Last issue, Mark Sanders wrote in asking a question we’ve likely all pondered: “Which bikes are the most reliable ever built?” I put forward a few of my own thoughts on the subject, and judging from the responses we’ve received since, our readers have plenty of their own opinions on the subject, as well.
There’s a sizable group of motorcyclists who have old bikes only, and only so they can ride them. I’ve never been a collector, so for me riding's the whole point. And since I ride what I own, reliability is often a key consideration. That may not explain my current penchant for Italian bikes, but the truth is, a good Italian bike is as reliable as any machine ever made.
Reader Paul Bohac would tell you that nothing beats a carbureted Moto Guzzi V-twin. Guzzi built them by the thousands, churning out an impressive selection of big and little V-twins between 1967 and 1995, when, at least for the U.S. market, fuel injection became the norm. Paul pronounces the eight Guzzis he’s owned “stone simple” to work on, benefiting from an evolutionary design decades in the making — and he’s got 500,000 miles of experience to back him up. Reader Bill Alnor is right in line with Paul, proclaiming his current ride, a 1978 Moto Guzzi V1000, as “built like a tank.”
“I came to the conclusion a military bike was the answer,” Andrew Fetchina wrote, reasoning, among other things, that new-old-stock parts should be easier to find thanks to military parts contracts. “Engineered to be trouble-free and easy to repair, I settled on a Triumph TRW,” Andrew writes. While the 500cc flathead Triumph won’t win any speed trials, there’s no question it was built to go the distance, and that’s what Andrew was looking for when he bought his circa 1960 ex-military Triumph.
Bruce Dahlquist’s decades-long experience with Suzuki GS series bikes, particularly the late Seventies to early Eighties GS1000E and S models, has convinced him there’s only one brand to ride. “I think my Suzuki will outlast most if not all of the bikes of its era,” says Bruce of his current Suzuki, a 1980 GS1000E.
Honda fan Gary Ilminen sides with editor Hall’s pick of the Honda CX500, suggesting the touring-oriented GL500 variant as well, but he also singles out Honda’s venerable Gold Wing. “From the original GL1000 to the present day, they seem to be able to roll up six-figure mileage totals without major failures as easily as any V8,” Gary notes. Michel Croteau singles out Harley’s 883 Evo Sportster as a contender for most reliable based on ample availability of bikes and parts, ease of maintenance, and a heritage that reaches back more than 50 years. The only downside he sees is that "you'll be anonymous at rallies."
Reader James Ingram isn’t sure there is such a thing as a truly reliable bike, noting the documented electrical issues threatening to plague even the most modern bike he owns, a 2000 Honda VFR800. James recalls his boss at the BMW/Norton/Triumph dealership where he worked in the Seventies remarking that, “Even BMWs break.”
At the end of the day, it’s kind of the old Chevy versus Ford argument. Which one’s best? That's a matter of opinion. While there have been plenty of dogs on the market — OK, some outright horrible motorcycles — there’s an amazing variety of interesting, fun to ride and reliable vintage bikes out there. My advice? Find your flavor, whether Italian, British, German, American or Japanese; pick the brand and model that appeals to you most; research it and become familiar with its foibles — then find the best one you can and buy it and ride it. You’ll never look back. — Richard Backus
Sold for $148,100, one of four pre-production 1969 Honda CB750s.
Somebody just paid $148,100 for a 1969 Honda CB750. Honda CB750 fanatics know that the first 7,414 1969 CB750s featured sand-cast cases. The Holy Grail of Hondas, the sand-cast CB750s have for years commanded a premium over the later die-cast CB750s. But $148,100? The incredible price starts coming into focus when you learn that Honda built four pre-production CB750s in 1968, shipping them over to the U.S. to show to dealers and help promote the new model. The CB750 that just sold on eBay was one of those four bikes.
The bike was sold by Vic World, known by some as “Mr. CB750” and the acknowledged expert on sand-cast and early production Hondas. Early auction watchers questioned the bike’s provenance, but as they learned of Vic’s intense knowledge and involvement in the brand from auction watchers like former Motorcyclist editor-in-chief Mitch Boehm, those concerns vanished as vintage motorcycle collectors watched in amazement as the bike went from its opening bid of $1,969 (nice touch) to finally sell at a staggering $148,100 seven days and 102 bids later. At that price it’s entirely possible there’s institutional money behind the purchase, either from Honda itself or an organization like the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. That said, sand-cast CB750 prices have been on the rise, and Vic World claims he sold an early (below frame no. 20) sand-cast to a private collector for $75,000 a few years ago.
