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Black Side Down

Of Brakes and Valves on Classic Motorcycles

Last issue, I mentioned the poor performance of the front drum brake on my 1973 BMW R75/5. That column generated a surprising number of emails on the subject, with BMW owners generally arguing that the major issue isn’t so much that the brakes are a bad design, rather they just need to be set up properly.

I was getting ready to launch into a rebuild, replacing shoes, cables and anything else obviously necessary, when vintage suspension specialist Matt Wiley at Race Tech emailed me, asking if I knew about their drum and brake shoe arcing service. I didn’t, but I learned that back in the late 1970s, Race Tech's Paul Thede, fighting brake issues created by increasingly powerful MX bikes still running drum brakes, which couldn’t cope with the loads, designed and built his own machine for turning drums true and arc-matching the brake shoes to the turned drum.

Way back in the day, when everyone ran drum brakes, brake arcing was common. But the advent of disc brakes made the practice something of a lost art, with fewer and fewer people providing the service. After Matt's note, I decided to try out their service and check the results. Given that most of the load is up front, I’m opting for arcing the front drum/shoe set only. The rear already works better than the front, so I’m confident I’ll be happy with the results. Look for a full report in a future issue.

Last issue I also reported on top-end problems with my Laverda RGS, confirmed after pulling the engine and removing the cylinder head. Why the exhaust valves were tightening up wasn’t immediately apparent, but an about-to-blow head gasket sure was, a telltale combustion stain writ large on the center cylinder, with minor but no less concerning indications on the left and right cylinders, as well. That was a big surprise, as I replaced the head gasket back around 2010, when I also had the valves and seats recut. As it turns out, that was right about the time some bad head gaskets were circulating; the flame rings around the cylinder bores weren’t thick enough, and once compressed, they slowly let go. As mine was doing.

In an odd way, that made feel better. I wasn't convinced pulling the cylinder head was going to reveal the problem, but finding the failing head gasket confirmed it was the right decision. As a side benefit, the tear down inspired a road trip to New Mexico with son Charlie and daughter Madeline to go skiing and generally relax — and visit Laverda guru Scott Potter. I was already working with Scott on parts for the circa-1972 Laverda 750 twin that I pretend I’m building, and the visit was the perfect opportunity to collect the parts he'd rounded up for the 750, and show him the RGS head to get his take on why the valve clearances kept shrinking.

Scott’s assessment brought something approaching relief. The RGS has an aluminum cylinder head with a cast iron “skull” insert and hardened valve seats pressed into the skull. Fearing the worst, I figured the seats were bad, or something weird was going on with the skull, but Scott’s examination showed the problem to be nothing more than regular wear. The RGS has almost 75,000 miles on it, and a combination of worn exhaust valve guides and worn exhaust valve stems had resulted in the exhaust valves constantly shifting on the valve seats, enlarging the seating area, resulting in the valve dropping deeper in the head, resulting in diminished clearance at the camshaft.

The fix is straight up — all new valve guides, valves and seals, plus recut valve seats. And with the engine out, it’s finally time to strip the frame and get it properly refinished, along with welding in recommended frame gussets to ward off the cracking around the steering head experienced by some riders back in the day. If the motorcycle gods are kind, I’ll have it back together by spring. Wish me luck.

Richard Backus

On the Road, Gravel and Paved, in 2016

It’s not quite 2017 as I write, but it might as well be here in the Midwest, with old man winter starting to make his annual appearance and the riding season suddenly drawing to a close. Maybe I’m getting wimpy in my old age, but anymore I call it quits once the temps fall to freezing and below.

I kind of look forward to the winter break, using it as an opportunity to catch up on deferred maintenance, but I worked in one last gravel ride on the 1973 BMW R75/5, a nice rambling run up into the bluffs of the Kansas River north of my house. I live on the edge of town, literally a stone’s throw from the city limit, giving me immediate access to some great roads, gravel and paved, and I've been hitting them regularly in 2016.

I’ve always loved riding country back roads, but until I bought the R75/5 early last summer it had been years since I’d had a good gravel grinder. Before the BMW I’d been using daughter Madeline’s 1976 Suzuki GT185 for occasional dirt duty. Light and easy to fling around, it’s good in the loose stuff, but it doesn’t inspire the same confidence as the R75/5, which has been something of a revelation in how well it performs in the back country. It’s hardly what you’d call a dual-purpose bike, but with a low center of gravity and a longish wheelbase it feels planted on dirt roads, even when it’s floating on the graveled surface. Those same characteristics shine through on the pavement, where the R75 rewards with great long-legged performance. In the same way it’s not a dual-purpose bike it’s also not especially quick, but it's fast enough to take you anywhere you want to go in comfort, as son Charlie and I confirmed in October riding back to Kansas after the annual Barber Vintage Festival.

