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Black Side Down

Learning Curves

There was a time when I thought I was getting pretty good at wrenching. Pull apart a Norton? No problem. After you get a couple under your belt, they're pretty easy to work on. Ditto old BMW airheads, which, while technically more complex than a Norton, are basically tractors on two wheels; understressed and overbuilt. But if the rehab on my 1983 Laverda RGS 1000 has taught me anything, it's that I still have a long way to go to be any good at this mechanicing thing.

Two years ago, riding home from the 2016 Barber Vintage Festival, the RGS developed an oil leak, which, as these things go, turned into an engine-out, full top-end rebuild, with new pistons, rings, valves, valve springs, valve guides; the lot. With the engine out, I decided to strip the frame, welding in some strengthening gussets and the stop lug for the sidestand that broke off long before I owned it, followed by repainting it and attending to all the other stuff that follows a "simple" rebuild. As it went back together I replaced all the wheel bearings, steering head bearings and swingarm bearings. I also decided to tidy up the wiring harness, replacing some of the 35-year-old connectors that were threatening to separate from the wiring loom. That meant getting a crimping tool for uninsulated connectors, because there was no way I was going to use the plastic-covered, color-coded crimp connectors you buy at AutoZone. I mean, it's a Laverda, right? It'd be like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

That meant sourcing a selection of needed connectors, but finding the right connectors turned out to be a challenge, because they weren't even in the catalog at any of my local auto parts stores. Relieved to find them readily available on eBay and Amazon, I quickly discovered that the cheap connectors that proliferate in the online marketplace are cheap for a reason: Spade and bullet connectors that cost $2.50 a hundred pack work once, and only once. They'll connect right up, but don't ever pull them back apart, because they'll never grip tight again. The good stuff's out there, but you have to search for it, because it's being sold by smaller operations that actually care about quality and thoughtfully source their products, not the mega marketers that are just trying to turn as much revenue as possible. Gee, there's a surprise.

And of course I did a thorough rebuild on the trio of PHF32 Dell'Orto carburetors, which was another learning curve. I've rebuilt dozens of British Amal carbs, more than a few round-slide Mikunis and constant-vacuum Keihins, and a few Bings, but never a set of Dell'Ortos, and without the help of the folks on LaverdaForum the rebuild would have taken even longer. They're actually quite straightforward once you get into them, but with no previous experience I took my time stripping them down, jotting down all the jet sizes and locations before cleaning the carb bodies and then giving them a dip in the ultrasonic bath before putting them back together.

And now the RGS is back on the road. It fired up pretty much on the button, and apart from figuring out some minor carburetor issues and having to reroute the rear wiring harness (because apparently I can't decipher my own photographs), I can't believe how nicely it runs. It's lovely. And it's about time.

When I launched into what I hoped would be a minor restoration two years ago, I figured I'd have it back on the road inside of six to eight months: It took almost exactly two years. I guess I can hope that next time, if there is a next time, it'll go faster, because I've already had to go through the learning curve that comes with every new project.

Thinking Small, Take Two

Fast on the heels of my rant last issue about bikes getting bigger and the virtues of riding small, I just happened to find myself at three different events over the past few months, riding a different "small" bike at each one. I didn't plan any of this, it just happened, a triple dose of serendipitous experiences that served to underscore, at least for me, why riding small can be so much fun.

The first dose was at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in early June, when I had the opportunity to ride a new Royal Enfield Himalayan to the track for Vintage Motofest/Rockerbox, picking the bike up at RE's Milwaukee headquarters. I loved RE's little adventure bike and the experience reminded me of how fun small bikes are riding back roads. My "collection" of bikes includes a 1976 Suzuki GT185, a fun little 2-stroke twin that simply begs to be ridden. Probably the most reliable bike I've ever owned it always starts first try, and like a dog eager for a walk it's always happy to head out for a spin. A slow spin, actually, because while it will cruise along comfortably at 55mph, the GT185 is more of an around-town rider than anything else, where the Himalayan is actually highway capable, maintaining 70mph with seeming ease. And the Himalayan gets better mileage, too, returning 50mpg during the three days I rode it versus the GT185's 35-40mpg.

