Angry Bees

I guess its time to admit that I’ve been living in the past.

It might be an idealized, nostalgic past, but its the past just the same.

I don’t want to generalize too much though, its not the entirety of the past that that I’m living in, its just the motorcycling past.

My newest motorcycle, a K1200 series longitudinally mounted inline 4 — is a 2000 model — it can’t already be 17 years old — which itself is a refinement of a basic design that debuted in 1983.

My Toaster tank /5 BMW — a bike I came by when I got out of college and the bike on which I wooed Sweet Doris from Baltimore — is a 1973 model — 44 years old. If one is honest, the Toaster really represents late 1950s state of the art motorcycle chassis design — Featherbed Knock-off! — as embraced by the conservative German designers after 20 or so years to make sure the basic idea was sound.

Drum brakes.

In defense of the conservative German designers, they are the best street application drum motorcycle brakes I ever used, but.

Drum brakes.

Such a motorcycle is a lot of things, but modern is not one of them.

***

It’s not to say that these old motorcycles are bad motorcycles, because they’re not.

My /5 is narrow, agile, torquey and simple. Hell, it’s still here and running reliably at somewhere indetermanistically north of 170,000 miles.

Indetermanistically because the motorcycle has turned out to be far more reliable than the odometer in its Motometer combined instrument.

But the /5’s two cylinder pushrod motor — originally designed with bushings in its valve rockers — only revs to 6900 rpm, and made barely 50 hp on its best day. It is an elemental motorcycle — but everything happens with a certain deliberateness of pace.

***

Its not like I’ve had no exposure to modern machinery.

I’ve had some seat time on a modern KTM — an 1190 Adventure — that was a real eye opener, and at the same time, was clearly connected with the classic large displacement roadster twins of the past. One had a broad spread of power across the rev band — it was a clearly a road motorcycle, full stop. The refinement of the chassis, suspension, yes, and electronics was the present, but you could still see the motorcycling past from there.

***

 

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So there I was, looking at a tachometer face. A face that showed redline to be at 14,000 rpm.

This was going to require at least a little adjustment.

Sitting in my driveway was a 2004 Kawasaki ZZR-600. ZZR was Kawasaki’s Marketing speak for “We used to call this the Ninja but we redesigned a faster bike and still want to keep selling this one”. Arms race and branding aside, the ZZR carried a four cylinder, water cooled, dual overhead cam short stroke motor of vastly oversquare dimensions. Engines like this are meant for the race circuit — to be spun hard and made to howl on the straights.

The ZZR has a steel frame of a hybrid perimeter and beam type, one that is shared by all modern Kawasaki sporting motorcycles. Its an elegant design where the frame rails bulge around and envelop the cylinder head — simultaneously compact and strong. The ZZR has a conventional telescopic cartridge fork, a monoshock rear, substantial Tokico 4 piston brakes, and 17 inch radial tires. The riding position is two clicks shy of the racetrack, but bars are still low, and saddle and footpegs high.

This ZZR is one in which I have a small investment of time and troubleshooting effort.  It belongs to my daughter’s boyfriend, and after a fair amount of effort to return it to good operation and the road, I had never really had the opportunity to fully test the results of my work.

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When the weather had turned filthy, he had asked if he could store the bike here, so we squeezed it into my garage. The deal was, if I had possession of the bike, I would ride it. It hadn’t really been winterized, and had been sitting there for the better part of a month, when nature served up a freak 65 degree day.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’m still here.

***

Pulling on a Vanson racing jacket is somehow both comforting and strangely calming — its as if this leather exoskeleton, which exerts a whole body compressive hug, works like one of those yippy dog calming vests.

At least it works that way for me.

Think of that what you may.

With my helmet and gloves all strapped in place, I swung a leg over the red machine, and settled into the saddle. I spent a few quality moments adjusting the fairing mounted rearview mirrors — which had been folded in for storage — into a position to be hopefully useful. I turned the bike’s bodywork-integrated fuel petcock to its ‘on’ position, turned the ignition on and slid the handlebar mounted choke lever forward.

Upon activating the starter the bike fired immediately. Being impatient, I tried to work the throttle, and gently slid the choke back open, whereupon the bike stalled immediately.

A second try was better — I let the bike run on full choke for 30 or 40 seconds and then slowly dialed the choke off. And then what we has was a cold, lumpy but running idle — given a little more time and a little more heat, everything would be fine.

I pushed the bike off the centerstand, and flinstoned a K turn until I could drift down the driveway. Taking care to locate and remember the new footpeg position, I selected first gear, which occurred way more deterministically than I am accustomed to — it was almost as if the box was designed to use input power to engage the dogs — once the shift was started it kinda went power transmission on you.

I took the long route around my neighborhood — coming to terms with the bike’s low speed handling, behavior on and off the clutch, and braking.

At the intersection of Jefferson Pike, I made the left and headed up towards town, and past that towards Frederick.

***

It was pretty clear right off that my habit of sometime shortshifting a cold engine wasn’t going to work here. While the engine would take throttle at under 4000 rpm, things down there happened pretty slowly — it was going to take some heat, and way more revs to move things forward smartly.

