Ever walk around a motorcycle dealership and gaze longingly at the dozens upon dozens of shiny new machines all around and think that in some capacity, this was once the scenario for nearly every single motorcycle on the globe? It really puts the whole “circle of life” concept into perspective when you stop to consider that the rusty hulk of weed-ridden frame-on-rims behind the farmer’s barn was once shiny and new, probably lusted after by its original owner, and the spread of a glossy product brochure from around the time you were born. The trend doesn’t end with motorcycles either. I recall happening upon the near-fully decomposed remains of abandoned snowmobiles and 3-wheels deep in the woods alongside trails nearly as overrun with foliage as the vehicles themselves.
And then there are cars. If the term “field car” means anything to you, then surely you don’t need an explanation as to the eventual deterioration of a once proud and road-worthy automobile into a collection of duct tape, bungee cords, safety wire and broken glass scheduled to meet its ultimate demise pulling donuts in the middle of an old potato field. I remember one riding area I frequented in my youth had actually gained notoriety due to the overturned Buick in the middle of all of the trails that had some-time earlier been relegated to target practice duty for the locals and their .22 rifles. The few areas that hadn’t rusted clean through were so riddled with bullet holes that it looked conspicuously like the get-away car in some black and white mobster flick.
I bring all of this up because it just baffles the mind to think that any machine, no matter how unfaithful in its service record, could reach a point where its owner simply decides that full-out abandonment is a more sensible alternative than even attempting to repair it. In all my twenty-odd years (some odder than others) of playing around with motorized vehicles, I’ve never once been along on a ride where a snapped axel or torn fuel line resulted in the vehicle’s owner simply stepping off the side of the disabled machine, shrugging his shoulders in defeat, then walking back to home base for dinner and a movie. I mean if nothing else, there’s always the prospect of towing the basket case back home in the hope of selling it off as a parts vehicle. There’s almost always some sucker out there with the determination, budget, time, or lack of common sense to attempt a restoration. And that’s exactly where I come in.
Take this past weekend for example, when one of the oddest little bikes of all time just so happened to show up in the local classifieds. The specimen in question was one 1996 Kawasaki KE100. Yes, folks, I’ve been on the lookout for a nice example of this particular motorcycle since around when this one happened to be coming off the assembly line. While it isn’t much to look at, the KE has the distinction of being one of, if not the last road-legal production 2-stroke on the planet. Well the last one exported to the United States anyway.
Though classified as a dual-sport bike and remaining in Kawasaki’s line until 2001, the KE100 was essentially a throwback to the mid 1970s in terms of technology and style (note the twin rear shocks and unnaturally bulbous seat foam). Since solid examples of this particular model are few and far between, owners typically demand a pretty hefty asking price for the air-cooled, oil-injected time traveler of a motorcycle. Imagine my surprise when the unit in question wore a very reasonable $350 or best offer price tag.
As so many spontaneous road trips before it, I found myself heading east on the I-90 with a borrowed pickup truck and a pair of tie-downs just in case the term “needs nothing” coincided with my own definition of the concept. I arrived to the bike’s current owner’s establishment a little after dusk, using the truck’s headlights for the mandatory inspection process right there in the driveway.
“How’s she run?” I asked after the usual meet and greet small talk.
“Well that’s the thing,” he said with scrunched up eyebrows to indicate severe puzzlement. “It ran before I put it away two summers ago but now it seems a little reluctant.”
“Maybe the carb could use a cleaning,” I offered optimistically.
“No, no. It’s not a fuel thing that I know of. It’s just not making spark.”
Hmm, sounded more severe than “a little reluctant” to me.
“I’ve got it narrowed down to a problem within the electrical system,” he continued. “It’s either a short in a wire, a bad kill switch, or the CDI box is shot.”
“Yeah, that pretty much covers the electrical system,” I replied in agreement.
“It’s got a new sparkplug though,” he added as if the $1.99 would offset the electrical malady he had just revealed.
“Gee, I don’t know,” I said, “I was kind of looking to pick-up a bike in running condition and if there’s one thing I despise diagnosing, it’s electrical snafus.”
“Well you really don’t see too many of these around anymore,” he countered. “They’re pretty nice commuter bikes so people tend to snatch them up quickly. I was getting close to 70 miles per gallon with this bike just before I parked it three summer’s ago.”
These days, I’m not sure there’s any sales technique more potent than high miles per gallon. I quickly did some calculations. If I had even $400 total invested to get it running properly, 70 miles per gallon could have had the bike pay for itself in a little over a full summer’s worth of commuting.
“Yeah, okay,” I announced after a brief pause. “I brought cash with me if you want to run in and grab the title, we could load it up and…”
“Well that’s the thing,” he said with the scrunched up eyebrows again. “I don’t actually have the title for it. But the guy I bought it from seven years ago assured me that it wasn’t stolen. I was going to apply for a new title but never got around to it before parking it four years ago.”
I found myself rubbing my own brow on the ride home next to the unused tie downs in bewilderment as to how someone’s definition of “needs nothing” could potentially omit diagnosis, electrical repair, title application and who-knows-what else.
Later that evening when my fiancé wondered why I was lacing up my hiking boots to take a stroll through the woods in the dark, I answered honestly when I told her to hopefully trip over a long abandoned KE100 in better shape.