A few weeks later I found myself in Chicago for the Motoblot Street Rally, my first visit to the Windy City in years and my first time to take in Motoblot. Anchored next to the All Rise Brewing Co. and the Cobra Lounge, Motoblot is more street party than vintage motorcycle show, and it's a hoot. If I lived in Chicago, I'd go every year. And thanks to good friend Burt Richmond I was on another small bike, this time a 1971 Suzuki Stinger. The Stinger's design cues — high, straight pipes, a flat seat and tank, and an almost horizontally configured 125cc 2-stroke twin that looks like it's ready for the GP — suggest speed and track capacity, of which it has neither. Yet it's one of the coolest little bikes I've ever ridden, and a reminder of how Japan's Big Three got so big, their willingness to push boundaries and expectations delivering unexpected prizes like the Stinger. The little twin is as smooth as an electric motor, and it spins up quickly and happily, allowing surprisingly quick launches from stoplights, and the 5-speed gearbox shifts flawlessly. About the only letdown is the suspension (too soft) and the brakes (not strong enough). Throw on some serious binders and a bit of suspension and the Stinger would be one of the greatest little bikes ever built.

The weekend after July 4 found me in Lexington, Ohio, at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for Vintage Motorcycle Days. We'd scheduled a little show and ride on Friday, but last-minute projects meant we had to fly instead of drive to Ohio. That left the small problem of finding bikes to ride, but fortunately the guys at Janus Motorcycles came to the rescue, loaning me and ad man Shane Powers a new Gryffin and a Phoenix for our little blast through the surrounding area. I'd ridden the Gryffin before (we reviewed it in the July/August 2018 issue), and it was fun to swing a leg back over the little single to once again be reminded of how fun small can be.

Interestingly to me, but maybe not surprising given my old-school attitudes — and decided affinity for vintage over modern — my favorite of the trio was the Stinger. Avant-garde when new, it's just plain odd looking to most people today. From its styling to its technical specifications, there's nothing normal about the Stinger, which probably goes a long way in explaining why it was a flop. Yet it's a spectacular little bike, leading to a new problem:

Where do I find one?

Richard Backus

Thinking Small Can Bring Big Benefits

Like cars, new bikes seem to keep getting bigger. Driving to work on the super slab here in the Midwest, the few bikes I see during my daily commute are usually big cruisers; either Harleys or BMWs, with the occasional V-Strom or similar thrown in. That makes a certain sense, because with the average rate of speed approaching something like 80-85mph these days, you have to have something big and fast to ride safely in those conditions. Those two elements — speed and safety — seem contradictory to some people, but if you can't keep up or get out of the way, you're definitely at higher risk.

Which probably goes a long way toward explaining what has seemed like an inexorable increase in motorcycle girth — and engine size — over the past few decades. The problem is, big, heavy bikes are harder to ride. They steer slower, often brake slower, and when they fall, they can be nigh on impossible to pick up. That last point is important, because if you like to tour solo, it's a factor worth considering when buying a new machine. Yes, there are strategies you can learn for righting a fallen leviathan like a 770-pound BMW K1600 GTL or a 937-pound (!) Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra, but they usually rely on the rider actually being fit, which is not always the case.

Motorcyclists are often horsepower obsessed, but there's a simple way to get more, and that's with less. "Less weight equals increased performance, gas mileage and riding fun," opines fellow weight-watcher Brian Slark of the Barber Motorsports Museum, who says he doesn't look at horsepower anymore when looking at a new bike. "Every bike has enough power. But weight becomes more important as we age. Anything over 500 pounds is out. Four hundred, thinking about it. Three hundred, definitely interested. The new Bonneville is nudging 500, the original about 400, that's a huge difference."

Yet there are some positive signs in the market. Over just the past few years, smallbore, high-performance singles and twins from Honda and Kawasaki, in particular, have been grabbing attention, but even they seem to be trending toward bigger and heavier. Kawasaki's pint-sized performer, the EX250, was a perennial slow seller in the U.S. before morphing into the slightly larger — and heavier — EX300, now around 365 pounds dry versus the earlier EX250 at around 335 pounds dry. Yes, top speed went up, and so did, impressively, fuel economy, but the rider now has another 30 pounds to wrestle, which demands the extra horsepower.

