MC Dispatch

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Norton Commando

The young woman disappeared inside the cafe, but quickly reappeared with a camera. She took several pictures. I was wishing I could share her opinion of my bike. At that point, over 200 miles into my trip, I was thinking it was a recalcitrant and difficult Norton, with a bad sense of humor.

A couple of months previous, I decided that I was going to ride my Norton Commando to the annual International Norton Owners Association (INOA) rally near Ashland, Oregon. Now, Nort and I go way back, and I had no illusions that the 900-mile trip would be a walk in the park. Nort is, after all, a 40-year-old British motorcycle. One of the challenges I was looking at was getting the motorcycle started. The Boyer ignition draws too much current for the “electric start” (more like “electric assist”) to work. Not being a 200-pound guy or a professional weightlifter, I can't kickstart the bike unless it is on the centerstand, and I can't get the bike on the centerstand unless it is either on the level or, better, pointing uphill.

I did my best to make sure that both Nort and I were going to make it. Before I left, I had the bike checked over by a competent mechanic. I had the front brake master cylinder replaced with an upgraded version. I manufactured a wedge to get that front tire up so I could more easily get the bike on the centerstand. I took a minimum of gear and checked the weather. I left early so I would not have to rush.

Problems had started to surface on the way home from the mechanic. The tachometer was refusing to indicate over 3,000rpm. I called the mechanic when I got home. He said it was the tach cable; he was going to the rally and he would bring a tach cable.

More problems appeared the morning I left. I realized that I could not get Nort on the center stand unless I removed the saddlebags and the duffle I had packed, even with the wedge. I resigned myself to a tiring trip, fired up Nort, and left. Instead of kicking back at the motel that evening, I spent an hour with the tools out. I figured out a way to bleed the rear brake with a minimum of equipment (it had been fine when I rode it home the week before) and went over bolts with a wrench. The sidestand was loose. I tightened it.

Off early in the morning the next day. Norton was running fine, but the sidestand was refusing to stay tight to the frame, and the end of the stand was tucking up under the bike, which made it difficult to get the sidestand down, which made it difficult to get off the bike. I alternated between leaning the bike against posts and thanking good Samaritans who helped by holding the bars. Tightening the bolt at every stop did not help. Halfway up US 199, a scenic road between Crescent City, California (pleasantly cool and foggy), and Grant's Pass, Oregon (in the middle of a heat wave), the speedometer started malfunctioning and oil started dripping from somewhere. Normally Nort does NOT leak oil. This was alarming. I finally made Grant's Pass, found a motel, dumped my bags in the room and got Nort going again so I could park it where I could see it. The sidestand was under the bike again in the space of a few hundred yards. I tried to get it out while standing on one foot and dropped the bike. Totally steamed, I picked up Nort by myself (amazing what adrenaline will do) and verified that the only damage was a slight bend to the brake lever. The paint was unscratched. I went into the room, turned up the air conditioning and tried to calm down.

Looking for an oil leak

Okay, so where’s that oil coming from anyhow?

Later, I went out with tools and a plan. I had found a tube of liquid thread-locker in my tool bag. I eased off the side stand nut, doused the threads with thread-locker and tightened everything up. I checked the oil and found that it had been overfilled and the excess was siphoning out the breather hose in the hot weather. The speedo drive in the hub — a brand new aftermarket replacement — was coming apart. I tried wiring it together with a bit of wire found in my bags. It didn't work. I had no speedometer or odometer for the rest of the trip and had to guesstimate gas stops.

However, the thread-locker did work and I stopped having side stand problems. Things started getting better — or at least stopping getting worse. Staying at the same motel another night so I didn't have to load the luggage and could go for an unencumbered ride in the Cascades helped the attitude problems. When I arrived at the rally, I was at least not ready to bite someone. Mechanic appeared with the tach cable and instructions on how to put it on. The tachometer worked for about a half hour and then started to malfunction again, just not as badly. Hallelujah.

Tachometer drive

The temporarily repaired tachometer drive.

