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The Quest: 1983 Suzuki GS750E

1983 Suzuki GS750E

1983 Suzuki GS750E. Photos by Mark Rooyakkers.

Many years ago I owned a 1980 Suzuki GS1100ET that I rode everywhere, in all kinds of weather, and anywhere I needed to go. At the time I did not own a car, and once even carried a pony keg of beer to a party, that bike was truly one of those UJM “do-it-all” motorcycles and it was used as such. My feeling was without a car I could own whatever bike I wanted, and at the time, that big Suzuki was an alpha dog. I truly felt like I was king of the road on it and happily went everywhere on my big Suzuki.

Due to my fondness for that Suzuki, awhile back I started looking for a Suzuki from that era, 1980 to 1983, spending a good bit of time trolling eBay, Cycle Trader and Craigslist, to see if I could find a suitable one in hopes that it could magically transport me back to those heady times 30 years ago when I'd enjoyed some of my fondest motorcycle riding. I managed to eventually find the perfect bike and bid on it, only to lose it by $50 at the last second. I am admittedly a novice when it comes to playing the eBay game.

Fueled by frustration, I started looking for other GS models from that era in different sizes. The ten years from 1978 to 1988 saw an unprecedented array of new machines come into the market, making this period one filled with many very interesting motorcycles. In the course of looking, I stumbled upon a 1983 Suzuki GS750E that was available. It appeared to be in nice shape, and had fairly low miles, but it was over 1,000 miles away.

I had to ask myself, “What do I really need a 33-year-old motorcycle for when I have a number of perfectly good bikes?” It was a logical question, but this quest was not logical, nor is my love for bikes. So, I called the seller, asked the questions, made an offer and struck a deal! Entirely fitting when one's motto is “You can't have too many bikes.”

The bike

The 1983 Suzuki GS750E was a bit overlooked when introduced, as that same year Honda launched their V45 Interceptor (VF750F) with its liquid-cooled V4 motor, square tube perimeter frame and one very talented Freddie Spencer riding it in AMA Racing. Honda enjoyed the lion’s share of press for its VF750F, with the Suzuki largely relegated to also-ran status. This model GS750 is notable in Suzuki history as it bridges the gap between the GS series, both the 8-valve and 16-valve versions with roller bearing crankshafts, and the then in development landmark GSX-R series that launched as a 1986 model. Development was steadfast in those days, with wholly new models every few years and little carry over from what went before. In the course of ten years Suzuki remade their 750 model four times going from GT750 2-stroke triple to the revolutionary GSX-R750 (1986 model launched in 1985).

Suzuki 750 Model Evolution — 1972 to 1987

Years Model Engine Type
1972-1976
GT750
Two-stroke liquid cooled three cylinder
1977-1979
GS750 Four-stroke air-cooled inline four w/ roller bearing crankshaft
1980-1982
GS750E Four-stroke air-cooled inline four with 4-valve TSCC head and roller bearing crank
1983
GS750E/ES
Four-stroke four with 4-valve TSCC head and plain bearing crankshaft
1984-1985
GS700E/ES* As above but 700cc v. 750cc to avoid tariff fees
1986-1987
GSX-R750 Four-stroke four with air and oil cooling, totally new engine design using thin finning and substantial oil cooling

* Tariff models — Reagan administration had a tariff on Japanese motorcyles over 700cc, and all the Japanese-made tariff-compliant 700cc models during this time frame.

Compared to Suzuki’s 1982 750 offering, the 1983 GS750E engine had a simpler and more modern plain bearing crankshaft, mated to Suzuki's TSCC 16-valve cylinder head, still used air cooling with a supplemental oil cooler, and was rated at 83 horsepower (72 dyno tested), in a smaller overall package with the engine weighing 28 pounds less than Suzuki's last 750 mill. The rest of the bike was considerably lighter and smaller than its 750 predecessors too, weighing in at around 520 pounds, with a wheelbase of 58.9 inches, a little shorter than the 1982 GS750. The chassis was updated as well, using a single rear shock design that Suzuki labeled “Full Floater” and it had the then in vogue 16-inch front wheel for quicker steering. The Suzuki's frame used some square tubing and welded brace plates for greater rigidity, three disc brakes, an anti-dive system for the front forks, and a dash enclosing the "clocks" in a single housing. Styling borrowed cues from the Hans Muth-designed Katana model that Suzuki rolled out in 1980, creating an integrated overall look with the fuel tank blending into the side panels and seat. All in all a more modern take on the UJM in classic 750cc size.

The trip

Anytime I travel by bike I do my best to avoid the interstate system, and try to plan my travels in such a way that I see new things and ride roads I've never been on before. It ends up being more of an adventure that way, and the trip seems to go faster when you're taking in new sights, looking at new things, and not clocking down the mile markers as much. Time seems to slow a bit as well, making the trip shorter in perceived time as your senses take in the surroundings and you bond with the bike while taking new roads together. Make it about the journey, not about the destination, and you'll enjoy the trip a lot more. An old adage I suppose, but also one that holds true. A motorcycle is indeed a time machine.

More than a thousand miles on a machine “new” to me over a few days provides real orientation by immersion. Whatever foibles, quirks and character traits a bike has will come to light during such a journey. Control feel, handling, ride quality, seat comfort, engine response and braking feedback all gradually become familiar as the bike becomes mine. Bearing in mind this is a 33-year-old machine, whatever flaws are lurking will also tend to surface, as I was soon to discover.

So the trip was loosely planned, no interstates to the degree I could avoid them, smaller U.S. and state highways, and no GPS. Just a kitchen table and a good atlas and then written directions to take along on the trip. I've come to learn that the best routes are the ones marked “Alt., Alternate, or Business” as these are usually the older pre-bypass, or pre-upgrade sections of a given route. Take only what you need, a sweatshirt, jacket, gloves, neck warmer, a change of clothes, sunglasses, ear plugs, zip ties and helmet . It all fit in one medium backpack, making it easy for the airline flights and easy to take on any bike.

Many rivers to cross

The trip began from Bettendorf, Iowa, and would end in Apex, North Carolina. Getting on the road in Bettendorf, I took US 67 South across the mighty Mississippi and into Illinois for a crossing of the “Land of Lincoln” the short way from west to east. Shortly after crossing the Mississippi it was over the Rock which parallels “Big Muddy” at the Quad Cities before joining it just to the south. Continuing south on US 67 it was up and down gently rolling hills, farm fields being planted in every direction, with the smell of freshly tilled soil filling the air. The rich, dark soils of the upper mid-west being readied for another season of crops as they have year after year for generations of Illinois farmers. Tractors were out working the land, with the Suzuki humming happily along at 5,000 rpm and about 60mph with me looking for a non-existent sixth gear. Speaking of gears, I was impressed by just how smoothly the bike shifted with nice direct action and a crisp snick, snick, snick, both up and down the gearbox. I was pleased with my purchase and enjoying my “new” bike.

The riding position on this bike is good, a slight forward lean without having to crouch, and a long seat with a modest step, giving ample room to move forward or back for some occasional backside relief. Within reason I find these old bikes to be more comfortable than many modern ones, especially when it comes to their seats and riding positions. Miles roll by easily as temps in the high 60s make for a pleasant ride in the afternoon sunshine with gloves and a jacket.

With the bike fully warmed now, I come to my first stop and the engine races at 2,500 to 3,000rpm while at a standstill for a red light. Uh oh. As I try to reach under and adjust the idle, I find the spring is just spinning and turning with the adjuster screw and I keep burning my hand on the engine cases as I try in vain to bring down the idle speed. Oh well, for now I'll just live with it and minimize the time I idle and shut it off if I'll be sitting extensively. I'll work on it when I stop for the night. It’s not a big deal. Problems were expected and hopefully this one is not major.

Aggravated, but content to ignore the problem for now, I continue onward picking up the first road to head east across Illinois. IL 116 is the quiet two lane I joined to first begin my traverse of Illinois, and like many of the roads in this part of the world, much of it is arrow straight. I stayed on IL 116 to meet US 24 and on across the Illinois River just outside of Peoria. A short ride on the US highway and I was able to join IL 9 for the remainder of my ride across Illinois.

Harvest the wind

Clean energy is a holy grail these days and one source that is catching on across the upper mid-west is wind turbines. Along IL 9 there are miles and miles of them as the farm fields share space with these giant three-bladed fans harvesting the steady energy of the prairie winds. These modern windmills, spanning to the far horizon, towering over the fields and farms, are silently turning the wind into electricity without using a whiff of fossil fuel.

Wind turbines in Iowa

Harvest the wind.

As I continue across IL 9 I see many large farms dotting the landscape, but the amazing thing is how neat, clean and organized most of them are kept. Older tractors out there working the fields and looking younger than the 30 or 40 years old that they are, not unlike the motorcycle I’m riding I thought. The thing about mid-west farmers that has always impressed me is that they are people who take pride in what they have and how they keep it, and it shows when you see it. Pride in their land, pride in their equipment, pride in being caretakers of the land they live on and earn a living from. Gives you warm fuzzies about the strength of America.

IL 9 runs pretty straight as well, occasionally zig-zagging for a county border, or farm field that forced a turn. Large farms connected to small towns all across rural Illinois, places where the highway runs right through them as the main drag in each one. Banks, churches, county courthouses, police and fire stations, beer halls, farm stores and restaurants, and usually a fast food chain restaurant of some kind. Small towns, different in name, yet strikingly similar in overall appearance and make up, yet without the same pace of change you find in more metropolitan areas.