Attending this year's 10th Annual The Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Monterey, California, friend Stewart Ingram, a lover of small European singles from the Fifties and Sixties (check out his incredible 1961 DKW Hummel) loaned me his 2016 Ducati Scrambler — oops, my bad, Scrambler Ducati — to ride from his place in San Francisco to Monterey. By current standards, the 73 horsepower output of its 803cc engine is considered only average, but its claimed weight, 389 pounds dry, puts it at the light end of the spectrum for modern 750cc to 1,000cc motorcycles. Suzuki's V-Strom 650 weighs in at around 475 pounds, ditto Kawasaki's cool new Z900RS, and Yamaha's XSR900 comes in around 430 pounds. Except for a light-switch sensitive throttle, the Ducati was lovely, agile and easy to ride, just the thing for blasting down the California coast. It's heartening to see a mid-sized machine that seems to eschew the bigger-is-better template, and Ducati has just introduced an even lighter 399cc version, along with a 30-pound-heavier 1,100cc model. If American tastes hold true, the latter will probably be their biggest seller. — Richard Backus

Back in the Shop

Riding-wise, 2017 was something of a disappointment for me. A combination of too many non-motorcycle responsibilities combined with bikes that seemed to be in a constant state of disassembly kept me off the road more than I would have liked. This year, I'm dead set on getting in some serious miles.

That's easier said than done, unfortunately, because I still have too many bikes in pieces. The 1983 Laverda RGS is slowly coming together, with the unfortunate emphasis on slowly. The engine's in one piece again after a comprehensive top-end overhaul, but while the engine was out I decided to refinish the frame. After almost 35 years on the road, the original black paint was in bad shape, and if I was going to do anything about the paint it meant welding in extra frame gussets around the head stock. Why? Well, about the same time the original Laverda company in Breganze, Italy, went out of business, it issued a service bulletin warning RGS and SFC1000 owners of potential frame cracking around the head stock, supplying a set of drawings showing where to weld in suggested strengthening gussets.

A thorough examination showed no signs of cracking on my frame (anecdotal evidence suggests the problem was a bigger issue in Europe, where riders tended to hammer their bikes at high speeds on the Autostrada), but that didn't mean it couldn't happen. So, the gussets are in, the frame's been sandblasted and resprayed, and now it's waiting for me to slot the engine back in so I can start the process of reassembly, which, I'm hoping, should go fairly quickly. The hydraulics have already been rebuilt, the front suspension got a thorough rebuild and Race Tech upgrade a few years back, the rear shocks are new from Race Tech, and the bodywork is still in excellent shape.

Meanwhile, I've been working on getting the 1974 Laverda 750 SF twin I pushed into the garage last spring up to snuff. Somewhat predictably, it's been a slower process than hoped. A solid-running machine, it's not getting a full restoration, more like a sympathetic recommissioning. But given my lack of experience with the model — as in none — it's taking me a little extra time to work through seemingly straightforward operations like replacing the throttle and choke cables, which need to be routed pretty precisely to work without binding. I've gone through the carburetors, adjusted the valves, replaced the steering and wheel bearings, and disassembled and checked the front forks and rear swingarm. It's all going back together nicely, but I won't fire it up again until the electronic ignition I ordered arrives. The stock Bosch ignition points are long out of production, and with replacements now going for around $50 a pop — $100 a pair before adding in another $50 in condensers — going electronic seems like a no-brainer.

That leaves my 1973 BMW R75/5, which is waiting for me to finish recovering the seat. The pan's been stripped and painted, the new seat cover is draped over the original foam (thankfully still in good shape) waiting to be stretched in place, and the new trim that goes around the lower edge of the seat is on the shelf. "All" I need now is a little more time, which, as usual, is the biggest stumbling block. But, I'm nothing if not optimistic, and I'm fairly confident (note the hedge; "fairly" confident) I'll get to ride the RGS to Wisconsin this June for the annual Rockerbox show at Road America. Which, of course, is the whole point of all this labor: riding. If things go as planned I'll also ride to Mid-Ohio for Vintage Motorcycle Days and, with luck, to Pennsylvania for our third annual Motorcycle Classics Getaway at Seven Springs Resort.

See you on the road — I hope!

Richard Backus

Looking Back

The beginning of a new year often finds us looking back in the rearview mirror of life, pondering what's been and is now gone as we move forward. I'm not usually one to dwell on loss, but it feels somehow wrong — improper even — not to note the passing of some major figures from our universe, faces that won't be shining their light on our little corner of the world anymore.

Although best known in automotive racing circles, Dan Gurney, who passed away Jan. 14, 2018, at the ripe old age of 86, was well known to our group. An avid motorcyclist himself, in his later life he focused his passion on the Alligator, a semi-recumbent- style motorcycle he developed to make riding more fun for tall riders like himself.