Apart from that, the riding position that appeared ridiculous at first glance actually worked pretty well once in motion.

Although I have to imagine that the sight of me, with my youthful and trim rear end pointing up in the air may not have been the type of thing that is frequently seen in our little village.

I am under no illusions that chicks dig this.

At Jefferson, I had to stop for the light.

When it turned green, I gassed it.

180 heading east out Jefferson is a winding two laner that follows the contour of the ridge that divides Frederick and Jefferson. I ran the ZZR through the gears, shifting conservatively — for this bike — well below the real power, although it should be noted that my shiftpoints were higher than redline on both of my boxer twins.

The sound of this engine was a racetrack fantasy — the sound of a million angry bees — a raucous, metallic shriek in the middle of its rev band. Hard to imagine how many more bees it might have at its 14,000 rpm limits.

On the other side of the ridge I made the left into Mount Zion Road, and the entrance to one of my most cherished bits of twisty Frederick blacktop. If the ZZR 600 was a well-handling motorcycle, we’d know in the next three minutes.

Mount Phillip is the sort of road where only familiarity can let you run it — roadcraft is of little help where corners apex blind off the tops of hills, and crazy elevation changes obscure the road ahead. Top end power is also of limited use as there’s almost nowhere you can use it — this is a handling test, not a speed event. Even the initial right onto Mount Phillip is tricky — the intersection is a 110 degree turn, usually with a little loose stone, that leads into a very steep and immediate rise — too much throttle and too many revs too soon, and hairy wheelies can easily result. Folks that wish to remain rubber side down are advised to move well forward on their motorcycle here.

Coming off the top of the rise, the road makes a textbook racetrack left 90. I entered well outside, and with the revs up at about 7000, engine braked into the entrance, leaned the bike over and rolled the throttle out. For someone still learning the bike, the entrance was sharp, deterministic and bred confidence. The combination of relatively light weight, very centralized mass, and serious structural rigidity made cornering taut, precise and controllable. The riding position, as well, with the rider located far forward, weighting the front wheel, gave perfect leverage and control to work the front end.

The next several corners, another 90 leading into a sharp uphill right, leads to a hairball double apex that leads down off the other side of the hillside. After 4 real corners, and about three really good minutes, I felt as if I’d been riding this motorcycle most of my life.

***

After running the rest of Mount Phillip up to my bank in Frederick, gearing back up in the parking lot there was no question of taking the shortest route home. The only question really was “Had I bought enough gas?”.

US 40 West out of Frederick – The Old National Pike – is really a treat. It climbs up the mountain (Eastern US version) that sits between Frederick and Hagerstown, where the road immediately enters the forest of Gambrill State Park right outside of town. It’s green, it’s uncongested, with broad, sweeping curves on the climb. The sightlines are stupendous.

If you needed a place to stretch things out, 40 through Gambrill would be the place you’d need.

After clearing the I-70 interchange, I rolled the throttle open and surfed the big wave as the small four spun up into its happy zone. I was focused and comfortable enough to be monitoring both the tach and speedo intently, basically plotting a little dyno chart in my head as the Kawi loosed the bees, made tremendous MotoGP invoking, howling noise, and pulled third gear up the grade.

Around 9000 rpm things were happening as quickly I felt they needed to be happening, so I thokkked the bike up into fourth — noting that the higher one spun this engine, the better it seemed to shift. I rolled the throttle back on and took a brief draught of fourth gear. As much room as I had, it was running out quickly, and the speedometer needle was well into ‘unsafe for conditions’ on a public highway. I thokkkked up into top gear and commenced giving back throttle until I was doing a reasonable impersonation of a socially responsible cruise.

Up here at highway speed, I was impressed how comfortable this motorcycle really was. The airflow off the fairing and windscreen was surprisingly smooth — weather protection surprisingly good. The ride was taut, but not punishing. One could sense the action of the four cylinder engine, but it was mere mechanical character, and not objectionable in any way.

Both the bike and its rider were utterly at ease, and adapted for speed.

***

The rest of the ride was backroad riding school.

From 40 I turned left down Harmony Road – a little snake of a road that lets one work the sides of one’s tires.

Then down Maryland 17 South towards Middletown — the entire route stringing together elevation changes and combinations of technical corners. The ease with which the ZZR entered corners, and the precision with which it held exactly the desired angle and desired line was an illumination.

17 leads towards home, so I didn’t take it.

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At Middletown, I went west on Alternate 40. Alt 40 heads up another (eastern variety) mountain. With so few mountains available, I was going to hit every one that presented itself.

Alt 40 is a very old roadway, and where it goes over the ridge is a series of decreasing radius, banked switchbacks that look intimidating but are a gas when properly executed. The ZZR was able to turn in harder and deeper and carry about 25 mph more than my antiques with absolutely zero drama — at the apexes the bike was planted, on line and with tons of ground clearance remaining.

As we came down into Boonsboro, I was held up behind a minivan that indicated its intention to turn left onto Maryland 67 South which was also my intended route. Trolling south out of town, we came to a legal passing zone, and I indicated left, and rolled on to play another game of Third Gear Rocketry. I shifted up as the front wheel got light, with the shift setting the front back on the pavement.

