Boys and their toys

Bikes

See the bikes in the middle left side of the picture? They are barely visible. One is a recent sport bike. There is a covered bike just past it.

Boys will be boys, they say, and the only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.

My new toy is the Georgetown 328 sitting in front of the silver Honda in the picture above. But there was a time when the toys that I loved most had two wheels. I’m not so sure that I’ve gotten over that yet.

We recently took a short “shakedown” camping trip with our new motor home. Laura has already written an article about it….in that article she mentions that this was a “city” RV Park, with a mixture of full timers, roving temp workers, and people passing through from one place to another. It was not a “vacation destination” park. It was a great place for a shakedown trip, though.

We were enjoying our stay. We met a nice couple from Canada traveling in a 5th Wheel who were parked in the space facing the front of our rig. We didn’t meet the people on the passenger side of our rig. There was an older coach on the driver’s side. It looked like a full timer’s coach, because there was evidence that it hadn’t moved much in the recent past. There was nobody around, but I noticed a recent Kawasaki sport bike parked next to the coach, and in front of that was another bike. It was covered, but I knew it was an old timer, because it had old fashioned wire spoke wheels peeking out. I didn’t really give it much thought when I first saw it.

So later I’m sitting at the dinette in our coach…it’s approaching dusk, and I’m on my second beer. The first one was a 22 ounce IPA, so I’m buzzing a little. I’d been working on a writing project (fiction) on my laptop. I could see the coach with the bikes out the window. Then I see movement inside the coach….somebody got home. I went back to my writing, not paying too much attention. When I looked out the window again, there was an older man puttering around with the Kawasaki. He wasn’t much older than me, but he had lived a hard life….that was pretty obvious by his attire, and the way he walked with a slight limp. He had uncovered that other bike.

Holy Shit.

It’s a restored Yamaha RD 400 – the monster two stroke of the mid 1970s low end street bike scene. I haven’t seen one of those in years. They were legendary.

The Yamaha RD 400

The Yamaha RD 400

I watched this guy putter around a little more, while trying to continue writing. It was no use….now my mind was on motorcycles, and that’s sometimes really hard to shake. I want to go talk to this guy about his bike…..but I didn’t want to bother him, and I can be a little shy at times. Then I saw the man from Canada walk over to him, beer in hand. That clinched it. I got up and went outside.

The two men were talking about motorcycles…..the Kawasaki, from what I could tell. They both smiled and nodded at me as I approached.

“Is that really a RD?” I asked.

The old biker’s face lit up.

“Sure is,” he said.

We launched into a long discussion about 1970s motorcycles. All three of us were into bikes, but the guy who owned the RD was  really into them, and did a fair amount of racing back in the day. That’s why he looked so torn up….he had been injured badly a few times. He still liked to hang out at the tracks, and still did some racing, but not like the old days. He referred to his Kawasaki as his baby.

This guy was trying to sell the RD, and almost had it sold, but the deal fell through right at the last minute. He was working on finding another buyer. The bike was nicely restored…..it sure didn’t look like it was more than 40 years old. He laughed, and said he wasn’t up to starting that thing anymore. Kick start only, and sometimes it took quite a few stabs. I remember hearing that from people who owned them back in the day.

It was really fun talking to these guys about bikes. We had all grown up at about the same time, and we were interested in rival bike categories.

The old biker guy was from the “racer boy” part of the motorcycle world. I remember these guys. They loved these two strokes, and they knew how to ride better than most. Many of them were just plain nuts, and they always wanted to race you. I got challenged by them more than once.

The Canadian had the killer bike of the day….the bike that was the fastest out of the box for a few years. The bike that almost put Harley Davidson, Triumph, Norton, BSA, and others out of business. The bike that got stolen more than any other type too…..the Honda CB750.

Honda CB 750

Honda CB 750

This was the “every-man” bike of it’s time. Kind of like the Mustang or the Camaro.  Reliable, fast, easy to ride. It’s strength was stoplight to stoplight racing, and in a straight line, it could take anything but an occasional Norton 750 Combat Commando….at least until the Kawasaki 900 came out a few years later.

And my category? British bikes. I fell in love with the Triumph 650. This started when I was 14-15 years old, reading magazine articles about Steve McQueen and his Desert Sleds, and watching the Wide World of Sports coverage of the Baja 1000.

Steve McQueen loved these bikes, and did a lot of desert racing with them. He also used one in the movie “The Great Escape” to attempt a jump over some barbed wire (no, that was no BMW, folks…look at the engine).

The moment I remember on Wide World of Sports was a slow motion shot of a guy on a Triumph 650….he was going full bore over some really rough terrain, and at one point he was holding onto the handlebars, his whole body flying behind him, quite a ways above the seat! Wow.

I also got to be up close and personal with one of these bikes when I was about 14 or so. My cousin hired my brother and I to clean out her garage, and her husband of the time was into bikes. He had a desert sled….a real nice one. A Triumph 650 stripped down and punched out to 750cc. It needed a bath, so I got to push it around the corner to a coin operated steam clean place and wash it. I would done that for free. No, I wasn’t riding it, but just pushing it down the street for everyone to see was a thrill.