A month before, on Dec. 10, 2017, we lost Bruce Brown. Known to every motorcyclist of a certain age, Brown's critically acclaimed 1971 film, On Any Sunday, helped launch motorcycling into the American mainstream, thanks in no small part to the involvement of superstar actor Steve McQueen, with supporting roles by major racers including Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith.

Closer to home for me was the passing on Dec. 16, 2017, of Derek "Nobby" Clark, 81. A mechanic to the stars, the list of racers whose bikes he fettled reads like a Who's Who of Sixties and Seventies motorcycle racing greats, including Mike "The Bike" Hailwood, Jim Redman, Giacomo Agostini, Gary Hocking, Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene, Jarno Saarinen and more.

Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nobby's career was aided by fellow Rhodesian and high school friend Hocking, who hired him as his tuner when he started riding for MV Agusta in 1960. After Hocking's death in 1962, Nobby tuned for Redman, which led to his hiring by the Honda factory, a relationship that cemented his career as a foremost GP tuner. During his time with Honda he tuned the brand's epic 4-, 5- and 6-cylinder GP machines, remarking about the multi-cylinder Hondas in one interview that "you had to use tweezers on a lot of parts, like valve collets, because the parts kept getting smaller, but your fingers stayed the same size."

I first met Nobby in 2006 at AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days at the Mid-Ohio race track. I had tagged along with a group gathering to meet some of the great Daytona Beach racers of the Fifties, and was standing off to the side when I looked over and saw Nobby, also standing off to the side. Although I knew I'd seen his face, I couldn't quite place it, so finally I walked over and said something to the effect of, "You look really familiar. Have we ever met?" To which Nobby, in what I would learn over subsequent years was typical classic understatement, simply replied, "Maybe, I've been to a lot of races in my life."

Nobby, as I came to appreciate over the time I was fortunate to know him, was one of the most grounded, down-to-earth people one might ever hope to meet, and honest almost to a fault — unique qualities in a sport peppered with larger-than-life personalities. For years I'd hoped that someone would sit down with Nobby, put a tape recorder on the table and get him to share all of the stories of his incredible 50-year racing career, start to finish. That never happened, although in his later years his unique role in motorcycle racing's history was finally being fully appreciated, particularly after his 2012 induction into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Nobby's passing won't go unnoticed, with a special ceremony planned at Daytona in March and, I've heard suggested, at the Barber Vintage Festival in October. Rest in Peace, Nobby you'll be missed.

Ahead to the Past

When Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand teamed up with Alois Wolfmüller to produce the world’s first production motorcycle, in 1894, they were building a machine targeted almost exclusively to a growing leisure class, a population of individuals with the time and resources to toy with emerging technology.

It’s doubtful they could have imagined how profound the motorcycle’s impact on society and culture would be. Although the motorcycle’s historically recreational status in the U.S. has limited its influence here somewhat, in other countries the motorcycle offered — and still offers — an unparalleled opportunity for personal transportation. Motorcycle sales may be slow here, but elsewhere, particularly in India and Asia, motorcycle sales are exploding.

In the U.S., increasing motorcycle sales closely followed our rise as the chief international and economic power after World War II. Twenty years later, we saw a real sales explosion following the rise in Japanese manufacturing capacity and competence that led to Japanese domination of the American market.

Yet the motorcycle in America remained at its core a recreational purchase, and often a seemingly offhand one as small Japanese and European motorcycles became available at places like Sears and Montgomery Ward, enticing customers who otherwise might have been shopping for a new lawn mower.

Changing technologies and consumer tastes led to larger and more powerful motorcycles, which increasingly elbowed smaller offerings off the showroom floor. Until recently, that evolution seemed set to continue unabated, as a growing category of ironically heavy and huge “Adventure Bikes” stormed showrooms. Then a surprise came in the fashion of a new generation of small, user-friendly two-wheelers, led by a handful of 125cc to 250cc Honda-clone-powered Asian singles. Japan’s Big Four jumped in, each offering their own take on how to make small fun again, in the process creating a ripple effect that has produced a bevy of really cool mid-size machines, a category that seemed to have mostly died after the Seventies.

