Motorcycles of a Lifetime: Two Wheels are More Fun

Last month I tried to cram all the cars I’ve owned into a single COAL; today I’ll document my motorcycle ownership in a single MOAL. I know there are a few motorcyclists here, but I suspect most of you are more interested in four wheeled vehicles, so I’ll try to explain the technical and historic significance of some of my bikes.

As explained in my COAL, my choice of a first car was highly influenced by my family and community experience. My choice of motorcycle was also influenced by my community, but definitely not family … I’m quite sure that none of my relatives, and certainly not my parents or sister, had any interest in bikes. But there was a sizable motorcycle community in Northern California in the 1970’s, with lots of local competition venues for short track, mile dirt, road racing, drag racing, and even trials and motocross. Starting less than a mile from home was a tantalizing network of paved, twisty canyon roads. And in addition to the usual Honda and Suzuki dealers, our town had a greasy shop called TT Motors, where I could hang out and drool over Moto Guzzis, Ducatis, Nortons and Moto Morinis.

This culture, along with my existing interest in sports cars and Formula One, and European marques, steered me to a 1965 Bultaco Mercurio as my first motorcycle. It was 1974 (1-1/2 years before my first car), I was 17, and the price of this well-used bike was $1 per cc, or $175. Bultaco was a Spanish manufacturer of single cylinder two-strokes, with both street and (mostly) dirt bikes in their lineup, up to 360cc. Many of their bikes had an excellent reputation for performance; the Mercurio was more basic transportation. Unfortunately, motorcycling took over from my previous hobby, photography, to the extent that my camera gathered dust and I don’t have many pictures of my early bikes. This picture of the Mercurio was probably taken just before I sold it, having added low clip-on handlebars, a larger tank from a Bultaco 250 Metralla, a solo seat, and painted it black.

The bike I really wanted … well, at least within my budget … was a 250cc Metralla like the one that had donated its tank to my Mercurio. I found one, a ’67, and tidied it up, rode it a bit, just enough to A) realize that constantly fettling a Spanish two-stroke with British carburetors was not my thing, and B) realize that I wanted to actually ride long(ish) distances on a bike. So I sold the Metralla to a friend, who briefly road raced it (above, at Sears Point). Given that my Bultacos would rarely run for more than 10-20 miles without needing some adjustment, it’s hard to believe that the Metralla could (and did) finish a short club race, let alone the 24 Hours of Montjuich in Spain, where the marque had several victories. Speaking of racing style, what I wanted now was a Honda 350.

But not the ubiquitous Honda 350 twin, which had helped push the British motorcycling industry to its knees (along with the 450 and of course the 750-4). No, I wanted the 4 cylinder CB350F, with four flowing exhaust pipes just like the GP bikes ridden by my heroes Mike Hailwood and John Surtees. My candy-apple red 1973 example had a 10,000 rpm redline, a disc brake (!) and electric start. Even turn signals. I replaced the tall, American style handlebars with some lower, European style bars and finally bought a real helmet, though as the picture above shows, I didn’t yet subscribe to the ATGATT philosophy (All The Gear, All The Time). Hey, I was still a teenager. With money from odd jobs, I upgraded the tires to Continentals (this was a time when Japanese OEM tires were derided as “rim protectors”) and some S&W rear shocks, and proceeded to grind the footpegs and those beautiful mufflers against the pavement of the twisty roads in the East Bay hills.

The 350F was not a great seller, at least in the US. It was priced higher than Honda’s own twin, which continued as a 360, and was slower than the two stroke competition from Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki. But it was very refined and very reliable. Soon after getting the Honda, though, I bought my first car and for the next 16 years I owned both cars and bikes. By the following summer, I had an engineering internship and some real spending money. I used my car budget to buy a Vega GT ($1200).

