there was just no trust any more.

At a certain point, it became more important to separate me from as much money as possible from each transaction, with no regard to the quality of what was sold, or the quality of the service that was provided, or any concern whatsoever for the value I obtained. If I had issues with something they sold, rather than view it as an opportunity to make things right, they regarded it as an opportunity to double down and charge me again.

I don’t want anyone like this having anything to do with my motorcycles — these machines on which my life depends.

You might. But count me out.

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Motorcycle

I’d like you to play a little mind game with me.

Break out your mental ‘Etch-a-sketch’ and imagine a motorcycle.

First draw two circles, close to the same size, that describe the wheels. One rectangle towards the rear gives you a bench seat. A jellybean shape provides your fuel tank. A cylinder, maybe two. Give the rider some grips to grab onto, a headlight, and a pipe or two to get noise out of those cylinders, and there it is.

A motorcycle.

Unlike the ‘Famous Artist’s School’ Drawing lessons whose ads festooned a misspent youth’s worth of matchbooks and motorcycle magazines, 4 payments of $4.95 are not required – this drawing lesson is free.

What you’ve drawn looks just like a Honda CB360T. Or a Triumph Bonneville. Or a Norton International, Matchless G12 or a Royal Enfield Bullet.

Your mind’s eye has produced an iconic, simple, classic standard motorcycle.

And in your mind’s eye is likely where that classic motorcycle will stay, because almost no-one still manufactures a product that looks or functions like that.

Think about what motorcycles are out there in the marketplace, and which ones sell in substantial volumes. There are all manner of racetrack refugees – Yamaha YZF-R1s, Suzuki GSXR 1000s, BMW RR1000s, Kawasaki ZX-10s. Such motorcycles are extraordinary pieces of engineering, capable of blistering lap times and stunning top speeds that would have had them on the GP Podiums of 20 years ago.

Most of us, though, just want to get to work with our laptop and lunchbox, take a ride to the grocery store, or put our girlfriend (or boyfriend) on the back seat for a Sunday afternoon ride. Good luck transporting anything bigger than a granola bar, or any SO over 5 feet tall as a passenger on one of these machines.

Other specialized motorcycle designs abound. Heavy Tourers. Sport Tourers. Adventure Bikes. Cruisers. Baggers Bikes with more power, more mass, more suspension travel, more complexity, more function, but with more focus – being good at one thing at the expense of others. Good on the Interstate but a wrestling match in the city. Sweet on a single track but a tall mess on the pavement.

I’m as guilty as any rider of feeding the specialization beast. I have a vintage sport bike, racer boy bubble and all. I have a scrambler – which was riding dirt before anyone coined the term. I have a GT Bike – fairings, panniers and top case – complex adjustable fairings and artsy alternate suspension. It can carve twisty pavement with a week’s gear on board at 80 mph and can do it for weeks at a time. Its motor has a bigger displacement than half the cars in Italy.

My first street motorcycle was a 1973 CB750. It was bone stock – save for a universal chrome tube luggage rack, with a Green Spring Valley Dairy milkcrate bolted on.

Why does it feel like I’ve lost something?

My youngest son Finn is also a rider, and although he gets some, doesn’t really need any encouragement from me. As an Architect in Training, Finn has a developed design eye. When he first started looking at motorcycles, he was immediately drawn to one of those last few remaining classic motorcycles, the Royal Enfield. He intuitively understood the Bullet’s classic design language and intent. Had Finn had as much income as he had discerning taste, he’d have bought one, too.

His first few years in the saddle – using his bike for daily transportation – were spent aboard a Buell Blast single whose purchase was mostly based on the $900 it cost to buy. Being an Architect and not a mechanic, Finn found himself the recipient of increasingly frequent not quite social visits from me and from ever increasing percentages of my toolkit stuffed into the saddlebags of the aforementioned GT bike.

After the Blast’s engine fell out, it became clear, even to me, that some more material adjustments needed to be made to Finn’s riding life, and those adjustments were spelled H-O-N-D-A.

After about 639 phone calls to Baltimore’s Pete’s Cycle, my credit union and my Allstate agent, Finn had a brand new 2016 CB500F parked in my garage – at least until its permanent license plate showed up.

Two circles, one rectangle, one jellybean, some grips, two cylinders, a headlight and a pipe.

Motorcycle.

So it was with a light and expectant heart that I pulled on my leathers and my helmet, and rolled the CB out of my garage.

It’s not difficult to see the classic motorcycles of the past in the CB’s profile. Its parallel twin engine, sit up riding profile, and relaxed footpeg position carry obvious echos of the original CB450 Black Bomber, and the Triumph Bonneville that it was designed to vanquish. There are a few concessions to modernity – the bike’s 471 cc motor is liquid cooled, fuel injected, and has a double overhead cam, 4 valve cylinder head. Honda’s stylists did their best to pay homage to the tank shape and tailsection of Marc Marquez’ championship winning RC213V.

Fingering the starter yields immediate action – the bike’s exhaust note has a whistling quality which comes from the fuel injection pump and the operation of the injectors being the loudest sounds coming from the motor. The CB’s reaction to throttle is immediate – the engine’s square bore and stroke design has almost no flywheel.

On the road, the CB is a dream. The 6 speed transmission shifts positively – downshifts are a treat given the engine’s immediate response to a blips of the throttle. The quality of the engine’s power delivery is sneaky fast – there’s just enough communication to let you know that this is a twin, but the quality of the vibration is always pleasant – at higher RPMs and highway speeds the motor smooths out admirably. Above 6000 rpm that twin is ripping.

Cornering behavior is exemplary – the bike is narrow, weighs just over 400 lbs wet, cuts entries and changes direction like a scalpel and holds its cornering line securely even at extreme lean angles. Suspension is taut but comfortable. The bike’s 4 piston Nissin single rotor front brake is more than enough for the CB’s low mass.

I find myself seeking out tighter and more technical stretches of Frederick County pavement as the tires scrub in. I’m working the bike’s throttle, making full use of all 6 gears, and spending some quality time with the horizon anywhere but horizontal.

The CB500F has not been a sales leader for Honda. This bike was a leftover 2016 that was deeply discounted at the end of the 2017 sales year. On the West Coast, examples can be bought new for more than 35% off the current MSRP. Our American Riding Brothers and Sisters will tell you that its engine is “too small” and that it isn’t track ready, tour ready or adventure ready. All of that misses the point completely. Anywhere else in the world, where 2 wheeled transportation means a world of 125s, 350 Bullets, two strokers and motorscooters, the CB is an aspirational motorcycle – more attractive and better performing at a price that normal humans, and more importantly in the US, young riders, can afford.

Sitting in my driveway looking at the CB with Finn, it’s clear that we agree with those riders. Neither one of us ever gets tired of looking at the CB, and Finn’s opinion is “This is my new favorite thing in the entire world”.

Better still, is the CB is just grin-inducingly and totally fun to ride.

And isn’t that why we ride?

 

 

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This story originally appeared in the January/February Issue of Motorcycle Times.