At Reno Monument Road, I made the left back towards the ridge, and worked the tight technical climb with the revs up in 2nd and 3rd gear, setting speed in and out of corners with the throttle.

Marker Road took me toward home. The decreasing radius corners and hilltop apexes which are dramatic on the airheads were dead boring and nailed down on this Kawasaki — roadgear working so well to make it almost seem like mind control.

On the last leg of Gapland road, the ZZR dissected the bridge corners, and did it with style and a wonderful howl of IC exhaust.

On the final straight before home I rolled fourth gear open and the 90 or so my S will make was quickly vaporized — 45 or so more horsepower into roughly the same weight does have some effect.

***

Back in the driveway I found myself listening to the tink tink tink of the ZZR giving its heat back to the atmosphere, and quickly concluded that our 40 miles or so of road had barely scratched the surface of this bike’s capabilities.

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I don’t think I ever revved the ZZR’s motor past 10,000 of those 14,000 rpm — leaving much of the bike’s power potential untapped and on the table. When riding this Kawasaki with its engine spinning up there, it simply ran out of room nearly instantly on any public road that I usually ride, well before it ran out of acceleration, ran out of speed.

The ZZR’s handling made my customary best twisty roads nearly trivial exercises — centralized mass, chassis rigidity, good geometry and sticky radials allowed me to place the bike exactly where I wanted it with minimal to absolutely no drama.

I’ll admit I’d found minimal use for the brakes, but the few times I’d deliberately ‘braked for effect’ they’d been pretty impressive — clearly more than enough power was available from the twin four piston Tokicos to overwhelm the front tire’s contact patch, if one was dumb or unskilled enough to put in a request for same.

Everything about the bike — from the howl of its engine, to my position on the bike that made attacking corners like breathing in and out, to the rush of its high end power delivery, to the big negative G’s on the brakes — sucked one in, encouraging more, harder, faster.

And while its cool to envision myself, wearing bright leathers with a waist size about three sizes smaller than mine actually is, swimming in the sound, slicing across corners with front tire skimming the pavement, dicing with Vale and Marc, its a fantasy with its home on a racetrack — on the street the bike is just out of its element, leaving too much on the table, yawning at anything remotely close to legal speed operation.

Its not even like the ZZR is some bit of 2017 vintage, European literbike exotica — there’s no EFI, no power delivery modes — not yet even a future wet dream of Inertial Management Units controlling lean angle sensitive traction control and antilock braking. This Kawasaki is a small displacement, commodity sportbike — an inexpensive, mass produced motorcycle that was actually an obsolete design when it built by a manufacturer that was just trying bleed out its investment in its tooling.

With all that going against it, its still a motorcycle that — transported back in time — would have probably walked away and won convincingly in any production-based class or even GP Racing until around 1977 when the design of the Yamaha TZ750 was finally debugged.

Modernity — in motorcycle form — means frames, tires and suspension that just work. It means engines that are designed to be routinely revved to ten and twelve thousand rpm and brakes that can pull the rear wheel clear of the ground again and again and again.

Its amazing, frankly, just how good an average modern motorcycle is.

Amazing, but simultaneously useless, at least when used on the road.

While it’s an absolute gas to validate that my years of roadcraft can instantly make the jump to more capable machinery, and to experience firsthand how far the bar has been raised, I’m not sure the temptation is enough to make me leave the motorcycling past for the future.

I’m OK with a run through the gears to the ton feeling like a thrilling trip to the edge, instead of that ton seeming like merely the starting line.

The Other Half

I’m beginning to feel like the Pied Piper — it seems like motorcycles just find their way to me, and then just follow me around.

The latest moto-child at the end of this little parade is a 2004 Kawasaki ZZR 600. The ZZR belongs to Cameron — Daughter Wallis’ Boyfriend — who, after a long period of unrelieved motolust, found this bike — low mileage, low purchase price — sitting out beside the road wearing a ‘For Sale’ sign. At the time, he was actually headed to look at another bike he’d found on Craigslist, but this one seemed like more motorcycle for less dollars, so it followed him, and by inference, me, home.

Bikes like this are a missed blessing — with an odometer reading equating to far less than 1000 miles a year, this was a motorcycle that had spent most of its life just sitting.

The ZZR was Kawasaki’s rebadged version of the first generation Ninja 600. After a substantial redesign resulting in Ninja V 2.0, Kawasaki had taken the first generation machine, equipped it with a slightly more rational seating position, a set of bungee hooks, and a sticker that said ‘ZZR’, and told people it was a sporty standard and kept selling it right along side the new, more track focused Ninja, only for a lot less money. For folks that didn’t want to go racing, the ZZR made perfect sense.

Did I mention that the ZZR is one of the last carbureted Kawasaki motorcycles? A carbureted motorcycle that had no choice but to be filled with the swill that passes for modern pump gas, and had spent its whole life sitting waiting to be ridden.

It didn’t take the Great Karnak to know the question was “What motorcycle will need a complete carb service?”.

 

***

 

I’ve been ragging on myself about my lack of skills and experience in working on Finn’s Harley-Davidson based Buell Blast.

My skills working on modern Japanese motorcycles, while non-zero, were certainly in that same reduced-capacity zip code.