A tight production schedule nixed any hope of a round-trip ride to Alabama, but somehow I managed to con Tech Q-and-A man Keith Fellenstein into hauling the BMW to Barber behind his Chevy and friend of the magazine and BSA collector/restorer Dan Lowery into lashing my Laverda RGS onto his trailer-load of Barber-bound swap meet parts. That left Charlie and me free to fly in at the last hour, arriving at Barber with motorcycles in place and ready to ride. Talk about living a privileged life — not only did we have bikes to ride to the park every day, we made our first road trip together, spending two days riding the 800 miles from Barber back to our Kansas digs.

Charlie rode the BMW most of the way, and it never missed a beat. Settling into the rhythm of the road on the super slab between Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis,  Tennessee, he got to experience the solidness of an old airhead. Hitting the winding two-lanes of southern Missouri’s alphabet soup of back roads (they’re lettered, not numbered), he got to have fun with it in the turns. Granted, it’s hardly a canyon carver, and it was never meant to be, but get the tires warmed up and it’s amazing how competent an R75/5 is, with predictable handling and more than enough urge for the average rider.

In my book its only detraction is in the braking department, the front drum simply not up to the task of hauling you down from speed. But brakes can be improved, so I’m looking at new brake linings and getting them properly set up to bring the airhead down from speed faster and with more control.

I’m definitely going to need better brakes, because the way the year’s ending, I’ll be riding the BMW a lot more in 2017 than I might have thought thanks to an impending top-end overhaul for the Laverda, which decided to exhibit a sudden and concerning propensity for tight exhaust valves. Not exactly what I had planned for the new year, but after 11 years of flogging it, the Laverda's due for some freshening up. It's not much of a hardship, because as the BMW continues to prove itself to be one of the best all-around motorcycles ever made, I’m looking forward to getting more miles in its saddle.

Richard Backus

Punctuation Marks: Making the Most out of Mishaps

There’s a photo on my cellphone, a selfie of me and new riding pal Davis Aites. We’re both smiling, a motorcycle just visible in the background. We’re at the side of a road somewhere, and from the look on our faces, we’re having a great time. And we were. It’s just that we were broken down, somewhere south of Birmingham, England, on the A40, Davis’ bike struggling to get enough fuel to run on two cylinders.

It’s a memorable photo on a number of levels, a reminder of my recent trip to the Isle of Man for the 2016 Classic TT races. Fourteen Motorcycle Classics readers and I had met up outside London, England, before riding across England’s midsection, stopping in Birmingham and then Liverpool before riding to Heysham to board the Ben-my-Chree ("girl of my heart" in the Manx language) ferry for the 3-1/2-hour crossing to the Isle.

The selfie was taken on our return to London, eight days after we’d started. In between, we had experiences for a lifetime, riding through places we could hardly believe for their beauty. We’d also run out of gas, gotten lost and ridden through the rain at night with no headlamp. And here we were, broken down and smiling.

It’s a truism in my travelling that the most memorable trips are the ones punctuated by the unexpected. Touring — especially on two wheels — is ripe for exposure to the unexpected. Factors beyond our control including weather, people and luck — both good and bad — play a heightened role in the experience because we’re so much more exposed, physically and socially, when we ride. Over the years, my perspective has evolved to the point where I view a road trip devoid of unexpected deviations as almost forgettable.

Fortunately, that almost never happens, and precisely because we’re exposed, although I find keeping to the back roads helps. The super slab is a corridor, a broad path packing us together to funnel us from Point A to Point B. But the back roads, the little two-lane highways that string together towns large and small across the country, are connectors, intimate avenues that give us the opportunity to see what's on the other side of the highway and peer, literally, into the backyard of wherever we are.

I prefer to ride old bikes when I tour, which potentially exposes me to a higher risk of breakdown on the road, the logic being that new stuff breaks less than old. That’s mostly true, but I’ve found you can ride a 40-year-old bike anywhere you want, you just have to take a little more time getting ready.

