Old bikes have style – and character. Any machine that’s still operable after say 40 years will have become something special, a piece of living history that conjures sensations and sounds from decades long gone. Turn the fuel tap to on, kick the beast to life… it’s more than merely reminiscing.
An old bike is a time machine. When I throw a leg over my ’76 Kz900 or my ’75 S1C, it’s like I’m back in high school again; I’m young and the world is a better place. The experience cannot be conjured on anything new or even recent, no matter how admirable it may otherwise be.
But it’s important to not get too carried away by reverie and forget that you’re riding a relic … especially if you’re used to riding something modern. It’s a problem you may have dealt with if – like me – you have both old and new stuff in the garage.
My Zed has plenty of engine – but (oh god) the brakes. Single left-mounted disc up front and drum out back. Any circa current-era 250cc dirt bike is better equipped to slow down and forget about stopping a full-size street bike. Especially one going 90 MPH – which is no problem at all for the big Zed’s DOHC four. It is dangerously easy to slip into the delusion that this is a balanced machine, like all modern machines. That the rest of the bike is up to snuff.
Other antiquary deficits of those days include primitive and flex-prone welded tube steel frames, skinny tires on less-than-perfectly-balanced wire wheels that look marvelous but have maybe half the contact patch of a modern bike’s rolling stock; sudden onset headshake and speed wobbles, those godawful (and non-adjustable) front forks and twin shocks out back, stamped steel swingarm, crappy headlight … any of which could put you in the history books.
If one wishes to live, one must adjust one’s frame of reference.
Especially regarding time and distance.
My Kz can keep up (almost) with modern sport bikes in a straight line. But I only do banzai speed runs when I know I’ll have adequate runway to scrub said speed off. Brake fade is only fun when you don’t really have to stop. Seeing the ass end of that SUV up ahead getting bigger and bigger and bigger… no matter how hard you squeeze the lever… not fun.
I also know – and remind myself – that even though the Zed has the power to hit 140, I’d be crazy to try it again because of the way the front end gets jiggly around 127. Do that once, it’s enough.
Ditto attempting to hang off something this old. Not even the greats – Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer – did it like they do it today, on modern bikes that can deal with such shenanigans.
But most of all, I take my time when I’m out riding something old. I seek the long way home, via secondary roads. There’s less traffic, better scenery. And if something fritzes, it’ll be a much better place to pull off to sort it out. One of my old bikes – for reasons I’ve yet to figure out – will blow a main fuse once every three years or so. The bike just … dies. On a busy Interstate, with a Kenworth on your ass, this would well and truly suck. But on a lazy country two-lane? I just ease over to the shoulder, lift the seat, grab a replacement fuse, pop it in – and back in business. Sometimes, I take five to enjoy the view or stretch my legs a little.
After all, when you’re on a time machine, time stands still.
At least, for a little while…!
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