Riding through Paxton, Illinois, I am struck by the sheer majesty of an old Victorian style house on the eastern edge of town. I circle back to take a picture of it as it is one of the more stunning I've ever seen. Later research reveals it was designed by George F. Barber (no connection to the Barber Museum founder that I'm aware of) and built in 1896. Even more amazing was that in 2013 it was on the market for $159,900, reminding me that in real estate it is still location, location, location.

Stopping for gas in Hoopeston, I had hit reserve for the first time. It took a little more than four gallons to fill it, covering 187 miles for about 47 miles to the gallon.

Victorian home in Illinois

A Victorian home built in 1896 in Paxton, Illinois.

Into the night

Twilight begins as I make it across the featureless border with only a sign indicating that I'd crossed into Indiana. The road ends in a T at US 41 and so I turn right and head south toward Terre Haute, Indiana where I plan to stop for the night. Crossing the Wabash River north of Terre Haute, I am now riding in darkness and depending on the headlights to see. The low beam is mostly useless, illuminating only a small swatch right in front of the bike and so high beam it is and few cars flash me so I guess it will do for now. Add headlight adjustments as something else to address on the growing “to do” list for this bike. With the coming of darkness the temperature drops and I find myself a bit chilled in my sweatshirt and windbreaker combo, so I tuck my knees in a bit tighter and the warm air coming off the cylinders provides some comfort.

Vigo County Courthouse in Terre Haute, Indiana

The Vigo County Courthouse in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The clouds are low and ominous, with occasional spires of lightning and I can smell recent rain and ozone, and it smells good. Here and there the roads are wet, but I am not riding in the rain, at least not yet. Despite the new front tire, these older bias-ply tires are not modern radials and the difference in traction between wet and dry is quite noticeable. Whether that’s due to construction or compound, I just know I’m nervous on these tires. I stay in the right lane once the highway is divided and keep pace with the slower traffic, opposite of my usual preference, and stay in the left track where the road is somewhat dry. Just as I reach the Terre Haute city limits luck runs out and it starts to rain steadily, not a downpour, but a steady rain that quickly has me wet. Destination reached, I traveled 372 miles in a half day of riding and it was time to call it quits for day one.

Once checked in and out of the wet layers it was time to address some of the issues with the bike and get the chain lubed while it was still warm. The motel said I could work under the covered entrance awning and was good enough to provide some old towels I could use as rags, so I used those rags as a barrier between my hand and the engine cases to keep from burning my hand while I worked. As it turns out nothing was broken, and once I’d loosened the adjuster I was able to reseat the spring tensioner and readjust the idle stop screw. After some fiddling I managed to get the idle to settle in at about 1,200rpm. In the morning when I started it from cold I’d find out if all was well, but for now it was time for a bite and some shut eye.

Day two

The next morning everything was wet as it had rained steadily overnight, but the sky was somewhat clear and it wasn’t raining anymore. My gloves and wet clothes had dried pretty well and whatever dampness remained would evaporate from body heat or the sun as I rode again. I wiped the bike off and was pleased at how clean the bike was for a 33-year-old survivor. Now it was time to start it from cold and see how the idle setting would work out. Full choke and it fired right up, but required considerable choke to stay running and a light touch on the throttle to maintain idle even with the choke on. Once it was a bit warmer, it was able to hold normal idle with about 1/3 choke and that seemed to work fine. In continuing to wipe the bike while it warmed there was a noticeable amount of oil seeping from the o-ring seals atop the valve covers and the valve cover gasket itself, but not enough to be of real concern. I’d noticed it the first day more from the smell of oil cooking off the heads when you came to a stop, but not enough to really smoke, just another item for the “to do” list once home. I had the bike on the center stand and so checked the oil level carefully to reveal it was in the limits. I had one carry quart of Shell Rotella 15W-40 with me that I purchased at my first gas stop, so I added a few ounces to bring the oil level to the top of the range. I wanted to see if the bike was using any significant oil, or leaking enough to be concerned, as I hadn’t really looked when I started the trip to have a gauge of sorts.

Out of Terre Haute and on toward Bloomington via IN 46, which turned out to be a very nice ride on a scenic two lane. It was 8:30 a.m. and the plan being to stop for gas and breakfast in Bloomington. Heading east, I was catching up to the weather system that had passed through the night before. Weather can change quickly, but at highway speeds you are generally moving faster than the weather is. I dried out fully while riding and was quickly back in the rhythm of the road, though my butt was feeling yesterday’s miles and I was looking forward to a sit-down breakfast and some casual time with a coffee mug. After breakfast near Indiana University and a lingering coffee break, I got back on the bike and headed east on IN 46 to IN 135. While I’d ridden IN 135 a few times before as I’d once lived in Indianapolis, it had been a long time, and it was a road I remembered fondly, so I was hopeful it would not disappoint. It didn’t.

IN 135

IN 135, an old favorite enjoyed again.

IN 135 sweeps and swoops following the flow of several creek beds with miles and miles of twists and turns, ups and downs, and open arcing curves where there was almost no traffic. However, as I was catching up to that weather system, much of the road surface was still wet, curtailing my speed somewhat, particularly where the road was shaded. Still, it’s a great motorcycle road. Along IN 135 I came to the small town of Story, a slice of Americana that the march of time seems to have passed by. Gas pumps and store fronts looked straight out of the 1940’s, or maybe early 1950’s, and the place felt somehow charmed. No time to really stop and explore, but a place that’s very existence made me smile.

Story, Indiana

Story, Indiana — Is it 2016 or 1950?

I was gaining on that weather, yet fortunately I was heading south for a bit and so hopefully it would stay ahead of me. Taking US 50 east for a while put me with some traffic, but still comparatively quiet as I headed toward Madison, Indiana, and my crossing point over the Ohio River. Madison is a neat town and seeing all the Saturday morning tourists at the coffee shops, art houses and antique boutiques made me wish I had more time to meander and look around. US 421 highway is a fairly windy road in many places, so much so that at times you can’t believe it is an actual US highway. It runs from Michigan to Wilmington, North Carolina, and I have ridden its entirety a few times, but for this trip the idea was not too much duplication, and so I would only ride it from Madison across the Ohio River and on to Frankfort, Kentucky.

US 421

US 421 crossing the Ohio River.

Scattered showers were in evidence as I climbed out of the Ohio valley and into Kentucky with wet roads being the norm and clouds looming all around. Despite the wet roads I had yet to be rained on for day two — the weather gods were smiling on me again. The asphalt was smooth and the road a nice blend of sweeping turns with little traffic to deal with as I made my way to Frankfort. Approaching Frankfort you head downhill past the steep limestone cliff faces and descend to the Kentucky River and cross it entering the capital of Kentucky.

Leaving Frankfort the sky showed a few more patches of blue among the clouds and the roads were mostly dry, giving me hope that I’d cover more miles today and have an easy time getting the rest of the way home on day three. Motoring east on US60 I made my way into horse country as I approached Lexington with some magnificent spreads along the highway with their beautifully maintained pastures of blue grass all neatly fenced and gated. I headed straight on into downtown Lexington, seeing little sunshine as the clouds were building with the afternoon heat. Staying on US60, which was locally Winchester Road, I headed out of Lexington on scattered patches of wet roads here and there, but still not riding in the rain. A bit further on and those patches of blue disappeared, giving way to darker skies and brewing afternoon showers. Soon enough the rain began and as I started getting wet the reality of being soaked through again started to sink in just as a sign for a Best Western appeared along the roadside. The thought of staying mostly dry and catching some HBO on cable with an early stop suddenly had tremendous appeal.

So, with only 254 miles logged for the day when I reached the Best Western, I turned left and into their welcoming parking lot. The manager was very accommodating and offered parking under an overhang and provided a bunch of worn towels I could use as rags if I wanted to wipe down my bike. I checked in, changed into dry clothes, lubed the chain, and then wiped off the bike. I couldn’t help but again admire how nice it was for its age, though at the same time the nitpicker in me kept making mental notes of what needed to be tweaked, fixed, adjusted or changed. I guess it must be part of the nature of being a true motorcycle nut as I’ve almost always felt that way about my bikes. It must be a shared trait too, as many of my motorcycle friends keep their bikes in fine fettle regardless of age or miles, always noting something that needs attention. Bike chores tended to it was time to call it an early day, get the cable TV guide and settle in for some chill time.

Day three

I got up early to snag the free breakfast and I was pleased to find sunshine and pleasant temperatures. It was a beautiful day for a longer-than-usual Sunday ride, and even allowing for breakfast I’d be riding by 8 a.m. The bike is gradually becoming “mine” and I now know how much choke and throttle to get a nice start and how long to warm it up so it idles cleanly without choke. Choke off, but needing throttle to stay running, I ease off toward the coal hills of lower Kentucky starting on a parkway road with plans to get onto more quiet state highways shortly. Soon enough I get off and join KY15, which is the old road in these parts. Built to follow the natural terrain and the flow of water, it hugs the hillsides and creeks as you keep crossing the parkway, or the parkway crosses it, and the road flows smoothly with many curves and undulations along the route. It being Sunday morning, there’s not much traffic, but I am ever vigilant for those little old ladies going to church, as well as sheriffs and troopers on morning patrol, mindful of being a potential target for both of those known road hazards.

Kentucky crossroads

Kentucky crossroads.

Speaking of hazards, as a kid I watched the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard and so route planning included seeing Hazard, Kentucky in real life, just to say I did. Hazard, Kentucky, is a small town in the Appalachian coal country of southeast Kentucky. Nestled in a valley it is a small, quiet town with no signs of the TV namesake that I could see. No Duke boys, no Daisy, and no Boss Hogg. I stopped to take a picture of the city sign and then went on my way running south on KY15 to Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Hazard, Kentucky

Hazard, Kentucky — but no sign of the Duke boys.

