Don’t Eff With Electricity, Man

My R90S is, I am ecstatic to say, back on the road.

At the risk of further offending the motorcycle Gods, who have already demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they have both the tools and desire to use them to punish moto-hubris, the bike is running even better than it did before its little tussle with electricity.

A top gear blast up MD17 this a.m. had it pulling top gear with an authority that is downright shocking for a motorcycle of this age.

Folks may recall that when I found myself beside the road with a mass of smoking wiring, I briefly considered whether, had I been on a roadside in Tibet, I would have been able to effect repairs in-situ to save my own life.

Subsequent developments have illustrated that had this been the case, I would have made a lovely chewy snack for the Snow Leopards, and someone would have discovered my frozen bones come springtime.

This perhaps requires some further explanation.

***

I’ll admit that when I first got the bike back to its position beside the workbench in my garage, I had no desire to leap feetfirst into what I suspected was going to be a depressingly large and complex repair. The fact that much of the repair work needed to occur inside the confines of a badly lit 7 inch diameter headlamp shell working on tiny components wasn’t doing much for my enthusiasm.

So after a trip to the house of Manny, Moe and Jack to gather all of the things I knew would be required to repair existing or fabricate new wiring harnesses — flag connectors, heat shrink tubing, and several colors and gauges of primary wire — what became most important was to quiet my mind and achieve the inner peace required to remain calm and mindful in the battle that was to come.

***

Ordinarily, when any bit of mechanical kit belonging to me blows springs, I become temporarily insane.

This assumes, of course, that one believes I am not permanently so, but I digress.

The ‘I cannot rest until I fix it’ fugue state involves a sort of mono-mania. My mind at rest becomes filled with schematics and engineering diagrams. Where there might ordinarily be thoughts of poetry there are checklists of repair parts and UPS ship tracking data. More complex problems that don’t yield immediately to diagnosis manifest themselves in dreams. I become nervous and jerky, furtive, distracted.

I have, obviously, a more than understanding spouse.

It’s easy to understand why one wouldn’t want to welcome this state of being with open arms.

So I did what any self-aware, mature and responsible person would have done under the circumstances.

I embraced denial.

This, frankly, required all of the effort and self-control of which I am capable.

For 10 days, I didn’t go in the garage.

Other people had to take up the slack with taking out the garbage and the recycling.

The beer fridge sits on the end of the workbench next to where the S was waiting, so for those days we inhabited the Oat-Soda-Free-Zone.

Then, after those days of introspection and purification, I was ready.

***

One of my favorite new tech tools is an LED-based worklight. It looks exactly like the Halogen worklights of old, but is superior in a couple of major ways.

First, it generates absolutely no heat. Compared with halogen tubes of yore, which ran hot enough to be a source of ignition, and threw enough heat to limit their use in close to a work item, these lights can be placed wherever required — no matter how goofy — without any discomfort or hazard.

I set up a comfortable work area directly in front of the S. I positioned an old-fashioned 33 gallon galvanized steel trash can to my left. I have a field electronics repair bench made of a curved and tapered piece of 3/4 in plywood that I fabricated and used to great effect during the construction of my teardrop camper. The shape and taper allows it to be positioned in confined spaces to support the work during crimping and soldering. I placed the field bench atop the can and positioned my soldering iron, linemans pliers, primary wire assortment, connectors and heat shrink tubing where they were conveniently within reach. I also borrowed a camping chair of Doris’ that she uses for Plein Air painting — it’s a basic canvas folding directors chair but with an important twist — it has a 1 foot by 2 foot table that pivots up from the frame and locks into place on the right side of the chair.

With all of the tools, materials and shop manuals/wiring diagrams at the ready, I took a deep, cleansing breath, and began the work.

***

Anything that had been connected to the ignition switch had been effectively vaporized. I took a few pictures with my phone, made a few notes, and removed the switch connectors one at a time — fabricating replacements with the appropriate gauge, color and connector types. The main hot wire which carries juice from the switch to the rest of the bike — ignition, etc — was originally a 14 gauge wire — I replaced it with a heavier 12.

Some conductors that were not connected to the switch were also damaged. Ones where the wires were still ductile I reinsulated with heat shrink tubing. Where the wires had been mechanically or electrically compromised, I cut the damage out and spliced and replaced the damaged areas — insulating both the splices and new connectors with heat shrink.

All told, this portion of the work was proceeding far more smoothly than my initial anxiety had indicated. After a few sessions of 40 to 90 minutes, everything in the headlamp shell that had been damaged had been repaired or replaced. It was time to see if it was going to be that easy.

***

It wasn’t, of course.

I reconnected the battery, although I didn’t crank the negative terminal down given the statistical possibility I might have to remove it again in a hurry. The dashboard clock started. No explosions of smoke occurred.

I turned the key. The dashboard lights came on.

I pressed the starter. The right cylinder fired. I went to roll the throttle open slightly, as this bike does require slight throttle to start.

The throttle wouldn’t move. I heard a slight arc. I kill switched it and turned off the key and disconnected the battery.

***

My workbench has a holding fixture made of 4×4 that is used to support airhead tanks. The fixture allows me to place the tanks on the bench without having any weight resting on the fuel petcocks. I pulled the saddle and tank and placed the tank on the bench.

Upon returning to the bike, it became clear that the switch wasn’t the only return address for electrical havoc.

