The ups and downs of owning a classic motorcycle
Cousin Dewey Stephens on his 50cc 1966 Suzuki M15.
Mom had lots of brothers and sisters, which meant I had lots of cousins. Such an abundance of cousins made for lively entertainment and vital opportunities for mischief when family got together. Indeed, it was rare for a visit involving cousins not to end in some sort of parental uproar or an ER visit. (Maybe one day I’ll share details on the “hatchet” incident.)
This story involves my cousin Dewey, a Suzuki, and my first ride on a motorcycle.
So what were you doing in 1966? I was a skinny 13-year-old kid living out in the farmland fringes of Wake County, North Carolina, desperately wishing that I was 16 with a driver’s license. Cousin Dewey, who lived 10 miles farther out in the sticks than I did, was about to turn 16.
Dewey and I both listened to the same radio station, the mighty WKIX 850 AM based in the Capital city of Raleigh. “KIX” was 10,000 watts of Awesome … at least until they cut the transmitter’s power back every evening. We country kids seriously envied the Raleigh city kids because they could hear their favorite DJs and pop songs well into the night.
The KIX top 40 playlist — think Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” or the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” — ruled every teenager’s attention. The DJs? Well, they were major local celebrities: You couldn’t open a new Buick dealership or even an A&P without their personal blessing and ribbon-cutting skills at the grand opening.
In our market, Charlie Brown reigned at the very pinnacle of the DJ food chain. He had the best time slot at the best station in the best market. Some said he was more popular than the governor. The arbiter of popular trends and the music we all listened to, he was clearly more important than teachers or parents.
Moreover, Charlie Brown had an edge over his competitors: he knew how to design and conduct the BIG RADIO CONTEST and he had enough juice to score fabulous grand prizes for his contests. In the summer of ’66, he surpassed every radio contest heretofore attempted by tempting his enormous audience with the chance to win a brand new 1966 Suzuki M15 motorcycle! Imagine: 50ccs of world-class Japanese 2-stroke exotica with 4.2 maximum horsepower @ 8,000 rpms, with an advertised top speed of 50 — count ‘em — 50 miles per hour.
Here’s the 50cc Suzuki Model M/15 as described by some of Madison Avenue’s finest:
The lightweight champion of the Suzuki motorcycle family. Packed with “extras” - such as self-starter, bright headlight, blinking turn indicators and oil suspension, these models are the ultimate in practical all-round transportation. The high efficiency two-stroke engine develops a maximum speed of over 80 kmph (50 mph) with outstanding acceleration. Easy-to-operate, its lightweight body of functional design gives fatigue-free handling and effortless power. Soft saddle and 17” tires provide excellent maneuverability and stability as well as maximum riding comfort. Whatever your age or occupation, you’ll be proud to own a Suzuki.
My 13-year-old brain simply whirled! I determined then and there that I would win this object of lust. Destiny — and a Suzuki! — would be mine! No one deserved a new motorcycle more than I did.
The object of my desire: The 1966 Suzuki M15.
The race is on
Thousands of other listeners in the city and out in the country shared that sentiment, among them cousin Dewey. Dewey also vowed he would win the contest. Given his extra three years of maturity, Dewey was wiser in the way the world actually worked.
The contest was a killer: Every day during the seven-week contest, Charlie Brown would announce one letter per day. Moreover, the announcement of the letter of the day would occur at a different time each day because every DJ at the station was in on this promotion.
Competitors first had to collect all of the letters. Then they had to assemble the letters into words that spelled motorcycle parts. The correct number of parts was never specified. With the parts identified, they had to submit their entry by the prescribed deadline.
Wrong. As I learned, success meant listening to the radio all day, every day for most of the summer. For country kids, the nightly reduction of signal power added an additional challenge.
After three days, interruptions from parents and the intense, pressing requirements of a summer job (mowing grass), my chances were toast. I collapsed like a crepe paper streamer.
But Dewey. Dewey was made of sterner stuff. Not only did he understand desire, Dewey understood strategy.
Since Dewey had a cushy summer job on the family farm, he called his own shots. Wherever Dewey went, so went his trusty transistor … along with spare batteries. In addition, he fortified his chances for winning by assembling a confederacy of “listening assistants.” And Dewey was nothing if not shrewd: he cast a very wide net by calling in favors far and wide from siblings and his parents and even a few aunts and uncles. Maybe he enlisted help from a girlfriend; I really don’t know. He doggedly covered gaps in his own listening and overcame the fringe reception issues that plagued all of us country listeners. And Dewey indeed collected all of the letters.
With the letters thus collected, the rest was easy. Dewey deciphered:
“Handlebars, carburetor, kickstand, transmission and speedometer.”
He sent in his entry via US Mail and waited.
Radio station WKIX – “KIX” – hosted the contest to win the M15.
Surely Charlie Brown and his ad team had designed a killer radio contest. A prize as grand as that Suzuki M15 certainly ginned up interest in listeners far and wide. The advertiser, the local Suzuki outpost in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, got lots of positive, on-air mentions all summer for donating that brand new Suzuki M15. It was truly a win-win proposition.
