The ups and downs of owning a classic motorcycle
The 1963 R69S as it looks today.
I was a fanatic dirt bike guy in the 1970s, living in the small town on Ponce on Puerto Rico’s South Coast when a group of my street bike friends invited me to go on a two-day ride around the island. It sounded like fun, but I didn’t have a touring bike to ride. I asked some old timers, and they suggested I contact old Ernesto Garcia at his motorcycle repair shop. A nice, low-key guy, according to them, who had lots of bikes and might lend me one.
|Engines piled in a corner in Ernesto’s shop.|
Arriving just before lunch, Ernesto’s small shop was on a narrow back street in the old part of town. I looked through the chain link fence, and while I could see a mass of bikes and parts stuffed into the small space and piled high along the back wall, the shop was devoid of human beings. Questioning the neighbors about the proprietor of this two-wheeled tangle brought answers like “Ernesto doesn’t like to get up early” or “Ernest just comes down when a customer calls,” and finally, his phone number. It seemed, from our phone conversation that Mr. Garcia was very “simpatico,” and using the name of our mutual friend, he got me what I wanted, a street bike. To my surprise, from the conglomeration of junk in the shop he rolled out a shiny black BMW R69S that he said was one of his personal bikes. A comfortable touring bike in its day, it performed superbly and my ride was most enjoyable. No so enjoyable that I was willing to trade knobbies for Nortons, but fun, anyway.
Old bikes were everywhere in Ernesto’s shop.
The years went by and, as these things go, my attention became more focused on family and my small industrial supply business, so the Pentons and Yamahas were sold and I lived like a normal person. Then, 25 years after my road trip, a new group of older, more financially successful friends all decided to buy Harleys and, déjà vu, invited me to join them. Unable to see myself as one of the middle-aged, bandana-wearing executive Hog riding gang, I set out to find an alternative. I’m the kind of guy who always takes the road less traveled, but I never ask myself why the hell everyone else is on the other road! The idea of being unique and riding a vintage bike caught my fancy. I wondered, was that old Beemer still in Ernesto’s shop?
It was! But Ernesto was no longer with us, having died several months before my return to his shop. Reached by phone, Ernesto Jr was happy to open the shop if it meant turning some of the old metal into cash, so we agreed on a time and date. Stepping inside, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness a veritable treasure trove came into view. There was the R69S, between an R21 and an R27. An Ariel Square Four, original Royal Enfields and BSA’s, some East European 2-strokes, a Vespa from the ‘50s and a fortune in used parts. Why? How?
A mid-‘50s Zundapp Bella scooter looked pretty complete.
Junior provided the answer. Caribbean mañana-style Ernesto was in no rush to fix the machines that, with his monopoly, flooded his shop. Over three decades, the small portion of “customers” for whom a motorcycle was not essential abandoned enough bikes to create this abundance of classics. The scion of this enterprise wanted $5,000 for the whole kit and caboodle. I now lived in an apartment in the capital city of San Juan and had just made a career change, so even if I spent this ridiculously small sum to buy it all I had no idea where I would put the stuff or how I would find time to work on them.
|A trio of BMWs shoved in a corner.|
In the end I wound up with just the R69S, but it had become a basket case with no documents. I loaded the frame, engine and two boxes of components into my wife’s station wagon, and because of my lack of mechanical ability I made the rounds of the bike shops in San Juan in search of someone to make this dream whole. San Juan was full of guys willing to take the parts, but who never got around to putting them together. Five years and four shops later, I bought a manual and commenced to play Klaus the BMW mechanic in a small space above my office.
|The 1963 R69S before restoration started.|
Little by little, like some obstinate jigsaw puzzle, it came together. The engine mounted to the frame and, finding parts easily in the U.S., I filled in, by trial and error, the empty spaces on the frame. One day, almost a year after I started, there was a last click of the ratchet and I stepped back to see, for the first time, a complete motorcycle! Now I could take her to the newly established BMW bike dealer, and instead of having to plead, “Can you do anything with this mess of stuff,” all I said was, “She won’t start.” Two days later, she did.
My Harley riding friends had long since moved on to other fads, but I had a great feeling of accomplishment. Now all I had to do was register her, bolt on the plates – and ride! Or so I thought. In those nascent internet days the Puerto Rican government was (and mostly still is) a departmentalized, inefficient, maddening bureaucracy. The list of necessary documents and inspections required to get plates was so daunting that had I not just accomplished the impossible task of putting her together, I would have given up. First I had to go to the police for a certificate that the bike wasn’t stolen. No, the serial number didn’t appear of on the stolen bike list, but – Catch 22 – since their computers started record keeping in 1973 they would not certify my 1963 machine. The process went on pretty much like this for over a year until I finally had climbed this Motor Vehicle Department Everest and was legal. But by now, after nine of struggling to resurrect her, nearly 40 years after I met her, I had retired and we were packing our house stuff for our retirement home in Coconut Grove, Miami. So, before I could take her out, into the trailer she went.
Now, when we ride her into town and the guys shout out “nice bike” or “can I take a photo?” or “beautiful” (my wife thinks they are talking about her), I don’t think of the hassles and frustrations I suffered. I think about how glad I am that I decided not to be one of the pack. MC