Sitting on the left side of the frame backbone is the Starter Protection Relay. The relay, in the /5 and /6 motorcycles sits in the middle of the positive power bus that energizes the entire motorcycle. The connections to the starter protection relay were all roasted — the relay itself has a masonite bottom which is sealed with vinyl — most of the vinyl had melted as well.

Trouble radiated outward from there.

The multiple layers of protection on the tachometer drive cable — a mechanical linkage in these bikes — both the cable jacket and a second layer of vinyl protective sleeve, were vaporized. It looked, to my eyes, like during the earliest stages of ‘the event’, that the relay had overheated, then melted through the tach cable — which then provided another route of conductivity — and the trouble kept going from there.

It was clear where the tach cable had touched the throttle cables — there were burn marks on their jackets as well, showing exposed metal sleeving. It was clear why my throttle wouldn’t open — the cables were welded internally to their jackets inside the cable.

My R90S does have a few non-standard performance modifications. One of the most important ones is an on-handlebar brake master cylinder to replace the weird alice cable operated under-tank unit that was stock on these motorcycles. Where the original master cylinder and brake light sensor sat, there is a hydraulic junction which uses the original sensor and wiring.

Although the dealer that sold these kits advertised them as a stainless steel brake line and master cylinder upgrade kit, for reasons I’ve never understood, they supplied a OEM-type rubber line to connect the master cylinder to the junction. Using rubber in this application turned the stainless steel lines that went to the calipers from performance kit into dress-up parts, as the resistance to expansion under pressure that steel provides was negated by an expanding rubber line upstream.

During the dance of the electrons, that rubber brake line had picked up a nearly dime sized deep burn. Although the front brakes were still working, the first time I was hard on the brakes entering an 80 mph corner that burn was simply my death waiting to happen. I’d need to obtain a replacement brake line.

Seeing how severe some of the second layer of damage was, I knew I needed to take a deeper look. After a brief peruse of the wiring diagram, I pulled the alternator and starter covers of the motor.

I’m so glad I did.

The wires coming off the starter relay go to the diode board and starter solenoid.

Those wires, as well, were in bad enough shape to warrant replacement.

The main wiring harness of the motorcycle, thankfully, didn’t show any signs of heat distress. These harnesses are not easily or affordably located any more, so it was some solace that I wasn’t going to need to snipe hunt up one of those.

I did have quite a list of things I was going to need though, so I cleaned up my work space, closed the garage doors, and took to my computer to locate and buy the next layer of parts I was going to need.

***

First order of business was the list of things that only the dealership network was going to be able to supply. A few moments with the online fische, and a new tach cable, set of throttle cables and the associated cable boots — which these days seem to have a life expectancy of about 4 months — were on the way. A few seconds of further contemplation added a complete set of headlight retaining springs — remember how this all started? — to the mix.

That was just the beginning.

Remember that the connectors on my diode board looked like they came from Salvador Dali Engineering? Stories, now suspect, relate diode boards that were reduced to useless slag by having a front engine cover graze by them while the main battery ground was still connected.

Surely mine was slagged, right?

My bike also has a period hot rod part in the form of what was then called an ignition booster. The ignition booster essentially uses the original ignition points as a low voltage switch and then puts the dwell and condenser functions into solid state stuff where the spark peak and duration is stronger and better controlled.

Of course, the unit sits right next to the melted relay and right between the Dali Rectifier and the melty stuff coming off the starter solenoid.

Given how my luck had been trending recently, I didn’t feel great about the likelihood this unit was not an ex-parrot.

I’m the sort of tech that wants to have every single part I’m going to need right at hand when I start a job. Now purchasing both a replacement diode board and ignition booster are easy, but throwing $200 at a problem I wasn’t sure I had seemed too much to appease my inner mental person.

My buddy Al, who knows a little about airheads, dropped by the garage and examined the patient, dropping a few “Hmmmmms” and “I sees”.

After consultation with Al, I resolved to fix everything we were sure was roasted — the folks at Euro Moto Electrics had a better than OEM quality engine electrics harness — and then see if these antique electronics still actually worked.

If they didn’t, replacements were just 2 Franklins and another 2 days away. I’d survive another two days, if need be.

***

I just didn’t like the look of my ignition switch.

While the switch was working, It had some sort of lube dripping visibly from the rear of the housing. The base of the switch, which I believe is Bakelite, was loose on the back of the lock housing — moving visibly.

It has been the one component that had taken the biggest blast of a dead short.

It was not the sort of thing you wanted to have to wonder about when running in the meat of top gear.

So.

BMW motorcycle dealers cannot get you this switch.

BMW Mobile Tradition, the business unit set up to make sure you can get classic motorcycle parts that the dealers cannot get for you, cannot get you this switch.

Even the small population of European suppliers of ‘pattern parts’ don’t have this switch, or even reasonable facsimile thereof.

So I would need to find a used part.

Al had recommended Larry “Stoner” Stonestreet — owner of an independent California BMW shop.

Stoner was able to supply a fairly good condition used switch, and at a fairly reasonable price, especially considering the supply/demand thing.

I would need to find a skilled or adventurous locksmith, later, but was trying to break the overall problem down into single, bite size pieces.

That was going to be a different mouthful.

***

I didn’t really like the look of my headlight ring, either, come to think of it.

In the entire time I’d had the bike, it had always been kinda flaky.

My bike was an early 1975 — and it had the /5 type spring retaining clip at the bottom of the headlight ring. It had always had a propensity for not fitting as deterministically as I’d prefer — and either popping lose or rotating on the headlight.

