Monday, March 15, 2010

Good Old Days of Motorcycling

Readers be forewarned: This posting will consist of me rambling on about motorcycles.  This morning I was reading a thread on a motorcycle forum about whether you should believe in the "good old days" of motorcycling. The premise was that when an old timer tells you stories about their early days of motorcycling, you shouldn't believe a word they say.  You know the type of story I mean.  Fishing tales.  "When I was 18 I had a (insert bike model) and did 108mph up the driveway with my girlfriend on the back...."  But, said the forum members, old bikes were slow, had bad handling, terrible brakes, and broke down frequently. Today's most basic, affordable motorcycles would run circles around the average 1970 BSA, Honda, or Harley anything.  
And I believe it.  Today's average 4-cylinder, 600cc street bike, the successor to bikes like mine, are lighter, twice as powerful, and have fancy triple-disc brakes and sophisticated suspension.  One of these bikes would leave my old Honda so far behind in any kind of race that its rider would have time to completely master the ukulele while waiting for me to catch up. 
Well, I don't disagree that motorcycles have come a long way since the 70s, but do today's digitized, computerized motorcycles really offer that much improvement over the old bikes like mine in terms of real world usability?  To me, not really.  

Reason numero uno, maintainability.  I can run through the entire Periodic Maintenance chapter of my official Honda CB500/550 shop manual in a half hour.  Timing, cam chain, valve adjustment, chain adjustment, all of it.  On some modern bikes, it can take a half hour to remove all of the body work necessary to begin the maintenance cycle.  Its simplicity is the source of its reliability.  Allow me to elaborate (cue collect sigh and eye roll).
The CB500, though released in 1971, is firmly planted in 1960s technology, mostly technology developed by Honda.  Overhead camshafts, for example, were common in racing during the 1960s (see pic of a 60s Honda RC166 DOHC 6-cylinder racer), but rarely found on production road bikes, Honda being the exception.  Their glorious little twins, the Dream, Superhawk, and the Black Bomber all employed overhead camshafts.  These bikes were screamers.  The CB450 Black Bomber gave a serious challenge to the British 650 twins, then the kings of the road.  The 305 Superhawk was capable of 105 mph and 9,000 rpms!      
Working turn signals, electric start, and disc brakes were all major innovations for Honda, but were really 1960s innovations.  This, for me, is why the CB500 is the perfect blend of old time mechanical simplicity and modern reliability and convenience.

The handlebar controls, for example, were relatively amazing in 1971.  The electrics on Hondas worked every time because the name "Lucas" was nowhere to be found.  But the controls were made of cast aluminum, not plastic like today's bikes.  These metal controls  have already survived one or two tippings of the bike while under my ownership.  Likewise, the hydraulic disk brake, another innovation, is operated by a cast aluminum master cylinder with an aluminum reservoir, not a plastic urine container you will find on today's bikes. 

The Honda also has carburetors, four of them.  Old technology, yes, but the linkage connecting them is a minor engineering marvel.  Precise ball and socket joints with springs and rubber parts for insulation ensure smooth, even movement of all four slides.  Today's bikes (mostly) have fuel injection,  which is honestly superior to carbs in every single way except simplicity.  But carbs can be tinkered with, and don't require the extra sensors and wiring necessary for fuel injection.  These carbs are slide-operated, meaning there is no need for vacuum diaphragms, meaning less hoses and simpler carb maintenance. 

The Honda has a single overhead camshaft with rocker-operated valves, not a shim and bucket setup.  I can adjust valves with a feeler gauge, 10mm wrench, and a screw driver.  No need to carry an array of shims.  Also, I can get to the valve rockers by simply removing screw in caps, and there are only 8 of them!  This is a very easy job that can be done on the roadside.  You don't need an enclosed lab environment with special tools for this.  Just look at this picture.  Have you ever seen such a symmetrical, simple, elegant engine design?

The Honda has an electric start, which is flakey on our bike, but it also has a kick start!  And, as you can see, it's right on top of the engine, easy to remove.  The 83 Yamaha Virago Juli and I rode for a whole summer had an electric starter, but no kick start!  One day we took it to the Sandwich Notch and went for a hike.  When we came back the battery was dead ( I think some kids had done a little meddling).  How the hell do you start a bike with no kick starter if the battery dies?  Well, you bump start it, which took several tries resulting in repeatedly pushing that stupid bike up a steep hill.  No such need on the Honda.

The Honda has a cable operated clutch, throttle, speedometer and tachometer.  I'll never understand why some motorcycles now have hydraulic clutches.  With a cable, there is no master cylinder, no fluid, no hydraulic lines, and no slave cylinder to worry about.  These would all require maintenance and eventually rebuilding.  With a cable there is a cable!  You adjust the tension once in a while and lubricate it.  Thats it.  As for the other cables, most bikes still have cable throttles, but many bikes now have electronic speedometers and tachometers, meaning more wiring and sensors to worry about.  Not to mention the electronic devices themselves, which must have a shelf life.

