Hurts So Good: Love for Old Motorcycles

Why ride old motorcycles? Because sometimes it just hurts so good.

| January/February 2014

  • John Landstrom is the owner of Blue Moon Cycle in Norcross, Ga.
    John Landstrom is the owner of Blue Moon Cycle in Norcross, Ga.
    Photo By MC Staff

  • John Landstrom is the owner of Blue Moon Cycle in Norcross, Ga.
I ran out of gas on my 1948 Nimbus the other day. This seems to be a common occurrence with me. I rode a lot of $50 junkers when I was young, and now that I can afford better, I still gravitate to the old classics. It doesn’t matter whether they are Japanese, European or American, old motorcycles don’t have fuel gauges and the reserve position on a petcock never guarantees a specific traveling distance. I blame my own lax attitude for all the roadside adventures I have encountered over an empty fuel tank. It’s a good thing I don’t fly helicopters for a hobby.

Sometimes when I’m taking that long hike to the next exit, I ponder: Why me? Why do I ride old motorcycles? It’s certainly not cheaper, safer or more comfortable than riding something modern with electric start, disc brakes and a real suspension. Wouldn’t it just be a whole lot easier to ride something from the current century?

I guess different folks ride old iron for different reasons. I think in my case, choosing some of the old motorcycles I’ve owned was not a conscious decision. My first motorcycle, a Ducati 125 Bronco, was the best option available on my paper route budget. Most of my motorcycles appealed to my senses on base instinct; the rounded look of a Sixties BMW, the sound of a Harley flat tracker or the smell of a vintage Maico burning Castrol bean oil.

I have always been fascinated with mechanics and the way things work. I get pleasure out of fixing things myself. No machine I can think of offers a closer bond to its owner than a motorcycle. A motorcycle rider literally trusts his life to the mechanical dynamics of the machine he is riding. Sure, the rider of a modern motorcycle gets a greater sensation of speed and handling, but the rider of antique machinery gets a closer connection to the basic principles of the internal combustion engine and rolling chassis. If you understand not only the way things work but the history and evolution of the motorcycle since its earliest days, you gain an appreciation for the merits and limitations of old technology. I enjoy listening to the clatter of pushrods, I like the smell of burnt oil as it drips on my boot and I don’t find gentle vibration to be an annoyance. I can have just as much fun riding my 35 horsepower 1965 BMW as I have riding a brand-new 120 horsepower BMW. Yes, the trip takes a little longer, but country two lanes are more enjoyable than the interstate. What’s the point of being in a hurry when you are having fun?

That’s not to say it’s always fun. I have had my share of breakdowns over the years. I once spent four days camping in a Nebraska Harley shop’s parking lot while I performed major surgery on a blown Panhead. I rode my 1959 BMW R69S from Chicago to Key West and back in push-start-only mode (due to a fried ignition coil). I won’t say I enjoyed those hardships at the time, but breakdowns do build character in the rider/victim. Yes, I still run out of gas occasionally; there’s nothing like pushing a motorcycle that last half mile to make you appreciate the wonders of the internal combustion engine.

I’m hard-headed that way. I wouldn’t impose my idiosyncrasies on others, so I mostly ride alone. I’ve also met a lot of nice people who have offered help when my bike was less than mobile. I guess I am saying the easiest route isn’t always the most rewarding route. If you ride an old motorcycle you get a sense of satisfaction just knowing you arrived at your destination. You may feel you have earned the privilege of riding something that most folks gave up on decades ago.

I have always been contrary, a bit of a rebel. I like to ride my 1934 Harley VL to BMW rallies and I almost always ride my 1959 BMW R69S to Harley rallies. It’s just more interesting that way. Swimming against the tide just seems natural to me. I have to admit I take more pride in my BMWs and it’s a rewarding challenge to educate the Harley guys about opposed twins, shaft drives, Earles forks and all the other BMW quirks.

2/20/2014 9:15:23 AM

Well written, John. You're right. There is absolutely nothing more rewarding than motoring down a two-lane road on a machine that actually feels like a machine. The sounds, smells, and vibes that surround a rider when mounted on a bike of a certain age cannot be emulated by "modern" machinery. Even though I really like the recent trend in retro bikes, I own one, they can't quite capture the real deal. I must, of course, take exception to one analogy you tried to make and that is your reference to digitally recorded music sounding better than vinyl. I have over 800 LPs and many of them, when played on my high end analog system, sound noticebly better than any of the CDs that I also own. Sorry, I just had to say that...

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!

Save Even More Money with our RALLY-RATE plan!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our RALLY-RATE automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5.00 and get 6 issues of Motorcycle Classics for only $29.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and I'll pay just $34.95 for a one year subscription!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds