- February 9th, 2013
… uh, can we talk?
Hang around us Ancient Ones −I prefer “youth-challenged”-− for any time and you’ll often hear us tell how great it was back in the day. Actually, you’ll hear them say that; this Ancient One doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that book of lore. Don’t misunderstand, I’ve had a great past, and certainly some of the “old days” were memorable to the extreme.
However, it’s human nature to view the past through a rose-tinted face shield that’s been splattered with a summer’s eve worth of bugs. That is, our memories have a way of distorting things, usually by knocking off the bad edges and overstating the good stuff. I enjoy talking about the old days as much as any septuagenarian, but I see them as history, not a looping travelogue.
Some of you, I’m sure, have your arguments ready to prove to how much better things were 10, 20, maybe 40 years ago and, indeed, maybe they were for you. So let me narrow this down some. Putting aside, for the moment, the cost of gas, your 401k, and the imminent threat of another Adam Sandler movie, let’s talk about the g.o.d. as they relate to motorcycles.
Riding today’s motorcycles are much less an adventure than those of years ago. And that’s a good thing. Consider trip planning. I’ve a Triumph Tiger 800XC. When I pack for a trip 95 percent of what I carry comes from my closet and my camping gear locker. And the closet stuff consists of buckle boots with superb ankle protection, great “ballistic cloth” clothing that handles hot and cold, and heated gloves for when the temps drop below comfortable. And, of course, an LS2 MX453 adventure helmet sits on my head. Now, compare that to a trip you might have taken on, say, a ’62 Triumph Bonneville.
From your closet you’d take an oiled cloth Belstaff jacket, a sweatshirt, tall lace-up linemen’s boots, and leather work gloves. And you’d pack a rolled-up newspaper that could be stuffed inside that Belstaff for when the temperature dropped. Helmet? The odds are you didn’t wear one. This gear was maybe 50 percent of what you’d carry. And the difference between this 50 percent clothing, and today’s 95 percent of the same, was made up in tools.
The reliability of today’s motorcycles is such that many riders don’t carry tools or, if they do, it’s as a talisman, a lucky charm that waves off mechanical gremlins (they like to think). The most effective motorcycle tool kit today consists of a cell phone and a credit card.
Leaving on that ’62 Bonnie? Better make room for a serious tool kit. You could almost bet that on a trip of any distance you’d have to deal with the twin Amal carbs. The Bonneville came without air cleaners, so sand and other grit invariably found its way into the float bowls where it blocked jets, jammed floats, stuck slides and generally necessitated a regular roadside carb cleaning.
Cables and chains stretched with predictability, and nuts and bolts were usually shedded along the route. Woe to you if you didn’t do a daily inspection for loose and missing parts! Speaking of chains, that year Triumph was pre-unit construction. That is, the engine and the transmission were connected by a primary chain rather than being contained in a single engine case. It worked pretty well, but that primary chain would often stretch on a long trip. When this happened you had to loosen the transmission, and pivot it to the proper chain tension. Of course this then required that you readjust the drive chain.
So much has been written about the electrical systems on the early British motorcycles that I’ll say nothing more than “Prince of Darkness.” Whether you rode or not back then, that title tells it all. And then there were the spark plugs and the ignition points (you do remember those, right?) that needed to be cleaned and gapped more often than you usually bathed on those trips. Which leads to the battery. Regardless of the brand of motorcycle you rode, batteries were an issue. They were nowhere near as efficient and reliable as today’s batteries, and required constant service. Vibration and heat would guarantee a very short life. For example, draining and straining the battery acid through an old sock would remove much of the internal flaking. You’d then refill the battery with the acid, top it off with water, and you were good for several hundred more miles.
Wheels and tires also had to be dealt with on longer trips. Flats were a regular happening so tire irons, tubes, and patch kits were a must, and spokes would loosen constantly.
Yeah, they were certainly the “good old days.” I’m not buyin’ it, folks. I’d love to have a restored 1963 Triumph Bonneville as a third or fourth bike, and I enjoy, to a point, all the stories from years gone by but, frankly, when someone settles in and starts pulling out that historic “travelogue,” well, that’s my cue to fire up the Tiger and look for lunch a couple of hundred trouble-free miles down the road. I’m much more interested in a great future than I am in a great past.