BMW, of course, had redesigned the part to use a screw driven clamp, which pointed the way to he possibility that mine was not the only one that behaved less than admirably.

Add to its list of sins that this one had spit the spring that nearly incinerated the bike and one can understand why I might not have fond or confident feelings about it.

The nice folks at Wunderlich had an OEM quality part of the new design for almost half what the dealers were asking, so we PayPaled up on of those.

***

When the next group of packages were received and arranged on the workbench, I went back down for another dive.

I pulled the fairly crispy tach cable — it broke in half during removal — and replaced it with a new one and its matching rubber engine grommet.

The throttle cables were next. During the miniature spring wrestling match that is installing new cables in a DelOrto carb, one of the needle retaining clips popped loose. I quickly checked a few technical sources to see where it was supposed to be.

“Third from the top of four grooves.”

My needles have three, of course.

I went with the center groove. If I proved to be wrong, it would take 10 minutes to set right.

The wires on the rectifier and starter solenoid were replaced — the new ones all looked like they were one wire gauge heavier than the ones which had failed.

After everything was connected, I reconnected the battery and — using the old switch — turned the key. I checked the basic systems of the bike — no smoke leakage and everything I could test — turn signals, brake lights, horn — all appeared to be working. I quickly tested the starter and it spun over.

So I replaced the fuel tank, reattached the fuel lines and wished there was some sort of approved entreaty to a motorcycle deity.

I set the choke, pressed the starter and waited through what seemed like way too many compression strokes.

“Easy, mate. The fuel system had been dry, the carbs have been apart, it’s going to take some time to get the jets primed, it’s just going to take a bit longer….”

At this point, the left cylinder fired, and engine stumbled to life, then took throttle cleanly and revved. The alternator light went out, and the voltimeter swung reassuringly and deterministically to the right — a nice solid 14.2 volts.

We might not be there yet, but this was going to be all right.

***

With things coming back together, I needed to source and install a brake line for my suspect burned one.

Since this application was a non-stock one, I was resigned to contacting the dealer from whom I’d originally purchased the upgrade kit, figuring that was the path of least resistance. I called them on the phone to discuss it several times without success. I’d either be placed on hold and then dumped to voice mail or get routed straight to voice mail. Having left messages twice without a return phone call I concluded this was another sign from the MotoGods that said entity was neither interested in either me or my little problem.

The guys at Adventure Rider had, as always, the solution. They fingered Bud Provin, a very skilled tech that had formerly worked in my area, and his business, The Nickwackett Garage, as the best source for any kind of custom stainless steel brake or clutch lines. I shot Bud an email, and, true to his ADV-reputation, he knew the kit, the dimensions, and fabbed and shipped exactly what I needed within about 2 hours of the initial contact. Heck, as a former customer, Bud even shipped it before I’d made payment arrangements.

In a world filled with distrust, assholes and hacks, both Bud and his work stand out as examples of integrity and sterling craft.

At lunchtime the next day, I met the mailman coming up the driveway and took the box directly to the workbench.

Bud’s stainless steel line was a nice an example as I’d ever seen — small diameter, beautiful fittings, and a unique setup for rotating and positioning the main banjo fitting for the master cylinder connection. The entire stainless steel line between fittings was covered in a transparent vinyl jacket to keep the braided line from buzz-sawing anything it might rest against.

After about 20 minutes with the 12 and 13 mm box end wrenches from the bike’s stock tool kit, and my trusty 7 liter hand pumped beast of a MityVac fluid evacuator, the new line was in place. I could tell, even before any road test, that with the reduced line volume and expansion, that power and feel from the antique single piston brake calipers was markedly improved.

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***

The next order of business was to get a trustworthy ignition switch installed. It would be better still if I could get it rekeyed so it matched my steering stem and saddle locks.

With my replacement used switch in hand, I started calling locksmiths around Frederick. Telling a shaggy dog story about an old german motorcycle, a fire and an oddball lock scared a few off them off. After a few calls, though, we had a live one.

The guys at Able Locksmiths are motorcycle enthusiasts, and they were able to develop a plan on the fly.

“Pull the damaged switch from the bike and bring both it and the new one up to the shop. We can use the burned switch to figure out how it works — its expendable — and as a source of lock wafers or mechanism if we need it.”

As a plan, it seemed pretty solid, so I pulled the suspect switch, threw the ziplock bag of parts into my topcase of my K bike, and scooted off for Frederick.

The guys at Able were better than their plan.

The smith that drew my job took the old switch and placed it on a no-rebound work mat. This work surface had little miniature trays to organize tiny parts and long rubber fingers that ensured that work stayed where one placed it, and if parts flew loose, they would be arrested and kept from bouncing free. The Smith had the old switch disassembled in 3 minutes or so — immediately lit up with a smile and then went after the good one. While he was working he talked with me about the 1947 HD Servi-Car he rode, and the Ural sidecar rig he planned to buy. Anybody that scores this consistently high on the Moto-wierdness scale is completely cool by me.

After 10 minutes, the undamaged lock of my burned switch had been transplanted to the new switch, and I was $15 dollars lighter and back up the road towards the garage.

After 10 minutes or so in the garage, the hybrid repaired switch was back in the bike and functioning perfectly.

***

A confident man might have begun thinking that we were in the home stretch of this job.

When it comes to vehicular electrical work, I am not a confident man.

I started out by looking for some good quality restoration pictures of BMW electrical systems of similar vintage. As they did many times during this job, my fellow inmates at Adventure Rider were able to shed light on what needed to be done. Factory and factory quality wiring had some qualities that were notably missing from my headlamp shell.

