The ups and downs of owning a classic motorcycle
It happens every spring — especially a spring that follows a winter with no warm days. The bikes sit in the garage and we all wonder about the old gasoline — even with a fuel treatment. If you work on the bike, you need to take it on a ride to make sure all is well with the new lights or mechanical work. Are all the nuts and bolts tight? What about the battery or the tires, the air pressure? It takes a few miles of spring riding to determine if all is well. Maybe you don’t want to ride with a group just yet, because a breakdown would hold up the group. All this was on my mind as I pulled up to the Family Restaurant for a quickly arranged breakfast and ride with Lloyd, Leon, and Ken, all local members of the BMW Riders Club of Western New York, MOA #2.
I got there early to check what was loose on my 1972 Moto Guzzi Ambassador. The mirror, which I grabbed and put in my pocket as it came off at 45 miles per hour, was re-attached and the other mirror was loose, but an Allen wrench fixed that. My pockets were full of tools. Ken pulled up on his BMW R80. Gas was pouring down the side of the bike and steaming off the exhaust pipe. I yelled to him as he shut off his motor. He quickly turned off the gas and dug out his tool kit. He said, "I thought I had a carb or cable problem. The bike was running rough." He pulled off the fuel bowl and let the gas run through. After a few tests with the float, the leak stopped. Leon pulled up on his old R69s. It had started with one kick after sitting all winter, old gas and all, although he uses a special brew of fuel in his R69s and the recipe is confidential. Lloyd has a new bike that starts and runs well, so he didn’t have any first ride of the season problems. After breakfast we headed south toward Springville, N.Y.
At a stop my Guzzi stalled. I got it going again, but the stall was new and I wondered what caused it. Another time the bike backfired and seemed to shut off and go quickly on. Ken, the most experienced mechanic of the group suggested it may be my ignition switch. The rest of the ride was fine and when I got home, I checked the bike over in the garage. The cotter pin in the front brake lever was not secured and one of the new lights had burned out. These problems were quickly fixed in preparation for a longer ride on Saturday.
The plan for Saturday was to ride it out to the Beemer Barn, a local Airhead repair shop, to get my Guzzi inspected. I left home about 8 a.m., filled up with gas and hit the highway at a steady 70mph. I stopped at Tim Horton’s coffee shop to bring a bag of muffins to the guys at the Beemer Barn. The bike was running great. I took off down the road going fast to beat traffic — and then it happened. It just cut out — no power. I coasted to a parking lot to see if I could find the problem. At this point I found that I had left my cell phone in the garage at home, so I sat and ate a muffin. I thought to myself, “Why am I riding an old classic bike when they sell new bikes that start and run and don’t break down going to the Beemer Barn?”
I did have some tools and I quickly checked all the connections to the battery. I took off the instrument cover to see if anything was loose. It all looked fine. I started to look at the wires at the neutral switch thinking that it might not be grounding, but nothing helped. It was dead, however the head light and tail lights did work. What was the problem and what could I do?
I had the bike apart with pieces spread over the lawn at the far edge of the parking lot. I made a phone call home from the gas pump pay station and left a message. Across the road I noticed that someone was wheeling out a blindly bright motorcycle. The way the sun was hitting, it looked like the fallen angel from the metal gods. Loud country music drifted my way. I walked over and noticed a vehicle inspection sign. Maybe it was a small repair shop. The Harley was dipped in chrome and polishing it behind deep dark sun glasses was Al, who said "What the hell you up to?" I explained the situation as I looked around the garage. It was old and covered with vintage motorcycle rally posters. Empty bottles of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels lined the shelves. A homemade coat rack held black leather jackets covered with patches and a shelf with sticker-plastered quarter sized helmets. Could this be the original Man Cave?
Al was a wiry guy, medium height, cap on backwards and qualified for social security quite a few calendars ago. After about two minutes of conversation he stated "I’m off on a ride. You can work on your bike here. Use the tools and anything you want, it’s all yours. I don't work on them anymore". I looked around the garage. Everything was rusty but hung up neatly, but there were no electrical test instruments, except a melted multi-meter. "It got burned in the fire", explained Al. I noticed a few charred walls. "I got an idea," said Al. “There are two guys close who can help. One has a shop. The other guy is just starting up. He’s a real good mechanic. He works on anything: motor homes, John Deere's, trucks, milking machines, log splitters and, well, motorcycles. I'll go get him. You sit here." Al pulled out a chair for me and rode off on his Harley. All the windows rattled.
I sat in the morning sun and ate another muffin. About 20 minutes later Al was back with Jack, a quiet guy in a big Dodge truck. Behind the barn, we hooked up Al's rusty trailer and strapped on the bike. With the rusty trailer and two old straps, we made it to Jacks garage about four miles up a country road. Jack was just starting the business and I met his wife, daughter and son, all nice people.
Jack was a good mechanic. The lights worked, but the neutral light didn't and the bike would not start. We tested the ignition switch and jumped the wires. He grounded the neutral light and the bike started. With a few jump wires taped together I was able to ride it and everything worked.
We all met back at Al's man cave. Jack and Al made plans to meet later, at the old hotel bar. I paid Jack. Al was headed to town, going the same way I was. It seemed like a good idea to ride with him so I would have someone with me in case of another breakdown. He took off with the Moto Guzzi working hard to keep up. At every stop sign he raced me, yelling, "I got this hotted up, it’s a fast one," and it was. I said goodbye to Al on the highway into town. As he blasted off, I noticed the back of his leather jacket declaring, "My Bike is My Weapon."
Old vs. new
For some, there is a debate about old motorcycles and new ones. For some there is no debate. The new ones are better in every way. They are faster, they stop better, etc. Another point of view is that the classics need you, they need the fixer upper they need the patient rider. They are beautiful to look at and allow the rider to go back to experience that time in motorcycle history. They are also easier to repair and involve the rider in the mechanical workings of the machine. Reflecting on the day I would say it all was worth it, you meet the nicest and most interesting people on a classic motorcycle. I thought about this story as I rode to pick up a bottle of Jack Daniels. I dropped it off the following Saturday.
So what was wrong with the bike? I think the main problem was a worn ignition switch. Also the side-stand, neutral light switch was not grounding all the time. Soon after this incident both items were replaced and the bike was ridden to the Moto Guzzi National Rally in 2013, about a 700 mile trip. It takes some time refurbish these older Moto Guzzi's but once sorted they are simple to work on and will run well. How else could you have this much fun and adventure on a simple Saturday ride?
About the Moto Guzzi: It is licensed as1972 Ambassador which was manufactured in late 1971. It has some Eldorado features such as the ribs on the engine case. The bike is 750cc and has good power. I purchased it 4 years ago from the original owner with 9,000 miles on it. It was stored in a garage and had not been registered for many years. The following was done to the bike: New tires, brake shoes, carbs cleaned, new battery, rubber parts and new cables. The bike was stripped down to the frame and repainted with factory colors as it already had one poor quality paint job. A 600 watt alternator replaced the generator and a new style switch with light and turn signals replaced the old handlebar switch. The chrome bores were replaced with new cast iron cylinders and pistons. Bar end turn signals on the front and a turn signal license plate frame in the rear along with twin spotlights in the front keep it visible. A solo seat with a rear rack works well for packing for trips. Stainless is used where ever possible. All this was done during the winter and the bike was never out of service and ridden the past four years. The bike was built to be used and has attended many rallies with no problems. In the early 1970's I had an identical Ambassador which I sold and a few years ago starting looking for a 1970's Ambassador or Eldorado. The Ambassador is rarer than the Eldorado and you will see fewer on the road.