Cam had described to me the bike’s operating character — would only idle on choke when not fully warmed up, stumbling idle, and wouldn’t take throttle until half open, and then it was bog, stumble, unridable blast. He fired it at the end of my driveway one evening, and the idle sounded like a box of rocks in a cement mixer. Awful.

This was a story I was sure I’d heard before.

Sweet Doris From Baltimore’s little moto-riding brother, Eric, had ridden a Yamaha FZ-1 of identical vintage and a parallel development story — v1.0 supersport — in this case the R1 — repurposed as a sporty standard while sold alongside Supersport 2.0. Eric had told me tales of that bike — also the last of the carbureted bikes — going back to the dealer 4 or 5 times — before it died an untimely death — for carb cleaning and replacement of its pilot jets. His frustration was palpable — couldn’t those guys get it right? — but the problem was, at root, not ham-fisted mechanics but a chronic design flaw. Microscopic pilot jet orifices driven by EPA emissions testing-driven lean running conditions combined with alcohol laden motor fuel meant that even the slightest evaporation or varnishing of the fuel in the carbs reduced the jet orifice sizes just enough to keep the bike from running. And it could happen over and over again.

Cam’s little problem clearly fit the same pattern.

I told him to order the parts I figured we’d need — pilot jets, spark plugs, an air filter, a fuel filter, an oil filter and fresh motorcycle oil. I figured that with one good afternoon we could set the ZZR aright.

 

***

 

I figured wrong.

Cam came over one Saturday afternoon with two bags full of parts obtained from Frederick’s local Kawasaki dealer, so I rolled my LT out of the garage, and positioned the ZZR in the large space thus vacated, in the implied operating theater in front of my rolling toolbox.

 

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I strapped on my mechanics gloves and we dove right in.

We pulled the saddle to access the tank mounts. Three bolts, one fuel gauge connector and one clamp later, the ZZR’s tank was sitting in the fuel tank cradle on top of my workbench.

Ten 10 mm bolts later, the top of the airbox came off.

And that was when, as my British are won’t to say, things began to go pear-shaped.

I pulled the foam air cleaner element out — it was visibly crumbling and in bad shape — and Cam made a face. He removed the new air filter from the bag — his new one was clearly shorter from front to back than what was in the bike.

I told him to call the dealer, and have them check the number, and see if they had the correct filter in stock.

While he spent some time on the phone, I continued removal of the ram-air-equipped airbox and worked my way towards removal of the rack of 4 downdraft Keihin CV carburetors. 4 clamps later, the rack was off the head — flipping them upside down in place was sufficient access to get to the float bowls and jets.

It was then that I began to understand just how bad our local dealer’s attention to detail might be.

I put down my tools and went over to Cam, who was still on the phone.

“Have them check the rest of the part numbers on your order. If they effed up the filter they probably effed up the other parts too.”

Sure enough, the pilot jets were also wrong. The dealer, despite having been told the year and model of the bike, had referred to the parts listing for the 2004 Ninja, not the 2004 ZZR. The spark plugs and oil filter just happened to be shared between the two models.

This bike was not going back together today.

I hate it when an easy job turns into days or weeks waiting on parts.

 

***

 

Having told the dealer to order the correct air filter and jets, Cam and I set about to do what could be done in the absence of parts. We pulled each of the carb float bowls. Each of them showed some varnishing and staining — blasts of carb cleaner and shop rags and cotton swabs had them all looking factory. We cleaned up the throttle butterflies, CV slides, float bowls and hosed down the main and pilot jet orifices with carb cleaner and then buttoned things up loosely to await the arrival of the required parts.

My collection of I.T. Tech Vendor giveaway tiny screwdrivers was not really adequate for removing the varnished up pilot jets — the further delay would allow me to finally replace them with a proper tool.

Putting four new spark plugs in the motor was unremarkable, except perhaps for how far down beneath the cam covers those plugs were.

With the bike in parts all over the workbench and garage, the afternoon beer sure didn’t taste like victory today.

 

***

 

The following Friday, Cam went back to the aforementioned dealer. They slid a small bag across the counter with 4 of the correct pilot jets.

“Where’s the air filter?”

The befuddled counterman cut into a stream of Hummina-Hummina-Hummina.

After a quick check of the parts computer, it was revealed that our erstwhile professional had reserved the remote inventory for Cameron, without exactly having ordered it.

Cameron is, if nothing else, a good human being, who departed the shop without directing animus or personal violence against said offender, who was now on the verge of making a simple motorcycle tune up last three full weeks.

In his shoes, I would have likely expressed myself in potentially unfriendly ways.

I will mention in passing that there was a time when I seriously considered emptying my garage of all of its BMWs in favor of purchasing a KTM Adventure from this self same dealer.

My gratitude that this did not come to pass likely knows no bounds.

 

***

 

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Back in the garage, Cam and I put the new screwdriver to good use.

I’m pretty sure I hadn’t remarked on it before, but if you are the daughter of a hidebound motorhead, bringing home a boyfriend named Cam has to earn you some kind of extra points.

Anyway, since it was at the absolute bottom of the open engine bay, the old fuel filter — eeech! — was popped off the Kawi’s fuel pump, and a new clean one popped on.