In the Appalachian back country there are no direct routes to anywhere, and so to get where I wanted to go it was another diagonal, this time heading northeast on US119. I was generally headed east, but to do so I was on US119 North, and my destination was Payne Gap. I was on the rugged Kentucky-Virginia border riding on US23, the Orby Cantrell Parkway South to Norton, Virginia. Norton also rests in a valley, clearly a coal town judging by the rail yard filled with both empty and coal-filled rail cars, and a large variety of coal mining equipment on flat cars and in holding yards. Venturing briefly into the town itself there is an old fashioned downtown that looks like it hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years. Most store fronts are well kept, with a theatre, hotel, banks and law firms all lining the main street. Pride is evident in the appearance of Norton’s downtown, a credit to the residents there as many similar size cities in the area look far worse for wear than Norton. Riding down the main street felt like stepping back in time, with only the vintage of the parked autos revealing the truth. After a brief stop to get off the bike and stretch, drink some water and check the map, I confirmed my directions and it was back onto the bike and on with the journey.

The saddle on the Suzuki is soft and comfortable, especially on initial sit, but grows increasingly non-supportive as the day and miles wear on. I have learned why Corbin and Sargent seats are comparatively hard. Five hours into the day, my butt was begging for some relief and so on the divided sections of US 58 East I stand on the pegs to take the pressure off my backside. People in passing cars look at you somewhat askew wondering just what on earth that idiot on the motorcycle is doing, but on bikes with handlebars and “standard” riding positions this is a darn good way to keep on riding, get some cooling air to your rear and get some relief for the ol’ gluteus maximus. I have used this tactic many times over the years and find it a useful trick for long rides.

Back of the Dragon

At Hansonville, Kentucky, I join US 19 North to Tazewell, Virginia, where I plan to ride the “Back of the Dragon,” a very good road that boasts 260 curves in 32 miles of twisties as it rises to 3,500 feet and crosses three ranges. The route is actually VA16 and it goes from Tazewell to Marion, Virginia, and while I’ve ridden it before, I'd never ridden it north to south.

VA16

VA16, the “Back of the Dragon.”

Stopping for gas and a pit stop before hitting VA16, I see a group of BMW riders in their day-glo vests, most on adventure style bikes, heading into town from the other direction having just finished the dragon ride. As I pull out I find a group of Harley riders behind me, many two-up on dressers, and the contrast between the groups is striking. Then you have me in jeans on an old Japanese bike and I chuckle at the diversity among us as motorcyclists. At the same time, it's fun to note all of us are out enjoying a ride on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in May on some of the best roads ever made for riding a motorcycle. Good roads make for convergence, regardless of stripe, the bond between us being the ride itself and not what you’re riding — camaraderie found in common interest, one of the best things about motorcycling.

I turn left onto VA16 and the start of the ride, stopping to take pictures of road signs. Back on the bike and I’m pleased with how the Suzuki handles, though 100- and 130-section bias-ply rubber does not instill the confidence modern radials do, but the lightness and ease of turn on the narrower tires makes it fun to maintain a quick pace as the road begins to climb and tighten. About 8 miles in pulled out at an overlook. At the overlook a pair of Suzuki V-Strom 650’s are parked and one of their riders walks over to admire my old steed. He’s about my age and he tells me he used to have a similar bike, and asked how long I’ve had it and how I keep it so nice? I tell him I just got it and I’m riding it home from Iowa and he whistles and says, “That’s a long ride.” His riding buddy already has his helmet on and yells at him to get going so we wish each other safe rides and he wanders off. I take pictures of the view and realize a camera can’t do this justice after I take a few shots, then put it away and get back aboard the bike.

Suzuki V-Stroms

Newer Suzuki V-Stroms, whose riders appreciated an older generation Suzuki family member.

Completing the ride into Marion the road is still great, but more sweeping and so the ride is easier, more relaxing and of a different tone. Often the road dictates the riding style, which is one of the things that make motorcycling so involving and satisfying. Through Marion but still in hilly country I wind my way to Mouth of Wilson on VA16, where I join US58, and from there onto US21 another US highway that is surprisingly windy and a mix of both two lane and divided highway.

Southwest Virginia

The rolling green hills of southwest Virginia.

US21 ends up being a fun ride as I head south toward home crossing from Virginia and into North Carolina on the New River Parkway. On to Twin Oaks and Sparta I stay on this highway until it joins I77 for a short bit running with heavy Sunday evening traffic just as the sun is setting. Storm clouds are making it dark sooner, but apart from some wet patches on the road here and there I have again managed to avoid riding in the rain. Exiting the interstate as soon as possible puts me on NC67, a nice two lane that runs into Winston-Salem. With darkness comes cooler temps and I again am grateful for the warmth pouring off the engine and the light of high beam about right for 60mph travel. The road is mainly straight and as such I am in one position, my butt feeling the effects of a day in the saddle and calling for a stop soon. I continue on through Winston-Salem and decide to stop in Kernersville for gas, food and a break.

Getting off the bike feels good and walking helps move some muscles and get a little blood flow going to the legs and the feet. I generally eat too fast, but now I take my time knowing that it’s only about two hours to home and I’ll be sleeping in my own bed tonight, so there is not any rush. I top off the tank and know I won’t need to stop for gas before home. Climbing back onto the Suzuki it feels smaller somehow, yet after spending the better part of three waking days riding it, it is instantly familiar and I’m pleased with how well the bike has run. I had planned some fun back roads for this last section of the trip, but darkness, threatening weather and growing a bit tired made for a change of plans.

Home stretch

“Get-home-itis” was setting in and I decided that while I’d still skip the interstate, it was going to be highways the rest of the way home. Another stretch of US 421 would make up most of it and then US 64 east to home. It’s easy to get complacent as the surroundings grow familiar again, though riding with Sunday traffic returning from weekend travels, I am mindful of the need to be wary and not let my guard down. With the darkness it was harder to see the storm clouds build up and with those clouds the threat of more rain. One of the themes of this trip was just missing the rain most of the time, but this time there would be no such luck.

With threatening clouds to my east as I traveled south, lightning filled the skies in the direction I would soon be heading. At this point it was only 35 miles to home. When I reached the exit for US 64 the lightning grew closer, the thunder boomed, and the rain was coming. I got onto US 64 East and rode right into the maw of the storm, with high winds, driving rain, and traffic slowing since the rain was so fierce. Yuk. With only 30-odd miles to go, it was time to grin and bear it, and so headlong into the rain I rode, a hard rain backed by strong winds that had me soaked in a matter of seconds. The rain lasted only about five miles and then abated leaving only wet roads and the spray from cars on the highway, but the Suzuki just kept purring right along seemingly glad for the quenching rain and the additional cooling it provided.

With 20 miles remaining and the road was again drying, I started to dry out as well and knowing that I'd be able to peel out of the wet clothes once at home was certainly comforting. On the last leg and nearly home it felt good to have ridden this bike so far on our inaugural journey together, and as I pulled into the driveway and slowly got off the bike I had to admire what a fine machine Suzuki had built in this 1983 GS750E. I traveled 1,186 miles in three days with no issues of any significance, getting about 45mpg overall, with the odometer now reading 13,248 miles.

Highway with curves

A sign that makes a motorcyclist smile.

Final thoughts

Memory is a flawed thing and this bike is not as good as more modern machines in many respects, proving that the march of progress is indeed unceasing, yet in the way it rides, shifts and runs, it's quite good even in a modern context. But did it take me back to glory days of yore? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it is a touchstone to those days and it reminds me of my beloved Suzuki from that era, but no, in the sense that you really can't go back because your frame of reference changes, and with that your overall perspective on things as a whole. So I will cherish and enjoy my “new” Suzuki both for what it is and for what it represents, a link to the past that can be ridden and enjoyed today while living in the here and now. Mission accomplished.

On Three Wheels: Learning to Ride a Sidecar Rig

Participants in a sidecar course

Participants practice their sidecar skills at an S/TEP (Sidecar/Trike Education Program) sidecar course. Photos by Margie Siegal.

“It was easier than I expected. It was harder than I expected” — students at Evergreen S/TEP training, Seattle, Washington.

A sidecar rig can be a fun addition to a classic bike collection. You can take friends, relatives, or your dog along for a ride. You can pack your camping gear and go offroad to your favorite fishing hole.

Thing is, riding a sidecar rig is different from riding a solo motorcycle. If you want to learn how to pilot a sidecar but you don’t have a friend who knows how to drive a sidecar (or if you think the friendship might not survive the learning experience), what do you do? You take a sidecar course, of course.

While not as common as two-wheel courses, they do exist. The state of Washington mandates three-wheeler training before licensing a rider to operate vehicles such as a Can-Am Spyder, a sidecar outfit, or a trike, and Washington residents generally take the S/TEP (Sidecar/Trike Education Program) courses offered by the Evergreen Safety Council. Out of staters can sign up too — but since the course is subsidized by the state of Washington for residents, non-Washingtonians pay more, currently $350 versus $125 for residents. But given that trashing your new ride will be a whole lot more expensive than even the out of state price — not to mention embarrassing and painful — it’s definitely worth it.

The 12 students who showed up for the two-day course on an overcast October weekend were typical of the people you see at any motorcycle gathering. Two were from out of state, and four were women. Most had prior experience with motorcycles, and most had made up their mind as to what type of three-wheeler they wanted. Regardless, the instructors insisted that all participants try all three types of three-wheelers, which were made available at the training venue for participants.

Instructor Jeff Jung and trainees

Head instructor Jeff Jung keeps a keen eye on trainees, helping them gain confidence on a three-wheeler.

