Monday, March 12, 2018
REBUILDING THE BMW
Something I’m quite unlikely to do
My first real foray into motorcycle touring came in about 1982 when, fresh off a divorce, I purchased, new, a BMW R-65 from the venerable Ozzie’s BMW Center in Chico, California. My black Beemer cradled an iconic 650 cc horizontally opposed motor and, when equipped with side bags, and with a duffel bungeed on top, provided an adequate mount for week-long explorations of Northern California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. The thing was as dependable as tomorrow’s sunrise and I often marveled, after a 400-mile day, how an engine that was light enough for me to remove from the frame and cart around to the workbench with my own feeble arms – which I never did – could transport my lanky self so far, so cheaply and with so little problem.
There were downsides, however. At 6’4”, the frame on this German masterpiece was a bit small for my build. Although it returned almost 50 miles to the gallon (on regular!) I often found myself wondering whether I’d find a filling station or find myself pushing the thing along a paved secondary route bordered in endless sage. And the seat, honestly, was a bit like riding an ironing board.
Still, the adventure of cresting a rise or greeting a horizon was precisely what my 31-year-old psyche needed after those dark days of separation. Four or five years later, however, with my career taking me from my home town and my leisure hours truncated by responsibility, I found that the BMW did more sitting around than getting around. Realizing that in one twelve-month period, I’d only added 850 miles to the odometer, and after nearly rear-ending a Dodge van on highway 108 due, largely, to my rusty riding skills, with forty-three thousand miles on the thing, I returned it to Ozzie and he gave me a good price on an outright sale. For the next thirteen years, I would ride nothing.
Decades later, the little Beemer still holds a place in my heart.
As I have come of age as a reader, one of my favorite genres is the memoir. The book that introduced me to this realm of literature was Fred Haefele’s “Rebuilding the Indian” [University of Nebraska Press, 1998, 2005.] In this volume, Haefele tells the story of turning a box of junk parts into a gleaming Indian Chief. The Indian Motorcycle Company was founded early in the 1900s in Springfield, Massachusetts, adjacent to the site of the armory commissioned by General George Washington 130 years earlier. The company’s storied history is punctuated with examples of innovation, success and failure. From delivery vehicles to military motors, from single cylinder to in-line fours well before that configuration became the universal Japanese machine (UJM) – thanks, Honda – Indians had been the backbone of American motorcycles, along with what Mr. Harley and Mr. Davidson created out west in Milwaukee.
The Chief was a massive V-twin with a heavily valenced front fender and a broad, thick, well sprung bicycle-type seat suitable for long days on the road. After “the war,” the Chief and its little brother, the Scout were the envy of anyone who wanted to explore our continent on two wheels. But the company fell on hard times, Harley was more prolific, and for a spell, Indians left the market.
But the Indian Motorcycle spell did not. Thus, Haefele, captivated by what used to be, and with little mechanical experience, bought that box of parts intent on putting a Chief back on the road and heading out to Sturgis to show the thing off. The problem was, the box of parts was incomplete and some of the parts were not of the same motorcycle. Quoting a review in the New Yorker: “Haefele describes how his search for vintage parts eventually involved an entire community of fanatical mechanics, impoverished motorcycle collectors, and renegade bikers – a collaboration, he realizes, that gave him skills as much social and spiritual as practical.”
It is a marvelous read, one that I return to from time to time as I find it inspires me both to do some things and to avoid other things.
A couple of weeks back, I was driving on California’s State Route 12, back-dooring my way into Sonoma, the historic home of General Mariano Vallejo. In front of a derelict gas station turned coffee shack rested something that caught my eye – something familiar. But I didn’t stop.
Today, while cruising though the area on Enrico, the Yamaha, I did.
Resting on its side stand was a ‘80s-era R-65, brown, not black, but otherwise the spittin’ image of my first tourer. Thirty-five years hadn’t been exactly kind to this example. The paint was deeply faded, the tires cracked like the hide of a road-kill armadillo. The seat was solid, but sun-worn and by brushing my fingers across the cast aluminum jugs of the horizontally opposed engine, I could pick up a grimy, oxidized dust. Yet the thing was straight, the frame true and sitting on the saddle felt a bit like coming home after missing too many holiday gatherings. Immediately I remembered that I still owned the set of metric end wrenches – never used – that I’d purchased to tinker with the old bike when needed.
The coffee concession was closing and the motor-head boss about to button things up for the day.
“How much you take for that R-65?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, “Probably two grand.”
“Does it run?”
“Did when I parked it.”
“Nope. Got from a local doctor, original owner, who rode around town on it for years and years. Finally, about three years ago, he came to me and said he probably ought to give the thing up.”
We walked over to the machine.
“I pulled the battery out and drained the fluid. I was going to fix it up, but just too many other projects. Like my R-80 I’ve got in the shop.” He walked me into the one-time service bay. A lovingly restored similar-era BMW GS sat looking as if it had just been freed from the showroom. “I ride it every day that I can.”
“So, two grand?”
“Yeah. About that.”
“Thanks,” I said, and we shook hands. Before leaving, I snapped a few photos with my iPhone, thinking it would be fuel for thought.
And thought is what I gave it. I came home and thumbed through “Rebuilding the Indian,” revisiting some of my favorite passages. I suspect my mechanical skills are far more limited than Fred Haefele’s were when he found himself staring at a box of parts. Then I thought, “I’ll bet Ozzie’s shop could clean it up, repaint the tank, refresh the tires, battery, adjust the valves, sync the carbs, replace the seals…” I felt my eyes turn into those spinning dollar signs Warner Brothers once used to drive home a point in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Soon I arrived at this: With an additional investment of about thirty-five hundred dollars, I could end up with a really cool looking vintage German masterpiece still worth “about two grand.”
I sincerely hope the motor-head coffee shop owner finds success in pedaling that BMW. I’m sure it will end up in good hands.
Just not mine.
Church of the Open Road Press