Monday, November 12, 2012

Goodbye to All That

Part 1

I've owned two iconic vehicles in my life, both for many years. Both are now gone and it feels...strange. As if part of my identity is missing. Silly, true. Your identity shouldn't be based on products, stuff, labels. You are what you do. As I told my young sons when they absolutely had to have the latest popular widget, "Things don't make people cool. People make things cool." Still, part of who we are is in what we choose to own, what we spend our time and effort on. Others react to that, and their reactions, for better or worse, help shape our vision of ourselves. 

That's preamble. Here's the first story:

My first "big" bike was a Honda CB750, the original superbike, bought new in October 1969. It's hard to describe the sensation of riding it, the power, the sheer competence of the thing. Some people will understand that it felt like channelling Mike Hailwood,* the world champion racer  and as close to being a boyhood hero as I ever had. 

Over the years I modified the bike, of course. Nobody owns a stock motorcycle. First there was a Windjammer fairing; that was its touring incarnation, and it took me from Florida to the North Georgia mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway for the first time. One of the guys I rode with is still a close friend. Then came the "Gentleman's Express," as Cycle magazine later called the type. Another friend (a gifted mechanic who later became a master machinist) and I built it in my garage. Well, he built it. I handed him tools, lifted things, and sometimes turned a wrench. On went dual-disc brakes, Koni shocks, high-compression pistons, a Yoshimura cam, Kerker pipe, oil cooler, low handlebar from an ATC 90, more neat stuff. It took me about a week to get the carburetors jetted; back then you did it with wide-open top gear backroad runs, pulling the sparkplugs to "read" them for signs of proper combustion. Then you physically changed the jets, in all four carburetors, and did the whole routine again. Lots of burnt fingers were involved.

I raced it a couple of times before deciding it wasn't disposable, as racebikes have to be. Then came the paint, black with gold stripes on the tank and sidecovers, recalling classic Vincents and Nortons. It was perfect. It was "the 750;" no other descriptor was necessary.
It took me to work almost daily. It took me and sometimes, much more carefully, my sons on backroad rides, always reliable and always with some of the original excitement. Much, much later it took my future second wife Linda and me on our first date. Sure, I had other bikes, faster, more modern, more exotic, but the 750 was a constant.

Time passes, though, and things age. It's true, as an acquaintance once said, that machines last forever as long as you keep replacing parts. It's also true that the older they get the more often those parts need replacing, and sometimes you only find that out when they fail on the road. 

I'll skip the details of how I shipped the 750 to a restoration shop in California, at the personal recommendation of the then-editor of Cycle World, whose own early CB750 had been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum. Let's just say they weren't as careful with mine as they had been with his, and their carelessness ruined the engine. It happened long enough after I got it back that I knew there was no point to a lawsuit even though that engine was the key to the bike's collector value. I bought a later bike somebody had intended to restore but never completed, and a local shop built an engine with a big-bore kit and the best parts of both. They did the job right but somehow it wasn't the same, and I rode the 750 less and less
after that.

Some years later I met, completely by chance, a local custom bike and car builder. While he showed me his highly modified CB550, sort of a younger brother to mine, I mentioned the 750 and that I was thinking of selling it. He looked at the bike, my documentation, the boxes of original parts and spares, and we made a deal. Shortly afterwards he took it to the annual rally at Sturgis, where street racing is part of the ambiance. The 750 blew off a lot of Harleys, he said. I told him I wasn't surprised, and that I was glad it was being used as it should be.

I guess it was a year later that he called---Cafe' Racer TV wanted to film him building a custom for an unnamed customer, and was I OK with him doing the 750? I told him it was his bike and I had no say. He'd told them the bike's story, though, and they wanted me to be there, I suppose to video my reaction.  So I went, was interviewed, showed them a few of my old photos, then they filmed me watching while a bunch of guys dismantled the 750 and started cutting on the frame, reshaping it to their vision.

It's vastly different now, much more racer-ish. The workmanship is outstanding, with little jewel-like details here and there.  Regardless of all the internet controversy the show generated the guys that built it are good people and fine craftsmen. But their vision isn't mine. I rode the reshaped 750 at the Barber track in Birmingham, invited as part of the TV show, and it doesn't work as a performance bike. I realized then that it was never supposed to. It's now art, the embodied idea of a cafe' racer. When it was mine the paint wasn't perfect and a lot of parts were homemade, but it worked, as several guys found out on the mountain backroads. That was a couple of decades ago when I was a pretty good rider, and no longer matters. The 750 isn't about riding any more. It's about being seen. 

I don't regret selling it. The 750 was what it was and now it's something else. Machinery exists to serve human purposes; mine are different today and so is my equipment. The memories are there, though, and whenever I need to I can hear that magic four-cylinder wail punching us out of a third gear righthander, feel a little weave in the bars as the power comes on, sense the outside sole of my boot scraping the pavement, then the powershift to fourth onto a tree-lined straight...

It's enough.

* "Mike the Bike" raced exotic multi-cylinder Hondas and MV Augustas in the European GP series through the 60's. I was in college, a little too old for hero worship. So what? 
The Cycle World poster of him on the 250 GP Honda has hung over my desk since 1970.
I met Hailwood  in 1977 at a race in New Zealand, where he was strolling around the pits like any other spectator. I spoke with him, shook his hand but forgot to ask for an autograph.

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