All of the harnesses that enter the shell are — in stock condition — routed around the outside of the shell and held in place with ductile metal clamps that are provided for that purpose. The connections to the circuit card which forms the core of the electrical system are the achieved by fanning out the individual connections from the harnesses and fastening them to numbered and color coded connections on the card. This arrangement makes all of the headlamp wiring easier to access and repair, but also opens up a needed void space in the center of the headlamp shell, and ensures that the headlamp wiring and associated connections are not pressed into the rear of the headlamp assembly.

In my case, where a non-stock LED headlamp’s heatsink needed about a half an inch of additional clearance, this arrangement was even more important. It is possible that some ‘negative clearance’ had helped the significant errant spring in its errant springing that had started the whole unseemly chain of events.

So I spent some time ‘grooming’ the existing wiring — inserting extra slack wire of the main harness through the bottom of the headlamp and routing the harness around the outside of the shell. I disconnected and reconnected wires where necessary to detangle what was there and instill a sence of general order that the S likely hadn’t seen since it left the factory.

It was time to knock off for the evening, so I closed up the headlamp shell and briefly road tested the bike.

It was immediately obvious that the change in the needle jet positions was significant. The bike had reverted to the wheezy, indeterminate operation at small throttle openings that it had exhibited back when I first purchased it. I rolled the bike back into the shop and resolved to fix it during the daylight tomorrow.

***

After work the next day, I grabbed my trusty offset straight blade ratchet screwdriver, and pulled the tops off the DelOrtos, removed the main jet needle and dropped it to the bottommost position. Making the adjustment on both sides took all of 10 minutes.

I took the bike for a short ride as the sun went down. If you ever find yourself thinking that a single millimeter can’t make a significant difference, you’ve never had a DelOrto carburetor. Throttle response was tremendously improved, and I began to think this really was the end.

I kept right on thinking that until, about 3 miles from home, a friendly motorist pulled up beside me at a light and told me my taillight was out. Now that he mentioned it, my instrument lighting — which had always been at least a tad indeterminate — could now been seen in the darkness to be MIA as well.

I skedaddled back to the garage, nervously toeing my brake pedal now and then to keep some light showing to the rear.

***

It seemed we had a world-class puzzle.

I hate those.

Upon reopening the headlamp shell, I slowed my breathing and started working my way through the various wiring diagrams and photos, and began to trace conductors one at a time.

Things got weird pretty quickly.

Starting with the ignition switch wiring, it was clear that the bike had been running with two of the switch conductors reversed. It was also clear that Good Old Ham Fist, the previous owner of legend, had, during his installation and removal of his Windjammer fairing, reconnected some things in decidedly non-stock configurations.

For example, where switched hot came from the ignition switch, Ham Fist had actually managed to wire AROUND the fuses on the board. He had taken the outbound connections from the switch, which should connect to a fused bus on the right side of the circuit card, and connected them directly to the distribution connections on the other side of the fuse.

After correcting this little surprise, I started to look to see how the tailight and instrument wires were supposed to be energized. The basic chassis lighting circuit in these bikes is made up of grey wires with black stripes, and those were all connected exactly as they are supposed to be.

These gray and black conductors are energized by three possible methods.

The ignition switch has a ‘Park’ position which can energize the lighting directly. The diagrams all agreed on this point, and when I turned the key to the first ‘Park’ position, the taillight lit, exactly as it should. The second method is another grey wire, also for the park position, that comes from the European-spec switch that allows one to turn off the headlamp, and that worked exactly as it should.

But turn the headlamp on, and the taillight would go out.

I stared at the wiring diagrams for more than a long time. I was missing something, but what? Every wire I could see was in the correct place.

That was when the flash of inspiration hit.

This flash of inspiration, I should add, for those of you that may come here just for your daily dose of irony, was delivered without smoke, ozone, and smell of burning insulation that characterized my previous flash of inspiration. Or flash of the gods punishing hubris. Or flash of whatever the heck it that was that nearly vaporized me and my favorite motorcycle in the middle of Northern Virginia rush hour.

This flash was a fairly simple, but significant thing.

I wasn’t looking for something that was there, but wrong.

I was looking for something that wasn’t there.

The wiring diagram showed a third conductor to energize the taillight coming off of the headlight relay. I looked at the headlight relay, and there was an unused terminal. The diagram listed it as number 87b — with a little convolution and light in the right place I could see the number — 87b.

After two frantic moments at the workbench, I fabricated a connector with a straight blade at one end and a flag connector at the other.

I clicked the connectors into place, and then turned the headlamp on.

Houston, we have a taillight.

Now observant folks will wonder — I know I did — how in Sam Hell the bike managed to work properly before all if this electrical havoc occurred.

And I’m forced to conclude that knowing this is one of those things I’m just never going to possess — its one of the mysteries of the universe.

I replaced the headlamp ring and screwed it firmly into place.

I started the bike and tried all of the electrical system — headlight, parking light, instrument lighting, turn signals, horn, tail and brake lights. This time, we were clean and getting 100% on the QA.

It was time to take the bike back to the road.

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***

In old motorcycles, electricity, and the quality and quantity thereof really drives the performance of the entire system. Ignition coils, capacitive discharge ignitions, resistor spark plug caps and spark plugs all respond subtly but positively to any increases in available juice. It’s what moved the change from 6V to 12V electrics, and it’s what drove the increases in alternator output and better storage batteries.