Then I’d draped a worn out white polo shirt across the frame rails, to ensure that any tiny parts that tried to make a break for it would be stopped cold on a clean white surface.

With the correct pilot jets and tool steel screwdriver in hand, removing and replacing the pilots went quickly.

After about 15 minutes of close order work, we flipped the carb rack back over, pulled the shoprags out of the intake spigots, revealing the absolutely tiny intake valves, and remounted the carbs to the bike’s cylinder head.

I replaced the carb rack’s choke cable and holder, reattached the feed line from the fuel pump, and then took the lower half of the airbox in hand.

During this entire little operation, I’d been remarking on how small and tightly packaged everything on this 4 cylinder 600 cc motor appeared.

Now, an applied illustration of the effects of this presented itself.

Removing the airbox had been absolutely trivial.

Reinstalling it, though, not so much.

The Kawasaki’s airbox was one of the ram-air type. It was held in place by two flange headed bolts in the rear that attached it to a plastic panel which connected the four carburetors together. In the front, it was supported by large rubber ram air ducts that fit inside the large diameter spigots at the front of the airbox.

Finding the correct vector and rotation to get all that stuff to magically realign proved, well, elusive.

After several runs at it, I could sense that rising panic that tends to occur when something that one’s brain knows is trivial starts to temporarily seem to be impossible.

All of a sudden, everything became darker still.

Not metaphorically, as one would assume, but literally.

We’d been having unnaturally warm autumn days hereabouts. These unnatural conditions tend to be short lived, and subject to sudden and violent change.

And while that observation is intended here to be literal, it may have metaphorical applications as well.

A cold front had swept across the mountain ridge that sits between my garage and Buddy Al’s house, and the sky went black, the wind picked up, and the rain began to hammer down, all in a matter of seconds. I only noticed this when the first big raindrop hit the bottom of the Kawi’s airbox.

Operating, as we were, in the open garage door to take advantage of the light and extra space to walk behind the bike, it became immediately necessary to close to door to keep the bottom of the sea and the ZZR’s intake tract logically separated.

After popping a work light in place to replace the lost sun, Cameron, who with his very slight build — more suited to ramming one’s arms down plastic pipes — managed to get the intake ducts realigned.

Two bolts were run down, and the airbox was back in place.

Cam and I agreed that even without the air filter, we’d test fire the bike just to make sure we were on the right track.

By the time the top of the airbox, with its ten bolts and small internal ram-air birdy catching fence, was tacked back in place, the rain had passed, and the sun was back out. We rolled the garage door back up, backed the bike back out, and then set the fuel tank back into place and attached the fuel line.

Really. A little chain link fence downstream of the filter to catch errant ram-air inhaled birdies.

Really. A little chain link fence downstream of the filter to catch errant ram-air inhaled birdies.

I did the honors.

I turned the key, half expecting the fuel pump whine I’ve come to expect from my fuel injected motorcycles. I didn’t get it.

I set the choke lever on the left handlebar, and pressed the starter. Unsurprisingly, the engine rotated through three or four full crank rotations before we had enough fuel and air in the places where fuel and air needed to be before the Kawi fired, and the bike came up to an immediate 2000 rpm high idle.

I rolled off the choke and it immediately died.

Ok.

On the second attempt, I left the choke in place for a few seconds while the engine warmed. I tried to open the throttle with the choke activated, but with this carburetor, the throttle was essentially useless while the enrichener was on.

After about thirty seconds, I rolled the choke closed in stages and the engine stayed running, although the idle was still noisier than I thought optimum.

The ZZR, like many inline 4s, has an idle adjustment knob on top of the left side transmission case that connects via a cable to the center of the carburetor rack. I gently rolled the knob open until the butterflies began to open, and dialed in a 1200 rpm idle speed. This seemed better, but wasn’t perfect. I couldn’t put my finger on what wasn’t right now, but later all would be revealed.

As the engine finally began to get some heat in it, I was able to drop the idle speed lower, and the engine began to respond to opening throttle as it should — instead of the former bog, choke and gasp, I was now getting smooth throttle response from idle — the engine would smoothly add RPMs, swinging the tach upwards to 4 and 5 thousand on opening throttle. I was confident there was more — the ZZR revs to 14K — but don’t routinely redline motors on the stand.

After a cold, rainy afternoon, a properly running bike seemed like a major improvement.

As Sweet Doris from Baltimore called us in to a warm meal, Cam and I decided that the rest of the work — oil change and air filter — could wait until the MIA airfilter finally showed up.

 

***

 

Have I ever mentioned how mental unfinished motorcycle jobs make me?

Consider it mentioned.

At lunchtime Monday, I slipped out into the garage, and pulled the belly pan from the ZZR. Unlike my KLT, where removal of the lower fairings is an exercise in excessive fasteners, the ZZR is simple and fast. A very visible gold anodized phillips head screw unhooks a belt band that allows access to all the other fairing fasteners. One screw on each side and two screws at the rear of the belly pan allows one to remove the entire lower fairing. Total elapsed time — about 3 minutes.

