IHOP, Pipe Tobacco, and a Vincent Black Shadow

It was a great day last Saturday as I joined some buddies on a trip to Birmingham, Alabama. Essentially, we were there to go to the International House of Pancakes for breakfast, but we also took in a side stop at The Briary and I went on to the Barber Motorcycle Museum.
The Briary was hosting their annual event day with handmade pipes, assorted tobaccos, fine cigars and all the smoking accessories you could ever possibly want. There was a lively crowd there, about as lively as pipe smokers can get, and they had food and drinks, a pipe smoking contest and a man carving pipes on the front porch. I bought some pipe tobacco and hunkered down in one of the rocking chairs on the porch.
Afterwards I went over to the Barber Motorcycle Museum, purportedly the largest motorcycle museum in the world. They have over 1200 vintage and modern motorcycles there; bikes from the 1890’s up to today’s time. Amazing. I was captivated by the look of the old World War 2 Harleys and BMW’s. Still, my favorite was the legendary Vincent Black Shadow. It was the second Vincent motorcycle I’d seen close up. The first one, strangely enough, was a Vincent Black Lightening that I saw parked at a McDonalds in Newry, Northern Ireland when I was stopping with a van load of young baseball players coming back from a match in Dublin. The Lightening became famous for the Rollie Free photo

Rollie Free, record run.jpg

as well as from the song by Richard Thompson 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

In the motorcycle photo above, in 1948 to set the American speed record of 150.313 mph (241.905 km/h) Free was wearing only a Speedo bathing suit, a shower cap and some sneakers.
The Black Shadow was also famous for its speed. In 1952 one of them set a six hour world speed record at traveling over 100 miles per hour. That bike recently sold at auction in 2013 for a measly £113,500 (roughly $175,000).
The late journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote: “If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die.”

Why Pay Day Takes So Long to Come. Zeno’s Paradox. My 41 Year Old BMW Hits the Road.

There’s a philosophical reason why payday always seems so incredibly far away. To disrespectfully borrow from the Greek philosopher Zeno it would go something like this. Today is Monday and payday is Friday. For me to get to Friday I have to get half way there, say Wednesday. And for me to get to Wednesday I have to get half way there, say Tuesday. Maybe you see where this is going. For me to get to Tuesday, I have to get half way there, which is about 4 pm today. Then there’s half way to that, and half way to that. In other words, there’s an infinite number of half “times” I have to reach before payday. May not be scientifically true but it certainly explains psychologically why payday always feels as if it will never come!
It’s Monday morning and as usual it looks like payday will never come. I’ve got to go to work. I stare mournfully at the back tire on the Road King (AKA Big Red). I have almost 9000 miles on that tire and there’s an angel hair’s width of tread still on her. I’ve needed a new one since El Paso, Texas, almost 2 months ago. Harley whitewalls aren’t cheap. About $300 installed. There’s 4 days until pay day when I can get it replaced. I like to pay cash. And it’s the same 4 days on which I have to make the 100 mile round trip to Dalton, where I work.


R60/5 with the toaster gas tank

I was out in the garage staring at Big Red’s back tire, shaking my head when the Old Knight, the 1973 BMW R60/5, whispered to me to let her out of the cage. She could do the run up to Dalton she promised. I tilted my head and stared at her. I had been riding her around town for the last year and she’s done alright. She’s had a few problems but nothing you couldn’t work through or around when you ride her. The thing is that she’s 41 years old. She has four speeds, a 599cc engine (Big Red has five and most new bikes six) and doesn’t have a windscreen. She has Mikuni carbs on her which work far better than the custom Bing ones. (“Why do they call Bing carburetors Bing? Because that’s the sound they make hitting the trash can.”). Why not give the Old Knight a try?
There’s nowhere to stash the coffee thermos and no saddlebags so I just “bungeed” my laptop bag to the seat and took off. She handled beautifully as she always does. Engine’s quiet and she just thumps along. The acceleration’s not fast but it is consistent. After a while I relaxed and just enjoyed crossing the rivers and watching the mist rising in the hills and mountains.
But then I hit Interstate 75 for my last 20 miles. Cars and trucks whizzed by as the bike slowly gained speed. She was straining, but happy and still had more throttle left when I got her to 80 mph.That’s when the problem with the tachometer needle started. These old BMW’s are notorious for having bad speedometer/tachometer units. For the last month my rpm gauge has acted like a metronome with its needle flipping right and left. Now it started going wild. For a while it ran all the way to the right and stuck in the red zone like I was redlining it. It remained stuck there all day Monday.
On Tuesday the rpm gauge tip finally broke off and the base of the needle began spinning around like a fan or like the newspapers hot off the press in those old movies. Slightly mesmerizing if you stared at it, so I just didn’t. Besides, who needs an rpm gauge? My Harley didn’t have one.
On Wednesday a loud whirling sound, related to the engine speed, started coming out of the headlight unit, where, of course, the speedometer/tachometer is located. On the way home the speedometer needle started bouncing around like it had the hiccups. One moment it showed I was going 40mph and the next moment 80. It finally settled down and stopped, showing me riding at a cool 120 mph.
Thursday morning, one more day to go,and the Old Knight put her brave face on again. Who can resist the pleading grin from that shiny chrome toaster tank? I strapped on my laptop bag, cranked her up and rode her down the driveway and out to the main road. That’s when the clutch started slipping. I managed to turn her around and ride back up to the house but the clutch kept slipping and she couldn’t make it up the driveway. I parked her on the street, grabbed my backpack and sped out on Big Red, fearing I was going to be late for class. I was there 2 minutes early.
When I got home, after parking Big Red, I went down to tinker with the BMW. I got her started, took her for a spin and then managed to ride her back up the driveway to the garage. There she sits, proud but with a slightly burnished ego.
Friday, I drove Big Red down to the Harley dealer and had a new tire put on the rear.

