~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Back of the Shop

BSA 441 Victor.
Back when there were still real motorcycle shops, around the back of the shop was were riders and lesser beings would gather during the week late in the day or on Saturdays to swap stories, tell lies, give bad advice and perhaps drink a root beer or two. 

For young men in the alley behind the shops, standing peering through the wide doorway into the dimness of the motorcycle shop work area there were things to be learned about motorcycles and life and occasionally everyone's other favorite hobby: women. Nearly every shop had at least one girlie calendar or poster on the wall and the older guys would sometimes comment on the attributes of the young lady in the picture. If you were too young though, too young by some indefinable standard, one of the mechanics would tell you to stop staring, "You're too young for that stuff!" Much blushing would ensue which of course meant that you really were too young for that stuff. These days most shops couldn't put up a girlie calendar lest someone be offended and not spend money there or worse, be sued by their own employees for sexual harassment.

Saturdays were not usually late days as the bike shops closed at 2:00 PM or so. Does your local shop do that? Do you know why? It's a hold over from the times when dinosaurs roamed the earth and everyone would be getting ready to go to the flat track or TT races on Saturday night or leaving to race the desert on Sunday AM. These days some shops still close early on Saturdays just because they want to. Some stay open later to make those last few dollars. Some are open on Sundays to make even more dollars. Real motorcycle shops are closed on Sundays to attend the Church of the Open Road or Tabernacle of the Trail.

Mostly the real motorcycle shops are gone, replaced by chrome and glass stores more likely to be owned by a car dealer than a motorcycle enthusiast. With hourly rates for shop work at $60 - $75 hour no owner wants the wrenches to sit idle while people BS about bikes. Not likely to happen in most places anyway as customers are carefully separated from the mechanics lest the customer slip on a bit grease and sue the faceless corporation that owns the shop. Customers can be as merciless as the nameless, faceless, corporations that own the shops these days. Maybe they deserve each other but real motorcycle enthusiasts, whether they be shop owners or bike riders, deserve better. Hey, it's the 21st century and that's the way business is but it's too bad there aren't more of the old style shops around where the young whippersnappers of today could learn a few useful things from their elders.

These days there are few shops like those old ones; most of them are now vintage oriented shops or hardcore racer shops. I miss the days when going to the bike shop was a visit with friends and a time to absorb more of the mystique of motorcycling. I doubt that mechanics as a species have really changed much over the years except now they are now called technicians, earn more than starvation wages if they are really good, and computer skills are as important as knowing how to grind valves. Wait, do they even grind valves on bikes anymore? I'm not getting down on mechanics either, the good ones are worth every penny the earn, it's the culture of the shop that has slipped a little too far into the corporate world and left behind the essential feeling of uniqueness, of being someplace special, that a proper motorcycle workshop should have.

When I was in my teens I'd wander from shop to shop to see what was new and stand at the back door chatting with the mechanics. None of the guys wore multicolored paddock shirts or had a pierced tongue, even an ear ring would have gotten you laughed out the back door. I was about 17 years old when I wandered in the back door of the local Honda shop to say hello to Steve, a grizzled old mechanic and former pro racer. He must have been about 35 at the time. Steve was a bandy legged little guy, ornery, profane, and funny.  He could also ride like the wind, even at the advanced age of 35.   I learned to go fast down hill in the dirt by following Steve on a scrambles course one day.  Another story for another time.

The workshop at the Honda place in those days was a tin roofed add-on to the main building. A girlie calendar (tame by today's standards) was on the wall of course, also posters for up coming races five years earlier and an advertising banner for Castrol R. Sitting in the work area was a BSA 441 Victor in dirt racing trim. To whom the big, oily Beezer belonged to or why it was in a Honda shop is anybody's guess because at that point in the racing world, Husqvarna, CZ, Bultaco, and Maico were already dominating scrambles and the new sport of motocross and the 441 Victor was viewed as something of a relic even though it was only a couple of years old.