I decided to leave a little early, so as to have plenty of time to get home, and found some nice people to take my camping gear back in their truck. A fellow club member volunteered to ride back with me on his BMW. However, when I showed up at the meeting spot at 8 a.m. as agreed, he was not packed and still eating breakfast. Facing Interstate 5 and temperatures over 90, I left.

It was broiling, especially after I came down out of the mountains north of Redding and headed south through the valley. Norton continued to run well, despite continued problems with siphoning oil out the breather, unlike the rider, who was having overheating problems. About 3 p.m. I found an air-conditioned motel. I made it home the next day, only to find out I had won the long distance/female prize in absentia.

Next time I will skip the prize and take my modern bike. I have nothing left to prove.

International Norton Owner's Association rally

Strength in numbers: Nortons gather for the International Norton Owners Association rally near Ashland, Oregon.


Ural 1 

Was it because of my early association with BMW motorcycles that I was drawn to Ural Gear-Up motorcycle, or was it because a Ural looks like it’s poised to conquer the Sahara? I’m not sure, and it doesn’t really matter. Bloodlines or aggressive posture aside, it’s really the adventurousness of the Ural that’s appealing. The can-do, pioneering attitude that’s ingrained in the American psyche and the urge to see what’s beyond the horizon makes the allure of this boxer-engined two-cylinder machine magnetic.

There’s an unintimidating simplicity and reassuring strength to the Ural Gear-Up. It conveys the sense that one can take it to the ends of the world and, in case of a break down, it wouldn’t require NASA-endorsed hardware to mend.

Ural Gear-Up 3 

In this modern, hyper-connected, over-scheduled, tech-obsessed world of ours, would a Ural really be used to its full capability? Probably not, but the mere fact that it could be is all the rationale I need. Just look at all the SUVs on the road. How many of them actually see true 4x4 service? Only a tiny fraction. But that doesn’t keep them from being the best-selling model/class of vehicle in the United States, despite the rising cost of fuel and a growing awareness of environmental implications.

No, I believe that it’s because of our hectic lifestyle, not in spite of it, that we yearn for tracks off the beaten path, whether achieved or not, and that’s why the Ural is so relevant. It reminds us of simple pleasures, conveys the freedom that all motorcycles do, and exudes adventure and independence like few vehicles can.

Initially, my interest in Ural was for the 2013 Peking to Paris Rally – a grueling 7,600-mile race across Asia on mostly dirt roads. When that fell through, my interest became less ambitious, although no less earnest, and thanks to Sinless Cycles and Ural USA I’ve been given the opportunity to compensate for that disappointment.

In the couple weeks it’s been in my possession I’ve had the Ural Gear-Up out in blinding Rocky Mountain blizzards that sidelined all but the most intrepid SUVs. With the sidecar wheel engaged, my 3x2 motorcycle plowed through snowdrifts with such aplomb that Iditarod mushers would’ve considered trading in their dogs. And while I’ve yet to ride it to the slick rock trails of Canyon Lands in southern Utah, that’s on the books, as are other itineraries in the remote West.

Ural 2 

It’ll have to wait a few weeks though, as I’m off to follow the trail of Mary H. Kingsley and J. Michael Fay and I’m told even there a Ural would be impractical. Hard to believe, but maybe that’s another challenge begging to be made. Here’s to the possibilities the Ural Gear-Up inspires!


Parting Shots 

With 101 bikes on display, the showroom of Martin Motorsports was transformed into a classic bike museum for a day. 