Uh, not so fast. Did I mention that the dealer agreed to donate one Suzuki grand prize?
As it turned out, another clever teenager worked her own strategy that summer. From another “sticks” town on the other side of the listening market, this girl had also assembled a confederacy of listening assistants and chained herself to her transistor. Spare batteries were involved as well. She sent in her entry in on the same day Cousin Dewey did:
“Handlebars, carburetor, kickstand, transmission and speedometer.”
We don’t know what happened next, but lawyers must have been involved to sort through the great anguish felt by both the radio station and the Suzuki dealer. Scapegoats were probably considered. Terminations, too. The concept of weaseling? Yep, likely discussed.
In the end, the principals did the right thing. Since the contest had generated two bona fide winning entries, TWO brand new Suzukis (suggested retail price: $349.00 each) were awarded!
At first, I was absolutely crushed and filled with jealousy. (Forget that I had quit within days of starting.) Someone I knew had claimed “my” Suzuki. Worse, my own cousin had perpetrated the theft.
Soon, however, I realized the magnitude of an amazing accomplishment. Not one, but two enterprising teenagers from opposite sides of the station’s fringe reception area had managed to outsmart and out-hustle the kids in the Big City Raleigh. This was the source of great pride in our large, farming-supported family.
Dewey’s mother, my Aunt Vandelia, had done her part to help Dewey win that Suzuki. Wicked funny and able to “own” every room she ever walked in, she was very kind-hearted.
She was also a serious gear head. During World War II, she served at Fort Bragg, working in the motor pool. She could fix or rebuild just about any device that rolled through the base. She understood, at the expert level, how mechanical things worked. In fact, she was the first female I ever knew who understood carburetors, something that impressed a young Randakk! I like to think that her mechanical ability nurtured a special bond between us and alerted her to my “tragedy” with the Suzuki.
Soon, a family gathering was arranged to see the new Suzuki and congratulate Dewey. Sensing that I might like a ride on that motorcycle, Aunt Vandelia engineered one of the best days of my life. Did she get the idea from divine inspiration? Or perhaps my oblique hint: “Can I ride it?” No matter. In a blur of good fortune for me, she cajoled Dewey (after some effort) into letting his 13-year-old pest of a cousin have a ride.
Now, I knew exactly how to ride a motorcycle. Schooled up on bicycles, skateboards, go-karts, lawn mowers and tractors, I had practiced all the vital skills many times: clutching, shifting, throttle synchronization, braking, turning, etc. These were all second nature to me … in my imagination. Now it was about to happen for real.
Dewey’s family lived in a large, rambling farm house off the main road. A big driveway circled the house and a very long dirt drive connected the circle drive to the main road.
Older cousin Danny — Dewey’s brother — took me out by the shed near the back door to coach me up for my ride. But Dewey disappeared, likely too alarmed or aggravated to watch the inevitable crash of his hard-earned prize.
Eventually Danny decided that I was ready, or maybe his curiosity to witness the impending carnage got the better of him. Who knows. Danny waved me off with a huge grin. Legendary Grand Prix road-racer Giacomo Agostini (my hero) never faced a green flag as intense as mine. The large group of spectators (five or six cousins plus a few adults) openly speculated on my fate. The consensus was: “He’ll crash for sure!”
To everyone’s amazement — mine included — I motored away smartly without stalling! My general plan was to lap the house, head up the long connector driveway to the main road, and then return to the starting point to begin negotiations for ride #2. Without hesitation I confidently shifted into second.
As I rounded the house, Dewey sprung from nowhere, blocking my path. I stopped immediately …expertly using both brakes. Dewey placed his hands on the bars and announced: “That’s enough. Get off, NOW.” He mounted the Suzuki and sped out of sight.
No matter: I was ecstatic. My first ride was a triumphant, no-drama success. Operating a motorcycle was just like in my imagination … only better. That my ride was only 50 yards or so didn’t matter. I was on par with the Wright Brothers in only 10 seconds, and I had successfully proven that I could ride a motorcycle! I knew this would not be my last ride. As history proved, it was not.
A very young, very 13-year-old Randall Washington.
Dewey enjoyed riding the Suzuki for several years. It was his main transportation for commuting to and from his first summer job off the farm at nearby Campbell College. On one memorable ride to Meridian Cycles in Fayetteville to get a new chain (at 43mph cruise speed) six members of an infamous, some say outlaw, motorcycle “club” came up from behind and surrounded him. As Dewey told the story, the riders were close enough for him to reach out and touch on either side.
The “club members” looked straight ahead and didn't speak, nod or wave, and Dewey rode with them in tight formation (at 43mph) for about five miles. Only 16 at the time, Dewey didn't know if they were going home with him for dinner, or what. He thought about what the newspaper headline might later say. Finally, they waved and sped away. How many 50cc Suzukis ever cruised with that bunch?
Dewey racked up many miles and memories on his trusty little Suzuki. Eventually, he sold it and replaced it with a bigger, faster Bridgestone.
Dewey Stephens lives near Angier, North Carolina, has grandkids, and is still an avid motorcyclist.
Randall Washington – aka “Randakk” – is the founder of Randakk’s Cycle Shakk: www.randakks.com