Ridin’ For Harambe, Part 25

Rick writes,

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!

22 Replies to “Ridin’ For Harambe, Part 25”

  1. AvatarCJinSD

    I thought this was going to be about how hard it is to keep carburetors happy in an age when corrupt politicians dictate what we burn. I wonder if riding a new Harley would have still soured Rick on his XS650.

    • AvatarJohn C.

      I imagine it would have soured him. Harley now receives new respect from import buyers after saying FU to its country and “taking the tough decision” to move to Siam. Of course they never have nor never will buy one.

  2. AvatarDirtRoads

    The other day I was jonesin for my old SL350 with my chrome megaphone downpipes, but then I woke up because the light turned green.

  3. AvatarDirtRoads

    Forgot to mention — I never had the RD350 but a friend of mine did. The SL could out-pull it through the first three gears, but after that he was GONE! And the front brake on that thing was AWESOME for its day. Great bike.

    • AvatarRick soloway

      There’s no way an SL or any other Honda 350/400 could beat a properly launched RD350 to any distance. I speak from the experience of at least 50+ race starts at the aforementioned race tracks. A=F/M and the RD reigns supreme among those players.

  4. AvatarJohn C.

    I think modern designers in many fields, cars, motor cycles, stereo equipment wonder why so few have had Rick’s epiphany. Then they go back to work standing on the shoulders of earlier, better designers struggles and genius.

  5. AvatarCliffG

    A fair number of decades ago i inherited an old pocket watch from my grandfather, it kept terrible time, so I took it to an older watchmaker to have it checked out. He popped it open, looked at it, and said: “Just because it is old doesn’t mean it is any good”. In spite of all the whining that permeates discourse in this day and age we truly live in a golden age for so many things, whether it is bikes, cars, clothes, guns, or anything else. I love old cars and bikes but would never for a moment think they are anything other than toys. It is bemusing to note the abject failures versus older eras, we could build a trans-continental railroad in 3 years, but it will take 20 years to build a transit train to go from Seattle to Everett. Go figure that.

  6. AvatarJeff Zekas

    The ideal old car or old bike has the LOOK of a classic, with the mechanicals of a modern vehicle. This is why restomods are so popular. Or as my buddy Bill was saying: “I want a classic Triumph Bonneville with the sixties framed tank, and the modern, Hinkley motor.”

      • Avataryamahog

        The frame is so interesting. The British were really on to something with their 50s/60s motorcycle frames. I’ve heard that the norton featherbed frame is about as good as it gets for sport bikes with less than ~60 horsepower. I’ve always wondered what’d happen if you dropped the KTM 300 TPI 2-stroke into one of those frames – conceptually you’d have a 260 lb, 55 horsepower 2-stroke bat-outta-hell bike.

        But maybe that’s what’s interesting about older stuff – some things were better, some were worse but on balance if there’s a gap between the modern world and the olden days, there’s usually a good reason why the modern world selected its trade-offs.

        Some things just hit their final form earlier than others. In the 1970s, the airline industry figured out that twin jets were the way of the future and it’s mostly been twin jets ever since. But regardless where the modernitity line / inflection point is drawn, things are invented and that’s exciting then they change more slowly. Heck, smart phones changed more in the first 2 years (and there was a wider variety) than there has been since the iPhone 4.

        Bonus points if someone can explain this process as a hegalian dialetic, I’ll take a stab:

        For any technology there’s a sinuglar act of creation where it comes from nothing (ex nihilo). Think of the first airliners – those miserable non-pressurized death traps. Because there’s no established history to draw upon and the path forward isn’t clear, a lot of different things are experimented with, a lot of existing technology is adapted with compromises accepted. Eventually all the designs start to converge and maximize optimization metrics and progress becomes linearized.

        But the future is interesting, apparently the Alta electric motorcycle kicks butt and with no piston swinging up and down frequently, it’s possible to feel the nuances of the traction patch in the handle bars. It’d be a great way to get around a city, that’s for sure.

        • AvatarSean

          “But maybe that’s what’s interesting about older stuff – some things were better, some were worse but on balance if there’s a gap between the modern world and the olden days, there’s usually a good reason why the modern world selected its trade-offs.”

          That’s good! I’m going to remember that.

  7. AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

    A number of years ago, Peter Egan wrote something similar. Started out talking about a used bike he had bought, IIRC a Honda Interceptor with several thousand miles. Moved on to talking about “the good old days”. Compared his Honda to an older Triumph/Harley etc, where with several thousand miles you would be going thru the bike, basically rebuilding it.

    Old bikes are enjoyable, as long as you accept their limitations and don’t expect more from the bike than it can give. 42 years ago when I bought my MY 1974 BMW, it was all that and a ham sandwich. These days, well, the “shaft effect” needs to be remembered, my Streamlight flashlight (2 AA battery’s, LED) is brighter than the headlight, the seat is more like an upholstered plank, etc. But I love the old thing and don’t see me selling it as long as I can get my leg over it. I certainly wouldn’t ride it from Atlanta to Chicago, but have no problem going to Barbour for a vintage bike gathering.

  8. Avatar-Nate

    Good article .

    I keep wanting to try a fuel injected Moto, I bet they’re *much* smoother to ride .

    Me, I just make simple and easy jetting adjustments to the too lean carbys on newer bikes and they all seem to start easily and run fine with me but then as others here can tell you, I’m just a Cruiser .

    My 2000 Kawasaki W650 twin was nice, a retro bike with good fit for this 6 footer but the thinly padded “just like original !” ‘upholstered brick’ saddle was brutal after two hours, I managed to ride it to Death Valley and back a few times, prolly not a wise thing to do .