Photo By Joeseph Luppino 

Early March isn’t typically the most active time for motorcyclists in southeastern Pennsylvania. But the late winter chill didn’t stop Martin Motorsports in Boyertown, Pa., from heating up riders with their third annual Modern Classics show on March 2. Entitled “The Motorcycles That Made You a Motorcyclist,” the show is an invitational featuring historically significant bikes of all marques, primarily from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. More than 1,200 attendees checked out the 101 entries that transformed Martin Motorsports’ showroom into a “Museum for a Day.” In addition to rides like a 1985 Ducati Mike Hailwood Replica Mille, an all-original 1973 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport and a near-perfect example of a 1990 Honda RC30, visitors also got to view a rare 1957 Islo 175 Carrera. The Mexican made (but Morini-powered) classic was Islo founder Isidoro Lopez’ dream bike, intended for competition in the classic Italian city-to-city races like the Motogiro. Sadly the races were discontinued, and Lopez passed away before the dream could be realized. Four of these bikes were built but just two survive, including the one shown at Modern Classics.

Guests also relished this year’s special class of competition bikes. An Indian 750cc Sport Scout that has been raced almost continuously since it left the Springfield, Mass., factory in 1936, a Suzuki RG500 Grand Prix bike, and a 1972 MV Agusta 350 Electronica Twin featuring Giacomo Agostini’s autograph on the tank were just a few of the special attractions among the 40-plus racing machines.

A unique element of the Modern Classics show is the professional photo studio that’s set up on site. Each bike in the show is professionally photographed and included in a collector-quality photo book to document the annual show. The books are popular coffee table items among both fans and bike owners, and the series are becoming collector items in their own right.

Next year’s 4th annual show is tentatively scheduled for early March. Mark your calendars. And start polishing.

 Martin Motorsports Modern Classics Show 

1957 Islo 175 Carrera is one of two survivors of just four built. 

Photo By Jack Broomall 


Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

Hondamatic. To most Australians it is associated with the Honda automatic cars that were sold in the country in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. It seems a little known fact in Australia that Hondamatic is also the term given to Honda motorcycles equipped with automatic transmissions, and that Honda attempted offering these automatic motorcycles to the Australian bike riding fraternity with no luck. The feature bike in this article is a relic from this era, a California-spec CB750A brought to Australia for testing in the local conditions. Even though Honda Australia decided against selling the model here, the bike stayed, and has found its way into safe hands. 

At the start of 1977, Honda was producing two automatic motorcycle models: The CB400A, known in the U.S. as the Hawk, and the CB750A, a reworking of the CB750F. These bikes were initially conceived as a way for learner riders to get comfortable riding motorcycles without fear of stalling. This allowed for the novice to practice staying upright, braking and riding in traffic, all without having to focus on changing gears constantly as well.

I say changing gears constantly because the automatic transmissions offered on Hondamatic motorcycles were not automatic in the true sense of the word. A shift lever in the same position as a gear changer on a manual Honda allowed the rider to shift between neutral, low and drive. The ability to manually shift between high and low made sure the bike wouldn’t shift gears through a corner, throwing a rider off balance. Also built into the automatic models was a linkage from the kickstand to the gear lever, so when the kickstand was operated, the bike would put itself into neutral. This would stop the bike from starting in gear, something someone new to riding might overlook after getting back on the back.

The automatic motorcycles lacked the performance of their manual brothers. Quarter-mile times and top speeds were slower, the added weight of the transmissions not helping. The CB750A didn’t allow enough acceleration on the downshift to pass cars, and the CB400A transmission allowed too much chance of over run when heading into corners at speed. Performance issues and a change in the demographic of bike buyers meant Hondamatics only got a 3-year run before being dropped from the lineup.

In an engineering sense, the CB750A wasn’t just a CB750 with an automatic transmission fitted. Much work went into this model to make them stand apart from their CB750 stable mates. The engine gained different rocker covers and crankcases to suit the different engine/transmission combo. The engines were changed from dry sump to wet sump, the same oil going from the torque convertor through the engine to be cooled. The torque convertor is of the same design as the Civic cars of the time, as well as the Moto Guzzi V1000, which would have been a competitor to the CB750A. A three-part unit, the convertor was made up of a centrifugal oil pump, a turbine wheel and a stator. The oil pump, driven off a primary drive connected to the crank, would spin inside the turbine wheel, both of these components being bowl shaped. The oil from the pump would travel along the vanes of the turbine wheel, where it is then directed to the cup-shaped vanes of the stator wheels, and deflected back to the oil pump hub. Simple but rugged, the Hondamatic motorcycles gained a name for reliability that still stands today.