The best and most recent example I can provide was after the recent replacement of the main ignition switch in my /5 and the upgrade of the battery to a high tech — for a /5, anyway — AGM Deka battery, the whole motorcycle was transformed. The motor ran noticeably smoother, throttle response was better, and the behavior of the motor at top end and its willingness to rev — not that I need to do that with the very bottom end biased delivery of the 900cc motor — were all noticeably improved.

Upon taking to the road, the R90S was similarly transformed. The motor was smoother, throttle response was better. One of the first motorcycle stories I ever wrote was called ‘Stronger Through Adversity’, which was a tale about how breaking things inevitably drove better performance, and that was clearly in evidence here.

The change to the new brake line was also a bonus — there’s much more power available and I’m able to one-finger brake on corner entrances for the first time.

I can only speculate about what may have been sub-optimal in the configuration of the motorcycle electrics before the catastrophe — the ignition switch may have already been compromised, either through worn or burned contacts. Some of the misrouted wiring may have been responsible for choking off the amount of available current to ignition components. The strategic changes I made — by increasing the wire gauges of critical hot feeds, both from the ignition switch to the main board and from the starter solenoid to the diode board, may have allowed more current to the entire ignition system.

What ever it was, though, the change was staggering. With my /5, there really is no top end. The small valves of the 750 cc heads and small carbs can’t really move enough mixture to snap that engine to redline.

This engine, though, is a different beast. The heads are set up for top end operation. The carbs are large and there are long aluminum intake venturies designed to move mixture at maximum load and flow.

After tiptoeing through several brief heat cycles and riding with my fingers crossed for a few days (really hard to open the throttle that way) I got out on one of my favorite stretches of straight road — Md 17 between Brunswick and Burkettsville, and coming out of the traffic circle, went up through the gears WFO. The top end behavior of the bike was transformed — the last 1500 rpms before redline had a brand new snap — there was clearly better fire in those big holes.

There’s a dogleg about 3/4s of a mile from the circle, so we didn’t grab top gear until the exit from that corner. Before the meltdown, it always felt to me that the theoretical top speed of the bike — roughly 125 to 130 mph — was a long way from the ton where I usually begin to lose interest.

It doesn’t feel that way anymore.

Throttle response used to be strong — but in top gear acceleration used to roll off around 90. Today, the calibrated butt accelerometer was pegged — no roll off even in top gear, as the revs came up, so did the power. It was a laughing inside the helmet moment of the first order.

So do I recommend or endorse bursting into flame as a motorcycle tuning method?

Hardly.

But it’s sure hard to argue with the results.

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“I’ll tell you, man, this bike has never run better….”

I’m begging you.

If you ever find yourself thinking this, punch yourself right in the face over and over again until you stop thinking it.

And whatever you do, don’t even consider giving voice to the thought.

Speaking it out loud, or heavens forefend, actually telling someone this is to guarantee complete and utter disaster.

***

This setup kinda reminds me of my old buddy Baltimore Doug.

Doug had deep, internal combustion wisdom, much of which was suitable for tatoo inscription on one’s hide.

One of Doug’s Gems was — “If it’s running good, sell it.”

I’m not sure he ever added “…and quickly…”, but from his tone of voice it was clearly implied.

Doug was a guy that owned 11 Fiat Spiders, whose sole purpose in carlife were to donate parts, up to and sometimes including the entire car, to keep just one of them in good working order. The utter unreliability and mechanical fragility of those Fiats may have colored Doug’s thinking, but only a little.

My conclusion was that on those rare days when everything with your motor vehicle was perfect, one was just being suckered for the dropping of a 10,000 pound other shoe, likely right on your head, and likely a whole lot sooner than simple probablity can explain.

***

My urban assault runs to my workplace are only seldom things of joy.

Usually there are just way too many carbound people, doing way too many other things than driving, moving far too slowly towards places they probably really didn’t want to be, anyway.

Today, though, was different.

In the middle of the week in the middle of August, the roads were spookily unjammed — no one was back in school yet, and everybody was likely in Ocean City, hon, or in the south of France.

This morning was uncharacteristically cool — right around 70 — with very low levels of humidity.

Coming out of town and heading over the mountain in the cool air the engine of the S slowly took heat — once the long alloy intake venturies and the bodies of the accelerator pump DelOrto carbs were fully warmed, enthuthiastic twists of the throttle yielded the familiar kick in the head torque.

Being cool out, the boxer’s cylinders were cool — the engine was loose and spinning, running smoothly up in the higher rpm ranges.

The slice down 15 to Leesburg, 7 to Dulles and 28 south to the tollroad went as smoothly as it ever does.

Coming out of the toll booth, I got a good break in the traffic from the booths to my right, and was able to run wide open, getting a good clean run going thock thock thock thock up through the gears.

I don’t have a lot of opportunities to really run the R90S open up top — top gear is so tall and the smooth part of the engine’s power — starting just under 5000 rpm — is so far up there that on most of the roads I ride, it’s unusual to use 5th gear at all.

This morning, in perfect conditions, with about 6 miles of good pavement between here and the exit for Town Center I got the S up to about 4800 rpm in top gear where this motorcycle simply comes alive. Everything went smooth and there was nearly as much power above this cruise speed as the power that had gotten us here.

For a 40 year old motorcycle, this is awesome stuff.

I played a little. A gratuitous lane change or two — feeling how settled and solid the S felt on its suspension at this speed. A few rolls of the thottle — just digging the whoosh.