Whatever the case, there doesn’t appear to be much question but that the bike in question is one of the four pre-production CB750s shipped to the U.S. in 1968. Of the four, one (Candy Red) went to the crusher in Iowa years ago, another (Candy Gold) went to Europe where it was disassembled and sits, and a third (Candy Green) disappeared, leaving this (Candy Blue/Green) as the only known complete and running survivor. Significant differences from production models abound and include things such as:
- One-off sand-cast engine covers, featuring an external “double step” on the alternator cover
- A wedge-shaped transmission cover, fitting under the Alternator cover
- Very unusual clutch and valve covers (both appearing nothing like the street bike counterparts and very rough cast)
- A one of a kind billet crankshaft
- Chrome fenders showing (under the chrome plating) engineer’s scribe marks to mark off where holes should be drilled
- Hand-hammered/welded exhaust pipes
- One-off special cast by Keihin 26mm carb assemblies
- Handmade white plastic parts throughout the motorcycle (production street version bikes have all black pieces)
- Longer rear fender with brazed on turn signal stems
- A 43-tooth rear sprocket (versus 45 for production)
- No handlebar kill switch
- No provision for a tool tray under the seat
- Sand-cast “hollow” fuel tank emblems
- Cast gas cap and latch
The bike has a few “incorrect” parts including replacement no. 1 and no. 2 exhaust pipes, but was otherwise claimed original with only 5,256 miles showing on the odometer. With any luck, the rest of us will someday get to see this important Honda, the only known survivor of the original four pre-production 1968 bikes. – Richard Backus
The cover of the April 1969 issue of Motorcyclist featured the same pre-production CB750 that just sold for $148,100.
Unique 26mm Keihin carbs; production bikes used 28mm units.
Pre-production CB750 cam covers feature very rough casting finish.
The winning name in the Motorcycle Classics/Dairyland Cycle Race to Rebuild Sweepstakes has been drawn, pulled from a list of almost 20,000 entries – the largest ever for any of our builds – in our giveaway of the 1983 Honda CB1100F we had Herm Narciso and Jason Paul Michaels at Dime City Cycles customize in a resto-mod vein.
Winner Joe Adkins, Columbus, Ohio, was more than a little stunned when he got the call telling him he’d won our bike. “I don’t think it’s really set in,” Joe said when I spoke with him, adding, “It’s pretty amazing that out of all the people who entered, I won. My friends don’t know whether to believe that I actually won the bike.” Currently motorcycle-less, Joe says he was inspired to enter because of the growing popularity of the vintage custom class. He’d been looking at bikes for sale but couldn’t scare up the cash to buy one, so he thought maybe he could luck out and win one. Talk about lucking out in a big way.
Joe’s going to have to temper his excitement for a few weeks, however, as our Honda CB1100F is currently in transit from Dime City Cycles in Largo, Fla., to Portland, Ore., where Herm and Jason will display it along with 69 other customs in Thor Drake’s The One Motorcycle Show Feb. 7-9, 2014. An invitation-only event, The One Motorcycle Show has in five short years become a major stepping out party for the burgeoning vintage custom crowd, with upwards of 6,000 people per day checking out the machines on hand during the three-day show. The show, which is free and open to the public, features a lot more than just motorcycles, with live music, films and yes cheap beer rounding things out. If you’re anywhere close to Portland you really should check this event out. We’d suggest going to The One Show website for tips on where to stay and eat during your visit. Good times, for sure.
Once the show’s over we’ll ship the Honda to Joe, so stay tuned for an update report when our project Honda CB1100F finally gets parked in the garage of its new home. So congratulations to Joe Adkins, and to the rest of you, well, there’s always next time! – Richard Backus
In the letters section of this issue, reader Mark Sanders asks the seemingly simple question, "Which bikes are the most reliable ever built?" I say seemingly simple because I don’t think there is a simple answer to his query.
Associate editor Landon Hall suggests almost any airhead BMW (particularly the /5 series — he has a 1973 BMW R75/5), Honda’s ugly duckling CX500 (for decades a favorite of couriers everywhere) and the early Kawasaki KLR650 as reliable bikes.