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

In regards to the fuel system, the standard CB750 fare was not going to suit the Hondamatic. Four 24mm slide/needle Keihin carbs are fitted, along with an accelerator pump so when the bike is accelerated from idle it does not suffer from the “Honda Burp” of the period. On top of this an electronically controlled diaphragm on the throttle linkage automatically bumps up the revs as soon as the transmission is engaged to make sure the bike doesn’t stall. Breathing out is taken care of by a 4-into-2 exhaust system, the silencers swept up and back in the custom style of the time.

Aesthetically, the Honda CB750A looks very different to the other CB750 models, the designers looking to the GL1000 for inspiration. GL-style rims are fitted front and rear, a 19.5 litre GL-styled tank is fitted, and the handlebars are high and wide. The larger GL rims give more ground clearance, but they also make the bike look bulkier than it really is. Stopping duties are covered by standard Honda fare, disc in the front, drum in the rear. The front caliper is slightly different to standard CB spec. A road test of the period rates the rear drum as adequate and the front disc as “not being the best disc brake, but for the design of the bike it works well.”

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

Instruments are basic, the tachometer making way for a large light readout showing whatever gear the bike is in at the time. The speedometer gives the range for both low and drive gear to ensure the rider does not overwork the engine. Drive gear is good from 0 up to 100mph, the low gear being only from 0 to 60mph. Although it is possible to use high gear all the time, using low gear in traffic is the better option, leaving drive for the open road. A large 20-amp hour battery takes the traditional place of the Honda oil reservoir, fed by a 290-watt alternator. Kickstart is in case of emergency only, with a kickstart lever mounted under the seat in.

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

The Australian Automatics

In early 1977 Bennett Honda, Australia’s Honda motorcycle importer, brought in two California-spec CB750As for evaluation in regards to selling them on the Australian market. These bikes were given to local motoring journalists on the proviso that no one was to write up a road test. One magazine broke the pact, and published their thoughts on the CB750A. This prompted Honda Australia, who had taken over from Bennett in importing bikes, to release the bikes for a second full road test. This time journalists would be allowed to do a full review and publish their view of the automatic motorcycle. This was all for naught, as in the end Honda Japan decided that it would be a waste of money to specify such a small batch of bikes to sell on the Australian market, and the two test bikes were the only CB750A bikes brought into the country by Honda.

After Honda Australia gave up on the idea of importing CB750As into the country the test bikes were sold to Jim Airey’s dealership in Sydney. One of the Hondamatics was purchased by a local car dealer, who painted it white. It was stolen not long after and hasn’t been seen since. The second test bike found its way into the hands of the current owner, who after 35 years is still happy with the purchase. Modifications over the years include an oil cooler, lower handlebars for better riding position, and the original exhaust pipes put away for safekeeping. The only other noticeable modification is the retrimmed seat; foam doesn’t last forever and this bike has racked up some miles.

The bike being California spec, the indicators and headlight come on as soon as the ignition is turned on, not something you normally find on bikes in Australia. The bike looks immaculate for all its years, looking no worse than pictures of it taken for a magazine review in late 1977. This CB750A is definitely no trailer queen, either; if it goes somewhere, it is under its own power, and the owner likes to take it out at least once a month to stretch it’s two-speed legs. This remnant of an attempt to produce a whole new class of motorcycles is in good hands, the owner showing it is possible to have a rare bike and not hide it away in the garage under a cover.

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

Ultimately, the automatic motorcycle craze did not take off. The CB750A was classed as too heavy for novice riders and too slow for experienced riders. The bulk of the transmission worked against both classes of riders, leaving the over-engineered CB750A without a demographic to sell to, thus prompting its demise in 1978. Interest in these Hondamatic models is rising, with riders realizing they aren’t bad bikes per se, they just require a different riding style. It’s good this CB750A has found its way into the feature bike owner’s hands and that he is willing to show it off. Or to put it in Motorcycle Classics terms: To ride it, not hide it.

