Riding Old

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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.75S1250

It’s revisiting.

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.

If it’s a older than TJ Hooker reruns, usually, it’s not.'76Kz900

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.

Give yourself more of both.oldplate

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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  1. “After all, when you’re on a time machine, time stands still.” Thank you for that line. Poignant.
    That’s the way I feel every time I take the V65 Sabre out for a ride. Plenty of motor, sketchy brakes, a little bit of “sponge factor” in the frame, but I will never get rid of that bike!
    Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks, Adam!

      I took one of my relics out yesterday, the cold weather be damned. I needed a psychological shot in the arm to fortify myself against creeping (now galloping) Cloverism!

  2. Back in the mid 80’s I had a Kwaka Z750E. Clunky to ride compared to something a decade or so newer. The original tyres were from the day it was born. Replacing them with Dunlop radials made all the difference to the handling, but not the brakes.

    Years later I had to borrow a workmate’s 750 Kwaka, a slightly later model than my earlier one with some sort of fairing while my 90 model CBR1000 was in the shop. The handling took me right back in time, when in those days you had to start all maneuvres half a mile earlier. For the first time ever I felt spoiled, knowing what I had waiting for me back in the shop.. 🙂

    • My little triple’s brakes are completely worthless. Despite having been rebuilt to “as new.” Because they sucked when new, too! That weak little single piston caliper will slow the bike… eventually. But you’d better plan your stops ahead of time.

      The 900 is better… but not much. Fool that I am, I amped up the engine to 120-ish hp… but the rest of the bike is stock mid-1970s tech. It’s a two-wheeled muscle car… a classic-era muscle car. All engine – and good looks. Forget the rest.

      That speed wobble I mentioned in the article is terrifying. Just kind of develops at 125-127…. holy crap! It might be like the sound barrier… you just have to bully your way through to cleaner air … but my balls retracted back into my guts when it happened the first time and it was all I could hope for to keep from going tank slapper… which (gratefully) it didn’t, by the grace of the motor gods.

      I suspect it’s the wheels.. and/or the stock “BB” bearings in the steering head, which I stupidly have not replaced with upgrade roller bearings….

      • eric, I had an ’80 GSL 1000 that would start this front-end wobble about 132 and there was just no stopping it. It had air adjustable front forks and did it from day one. Sometimes(guessing the fairing I put on it)it would do over 135 if the fairing was adjusted just so. I never did figure it out except to enjoy how solid it was immediately below that speed. You didn’t have to wait to see if somebody had found it too since they’d be riding slowly and have that “look”. I never lost it but my nephew did. ER for bofem. BTW, Happy New Year to all.

        • Eric, Eight, a friend of mine years ago had a Kwaka 440 with a handlebar mounted bikini fairing. They were usually the cause of speed wobbles because uneven air buffeting over the fairing is directly translated to the handlebars instead of the frame. If the fairing has a big screen, it’s like trying to aerodynamically fly a rocket backwards.

          If there’s no fairing, it could be one or a number of factors. Head stem bearings, wheel bearings and axles, fork condition (bent?), tyres, swingarm bushes, girlfriend placing head directly behind yours at speed making your head wobble or just design dynamics of the machine causing a harmonic at a certain speed, such as the relationship between wheel base and fork rake.

          See if you can attach a steering damper.

          • Hi Rev,

            At some point – when I have a little more breathing room – I’m gonna replace the shitty factory loose BB bearings with proper modern replacements. A damper’s nota bad idea; and will not look “modern” (I like retro/original).

  3. Great points Eric. For daily commuting and long distance driving where comfort is most important, the modern electronic stuff can’t be beat. The vintage stuff has soul and provides a connection to the machine that cannot be duplicated.

    My biggest pet peeve of modern vehicles is the electronic throttle bodies. I HATE these things with the fury of a thousands suns. In an effort to squeeze the maximum MPG/lowest emissions/safety out of new vehicles, manufacturers deliberately slow down throttle response and limit power in the lower gears.

    Here are 2 blatant examples:

    1) The Ecoboost V6 twin turbo engines in the F-150’s are vastly superior to the V-8 engines (power wise). When allowed to, the small sized turbos spool almost instantly and produce amazing amounts of horsepower/torque. Unfortunately, they are limited to roughly 60% of maximum torque in 1st and 2nd gears. Also, initial throttle application in most gears is severely limited which makes the engines feel like they have significant turbo lag. The main reason Ford did this is to preserve the driveline.

    2) All 5.0L Mustangs are restricted by 60+lb./ft. of torque in 1st and 2nd gear from the factory. I have driven countless stickshift mustangs and can confirm this. It is almost impossible to spin the tires from a 5MPH roll in 1st gear. Ford claims they do this for “safety” reasons but the truth is obvious.

    For these reasons I LOATHE electronic throttles. I demand we bring back throttle cables.

    • You have to disable traction control on the Mustang to spin tires.
      The problem I have is that when it gets a little cold mine has horrid wheel hop, but that’s the tires I am sure.

      • The “traction control” in my Trans-Am is feathering the throttle just right!

        Hot damn! Took it out the other day and got reminded what a thrill it is to have the ass end shift a foot or so to the left on a WOT 1-2 upshift, leaving two little black marks on the pavement to mark the event.

        Mind, that’s with an automatic….

      • wheel hop usually stems from a weakness in the suspension, taller (sidewall) tires can aggrivate the issue. Slicks could cure it if you don’t have enough power to make them slip but most likely the rear suspension needs reinforcement.

    • There has to be some aftermarket code that could take care of this, although it might shorten transmission life.

      In addition, what I fear about things like traction control is that they are automatically compensating for substandard suspension components as torque limiting software is compensating for substandard power matching of engine and transmissions. If the car loses its traction or stability control, it probably handles and drives like shit. I haven’t tested that theory, but I wonder if Eric could confirm.

      • It varies by vehicle. Disabling/reducing torque management generally requires a tuner (buy one or pay for the service) and will likely drastically reduce the life of the trans/driveline. There has been a rash of late model 5.0 stangs breaking rearends at the local dragstrip not to mention the ones that can only muster high 13’s due to massive wheelspin w/o the tcs enabled (and lack of driver skill).
        My Regal has a switch which will stop the abs from reducing tire spin, but in order to prevent the pcm from pulling timing the abs fuse needs to be removed (note: the torque management will still pull fuel to reduce power). With the fuse removed the rear wheels will lock up under heavy braking (i.e. hitting the brakes hard at the end of the dragstrip if I think I am going to ‘break out’). The trannies (4t65hd) don’t last overly long with the torque management disabled even if the car is mostly stock, and become a ticking timebomb with much in the way of engine modifications. IMO GM used electronics to compensate for substandard engineering/design and I am sure they’re not the only mfr. to do so.


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