Iron Pig Tour: Across the USA on a 1970 MZ ES250/2

Riding a half-century-old MZ ES250/2 from Los Angeles, California, to New York City, New York, was not without mechanical issues but was well worth it.

| March/April 2019

Iron-pig-with-train
The Iron Pig meets American iron: Crossing the Mojave desert.

In early 2018, I shipped my East German-built 1970 MZ ES250/2 – nicknamed “Iron Pig” – from Denmark to Los Angeles, California. Being a Gold Wing rider trapped riding an MZ, I like to carry a lot of stuff when I tour, so I equipped the MZ with a little Czechoslovakian PAV 41 trailer to carry my excess luggage. The almost half-century-old motorcycle has been my daily driver for six or seven years, and while its vintage 2-stroke technology makes it the two-wheeled equivalent of a skunk, it’s comfortable, strong and reliable enough for a cross-country trip. Or so I hoped. 

It is worth noting that this bike has been modified somewhat, including the addition of a later 5-speed gearbox, a Mikuni carburetor, modern electrics and some chassis improvements. The plan was to ride it from Los Angeles, California, to New York City, New York, and then sell it before flying back home to Denmark. Many years ago, I rode a Danish-built 4-cylinder Nimbus hardtail the other way, from NYC to LA, but on that trip I ran out of time and money by the time I reached the Pacific. There was also a lady I met on the East Coast, and one result was that I never saw the Southwest, so now this beautiful region was first on my list.

iron-pig-arriving
The MZ as it arrived in Los Angeles, carefully crated for its voyage from Denmark to California, the Czech PAV 41 trailer strapped on top of the bike.



I spent a week riding around on LA’s fascinating freeway system, visiting famous bike shops like Garage Company and incredible collections like the Petersen Automotive Museum. The highest point – figuratively and literally – was a flight out of Compton Airport in a World War II biplane, doing aerobatics over the Pacific. Skipping breakfast that particular morning was probably my smartest decision of the whole trip.

Down on power

After LA, the MZ and I worked our way through Death Valley, then Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam, a small part of Route 66, the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It was in the Rockies that I met tour groups of Europeans, almost always riding the biggest, baddest rental Harley Electra Glides they could afford. Judging by the way they nervously steered these half-ton behemoths around mountain curves – or tipped them over in parking lots – methinks they would have been better off with something un-American, like a BMW G650GS.

iron-pig-plane
Preparing for a ride in a Boeing Stearman biplane.

The MZ had run fine in Denmark, but now it was way down on power. Playing with different size jets just made mileage alternate between abysmal and merely bad. I checked everything, and I even went so far as to cut open the exhaust to see if its internals were clogged up, but to no avail. Getting up and over 11,000-foot-high mountain passes with 10-11 sea level horsepower on tap wasn’t impossible, just a bit slow uphill in second gear. Downhill was no problem, as the fully loaded trailer hardly made itself felt back there.

iron-pig-flat-tire
The second flat tire in two days.

Half the time I stayed in motels, and the rest with people I already knew. Mostly Nimbus people, like the Nimbus trader Travis in Colorado, a really nice chap who at one point even tried to teach this European how to shoot a pistol. As it was, the local wildlife would have absolutely nothing to fear from me.

iron-pig-death-valley
Death Valley.

Playing chicken with trucks

Down from the mountains, I cruised at 50-55mph through the flat Kansas landscape, helped by Vayu, the Hindu god of the winds, who arranged for consistent tail winds most of the rest of the way. If occasionally there was a head wind, or strong side wind, I would downshift to fourth gear and be content with 45mph. Or slipstream trucks when I occasionally took a stretch on the freeway.

holiday-motel
The restored sign at the Long Holiday Motel in Gunnison, Colorado.

Heading up through the Flint Hills from the south on the otherwise beautiful Kansas Turnpike, the trucks liked to play some sort of chicken game with me. While I worked hard to maintain the 45mph minimum speed limit going uphill, I could see them in my mirrors as they came barreling towards me at 75mph –  and then swerved around me at the last possible moment. Only one of them “won,” scaring me out on the shoulder. Bastards ....



iron-pig-repair
Repairing the exhaust header on the side of the road.

