Black Side Down

High Expectations of the 2016 Riding Season

If this spring’s rides are any indication of how the riding season is going to pan out for me this year, it’s going to be a good one. I’m not an Iron Butt rider who piles on tens of thousands of miles every year, but I am disappointed when I can’t roll up at least 3,000-4,000 miles every riding season, and last year I was lucky if I hit 1,500, with work and family loads keeping my time on two wheels to a minimum. Outside of commuting to work and a few weekend rides, the only good road run I managed to squeeze in was with pals Ken Tripkos and Paul Harrison to Cuba, Missouri, for the incredible J. Wood auction of a horde of motorcycles and parts dating from the Teens to the 1970s, shoved over the decades by an eccentric “collector” into barns stuffed to overflowing. October saw me tear my right Achilles tendon, and after that my riding season, such as it was, was over.

Ah, but what a difference a year makes. My Achilles has healed, and thanks to friend Mark Scott of Austin, Texas, I’ve already fulfilled one of my 2016 wish list rides, namely the Vincent Owners Club Lone Star Section annual ride and rally in Leakey, Texas, in late April/early May, made all the better thanks to this year’s pairing with the North Texas Norton Owners Club’s annual get-together, also in Leakey. Vincents, Nortons and pig roasts. It really doesn't get any better than that.

Leakey, if you’ve never been there, is located in the heart of Texas’ Hill Country, an expansive, sparsely populated area stretching some 200 miles west, north and south from Austin and San Antonio. It’s also, I discovered, home to some of the best riding on the planet, with miles of two-lane blacktop twisting through the surrounding country. Leakey is particularly popular for riders, sitting as it does at an intersection of The Three Sisters, a series of roads that take you through some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll ever experience, the route tracking the surrounding ridges and canyons, one minute sweeping you up to the biggest sky anywhere, the next worming down and across the lowland before spinning you back up to the sky again.

The ride was made all the better thanks to Mark, who let me make the 200-some-mile ride from his home in Austin to Leakey on his 1975 Norton Commando 850, while he rode his 1948 Vincent Series B Rapide. My last Commando was also a ’75 electric start, and it was great to be reminded of why I loved the two Commandos I owned so much — and why I need another. Physically small considering their relatively large engine, Commandos are excellent road bikes, and they shine on two-lane backcountry roads like the ones in the Hill Country, where their ample torque and fine handling make them the perfect companion as you hustle seemingly effortlessly from one turn to the next.

The weekend ride got even better when we hit Leakey, where Mark switched bikes with me so I could enjoy the Vincent for the remainder of the trip, including the final run back to Austin. The thrill went way beyond the obvious reaction to riding the Rapide — “Holy sh##! I’m riding a Vincent!” — because I wasn’t riding a Vincent just anywhere, I was riding a Vincent in the Hill Country, where quick reactions reward the rider with sensory pleasures akin to a roller coaster. The Vincent was brilliant, and riding it through the Hill Country made me think what a revelation it must have been when introduced 70 years ago, smooth, tractable and poised regardless of conditions.

The weekend ended with some 700 miles under my belt, a bit more than 200 of it on the Norton, the rest on the Vincent. If that was the start of my riding season, it’s going to be a very good year, indeed.

Richard Backus

On the Road Again

It’s mid-March as I write this, but here in the Midwest, winter has suddenly — almost freakishly — left the building. This time of year, I’m usually huddled in my hovel wrenching on my bikes in anticipation of the end of winter. But if the current weather patterns hold, the riding season is starting more than a little early this year.

That’s got me shifting into high gear on various projects. I'm trying to make serious headway on our Project Honda CB350, and also helping my nephew Joe get his new-to-him 1974 Yamaha DT125 on the road — or gravel, as the case may be. My 1983 Laverda RGS doesn’t require much, thanks to the almost zero riding I’ve done since October when I tore my right Achilles tendon. My leg’s healing up nicely (I managed to get in a weekend of cross-country skiing in Colorado only four months after my injury — physical therapists are truly the unsung heroes of the medical community), and I’m excited to get back in the saddle again.

There are a few road trips I'd like to take this year, including a late April run down to Leakey, Texas, for the Lone Star Section's annual Vincent Owners Club ride. Yeah, I know, a Laverda’s not a Vincent, but friend of the magazine Mark Scott is offering a ride on his personal Rapide, making the thought of attending more than a little tantalizing.

