Hurts So Good: Love for Old Motorcycles

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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.

I know technology has made motorcycles faster, safer, more comfortable and more reliable. Just like digitally recorded music sounds better than vinyl and texting is better than phoning. I sound just like my father griping when his 1956 Desoto took a crap in 1962 and he couldn’t buy a new one. 

But now it seems that I’m not the only one who is a glutton for the form of punishment that comes with riding obsolete machinery. In fact, there is an entire road rally dedicated to twisted individuals like myself. I recently signed up for the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball, and I plan to ride my 1928 BMW R62. I will be one of about a hundred folks riding from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Tacoma, Wash., in 16 days, all on pre-1937 machinery. I don’t know why, it just hurts so good. MC

  • Updated on Jan 1, 2014
  • Originally Published on Jan 1, 1753
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