Sunday, December 14, 2008

Turning riders into mechanics: Part II - Beemer and Duc

In the previous post I described the bookends of ownership experience represented by the 1968 BSA 441 Shooting Star and the 1970 BMW R50/5. Forty years later, I have been riding for ten years each a 1999 BMW R1100RS and a 1999 Ducati Superspot 750. They were both purchased new.

The Beemer is my daily ride and touring bike. My commutes are very short (6 miles each way) and the touring infrequent. The Beemer has an embarrassingly modest 39,000 miles after a decade of riding. The Duc (Americans say "Duc", as in "duck"; the Brits call them "Dukes" - I suppose because they have dukes and we don't) was purchased new a few months later as a trackday bike. Just a month after buying the beemer I went to my first trackday. It was clear the hulking Beemer would lead to trouble on the track and Teri generously suggested I buy a bike for the track, which she didn't need to say twice.

I put 600 miles on the Duc the first weekend and took it in for it's 1000 km dealer service, then stripped it and safety-wired it for race school the next weekend. I club-raced for five seasons and have been riding trackdays since. The Duc hasn't had a speedometer in almost nine years so I don't have an accurate odo reading. Recently I tried to estimate the miles on the Duc by looking over my trackday notes. Most of my riding is at two tracks on the west side of Michigan, and occasionally at other tracks, and I come up with a little more than 4,000 laps - say 8,000 miles - plus the original 600 as a street bike. Most of these tracks are a hair over 2 miles/lap - call it 9,000 miles. Racing and trackday miles are hard miles.

The saying "Turning riders into mechanics since 1946" may have been coined to describe the experience of owners in the early years of Ducati. My last ten years of riding reflect a very different one. The Duc has been used hard and I have crashed it several times on the track. I've tweaked the engine so it delivers 50% more power than stock (from 58hp to 86hp - measured on the dyno at the rear wheel). It's not uncommon to bounce the engine off the rev-limiter at least once in a lap (which is now 10,250 rpm vs, the original 8,500 rpm).

Braking, turning, gear changes all are much more stressful for the bike under track conditions than on the street. For example, with racing pads in the calipers there is at least one straightaway at each track where braking is so hard that 100% of the braking force is on the front wheel alone - the rear end goes light, the rear wheel just clearing the track surface and waving back and forth in the air in the face of the rider behind you.

I recall all this after writing an earlier post about finding a clogged fuel injector on the Ducati. It occurred to me then, that this was the first mechanical issue I've had with the Duc in almost ten years. And even this was caused by neglect; I hadn't drained the oxygenated race fuel and flushed the injectors. Sure, I have spent hundreds of hours on the Ducati - upgrading, installing performance parts or repairing crash damage. But I have been much harder on the Duc that it has been on me.

The BMW is a versatile, tough, solid machine - generally. I'm quite devoted to it. And it gets the same reasonably diligent maintenance as the Duc. But over ten seasons, I've learned to interpret "Legendary BMW Quality" in new ways (try Googling that phrase). The fuel gauge has been repaired and stopped working so many times the chief mechanic at the dealer suggested I just use the odo, like in the old days. It's not so bad I guess.
The front wheel bearing has failed, the rear drive seal failed - covering the rear wheel in hypoid 90. The Hall sensor (crank position sensor) failed at 32,000 miles. I've had to replace the right cylinder head studs (no small job) - stretched no doubt by overtightening during the first dealer service. There is a persistent small oil drip from a bolt near the cam chain tensioning access cover that won't yield to RTV or thread sealant. It's negligible, but maddening.

Worst of all, the bike developed an electrical intermittent that cut out all the electronics, including the engine, at lean in a left-hand turn (OMG). The problem: the bundle of wires that exit the ignition switch had been crimped so tightly with a zip-tie at the factory the wires had sheared. This necessitated one of those memorable "my-fingers-are-too-fat-and-the-space-is-so-friggin'-tight-I-only-have-two-hands-and-I-can't-see-at-that-angle-through-bifocals" sessions to repair (full details and pix here - expressions of sympathy welcome).

That last repair only cost me the evening and about a $1.00 in connectors. The dealer had already tried to find it once and missed it. I only found it because of the good people on the BMW oilheads forum. It's not a common problem, but apparently BMW wiring looms of that vintage (1999) are known to suffer from brittle copper stranded wire.