The next repair work will be on the Old Knight, next pay day, of course that’s if it ever comes.

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.

Yes, I am an Airhead and a Fathead and Here’s Why!

In my last blog post I mentioned that I was an Airhead and a Fathead and asked readers to comment. Unfortunately, I can’t repeat most of the comments that I received. But it is time to clear the air. I am both!

Why am I an Airhead?

Beyond the obvious reasons, which were presented abundantly in private posts, I am an Airhead simply because I ride a vintage BMW. For the record an Airhead is a BMW motorcycle which was built from 1923 until 1995. They have two cylinders sticking out of the motorcycle which are cooled by the passing air.

Here’s what they look like, one on each side. bmw engine

So since my BMW bike is a 1973 and sports these beautiful cylinders. I am indeed an Airhead.

And a Fathead?

Harley Davidson legend and lore has enjoyed giving nicknames to the various engines they have created over the years. There was the Flathead (1930-48), the Knucklehead (1936-47), the Panhead (1948-65), Shovelhead (1966-84), the Evolution (1984-88) (I call it the Orwellhead) and finally, the latest, the Fathead (1999-to present).

Over these years the engines went from 1000 cc to engines now that are 1800 cc’s. But why are the recent ones called Fatheads?

It’s because of the introduction of twin cams on the engine. The previous engines were single cams. Two cams equals bigger heads, and in this case culminates in the Harley moniker “Fathead”.

Here’s what a twin cam Harley engine looks like:


The poet Keats was correct when he stated: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” I’m sure he wasn’t thinking of the twin cam engine; but it is beautiful.

So, I am both an Airhead and a Fathead and I don’t think that anyone who knows me would disagree with this assessment.

I rode the Fathead (Big Red) down Friday to visit my buddy Jeff Stafford in Acworth for a New Orleans meal at Henri’s. The Fathead engine cruised along, easily eating up the 100 miles like it was smooth gumbo.

Tonight, I was meeting friends in town to hear some blues music at the Brewhouse. A short ride, a few twists and turns, a hot day, perfect for the Airhead (The Old Knight). And let me reassure you, the fathead had a great time tonight. He sat outside with friends, sipped Yuengling beer, listened to the blues, stared at the sun setting, marveled at the blossoming pink Crepe Mrytles and thanked God he was alive, and for these friends.

Reconcilling Motorcycle Riding Differences: Speed and Expressing Loving-Kindness

Jeff and I have a lot of things in common when we ride our Harleys. We love the muffled, chortling sounds they make when you’re accelerating, climbing the gears, slowing down. These are not the extremely loud unbaffled shouts some bikes make when the rider is seeking attention. Our bikes are different: as we slalom through the countryside our bikes make the sounds of strength, determination, gratitude and reverence.  My bike, maybe a bit more.

We love the smells too. I can still remember the sweet scents of confederate jasmine and wisteria I inhaled as I rode around the squares in Savannah on my old BMW. The smell of pine straw burning always brings me back to autumns of my youth.  Certain scents take us through the vaulted aisle of memory to moments of our past. The French writer Marcel Proust, the author of “In Search of Lost Time” wrote that “after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone,” remain “like souls, remembering, waiting  and hoping…”.

Up here in Northwest Georgia I’m attracted more by the alluring scents of wood burning fires, and the wafting aroma from barbecue joints. In some future posts I want to write about the scents -good and ugly- that one encounters on a motorcycle but now I have more serious issues to address.

While Jeff and I clearly have riding themes in common, admittedly, we’re going to have a few challenges reconciling our differences in how we like to ride on a trip. For one thing, Jeff’s always in a hurry. He wants to get to the next destination as quickly as possible. To him the trip is not about the journey it’s about speed (fast), miles (lots of),interstates (loves them),  destinations, coffee, meals, cigarette breaks, verbally insulting me and looking cool on his bike. (I will admit that he does look cool on his bike.) Whereas, my riding philosophy is about taking the back roads, the blue highways as William Least Heat Moon called them, savoring every moment of the journey, getting into that Zen mind, stopping now and again to appreciate the scenery, express gratitude,  and to demonstrate loving –kindness for all sentient beings present . I have yet to tell him that I plan to stop frequently in various towns, taking time to visit the florist section of a Piggly Wiggly or a Winn Dixie and buy flowers which I will hand out to people passing by, with special attention to individuals who have been overwhelmed by the exhaust fumes from Jeff’s Harley.   This may take some time.  Jeff will have to be patient. You can’t rush loving-kindness.