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Learning Curves on the Training Course

Hard as it is for me to accept — because it means damn, I’m getting old — I’ve been riding motorcycles for over 40 years. When I got my motorcycle license at the tender age of 18, motorcycle safety classes were still something of a rarity. They were available, but at least in the Midwest, it seemed like most aspirants to the world of two wheels got their “training” on the road, mixing it up out on the street with all the four-wheeled metal boxes fighting for their piece of the asphalt. Like myself, a lot of riders got their first taste of motorcycling in the dirt, the operative word being “taste”: I’ll never forget burying the front wheel of a Honda CB175 in a hidden wash in the tall grass of a hillside, the bike coming to a quick stop while I continued forward over the bars and into the dirt — face first.

Recollections of my first experiences riding motorcycles rushed to the top of my memory bank recently as I watched Jean Denney, group editor of sister publications Mother Earth Living and Heirloom Gardener, going through the paces of the Basic Rider Course at Kansas City Kansas Community College. Tracking Jean’s progress out on the course, coming to terms with the dynamics of piloting a powered two-wheeler as the instructor guided her and three other women through a series of challenges, I was reminded that riding, at least for most, doesn’t come naturally. It’s a focused exercise, or at least should be, and it benefits from training, a fact too many riders don’t seem to appreciate.

I certainly didn’t, at least not in the beginning. Fresh out of high school, free from the “’rents” and ready to start college, I’d been scheming to get the bike my mother wouldn’t hear of. So when I went into the DMV on my 18th birthday to update my auto license and the bored woman behind the green IBM Selectric asked, “You want a motorcycle license?” I said, “Sure, what’s it take?” “Fifty cents.” Fifty cents? That’s it? Hell yeah. No test, just two quarters handed over to the lady at the DMV. And I’d never ridden anything bigger than a minibike.

The riders in Jean’s group had each shelled out $225, and watching them being put to work to understand the nature of the machines they were hoping would open doors to new experiences, it was clear it was money well spent. I’ve watched more than a few new would-be riders, usually encouraged by a misguided friend or mate, try to make their first launch on a bike, and with predictable results: With no training or real understanding of what they’re doing, they crash within 50 feet. Jean’s group was in a controlled environment. Removed from the stress of lurching out onto the streets like weak-kneed newborn calves ready to fall over, they could grapple with the unfamiliar in an environment that let them focus completely on the task at hand.

No doubt there are differences in the experiences. Age is a big one. I was young when I got my license, mentally and physically agile, and eager for the challenge. Jean is 56 (the youngest in her group was 39, the oldest in her early 60s). And while she’s mentally and physically fit, there’s no questioning that we don’t process information — or move our bodies — as quickly when we’re older. Jean’s been going for rides with me on the back of my bike for a few years, so when she expressed an interest in learning to ride herself I was cautiously enthusiastic. Few people take up a new sport when they are older, and at many levels that’s what motorcycling is. It’s a physical and mental challenge that requires engagement. It involves exposure and risk, and physical and mental competence if you’re going to be safe. As Jean and more than a few others in the class discovered, if your bike falls over, you have to pick it up. And when you do, you need to understand the physics of using your 140-pound body to right a 400-pound machine.

Riding is one of the great joys of life for me, whether I’m on a wheezy little 2-stroke or a thumping twin. And every ride brings new experiences that teach me how to be a better rider. The unexpected rain storm, the blacktop road that suddenly turns to gravel, the wrong turn that takes me onto the wrong road with too many trucks — every inch of it is a potential learning experience that can return dividends. No doubt Jean and the other students in her class were filled with a certain terror as rain started falling on their last morning of training, but their instructor made them ride through it, in the process helping them discover they could ride in the wet, no worse for the wear. Without planning, an unexpected negative turned into a positive piece of their learning curve.

Jean passed the class, and she’s looking forward to getting in some real street time. I guess it’s time to tune up the ’76 Suzuki GT185, a perfect learner street bike if ever there was one, for Jean to continue her education. Ride safe.