Theory and practice

The first half of the first day covered theory and mental knowledge. After lunch, it was out on the track to practice the physical skills of rig operation. The instructors cover a lot of ground in a short time and expect participants to practice hard. “They want you to fly the chair — put the chair up in the air. It was hard at first, but after you get the hang of it, you feel like a kid in an amusement park,” said attendee Robert Briscoe.

One attendee dropped out after struggling with clutch and shifter coordination. The remaining students rode around and around the cone course in the South Seattle Community College parking lot, mastering panic stops, maneuvering and braking. “The hardest thing to teach is confidence,” says Jeff Jung, the head instructor. Jeff, a patient person, was able to communicate the needed confidence and enthusiasm, and the remaining 11 students all passed the course with a new appreciation of three-wheel operation. “I learned a lot” was the most common take-away from the course, and one dyed in the wool Harley enthusiast had broadened horizons. “I got to ride a lot of different bikes and the sidecars are interesting,” he said. A woman student went from scared to self-confident. “I learned that it wasn’t the scariest thing in the world if the right tire comes off the ground,” she said. It’s all about confidence, and the only way that happens is by getting out there — with training. To find out more about classes and schedules, go to the Evergreen Safety Council web site.

Evergreen Safety Council
12545 135th St. NE
Kirkland, WA 98034
(425) 814-3930
http://evergreenmotorcycletraining.org

A Triumph Odyssey

Dennis Fisher and his 1968 Triumph Bonneville

This is a photo of me and my original 1968 Triumph Bonneville. I drove it home from the dealer through a snowstorm in Pennsylvania in January of 1968. Photo by Paul N. Fisher.

The tagline of Motorcycle Classics inspired me to set out on a six-day adventure around the southwest United States on my 1968 Triumph Bonneville with two friends: my old Marine Corps buddy and fellow combat photographer R.J. DelVecchio “Del” mounted on a 1987 BMW K75, and David Howell, a retired national sales/tech rep for Panasonic, on a 2002 BMW GS1150. David is a seasoned rider and having him along provided some comfort in the fact at least one of us had some recent experience with long-distance motorcycle riding. When I announced my plans for the trip to a few friends in our Central Coast Classic Motorcycle Club the responses were not exactly ringing endorsements. I heard everything thing from “you’ve got to be crazy” to “bring plenty of spare parts” to “not on that old Triumph.” In my heart I felt the bike was solid and had been running without problems for years but in my mind I conjured up a thousand things that could fail. The last time I embarked on a long trip like this was in 1969 when I had returned from Vietnam and took my original 1968 Bonneville on a trip from New Smyrna Beach, Florida, to Derby, Connecticut, and back, a 2,200 mile odyssey that saw the Zener diode fail and the battery split open. Back then there was a Triumph dealer in every town and having a bike repaired while on the road was a simple matter. Now I was going to have to be my own mechanic and as a result I ended up taking along a lot of tools and the phone numbers for sources that could overnight parts to me on the road. Prepare for the worst and hope for best was my motto for this trip.

Dennis Fisher in 1969

I rode my original Bonneville from New Smyrna Beach, Florida, to Derby, Connecticut, in 1969 after returning from an 18-month tour in Vietnam in the Marines. This photo of me was taken in West Orange, New Jersey, where I stopped to visit Rich Verderamo, one of my Marine Corps buddies who had a 1967 Triumph Bonneville. Photo by Richard Verderamo.

My wife Mary and I have been married for going on 44 years and she used to ride with me on my original Bonneville back when we were first married. She has endured my latter-day return to the bike of my youth with forbearance and good cheer, which has been a blessing to me. Embarking on a trip like this requires that you have your mind focused and free of distractions. Her loving acceptance of my journey gave me the peace to mind that I needed to enjoy the trip and for that I’m truly grateful. We love to travel together, especially to the National Parks, and have visited many of the locations I would encounter on this trip. I felt some sadness that she would not be along for this adventure even though I knew that this was not something she would enjoy doing.

R.J. DelVecchio and his 1987 BMW K75 along with Dennis Fisher's 1968 Triumph Bonneville

R.J. DelVecchio, in background with his 1987 BMW K75, suiting up for our ride on April 26, 2015. Foreground is my 1968 Triumph Bonneville packed and ready to ride. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

In preparation for the trip I changed the engine oil and topped off or replaced all the other oils in the bike. I put in a new set of plugs, adjusted and lubed the drive chain, checked the primary chain, topped off the battery, adjusted the valves, and lubed the instrument and control cables. In February I ordered a set of Craven panniers and a rack from England to accommodate my baggage and tools but due to a number of delays they didn’t arrive until two days before the trip and the mounting hardware was not correct for my bike. So it was time for plan B that consisted of a medium-sized duffel bag strapped to the seat behind me with heavy duty bungee cords. Perhaps not the best solution but it worked, though I could have used a little more seat space. David’s BMW looks like it just came off the showroom floor and required only an oil change and valve adjustment prior to departure. Del’s bike was prepped by Reg Pridmore’s RPM shop in Ventura with the exception of an oil change, which we did ourselves.

Sunday, April 26

The weather is always a concern for on a motorcycle trip and our departure date was purposely left flexible to take advantage of the best possible conditions. Since a lot of our travel would be in desert areas I selected late April through early May to avoid the heat and summer rains. The desert doesn’t get much rain but what it does get tends to fall in the summer months. The spring weather can be erratic but a favorable trend opened up toward the end of April and we decided it was time to saddle up. We departed my home in Santa Maria, California, on the 26 of April just as the sun started to break through the coastal marine layer of fog and we headed east on Route 166 over the coastal hills on our way to California’s San Joaquin Valley. We crossed the San Andres Fault near Maricopa and were making good time in the light Sunday morning traffic. The bike was running strong, the throttle response was quick, and handling good despite the baggage strapped to the seat. We cruised along effortlessly at 60 to 65 mph and I hoped this was a foreshadowing of things to come. My confidence grew with each passing mile. A stop at Maricopa to top off on fuel was needed along with a pit stop for the riders. The 2.8 gallon gas tank on the Bonnie provides a range of about 140 miles but I usually start looking for a gas station after 100 miles. Refreshed and refueled we were back on the road.

New Cuyama, California

Rest stop at New Cuyama, California. About an hour into our trip we stopped to give our bikes a once over and make sure everything was okay. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

The evidence of the ongoing drought in California could be seen everywhere in the valley with many fields laying fallow due to lack of water. We crossed Interstate 5 and were soon approaching the little farming town of Arvin on the eastern side of the valley, about a 125 miles into the ride. The route took us on State Road 223, a two lane blacktop road that began to climb up the foothills on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. It’s a nice bike road with gentle uphill curves and it was especially nice that day when traffic was virtually non-existent. I motioned everyone to pull over a few miles before turning on to Route 58 for a final consultation on our next stop prior to entering this busy roadway which is a heavily traveled thoroughfare in and out of the Bakersfield area. It was especially busy this time of year as three of the other passes over the Sierra’s were still closed. I gave everyone instructions on where to exit for our lunch break in case we got separated and took the lead with Del close behind. In the traffic I never did catch sight of David in my mirror and wondered why he was lagging behind. We reached the summit of the southern end of the Sierra Nevada’s at Tehachapi, around 3,800 feet elevation, and as I approached the exit we had chosen to get off for lunch David was nowhere in sight. Del and I pulled over to wait for him but after five or six minutes he still hadn’t appeared. I was getting a little worried and thought perhaps he took an earlier exit by mistake. We decided to proceed to our lunch destination at a nearby truck stop and text him in case he was waiting for us somewhere else. I circled down the exit ramp to a stop sign and continued on toward the truck stop. A glance in the mirror confirmed that Del had now disappeared. I did a quick U-turn and headed back toward the exit only to find a pickup truck on the side of the road and Del’s bike on its side. It wasn’t even lunch time and David had disappeared and Del was down. We were not off to a good start. It turned out that Del had lost his balance when he came to a stop on some uneven ground and he couldn’t hold the bike. A Good Samaritan in the truck had stopped to help and the three of us got the bike upright. Other than some damaged pride, man and machine were in good order. While all this was going on David finally showed up. He told us he had turned the wrong way on to 58 and headed west down the mountain toward Bakersfield. Realizing his mistake almost immediately, he was forced to continue to the next exit some 7 or 8 miles away before he could turn around. Well, we were all back together and after some lunch and a gas stop we were back on the road. Continuing on route 58 down the eastern slope of the mountain to Mojave, we turned north on Route 14 and skirted along the western side of the Mojave Desert.

San Andreas Fault

San Andreas Fault near Maricopa, California. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

The cool air of the mountains now gave way to the heat of the desert and a landscape of sagebrush and Joshua trees. We passed turnoffs for old mining towns like Randsburg and Garlock and then up Red Rock Canyon where they filmed some scenes for Jurassic Park III. Soon Route 14 merged with Route 395, the main highway along the Eastern Sierras. With the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains on our left and the Owens dry lake coming into view on the right I knew we were getting close to Lone Pine and the Portal Hotel, our stopping point for the first day. We fought a pretty stiff headwind for the last 60 miles and it felt good to finally put the bike up on her center stand and call it a day after putting 287 miles on the clock. We checked in at the hotel after David did a little last-minute negotiating to get our room rates reduced, unpacked and gave our bikes a once over in preparation for the next day’s travel. The Bonneville had run well and I looked at her with a mixture of pride and admiration that only another vintage motorcycle owner could appreciate. The first day had done a lot to boost my confidence in the bike.