Maybe this is not a typical experience. I don't think I own a lemon - but it's also nothing like my first Bemmer. BMW forums have been rich with stories like mine and the BMW Owners News recently had a long article about BMW quality issues. I think BMW engineering is top drawer, but something has apparently gone missing in the sourcing/QA/QC culture in Munich.

Almost any motorcycle made today is of exceptional quality. Japanese, Italian, German, Austrian, American, British (my friends tell me their new Triumphs don't even leak oil) - they are great values and reliable machines, all things considered.

"Making mechanics out of riders since 1946" vs. "Legendary BMW Quality." Your early reputation sticks - for better or worse. My advice: hang-out in the on-line owners forums. Take what you read there with a grain of salt - but it's another data point alongside old sayings and advertising tag lines.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Turning riders into mechanics: Part I - Beeza and Beemer

"Turning riders into mechanics since [date of company founding]" is an aphorism most often reflective of the Ducati experience, but is appropriated by just about any group of frustrated riders commiserating in a brand forum thread.

I've only owned five bikes in my years as a rider. In the 1960s and 70s these included a Moto Guzzi 125 Sport single, A BSA 441 Shooting Star, and a BMW R50/5. I stopped rising for about 20 years and then purchased two new, off the showroom floor bikes, both 1999 models. A BMW R1100RS boxer twin for commuting and touring, and a Ducati Supersport 750 as a trackday machine.

Like most consumers, I'm only too eager to justify my selection of one brand over another by selective filtering of its many positive attributes over its shortcomings. An associated phenomena is revealed by studies of automobile advertising conducted in the 1980s which showed that ads for car models and marques were most read by recent purchasers of same. Perfectly natural behaviour - to seek positive reinforcement as justification for what is typically life's second largest purchase decision. And unlike buying a home (at least till recently) an object that will only lose value in 99.99% of all cases.

I have no uncertainties that the 1968 BSA 441 Shooting Star is the most memorable ride. My youth and the knowledge that I possessed a lump of British legend outshone the certain evidence of my folly... for about 3 months. Even before the theory of blackholes had been proposed I awoke to an honest assessment of my relationship with the Beeza... and who was possessed by what. This was hard to accept. I loved the sound of that thumping exhaust and the gaudy blazing star (not just a decal) sculpted on the tank. And there was the long ritual passage to mastery of the start sequence. I passed among my peers on campus confident in my mastery of kick-starting the one-lunged 441, a dark, ninja-like art, that few imagined let alone had attempted.

The Beeza black-hole was sucking virtually every dollar (not just spare dollars), spare moment, and layers of knuckle skin from my life. The engine leaked oil in great quantities, the electrics were easy victims of Michigan's climate (my college roommates would not have it in the house - leaking oil in the hall...). I've owned nightlights brighter than the headlamp. The carb was subject to freezing on cold mornings. The big single piston bashing to-and-fro loosened nuts in large number and with great frequency. One morning having just to come to idle in a parking spot after the 50 mile ride from my parents to campus, the exhaust note changed abruptly from "thob-thob-thob" to "fwuph-fwuph-fwuph." The exhaust header pipe had fallen out of the exhaust port. Brit engineers had welded a flange to the exhaust pipe and bolted the flange to the frame. The single down-tube frame flexed with every bump, and the motor torqued the connection on every firing cycle till frame, flange, pipe and engine parted ways. A few weeks later, a main seal gave up, and so did I.

By good fortune the shop where I had purchased the BSA also sold BMWs. They actually took it as a trade-in. I have wondered, uncharitably, how many times that 441 had been sold in advance of a conversion to the Bavarian marque.

I justified the extravagance of a new BMW by tallying up the hours and parts the 441 had consumed in the previous eighteen months. It didn't disappoint. For the nearly 60,000 miles we (Teri and I) rode over the next four years The R50/5 was daily commuter, tourer, and wore a sidecar for our honeymoon and first three years of our marriage. With the homebuilt (hand-crafted) hack the Beemer was ridden 365 days of the year, including my commutes in foot deep snow. We brought our first Christmas tree home, stuffed into the sidecar with some groceries, Teri riding pillion.

In that time, with normal maintenance and fluids, the only unexpected mechanical was the light-bulb which burned out at about the 50,000 mile mark.