Thanks to the owner of the bike for his time and information. Also to Tom Day and Stewart MacDonald for their assistance researching this piece. 


The Suzuki SV Riders held their third annual bike rally at the Lake Louisa State Park, Clermont, Florida, and I was honored to be invited by Tom Swartz, the event organizer, his lovely wife, Lori, and Craig Freger. We were greeted by cool crisp nights, bright clear skies and dry, well-paved twisty roads.

Florida Highlands 1 

Lake County Florida is situated only 25 miles west of Orlando, with towering 400-foot vertical elevations. Certainly not the Florida seen on “Wish you were here” postcards. Hell, back when I lived in upstate N.Y. we snow-skied at such staggering heights. For this ride I joined a mixed group of riders with a diverse mix of bikes other than Suzuki SVs; among the non-conformists were a Kawasaki ZRX1100, Moto Guzzi California, Kawasaki ZX636, BMW R1200ST, a real, authentic, raced-back-in-the-day Yamaha RD350 and my own fresh from a frame-off restoration Honda CB650 Café.

Florida high lands 2 

Florida high lands 3 

The ride was led by our trusted friend and local Russell on his trusty BMW ST1200, which has logged an incredible 119,000 miles and still looks and runs pristine. The route, while not rivaling the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Tail of the Dragon, was an incredible 180 miles filled with enough switchbacks, corkscrews and decreasing radius turns to keep us well entertained for a full day of riding, broken by a spectacular lunch at Gator Joe's, where we witnessed a sea plane land on the placid waters of one of the hundreds of lakes surrounding the area.

Florida high lands 4 

 Florida high lands 6 

And of course what self-respecting bike event would be complete without a spectacular cookout, a few cool ones, some tall tale telling (you know the older I get the better I was) and camaraderie second to none.

Florida high lands 7 

Florida high lands 8 

Pleased to report everyone survived and returned home safely only to begin plans for next year’s even more spectacular riding event. You can keep the beaches and seashells; I’ll take the Florida high country anytime.


Hey, y'all,

Recently back from the Mountaineers MC 2012 Octoberfest desert ride in Nevada, this year about 40 miles Northwest of Lovelock, Nev., at an old mining site called Placeritas. And I gotta tell ya, I'm very glad to be back and very eager to forget the whole damn thing!

We had to drive about 26 miles of pretty good to pretty bumpy gravel road starting maybe 15 miles out of Lovelock. The smooth parts kind of lulled us into complacency, and Ray drove the motorhome fairly fast the whole 26 miles. When we got to camp, just at dark, we were startled and dismayed to find the right tire on the motorcycle trailer was blown and shredded; the three-leaf spring had broken clean through in front of the axle, and my poor little Honda was gone!

All that had occurred somewhere in that 26 miles and we had no idea where the hell my bike was. We had to quickly disconnect the trailer and drive the motorhome back about 5 miles before we found it in the middle of the road, where it had fallen at maybe 25 or 30mph. Even badly beat-up, that faithful, ol' Honda started when I tried it and then I had to ride it back to camp, badly-bent bars and all.

Bent-up honda 

Notice the back directional signal is gone, and the handlebars, license plate, and footpeg are badly bent. What you can't see are the broken headlight lens, front directional signal lens, and front brake lever.

I managed to bend the bars back enough in camp to be able to ride it the next 3 days, and I'm not sure that was the smartest thing I've ever done because the riding was a true bitch: rough, hot and dusty as hell, and we seemed to be continually lost and not able to find anything we were looking for. 

 Nevada ride 2 

This is a panoramic shot of our camp taken after a number of guys had left. The camp is on the center right, and a motorhome leaving, is kicking up a dust plume at the center left. That road, the last mile or so into camp, is the next picture ...