    I find very few modern bikes have good ergonomics at all so I recently went backwards and hunted up a low mileage (8,000) 1975 BMW R60/6, it’s not very powerful but uber comfy and like all 12 volt Beemers that are properly maintained, has a factory H4 headlight that’s amazingly good .


  9. AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

    “I keep wanting to try a fuel injected Moto, I bet they’re *much* smoother to ride .”

    Perhaps in some instances. I doubt most riders could tell the difference from a properly adjusted carb setup. Properly setup being the key; correct jets, floats adjusted properly and synced correctly on a multi carb setup. The downside to a fuelie is when you have a problem, you aren’t going to fix it beside the road. as you have to have a computer to be able to tell which sensor has expired (same as a modern car). Been there, done that and it sucks waiting for a trailer to drag you off to a shop where some “parts changer”(very few actual mechanics around anymore) will charge you $75-$90 an hour to install $125 sensors.

    Sounds like you scored on the /6. 8K miles on a 43 year old BMW is bumpkus. be another 50K before it’s even “broken in”.

    • Avatar-Nate

      Thanx, you and I feel the same about carbies, in 1974 there weren’t any issues with factory carbies/ jetting on Motos, only vehicles that needed to pass smog tests .

      I tried to include a photo of it as it’s lovely, never dropped, shiny chrome etc.

      It should easily out live me at this point .


      • AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

        The only issue I ever had with a carbed bike was going into high altitudes. If it was just a short ride, 4-6 hours, I wouldn’t rejet I would just live with it. Otherwise I would go about 2-3 sizes different on the jets (yes, I was one of those people that carried a little pouch with different jets). Modern fuelies with O2 sensors will adjust themselves, adding an aftermarket tuner that has “autotune” it will adjust automatically and also allows you to make your own changes “on the fly’. I use a Vance and Hines FuelPak3 on my HD RoadGlide that has bluetooth and I can adjust to MY desires from my phone.

        I think on the older BMW’s, the secret to the headlight is the lens design. If you compare it to a conventional sealed beam, the difference is readily apparent. I discovered that the hard way on a trip about 40 years ago. As you no doubt know, the chrome trim ring holds the headlight in place. Well, at about 9pm one night the one on mine had gotten loose then fell off. When the headlight came loose, it popped off the plug when it got all the slack out, hit the road and shattered. Lucky for me, I found a Western Auto that was still open, and got a conventional sealed beam, and duct tape as the trim ring was also trashed, The difference was immediately noticeable.

        With the miles on that /6 it should outlast you, your son and his son, before needing a rebuild. 200K miles is not unusual before needing a rebuild.

        • Avatar-Nate

          Yes, more than once I’ve hit deep potholes on a 1970’s vintage Beemer to have the entire headlight assembly (!$ OH MY GHOD !!$$$$$$!!) go crashing to the road…..=8-( .

          Many decades ago as I was digging through some VW ‘trash’ (parts no one else wanted) I discovered an original SOLEX altitude compensating main jet holder, a wondrous thing indeed as I loved driving up and over the mountains as fast and as often as I could .

          Having the proper mixture at sea level and 5,000 feet is nice ~ very nice .

          I foolishly forgot to remove it when I sold that car, haven’t seen another since .

          I’ve been busy cleaning up two old Weber ball typ BBQ’s and now they’re cooking away fully loaded with locally packed chicken hot links, I hope all here are enjoying a nice fourth of July holiday ! .


          • AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

            ” (!$ OH MY GHOD !!$$$$$$!!) ”

            Yep. I decided even back then that BMW stood for Bring Many Wallets.

            That chicken sausage sounds mighty tasty. Myself, I grilled 40 burgers, 24 hot dogs, and 65 kabobs, shrimp, chicken, beef, summer squash, purple onion, red bell pepper and zucchini. 5 quart pan of baked beans and the same of tater salad (my MC chapter had a little 4th celebration) 1/2 hour ago there were 7 burgers, 5 hot dogs and 2 kabobs left. I guess the grub was edible.

  10. AvatarRandall Russell

    Good write-up Rick. When you told me this story, I can’t say I was surprised. As someone else says in the comments, I think the same thing applies to cars. We get nostalgic for the “good old days”, only to discover that the hardware from that time period is nowhere near as good as we have now. Due to this, I can’t understand all the enthusiasm for 60s muscle cars, air-cooled Porsches, vinyl albums, etc. Me thinks the hipsters that go for this stuff are stupider than they look!

    • AvatarCompaq Deskpro

      The rough edged stuff had personality, things use to hum and buzz and rumble when you turned them on. Look at video display or portable recorded media, each iteration became more inert and less mechanical than the one before.

  11. AvatarZerplex

    A buddy of mine purchased a ’17 CRF 250L last season, its a great bike. Little high revving for my off road preference but great on road. Fuel injection is cool, it fires up every time regardless of temp or mood. Digital dash is cute, but ultimately no more functional than analog on XT and DR. Water cooled also cute but is it worth the weight penalty? It makes about the same power as a ’90 DR250 and weighs ~60LBS more.

    It is by far the newest bike in our gang of bikes. ’90 DR250, ’94 XT225, ’98 XR400, ’01 XR100. All 4 of those bikes have a cumulative purchase price far lower than the CRF, could probably pick up another one of any and still be below *budget*.

    I guess the piece of mind knowing your new bike wont shit the bed at any moment is worth something, more to some than others. I’ll keep the long preventive maintenance list and the air cooled fleet personally.

    • AvatarSean

      “I guess the piece of mind knowing your new bike wont shit the bed at any moment is worth something”
      That may be on some buyer’s minds but from experience it’s the newer off roaders that need help the most. At least where we ride.
      More so in the ATV arena. Nothing humbles a 450R rider more than being towed back to the trailer by an old 350X.


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