The Portal Motel in Lone Pine, California

R.J. DelVecchio’s BMW and Dennis Fisher’s Triumph parked at the Portal Motel in Lone Pine, California, after completing the first day of travel. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

With regard to accommodations, everyone in our group is retired and camping or sleeping on the ground didn’t hold too much appeal. I anticipated lodging would be one of the big expenses so in an effort to manage that cost as much as possible we planned to seek out “budget” hotels upon arriving at our destination each day. This worked out well for us and we only had one location where budget accommodations weren’t available and we had to make use of a regular chain hotel. We averaged just under $55 a night in accommodations and although they were pretty basic they were clean, had TV, WiFi, good beds and hot showers. That was all we needed after a day of riding.

Monday, April 27

The second day of our odyssey began with beautiful sunrise glowing orange and yellow on Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada chain of peaks that rose up just west of town. With the grandeur of the mountains as a backdrop, we left the Portal Hotel and walked across the street for hearty breakfast at The Grill restaurant. Plans for the day and our 350-mile ride were discussed and maps checked as we waited for breakfast to arrive. We wasted no time finishing our meal, packing our bikes, topping off our gas tanks, and were on the road to Death Valley by 8 o’clock.

Panamint Springs Restaurant

Panamint Springs is about midway between Lone Pine, California, and Death Valley. The Panamint Springs Restaurant is a popular stop for motorcycle travelers and vintage cars on their way to Death Valley. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Del was finding the seating position on his K bike a little uncomfortable and it left his shoulders and back sore after the first day. He’s from Raleigh, North Carolina, and bought the bike in Santa Barbara, California, with plans to ride it cross country to his home. We figured a couple days of riding would acclimate him to the bike and prepare him for the long ride to come. David and I planned to accompany him as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then return to California. We were a little concerned and were going to keep an eye on how he did through the mountain driving that lie ahead of us and perhaps stop a little more often to afford him a chance to loosen up those muscles.

David Howell and R.J. DelVecchio at Death Valley

Photo of David Howell (left) and R.J. “Del” DelVecchio and the west entrance to Death Valley. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Heading southeast out of Lone Pine we skirted around the north and east side of Owens Lake, past the mining town of Keeler and into the Inyo mountains. The sky was clear and the 50-some degree air was still a little cool in the morning, especially as we crested the 5,000-foot Inyo Mountains. The solid exhaust note of my old Triumph was reassuring as I wound my way down the twists and turns of the highway to the Saline Valley below. The ride was beautiful and with virtually no other vehicles on the road we could enjoy the desert panorama that was unfolding before us as we moved along at comfortable pace. The landscape through this area is bare rocks, blackened with desert varnish, and sand with little or no vegetation. It looks very similar to the photos sent back by the Mars rovers. I’ve come to appreciate the stark beauty of these desert landscapes out West, especially in the morning and evening light.

R.J. DelVecchio in Death Valley

R.J. DelVecchio posing with sea level sign in Death Valley, California, during the second day of the trip. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

It was at about this point in the trip something else became clear to me and it had nothing to do with scenery. It was the answer to the question that non-riders frequently ask, “What’s the big deal about riding a motorcycle?” The wording of the question may vary but that is the general idea. So what is it about motorcycle riding that is so enticing to the rider? At first I thought maybe it was the adrenaline rush of an extreme athlete but your body couldn’t sustain that for an extended period of time. Instead I believe it is a sensory rush. Embarking on a motorcycle journey like this has the effect of heightening all your senses to the point of sensory overload. Your hands and feet feel the steady vibration of the engine through the frame and handlebars, your ears are on alert for any unusual sound or sign of trouble, your eyes scan the road and landscape ahead, your skin senses the changes in temperature and humidity, and your nose takes in the smell of the surrounding air. All these combine to write an unforgettable multi-sensory record of the trip in your brain. I think this is why these trips are so exhilarating and why years from now I will be able to recall the events in detail.

Winding our way down the mountain I was startled out of my mental wanderings by an extremely loud continuous noise reverberating off the canyon walls and drowning out the sound of my motorcycle that left me looking in every direction to see what was happening. This was one of those events when all those senses were on high alert. It was a little unnerving so I slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road to try and figure out what was going on. In less time than it takes to tell, an F-18 fighter jet roared over us at low level, leaving as quickly as he came and heading for one of the nearby Test and Training Ranges.

Fifty miles into our ride that day, we came to Panamint Springs and stopped to take a break and discuss the next section of travel that would take us over the Panamint Range, which borders Death Valley National Park on the west, and down to Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley for a break and refueling. We arrived without incident, descending into the valley down a long gentle slope. We gassed up the bikes, bought some soft drinks at the general store, and sat down under the store awning out front to relax in the shade for a little while. A man walked up to us and asked, “Who owns the Triumph”? I said that I did and he went on to tell me he heard the sound of my bike from his campsite and came over to have a look at it. He said he owned three old Triumphs and could recognize that sound anywhere. He was a kindred spirit in this world of vintage motorcycles commenting that he had never undertaken such a long trip but was heartened to hear mine had been trouble free so far. I very seldom ride anywhere that someone doesn’t come up to reminisce about the Triumphs of their youth and of a time and place they remember fondly.

Mesquite Dunes

Mesquite Dune complex near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, California. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Badwater Spring

Badwater Spring, Death Valley National Park, California. View of the spring and the surrounding salt flats. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Badwater Spring

Badwater Spring, Death Valley National Park, California. View of spring with Amargosa range of mountains in background. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

We were soon back on the road and motoring past the expansive Mesquite Flat Sand Dune complex which stretched off to the north covering an area roughly 4 by 6 miles. The early morning light that defines the shape and texture of the dunes so well for photographers had long since faded but it still provided a beautiful sight. Motoring on we are greeted with signs along the road that display the elevation as we dipped below sea level and back up again. Driving through this desert it’s hard to believe that until the end of the last ice age this valley was a large lake fed by glacial meltwaters. The surrounding valleys and cliff faces are frequently adorned with petroglyphs attesting to a once thriving human presence here. The Timbisha Shoshone people still live here on Trust lands within the park which are their traditional homelands.

David Howell at Badwater Spring

David Howell posing with elevation marker at the lowest point in the United States. Badwater Spring, Death Valley National Park, California. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

After a short half-hour drive we arrived at Furnace Creek with the temperature in the mid 80s. This is “sweatshirt weather” for the locals but for us it was getting a little warm and it was time to rethink our selection of riding apparel. Our next stop in the valley would be even warmer. Badwater is 18 miles south of Furnace Creek and is the lowest point in the continental United States at 238 feet below sea level. I planned on a quick run down there and then back to Furnace Creek for lunch but Del was continuing to be plagued with shoulder and back pain and said he would sit this section out and wait for our return. I suggested he stop by the Visitors Center while we were gone and check on getting a National Park Pass. Both Del and I were wounded in Vietnam and veterans with disabilities qualify for free National Park Passes. I had acquired my pass years earlier and encouraged him to do the same. So, with Del heading out for the Visitors Center, David and I hit the road for Badwater.

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California. View of rock formations with Death Valley in background. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

The ride was pretty much a straight shot down a two lane blacktop road with little traffic. Traveling south, we were paralleling the base of the Amargosa Range, a string of barren rocky hills which rose up rather sharply on our left and the Badwater Basin, a vast salt flat, stretching off to the right. Seven or 8 miles into the ride the Artist Drive road looped off to the east and wound its way through some very scenic colored hills, tinted with various minerals that saturate the soil and rocks. In a little over a half-hour we arrived at Badwater, a flat expanse of salt crust with a small spring of undrinkable bad water. We took a few photos and spent about 20 minutes there taking in the sights. It was time to head back to Furnace Creek for some lunch. We found Del relaxing on a rare patch of grass in the shade, parked our bikes, stripped off our riding gear and headed to the saloon/restaurant for lunch. Our timing couldn’t have been better. We were literally steps ahead of three tour buses disgorging their passengers for the same purpose.

We still had a lot of miles to cover this day so after lunch we headed up past Zabriskie Point and out the east side of the park to Pahrump, Nevada. Some of the higher elevations in the park were still carrying a golden mantle of wildflowers that were in stark contrast to the barren rock landscape below. The remainder of the day was spent skirting around the west side of Las Vegas down to Henderson and Boulder City before crossing the Colorado River at Hoover Dam. From there it was a direct line down to Kingman, Arizona, where we would spend the night. We covered a lot of territory that day putting another 356 miles of road behind us.

Death Valley wildflowers

The wildflowers were still blooming in April as we traveled through the higher elevations leaving Death Valley National Park. These flowers were along the road to Dante's View overlook. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Dennis Fisher's 1968 Triumph in Kingman, Arizona

Dennis Fisher’s 1968 Triumph at the Economy Inn in Kingman, Arizona, at the end of the second day of travel. We had covered 643 miles at this point. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Tuesday, April 28

The next day dawned bright and clear, if a little chilly, and after some truck top pastries and chocolate milk we eased our way through town to the Route 66 Museum and the start of our ride down that historic highway. Kingman is in the high desert of western Arizona at an elevation of 3,336 feet which accounted for the cool morning we were facing. A T-shirt and sweatshirt under my leather riding jacket was enough to keep me comfortably warm on the ride. Once the rush hour traffic of town was behind us a vista of green sagebrush presented itself for our enjoyment spreading over a landscape of low hills. Our first stop was Hackberry, Arizona, a short 30 miles from our motel but in our enthusiasm to get on the road our arrival was greeted with a “closed” sign on the general store. The location is awash in Route 66 memorabilia, old cars, signage and appliances from the past. As we were taking photos and checking out some of the old items, Del motioned for us to join him over by his bike and I wondered if he was having a problem. As David and I joined him he told us the shoulder and back pain were not abating and our scenic route to Albuquerque was just going to take too long. These physical problems had caused him to reassess his ability to make the cross country ride to Raleigh and instead he was going to take the Interstate directly to Albuquerque, ship his bike back to North Carolina and fly home. The disappointment was clear on his face as he said he would stay with us as far as Williams and then he was going to get on I-40. Nothing we could say would dissuade him from this new plan but it was a reminder that anyone planning an extended trip on a motorcycle needs to make sure they are physically up to the rigors of a long journey. So, after gassing up at Williams, Del bid us goodbye and headed for Albuquerque. As I would find out later in a phone call, he made it after a day-and-a-half ride and followed through on the rest of his plan without incident.

