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Backroad Ramblings June 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008
Vintage motorcycles look beautiful  but it takes a different breed to put up the patience and wherewithal required for maintenance.
Vintage motorcycles look beautiful, but it takes a different breed to put up the patience and wherewithal required for maintenance.
Restoring Vintage Bikes: Consider Me Boring

I have been told by my riding buddies on more than one occasion that my taste in street equipment tends to lean on the boring side. Without immediately rebutting with my standard excuse, lack of funds, I will concede to such accusations here in my international forum in effort to justify myself.

To begin let's get one thing out of the way: Their definition of boring goes well beyond the superficial, the bike's intended purpose, or even engine configuration/ horsepower numbers. Yes, if such criteria were the standard by which they judged, I would be sitting pretty having purchased (then sold) bikes ranging from a Yamaha R6 to a Suzuki GSX-R600, a Honda XR650L, a Kawasaki KZ750, FZR600, a Buell Blast and a pair of nearly identical Suzuki GS500Fs (don't ask). Sure it's a seemingly standard (if not almost entirely Japanese) stable, representing the meat of the current mid-sized bike market. Note that off-road models aren't included as claims of my apparent boring-nature apply only to street bikes.

The problem, it appears, is that while I'm rarely on the same bike twice, I've never actually shown up to our weekend excursions with some real vintage iron per se. My friends view vintage cycles as synonymous with culture, style and excitement. While my contemporary examples are often surrounded by such culture-rich classics as Triumph Bonnevilles, Vincent Rapides, Moto Guzzis, and cafe racers of various marque, I myself tend to steer clear of any such acquisitions. And apparently, others have taken notice. After giving the matter some serious consideration, I believe I may finally know why:

Lack of Patience
More power to those backyard mechanics who take pleasure in the tedious process of a full restoration, but I personally cannot handle the rigors of shopping for parts that haven't graced dealership shelves since JFK was in office. More often than not, my restoration-heavy buddies spin yarns of parts that had to be handmade in France and cost as much to ship as they do to purchase then arrive in a million pieces due to poor packing. They prowl eBay, classified ads, swap sheets, and junk yards like a shark circles its prey and know the infinitesimal nuances between one of a 16-digit part number. By the time they set off to actually install the part in question more time, effort and money has gone into that single transaction than I can usually spare for an entire project.
Riding with the vintage set requires letting go off the quantum leaps in technology and reliability offered by today s motorcycles.
Riding with the vintage set requires letting go off the quantum leaps in technology and reliability offered by today's motorcycles.


The Trial and Error
Ask any restorer and they will tell you that having a vintage bike fully reassembled is only the very beginning of the finished product - others still insist that there is no such thing as a finished product at all. Tasks such as fine tuning cable adjusters and brakes, dialing in ancient carburetors, adjusting valve tolerances, and hoping you remembered to Loctite sixty bolts simply reminds me of the patience typically possessed by a model-builder (that, as indicated above, I apparently lack).

The Roadside Diagnostics
I don't mean to generalize but it sure seems like my buddies who pride themselves on vintage restorations seem to pull off to the side of the road an awful lot in effort to diagnose strange noises, odd behaviors, or to pick up a piece that suddenly decided to detach itself from the rest of the bike.

Ritualistic Behaviors
The process of having to put on my jacket, helmet, and gloves then stick my key into the ignition are about all the pre-ride rituals I need to feel satisfied in the parking lot. Terms like carb ticklers, spare spark plugs, feeler gauges, box of fuses, or an extra magneto "just in case" really terrify me. Call me spoiled if you must, but if my magneto suddenly craps out hundreds of miles from home, I'll be calling a tow truck and if I'm lucky, maybe the driver will let me ride in the cab with him.

The Flow of Time & the Laws of Physics
The old stuff can still haul  but a rider will want to make sure some spare parts are handy.
The old stuff can still haul, but a rider will want to make sure some spare parts are handy.
Sometimes I'm baffled when I hear one such vintage rider say something to the effect of that even in better-than-new condition, their bike's brakes are barely better than dragging your feet on the road or that their suspension is equivalent to a stack of marshmallows. I'm a believer in the concept of technological advancement and take great comfort in the fact that at their worst, my brakes are likely outperforming those vintage stoppers at their best. Side note: This is especially worrisome when I happen to be just ahead of a freshly restored bike.

The Ongoing Nature of the Project
It turns out I'm a bit of a "set it then forget it" type of guy and restored bikes seem to demand more of an "endless project" type of guy. Just the other day my buddy Gary encountered some type of electrical anomaly on his Triumph where his headlight went into an intermittent flicker each time he turned on the left turn signal. Once back in the workshop he discovered that while replacing the original wiring, it was the perfect opportunity to install a new exhaust system and pistons and rings. Naturally this lead to new tires and a paint job. What caused the headlight to flicker in the first place is anybody's guess but last I heard, it's acting up again.

The Incomplete Product Development
Many diehard restorers are under the impression that there is no such thing as a bad motorcycle, only bikes that left the factory before all of the fine tuning was performed. As such with research and development taking place in the real world, it is the restorer's responsibility to work out of the bugs through tweaks, upgrades, and some genuine ingenuity. I, on the other hand, would like to take this moment to thank all of the nameless factory workers out there who've created for me bikes that required very little thinking on my behalf.

The Lack of Optimism
I don't know about you, but when going to look at a bike on my short list of immediate consideration, I want it to appear and perform as close to the picture in the brochure I spent the two months prior drooling over. Words like "basket case", "in pieces", "could use a little TLC" and "nearly complete" send me running for the hills. Not so with the restorer-type. Apparently they see the opportunity for improvement in these descriptions where I find only time that I will not be in the saddle.

Cost
If for nothing else, I shy away from vintage bike restorations on account of the financial backing required to get from point A to point B. Perhaps if I was independently wealthy and had more time to appreciate the finer things in life: Art, culture, carburetor Amals, and Lucas Electrics, things would be different. But as it stands, all of my mechanical know-how is currently spoken for in simply keeping my "modern" vehicles in service.

I take that back, if I was independently wealthy, the first thing I would do is hire a personal mechanic. And while I'm at it maybe buy some new friends.
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