In Topeka, Kansas, I spent a few really nice days in the company of Richard Backus, the editor of this magazine, before riding on to Chicago. From Chicago I headed south to the impressive National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where for the only time in 2-1/2 months of travelling I got caught out in rain.

arizona-panoramic
A panoramic shot of the Arizona desert.

Mechanical trouble

Of course a few things went wrong with the old East German. Still in Los Angeles, the speedometer drive failed, but was easily fixed with a bicycle speedo. The thread in the engine cylinder where the exhaust header pipe attaches gave up the ghost in Colorado, but was fixed with springs holding it in place, like old motocross bikes.

nice-police
Meeting a friendly police officer in Missouri.

The only serious trouble were two rear tire flats and a rear wheel bearing that needed replacing. Apparently trusting in the motorcycle gods to see me through, I did not bring tire irons or spares, so on all three occasions the MZ had to be transported to the nearest workshop. It was pricey, but still, just the kind of problems that can be fixed with money and a day’s delay. And after the bearing mishap in Indiana, the MZ ran with no breakdowns for the rest of the trip.

iron-pig-bridge
A covered bridge somewhere along the way.

Old Wehrmacht bikes

Every so often, the MZ’s plush suspension really came into its right, like when the road surface resembled that of the lousy East German roads it was originally designed for. After getting through such moonscapes in Detroit, once in Canada I reunited with Polish friends in Toronto and Montreal. The Poles I had met in Denmark, before the Iron Curtain came down: Back then, they would ride by Copenhagen on a series of old Wehrmacht BMW and Zündapp sidecar machines to sell in the West.

written-directions
Old-school GPS? Handwritten directions, kept in place with a rubber band.

With the course now set straight south, I rode into the U.S. once again, and in due course ended up at Sixth Street Specials motorcycle shop – good guys who race vintage Brit bikes – on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

motorcycle-group
Visiting the guys at Sixth Street Specials.

This marked the official end of my 5,400-mile trip. From there it was just a short ride to a swap meet a few hours north of the city, where I was to deliver the MZ before it would eventually get transported to Twisted OZ, a motorcycle museum in Augusta, Kansas, that wanted to buy the MZ after I visited them while riding through Kansas. I’ll go back to Denmark, but the MZ has found a new home here in the U.S.

iron-pig-new-york
From Los Angeles, California, Kim made it all the way to Broadway in New York City.

Epilogue

All but five people across the U.S. had recognized the MZ, while at the swap meet several guys from Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic came over, telling me it was their first motorcycle. One even said a good number of MZs had been imported into the U.S., and that he once sold five of them to Cubans in Florida. It should also be noted that just like in Denmark (and unlike when I ride any of my other bikes), riding across America, the MZ had a way of attracting women of all ages. Go figure ...

iron-pig-route
Kim Scholer’s route, covering some 5,400 miles, coast to coast, across the U.S.

It was a great trip. The MZ and I both held up; people were nice and helpful when needed; and largely, I saw what I had come to see. Most days had gone along at a leisurely pace, and other days it was like somebody was sitting with a finger on the fast-forward button. If you want to see everything I saw, go to MZ Across USA for a non-condensed version and more pics. MC

TonyH
3/16/2019 10:25:37 AM

Ed Allyn, you can play about with the cylinder head shims to lower the compression ratio. It's a bit of a trial and error exercise, but cheap and easy to do. Start with a thick one and a thin one, if that doesn't work, try two thick ones.. More exotic methods include moving the spark plug to the top of the cylinder head, or fitting a modified TS250/1 head (or even complete engine). Or you could ride more slowly and enjoy the scenery šŸ˜‹


Skogs
3/14/2019 9:51:27 AM

An ES was my first bike, and was pretty cool, even though it was old and didn't run too well. Very comfortable and practical, and now quite a rarity on the streets in Germany. The East Germans really learned to make the most out of their permanent lack of raw materials and money. I have read that there was a higher bike-per-person ratio in East Germany than any other country in the world, which makes sense in a country where you had to wait 15 years to have a car delivered.


jerrygere
3/14/2019 8:23:18 AM

This is great. I did not have time to read the article in its entirety but I love it! Especially the vintage 2 smoke and trailer. Where can I get more info about the trailer and trailer hitch?




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