Hackberry general store

Hackberry general store with display of car memorabilia and antiques along historic Route 66 in Hackberry, Arizona. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Model T Ford on display at Hackberry general store

Old Model T Ford on display at Hackberry general store. Hackberry, Arizona. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Route 66 memorabilia

Route 66 memorabilia covers the front of the Hackberry general store. Hackberry, Arizona. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

With Del’s departure my original plan needed a little reworking and there is no better way to work on it than to relax over a chocolate malt and lunch at the Galaxy Diner along Route 66 in Flagstaff. David and I headed east on the Interstate for the short ride from Williams to Flagstaff and with map in hand settled down in a booth at the Galaxy to revise our itinerary and partake of a little lunch. The original route took us up through northern Arizona into New Mexico and then diagonally southeast from Farmington to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. With Del’s departure we no longer had a reason to pursue that line of travel and instead decided to explore some of the Anasazi Indian ruins and the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. After lunch we were back on the road heading north out of Flagstaff on Route 89. The elevation had been steadily rising since we left Kingman from 3,300 to 7,200 feet as turned off 89 on to a scenic loop road that led to the Sunset volcano crater and a number Anasazi Indian ruins. This road was a delight to travel and in the hour and a half we spent on it exploring the Indian sites we encountered no more than a half-dozen cars.

Seligman, Arizona

Seligman is another popular stop along Route 66 in Arizona. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

The first thing we came to was the Sunset Volcano crater, a dormant cinder cone that rises about 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. It first erupted around 1040 and continued off and on for several hundred years. The road winds through the lava fields that are a jumble of jagged black rock amid a pine forest. Continuing on the loop road we came to the Wukoki ruins, a fortress-like three-story high structure of fitted stone built upon a large rock outcropping in the 1100s by the Puebloan people that inhabited this area. The structure is masterfully built and considering it is still standing after all these years it is a real tribute to their building skills. The next site we came to was the Lomaki ruins that dates to approximately the same time and showcases the same building skills.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument north of Flagstaff. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

State Route 545

State Route 545 north of Flagstaff. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Wukoki pueblo

Wukoki pueblo located north of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the Wupatki National Monument. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Lomaki pueblo

Lomaki pueblo located north of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the Wupatki National Monument. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Arizona Route 545

Scenic view of the landscape along Arizona Route 545. Typical of the high plains of the Colorado Plateau that covers the four corners area where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico come together. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

The loop road eventually rejoined Route 89 and we headed north toward Kayenta where we planned to spend the night. Our route took us across the Little Colorado River Gorge at the Cameron Trading Post, an Indian trading post established back in 1916 where the local Navajo and Hopi would come to barter for goods. The place is now a popular tourist stop with a gift shop, motel and restaurant for people heading to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. About 16 miles north of Cameron we veered off to the northeast on Route 160 through Tuba City and finally on to Kayenta. The scenery through this portion of the Navajo Reservation was sort of a desolate looking high desert landscape with a scattering of trailer homes and traditional hogans. We rolled into Kayenta around 5 o’clock and began looking for a “budget” motel. To our dismay there were none to be found. The Wetherill was the only hotel with any vacancies in the $100 range and David and I got the last two rooms, considering ourselves lucky at that. It had been a long day and the 344 miles we covered seemed even longer. As I unpacked the Bonnie I began to ponder the fact that this would be the end of the line for us and starting tomorrow we would be on the homeward leg of our trip. The Triumph had performed well so far, no problems at all over the first 987 miles. I couldn’t help but be proud of her even though she was gathering some road film and oil around the engine and on the exhaust system. I would have plenty of time of shine her up when I got home. Dinner at a local Mexican restaurant helped revive our spirits after a long day on the road but David’s yearning for a “cerveza fria” was not in the cards, at least not on the reservation where the sale of alcohol was forbidden.

Wednesday, April 29

Our first order of the day was to take advantage of the complimentary hot breakfast offered by the motel. On the way to the dining room I checked with the front desk to see how far it was to Monument Valley and the lady said it was only 22 miles. So after breakfast we left our luggage in the rooms and motored out to the valley. The weather remained clear and sunny but we were still on the Colorado Plateau at around 5,700 feet which made for a cool morning ride. Huge red rock formations rose up from the plateau and the buttes and mesas along our route appeared to glow in the morning sun. The size and scale of these rock formations are deceptive until you saw a herd of horses grazing nearby or a hogan near the base of one for reference and you realize some could be a thousand feet high. This ride was a feast for the senses and perhaps the most beautiful part of our journey. About 7 miles after leaving Kayenta the road passed close to Agatha Peak, also known as El Capitan, a cone-shaped ancient volcano plug which we observed yesterday as we approached town. Rising about 1,500 feet above the terrain it is visible for almost a hundred miles, depending on where you are, and according to a local Indian we spoke to was used as a gathering place for the tribe during certain times of the year. The Navajo Nation has done a wonderful job of preserving the beauty of this vast area that in turn has drawn tourists from all over the world.

Sentinel Mesa

Sentinel Mesa, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Dennis Fisher with his 1968 Triumph Bonneville near Kaibito, Arizona

Dennis Fisher with his 1968 Triumph Bonneville near the town of Kaibito, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. Photo by David Howell.

We soon arrived at Monument Valley, paid our entrance fee, and rode up to the parking lot. From the observation deck we had an unobstructed view of the whole valley with Mother Nature’s handiwork on full display in any direction you chose to look. This valley was the location for many Hollywood western movies. Perhaps that is why it looked so familiar, especially the Mitten Buttes. Technically the orange red sandstone cliffs are part of the Culter Formation that dates back 160 million years to the Permian Period but to me it was one of finest displays of the natural world I’ve seen. After taking in the view and capturing some of the vista on my cell phone camera we went into the Code Talker museum. Here the history of the Navajo Code Talkers and their contribution to the Pacific Campaign in WWII is chronicled. All of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers have now passed away but there were over 400 in total. Those that are left won’t be with us long. I would like to have stayed in the valley all day but it was time to head back to the motel, pack up our gear, and move on down the road.

Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

The rest of the day's travel was uneventful but the scenery on this plateau remained the key attraction. We reached Page, Arizona, around noon, stopped for lunch at the Fiesta Mexican restaurant and topped off the gas tanks before heading across the Colorado River at the Glen Canyon Dam. By mid-afternoon we had covered the 75 miles to Kanab, Utah, and decided to call it quits for the day. Including our detour up to Monument Valley we had covered 233 miles and we were ready to just relax for a while. Our side trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was scrubbed since both of us had been there before. We checked into the Sun and Sand motel, backed our bikes up to the door and unloaded. While David went in search of some cold beer, I gave the Bonnie a checkup. I heard the chain rattle against the chain guard when I hit a bump earlier and suspected it was getting a little loose. A quick check revealed that to be the case and I opened my tool kit for the first time on the trip. The problem was quickly resolved but I continued my check of the bike just in case something was coming loose. With nothing else detected, I pulled up a chair and joined David in a cold beer, some wasabi almonds and a rehash of our trip and the 1,220 miles we had put behind us.

Kanab, Utah

David Howell, background, packing up his 2002 BMW GS1150 for Day 5 of the trip. Dennis Fisher’s 1968 Triumph in foreground. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Thursday, April 30

This day started off as the coolest so far. Temperature-wise I think it was probably in the high 40s but the humidity was high and it created a damp cold. The motel provided a nice selection of homemade muffins, fruit, juices, cereal and coffee so we didn’t need to go anywhere for breakfast. We packed up, checked out, and were on the road destined for Primm, Nevada, on the border with California. We headed south to Fredonia and then west through Colorado City, Hurricane and on to St. George. The road was like most we had been traveling, two lane blacktop and lightly traveled. A range of cliffs off to our north lined our route through the Kaibab-Paiute Indian Reservation. Once we were on the I-15 with a 70-75 mph speed limit my Bonneville was put to the test. She did fine cruising at those speeds but as a rider with no windshield I prefer 60-65 mph.

Kaibab Paiute Reservation

Red rock cliffs near Pipe Spring National Monument on the Kaibab Paiute Reservation in northern Arizona. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

Although one doesn’t expect much in the way of scenery on a desert interstate highway, the drive down the Virgin River Gorge was very nice. With construction going on in that area I had to keep my eyes on the road but managed to enjoy a lot of the canyon anyway. The ride through Las Vegas was a little slow. There were three big events going on in the city starting the next day, include a big boxing match, and the roads were packed with visitors coming into town. Once clear of the city traffic, the ride to Primm was more enjoyable.

David is a regular at Buffalo Bill’s Casino and Resort and scored a free room for himself and a $45 one for me so we pulled in there in mid-afternoon. Staying at hotels with valet parking and more than two floors was a new experience for us on this trip. The noise and glitz of the casino was in stark contrast to the budget motels and quiet pace of life we had become used to. David was lucky at the slot machines that evening and won enough to pay for a good portion of his trip. I on the other hand was not so lucky and after giving up $10 to the slots I called it a night. We planned on making it back home tomorrow and I wanted to be rested and ready to go in the morning. I reflected back on the 242 miles we made that day and concluded it was my least favorite day for riding. Most of day was spent riding at high speed on I-15 with little time to let your eye wander from the surrounding traffic. My mind kept going back to the beauty and serenity of the ride out to Monument Valley. But with 1,462 miles behind us, home was quickly approaching.