I started and rewarmed the motorcycle until I could feel some heat in the engine and transmission cases. I then slid a pan under the engine and pulled the drain bolt. After a few seconds I also got a wrench on the filter and pulled it as well.

While standing there with oil draining I noticed the service sticker on the rear of the tank — “Oil Change Volume with Filter Change — 3.4 US QTS”. I had previously remarked that the engine appeared overfilled — there had been no space visible at the top of the sight glass.

With oil still pouring out, the level in my drain pan had now gone past the level normally associated with a change in my Ram Pickup. Who ever had serviced this motorcycle last had dramatically overfilled the crankcase — the dealer had sold Cam 5 quarts of expensive synthetic racing oil and the OEM instructions clearly called for less than 3.5 — what was in my pan was looking like 5.

Coincidence? Who knows?

There is only one Kawasaki dealer near this small town.

I headed back into my office to complete the day’s work while the engine fully drained, thinking perhaps I had uncovered the last clue to why the bike had been exhibiting such awful idle and off idle performance.

 

***

 

After dinner that night, I went back into the garage and pulled the new oil filter out of the box. Because of all the confusion, I’d checked all of the part numbers myself, just to be sure that we had the right parts and would have no more problems. The Kawasaki OEM filter that I’d removed didn’t have the correct part number. Size was roughly right, but it was not the correct filter for this engine.

Whoever had been maintaining this motorcycle before we got here had apparently been a little weak on details.

I oiled the gasket on the new filter and torqued it to specifications.

I cleaned up the drain bolt, torqued it to specs and put 3.4 quarts of new oil into the motor.

I wiped off my hands, turned the key, set the choke and fired the engine. After only 5 seconds or so, I dialed the choke off and the engine went to about a 1300 rpm idle. I used the adjuster to dial it back to 1000 rpm, which was dead even and rock solid. What was more significant were the qualities which were no longer there — a whole bunch of noises and rattles that had been there previously — cam chain noises, the sound of the crank weights slapping oil — were all gone. Throttle response was also markedly improved — quicker, more linear.

After shutting her down, the oil level showed up right in the middle of the sight glass.

I started to think that this roadside refugee — with a little care and attention to detail — was going to turn out to be a really nice motorcycle after all.

Now, as soon as the MIA airfilter showed up, this bike was going to be back out of my garage and on the road.

 

***

 

Tuesday afternoon, the dealer finally called Cam to tell him the airfilter had arrived. Also Tuesday afternoon, one of Cam and Wallis’ friends gave birth to her first baby girl.

Oh, Joy?

I have visions of Cam in the hospital room with the new little family, air filter in his jacket pocket, smiling weakly and thinking to himself “Stupid Baby.”

I’ve had the good judgement not to ask him about it.

 

***

 

After Baby Girl Frenzy abated just a little, Cam appeared in the garage bearing a Kawasaki OEM Replacement Parts bag.

We pulled the tank again and spun the 10 bolts out of the airbox cover. I have a trick little Bosch rechargeable 12 volt variable speed drill that accepts socket drive bits. Given the tool’s precision – speed control is very granular and linear — controllable at minute rotational speeds — and its nicely featured torque clutch — it makes jobs like this much faster than with a traditional ratchet. I might check torque with a traditional torque wrench for critical fasteners, but for jobs like this, or on body panels, it’s a winner.

One of my rare concessions to modern technology.

I had Cam clean off the plastic frames that support the top and bottom of the two stage foam filter. Another case where Al’s Cheap Trick of using brake cleaner — my garment factory skills identify this as aerosol dry cleaning fluid — useful stuff — had everything bright and shiny double quick. The service manual for the bike — Thank you, Internet! — specified that the new filter had to be oiled. We followed the manual to the letter — soak rag in motor oil, pat top surface of filter.

Airbox lid went back in place, tank back on, fuel line connected and clamped in place, and three bolts run down.

Cam put the saddle back in place, turned on the fuel petcock.

We rolled the bike out into the driveway. I grabbed my old Bell 500, and threw a leg over.

The bike fired perfectly on choke, which I was able to roll off almost immediately. I rolled down the driveway and headed for the circle two houses down from me at the end of my street. Immediately the bike went fluffy, started not taking throttle, and quickly expired.

My mental tach headed toward redline. Felt like no fuel. It WAS no fuel.

I felt for the Kawi’s funky bodywork-integrated petcock.

Squint.

Cam had brought the bike in with low fuel level in the gas tank — a thoughtful move if one is going to spend a great deal of time taking said tank on and off — like in this case, which we did multiple times.

I rotated the petcock from ON to RESERVE, waited 5 seconds, and hit the starter.

“Wheeeeee….” Angry Bees.

I gave the bike a little gas, let out the clutch, and whizzed up Westport drive. I rolled out of the gas, toed the shifter and got a solid and precise shift to second. I trolled around the block, giving and taking some gas — this ZZR felt great.

I’ll admit I expected to feel cramped, but even with the high pegs the position was nicely balanced — I was even able to do feet up U-turns in the width of my street first try, no problem.

Coming back towards the garage, I did that thing that bikers do — don’t let on for a second like you wouldn’t, mate — where I gave the red machine some enthusiastic throttle. I could see where with the room to get some RPMs up, this was going to be a fearsomely capable machine. It was small, taught, precise.