Richard Backus
Founding Editor

Shifting Gears

For the first time since I can remember, I’m heading into spring with every bike in my garage — even my 1981 Honda Express moped! — running. The ’83 Laverda RGS got a top-end freshening last fall (and while the engine was out, a frame strip and repaint, along with new steering head bearings, swingarm bearings, wheel bearings, ignition coils and tidying up of the electrics) and is running better than ever. The ’73 BMW R75/5 is sporting a new seat cover and is running like the proverbial Swiss watch thanks to updated ignition and charging systems. The ’76 Suzuki GT185 ... well, it just keeps running. And I’ve returned my new-to-me 1995 BMW K75 — the “appliance,” as I like to call it — to its original configuration after ditching the short shock and dished Corbin seat installed by the inseam-challenged previous owner, who’d also pushed the front forks up into the yokes a full 2 inches.

This is a new experience for me, and seems somehow appropriate as I turn my attention a new direction, from running this magazine to heading up my own business. When we launched Motorcycle Classics in 2005, there were people who said it couldn’t be done, that it wasn’t possible in the U.S. to sustain a magazine for classic and vintage bike fans. More than a few had tried, and they’d all, regrettably, ended up on the side of the road. Publishing is a tough business, even tougher in an age where information is increasingly driven by social media and other digital platforms. Print, many said, was dead. The news of its demise, to paraphrase the great Samuel Clemens, has been greatly exaggerated.

We’ve had the good fortune to not only survive, but thrive. And while we’re happy to take some of the credit, it really goes to you, the reader, the enthusiast who has embraced us and invited us into your home and encouraged us to become part of the classic/vintage motorcycle scene. It’s been a humbling, exciting, invigorating and incredibly satisfying ride, and now it’s time to turn the controls over to someone else.

That someone else is hardly a newcomer. When Landon Hall interviewed for the job of associate editor back in 2005, I couldn’t believe my good luck. An avid motorcyclist, he was also working in the magazine industry, so he knew the work and dedication it takes to produce a top-notch publication, issue after issue. That he’s stuck with us all these years is a testimony to his love of this magazine and of motorcycling. A track-day fan and a competent rider both on and offroad, Landon’s enthusiasm for motorcycling runs deep and true, and there’s nobody more capable of shepherding Motorcycle Classics into the future than he.

I’ll miss the daily routines of producing the magazine, but fortunately for me — and I hope for you, as well — I won’t disappear completely. I’ll still write the occasional piece, and even pen a regular column. Look for me towards the back of the book next issue. And I’ll still hit some of the great events we go to every year, including this year’s 4th Annual Ride ’Em, Don’t Hide ’Em Getaway, where I’m looking forward to rolling down the road with readers and guest of honor Dain Gingerelli.

I’m a firm believer that change is good. It brings new and unanticipated opportunities, and I’m excited for the new adventures awaiting me, and Landon in his new role as pilot of the longest running and, in my humble opinion, best vintage bike magazine ever produced in the U.S. See you on the road.

Richard Backus
Founding Editor

Forward Motion as a Community

One of the best – if not the best – aspects of motorcycling is the people. When I first got into motorcycles, the motivation was simple: I wanted to ride. An immediate and unanticipated bonus was being introduced to the motorcycling community, and discovering what an incredible resource of people of passion and capacity it contained. I'd never been a club guy or belonged to many organizations, but suddenly I found myself a member of one of the greatest “clubs” in the world. It was – and still is – amazing. That was 40-plus years ago. Fast-forward to today and I still can’t believe my incredible fortune in getting to turn my passion into my work, work where I’m surrounded by the community of motorcyclists every day.

It’s likely that most of you know little about our parent company, Ogden Publications. In addition to Motorcycle Classics, we produce a number of different enthusiast publications, covering subjects ranging from self-sufficient living and homesteading to vintage farm tractors and engines, and heirloom plants. All of our titles are defined and motivated by that same recognition and embrace of community, and we’re committed to being active, positive members of those communities. Take Hank Will, our editorial director; when he’s not commuting to work on his old Honda XL500 or Suzuki DR650, you’ll find him cruising the fence lines on his rural farm where he practices small scale, alternative agricultural strategies, a driving passion in his life for as long as motorcycling has been in mine.

Publishing Motorcycle Classics has been the realization of a dream, and we don’t take it for granted. Moving forward, we’re getting ready to embrace our communities in a new way, one we think will better serve those communities and make us more sustainable as a business in the process. Beginning sometime in 2019, likely in the first half of the year, we’ll embark on a new mission where we no longer look at ourselves as just a magazine and events business (you probably didn’t know we produce the Mother Earth News Fairs held across the country every year), but instead as a truly community-inspiring wellspring that feeds and is fed by an enthusiastic and engaged community of individuals.

