I’ve just had an epiphany with respect to vintage motorcycles: “They suck more than I ever thought they did!”. Let me explain.
I was 16 years old in 1970 when I discovered the wonders of motorcycling. Riding my friend’s Fox mini bike (tiny wheels, Briggs & Stratton engine, centrifical clutch, tube frame with no suspension) in the woods near the gravel pit was a revelation. Within two weeks I had liquidated some of my supermarket stock boy savings to pick up a Yamaha L5T-A trail bike. I bought this bike in total ignorance of motorcycling, and within several weeks realized that I would have been much better served by the 90cc HT-1 enduro parked next to it at the Yamaha shop, notwithstanding its purple color and lack of the snazzy chrome exhaust pipe that my L5T had. Nevertheless, I beat that little trailbike like a red headed stepchild doing hill climbs, jumps, and laps around our makeshift “track” in the gravel pits. Awesome times-first exposure to true freedom in my life. By the way, that gravel pit and surrounding forest have long been converted into an executive office park, and when ever I return to my hometown in upstate New York and drive by it I weep internally (as I do when visiting Southern California and driving on route 60 by the former Riverside Raceway grounds, and see a shopping mall). I understand the economics of an executive park vs. an abandoned gravel pit, and a mall vs. a racetrack that generates noise near encroaching suburbia out of what was formerly empty scrub desert; but “oh the humanity!”.
The seventies were an amazing motorcycling decade. Every month the magazines would reveal new bikes with new technology (water cooling; electronic ignition; cast wheels; two strokes and four strokes; 3, 4, 6 cylinders….heady times). “On Any Sunday” legitimized the sport in many non-riders’ minds, and we started getting nodding approval when riding our muddy enduro bikes back home from offroading, rather than disdain. I proceeded my way through a ’68 DT-1, ’73 RD350, ’73 MX360, ’78 GS750, ’80 YZ465, ’82 GS1100E, ’86 VF500F, and a ’99 YZF-R1. In the course of this evolution I graduated high school/university/grad school, moved to Los Angeles, road raced the RD for 5 years (at Willow Springs, Ontario Speedway, and the aforementioned Riverside), desert rode and raced (family enduros), returned to the East coast, rode hundreds of thousands of miles, got married, raised a kid, worked in aerospace for decades, traveled the world, and retired.
Then, nostalgia for simpler times set in. So I built a Factory Five Racing replica of a ’65 Shelby AC Cobra roadster and drove the snot out of it (track days, a 16,000 mile/3 month lap of the USA). Then it came time for vintage motorcycling nostalgia. At the time I purchased the RD350 while working summers as the parts man at the Yamaha shop, I also had a hankering for the Cherry Red and White XS650 clone of the Triumph Bonneville. But, given my size and interests back in 1973, I knew that the RD350 was a better fit. However, in 2015 I decided to satisfy that decades old urge and picked up a ’77 XS650D needing some work and love. I went through that bike from stem to stern: new tires and tubes, disc brake pads, stainless steel front brake hose, tapered roller bearings in the steering head, rewired the birds nest of under gauged single colored wires within the headlight nacelle that had been created when the stock instrument cluster had been removed and replaced by those cheap little chrome gauges who’s needles were now uselessly oscillating like a metronome, rebuilt and installed the OEM gauge cluster, added bar-end mirrors, rebuilt and rejetted the carbs to eliminate the stock leanness, installed needle bearings for the swingarm, new o-ring chain and sprockets, performed a complete tune-up and oil/filter change, lubed all the cables, and repainted the bike.
I loved riding that thing, enjoying the comfortable syncopated beat of the twin cylinders. I joined the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club, attended their national rallies in Indiana, Gaithersburg, and Gettysburg, and attended the Mid Ohio Vintage Weekend multiple times. I put thousands of miles on that XS, leaving the R1 to sit idle gathering dust. Then I made a “mistake”. Several months ago, I read about the Trans America Trail and the opening of the Mid Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route and decided I needed to ride them. So, with minimal research bought a ’17 Honda CRF250L dual sport and immediately accessorized it for off road riding. The fond nickname for this bike among some owners is the LRP (Little Red Pig). That’s because the spec sheet reveals that it is underpowered, overweight, and under suspended. BUT, this bike is so much more fun that its spec sheet would indicate. Comfortable riding position, featherlight clutch, instant start with perfect fuel injection, snick snick gearbox….My buddy and I spent several days riding our bikes on the MABDR from Northern Maryland down to Southern Virginia to attend the Motoamerica races at Virginia International Raceway and had an absolute blast riding on the mountain trails in the National Forests in the Appalachians.Then I took the CRF with me to Indianapolis for the several weeks while I worked the Indy races as one of the Yellow shirted Safety Patrol guys in the garages and pitts. I used the bike for easy ingress and egress between the track and the employee campground, and did some local day trips on days off. Good times.
Then, it happened. The weekend before last, one of my vintage buddies (Honda GB500) was visiting for some car event stuff, and we decided to take a motorcycle ride. I put him on the XS650 and I took the CRF250. We did a short 30 mile ride out in the country and stopped for lunch. Afterwards, we switched bikes. I got on the 650 and started it up. Holy moly, what a POS!!! Low seating with cramped ergos, vibration, imperfect carburetion, hard/viscous feel to the clutch pull, somewhat hard shifting….. Now, in reality, the old XS650 is still a fine motorcycle and all those negative attributes are only discernible after getting off the CRF250 and immediately getting on the Yamaha. The new bike is just that much better. I mean, it’s not just a little improvement-it’s an order of magnitude. I’m going to sell the XS650 and now if I want any more nostalgia in my motor vehicle life, I’m going to buy new retro (like a CB1100EX!). The technology has really just moved on so very much. You can get all the visual enjoyment and feel, w/o the downsides of ancient technology and maintenance required. I’m done!