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.

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