Most folks in any kind of peak experience only recognize it as such in later refection.

Not me. Not here.

I knew, surfing the booms in a nearly impossble balance of huge forces, that I was getting just a tiny glimse of what Reg knew, of the beast that lives up top.

To experience it even once is a blessing, and I understood it as such as I was so blessed.

6 miles of road is nowhere near enough.

***

One of my co-workers is also a rider — a no BS guy with multiple bikes of multiple brands and 100,000s of thousands of miles under his belt.

Although we don’t work in the same location, we had business which had us on the phone not long after I dismounted. I guess the buzz had noway worn off, ’cause I felt like I needed to share and needed to try hard not to sound like I was babbling incoherently.

I vowed not to, under any circumstances, make motorcycle sounds with my mouth.

“Dave,” I more or less gasped, “I had such a great ride in on the old race bike this morning. Just flying man…”

“I’ll tell you, man, this bike has never run better….”

I thought I heard ominous spooky organ music, but it was probably just one of my co-workers surfing the web and hitting one of those obnoxious self playing video ads.

***

The remainder of day at work didn’t really didn’t provide anything particularly noteworthy. After completing my scheduled tasks and meetings for the day, I resolved to try and enjoy the afternoon and perhaps head for my secret dirt escape road out of Northern Viginia. The sun was out, there was not a cloud in the sky, what was not to like?

As I left Reston and rolled up onto the Toll Road, it seemed there was plenty not to like.

The S was running rough — it didn’t want to seem to take throttle and smoothness was nowhere to be found.

With old analog technology like Italian accelerator pump carburators, I’m accustomed to some fragility of tune. These bikes can even be noticably affected by humidity levels and the direction of prevailing winds, so I didn’t think too much of it.

That would change.

***

As I rolled off the throttle entering the Toll Plaza of the Dulles Greenway, things started to happen.

The bike gave one big snort and one big miss, stumbled and then stalled. The telltales on the dash all lit up, and then all went dark. The cockpit filled instantly with thick smoke and it just kept coming.

If this had been a World War Two Heros of the Air War movie, this is where my goggles would have instantly been coated with smoking black motor oil.

You have your own, favorite go-to strong oaths and curses.

Sufice it to say — billowing smoke and coasting in dead stick to the busiest toll plaza in the entire region at the height of evening rush — I made enthusiastic use of each and every one of them.

Some of them twice.

***

Adrenaline has a lovely ability to clarify the mind.

As I ran out of momentum, there was a very short list of things I was sure of.

1) I needed to find some way to avoid getting run over.

2) I needed to remove my right saddlebag, open the saddle and get a 10mm wrench out of my toolkit.

3) I needed to disconnect the negative battery lead before I found myself wearing flaming bits of old German steel as a sylish hat.

Anything that occurred after that was pure gravy, and outside the current critical planning horizon.

I’ll complement the Virginia Toll Road Corporation for the nice job they do using traffic cones to create a buffer space in front of the concrete butresses that separate and protect the toll booths from out of control auto missiles. It’s not like it is a safe space, but it was a space that I was able to coast into, brake to a stop, get the bike on the main stand, and go right to work.

I could have been steadier with the key to the bag frame lock, but let’s see you do better.

As the bag hit the pavement, I was approached by a young Indian gentleman who I assumed was the toll facility manager. I was politely adressed in perfect Public School Brittish English.

“I am dreadfully sorry, sir, but you cannot do this here.”

“Ordinarily, My Friend, I would quite agree with you, except that this motorcycle IS ON FIRE!”

“I see.”

I’ll point out that while it may have been bad manners to keep working my checklist towards having a 10mm in my hand, I was not as concerned about decorum as I might sometimes be.

“Might you direct just a little traffic while I attempt to keep us from being blown up?”

“Certainly, sir!”

A stellar fellow, I must say.

About 45 seconds later, I had one battery bolt in my hand, and as the smoke slowly cleared, I set about a conscious correction of my rate of respiration.

***

My new friend from the Toll Road Corporation was also very helpful in continuing to direct motorists around me as I pushed my bike from the center of the Toll Plaza to the shoulder.

Once there I set about determining whether there was any way I was going anywhere under my own power.

man downMaking sure the end of the battery ground was outside the frame rail where an accidental reconnect was essentially impossible, I slid the fairing’s headlamp gasket up into the inside of the fairing, and yanked the headlamp ring and with it, the headlamp.

Diagnosis took about 8 seconds. There was a headlamp reflector retaining spring lying visibly across the leads that radiate from the ingition switch. Melted insulation and broken copper radiated out from there.

WP_20150812_18_04_56_ProI knew I had a small spool of repair wire, but no connectors, no electrical tape.

Was I going anywhere under my own power this evening?

Short answer was no.

Had I been out beside a rocky road across Northern Tibet, and failing to get it running would result in my certain demise, I’d have attempted it.

But this night, somewhere just east of Herndon Virginia, with the 113th Northern Virginia Distracted Driving Division members cruising by about 4 feet from my location, it was time to call for the truck.

That, and time to remember to get the old e-bodge kit that I kept in the door pocket of my now departed 1995 Ram Pickup – filled with butt connectors, wirenuts, shrink tubing, zip ties and electrical tape — and put it back in the secondary tool space that sits under the R90’s cafe style tailpiece.

