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
Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum’s Brian Slark likes to joke they’ve “created a monster” with the annual Barber Vintage Festival. Since its inception, the annual event has grown faster than anyone could have predicted, from an estimated crowd of 5,000-plus in 2005 to a record tally of 61,437 for the Oct. 11-13, 2013, 9th Annual Barber Vintage Festival, making it the largest vintage motorcycle event in the country.
Although it doesn’t hurt holding a vintage event on the site of the world’s best motorcycle museum and one of the most dynamic road race circuits in the country – situated in a park-like setting on 700-plus acres of lush forest in the Alabama countryside – the Barber organization has worked hard to make the event the success that it is, rolling out the red carpet for motorcycle enthusiasts in the best tradition of Southern Hospitality.
We’ve been attending the event every year since the first in 2005, and it’s been clear since the beginning that George Barber and his crew are not content to merely rest on their laurels. Life would be a lot easier if they did, but the event would never have seen the kind of steady, expansive growth it’s seen if they did. Instead we’ve been treated to an ever improving, ever changing vintage festival that’s worthy of the title “Festival,” because that’s what it truly is, a complete and thorough embrace of everything that makes motorcycling, and particularly vintage motorcycling, so satisfyingly important to enthusiasts across the country and around the world; Barber reports selling tickets to fans from all 50 states and six countries.
We’re still getting settled back in the office, but once the dust settles and we get all our photos uploaded we’ll give you a more intimate look into the 9th Annual Barber Vintage Festival, the largest vintage motorcycle event in the country. – Richard Backus
Craig Vechorik’s 1961 BMW R50S took the trophy for Best BMW at the Motorcycle Classics Vintage Bike Show held during the Barber Vintage Festival.
As a lifelong road rider, up until recently I’d never really entertained track riding or vintage racing. The benefits of track days seemed obvious, but I always felt I could learn many of the same lessons in my own way, riding and reading, taking notes from racing greats like Reg Pridmore and Lee Parks.
Then a few years ago, thanks in large part to an invitation from American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) track instructor Andrew Cowell, I took the AHRMA race class and rode a borrowed Honda CB160 at Miller Motorsports Park during the Bonneville Vintage GP. The experience was mind-blowing.
I would never have believed how much fun it can be to hustle a small, low-powered bike — all of 14 horsepower — around a track as fast as you can make it go. My top speed that weekend was something approaching 74mph, with an average around the track of maybe 45mph — not exactly blindingly fast. I’ve never been a big horsepower junkie, so the comfortable accessibility of it all with a light, low-powered bike had huge appeal. “Stupid fun,” I said when it was all over. “I can’t believe this is legal.”
Ridiculously, I haven’t been out on the track since. I have dozens of perfectly plausible, defensible excuses — too much to do at work and home, no track bike, etc. — all designed to rationalize my inaction. Internal forces, however, are pushing me to trade in my excuses for a new set of leathers and a dedicated track bike.
I blame associate editor Landon Hall, who recently completed his first track day, riding his 1973 BMW R75/5. Landon will be the first to tell you that a bone-stock R75 doesn’t exactly tear it up out on the track, but that wasn’t his goal. His goal, perfectly met, was to get out on the track so he could find out for himself what it’s all about.
Landon says he was easily the slowest guy out on the Heartland Park race track during his day-long session. At some levels he could have cared less, because for him the session was all about experiencing the thrill of riding in controlled conditions. No cars. No truck. No buses. No dogs. Just himself, his bike and a couple dozen other riders working their way around Heartland Park’s 14 turn, 2.5-mile circuit. Bliss.
Something clicked, because two weeks later he bought himself a 2000 Suzuki SV650. Almost unburstable, the liquid-cooled, double overhead cam, 8-valve V-twin has carved out a niche as a great little touring/commuting bike. Turns out they’re also a decent track day weapon. Unlike most late model 600cc fours, which have generally been flogged to death, good SV650s are easy to find. They’re also reasonably fast, reasonably light and easy to tweak. Landon figures he’ll focus on the suspension first, then slowly work his way through the SV to make it as track ready as he can.
He’s not out to win any races — at least not yet — he just wants to have some fun away from the madness of the street. Occasional contributor Anders Carlson got his track baptism this year, piloting a 1972 Honda CL175 in AHRMA racing at Road America and a few other venues (read Motorcycle Racing: AHRMA), and I have a sneaking suspicion it was Anders’ experience that got Landon moving down the track.
I think it’s a brilliant move, because while I’ve been waiting for the “perfect” vintage track bike to show itself, Landon’s gone out and gotten a bike he can ride on the road or track. The SV may not be a classic in the accepted sense, but the experience Landon’s getting out on the track is classic in every way imaginable. Now to find that Moto Morini 500 … — Richard Backus
The 9th Annual Barber Vintage Festival is Oct. 11-13, 2013, and BMW will be the featured marque at the Motorcycle Classics Vintage Bike Show on Saturday, Oct. 12. And even if you don’t enter your bike in our show we’ll have a special parking corral for all BMW riders where you can park your BMW while you take in the rest of the Barber Vintage Festival.
It’s been 90 years since the first BMW – the R32 494cc boxer twin – rolled out of the BMW factory in 1932, and to celebrate we’re encouraging all BMW owners to bring their Beemers to Barber and join us at the Motorcycle Classics tent. Whether you ride a 1972 R75/5 or a 1991 K100RS, we’d like to see you at the 9th Annual Barber Vintage Festival. We’ll have a special trophy for the Best in Show BMW, along with trophies for best restored and best rider in five other categories including British, European, American, Japanese and Custom.
Last year, Ace Cafe and Dime City Cycles set up the Ace Corner in the infield at Turn 17 for a celebration of all things café. It was an event within the event, and it worked so well it’s returning for 2013. This year’s Ace Corner will again feature Dime City Cycles, along with Café Racer TV and other cool cats from the café scene, plus a biker build-off, an on-site Ace Café and a Saturday night band party.
Also returning is the Century Race for bikes 100 years old or older, and the American Motor Drome Wall of Death also returns, with daredevils on vintage Indians and Harleys riding the wall of a 14-foot tall, 30-foot diameter wooden drum. Amazing stuff. Expect to see the AeroShell Aerobatic Team flying overhead on Saturday, and of course don’t miss the always excellent swap meet.
Friday night is the annual Motorcycles by Moonlight. A fundraiser for the museum, Motorcycles by Moonlight treats donors to an evening of excellent food and even better company. Special guests this year are famed Italian motorcycle designers Miguel Angel Galluzzi and Pierre Terblanche, both formerly with Ducati. International motorcycle journalist, vintage racer and regular Motorcycle Classics contributor Alan Cathcart will interview Galluzi and Terblanche during the dinner. — Richard Backus