Ten hours, four states, and one foolproof plan: how I learned to stop worrying and love the motorcycle – Part One

[Ed. Note: BZR spins a fanciful tale about his purchase of his two-wheeled Eleanor. You can read more of his work at The Smoking Tire.]

Someday… I'll feel this way
The motorcycle looked just like it had in the small, blurry photos from the eBay listing. Its paintjob was a combination of rust, swirls, and faded flat black paint layered on with a brush. What little chrome on the bike had either been rattle-canned into the same dirty flat black color or had been heavily pitted from a drought of Brasso. Both tires were covered in a thick layer of dust. The super-rare, once-gleaming 4-into-1 exhaust pipes showed deep gouges of rust like animal scratches. The four Keihin carburetors were covered in a depressing layer of dirt and grease that had fossilized into an impenetrable substance. What precious little engine paint that hadn’t flaked off was heavily tarnished. The small Judge-Dredd-esque front fairing that exaggerated the enormous single headlight was lying on the ground next to the machine.  The spokes looked like they would betray the wheels at any point and collapse under strains of their own rust. “Want to hear it run?” the seller, Don, said reassuringly. Of course I did—if it even started. While anticipating my arrival he had rolled it onto the driveway and connected a tangle of wires from the hole where the seat was supposed to be, leading to the battery of the Ford Ranger parked alongside it.  “The battery’s doesn’t hold a charge,” he reassured me, “but you can get a replacement pretty cheap.” His clean, empty garage held a brand-new dark blue Suzuki Bandit 1200. A nice upgrade, I thought wistfully. And I’m the poor bastard stuck buying this old rusty piece of crap. Don came around to the right side of the bike, hand on the throttle. He folded the kick start lever down and gave it a lusty stomp or two. The engine groaned like a grumpy old man awoken by a distant construction crew. He stomped on the kick start, twisted the throttle some more. Clack, clack, clack…and with a raspy sputter the engine suddenly roared into life, its throaty mechanical growl piercing my ears, the rough clatter of 30-year old machinery threatening to shake itself to pieces any minute. I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was slightly intimidated—and by what? A little Honda? “Electric start works, too,” he said, deftly flicking off the kill switch. He started the bike up, again, this time thumbing a $1.99 RadioShack toggle he had drilled into the top of the instrument panel, in lieu of a missing start button on the right-hand side that I would later find out would cost about $50 to replace. Once again the bike came into life, circuits coursing through fraying wires that had been bundled together with cracked, peeling electrical tape. A surge of emotions was running through me: elation, nervousness, trepidation, the feeling that I was about to get into something that was way over my head. But above all, I was excited; I was staring at my motorcycle, my first vehicular conveyance, and the fact that the official-looking piece of paper would have not my parents’ names, but my name on it. I had purchased the motorcycle, with my own money, on a whim. It had been a late night freshman year when I realized that college life hadn’t turned out the way it was going. More pop quizzes in my engineering classes were returned splattered in red ink. Everybody on my floor loathed me, I convinced myself. And my girlfriend had broken up with me in the middle of a game of Monopoly. “It’s not working out,” she called, just as I had rolled doubles and was putting my money down on Marvin Gardens. This was perhaps most heartbreaking of all mostly because I wouldn’t be able to hang out with her father, a motorcycle-collecting ruffian with a garage full of Eddie Lawson replica Kawasaki KZ1000Rs and Honda CB650 Customs, languishing BSA Road Rockets and vicious two-stroke Yamahas. “Stay away from those,” he had warned me casually, when I had rented a Buick LaCrosse freshman year—complete with $150 under-25 charge— and driven the 4 hours to visit her, “the torque they put out will have you on your back in a second. And British bikes like that Triumph 650”—he gestured in the corner, where a rotting Bonneville T120 lay against the wall in a heap of its own dust—“all have their controls on opposite sides, so they’re real tough to learn on.” Opposite controls? I had to ask. Which ones had opposite controls, and what if I bought one by accident? How was I supposed to know the difference between a four-stroke Honda, which meant safety and reliable motoring, and a two-stroke Yamaha, which meant hours and hours of worrying about gas-oil ratios before I died a fast, messy death with a sizeable insurance deductible? I hadn’t the faintest idea how a motorcycle worked in the first place. Why are there two brake controls? Where’s the clutch? You’re supposed to shift with your toes? And how do you handle these things with eighteen-wheelers bearing down on you? Yet on the long drive back to Syracuse I began to build my case. The bug had already burrowed into my brain. Motorcycles were far less expensive than cars—for the equivalent price of a decent-running bike, you could maybe afford a car that had no engine and was on fire. Motorcycles are classified by engine size, not horsepower ratings, so stay below 500cc or you’ll die instantly: after all, you wouldn’t give a teenager the keys to a Ferrari, right? The “universal Japanese motorcycle” that the factories at Saitama and Hamamatsu pumped out by the hundreds of thousands would be perfect—easily available, cheap to run, dead-on reliable, predictable handling, and enough parts support to overcome 30 years of obsolescence. “There’ll be two things on the planet after we’re all dead,” Rachael’s father was fond of saying. “Cockroaches, and Honda motorcycles.” So I better stick with those, I am a broke college kid, after all… Of course, that was thinking rationally. I hadn’t even delved into the emotional aspect of riding—the wind in your hair, the lure of the open road, the promise of freedom and sex appeal, the introspective Easy Rider journey, picking up cute blondes headed to Bakersfield—and even the fact that I would be heads and heels above my fellow college students jamming themselves five to the backseat in their hand-me-down Toyota Camrys. No, screw that, I would be above the fray there. I’d be a rebel but with a damn good cause. “Why no, babe, I can’t give you a ride to the …I ride a motorcycle. You know how it is.” And with a flourish I would put on my riding jacket and my open-face helmet, crank the throttle and leave pretty girls heartbroken in a cloud of dust. But first, business. I handed Don the cash I had scrounged from an ATM in the center of town. Jackson’s multiple heads poked through the clear plastic of the bank envelope. It had taken me two separate transactions to retrieve the $400 asking price that the final bid had come to. He pulled out the paperwork. Ok, sign here, and here, and here, aaaaaand initial here, and, let’s see, the original owner keeps the top half. And with that anticlimactic signing, the bike was officially mine. Mine! Now there was only the matter of transporting a 1976 Honda CB550F Super Sport across 630 miles and 6 states. [Read Part Two here!]

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