Nevada 3 

This is an example of what all-too-much of our riding was: talcum powder-fine dust maybe 4"-to-6" deep that provided little traction for steering but just enough, if you hit it wrong, to kick the front wheel out of your control and then, FLOP, down you'd go. Notice the disrupted area in the foreground of this shot; that's where one of our riders crashed coming back into camp. And I flopped in the same kind of stuff the day before and miles from camp and broke the clutch lever; I had to pull the just-replaced front brake lever off to use for the clutch, and then ride — carefully — without a front brake. And you can imagine the dust this stuff kicks up when a guy rides into it, on the gas, trying to power his way through it.

Nevada 4 

This, I'll admit, is the compensating positive of this desert ride: the great scenery without anything like a crowd to deal with. That's our old Scoutmaster, Frank Dickinson, staring back at you.

Nevada 5 

This is the completely appropriate shot to end this story: A gravesite. I want to bury the memory of this 'Fest just as finally and fully as these people were laid to rest. Notice, though, the site is given as "Barrel Springs"; trouble is, we thought we were at the site of Scossa, which is actually about 7 or 8 miles away. A good example of how turned-around we got out there, which is not good in the varied desert, with a hundred trails leading who-the-hell-knows-where, small dirt-bike gas tanks with limited range, and my GPS proving to be only marginally effective for a number of reasons.


Contrary to popular belief, Northern California does not end at San Francisco. The roads into and out of Humboldt County, about five hours north of San Francisco, are lined with redwood trees and ocean, and the Humboldt Bay Classic motorcycle show, sponsored by North Coast Cycle of Eureka, Calif., takes pride in being the only vintage motorcycle show of its type in more than a 250-mile radius.

Humboldt Bay Classic 1
A 1950 BMW R25 with sidecar at the Humboldt Bay Classic motorcycle show, owned by Becky Fisher of Blue Lake, Calif. 

Held in the autumn each year — taking advantage of Humboldt County's best weather — the show pays homage to bikes of all makes, built in 1985-and-earlier. Some gems from the third annual event included a 1943 BMW R75 with sidecar owned by Stefan Fisher of Blue Lake, Calif., and Bruce Braly of Eureka's 1968 Yamaha DT1 and 1978 Yamaha XT500. Peter Dubaldi of Eureka took home gold medals for his 1981 Husqvarna 250XC and 1979 SWM RS250GS TF1, the latter of which also picked up the Promotor's Choice award. A 1966 Triton, owned by Karl Sperling of Arcata, Calif, took a gold medal in the Chopper/Bobber/Custom category. The Triton, built by North Coast Cycle, also took Best Cafe Racer at the 2012 Clubman's All-British Motorcycle Show in San Jose, Calif.

Humboldt Bay Classic 3
1968 Yamaha DT1, owned by Bruce Braly of Eureka, Calif.

Humboldt Bay Classic 2
Judges mull over Peter Dubaldi's 1979 SWM RS250GS TF1, which won a gold medal in the Dirt Racer category, and took the Promotor's Choice ribbon. 

Bikes shown in the Humboldt Bay Classic are judged based on their own merits — for example: originality, quality of workmanship, rideability — as opposed to being judged against each other. As a result, a single category may have multiple gold medals, or none at all.

Humboldt Bay Classic 6
This 1966 Triton, owned by Karl Sperling of Arcata, Calif. took home a gold medal. 

Set right on the picturesque Humboldt Bay and surrounded by historic Woodley Island Marina, the 2012 Classic drew fans of vintage motorcycles, good music, and delicious local microbrews. Proceeds from this year's event benefited North Star Quest Camp, a non-profit summer camp for middle school-aged girls.

Aside from motorcycle-only swap booths, local food vendors, and microbrews from Lost Coast Brewery, Six Rivers Brewery and Mad River Brewing Company, the Humboldt Bay Classic offered live music from local bands Gunsafe and Slingshot, and music of all genres by DJ Gabe Pressure.

The Humboldt Bay Classic will return in September of 2013 with more show bikes, music, vendors and entertainment. More information can be found at

Photos by Debbie Topping and Greg O'Leary.

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