I used my motorcycle budget to buy a CB400F ($600). This was the successor to the 350F, bumped up to 400cc and with a 6 speed gearbox. This bike was the darling of the motorcycle press, but in reality it was only slightly faster than the 350F, and slower than the competition which was growing from 350 to 400cc. As a side note, the typical European and Japanese engine displacements of 50, 125, 250, 350 and 500cc were related to then-common motorcycle racing classifications. The famous 650 Triumphs and BSA’s were not typically raced in the same types of events; in US racing, they were considered Open Class bikes (up to 750cc), and when the Honda 750 came out in 1969, along with 750cc Triumphs, Nortons, BSA’s and Ducati’s, it seems the manufacturers started defining the displacement classes rather than the sanctioning bodies.

By 1976, all the Japanese 350;’s had become 380 – 400 cc bikes; 500’s would grow to 550 and then 600cc, etc. The 1976 Yamaha RD400 two-stroke twin had equal displacement to the Honda, more power, cast alloy wheels and front AND rear discs. Suddenly, my Honda was a pig. So I tore down the engine, got it bored out to 508cc, added a Yoshima cam, S&W shocks, wider (but still wire-spoked, laced and trued by me) aluminum rims and road racing compound Michelin tires. Oh, and I painted the head red – my very own Testarossa. With the mods, it would run with a stock Yamaha RD400 up to an indicated 100 mph. It stayed in my garage for five years, though sometimes pushed aside in favor of my Showroom Stock Fiesta and then my WS6 TransAm.

By the autumn of 1981 I realized that I was getting burnt out on cars, and a new generation of high performance motorcycles was attracting my attention. After studious research and many test rides, I picked another Honda, the CB900F. This was not necessarily the fastest bike in its class – Suzuki and Kawasaki took those honors – but its refined rubber-mounted engine combined with larger than normal fork tubes, adjustable suspension and clean styling won my heart. The TransAm was soon sold, replaced by another four cylinder Honda of the Civic variety. And I started to subscribe to the N+1 model of motorcycle ownership, where N = the number of bikes you own, but N+1 is the number you need.

Here, the 900F and Civic are joined by a 1979 Yamaha RD400 Daytona. I finally had an RD … it was meant to be a sporty plaything, but frankly I had gotten spoiled by 900cc power and big bike comfort.

So the RD didn’t last long in my fleet, but not before I tried a day trip to the mountains, about 180 miles each way. In January. I don’t look too happy here. Around this time, Honda decided it was time to regain the performance crown it had held briefly with the original CB750-4, but largely (in production bike racing) given up to Suzuki and Kawasaki. Yamaha would not offer a high-performance 750 or 1000cc bike until a few years later, and the European brands were perhaps known for handling, but certainly not for overall performance for another ten years or so.

In 1983, Honda introduced the VF750F Interceptor. DougD described his experiences with it’s smaller sibling, the VF500, here. Aside from just wanting a new bike, I was finding myself reaching the limit of the CB900F’s handling. I had upgraded the suspension, and tried all kinds of tires, but it still had a tendency to weave and wobble in certain conditions, including at least one terrifying “tankslapper”. The Interceptor, with its stiff square section frame, and smaller diameter and wider tires, not to mention a buttery smooth water-cooled V4 engine, should have been the ideal sportbike.

Except it wasn’t. Within a few thousand miles, as the rear tire wore down, it showed the same high speed weave, though not quite a wobble, as the 900. And, I had been unable to sell the 900. Not a bite. The Interceptor, on the other hand, was in short supply and high demand, and I was able to sell it quickly after just a few months of ownership for a very small loss. I went back to riding the 900, and ended up putting almost 50,000 miles on it in less than five years, commuting and touring all over the West and up into Canada. But before I sold it, I took a few other motorcycling detours.

As street-legal dirt bikes moved further apart from their racing equivalents, they too started diverging from the classic displacement categories. In 1983, Honda bumped their 500cc four-stroke “dual purpose” bike up to 600cc, with a 4 valve engine, front disc brake, and single shock rear suspension. The XL600R. Unlike many of my generation, I had never ridden dirt bikes, but I was attracted to the idea of exploring on dirt roads, and had an eye-opening experience riding a friend’s XL600R on a long and very twisty stretch of Bay Area road with a group of other riders, most of them on 550-750cc four cylinder sporty bikes. The single cylinder dirt bike left them all behind! I was sold, and soon went out and bought one of my own.