Other acknowledged reliability kings come to mind, including the Honda CB750, any 4-cylinder 4-stroke late-Seventies to early-Eighties Suzuki, ditto 4-cylinder Kawasakis. Seventies Yamahas? Certainly the Yamaha XS650 twin, but the 1973-1974 Yamaha TX750 twin was a disaster (even though, to be fair, its major issues were mostly quelled in its second — and last — year), and the Yamaha TX500 8-valve double overhead cam twin wasn’t much better. Ever try and get parts for one? Good luck.
I’m making an assumption here, which is that reader Sanders wants a vintage bike big enough for real world urban traffic and highway use. That rules out admittedly excellent but otherwise limited machines like Honda CB175s and 200s. The CB350 might be a contender, but even it had its problems (worn cam bearing supports spring to mind), despite the fact Honda made hundreds of thousands of them.
As it turns out, reliability isn’t the sole provenance of mass manufacturers. Laverda’s 750 twin — by all accounts an up-sized clone of Honda’s superbly built and hugely reliable 305 twin — is famous for covering tens of thousands of miles without complaint. Likewise Moto Morini 350 and 500 V-twins and just about any Moto Guzzi V-twin from the Seventies. Simple, solidly engineered bikes all.
Popular opinion suggests an inverse relationship between a bike’s level of technology and its reliability, but that notion doesn’t always hold up under the microscope. I’m in the middle of replacing a leaking rear main seal on my 1991 BMW K100RS. It may be 22 years old, but the K100RS has most of the attributes of a modern motorcycle, including water cooling, fuel injection and ABS. And it’s a bear to work on. Getting to the transmission is like peeling an onion, working through layers of hardware to get to the offending piece. But here’s the rub. While the seemingly over-engineered K100RS might not be easy to work on, I don’t actually work on it very much. It’s currently showing a little more than 80,000 miles, and outside of new fork seals, this is the first major work it’s required.
Experience suggests that whether by design or lack thereof, every bike has its own particular eccentricities. Hondas are considered a model of civility, but watch out for bad cam chain tensioners — they’ll kill an engine. My 1983 Laverda RGS requires minor (and sometimes more major) tending on a regular basis, yet I don’t consider it unreliable. British bikes are regularly derided for their unreliability, but my Nortons took me across the country regularly, and any issues I had on the road were usually solved in short order. Are they reliable? Yes, as long as you keep them that way.
If you’re looking for Toyota-like reliability, you should probably buy a Toyota. If you want to ride an old bike, you have to adjust your mindset to being prepared (a notion, I’d argue, that fits in with just about every aspect of motorcycling). You have to learn how to read your bike and predict what it’s going to need before it needs it, not when it’s finally broken. — Richard Backus
Donald DeVault reunites with his 1953 Triumph T100 Tiger in Omaha, Neb., Nov. 20, 2014, 46 years after it was stolen from his backyard.
Donald DeVault’s 1953 Triumph T100 Tiger is by now likely the most famous Triumph ever made. Not because it went the fastest or the farthest. Not because it was owned by anybody famous, and not because it’s the rarest Triumph made. It’s fame hinges on the amazing fact that 46 years after it was stolen from DeVault’s backyard in Omaha, Neb., it’s actually back in DeVault’s possession and running after being discovered at the Port of Los Angeles, where it was about to be shipped to Japan.
DeVault had owned the T100, which he’d named “Li’l Blue Bitch,” less than two years when it was stolen from his backyard in 1967. Not surprisingly, he figured he’d never see it again. Forty-six years later, DeVault’s Triumph was found during a routine VIN check by U.S. Customs officers. That was in early November, and on November 20 the Triumph – mildly bobbed and apparently mechanically restored by a previous “owner” – was returned to DeVault in Omaha.
Donald DeVault with his 1953 Triumph T100.
There was a minor media circus surrounding the bike’s return, and DeVault, still an active rider at 73, seemed to be enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. DeVault climbed on the bike while it was still strapped down to a pallet and started it up for the assembled media and immigration officials on hand for its delivery, who included Lou Koven, an investigator with the National Insurance Crime Bureau in L.A. who first contacted DeVault upon the Triumph’s discovery. DeVault shook Koven’s hand, then gave him a hug before sitting on his Triumph again for the first time in almost 50 years.