Then there’s the annual run to Road America in Wisconsin for Rockerbox Motofest June 10-12, and at some point after that I’d like to make a solo trek west, with any luck pointing my Laverda toward the amazing roads and scenery around Bryce Canyon National Park, an area suddenly high on my list of must-visit places after Joe Berk set the hook in this issue’s installment of Destinations .

Those rides are still on my wish list, but one ride I’ll definitely take part in — and with some of you — is the Motorcycle Classics Ride ‘Em, Don’t Hide ‘Em Getaway Aug. 5-7 at Seven Springs Resort in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania. We’ve wanted to put a ride together for years, but could never settle on a place or a recipe until sister publication Mother Earth News started holding an annual Mother Earth News Fair at the resort, which, we discovered, is in the middle of some of the finest riding territory in the country.

Remote in feel yet easily accessible from nearby Pittsburgh, Seven Springs Resort is surrounded by miles of twisty two-lanes, and it also happens to be close to several of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most celebrated structures, most notably his incredible Fallingwater, with Bear Run Creek running through and under the structure.

With help from ride veteran Tom McKee (organizer of the annual All-Brands Motorcycle Event at nearby McKee’s Sky Ranch), we’ve laid out a mellow weekend of riding that includes a tour of Fallingwater and rides to surrounding points of interest. We’ll spend two nights at Seven Springs, with a Friday night reception, breakfast Saturday and Sunday, and a special dinner Saturday night featuring ride marshal and special guest Brian Slark from the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. Starting his motorcycle career as a test rider for AMC motorcycles (parent company of AJS and Matchless), Slark moved to the U.S. in the early Sixties and was instrumental in establishing the American motocross scene.

Sweetening the deal for a chosen few, we’ve convinced Joel Samick at Retro Tours to make a limited number of his impressive stable of 1970s classic twins available for rental on a first-come, first-served basis, with an event reservation. For more information, visit the event page on the Motorcycle Classics website.

Great roads, beautiful countryside and great motorcycle people. I don’t think it gets any better than that. See you in August.

Richard Backus

Your Mother Was Right

If your mother was or is anything like mine, she probably wasn’t too thrilled when you took up motorcycling. I waited until I left home for college to get my first bike, a fact my mother could ignore thanks to the then 1,200 miles separating us. I kept mum on the subject, and even though she knew I had a bike, she never brought it up on my trips home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Apparently, we had agreed to not discuss a disagreeable subject.

Mom stayed quiet as I rode more and more, moving up from my little Kawasaki enduro to a Yamaha XS500, followed by a Yamaha XS1100. At 6 a.m. one Saturday morning the phone rang. Half asleep, I picked it up, and before I could mutter a befuddled “Hello?” my mother demanded, “Do you wear a helmet?” Driving home the night before, Mom rounded a corner on a wooded two-lane road and met a motorcyclist coming head on in her lane: He hit her square on. The impact launched him over her car and onto the road behind it, on his head. He was wearing a helmet, and he lived.

Assured that I wore a helmet, Mom started getting used to the idea of me riding, and some years later, on Mother’s Day, I rode my Norton to the local brew pub to fetch a couple growlers of beer. Mom appreciates the finer things in life, so good beer was a natural for a Mother’s Day dinner at my house. With the beer safely secured in my tank bag, I side-straddled the Norton and jumped on the kickstarter with my left leg. This was my favored method for starting the Commando, giving me more leverage and upping the chances of a first-kick start. Half-way down, the engine backfired. The kickstart lever went back up, but my foot kept going down. I didn’t really know what I’d done, but I knew it hurt. Really hurt. I got on the bike, kickstarted it with my right leg, and somehow rode home.

Mom took me to the hospital, and at first they thought I’d just badly pulled and bruised my Achilles tendon or/and some muscles, so they sent me home and suggested physical therapy. A few days later at therapy, a physical therapist noticed a huge divot appearing in my leg above my ankle. It turned out I’d torn my Achilles, and it was hanging by a thread. After surgery and six months of recuperation, I was back on my Norton.

Mom didn’t give me too much grief over that incident. In fact, she seemed to think the trip to the ER was kind of amusing. Sitting in the examination room, she turned to me and said, “Oh honey, I thought we were way past this,” a reference to the many visits she and I made to the ER when I was a kid.