There’s really no automotive analogue to this type of bike. In some ways, it’s like a Jeep Wrangler … but with its light weight and compliant suspension, it handles tight pavement like a WRX or Miata (or perhaps, like a Scion xB). As a bike that’s designed to slide and pitch and wheelie in the dirt, it has a much larger margin of safety to deal with the unexpected potholes, gravel, or decreasing radius turns so prevalent in California canyons (at this point I should emphasize that all of this is from my perspective as a then-20-something. 35 years later I do not condone or practice this type of riding on public roads).

I could even tour on the XL600R. Here I am (on the right) in Alaska. My friend is on his XL350R. Yes, we rode single-cylinder dirt bikes from California to way above the Arctic Circle, and back. Long before anyone coined the term “adventure touring” and mandated that one needed a 1200cc BMW to take trips like this. By the way, for the Alberta folks reading this, our return route included the Forestry Trunk Road south from the Grande Prairie area, with miles of dirt and rain and mud, coming out near Crowsnest and then Pincher Creek, sites of more recent CC adventures

Stripped of luggage, it could still explore National Forest roads … or in this case snowbanks. I think I turned around here. At this point, I had a street-legal dirt bike, and I was still putting in many miles on my CB900F, but I was getting the itch to try racing again. I realized that both my health and my driver’s license were at risk riding too fast on public roads.

Unfortunately , this is a pretty crappy picture, but that’s me on the left at Sears Point, in my second or third American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM) road race at Sears Point. My bike is a Kawasaki GpZ550, an air-cooled transverse four that was very competitive in its class. However, for various reasons I decided that racing bikes wasn’t for me, and hung up my race leathers after my fourth race. 30+ years later, the most memorable experience is looking back on the class winner of my last race, Kevin Schwantz. He went on to win 25 world championship 500cc GP races and the 1993 championship, but he didn’t lap me in that club race at Sears Point!

I sold the Kawasaki, but the Honda was getting on in miles and needed replacement. On all of my Honda 4’s, I’d found the camchain and tensioner design to be a weak spot. After almost 50,000 miles, the 900’s tensioner had used up all its travel (or worn the tensioner shoes) and the chain was loose and noisy. Unlike the Suzuki and Kawasaki fours, the Honda’s camchain was between cylinders 2 and 3 and would require a full engine disassembly to repair. I sold the bike for just $800 and bought a new, 1985 BMW K100RS. After decades of building mostly horizontally opposed, air-cooled Boxer twins (plus a few singles) BMW had recently introduced a radical new bike. Like the big Japanese bikes, a four. Water-cooled, inline cylinders – but not transverse, essentially one half of a flat eight. In more traditional BMW fashion it had shaft drive, and a single plate dry clutch. My experience with the bike was mixed. 1985 was the first year for these bikes in the US; a year of sales in Europe had revealed some minor bugs, and fixes, and unlike with any of my Hondas I got to exercise the warranty and dealer service quite a bit in the first year.

Eventually, BMW decided that this architecture was a dead end; it updated its Boxers, and launched transverse 4 and 6 cylinder models. But my K100 was quite quick (it could pull near redline, or 137 mph, in 5th), very comfortable, and really an effortless sport touring machine. I took this picture in the Eastern Sierra on a Saddlesore 1000 ride, in which I rode 1000 miles in 18 hours. I paid an entry fee, and the prize (if you completed in less than 24 hours) was a belt buckle. Yes, that’s a radar detector mounted behind the windshield. I was quite happy with the BMW and the XL600, but hey, I wanted a cheap beater bike for commuting and around-town use, with an electric start (the XL was kick only) and a narrower profile for lane-splitting. And, you know, N+1.

Another Honda single, this time a 1983 FT500 Ascot. Capitalizing on the street tracker (street bike that looks like a dirt oval racer) trend, this was a short-lived model that used the older 500cc version of my XL’s motor, with electric start and  more pavement oriented suspension and wheels. They’re considered quite desirable now, but it had less power than the XL and worse suspension, and was neither particularly sporty nor practical. Soon after I bought it, I met my wife-to-be and my two-wheeled recreational activities started becoming more pedal powered. The Ascot was sold, and then the XL. I continued commuting, with occasional fun rides, on the BMW, but when parenthood came along, I decided it was time to hang it up, and sold the BMW to a friend.