Doug Manley, a mechanic friend, made a quick check of the bike before DeVault climbed on and swung the kickstarter through. It took a few kicks, but the Triumph finally burbled to life, settling down to an idle before DeVault unstrapped it from its pallet and took it for a ride in an adjoining parking lot.
Triumph made thousands of T100 Tigers, so DeVault’s bike, now valued at approximately $9,000, isn’t particularly rare. But the fact it made it back to DeVault at all, and especially after 46 years, makes this perhaps the rarest Triumph T100 Tiger ever. – Richard Backus
Donald DeVault’s 1953 Triumph T100 Tiger as found at the Long Beach, Cal., customs complex.
Stolen motorcycles typically disappear for good. And even when they are recovered they’re usually trashed from a joy ride – “ride it like you stole it” was coined for a reason – or completely unridable after being dismembered for parts. And while every now and then a bike stolen years ago resurfaces, we’ve never heard of one getting returned to its owner in better condition than it left, but that’s exactly what happened to Donald DeVault’s 1953 Triumph Tiger 100, which was stolen from his back yard in Omaha, Neb., in 1967.
According to stories in the Los Angeles Times and the Omaha World-Herald, DeVault had only owned the bike for a year or two before it was stolen from his backyard. “All these years I’ve told people about it and wondered what ever happened to it,” said DeVault in the Omaha World-Herald article. “Back then it was baby blue and it looked like a little toy chopper.”
Donald DeVault with a photo of his 1953 Triumph T100 as it looks today, 46 years after it was stolen from his backyard in Omaha, Neb.
There’s no clue to where the bike’s been since its disappearance, but it’s been rebuilt and bobberized, with the front fender removed, a custom exhaust installed, non-stock seat and pillion, flat bars and a custom silver and black paint job with a stylized Tiger on the gas tank.
According to press reports, Lou Koven, an investigator with the National Insurance Crime Bureau in LA, checked the bike’s VIN as it was being readied for shipment to Japan and discovered it had been reported stolen in Omaha. According to the Omaha paper, DeVault was 26 when the bike was stolen. He’d named the Triumph “Li’l Blue Bitch” when he owned and says he’ll have the name repainted on the gas tank along with the postscript “46 Years Later.” Now 73 and still trim and fit, DeVault rides regularly, and we’re betting he’ll put some miles on the Triumph once he gets it back.
The bike is still being processed and is waiting to be shipped to Omaha; we hope to follow up with DeVault when his Triumph finally makes its way back to him, 46 years later. – Richard Backus
The latest build from Dime City Café, The Ace, built to commemorate the Ace Cafe’s expansion to the U.S.
In case you hadn’t heard, London’s iconic Ace Cafe is coming to America. The U.S. arm of the fabled motorcycling eatery is being spearheaded by American entrepreneur and motorcycle enthusiast Mark McKee, who’s partnered with Ace owners Mark and Linda Wilsmore to expand the Ace brand in the U.S.
The promotion of the brand as Ace Cafe USA is being accompanied by various vintage motorcycle happenings, including a recent August 13 roof top soirée at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, where McKee, Wilsmore and none other than comedian Jay Leno hosted a special reception for the recently revived Brough Superior Motorcycles, celebrating that brand’s return to the Bonneville Salt Flats.
But the first thing I saw walking out of the elevator onto the Peterson’s rooftop terrace was the latest build from Jason Paul Michaels and Herm Narciso at Dime City Cycles, The Ace. Built to commemorate the Ace Cafe’s coming to America, the bike is a modern take on the classic Triton theme. Power comes from Triumph, naturally, in this case the fuel-injected 865cc parallel twin used in the current Triumph Bonneville. The frame borrows its basic layout and geometry from the famous Norton Featherbed, with revised steering geometry and a modern Suzuki GSXR upside down fork.
Left to right: The Garage Co.’s Yoshi Kosaka, Mark Wilsmore of the Ace Cafe London, Jason Paul Michaels and Herm Narciso of Dime City Cycles.
Jay Leno gets the lowdown on the The Ace from Dime City’s Jason Paul Michaels.
We didn’t get to see the bike in motion of course, but Jason did fire it up a few times and it sounds fantastic, with a nice meaty growl from its twin pipes accompanied by the throaty induction roar from a pair of unfiltered smoothbore carbs. Plans call for 13 examples to be built, although we haven’t heard any word on when and how much. Nice. – Richard Backus