As with many young men, eventually the roving eye turns to that two-wheeled conveyance, the motorcycle. Mine was no different. Being at college 185 miles away from home had a big advantage: my mother was not in the immediate vicinity to put the kibosh on the plan!
An acquaintance of mine had the bike in question (Top photo, not the much nicer one immediately above), he let me ride it, and ten minutes later I handed over a couple of hundred dollars and it was mine! I have no recollection of having ridden anything besides a moped a couple of times previously, and am not entirely sure how it was that I was able to master the clutch etc. quickly enough to walk up to this bike, fire it up, try it, buy it, and ride it home. But I did and it was glorious!
The bike, however, looked anything but glorious. Obviously it was a bike that had been passed through a few hands, as it now sported a primered tank and somewhat faded color on the other trim pieces. Being a responsible sort, the first things I did was buy a helmet, take the motorcycle driving test, get motorcycle insurance and then visit the dealer to have them check the bike over. These four steps easily put me at least the same number of steps ahead of most of the other motorcycle riding students in town… The dealer recommended a new rear tire, chain, and sprocket, which I had them replace for not very much money. Motorcycle service departments were (and are) different from automobile service departments in that generally everyone in the dealership rides motorcycles, knows about them, and is interested. Also, the service and parts are generally less costly than for a car.
The Suzuki GS450 came in several variations in the U.S. , including a cruiser style (L) and a sport style (S, with a small front fairing/screen); mine was the base “E” model and looked similar to some BMW’s and Moto Guzzi’s of the era with squared off lines and an attractive design. The parallel-twin cylinder engine put out 44hp and the whole bike weighed about 380 pounds with a top speed of around 95mph. Suzuki sold this model for quite some time, replacing it with the GS500E in the early 90’s of which my brother had an example later on; its feel was very similar with a bit more of a “tucked” riding position. Basically, they were good, solid bikes that were a fair value and easy to ride. Electric start helped a lot as well for beginners and at one point there was even an automatic transmission available, although the standard 6-speed sequential gearbox was a nice unit.
It is amazing how different the motorcycle experience is relative to a car, even a convertible. You notice every slight temperature variation as you go up and down hills or even undulations in the roads, you experience many more smells and you are more attuned to the nature that you are riding through. You also notice the condition of the roads more than you would otherwise and you realize how shockingly bad some drivers are.
For a while this was my only transportation; I rode it everywhere and took others with me as well on back. San Luis Obispo is a small town at sea level with a generally mild climate, meaning year-round motorcycling is usually not a problem. At the beginning of the fall, there was a Motorcycle Safety Foundation training course being held, so I signed up for that; if nothing else, I might learn a few things and it also served to reduce my insurance premium.
It was a great course, they supplied bikes, and gave a lot of instruction involving correct cornering and threshold braking, etc. I did learn quite a few things over that weekend. On the Tuesday morning after the course I was dismayed to read that the instructor, after loading up the 20-odd motorycles into his trailer and towing them back to wherever he was based (not locally), had apparently been involved in a head-on accident about 50 miles outside of town, resulting in his death. Kind of ironic, having taught motorcycle safety skills to a bunch of us, then having an accident in an F-350 with a large trailer; an event that he very possibly could have avoided had he been on a motorcycle.
About a month later I had my own “encounter”. I was driving through town at about the posted limit when I began to go through an intersection (green light) and then realized that the car (red Triumph Spitfire) coming from my right was about to go right through his red light. He noticed me, locked his brakes and slid into the intersection. I applied my counter-steering skills, heard my left peg scrape as I attempted to get out of his way, felt a jolt and found myself in mid-air, disconnected from the bike.
Then I landed and rolled. It hurt, but as soon as I stopped rolling on the pavement, I recall lifting my head to make sure the dude was not fleeing the scene. I saw several people run my way and also some run to him and then I laid back down. Within a minute or two there were several police and then the paramedics showed up. They transported me to the hospital where I was released a couple of hours later with a lot of bruises and severely skinned knees. The doctor told me my helmet had received a large hit and without it I would not be leaving so quickly if at all. To this day I can’t/won’t go through a green light in a city without covering the brake and looking all around.
It turned out that I had almost avoided the car, but those huge rubber bumper over-riders on U.S.-market Spitfires jutted out so far that I nailed them, tearing them off the car in the process. The driver (uninsured, another student) claimed that I was at fault but there were several witness statements to the contrary. I ended up taking him to small claims court in order to win compensation for the damage to the bike and my injuries.
After that I shopped. The bike needed new mirrors, signals and one of the pipes had a hole in it, as did my helmet. In town we had an actual motorcycle salvage shop, I found the mirrors and lights that I needed and then ordered a new Vance&Hines single-sided megaphone exhaust pipe that I installed. It sounded great but still looked pretty ratty with that primered tank.
So for Christmas I rode it down to my parents’ house in L.A. The ride down was great; I left in the morning, got on the freeway and headed South. Gassed up around Santa Barbara after a few moments of panic trying to toggle the little switch to the reserve tank when it started cutting out while riding at 65mph (no gas gauge…) and just sort of kept up with traffic. It was a bit buffety, but warm enough and I had a set of thick gloves and my ski-jacket on. The bike just hummed along underneath me, the engine purring like the little Japanese sewing machine that it was…
Over the Christmas break our retired neighbor Warren was looking at it and said he had a spray set up and if I wanted we could repaint the bike. Uh, yeah! I spent the next two days sanding all the paintable parts and then went to an automotive paint shop and had them mix up a quart of “Mars Red”. This color might be immediately familiar to VW/Audi fans – It is the same color used on the 1983-84 Audi Quattro here in the US as well as on the 1985 VW GTI and Jetta GLI before those switched to Tornado red for 1986. Being a big Audi fan this was the color for me.
We painted the bike parts and the next day I put them all back on the bike. How’d it turn out? In hindsight OK, not great, no drips but a bit of a rough surface; looked good from five feet away, not so great when you were right up on it, but MUCH better than the primer tank look! I also took the opportunity to change the oil, a bit different than on a car but not much, except I had to take the new pipe off as it blocked all access. This was my first experience with a cartridge filter, which seem to be coming back into vogue in car applications nowadays as well.
Riding back up after New Year’s was not as good as riding down, it was cold and then it started to rain and I may have liked to have believed that I noticed a snowflake or two in the pass. Even with heavy clothing on, I got chilled quickly and stopped several times to thaw out. The bike did great (better than me) and delivered me back to school without a problem. Overall, that little bike showed me a great time and really opened my eyes to the joys of a different way of motoring. I kept it through the following fall and eventually sold it to another buddy of mine, for all I know it is still there in San Luis Obispo getting someone to and from class. But in the meantime I found another “opportunity” that took me in yet another automotive direction. Stay tuned…!