I rolled the motorcycle back into the driveway, killswitched it and swung back off.

“This is going to be just fine, Cam. Go get some clean high test in this thing.”

I’ve never seen a man smile so hard, get into armored gear so fast, or say ‘Thank You’ so many times in such a short interval of time.

With a press of the starter, the red bike rolled to the corner, grabbed second gear, banked left and split.

I heard the ZZR go up through the gears — its distinctive angry bee inline four shriek as it broke into its rpm midrange — 8 grand or so gone with 6 more left — as it headed up the state highway towards the BP station in town.

I’d been hoping I’d get the chance to take a more thorough ride on the machine, but hearing it disappear into the distance, I suspected that was going to be a while before I saw it again.

 

***

 

Wallis was kind enough to let me know that Cameron got home safely later.

Later that week.

Good to see I’m still a positive role model for the young people I know.

Even if I’m not exactly sure how Wallis feels about that right now.

Half a Harley Mechanic

I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but lately I’ve been finding myself doing more than a couple of things I was pretty sure I would never do.

I feel like Rolling Physics Problem is inexorably constructing its own cosmology — its unique internal laws of its own energy, space and time. And one of our foundational laws of time is that the future simply can’t be foreseen.

This means a lot of things surprise me, when perhaps they really shouldn’t.

I’m really coming to embrace that it pays to be flexible.

 

***

 

Having firmly established the complete absence of validity of anything I might have ever thought about my future self and existence, I was pretty sure one of those things I would never do would be to own a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Now don’t get me wrong, fellow riders. Don’t assume any malice or deficiency of character where none exists.

I’d love to have one of those lovely XR1200s that buyers ignored from a few years back. All of the V-Rod series of motorcycles, with their Porsche-designed engines, were one chassis and suspension transplant away from being really compelling motorcycles.

I’d like to own a VR1000 or an XLCR, but as flexible as I might be, I am also short of disposable income.

And cheap. A deadly combination for a Gentleman of Fine Discerning Motorcycle Tastes.

All that aside though, nothing HD currently sells from the showroom floor really does anything for me, at least not enough to sign a note on one.

So I just didn’t see myself owning one.

And if you, on the other hand, totally dig the machinery that Harley Davidson makes, and how it makes you feel, that’s cool, man, and I can totally see why you feel that way.

But it doesn’t do that to me, so I just couldn’t see it.

And not being able to envision owning one, meant that all of the Bar and Shieldy goodness that is how these motors work and how one tends to them had been unexplored blank space in the universe inside my head.

I had absolutely zero interest, cause it was information I was simply never going to use. End.Of. Story.

 

***

 

Whereupon I purchased my son Finn’s Buell Blast.

On only the thinnest of graspable technicalities could one argue that the Blast was somehow not a Harley Davidson. If, however, your thesis was that The Blast was a half of one, then you …had nothing.

Half a Harley?

Those that do know about such things claim that the Blast and a Sportster share no common engine parts, but the eye tells a different tale. In development Mr. Buell did what the HD-owned Buell and Harley itself always did — start with the bits they already had on hand and put them together in different combinations and improved them from there.

The lower engine case is cast aluminum, and shares the shape and basic dimensions of the modern 1000 cc Sportster motor. Where the Sportster has two cylinder base plates machined for a pair of air cooled cylinders, the Blast case simply has one — the front one, to be specific, inclined at approximately the same angle as the Sportster’s V. The back one…well, it’s gone. Or not there yet. Or something.

Considering that Harley had not made one of its own singles since 1934 — Aermacchis and DKWs badged as HD’s don’t count, ’cause I say so — this was a pretty traditional way of solving the company’s small displacement problem. And, for good measure, not even an original way — BMW, Vincent, Indian, Ducati and no doubt countless others, just buttoned up one or two of whatever jugs they had lying around at the time to make a single and twin of the same basic engine architecture and parts.

Buell being Buell, they had improved the stock components for better flow and balance and anything else they could hot rod, but the basic tooling was the same. Where the 1000cc stock Sportster twin makes something like 52 HP, the 500cc Blast Single makes 34.

So anyway, as the new proud owner of Half a Harley, I was going to have to play catch up on how this corner of the universe did things.

 

***

 

Before Finn and the Blast departed for College Park, I’d paid dearly for all of my hard fought Harley ignorance.  I’d figured out oil changes and spark plugs, brake service and tires. The bike had even received some small degree of farkelage, with some actual rear-view mirrors, a wired-in mini Battery Tender, and a set of soft bags.

Post decamp a soaking wet and shivering cold Finn had rediscovered gravity   and had bent some small stuff that had to be replaced. Finn had also said while the bike was on its side it had been spitting out small chunks of black rubber from under the tank. I was pretty sure I knew what those were.

So I became determined to further confuse Harley Davidson of Frederick, who are likely starting to wonder why my R90S is always parked in their lot. While there I picked up a shift lever toe peg kit, and a set of the rubber gas tank isolators, which had been visibly trending toward entropy when Finn and I had been in there last.

