Black Side Down

Crusty Norton Commando

Rounding the corner to my desk a few months back, I couldn’t help but notice managing editor Landon Hall staring at his computer with a bemused look. Like most of us (and maybe more than some), Landon’s constantly on the prowl for that next unexpected treasure, the bike you didn’t know existed and suddenly discover you just have to have. Lighting up Landon’s screen was a Craigslist ad showing a dog-eared but seemingly complete 1974 Norton Commando 850 Hi-rider. The ad said it was a non-runner, but also said the engine wasn’t stuck and, rarity of rarity with such offerings, it had a clear title. For $1,500.

In the past few years Commandos, once relatively cheap and plentiful, have steadily increased in value. I paid $600 for my last Commando, a 1975 electric start, in 1990, but since then they’ve become investments, with good examples now regularly selling for $7,000-$10,000, blue chip stocks carefully tucked away for future trading. That’s too bad, because the real value of a Norton is in riding it; the Commando is hands-down one of the greatest motorcycles of its era, blessed with fine handling and a torquey parallel twin that pulls like the proverbial train. Persnickety as they can be, a good Commando is one of the great joys of life.

Over the years, Landon’s listened ad nauseam to me and Tech Q&A man Keith Fellenstein extol the Commando’s virtues, and last year he finally got his first ride on one, piloting the RetroTours 1973 750 Fastback during our inaugural Ride ’Em, Don’t Hide ’Em Getaway at Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania. That ride set the bait, and Landon started the hunt for a Commando — but what to do when you have Cadillac tastes on a Pinto budget? The answer, it seemed, had just shown itself on Craigslist. “Should I call?” Landon asked. “If you don’t, I’m going to,” I replied. An hour later, he was the proud owner of a crusty, but complete, Commando Hi-rider.

Solid as it looked on first blush, the subsequent tear-down uncovered the toll of years of neglect. The front forks were worn out, the steering head bearings looked like they’d been sitting in water for 10 years, the cylinder head exhaust threads were stripped, and the brake hydraulics were, predictably enough, completely trashed. The Isolastics were actually okay, but once taken apart, do you really want to put 43-year-old rubber back in service?

The transmission shifted through the gears just fine, but a peek inside revealed watery goo in place of gearbox oil. Further inspection suggested replacing all the bearings and seals, not least the original Portuguese-sourced layshaft bearing, a component famous for failure. That’s all been done, along with replacing the steering head bearings, the fork tubes, fork seals and lower fork bushes, the wheel bearings, and most of the hydraulics. Ditto the Isolastics, the rear updated to the “vernier” adjustable type introduced for 1975, and the cylinder head’s been rebuilt, as have the carburetors. The oil tank’s been reinforced at its lower mount, a known weak point, the oil lines are all new, and he’s replaced most of the electrical connectors — not to mention all the control cables and dozens of other small parts. Oh, and a new Roadster seat and handlebars. That $1,500 Norton has suddenly become a bit more expensive, but that’s hardly a surprise.

While Landon was certainly hoping for a simpler and, yes, cheaper project, he’s hardly disappointed. He could have saved himself a lot of grief by buying an already running machine, but where’s the fun in that? In the end, it’s a journey, time and money well spent putting another Commando back on the road.

Richard Backus

Trouble in the Shop

I don’t consider my mechanical skills to be particularly well developed, despite the fact I once worked in a commercial shop. Four shops, actually: Two restoration outfits where I was nothing more than a grunt, but where I learned the critical lesson that restoration work is a hard way to make a living; a shady import repair shop where I was an apprentice mechanic, and where I learned the critical lesson that low-end repair shops pay poorly and support an environment even less enriching than the meager pay; and a seven-bay import/domestic repair shop where I was general manager, and where I learned the critical lesson that proper diagnosis, doing work well and charging fairly is harder than it sounds.

That last gig was the best of them all. My boss was my still good friend Pat Slimmer, a seasoned GM and Porsche/Audi-trained mechanic who also happens to be an artist, translating the creative energy required to be a truly good mechanic into sculptured steel. Pat’s artistic bent is a characteristic present in every good wrench I’ve ever met, and it makes sense when you think about. At its core, tearing things apart and putting them back together requires intelligence and imagination, the ability to look beyond the whole to its parts, and to understand the inter-relation of parts as they come off and go back on. Sometimes even the best manual won’t tell you how to slip a Lexus V6 timing chain tensioner into place, in a spot where there’s no room to work. You often have to imagine the process, relying on feel, intuition, and of course knowledge and experience.

I’m not an artist, which probably partly explains why I’m only an average mechanic. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Whichever, wrenching, depending upon what I’m working on, can be and often is a vexing affair, made worse by my seeming lack of simple math skills. That latter point came into sharp focus the other night, putting the engine back together on my 1983 Laverda RGS 1000 triple after a comprehensive top-end overhaul involving new pistons and rings, and a complete cylinder head rebuild including new stainless steel valves, bronze valve guides, new intake valve stem seals (Laverda didn't use exhaust seals) and new valve springs.

To set valve clearances, the Laverda triple uses valve stem shim caps under cam-actuated buckets. The setup's somewhat labor intensive, requiring camshaft removal any time clearances have to be reset. Determining the proper shim is a matter of measuring existing clearance, then subtracting or adding against the current shim. Valve clearance too tight? Use a thinner shim. Too loose? Thicker. Simple math, right? But a tired mind after a long day confused shim differences with clearances, resulting in incorrect calculations, resulting in me removing and installing the intake camshaft three times before I finally got it straight.

The frustration of all that extra wrenching set my panic meter soaring, convinced the constant tightening, loosening and retightening of the camshaft studs had to be stressing the stud threads. That same paranoid thinking convinced me the camshaft locating blocks must be getting crushed because of all this extra clamping and unclamping, and that I'd need to replace everything. Still certain I was jumping into a sewer of trouble, I set the exhaust cam clearances. It went perfectly. One shot, and it was done. Cool. Maybe everything’s OK after all, and the engine’s not going to self-destruct when I start it.

And there’s the difference between a competent and an average wrench. Experience and inclination are everything. I have the latter, but I’m still trying to catch up on the former. Maybe with a few more engine builds under my belt, I’ll finally start getting this wrenching thing down.

Richard Backus

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