Along the way, old has once again become cool. Manufacturers across the globe are digging into their corporate past, pulling styling and lifestyle cues from the bikes of yore to satisfy the changing tastes of a changing universe of riders. And if they don’t have a past, they’re buying it. Indian manufacturing giant Mahindra bought the BSA name and plans to build a BSA-badged single. At the EICMA 2017 show in Italy, now Chinese-owned and produced Benelli introduced the single-cylinder retro-cued 400cc Benelli Imperiale. Due for production in 2018, it looks more British than Italian, which makes a certain odd sense when you learn it’s aimed at the growing leisure market in India, where British thumpers of old are revered.

Royal Enfield is arguably the leading figure in the retro-themed category, a reality of ironic proportions given they were pretty much forced into that corner as they continued building the same vintage motorcycles for decades. Yet RE has evolved markedly in the past 10 years, adapting to a changing market and introducing improvements and new models, most notably at EICMA, where RE took the wraps off its first ever twin, the 650cc Interceptor and Continental GT. New it may be, but RE’s retro roots dictated its design, down to a single-overhead cam engine designed to look like a traditional pushrod mill.

As EICMA underscored, manufacturers keep looking forward, but with an eye on the rearview mirror. Like good friend Eligio Arturi said after visiting EICMA, Ahead to the Past!

Richard Backus

Switching Roles as a Motorcyclist Parent

When I was in my late teens and first started riding, my mother hated it. Not really a worrier by nature, and definitely not a helicopter parent, she was what I’d call prudently cautious, willing to accept a certain amount of risk because, hey, living is risk. And yet as rational as I knew she was, by my reckoning she harbored irrational fears of what might happen to me out on the battleground of the highway. I never gave my forays out on the open road a second thought, aided no doubt by youthful certainty and the conviction I could take whatever the road threw my way. How bad can it get? Rain? Wind? Just pay attention, ride accordingly and you’ll be fine, right? 
Whatever the conditions, it never occurred to me I wouldn’t make it to my destination, so I found my mother’s concern irritating and almost insulting, an expression of a lack of faith in my capacity. I really didn’t get it. Then my own children started hitting the road.
It’s not like I haven’t paved the way for them. I was independent then, I still am today, and I’ve always encouraged my kids — now adults — to be the same. Which begs the question: Just how surprised should I be that they both respond enthusiastically to the siren call of the road? Not at all, of course, but that apparently doesn’t rule out — and this has been surprising for me — my own rising parental apprehension when one of them does. 
The other weekend, Charlie, now 21, asked if he could borrow my 1973 BMW R75/5 for a weekend trip with his girlfriend, destination Jasper, Arkansas, and the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, a wild rock climbing competition-cum-festival in the Ozarks. I said yes, naturally enough, and set to making sure the BMW was good for the 700-mile round-trip run. Charlie’s first tour was with me last year, when the two of us rode 750 miles from Leeds, Alabama, back to Kansas following the annual Barber Vintage Festival, Charlie on the BMW, me on my Laverda RGS. I knew from that and subsequent rides that he’s developed good skills (it helps that he’s an avid bicyclist and that he took the MSF rider safety class), yet as excited as I was for him and the ride ahead, I was amazed to find myself fighting something akin to a welling fear, a worry about what could happen to him and his girlfriend on the road. And it was driving me crazy. “God help me,” I thought, “I have become my mother.”
They took off in the afternoon, a six-hour ride on two-lane roads ahead. They made it without issue, even if the weather wasn’t perfect, a fact which, perversely enough, often makes a trip that much more memorable. A mid-evening text from Charlie told me they were at their camp site, Charlie briefly describing the day’s ride as “horrible winds for the first two-thirds — and incredible riding for the last third.” Nice. At least the last part was good. And they were safe. A palpable sense of relief washed over me, and I started thinking about their return trip, now with a little less apprehension.
In the end the BMW ran fine, Charlie never put a wheel wrong and nobody tried to run them off the road. The weather may not have played out as they'd have liked, but it never occurred to Charlie they wouldn’t make it in one piece, just as it never did to me when my mother worried about me all those years ago. Ain’t it funny how life goes around?
Richard Backus

The sound and the fury: celebrate the machines that changed the world!

Motorcycle Classics JulAug 16Motorcycle Classics is America's premier magazine for collectors and enthusiasts, dreamers and restorers, newcomers and life long motorheads who love the sound and the beauty of classic bikes. Every issue  delivers exciting and evocative articles and photographs of the most brilliant, unusual and popular motorcycles ever made!

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