That day with the BSA sitting there, talk amongst the mechanics, customers, and assembled sages turned to the joys of kick starting a big four-stroke single. Done properly, they were not too bad to start, done wrong and you were assured by the sages of the shop, they would break your ankle and pitch you over the handle bars. Half-hearted kickers need not apply. Failing to know "the drill" for starting a big four stroke single could prove painful and possibly lead to a heart attack after a dozen fruitless kicks. No finely tuned overhead cam, computer controlled, electric start, automatic compression release engines in those days. Big motorcycles were started by men with the ability to start them, men who understood and could perform the drill. Of course if it was a full on race bike in was bump-started but even then, without the drill, you'd just lock up the back wheel and push yourself blue in the face which wasn't any easier than kicking until you were blue in the face but was less risky to the foot and ankle.

Steve commented loudly that he could kick start the 441cc BSA with his bare hand. "BS!" was heard all around. "No one can do that!" "You'd break your %$^% arm if it kicks back!" "Ya just gotta know the drill, ya dumb a__" said Steve. "Bet you $5 I can do it." Five dollars was about an hours wage for a good mechanic in those days and about four times more than I made in a hour pushing a broom at the local dry cleaners.  One of the guys said "You're on! Somebody get ready to take him to the hospital to get his arm splinted."

Steve stepped over to the Beezer, turn the petcock to on, pushed the kickstart lever through with his hand until he felt the piston come up on compression, pressed the tickler button on the Amal carb just until gas dribbled out the over flow hole a precise amount, pulled the compression release to move the piston past top dead center, released the compression release, took a vise like grip on the kickstart lever with his left hand and with without hesitation slammed it downward and let it flip back up on one bullwhip-like motion. The big Beezer popped to life and Steve reached over to blipped the throttle to keep it running. People laughed and shook their heads in disbelief. Steve rev'ed up BSA, it made a thunderous, ear hammering noise in the tin roofed shop; he rolled the throttle shut and hit the red kill button on the right handlebar. The bettor, smiling and shaking his head, pulled out his wallet and produced the five bucks he'd just lost. Said Steve "See ya dumb a___, I told ya, ya just gotta know the drill."

Many, many years later I went to look at a Suzuki DR650 that was offered for sale in the Cycle Trader. The DR is Suzuki's big, 650cc single cylinder dualsport bike. When I'd called about the bike the owner said it was really clean but that the compression release was non-functional, the cable connecting the release to the handlebar mounted release lever had let go. Apparently they had not been able to start the bike for some time because of the stiff compression and 650cc of stone cold single cylinder motor. Before I left my house to look at the bike I grabbed a motocross boot, a right one. I suspected there would be man's work to be done and a tennis shoe would not be adequate to the task.

Arriving at the seller's house and looking at the big Suzuki I decided it might be worth buying but definitely wanted to hear it run and to ride it first. The owner said I was welcome to try and start it but he'd tried and when it kicked back it darned near broke his ankle and tried to toss him over the bars. I put on the motocross boot and swung a leg over the bike. No, I would never try to start a big 4-stroke single with my bare hand. I might be crazy but I'm not that crazy. I've done some small two stokes that way and that was scary enough. The 650's compression release lever flopped uselessly, the cable broken at the lever. I turned the petcock to on and flipped the choke lever. Next I pushed the kick start lever through until I felt the piston come up on compression, then just past. Taking a deep breath I gave the kick starter a huge, full on stomp. Nothing happened. One more time. Nothing. Puff, puff, wheeze, wheeze. Please God, let this thing start. I had about one more big stomp left in me and let it fly. The big Suzuki thumped to life and I gingerly fiddled with the throttle and choke so it wouldn't die and I'd have to repeat the stomping and wheezing. The owner looked amazed and said "We haven't been able to get that thing started since the compression release broke." "Ya well" I replied, "Ya just gotta know the drill with these things." I didn't call him a "dumb a___" because most likely the poor fellow, being young, never had the chance to be properly educated at the back of a motorcycle shop by guys like Steve.


gregLewis said...