Moving forward with us, you won’t simply subscribe to Motorcycle Classics or one of our sister publications, you’ll also get to choose membership in one or more of our communities. You’ll still receive Motorcycle Classics magazine just as you have now for almost 14 years, so don't worry, nothing changes there. But for the same price of your subscription you’ll also have full access to our soon-to-be-gated websites including exclusive member-only premium material such as videos and podcasts, fixed discounts on books and products in our online store, reduced entry fees to certain events and museums, and more, because we’re still building the benefits list.

None of this happens without you, and the fact that we’re here and moving forward with new models to build our communities is only because of your interest in being a part of the vintage motorcycling scene. We’ll have more details to share soon, but feel free to drop me a line at rbackus@motorcycleclassics.com with any thoughts or questions about the magazine or our future.

Classic Japanese Bikes Come of Age

Japanese bikes from the early 1980s have been slow to be appreciated by "traditional" collectors, seeming to be generally ignored, and rarely perceived as desirable or collectible in any way. That’s something of a mystery to me, because while I understand the aesthetic allure of vintage Brit bikes and early American iron, the Japanese onslaught of the early ’80s represents a unique era in motorcycle history.

In the 1950s and ’60s, bikes poured out of Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain and Japan in a wave of new offerings from upstart companies. The proliferation of manufacturers and models built to something of a crescendo in the 1960s, creating a market literally flooded with choice.

The market was shifting by the 1970s, as smaller manufacturers dropped off the radar, and by the 1980s, a quiet but steady consolidation already in motion hit full stride as motorcycle manufacturing turned into a game played by a few. A struggling Harley-Davidson, the U.S.’s sole manufacturer, defined the U.S. market. In England, Triumph was still — barely — in production, and in Japan, once home to a dizzying number of small manufacturers, it was the Big Four: Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. In Italy, a hotbed of manufacturing from the ’50s to the ’70s, small concerns like Laverda and others were either withering on the vine or had gone completely to seed. Ducati was hanging on, but the landscape was hardly rich. In Germany, formerly home to giants like Adler, Puch and Zündapp, the market was dominated by BMW.

Yet at the same time that the number of manufacturers was shrinking, unique market forces created a proliferation of new single, twin and multi-cylinder bikes from Japan. In 1981, Yamaha kicked off the so-called Honda-Yamaha War when it opened a new factory to challenge Honda as the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. At the start of their battle for supremacy, Yamaha and Honda each had a 60-model global lineup. Eighteen months later Honda, its R&D and manufacturing capacity far greater than Yamaha’s thanks to a push into automobile production, had introduced 113 new or revamped models. Yamaha couldn’t come close, introducing 37 new or revamped models in the same period, and Yamaha’s ill-considered quest for dominance almost crippled the company; it’s been reported that by 1984, Yamaha had more than 12 months of inventory in dealer showrooms.

Honda CX500
The technically advanced 1982 Honda CX500 Turbo was introduced during the so-called Honda-Yamaha War of 1981-1983. Motorcycle Classics photo.

Thirty-five-plus years later, bikes from the model boom of the early ’80s are increasingly influencing the vintage bike market, presenting some interesting challenges for “classic” bike enthusiasts who don't accept them as worthy of the title. Certainly, there were more than a few bikes from that epoch that were, to be kind, fairly awful. Technically proficient, they were often lacking in personality, a complaint regularly levied against Japanese bikes. With some exception, they were in most ways simply consumer items designed to be bought, used and then cast aside to make room for the next great thing from Japan Inc. As such, they rarely engendered the kind of loyal and enthusiastic following that bikes from companies like Harley in the U.S. and Triumph and Norton in the U.K. did.

Yet early ’80s Japanese bikes have their supporters, driven by a combination of memory (read: demographics) and affordability. In an age where Norton 850 Commandos command $8,000-plus, ’80s bikes from Japan represent vintage-hued riding at a reasonable price, and for that reason alone should be appreciated. More importantly, however, they should be appreciated for what they represent as reminders of a unique era in motorcycle history.

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
Editor-in-chief

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







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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