Yet when I do hit a snag, it almost invariably brings with it an unexpected bonus, an experience I never forget, like the time I broke down in western Arizona riding my Norton Commando. I’d been pounding some pretty rough roads since dropping down into New Mexico from Colorado when my left muffler gave loose at the weld. As luck would have it, not 10 miles later I rolled past a small repair shop. I pulled in, and the two guys working there pulled their heads out from under the hood of an old IHC pickup. "Sure, we can weld that up,” one of them said, directing me to roll my Norton over to the right side of their service pit.

Their shop, a survivor of simpler — and harder — times, was ancient, a relic from an era when mechanics climbed down ladders into holes to work on the underside of cars. Lifts were expensive — holes not. I started to get off the Norton, but the lead guy, now with a welding torch in hand, directed me to stay put; he needed me to hold the bike at the right angle while he welded. I did, and he quickly tacked my muffler back together before running a bead as far around it as he could to hold it together. Finished, he climbed out of the pit and said, “$5 be OK?” I smiled and gave him $10, amazed at my good fortune. Just as Davis and I were, even if we were broken down on the side of the road.

Richard Backus

The Accidental Buyer of a 1973 BMW R75/5

I recently bought another bike, a sweet, unmolested, high-mileage and somewhat dog-eared 1973 BMW R75/5, and it occurred to me that unlike many people, I’ve rarely bought a motorcycle with a predicated plan of action or even a notion of exactly what I wanted to buy.

Regular readers — read, old-timers — might remember that the first few issues of Motorcycle Classics featured me in the photo below with a short wheelbase 1972 BMW R75/5. Bought as a basket case from former boss, wrench wizard and good pal Pat Slimmer of Slimmer’s Automotive, the disassembled R75 came with a set of R90 heads, jugs and pistons for a boost in capacity to make it something of a sleeper. Pat had bought it that way, but a growing family convinced him he wasn’t going to get around to putting it together, so fellow motorcycle and bicycle geek Matt Gilhousen and I decided we’d take up where Pat left off. In one of those rare partnerships that actually worked, Matt did the bodywork and I focused on the mechanicals, and some months later we had a fine-running classic BMW that we shared easily.

A few issues into this magazine, Laverda specialist Scott Potter, learning of my interest in Laverdas in general and the plastic-fantastic RGS in particular, contacted me about an RGS he’d found in Texas. When Scott called and told me “I’ve found your RGS,” I remember telling him, “Nice, but I don’t have any money.” To which he replied, “No, you don’t understand, I’ve found YOUR RGS.” Scott didn’t have any financial interest in the deal, he just knew that if I really wanted an RGS, this was the one to get. I had no intentions of buying a bike at that moment. Hell, I had a growing family myself and spare cash was nothing if not scarce, but I took the plunge and I’ve never looked back. The BMW moved permanently into Matt’s garage, and since the RGS I’ve bought a few other bikes, almost all of them in a similar manner: It was there, I was interested, I bought it.

That’s how I came into possession of the ’73 R75, which belonged to friend John Davis, a good guy to know when you’re interested in old stuff because he has a tendency to go through machines with almost amusing regularity, apparently following the brilliant philosophy I’ve ardently adhered to for decades of “buy high, fix, sell low.”

John’s a member of the Thursday Night Hovel Monkeys, a loose-knit group of fellow wackos and gear heads that gather at my hovel every — you guessed it — Thursday night to throw back a few good beers and work on whomever’s bike is broken. I’d had my eye on John’s R75 ever since he first picked it up awhile back. A local bike with a certain local fame owing to its unique lineage of ownership, it’s currently sporting about 77,000 miles and it’s never been overhauled or restored. A little dirty and dinged, its green paint (what BMW called Green Metallic but now lacking any hint of metallic) has acquired a certain patina, comfortably faded and starting to feather at the edges, as have the instruments, still perfectly functional even if the speedo and tach needles have long since separated from their spindles.

John needed to sell it, but he didn’t want it to go to someone who didn’t appreciate the years it took for the R75 to look as comfortable as it does today and would restore it. It runs brilliantly, firing right up with just a push of the electric starter and settling readily into a steady idle. On the road it runs like an old airhead should: clean and strong, promising miles and miles of effortless two-lane heaven.

I resisted at first. Did I really need another bike? Should I look at the market first to see if this is the R75 to buy? The answer to the first question was clear, and the second point seemed moot. Like many of my bikes, I wasn’t looking for the R75, but I sure am glad it found me.

Richard Backus

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