This is great writing. Thank you!

Travis said...

You've just identified one of the defining factors of a good shop and/or dealership. If you can't walk back and talk with the guy working on your bike, why are you there? Plus, you might learn something, like how to hand start a monster single.

Another great post Doug, thanks.

Doug Klassen said...


One of the nice things about my Aprilia is that the two Aprilia dealers I've been to actually let you speak to the techs and ask questions as long as you don't get in the way. Seems like the European brand dealers tend to be more accomodating than the others.


Jeff "Madscientist955" said...

Great stuff Doug. I've been to a small number of such shops in my short 25 years and will only give my money to the shops that come close to they kind you have talked about. My hard earned money is only good for another hard working man who can appreciate it and appreciate the relationship bikers have with their bikes and fellow bikers in our society.

POLIZZI said...

very rad post -- when you old guys pass this stuff on you help define the subculture--Thanks I knew intuitively I was on it with the big singles and my local shop.
My grand father (now 86) used to say, " Dumb A__" as a term of special status, serving to calrify acts or coments of stupidity that had some merit at least as entertainment value-It was reserved for those like his grandson or other family members in regards to familiarity- other wise he wouldnt bother to say anything...

Anonymous said...

I too grew up in Arizona, Tucson to be exact during the 50's and early 60's. It was truly a great place. On my 14th. birthday, I got my restricted motorcycle license (5 HP or less, Remember that one?) That was June of 1961. I was soon crusing the streets on an old Cushman (it was pretty sad). I soon graduated to an old Honda C110 (49CC). That was a small improvment. About two years later, I moved up another notch to a Tiger Cub. Things were getting better! One of the rich kids got a brand new 250 Victor about that time. I was green with envy!! It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Speaking of BEAUTIFUL, your 441 looks to be about as good as they get. Please post more Photos of that one!!

Thanks for the interesting site.


Doug Klassen said...


Thanks for the comments. Sadly, the Victor is not mine but was being shown at a vintage bike meet a few years ago. Wonderful restoration job!

Unknown said...

Now days we have to learn this stuff from an the internet. I got a BSA 441 Victor last year, and it's nice to know the drill for when I get it all fixed up.

Anonymous said...

Big Sven:

My last mx:er was a Honds XL 420/HVA bitsa. I'd been racing my lovely HVA CR250 6-speed MAG, but for some reason ALL my entries for the first half of the season (about 20) had been returned, and I was getting desperate. I noticed the 4-Stroke Cup was now so popular they had elimination heats, EVERYONE was guaranteed a ride, if not in the final, so I sold the best bike I'd ever had and used my month's holidays to build the XL-HVA. I never finished the development before it was stolen a after 5 races, wrecked (gently warm-up the engine before riding off? What's that? And what's that noise when I rev it to 12,000rpm? Why did it stop?) and thrown into the sea (later pulled-on a wet suit and recovered it, but everything not broken had melted). Well, I always had trouble starting the cold 4T engine. Warm was no problem. Bare in mind my legs were so strong I could kickstart a flooded 400 HVA by kicking it over at 3,000rpm for 30 seconds, filling the air with deep-blue expletives at the same time. One day in the pits I was huffing and puffing, not wanting the shame of asking for a push, when this old guy (55, Matchless scrambler, pottered around for fun on practice days) came over and looked at me. Then grinned. And loudly - so everyone could hear - said I could stop trying to wind-up the elastic-band, he could start the engine by hand. Oh yes, THIS promises to be good, thought the entire pits, and came over to gloat.

He then reached forward, took the kickstart in his hand...

...and... chug-chug-chug - did so.

To make my day a wag reached me a spade and told me to dig 'The Hole'.

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