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Ancient Bikes Reborn

OMED: We were reading a piece about ancient motorbikes in the Medford Mail Tribune, and ran across this paragraph: 

"Norton is no slouch, but it's not as fast as they are now.  The new ones are like an appliance - you turn the key and go. With Norton and Triumph, you have to mess with them regularly, give them tune-ups and preventative maintenance. But I like the feeling of the older bikes and their character."

That led to the text you are about to read.

We used to call them 'Snortin' Nortons." 
(Shown, a '37)

Before we get to the article, however, some memories.  For one, an Indian brand bike I bought for $25 in, oh, perhaps it was 1954.  It was a '37 model with a suicide clutch if memory half a century old serves. You can see one like it at the bottom of this page.  And for a while I had a Harley-Davidson.  It was a '42, like the one in the photo, just below 

Nor the song of Larks at eventide, yea even the lonely piper on the moor, can sing the like of the song of the Harley, which is the symphony of a real American man's heart.  Though the exquisitely smooth twin glasspaks of the '50 Ford flathead V-8 are, like James Dean, heard no more in the land, yet still the Harley thrills the air with music made of glory.  Freedom isn't just another word for nothing left to lose.  It's straddling a machine, twisting the throttle and  feeling the bugs slamming into your teeth as you grin down the highway.   Now to the article by Mr. Stevens, which begins with minor criticism of the wonderful Harley ...  (LL/OrMag)

Ancient Bikes Reborn
 by Brad Stevens

    Motorcycling is about more than loud and over-priced Harley-Davidsons manned by weekend warriors garbed in two thousand bucks worth of custom-fitted leathers.  It is about more than the chainsaw scream of moto-cross or enduro two-strokes.  While these are fun for many, there's a  branch of the addiction that comes with a sweet nostalgia -- vintage motorcycles.

    Any bike older than 20 years is classed as "vintage".  This classification now includes Japanese marques that are gaining in popularity because reasonably-priced, and available, parts make restoration projects much easier.  Still, the genuine article remains the British, European, and certain American-made motorcycles of the 1970's and earlier.
    Some of the manufacturer's names are familiar, many more likely not so.  The most popular, currently, are the British bikes such as BSA, Norton,

and Triumph.  (They were good sellers in the 50's and 60's, so more of them have survived.)  But, do a little research and you come up with names unfamiliar to most people -- names like Matchless, DKW, Brough Superior, and much sought-after Vincent Black Shadow.  Even lesser known and certainly more rare are the long-extinct machines made by Henderson, Scott, Excelsior, New Imperial, Nimbus and Rudge, among literally hundreds of others. 

   Motorcycles made their first appearance in the very late 1800's. (Shown, 1914 Cyclone)  The industry has evolved in a dozen different directions since then.  What's constant about it seems to be change.  Bianchi and Raleigh were former manufacturers of motorcycles, though both now make bicycles. BMW made aircraft engines during wartime, though most people familiar with their beautiful, smooth machines don't know it..  Royal Enfield motorcycles, the bikes you see in any film about 20th Century England,  were originally made in Britain, but are now manufactured exclusively in India.  (The Raj on two wheels.)  

    In the sixties, Harley-Davidson contracted the Italian company Aermacchi to build smaller enduro and street scooters for them.  It was an attempt to compete with Honda's near takeover of the market.

   There is a rich and colorful lore to vintage motorcycles.  Speak to anyone who's been around these bikes for any length of time, and you'll hear stories and learn technical information not available in any book:

    "Ascoting," for example, comes from "Ascot cut," a term used to describe a cutting away of rubber from the tires for flat-track racing.  This alteration of the tire gave an extra bite to the outermost tread for a better grip on dirt, clay, and gravel.  Nearly an art form, a good cutter with a single-edged razor blade could do pretty well on the racing circuit.  The term originated from the Ascot Raceway in Gardena, California, once a West Coast hotbed for motorcycle racing until the track's demise in 1990.  (Tire technology has
improved dramatically since the 60's, when the premier tire at the time was the Pirelli MT53--there were few others available for racing purposes, then.)

   Some riders attach bells to the front of their motorcycles.  Now primarily ornamental, it began in the early days of motorcycling when roads were not much more than a path through fields and forests.  Fences also weren't as prevalent, so a bell was tied to the motorcycle to warn cattle and other livestock out of the way.
    The term "carburetor" comes from a light source, originally.  Water was slowly drip-fed onto carbon, producing a luminous gas-this was a ridiculously weak source of light, but the mechanism itself initiated the term's use to describe the drip-fed fuel systems on early 1900's motorcycles, and has been with us ever since.

(1938 Triumph Speed Twin)

    There are many larger-than-life characters in vintage motorcycling, as well.  Jay Leno has a large collection.  Steve McQueen was a big fan of BSAs and often went riding all over the U.S.  

    One of Oregon's own, Cliff  Majors, is famed (notorious) among vintage bike restorers for his temperamental behavior and inconsistent pricing.  He's known as the Sandy Bandit and seems proud of it.  His shop is on Sandy Boulevard.  You can  figure out the rest.  Of the stories surrounding him, one has it that a customer  came to Cliff seeking a hard-to-find BSA side-plate.  Cliff brought one to  him.  The piece was in perfect condition, the customer was jubilant, then  asked the price.  Cliff named an exorbitant sum and the customer, now  outraged, tried to work the price down.  Cliff pulled out a hammer and  smashed it, saying, "Now you'll never find one-get out!"

    And true enough, part of owning an old bike is finding parts for it

    The cost of a vintage bike, un-restored, can be almost reasonable, roughly one or two thousand dollars, depending upon the type of bike and its condition.  Obviously, rarity and popularity of a certain model drive the price up, so it's smart to research first.  Go to Langlitz Leathers in N.E. Portland and buy one (or all) of the vintage Buyer's Guides and read them before you buy.  Join a club such as The Oregon Vintage Motorcycle club for advice, contacts, and loads of lore and information from club members.

('29 Brough Superior)

   Old scooters (ED: another term for motorcycle) are often altered throughout their lives and you may think you're buying a Triumph Trident only to find it has a Honda front end, a Harley gas tank, and a Ceriani swing-arm.  This is more common than most people believe. 
   Once you have your bike, though there are various online resources and a few shops scattered throughout the country, you're still going to have to search.  Be prepared to pay for not only parts, but also necessary tools and services such as valve jobs, re-boring of the cylinder(s), paint jobs, and often re-chroming of parts.

    This can become a consuming passion.  Most vintage fans own several old bikes.  One is seldom enough.  For some, this begins as a remembrance or recapturing of their own history.  Perhaps they owned a now-old bike back when they were new -- or had always wanted to.  Others are moved by the possession of a piece of history and all the lore surrounding it. Still others simply enjoy the restoration, maintenance, and riding of old bikes because the machines themselves are beautiful, and each one a personality unto itself.

    Whatever the reason, for the mechanically-minded, there are few things as satisfying as laboring to restore a vintage motorcycle.  It can be a tough, frustrating experience.  But when you at last get that old motor to fire into life and head down a country road on your right-foot-shifting left-braked, flat-seated, strangely-sprung and unique-sounding bit of motorcycle -- well, it is the essence of coolness.


  (1938 Indian Chief) 

OMED: My present bike, a 1974 Honda CB 750, named "The Fonz."  Based on the parameters established by Mr. Stevens in his article, above, it is a classic.

Article text © 2002 Brad Stevens    Classic bike photos from the Motorcycle Calendar gallery.  -- except for the '42 Harley, which is from the Motorcycle Museum, and the '74 Honda, which was photograped by Wayne Kresal, who rides an '82 Honda 550cc.