***

I have nothing but good things to say about Frederick, Maryland’s Vinnie’s Towing. They have a slick motorcycle specific tow truck with a hydraulic lifing bed. They drop the bed to the ground, load and secure the bike, and then raise the entire assembly back into the truck. It isn’t the first time they’ve recovered one of my bikes off the side of the road. They always do a stellar job and here’s hoping against hope that despite my satisfaction with their service, that I never see them again.

***

So I have a shopping bag filled with low profile ‘flag connectors’, heat shrink tubing, and several colors and gauges of primary wire.

Gordon Wright of the International R90S club has published a wonderfully detailed and useful wiring diagram that actually shows the connections in their physical locations on the motorcycle. Thanks Gordon!

It looks like the five conductors leading out of the switch are all toast, and then there’s some minor-looking collateral damage.

Here’s hoping that the damage is limted to what I can see, and that it doesn’t extend back into the handlbar control subharnesses or, heaven’s forefend, the main harness. These parts are getting difficult to find, and I can see myself getting forced into having to fabricate a new one myself.

Here’s hoping.

So if you’re looking for me in the next several days, I’ll be the guy out in the garage with the magnifying glasses, the LED worklight and the soldering iron.

Ummm. Toasty.

Ummm. Toasty.

Newton’s Fourth Law

This is an older story, but, in my humble opinion, a really, really good one. It originally appeared on the Internet BMW Riders List, and was subsequently reprinted by Motorcycle Times, a Maryland based motorcycle newspaper.

The reason I’m republishing it is an adventure I had yesterday — one involving a lot of smoke, a small amount of fire, and a fairly long term cessation of forward motion.  More details are forthcoming, but this will help to provide some context.

In the meantime, if your motorcycle inexplicably fixed itself yesterday, you have me to thank for it.

You’re welcome.

***

Motorcyclists, generally, tend to understand the laws of physics, or they don’t exist as motorcyclists (or living humans, for that matter) for very long. I know I do, but I try to never generalize about the human experience from the extremely small sample set of my parochial experience. I also know that when I went down to the Maryland DMV to try to get “RollingPhysicsProblem” registered as a vanity tag for my R90S, the DMV folks laughed at me, and trying to make it fit within the characters available only resulted in some of those impenetrable acronym things that result either in you driving off the road or rear-ending the doofus with the special license plate, and made the DMV folks laugh at me some more, only harder.

Ok, so competent motorcyclists know Newton’s three laws of motion.

Objects at rest stay at rest – objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by by an outside force. Check.

Acceleration of a moving body is proportional to that outside force applied, and inversely proportional to that mass of the moving body. No Problem. Check.

When two bodies interact with each other, action and reaction forces are equal in magnitude, but act in opposite directions. Piece-a-cake. Nyet prahblema. Check.

But most motorcyclists don’t know that, like most true geeks, Newton wasn’t much on writing documentation. Newton had a few other laws, but they only got written down on napkins from Chipotle, and we all know what happens to those.

Newton’s unknown fourth law goes something like this. The amount of stuff which works in the universe, and the amount of stuff with ‘out-of-order’ signs hung on it, totals to a constant. If you fix something, something else in the universe will break so that its still totals that constant. People love slogans, so the easy way to think of this is ‘The conservation of screwed’.

At this point, I may be getting arcane, so an explanation is clearly in order.

I still ride my R75/5 toaster tank nearly every day. There are newer bikes in the garage but for daily transport the Toaster is ideal for round town excursions, occasional small dirt road adventures, and, with its solo saddle set up, it will easily carry bulky stuff like 50 pound bags of cat food over the back fender and between the saddlecases. Any bike that has been on the road nonstop since 1973 has at least a few little flaws that someone biased can just call ‘character’. Perfection, in Islam, is reserved for the lord alone – One sees these in the deliberate flaw woven into Persian carpets. My toaster tank isn’t causing the Godhead any lost sleep about the perfection franchise.

The Toaster’s flaw, of late, had been an odometer that had gone completely berserk. At some point, it seems like all of the digits in the odo had just lost track of each other… one would go out on a ride with 67,000 and some odd miles showing on the cluster, and would return home with 42,000. I’ve had to rework this instrument at least 3 time since 1983, when I bought the bike, so this wasn’t really in any way shocking.

What was shocking was what happened next, though. Yesterday in Maryland was Heat Wave Hostage Crisis day 13… we’ve had a run of 98-108 degree days that is really a tad unusual for this area. I get stir crazy if more than a day or two goes by without a ride, so I riffled through my lame excuse for a ride file, and found my daughter’s Nissan Cube overdue for an oil change, so decided on a ride to town for a few quarts and a filter. I threw a 2 quart insulated water jug in one of the saddle bags, grabbed my Vanson Way Ventilated SuperMoto jacket, and rode the Toaster up to town. While I was there, I realized our bird feeders were empty, and added a 25 of seed to the bike’s cargo area.

On the way back, I decided that the heat wasn’t really that bad with 45-50 mph of wind added, so I elected to take a slightly scenic route home.

And that’s when things got weird.

Running down New Design Road, I looked at my odometer. At that moment, I was running through the numbers to the next thousand — 998 — 999 — 1000. And when the odo turned through that thousand, the numbers in the cluster appeared to marry back up, the thousands digits stopped dancing randomly, and the whole thing went back to working as its maker intended.

“HA!”, quoth I, “How often does that happen? That sucker JUST FIXED ITSELF!”

A strange feeling of preternatural satisfaction came over me. Riding bikes is usually an exercise in things breaking, not things fixing themselves. I was probably observable to be feeling pretty smug from a distance of 50 yards.