Fast-forward to last October. I was selling the cool little ex-Shriner 1966 Honda CA95 I’d bought for Maddie, my daughter. She decided she likes the 1976 Suzuki GT185 better and son Charlie didn't want the Honda, so it was time for it to go.

I posted a Craigslist ad, and two days later I was showing it to a prospective buyer. He wanted it, it just had to run. Which it did, and reasonably well, just not at that exact moment. Twenty-four hours earlier it ran perfectly — OK, reasonably — and suddenly, trying to start it, it wouldn't so much as burp.

Eventually, with the would-be owner patiently watching, I discovered the ground to the battery had slipped loose. I laid into the kickstarter again (I never used the electric starter on that bike — go figure), and with an extra-effort swing it caught — and my right Achilles tore.

This time, I knew what I’d done, and a trip to the hospital confirmed it. A couple weeks after surgery I was visiting Mom, and she said simply, and with wry satisfaction, “I always said motorcycles were dangerous.” Apparently they are, just not the way people always told me.

Oh, and I sold the Honda.

Richard Backus

The Bike in the Barn

If there’s an old bike nut who hasn’t dreamt about finding the fabled “bike in the barn,” I’ve never met them. It’s an alluring, tantalizing dream, enveloping as it does so much more than just buying an old bike. I mean, hell, anybody can do that; it just takes money. But the bike in the barn, that’s different. Finding it takes not only that most impossible to predict ingredient — luck — but, we want to believe, the knowledge and skill to identify that diamond in the rough and bring it shining back to life.

I’ve actually “found” a bike in a barn, literally, but I’m not sure it meets the vision most of us have when we think of that fabled barn find. For one thing, it’s not particularly rare. A 1966 Honda CA95, the last of the Baby Dreams, it’s definitely a pretty cool old scoot, but not cool enough to inspire the kind of lust envy you feel when you hear about someone awakening an old Vincent or Indian from its long-lost slumber. For another, it was in a friend’s barn, so even though the bike had been languishing for years, it’s not like it had really been lost to time, a vital component of a true barn find. It does, however, have something of a cool story behind it, in my opinion an essential ingredient for a barn find.

Years before I happened across it, the Honda had been found sitting in another barn somewhere in the open expanse of Oklahoma. Its first owner was a Shriner, who, as many Shriners apparently do, rode it only in Shriner parades. At least that’s the assumption, given the bike’s approximately 1,200 supposedly original miles. True to its Shriner roots, it’s been festooned with a few extras, including a period set of Bates bags and chrome freeway bars and fender guards. Shriner Red paint, now looking more raspberry than red, dresses the tank, side covers and bag lids.

Then there’s Glenn Bewley’s barn find, a discovery incorporating the essential elements of the best barn find; luck, rarity, and an incredible back story — at least what’s known of it or can be reasonably inferred. Glenn tripped across the bike, a 1949 Vincent Black Shadow, after it was found tucked away not in a barn, but in a garage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where it had apparently been hiding for decades. And it gets better.

What Glenn found wasn’t just any Vincent (as if there were such a thing). It was a hot rod, a special, a bike probably built for the speed trials that used to run regularly at small airports across the country. And it wasn’t just any special. Based on an early Series C Black Shadow, its creation was likely aided by none other than Gene Aucott, the first Vincent dealer in the U.S., who opened shop in Philadelphia in 1946.

Apparently, Aucott liked and encouraged building hot rod Vincents, and it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to think he had a hand in this bike. Glenn, a Vincent specialist himself (a fact that certainly played a role in his finding the bike in the first place), has had contact with Aucott's son, who told him their basement used to be full of the same desiccant plugs Glenn found carefully screwed into the Vincent’s spark plug holes and into corks in the carburetors.

Then there’s the issue of proximity; the house where the Vincent was found was only five miles from Aucott’s old shop.

Glenn has coaxed the Vincent back to life, but he’s not sure what to do with it next. He’s pondering selling it at Bonhams' Las Vegas auction in January, but only because he favors riders. He wants it to stay as it is, but as it is, it just isn’t a bike he can ride. That thought actually saddens him a little, because it’s such an obviously special machine. Whatever Glenn decides, his find is inspiring, proof positive that barn find bikes really do exist, that they’re still out there waiting to be found. It’s the stuff of dreams, dreams that occasionally come true.

Richard Backus

Ten Years Later

Has it really been 10 years? It hardly seems possible, but this issue, September/October 2015, Vol. 11, No. 1, marks our 10th year of publishing Motorcycle Classics.

