Black Side Down

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

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

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

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