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.

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