Beeming on the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run

Crossing the country in the Cannonball Endurance Run with nothing more than a BMW tool kit and a bit of luck is something to celebrate.

BMW Cannonball riders

BMW Cannonball riders, left to right: Darryl Richman, 1928 R52; Eric Bahl, 1929 R63; Norm Nelson, 1928 R52; John Landstrom, 1928 R62.

Photo courtesy John Landstrom

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I’ve crossed the country on modern motorcycles more times than I can remember. I ride my /2 BMW almost every day, and I have a small collection of prewar motorcycles that I ride around the neighborhood on sunny Sunday mornings. But it never occurred to me to ride a 1928 motorcycle across the country, diagonally nonetheless, until I heard about the Motorcycle Cannonball. The ride carried a certain mystique. Who are these riders? Why do they put themselves and their ancient machinery to this grueling test? Can they really be as crazy about old motorcycles as I am? Can my machine and body go the 16-day, 4,000-mile distance? I sent the check, made the hotel reservations and spent a few weeks going over my trusty 1928 BMW R62, which I have owned for 20 years.

My R62 is what I call a “gentle restoration” of a good original bike. The paint was done years before I bought it and most everything on the bike is original. I don’t think I have ever ridden the old girl more than 20 miles from home on any one trip. I had confidence in the bike, but for a 4,000-mile journey a partial tear-down and inspection was called for. I removed the cylinders and inspected the valves and pistons. The valve seats only needed a light touch-up, and I didn’t change the rings or any hard parts.

The only questionable part in the gearbox/final drive was one bearing in the final drive. The clutch can’t be removed or inspected without splitting the cases, so I just kept my fingers crossed that the clutch would hold up.

The other concern was the magneto/generator, something that can fail at any time and is usually not repairable on the roadside. After some research I installed a new electronic unit from Power Dynamo in Germany. It gave 160 watts of 12-volt power and made the bike easier to start. With everything back together I put 200 test miles on the bike and couldn’t find anything else that needed attention. A new electronic speedometer and route sheet roller and I was ready to go.

In early September 2014 I found myself on the beach at Daytona with 98 other crazies — Daytona to Tacoma, baby! I was amazed by the number of people and vehicles that supported the Cannonball. There had to be 200 helpers and 100 back up vehicles. Was I crazy doing this alone, just me and my BMW tool kit? I had friendly fellow riders with support vehicles and lots of folks willing to lend a tool or a helping hand, but for the most part I planned on fixing what broke with the tools I carried. Maybe I was just lucky, but it worked. Over the entire trip I never changed the oil, and never had any parts fail or fall off. I adjusted one valve, added a little oil every day and changed the spark plugs once. That’s it.

My story is not typical. Crews worked till the wee hours on most of the bikes. Complete engines were changed or rebuilt. Gallant efforts were put forth to make it to the finish. Still, many didn’t. Many bikes suffered from blown head gaskets, over or under oiling, and electrical failures. I loved the sound and the speed of the 4-cylinder Hendersons, but they, too, suffered from seized pistons.

As riders, we had the feeling we were in this together. It didn’t matter what brand of motorcycle you rode or what country you were from. It didn’t even matter if you couldn’t speak English. We were a small group of the most dedicated vintage bike enthusiasts from around the world and we were determined to see that each of us fulfilled our goal; to make the ride, every mile, coast to coast. Record rain, freezing temperatures, boiling heat, crashes and burn-ups, nothing could dampen our spirit. Every time I felt cold or tired I saw somebody else who was dressed lighter or stayed up later than I. I followed the advice written on the saddlebag of a Harley JD from England, an old World War II war slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” That I did, all the way to Tacoma. — John Landstrom