For eight years my only two-wheelers had pedals. But I couldn’t get rid of the itch, and with encouragement from my wife, I started looking at motorbikes again. First, it was inexpensive used bikes. But wow, something had happened with used bike prices between 1991 and 1999. I had sold my XL600 in 1989 for $800. Ten years later, a neighbor was selling a similar one, in no better shape, for $1600. I had paid $1699 for my XL brand new! Well, though $1600 seemed like a lot at first, within a month or two I was ready to drop ten grand on a new motorcycle. One without a radiator, or even a tachometer.

In 1974, when I had my first Bultaco, a friend owned a well-used 250cc Ducati Monza single. In fact, it was the first motorcycle I crashed, low-siding after digging in the non-folding footpeg in a tight corner. Ducati had ridden the coat tails of the 1960’s and early ’70’s motorcycle boom in the US with small singles that had some performance advantages over the small Japanese bikes, and provided a more sophisticated 4-stroke alternative to the Spanish and Eastern European 2-strokes. One of their unique features was a single overhead camshaft driven by a shaft with bevel gears at the crank and cam ends. In 1956 Ducati’s engineer Fabio Taglioni (aka Dr. T), perhaps influenced by the Mercedes W196 Grand Prix car and 300SLR sports-racing car, developed a version with desmodromic valve actuation. No valve springs, the valves were opened AND closed by rocker arms.

Then, in 1972,  Dr T designed a 90º V twin (sometimes called an L twin) engine, 750cc with the bevel drive cams and desmo valvetrain. At this time, Ducati was definitely a small company that had some racing success with 250’s and 350’s, but was not really in the same class as the British companies, the Japanese or even Italy’s race-winning MV Agusta. But they entered their new V twins in a race for the then-new 750cc class at Imola, in Italy, and finished 1st and 2nd. All of a sudden, there was huge interest in the bikes, and Ducati developed supersport versions of the bike, which evolved into updates with belt-driven overhead cams, then versions with liquid cooling and 4 valves per cylinder (still desmo), along with significant competition success. In addition to the desmo valvetrain. most models featured a distinctive welded tubular steel trellis frame with the engine suspended underneath.

But commercially Ducati was struggling, with various changes of ownership (it’s currently owned by the VW Group). In 1993 Ducati launched the M900 Monster, a product of designer and graduate of California’s Art Center, Miguel Galuzzi. At this time, most of Ducati’s bikes had become sport bikes in the 90’s style, race replicas with fairings and low riding positions. But the Monster was a throwback to simpler, “naked” bikes of the past, while retaining a fairly high sporting specification. It was an instant success, spawned many imitators as well as smaller and larger displacement versions from Ducati. The Monster, along with the 916 Supersport Desmoquattro bike launched a year later, helped turn Ducati into a global icon of two-wheeled performance. Modern V twin desmo Monsters are still in production and remain one of Ducati’s most popular models. I did my bit to help Ducati, and I bought a new 1999 Monster 900.

Like my other bikes, I commuted on it, toured on it, have even ridden a few miles of dirt road on it. It does nothing great, but it looks beautiful doing it. And after almost 20 years I still own it and still ride it; I put over 100 miles on it last weekend. Despite its reputation, it’s been very reliable for 35,000 miles, though desmo valve adjustment is time-consuming and I’m getting too old to get any pleasure from fiddling with carburetor synchronization and mixture adjustment. When I took the above picture, I rode it from the Bay Area, across the Sierras via Ebbetts and Monitor Passes, then back home over Sonora Pass. About 500 miles – in one day.

And here it is in western Nevada. Note the wild horses in the background. That ride involved another 500 mile day, from Santa Cruz to Ely, Nevada. But about ten years ago, that old N+1 thing started nagging me again. My kids were getting older, and I had more time to ride. Despite the above pictures, the Monster wasn’t ideal for long or multi-surface rides. But a new class of bike was becoming more popular, and there was one in particular that fit my interest and budget.