And that’s when things immediately righted themselves and, by becoming unweird, got really weird.

New Design road is likely called that because it was the first straight road anyone ever built here. Rolling down New Design road, on a 100 degree day, was a visual feast — raptors circling in the rising air, hay balers PHOOMFing out bales every 3 seconds or so, the double yellow rolling from one bluff to the top of the next. So there I was, about 3600 RPM in the fat spot of 4th gear, enjoying my self made breeze without a care in the world. And that was when the lights on my Motometer all went black and the engine stalled as we were rolling at 50 down a arrow straight road.

Remember ‘The Conservation of Screwed?’.

Lots of things go wrong with old motorcycles. But total loss of electrical power without warning while running on a 100 degree day is almost always a battery that has decided to melt down no matter how you might feel about that.

After drifting to a stop, then pushing the bike across the road into a flat, shady spot across the highway, I did a few tests that confirmed my battery had failed. As I was standing there, literally scratching my head and weighing my options, a white Suburban pulled over and a white haired Gentleman leaned out the window and asked if I needed anything. I asked if he had a few seconds to drive me back to the WalMart I had just left. He said he did.

On the way back up NewDesign, John and I had lots of fun talking about his old motorcycles, and my old motorcycles, and the fun we’d had when things like this happened.

20 minutes after John had pulled up, I was standing back beside the bike with a new battery and tools in hand. I thanked him profusely and gave him the old Irish blessing. He accepted my thanks and just told me, “Pay it forward, man.”

A few minutes of removing the airbox later, I pulled the dead lead and was putting the new one in its place. As I’m started to reattach things, another Samaritan appeared — Patrick worked at the tree service at the end of the road and had stopped to make sure I had water. Once I said I had things under control he said he was a dirtbike guy and kept the conversation going as he got around the other side and ghosted what I was doing on my side of the bike. It was like he’d been working with me on BMWs his whole life. So after 10 minutes that would have been 20, I tested the starter and the bike fired right up. I killed it, put the tank back on, threw the side covers in my bags, put the saddle and cases back on, and shared some cold water and a handshake with Patrick, then fired up and rode home.

Having succeeded in my roadside diagnosis and repair, I was probably again observable to be feeling pretty smug from a distance of 50 yards.

So this is always the point where my inner stentorian voice asks, “So what have we learned?”.

I know that dropping a battery on your index finger will make you cry and wish you were young enough to ask for your mommy. And I also know that even if you did that and she showed up it still wouldn’t get you off the side of the road.

I also know that no matter how bad people tell you things get, that there is always at least one old biker looking out for you when things go straight to sheet. That old biker might even be me, ’cause I got to pay it forward again.

And I really know that when things start fixing themselves, you’d better sharpen up and start paying attention, because Newton’s fourth law says that the amount of screwed in the universe is a constant, and something else is just about to break.

 

Dang Bugs

WP_20140628_13_09_56_Pro

 

There was something familiar about this.

When you’ve been doing something as long as I’ve been riding, there’s always something familiar about almost everything. The challenge is making the correlation as to why.

When I was on one of my frequent  runs through the dirt roads of the valley, someone pulled up to a stop sign in my path with all of the signs of someone that wasn’t really committed to actually stopping.

I punched the horn button, figuring the good-ol-dual-fiamms would help him in his deliberations.

What I heard instead was nothing.

No horn relay clicking.

No impotent bleat.

Deterministically and decidedly absolutely nothing.

Nothing, in motorcycle electric terms, is a pretty easy to classify event. Most other times, you’ve got something. Motors that run and maybe stumble. Horns that half honk. Turn signals that flicker oddly.

But nothing is absolute.

You’ve got nothing.

I quickly ran through the very short list of times I’d encountered nothing.

One of these nothings stuck out.

I was on my way to a job site in Columbia Maryland, a run of about 50 miles, on an early spring morning when the temperature had dipped below freezing unexpectedly.

My R90S was thrumming along on US 32, about 35 miles from home, when it encountered…nothing.

The engine just quit in between compression strokes, and I drifted over to the shoulder of the highway.

I had a flash of ESP that told me where to look. I have no other explanation.

I’d recently added the European headlight switch to this bike that allows on to turn off the headlight. I pulled the one screw that held the switch cluster on the bars, and opened the pod in my hands. Inside the pod was a spider web.

In the morning’s unseasonable cold, the heat being generated by the current had warmed the small space inside the switch pod. The heat had made condensation, which had made water, which collected on the spiderweb, and, which given enough of it, had dripped into the switch causing a dead short. I used my computer tech’s micro Phillips screwdrivers to clear the web away — blew into the switch, and put the assembly back together.

I hit the starter and it started on the first compression stroke.

Forgive me if I felt pretty smug about the efficiency of the roadside repair.

“This nothing,” I thunk, “is exactly like that nothing.”

When I got back to the garage, I took out the technician’s screwdriver.

I pulled the switchpod.

And right where I expected it to be, was another spider and its web.

I don’t know how they get into these tiny spaces, with no apparent openings to the outside, but clearly they do.

Their distant cousins, the mud dauber wasps, also seem to have a fondness for carburetor vents, but that is another story.

I cleared the web out, replaced the switch pod, and pressed the horn button.

My garage echoed with the sound of twin fanfare horns at full song.

My wife Doris, stuck her head out the door and asked, “What the heck are you blowing the horn for?”

“Don’t worry about it, hon,” I said.

“It’s nothing”