When I got home I looked at the new shift peg, which, in a major failure of design, didn’t have a wrench flat on it anywhere — kinda hard to torque or detorque, for that matter, when there is nothing to hold onto. Given that the one on the bike had been gravitationally customized, and is supposed to be secured by red LockTite, I imagined a part that might need extreme externally provided motivation in order to be removed. A butane torch and Vice-Grips went onto the tool pile.

Unlike many technicians, I elected to actually read the documentation that was inside the parts bag. The installation procedure stated that the enclosed peg was a retrofit repair part for several models which it listed. The procedure went on to say that if, however, it was to be installed on a Blast, that the hole in the shift lever was 1/8 too shallow, and that a 5/16s tap would be required to install it.

I’ve got a lot of tools.

None of them, however, are taps.

I placed my selected tools, new parts and swingarm service stand into my wagon, and headed for College Park via a short pit stop in the hand tool department of my local Lowes.

 

***

 

When I got down to Finn’s place I gave The Lad a big hug, and then he helped me unload the mobile bike shop.

He picked the bike up off the sidestand, and grabbed a handful of front brake while I positioned the swingarm stand and levered the bike up in the air to render it ready for wrenching.

As a BMW guy, I now fully appreciate just what a luxury a bike with a center stand really is.

I’d made the same trip down a few weeks previous to help Finn replace a leaky carburetor boot that was causing some wonky running. All of that work looked like it had stood up and kept fasteners tight, which isn’t always a given with this motorcycle.

I got down on one knee to inspect the shifter peg which had been customized by Finn’s little run-in(s) with too much gravity and not enough friction. He had done a pretty passable job of unbending the bent — looked pretty serviceable actually, to an old cheap man’s eye. It had looked inexplicably rough — the shift rubber was split and had been neatly ziptied back on — before this had happened, so I had no problem with fixing it right.

It was an Internet style laugh out loud moment when I realized that the existing shift peg was actually backed out about a thread and a half. I grabbed it with my hand and it moved. Looked like I wasn’t going to need that torch. Actually, I guess we were more lucky it hadn’t vibrated out and fallen off.

I passed Finn the vicegrips and had him back the bent part the rest of the way off. He handed it to me when he’d finished and I placed it beside the newly purchased part.

The old and new parts were identical — even in the threaded part of the peg. The part we were replacing, therefore, was not the original factory peg, which was about 1/8 inch — remember the documentation? — or about a thread and a half coarse threads shorter. Looks like someone hadn’t received the memo about tapping the extra threads in the shift arm.

It also looks like when Blasts fall over – which apparently happens a lot – they land on their shift peg, with consistently repeatable results.

I chucked up my nice new Dewalt tap, and gently cut two more threads into the shift arm. A little LockTite, a little ViceGrips and we could cross this little problem off the list.

That wrapped, I pulled the tank vent and tank cover, which is held on place by a single bolt, and by the oil dipstick, which sits in the oiltank in top of the frame just behind the steering head.

With the plastic inner tank laid bare, I removed what little was left of the rubber tank mounts — little rubber cylinders that slide over steel rods that protrude from either side of the steering head to position and retain the tank.

The new tank mounts needed a little more coercion than I would have preferred, but they eventually were persuaded into place. The tank cover and vent went back on, and the Blast came back off the work stand.

I swung a leg over, turned the key and lit ‘er up. The Blast fired on the second stroke, and responded well to throttle, spinning up smartly on the gas. I let her idle for about thirty seconds, and then blipped ‘er again to make sure the goofy thermal choke disengaged.

For what it’s worth, if anyone knows of a good bodge to replace the thermal auto-choke on one of these bikes with a good old fashioned choke knob and cable, please speak to me.

Because Finn’s apartment complex is still mostly empty, the parking garage is also mostly empty. The uppermost floor, where we were working, was completely empty. Really large unbroken expanses of empty concrete pavement make certain motorcyclist behaviors more likly to occur, so they occurred here.

I took a couple of large throttle opening runs up and down the floor, being somewhat surprised the little beast would lighten up the front wheel with a little leading throttle and some clutch modulation, and drinking in the noise in the semi-enclosed space.

I rolled the bike back into Finn’s space, leaning it onto the sidestand, and killswitched it.

It was time to head for the diner down the street, and get some breakfast food for dinner and joke and cut up some.

 

***

 

Back at work the next morning, I reflected on how comfortable I was becoming working on the Blast.

Maybe this Half a Harley Mechanic gig wasn’t so bad after all. Check back to see how I feel about it after a primary case oil change and clutch adjustment next spring.

Right about then an incoming text lit up my phone.

It was Cam — my daughter Wallis’ boyfriend.

He was asking for help cleaning up the carbs and tuning up a 2006 Kawasaki ZZR600 he’d picked up on Craiglist a few weeks back. It was a carburetted motorcycle that had spent most of its life parked, so it likely needed some pilot jets, oil, air and fuel filters, and some spark plugs. Cam had called up our local Kwacker dealer and they’d asked for almost as much for the work as he’d spent on the bike.

I went over the parts he would need, and told him to bring the ZZR by when they came in.

Looked like I’d have half a Kawasaki mechanic to round out my half a Harley mechanic by this time next week.