Friday, May 1

This would be our last day on the road if all went well and I was looking forward to getting home. But life on the road is a little addicting and a part of me wished I could just keep on going to some other exciting destination. After breakfast we had the bellman bring all our baggage to the front of the hotel while David and I walked over to the motorcycle parking area to get our machines. I straddled the Bonnie, pulled in the clutch, and kicked her over a few times to break the clutch plates free. As I turned on the petcocks and tickled the carbs I began reflecting on how well the bike had performed and the adventures so many vintage bike owners were missing out of some misplaced fear these old machines were not reliable. I turned on the key and the bike sprung to life on the first kick. Well, mine had proven 100% reliable and any bike that is properly maintained should do so too. I rode around to the hotel entrance and found the bellman waiting with our baggage. We loaded up and began our final stretch of the trip. About half of this day would be spent on four lane divided highways before we finally get back onto two lane secondary roads.

David Howell in front of Peggy Sue's Diner

David Howell posing with his 2002 BMW GS1150 in front of Peggy Sue’s Diner near Barstow, California. Photo by Dennis Fisher.

About 10 miles north of Barstow we stopped at Peggy Sue’s Diner for a short rest and a chocolate malt (strawberry for David). It is a '50s themed diner that has been around for a long time and I think just about everyone who travels I-15 to Las Vegas from southern California knows about it and has stopped at one time or another. But for the fact I was traveling by motorcycle I would have bought one of their homemade pies to bring along.

At Barstow we got off the I-15 and jumped on a section of old Route 58 which took us north of town and ultimately joined up with the new four lane Route 58. We motored across the Mojave Desert to Kramer Junction where we stopped to stretch our legs. This is a modern-day oasis in the desert where routes 395 and 58 intersect. A handful of eateries, gas stations and tourist shops surround the crossroads that provide the only services for many miles in any direction. Our eyes were presented with a bleached out landscape, under a hot midday sun, that is typical of the high desert with sage brush and Joshua trees providing the only color. Forty miles down the road we came to the intersection of routes 58 and 14 near Mojave where we turned off for Lone Pine six days ago. We had now completed a very large loop, or more of a figure 8, around the Southwest and were on the final leg of our journey. After a late lunch and gas stop at Tehachapi we headed down the mountain to Arvin after picking up Route 223. Now we were retracing our first day's ride across the San Joaquin Valley and on to Route 166 to Santa Maria. The cool marine air told me we were nearing the coast. I pulled off the 101 at our exit and paused to shake hands with David before we each headed home. Solo now, I rode the last couple of miles to my home, put the Bonneville in the garage, turned off the key and shut the petcocks. The steady idle of the engine ceased and the hot metallic smell of the engine rose around the now still motorcycle. I was home. 1,821 miles and six days of riding. My Bonneville had performed flawlessly and any misgivings I had about her reliability were now put to rest. I hung my helmet on the handlebars, tossed my gloves inside, shut the garage door and went inside for a much anticipated reunion with my wife.

What a BEAUTIFUL Norton!

Norton Commando

The young woman disappeared inside the cafe, but quickly reappeared with a camera. She took several pictures. I was wishing I could share her opinion of my bike. At that point, over 200 miles into my trip, I was thinking it was a recalcitrant and difficult Norton, with a bad sense of humor.

A couple of months previous, I decided that I was going to ride my Norton Commando to the annual International Norton Owners Association (INOA) rally near Ashland, Oregon. Now, Nort and I go way back, and I had no illusions that the 900-mile trip would be a walk in the park. Nort is, after all, a 40-year-old British motorcycle. One of the challenges I was looking at was getting the motorcycle started. The Boyer ignition draws too much current for the “electric start” (more like “electric assist”) to work. Not being a 200-pound guy or a professional weightlifter, I can't kickstart the bike unless it is on the centerstand, and I can't get the bike on the centerstand unless it is either on the level or, better, pointing uphill.

I did my best to make sure that both Nort and I were going to make it. Before I left, I had the bike checked over by a competent mechanic. I had the front brake master cylinder replaced with an upgraded version. I manufactured a wedge to get that front tire up so I could more easily get the bike on the centerstand. I took a minimum of gear and checked the weather. I left early so I would not have to rush.

Problems had started to surface on the way home from the mechanic. The tachometer was refusing to indicate over 3,000rpm. I called the mechanic when I got home. He said it was the tach cable; he was going to the rally and he would bring a tach cable.

More problems appeared the morning I left. I realized that I could not get Nort on the center stand unless I removed the saddlebags and the duffle I had packed, even with the wedge. I resigned myself to a tiring trip, fired up Nort, and left. Instead of kicking back at the motel that evening, I spent an hour with the tools out. I figured out a way to bleed the rear brake with a minimum of equipment (it had been fine when I rode it home the week before) and went over bolts with a wrench. The sidestand was loose. I tightened it.

Off early in the morning the next day. Norton was running fine, but the sidestand was refusing to stay tight to the frame, and the end of the stand was tucking up under the bike, which made it difficult to get the sidestand down, which made it difficult to get off the bike. I alternated between leaning the bike against posts and thanking good Samaritans who helped by holding the bars. Tightening the bolt at every stop did not help. Halfway up US 199, a scenic road between Crescent City, California (pleasantly cool and foggy), and Grant's Pass, Oregon (in the middle of a heat wave), the speedometer started malfunctioning and oil started dripping from somewhere. Normally Nort does NOT leak oil. This was alarming. I finally made Grant's Pass, found a motel, dumped my bags in the room and got Nort going again so I could park it where I could see it. The sidestand was under the bike again in the space of a few hundred yards. I tried to get it out while standing on one foot and dropped the bike. Totally steamed, I picked up Nort by myself (amazing what adrenaline will do) and verified that the only damage was a slight bend to the brake lever. The paint was unscratched. I went into the room, turned up the air conditioning and tried to calm down.

Looking for an oil leak

Okay, so where’s that oil coming from anyhow?

Later, I went out with tools and a plan. I had found a tube of liquid thread-locker in my tool bag. I eased off the side stand nut, doused the threads with thread-locker and tightened everything up. I checked the oil and found that it had been overfilled and the excess was siphoning out the breather hose in the hot weather. The speedo drive in the hub — a brand new aftermarket replacement — was coming apart. I tried wiring it together with a bit of wire found in my bags. It didn't work. I had no speedometer or odometer for the rest of the trip and had to guesstimate gas stops.

However, the thread-locker did work and I stopped having side stand problems. Things started getting better — or at least stopping getting worse. Staying at the same motel another night so I didn't have to load the luggage and could go for an unencumbered ride in the Cascades helped the attitude problems. When I arrived at the rally, I was at least not ready to bite someone. Mechanic appeared with the tach cable and instructions on how to put it on. The tachometer worked for about a half hour and then started to malfunction again, just not as badly. Hallelujah.

Tachometer drive

The temporarily repaired tachometer drive.

I decided to leave a little early, so as to have plenty of time to get home, and found some nice people to take my camping gear back in their truck. A fellow club member volunteered to ride back with me on his BMW. However, when I showed up at the meeting spot at 8 a.m. as agreed, he was not packed and still eating breakfast. Facing Interstate 5 and temperatures over 90, I left.

It was broiling, especially after I came down out of the mountains north of Redding and headed south through the valley. Norton continued to run well, despite continued problems with siphoning oil out the breather, unlike the rider, who was having overheating problems. About 3 p.m. I found an air-conditioned motel. I made it home the next day, only to find out I had won the long distance/female prize in absentia.

Next time I will skip the prize and take my modern bike. I have nothing left to prove.

International Norton Owner's Association rally

Strength in numbers: Nortons gather for the International Norton Owners Association rally near Ashland, Oregon.

Possibility Machine: The 2013 Ural Gear-Up Sidecar Motorcycle

Ural 1 

Was it because of my early association with BMW motorcycles that I was drawn to Ural Gear-Up motorcycle, or was it because a Ural looks like it’s poised to conquer the Sahara? I’m not sure, and it doesn’t really matter. Bloodlines or aggressive posture aside, it’s really the adventurousness of the Ural that’s appealing. The can-do, pioneering attitude that’s ingrained in the American psyche and the urge to see what’s beyond the horizon makes the allure of this boxer-engined two-cylinder machine magnetic.

There’s an unintimidating simplicity and reassuring strength to the Ural Gear-Up. It conveys the sense that one can take it to the ends of the world and, in case of a break down, it wouldn’t require NASA-endorsed hardware to mend.

Ural Gear-Up 3 

In this modern, hyper-connected, over-scheduled, tech-obsessed world of ours, would a Ural really be used to its full capability? Probably not, but the mere fact that it could be is all the rationale I need. Just look at all the SUVs on the road. How many of them actually see true 4x4 service? Only a tiny fraction. But that doesn’t keep them from being the best-selling model/class of vehicle in the United States, despite the rising cost of fuel and a growing awareness of environmental implications.

No, I believe that it’s because of our hectic lifestyle, not in spite of it, that we yearn for tracks off the beaten path, whether achieved or not, and that’s why the Ural is so relevant. It reminds us of simple pleasures, conveys the freedom that all motorcycles do, and exudes adventure and independence like few vehicles can.

Initially, my interest in Ural was for the 2013 Peking to Paris Rally – a grueling 7,600-mile race across Asia on mostly dirt roads. When that fell through, my interest became less ambitious, although no less earnest, and thanks to Sinless Cycles and Ural USA I’ve been given the opportunity to compensate for that disappointment.