The bike is a Suzuki 650 V Strom. Yes, a weird name … I guess Strom means Storm, in German, if that makes any more sense for a Japanese bike. It is a V twin, like the Ducati, but 60º, water cooled 4 valves per cylinder (my Monster is a mere Desmodue). A 19″ front wheel, and upright riding position and fairing (luggage added by me), and a 5.8 gallon tank with 50+ mpg capability meant I could ride it forever. And in the end I didn’t, but certainly rode it almost everywhere. Above, just outside Yosemite, when I replicated my 3 pass ride from a few years earlier on the Ducati, but added an out-and-back to Bodie, California as well. All in one day. In January. I think that was over 600 miles, more than half two-lane twisties and about 20 miles of dirt. A lot more fun than my January trip on the RD400 thirty years earlier.

As you can see, I am now a firm believer in wearing my protective gear. I’ve also slowed down a lot, both with maturity, and due to aging vision and reflexes.

Those of you who have stuck with me this far, may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the bike in the lead photo, though it’s hard to discern what it is, dwarfed by that pumpjack. As much as the V Strom was better than the Monster on multi-surface rides, it was still a big heavy bike. So, N+1 again, and in late 2012 I added a third bike to my fleet. And just to sync with my COAL, at this point I’ve sold off my Turbo Forester and my car was our 2008 Prius, which shared my fairly long and somewhat mountainous commute duty with the V Strom. So, with fond memories of my XL600R Honda, I buy the modern equivalent, a (used) Suzuki DR650.

The current DR650, still sold in the US in 2018, was launched in 1996. Mine is a 2006. It is nominally air-cooled (though with fairly extensive oil-cooling passages and a very large oil cooler, but no conventional radiator or coolant). It still has a carburetor and is only a 5 speed. The only changes in 22 model years have been Bold New Graphics (aka BNG), where color schemes and striping get juggled around every few years. The only significant improvements over my 1983 Honda are a disc rear brake and electric start. In fact, the equivalent Honda got the rear disk and electric starting, plus a bump to 650cc in 1993, and the 2019 model year version was just announced, with zero changes except BNG since 1993. After years of mostly pavement riding, and feeling a bit fragile as I age, I am not a confident dirt rider. But I completed the ride shown above, a two day tour of tight trails and back roads in the Northern Sierra, without incident, something I couldn’t have done on the V Strom. And I took a one-day offroad riding course a few years ago; I was the only participant who rode his own bike (the rest rented DR650’s provided by the Sheriff’s Department which hosted the class).

Now I’m fully retired. My multi-surface camping and exploring trips are usually in my 4wd Tacoma. I found myself riding the V Strom less, and with 55,000 miles on it I decided it was time to let it go, and sold it earlier this year. I would like to further condense the fleet to just one bike, but I feel nostalgia for the Monster (should I keep it one more year, until it’s 20? What do you think, Jason Shafer?) and the DR is an amazingly versatile bike. What to do, what to do …

Postscript: After finishing this up, I went for a ride and ended up visiting two dealerships who actually let me take test rides, with no sales pressure. I rode two “retro” style bikes, both 2018’s, a Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled and a BMW R nineT Urban G/S (yes, I got that spelling exactly right). The Ducati is an air-cooled 4V  90 º desmo V twin, exactly like my Monster, except with fuel injection and 803cc vs 904cc. The BMW has a 1200cc boxer twin, air/oil-cooled like my DR650. Although these are sold as homages to mid-seventies and early-eighties bikes respectively, they both felt very “modern” to this rider … the new Ducati in particular made an interesting contrast to mine. Despite a very similar architecture and specification to my ’99, it felt much smoother, stronger brakes (with ABS, but only a single front disc), far better fueling, lighter clutch, and generally nicer detailing and ergonomics, for only about 15% more 2018 dollars than my Monster cost in 1999 dollars. The BMW had an amazingly smooth and powerful engine, with decent shifting and handling, unlike the slow and clunky BMW’s of 35 years ago. They provided a clear example that modernity, at least in the case of these bikes, was in the riding experience, not the technical spec.