In July 2005, after the better part of a year identifying and defining the pieces that had to fit together to make the magazine work, we sent the first issue to the printer. I was literally holding my breath as we packaged up the digital files and hard copy proofs and sent them out the door on the FedEx truck. The buildup to that first issue was without question one of the most exciting times of my life.

Creating this magazine was something I’d dreamed about for years, but I knew the chances of successfully launching a new magazine, no less a niche magazine for classic motorcycle fans, were slim — especially when all the pundits said that A) it couldn’t be done and B) print’s dead, so why bother? Guided by blind enthusiasm and a capable publisher — and more than a little good luck — we ignored conventional wisdom, put together a plan, designed the magazine and launched into the great unknown. And 10 years later, we’re still here.

The motivation behind Motorcycle Classics came from a number of directions. As a dyed-in-the-wool vintage bike fan, I just couldn't understand why all of the good vintage bike magazines on the newsstand — hell, the only vintage bike magazines on the newsstand — were British. How was it possible there wasn’t a magazine for U.S. vintage bike fans produced right here in the good old U.S. of A? Please understand that I have great respect for the British magazines. They’re excellent and in many ways they've set the bar for quality, but they’re limited because, well, they’re British. The British look at things differently than we do. Their social and cultural evolution drive their history and engagement with motorcycles. It’s a history uniquely different than ours, driving a different perspective and a different set of interests. The British vintage bike scene is extremely dynamic, but the U.K.-to-U.S. classic bike scene isn’t a hand-in-glove fit because the U.K. versus U.S. social and cultural mindset is different. The U.K. spawned the Isle of Man TT, the U.S. Daytona Beach and the Bonneville Salt Flats: They may share similarities, but they’re not interchangeable.

Long before Motorcycle Classics, I worked for a number of years at a brew pub, first as a bartender and eventually in the brew house, learning how to turn grain, hops, water and yeast into beer. That was a pretty cool job, but being a good brewer requires passion and dedication, and I realized my real passions were motorcycles and magazines. That stint in brewing pushed my return to college and a master’s degree in journalism. And that’s where Motorcycle Classics began.

I doubt you could do this today — I don’t even know if they teach magazine journalism anymore — but Motorcycle Classics was essentially my master’s thesis. In grad school, the idea of this magazine got its first form. As part of my studies I researched, designed, and created a prototype of the magazine you’re holding in your hands now. It’s funny, because looking back, although I dreamed of making it a reality, I’m not sure I ever imagined it would really happen.

And yet it did. Guided and aided by the people in our company who share an enthusiasm for making great magazines, we made the dream a reality. Yet it wouldn’t have stuck without the support and enthusiasm of the people who really make it happen: you. That we’ve survived and thrived this long is because you’ve supported us. That support is no small thing. It’s a trust, and one that we hope to continue to inspire and be worthy of for years to come. Thanks for helping make the dream come true.

Richard Backus


A few issues ago (March/April 2015, to be exact), I told you about our online reader surveys, where we query you for your opinions on a variety of subjects. Your response to those surveys helps us choose the stories we run and the covers we feature, and the comments you leave help us track your interests.

Of note is a continuing call for more tech-oriented stories and columns. When we started this magazine (has it really been almost 10 years?!), we knew that loving old bikes doesn’t always equal loving to work on them. Being mechanically minded, I look for excuses to work on my own bikes, and I can easily get lost in detailed technical dribble. But I also know that non-mechanical denizens of our little corner of the world go glassy-eyed at the first mention of camshafts or carburetors.

As time rolled by, readers began asking us for more technically-oriented articles, and even if it wasn’t exactly a tsunami of requests, it made sense that we should do more in our own shop. We undertook our first in-house bike project in 2007, and in 2011 we cajoled vintage motorcycle mechanic Keith Fellenstein into penning a regular Q & A tech column, Keith’s Garage. That same year, we also started our regular How-To series detailing specific maintenance projects.

Response to both of those has been overwhelmingly positive, and we get more and more people writing in telling us those are the first pages they turn to when their new issue arrives. More than ever, you want to understand how to get your classic bike going and, once it's going, keep it on the road. That makes perfect sense to us, because not only is it satisfying to do your own work, but properly done, it makes classic bike ownership cheaper, too.

