The Road Taken: A Tale of Two Motorcycles

The Road Taken: A Tale of Two Motorcycles

 In 1989 I sold my 1971 BMW R60/5. I could have cried and almost did. I didn’t want to sell her but a rite of passage was knocking at the door and I had to let the bike go. I was going to be a father for the first time. I remember my wife saying: “You’re gonna be a father soon. You can’t go gallivanting around on that bike anymore. Plus, we need some money to fix up the nursery.” (She was Irish and a red head with a fiery temper so I knew I’d better listen!) But it’s hard to let go of a good bike, especially when I’d had her for 12 years and she’d ridden or followed me in my moves from Georgia to Florida, to Kansas and to the frosty hinterlands of Pennsylvania, Minnesota and finally Wisconsin. She was a great motorcycle. The reliability, the thumping sound of the engine, the smooth ride, the easy maneuvering, the great balance and the slow but steady acceleration.

I didn’t buy another motorcycle for 24 years, until after the kids were grown and out starting their own lives. Last year I bought Big Red, Jeff’s 2004 Harley Road King. And then, six months ago I managed to buy another old BMW R 60/5, same model, but a 1973 one. As soon as I hopped on the bike I was transported back to a different time: sensations, feelings and memories flooded back.

The BMW is lighter and more nimble than the Harley and I began to use her mainly around town, saving the Harley for long distance driving. But it got me thinking about the differences between 1989 and now; how much bikes had changed, and I had changed.

The 1971 model was the first BMW with an electric starter. But the short wheel base of the bike allowed only for a small battery which was next to useless unless the temperature was over 70 degrees (In 1973 BMW added a longer wheel base to the bike which allowed for a bigger, stronger battery). Under 70 degrees I had to rely on the kickstarter. Until the mid-1970’s this was the main method of starting any motorcycle. Kickstarting doesn’t really involve any type of kicking motion. It’s better described as putting one’s foot up on a ratcheting lever, like stepping on a stair and then pushing down. You push on the pedal until you hit maximum resistance; you release the pedal and then push down with all your weight, keeping your knee slightly bent in case the engine backfires (in which case it could break your leg!). Repeat as necessary, which was often. The final way of getting the bike started was to roll it over to the top of a steep hill, hop on, put her in second gear, let gravity take over and pop the clutch. Somehow I always got it started. And when I did the ride was always smooth, balanced, and nimble. I had a wind screen to protect me from the elements: rain, stones, Atlanta pedestrians and Wisconsin cows.

The 2004 Harley has an electric starter and fuel injection but no kick starter. It makes for a smooth and effortless start as long as the battery’s not dead. If it is you have to get a charge from somewhere else. And believe me, it doesn’t like to be pushed down the road and have the clutch popped. Not that I’ve tried such a foolish thing.

In the 1970’s the BMW was the heaviest and most powerful bike I had ridden. She had a 600cc engine and checked in at 463 pounds naked, right out of the shower.

The Harley is a Goliath comparatively. She has a 1400 cc engine and tips the scales at 731 pounds.

It got me thinking about all the changes that had happened over the years, with me and with motorcycle technology. I’ll start with the bikes. Surprisingly, not all the changes have been in favor of the newer bike. Here are some pros and cons.

Gas mileage:  

The 2004 Harley’s range is from 37-46 mpg.

The 1973 BMW ranges from 48-57 mpg.

The Harley has a gas gauge with a warning light so you can tell when you’re running low. On the BMW you just open the lid on top of the gas tank and peer in. If you can’t see gas, you shake the bike sideways and listen to how much it splashes. It doesn’t have a warning light. But don’t worry the BMW compensates by having a reserve gas tank. Start to lose speed? Flip the petcock over to the reserve tank and you have another half-gallon.

The Harley has a side stand.  

The BMW has a side stand and a center stand that you can ride off.

The BMW came with a RPM gauge though the dial got funky after a few years. Mine moves up and down faster than a fiddler’s elbow. No RPM gauge on the Harley.

Better balance in the BMW but more speed in the Harley.

Maintenance was easier on the BMW. With the cylinders sticking out at a 90 degree angle it was easy to change the spark plugs and adjust the timing. The Harley you’re safer taking to the dealer and having them hook her up to a life support machine.

Vibration is another issue. Set my helmet and glasses on the BMW while I crank her up and the slow hum of the engine ensures that they’ll stay right where they are. On the Harley, in seconds they’re flying off the bike like popping popcorn.

So who cares about any of this? Who cares to spend time comparing the past with the present? The past was slower, like the BMW, and things are faster and more efficient now, like the Harley. I too was lighter then and much heavier now, but we won’t go into those measurements. You probably have your own yardsticks with which you measure the passage of time: people, places, times, blessings and tragedies.

In 1989 I gave up the BMW for the sake of my daughter. She’s 24 now and doing great. It was a good trade. She was followed by my two boys who are also now grown and studying at university.

We all look back on the roads we’ve taken; some were filled with potholes, some with dead ends, many were roundabouts, and then there were the smooth rides which seemingly promised to go on for years. I can see that path and I’m grateful. It all brought me to this place in time, this way station. It’s all about the journey. The roads and passengers of the past and those new ones trickling off unknown toward the mirages glistening in the future. But I find that I live best in the present, in the here and now. The past is gone and the future has yet to be. God, friends and motorcycles can only reach you in the present.