In the couple weeks it’s been in my possession I’ve had the Ural Gear-Up out in blinding Rocky Mountain blizzards that sidelined all but the most intrepid SUVs. With the sidecar wheel engaged, my 3x2 motorcycle plowed through snowdrifts with such aplomb that Iditarod mushers would’ve considered trading in their dogs. And while I’ve yet to ride it to the slick rock trails of Canyon Lands in southern Utah, that’s on the books, as are other itineraries in the remote West.

Ural 2 

It’ll have to wait a few weeks though, as I’m off to follow the trail of Mary H. Kingsley and J. Michael Fay and I’m told even there a Ural would be impractical. Hard to believe, but maybe that’s another challenge begging to be made. Here’s to the possibilities the Ural Gear-Up inspires!

3rd Annual Martin Motorsports Modern Classics Show

Parting Shots 

With 101 bikes on display, the showroom of Martin Motorsports was transformed into a classic bike museum for a day. 

Photo By Joeseph Luppino 

Early March isn’t typically the most active time for motorcyclists in southeastern Pennsylvania. But the late winter chill didn’t stop Martin Motorsports in Boyertown, Pa., from heating up riders with their third annual Modern Classics show on March 2. Entitled “The Motorcycles That Made You a Motorcyclist,” the show is an invitational featuring historically significant bikes of all marques, primarily from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. More than 1,200 attendees checked out the 101 entries that transformed Martin Motorsports’ showroom into a “Museum for a Day.” In addition to rides like a 1985 Ducati Mike Hailwood Replica Mille, an all-original 1973 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport and a near-perfect example of a 1990 Honda RC30, visitors also got to view a rare 1957 Islo 175 Carrera. The Mexican made (but Morini-powered) classic was Islo founder Isidoro Lopez’ dream bike, intended for competition in the classic Italian city-to-city races like the Motogiro. Sadly the races were discontinued, and Lopez passed away before the dream could be realized. Four of these bikes were built but just two survive, including the one shown at Modern Classics.

Guests also relished this year’s special class of competition bikes. An Indian 750cc Sport Scout that has been raced almost continuously since it left the Springfield, Mass., factory in 1936, a Suzuki RG500 Grand Prix bike, and a 1972 MV Agusta 350 Electronica Twin featuring Giacomo Agostini’s autograph on the tank were just a few of the special attractions among the 40-plus racing machines.

A unique element of the Modern Classics show is the professional photo studio that’s set up on site. Each bike in the show is professionally photographed and included in a collector-quality photo book to document the annual show. The books are popular coffee table items among both fans and bike owners, and the series are becoming collector items in their own right.

Next year’s 4th annual show is tentatively scheduled for early March. Mark your calendars. And start polishing.


 Martin Motorsports Modern Classics Show 

1957 Islo 175 Carrera is one of two survivors of just four built. 

Photo By Jack Broomall 

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

Hondamatic. To most Australians it is associated with the Honda automatic cars that were sold in the country in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. It seems a little known fact in Australia that Hondamatic is also the term given to Honda motorcycles equipped with automatic transmissions, and that Honda attempted offering these automatic motorcycles to the Australian bike riding fraternity with no luck. The feature bike in this article is a relic from this era, a California-spec CB750A brought to Australia for testing in the local conditions. Even though Honda Australia decided against selling the model here, the bike stayed, and has found its way into safe hands. 

At the start of 1977, Honda was producing two automatic motorcycle models: The CB400A, known in the U.S. as the Hawk, and the CB750A, a reworking of the CB750F. These bikes were initially conceived as a way for learner riders to get comfortable riding motorcycles without fear of stalling. This allowed for the novice to practice staying upright, braking and riding in traffic, all without having to focus on changing gears constantly as well.

I say changing gears constantly because the automatic transmissions offered on Hondamatic motorcycles were not automatic in the true sense of the word. A shift lever in the same position as a gear changer on a manual Honda allowed the rider to shift between neutral, low and drive. The ability to manually shift between high and low made sure the bike wouldn’t shift gears through a corner, throwing a rider off balance. Also built into the automatic models was a linkage from the kickstand to the gear lever, so when the kickstand was operated, the bike would put itself into neutral. This would stop the bike from starting in gear, something someone new to riding might overlook after getting back on the back.

The automatic motorcycles lacked the performance of their manual brothers. Quarter-mile times and top speeds were slower, the added weight of the transmissions not helping. The CB750A didn’t allow enough acceleration on the downshift to pass cars, and the CB400A transmission allowed too much chance of over run when heading into corners at speed. Performance issues and a change in the demographic of bike buyers meant Hondamatics only got a 3-year run before being dropped from the lineup.

In an engineering sense, the CB750A wasn’t just a CB750 with an automatic transmission fitted. Much work went into this model to make them stand apart from their CB750 stable mates. The engine gained different rocker covers and crankcases to suit the different engine/transmission combo. The engines were changed from dry sump to wet sump, the same oil going from the torque convertor through the engine to be cooled. The torque convertor is of the same design as the Civic cars of the time, as well as the Moto Guzzi V1000, which would have been a competitor to the CB750A. A three-part unit, the convertor was made up of a centrifugal oil pump, a turbine wheel and a stator. The oil pump, driven off a primary drive connected to the crank, would spin inside the turbine wheel, both of these components being bowl shaped. The oil from the pump would travel along the vanes of the turbine wheel, where it is then directed to the cup-shaped vanes of the stator wheels, and deflected back to the oil pump hub. Simple but rugged, the Hondamatic motorcycles gained a name for reliability that still stands today.

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

In regards to the fuel system, the standard CB750 fare was not going to suit the Hondamatic. Four 24mm slide/needle Keihin carbs are fitted, along with an accelerator pump so when the bike is accelerated from idle it does not suffer from the “Honda Burp” of the period. On top of this an electronically controlled diaphragm on the throttle linkage automatically bumps up the revs as soon as the transmission is engaged to make sure the bike doesn’t stall. Breathing out is taken care of by a 4-into-2 exhaust system, the silencers swept up and back in the custom style of the time.

Aesthetically, the Honda CB750A looks very different to the other CB750 models, the designers looking to the GL1000 for inspiration. GL-style rims are fitted front and rear, a 19.5 litre GL-styled tank is fitted, and the handlebars are high and wide. The larger GL rims give more ground clearance, but they also make the bike look bulkier than it really is. Stopping duties are covered by standard Honda fare, disc in the front, drum in the rear. The front caliper is slightly different to standard CB spec. A road test of the period rates the rear drum as adequate and the front disc as “not being the best disc brake, but for the design of the bike it works well.”

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

Instruments are basic, the tachometer making way for a large light readout showing whatever gear the bike is in at the time. The speedometer gives the range for both low and drive gear to ensure the rider does not overwork the engine. Drive gear is good from 0 up to 100mph, the low gear being only from 0 to 60mph. Although it is possible to use high gear all the time, using low gear in traffic is the better option, leaving drive for the open road. A large 20-amp hour battery takes the traditional place of the Honda oil reservoir, fed by a 290-watt alternator. Kickstart is in case of emergency only, with a kickstart lever mounted under the seat in.

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

The Australian Automatics

In early 1977 Bennett Honda, Australia’s Honda motorcycle importer, brought in two California-spec CB750As for evaluation in regards to selling them on the Australian market. These bikes were given to local motoring journalists on the proviso that no one was to write up a road test. One magazine broke the pact, and published their thoughts on the CB750A. This prompted Honda Australia, who had taken over from Bennett in importing bikes, to release the bikes for a second full road test. This time journalists would be allowed to do a full review and publish their view of the automatic motorcycle. This was all for naught, as in the end Honda Japan decided that it would be a waste of money to specify such a small batch of bikes to sell on the Australian market, and the two test bikes were the only CB750A bikes brought into the country by Honda.

After Honda Australia gave up on the idea of importing CB750As into the country the test bikes were sold to Jim Airey’s dealership in Sydney. One of the Hondamatics was purchased by a local car dealer, who painted it white. It was stolen not long after and hasn’t been seen since. The second test bike found its way into the hands of the current owner, who after 35 years is still happy with the purchase. Modifications over the years include an oil cooler, lower handlebars for better riding position, and the original exhaust pipes put away for safekeeping. The only other noticeable modification is the retrimmed seat; foam doesn’t last forever and this bike has racked up some miles.

The bike being California spec, the indicators and headlight come on as soon as the ignition is turned on, not something you normally find on bikes in Australia. The bike looks immaculate for all its years, looking no worse than pictures of it taken for a magazine review in late 1977. This CB750A is definitely no trailer queen, either; if it goes somewhere, it is under its own power, and the owner likes to take it out at least once a month to stretch it’s two-speed legs. This remnant of an attempt to produce a whole new class of motorcycles is in good hands, the owner showing it is possible to have a rare bike and not hide it away in the garage under a cover.

Honda CB750A: Honda's Automatic Motorcycle 

Ultimately, the automatic motorcycle craze did not take off. The CB750A was classed as too heavy for novice riders and too slow for experienced riders. The bulk of the transmission worked against both classes of riders, leaving the over-engineered CB750A without a demographic to sell to, thus prompting its demise in 1978. Interest in these Hondamatic models is rising, with riders realizing they aren’t bad bikes per se, they just require a different riding style. It’s good this CB750A has found its way into the feature bike owner’s hands and that he is willing to show it off. Or to put it in Motorcycle Classics terms: To ride it, not hide it.

Thanks to the owner of the bike for his time and information. Also to Tom Day and Stewart MacDonald for their assistance researching this piece.