Even so, I wouldn't mind a second shot at mastering the Beeza.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

It's usually the simple things

My father was a fuel-systems R&D engineer for General Motors' Rochester Products division (now part of Delphi) for more than 35 years. Now retired, he worked on or led many product development projects, including Rochester's innovative "Quadrajet" four-barrel carburetor. Unlike most high-performance four-barrel carbs (e.g., Holley, Carter) the assymetrical Quadrajet had two barrels of smaller diameter, and two larger than those of a typical four-barrel. At low to moderate throttle positions it used just the two small barrels for fuel economy; punch the throttle and the two large barrels opened providing the combined air-flow of a typical four-barrel.

Dad also co-owns the patent for the first multi-orifice, flat-plate injector nozzle producing radially and axially offset fuel streams. Fuel passes through the injector body out of six incredibly small holes drilled at angles between 81 and 84 degrees from the vertical, creating six fine streams intersecting to atomize the fuel in the intake port.

The genius of the design was to maintain fuel velocity through the orifices, preventing injector clogging common to GM's other primary injector supplier. In the early 80's the competing injector supplier was costing GM millions in warranty repairs.

Dad was very much hands-on; his co-workers called him an engineer's engineer.
Out of the complex projects he worked on during his career he learned early-on that when problems cropped up it was usually something simple. A lot of time got wasted, he would admonish, looking at the most complex part of the problem first, when it was usually the simple things.

He gave this advice to me... often.

My second bike was a 1968 BSA 441 Shooting Star - the road version of the 441 Victor trials championship bike. In 1970 at age 19 it was a piece of work. It could be an entire cold-morning's assignment to start if you didn't have the choke, the feel for TDC, compression release, and the timing of that mighty downthrust perfected (you didn't "kick" start it. You hurled your whole body, stiff-legged onto that little floppy lever). Addictive, thumping torque at low revs and matching exhaust note were the reward.
But it leaked oil like hell.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Larson)

I remember a particularly unrewarding sequence of weekends spent fixing the primary leak - at the join of the cases. I rode the Shooting Star from campus to home, where dad had a great shop. I spent a three-day weekend disassembling, cleaning, polishing, fitting new gaskets and cement for a sure-fire cure to the damnable leak (in the end, it did). But on reassembly it wouldn't start. I tried a good many things and determined I had no spark. Nothing would restore it. I was convinced I must have managed to damage either the magneto or the primary coil. Dad was away on a test trip, and I was on my own.

Out of ideas and time, I borrowed mom's car to get back to campus and spent the next few days calling around for a new coil. I drove 50 miles the following weekend to get the coil, installed it, no spark. I drove the 100 miles to return the faulty coil and the dealer was good enough to test it and the old one - they were both fine. Return the new one, reinstall the old one and back to campus. Two weekends.

Dad is home from his Arizona Proving Grounds trip and I meet him on the third weekend. He spends a patient Saturday lunch listening to my successful repair of the oil leak, followed by the longer tale of frustration and deterioration into self-doubt over the electrical problem.

In the garage, he crouches next to me by the bike. Take off the points cover, he instructs. This takes 30 seconds. He pauses for just a moment and asks if I wrote down the order in which I removed the nuts and washers that hold the points to the inside of the case. Well, it seemed pretty straightforward so, no, I didn't. Pointing to a phenolic washer I have just removed, he suggests that I put it under the plate that holds the points, where it will keep the points from grounding out. Gosh. Not even five minutes and the Shooting Star is burbling happily in the garage.

This came to mind this fall when, on the last lap of the last day of the track season, my Ducati developed a horrible stutter and then mis-fire. So bad, I had to shut it off and coasted into my pit. It's that stutter a fuel-injected bike develops when its out of fuel and the injectors are firing dry (bad).

In the pits, plenty of fuel. Got spark. Maybe a broken timing belt. A broken timing belt might mean any number of expensive imported mechanical bits to cry over. But the timing belts are okay, the timing dead-on. Now what? I have visions of pulling the engine, finding, god only knows what.
It would have to wait for another weekend. We packed up and left.

Late fall had come and being lazy, I managed to summon the lesson of the simple things. And dad's fuel injectors. Maybe I really should be draining the race fuel out of the bike after every weekend at the track. Maybe the injectors are corroded. Maybe I'll have to buy damned-expensive new ones. Well, let's start with something simple.