To that end, we’re planning a new in-house restoration project to help satisfy your itch to know more about what makes your bikes tick. A quick note, however, about that word “restoration”: In the projects we’ve turned our wrenches on so far, we’ve intentionally strayed from anything resembling a full-on restoration and instead taken the classic custom route. Going the custom route is fun, and sourcing cycle parts is easier when you’re not following the manufacturer’s rule book. It's also usually cheaper: As anyone who’s done one can tell you, a true and properly executed 100-point, show-quality restoration is an expensive proposition. Then there’s the issue of time (there’s never enough around here) and of skill (working on that one, but there’s still a long way to go), both of which are needed in abundance.

Like our earlier projects, this next one won't be a "proper" restoration. Yet we are adjusting our approach, biasing toward originality instead of custom. We’re going to rebuild our bike as close to original as possible, while allowing ourselves to source non-stock parts as necessary or desirable. Our goal is to “restore” a sad-looking and currently disassembled 1970 Honda CB350 to the point that it looks almost 100-percent original, but without worrying about whether we have the correct shock absorbers or hand grips. We’ll work in upgrades that make sense (electronic ignition, for example) and figure out work-arounds for parts no longer available, many of them gleaned from the lessons learned by other CB350 owners.

When we’re done, we’ll have a bike that looks great, runs perfectly and — more importantly to us — isn’t so perfectly restored we’re scared to ride it on the street. Along the way, we'll all learn a little more about keeping our old bikes going.

Richard Backus

Collecting Classic Motorcycles

It had been a few years since I last attended the annual vintage motorcycle auctions in Las Vegas, and returning home from the January 2015 event, I found myself ruminating over what constitutes a “classic” motorcycle and what drives interest and prices for old motorcycles.

As you can read in our Vegas auction report, hammer prices for what we loosely call classic or vintage motorcycles were all over the place. I say "loosely" because you’ll be hard pressed to convince some people that a 1974 Honda CL360 is a classic motorcycle, much less a 1996 Buell RS1200 (which — and particularly in the spectrum of Buell motorcycles — certainly is).

That begs the question of what “classic” means. The answer, of course, is that it means different things to different people. The vintage bike stewards at the Antique Motorcycle Club of America (AMCA) have for decades lumped motorcycles 35 years old or older into the “antique” category, which is to say neither classic nor vintage, just old. I personally draw a distinction between “classic” and “vintage,” with the former denoting bikes from the Fifties to the present and the latter bikes from the pre-World War II era. As in, really old bikes.

Following the AMCA model, bikes in the 35-year-old category include everything from a 1980 Moto Guzzi V50 to a same year Honda CX500, neither of which strike me as antique, but both of which fit my definition of classic. Yet the AMCA model leaves out bikes like the 1982 Honda CX500 Turbo, the first production turbocharged motorcycle (ignoring the Kawasaki Z1R-TC, a highly specialized, low-volume model) and clearly a classic in my eyes.

The market would seem to agree with me: Witness the 1985 Kawasaki ZX750E Turbo that Mecum sold for $10,450. That’s a fair piece of change for a motorcycle that failed to find solid market footing when new, yet today inspires two-wheeled lust in the hearts of many motorcyclists. On the other hand, a 1974 Honda CL360 at the same auction commanded a winning bid of $4,400, a high price for what, to me, is only an ordinary motorcycle. I love Honda’s little twins from the Seventies, but built by the hundreds of thousands, I don’t consider them hugely collectible, which gets me into another point of distinction: Collector bikes versus collectible bikes.

In my view, collector bikes include museum-worthy machines like Vincents, Flying Merkels and Brough Superiors, motorcycles whose status and value has stood the test of time. They were special when new, special when used (even if briefly ignored as they passed through that awkward phase of simply being “old”), and are even more special today. Their market value is guaranteed to increase over time, a fact borne out in Las Vegas, where Vincents commanded the highest prices at both the Bonhams and Mecum auctions.

Collectible bikes, on the other hand, are machines you buy for the simple satisfaction of riding them, enjoying them for what they are and the era they recall. The Honda CL360 fits that category for me, while a CX500 Turbo falls into a gray zone; almost too valuable to use regularly and rare enough to deserve preservation.

I’ll admit it’s a question of semantics, and a highly debatable one, at that. In the end, I think we all have our own definition of what makes a bike valuable, and it’s not always its dollar value. It’s what it means to us and how it makes us feel.

Richard Backus