The fuel supply to the carburetors is gravity fed.  No fuel pump or vacuum petcock.  Just two hoses running from the bottom of the tank to the carbs.

The Honda has a battery and coil ignition fired by points.  Now the decision to keep the stock points system was not taken lightly.  I was considering a Dyna S electronic ignition, but in the end decided to save some money and deal with points, which means periodically setting the gap and timing.  I don't mind this maintenance, and if Robert Pirsig is to be believed, the task will actually enhance my life and the trip.
Now, points are a dated and obsolete technology, but they're another one of those things that can be fixed easily on the side of the road.  There is currently a 2005 Triumph at our house with a burned out ignition control module, rendering it immobile.  That could not happen on the Honda.
Also, that poor Triumph, after 18,000 miles, has a warped front brake disc.  The front brake disc on the Honda, operated by a single-piston caliper, is nearly 1/4" thick and made of stainless steel.  These are not particularly desirable features, but my Honda also has around 18,000 miles and is 34 years older, and that thick disc is still fine.  It will, however, be getting new pads.

And, by the way, the battery, all of the electrical components like starter relay, fuse, voltage regulator, etc, are easily accessible.  If there is a problem, it can be found in minutes.  The air filter, as well, is right beneath the flip-up seat.  Nothing is hidden on the Honda, and this is not by mistake.  Soichiro Honda was a genius, and he wanted his products to be reliable and simple to work on.  The SOHC Hondas are certainly designed with ease of maintenance in mind.  Honda also made sure that a solid parts supply was available to owners, which partially exists today.  I can go to the Honda dealer and order most parts.   Only big items like seats, gas tanks, side covers, etc, are no longer available.
So besides those details, there's the obvious stuff like air-cooling as opposed to water-cooling.  Water-cooling was found on the big Suzuki triples of the early 70s, and later on Honda Goldwings, but really was not commonplace on motorcycles until the 80s.  Air-cooling has its advantages, the obvious being the lack of a bulky radiator, extra hoses, a water pump, and rubber parts, all of which would be questionable after 40 years.

One time on Top Gear, the lads took a trip through Botswana in three separate, self-chosen cars.  If one's car was to break down, they would be forced to drive an air-cooled VW Beetle for the remainder of the trip.   Hmm, old school, air-cooled, dead simple car, as a backup to more modern cars.

All of these simplistic features add up to a reliable machine.  There is simply less stuff that can break on a 1971 Honda.  Yet, the bike is equipped with modern enough features to make it fast enough and reliable enough for practical use today.  The perfect blend of modern features and old school simplicity, making the Honda easy to keep running.

Of course, the valid counter-argument is that a new bike, while more complicated and expensive to maintain, doesn't need to be maintained as much.  While that is true, I am interested in long-term longevity as well as ease of maintenance.  I often wonder what the "vintage" bike market will be like in 40 years.  Will people be riding and enjoying their 2010 bikes?  With the number of computers, wires, hoses, hydraulics, etc, I really don't think so.  I think we will deem bikes like that as not worth fixing and maintaining.  More trouble than they're worth.  But maybe people were saying that about my Honda in the 70s.  "Who's gonna deal with four carburetors and electric start?"  Well, it turns out they have held up just fine.  Regardless, I am fairly certain that nobody will uncover a 2010 Honda CBR600 that's been sitting for years and be able to revive it the way we can these old bikes.  And I'm pretty sure nobody will revive one in hopes of touring on it, or using it daily.

 I am reminded of a short ride I took last summer with my dad and his girlfriend.  We were on a country road somewhere near home, dad was in the lead on his 2004 Royal Enfield Bullet.  Trish was behind him on her 90s Harley Sportster, and I was in the rear on the Honda.  It dawned on me that the order of new bike to old bike was exactly reversed.  The Enfield, though made in 2004, was nothing but a continuation of a 1950s motorcycle with modern controls and lights.  The Sportster, well, those were designed in the late 50s and despite having disc brakes and electric start, have used the same engine design since.  The Honda, made in 1971, with it's inline, SOHC engine, was the most technologically advanced bike of the bunch!  That's not to say that the Honda is more reliable than these other two, but I'd say it's as reliable, and even more fixable.

So, while you may not believe the wild stories about how fast and amazing old motorcycles are, you should at least consider how usable and enjoyable some of them still are.  We're enjoying ours, and wouldn't trade it for anything!

Here's to Spring!
Jeremy B


  1. Very nice post, and great bike!

  2. Places I would visit again on a cross country trip not including your well known National Parks and in no particular order). The VLA, Sand dunes nat. mon., Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, Hueco Tanks, J-Tree, the Tesla museum in Colarado Springs........

  3. You had me at "urine container".