Out comes the oxygenated fuel. In goes premium and injector cleaner. Every couple of days for the last month I turn the engine over with the plugs out to drive pump gas and injector cleaner through the fuel system.

Yesterday I put the plugs in and hit the starter. Not five minutes, and the Duc is booming away in the garage.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


A year ago, December 2007, as I was putting the beemer up for the winter, the price of regular gas had been bouncing around the $3.00/gallon range. I was not looking forward to a winter of driving the Jeep at those prices. In prime riding season I usually take the bike to work, maybe 75% of the time. As much as I enjoy riding, I've also let convenience enter the picture in the decision to ride. Need to pick up something bulky on the way home - take the Jeep. Rain predicted all day? Need to arrive at some meeting looking not-too-rumpled? 98 degrees predicted for the afternoon? All have been good reasons to drive instead of ride.

So last winter, as I was making some repairs to the beemer (more on that soon), I thought I could plan better, be less of a wuss and commit to riding all the time in the coming season.

I put the bike away about the time commuting begins and ends in the dark - end of November, early December. Despite the modulating halogen taillight, 85W headlamp, and Scotchlite (tm) covered saddlebags and riding gear it's hard to convince my family (maybe even me) that other drivers (many of whom are fully distracted in the summer) will see you through the rain, snow, mist, fogged and spray-covered windshields.

Even daylight riding ends at the first salt. We use salt on the main roads in Michigan and it is hard on a bike. More so when it's a dry day in the winter and pulverized road salt is in the air like fine dust - it gets into everything, around every recessed hex-head bolt, the intercom connectors under your seat, into cable ends, the horn... So the beemer gets winterized and covered until we've had a couple of good early spring rains to wash the salt out of the porous roadway. Usually that's about the advent of daylight savings time at the beginning of April.

Come mid-April 2008, regular gas is running about $3.39, and I'm back on the bike - a couple of weeks late because last fall's repairs hadn't fixed the real problem. But now that the bike is running well, I've changed the frame of reference to always ride unless there is a really good reason not to. Being more intentional about riding changed my default routine for commuting. Instead of deciding to ride each morning, I just rode.

It was now a competition. Wuss vs. Road Warrior.

Teri tells me I'm the fussy type. I need to at least imagine I am prepared for what may come. So for day-in-day-out riding, no excuses, this results in a planning ritual that begins with the night-before weather check, the morning weather-check, wardrobe and riding gear selection, and the packing plan for the day. BTW, if you're not using Weather Underground <> you don't have access to a truly useful weather planning tool. Among all their systems the animated, regional radar display they deliver is in my opinion the best short-term weather prediction tool. Try their site for a month and tell me if I'm not right.

The modern mesh riding suit with lightweight waterproof liners in the jacket and pants has made it possible to be comfortable and wear full body armor coverage every ride. I like the Olympia line. I've added an extra layer of soft armor in the hip area based on the location of the last two hematomas I gifted to myself (one was a street crash on a post-rain sandwash across a curve, the other a 100mph get-off on the track when another racer took us both down). The high-density impact foam is velcroed into the full-length side-zip pants, and split so it parts with the zipper. If you're going to glue velcro to foam or heavy fabric "Shoe GOO" is highly effective.

A change of attitude and a few tools to give me the illusion of preparedness made me very comfortable regardless of conditions. More than having good rain gear, my biggest insight was to wear all my riding gear into the office on 95 degree days, rather than to stow it in the black plastic side cases. That kept the suit at A/C temps until I could get underway on the bike. Much better than standing in the hot sun while donning riding gear that had been stored in a bake oven.

So for me it was a pretty decent accomplishment to ride everyday from April 14 - November 13, with just 4 days in the car (ferrying visitors around campus and hauling things too big to hang on the bike). I envy those who either by geography or fortitude ride year-round. I have had one year where I rode at least a few days every month of the year (the year I learned to appreciate the powers of road salt).

The beemer is in the middle of being winterized this weekend. I need to make room in the garage for my son's car, which needs a couple of months of love to get it running again. The Ducati needs a refresh before next year's trackdays and there is just room for one bike and two cars. In summer, two bikes and one car

Gas peaked around here at $4.39 in late summer. Wednesday evening it was at $1.99, the lowest around here since late 2004, early 2005 <>. I am looking forward to next year, having changed my baseline for riding - no matter what the prices are.