I never had a desert sled, but I did eventually end up with a Triumph 650 street bike – a TR6 Tiger – which was the single carb version.

My bike looked just like this one.

My bike looked just like this one.

Why did I find myself in this motorcycle category instead of in with the racer boys or the Honda 750 crowd? Mostly because of my early love of these British twins, but there were other factors.

I was about 20 when I bought the Triumph. I was a little beyond the flat out crazy part of my life by that time. That made the RDs less attractive to me. Most of the people I knew who owned RDs  were younger, more athletic, and crazier than I was. Plus, I found two cycle engines to be annoying. They were peaky and noisy with the ring ding ding sound, and you had to mix oil with the gas too, which could be a pain in the neck. They were cheap….I could have picked one up for less money than I spent on the Triumph.

And how about the Honda 750 category? Why didn’t I fit there? A few reasons.

First, the Honda 750s cost more money than I could afford at the time. New ones were way out of my price range. They were also a relatively new model, so there wasn’t a good stock of cheaper used specimens available.

Second, you had to be VERY careful where you left them, because they were getting ripped off left and right. My boss at Hughes Aircraft Company lost two of them from the company parking lot in about three months time (and in full view of the guard shack, I might add…..Hmmmmmm). My dad had a friend who got two of them ripped off, and his insurance company refused to cover a third one.

Finally, while the CB 750s were really fast in a straight line, they didn’t handle very well. My favorite part of riding was going up to PV Drive East or other twisty mountain roads. The Triumph, with it’s low weight, low end torque, and good steering geometry, excelled for that kind of riding, challenged only by smaller bikes like the RDs and other British bikes – most notably the best handler of them all…….the Norton Commando. Ducati put out bikes that would handle as well, but they were rare, pricey, and even more unreliable than Brit bikes – due to their unusual Desmo valve drive assemblies.

I picked a side, and bought the Triumph. And while I loved that bike, it was far from perfect.

Brit bikes used Lucas electrical components. An old biker joke….why do Brits like warm beer? Because they all have Lucas refrigerators. Hahaha. I have a friend who used to be a motorcycle mechanic….he used to say “Lucas, Prince of Darkness” quite a bit. Lucas stuff was junk….I got rid of most of it early on, replaced with cheaper and better components from Japan.

Then there were the oil leaks. I was working at a small company called Testo at the time I bought the Triumph, and my supervisor there already had a nice 1971 Norton Commando. Even the owner was into Brit bikes…he had a basket case Norton Atlas that he was planning to put together. One of the owner’s best friends was a Ducati fan, and he had a nice one from the early 70s. I’ll never forget when he walked into the place and saw my Triumph sitting next to my friend’s Norton. “Look, two puddles!” We all got a good laugh out of that.

The rivalry was there back in the 70s, but it was mostly all in good fun. That came out a little bit in the conversation at the campground, but in a very gentle way. Much more apparent than the old rivalry was the comfortable feeling of diving into this lost world…it was like putting on an old pair of worn-in shoes. That conversation was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

What about today. Do I still love motorcycles?

Yes, but I haven’t ridden in about 12 years. I still have a bike. No, not the Triumph. I sold that in about 1981 for $100 more than I paid for it in 1975. The bike I have now is a 1985 Honda 700cc Interceptor. I bought it for $250 and restored it. A friend of mine’s son in law had crashed it on the freeway. He walked away, but the bike looked like a pretzel.

This Honda was a lucky find for me. The bike got backed into by a UPS truck when it was almost brand new. UPS bought all new plastic fairings for the original owner. He kept the very lightly scratched original pieces for spares, and I got all of them. I had to get one new wheel, tires, a new chain, and various other parts, most of which I found at the junk yard. Total cost of the restoration was about $1500, but a big chunk of that was back-registration. It took me about three months to get this bike back into working order. I rode it a lot between about 1992 and 2002. It is now sitting in the garage, mothballed.

The Interceptor is a much better bike than the Triumph was in most ways. It handles better, it has more than twice the horsepower, and only weighs about 120 pounds more than the Triumph did. I was living out in Canyon Country when I got this bike, and it was great to blast around the winding roads out there. It was only a so-so commuter. If I could keep it moving, it did pretty well, but it would get hot sitting in traffic for very long, with it’s high performance V-4. The biggest problem with commuting was the riding stance. While it is less radical than a modern sport bike, it still has low bars and high pegs, and it forces a lot of strain on your wrists. You don’t notice it while leaning through mountain roads, but you really notice it when grinding down long straight boulevards or stretches of freeway.

Eventually I found myself with a case of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. It wasn’t just due to the motorcycle. I was on the computer all day long at work, and using a mouse all the time really took it’s toll. I also play cello. You bow with your right arm, which of course was the arm that I was having a problem with. Riding that Interceptor just made the problem a lot worse. I had to give up something. I couldn’t stop working. I wouldn’t stop playing cello. I reluctantly gave up riding the bike. That, along with some physical therapy, solved my Carpel Tunnel problem.

I still haven’t lost the bug, though. When I see a nice bike, I always have to check it out, and it get’s my heart a fluttering. Someday I’ll start riding again, I think to myself, but only for a moment. It’s a nice moment.

Categories: Life on the Road | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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