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

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Not Soon Forgotten

34 and looking fine
Forgive me if I ramble a bit. She was special, one of those 'net people we connect with but never get to meet. There was never romance between us, just kindred spirits. She was a motorcycle rider so of course that started us on the friendship path. Because of our age difference and our very different goals in life we never saw romance as a reasonable thing for us so we just "didn't go there."

She'd had so much pain in her life, genuinely bad things and those were before the first bout with cancer. Sometimes you meet someone with so many hurts you have to help, you don't have a choice. I couldn't help but reach out to her as a friend and as someone who would stand by her, not hurt her, and not abandon her. In truth, she was pretty dysfunctional and often shut out those who reached out to her and more than one boyfriend gave up in exasperation. Being her friend took a fair amount of work and plenty of people gave up on her. I wasn't always glad when she called but we don't give up on friends in need.

She had a hard time believing that anyone could actually care about her and not want something in return. But I'm a sucker for lost causes and I felt God wanted me to do what I could for her so I was always there and ready to chat or e-mail or talk. I believe I was the one who talked her into trying chemotherapy one more time.  It was either that or she would die anyway, and soon.

I wanted to go see her when she was recovering from her first bout with cancer but she wouldn't permit it. She'd gone from 130lbs to 85lbs and didn't want anyone to see what cancer had done to her. She never managed to get above 87lbs before the cancer struck again a year later.

She used to call me from California and ask me to tell her stories about how we'd ride together someday when she was healthy and could buy another bike to replace her Honda. Naturally I recommended an Aprilia but she thought the Ducati Monster would be more to her liking. So she'd call and I'd tell her stories about riding around the Southwest and the stuff we'd see and do on our bikes -- vagabond stories, not romantic sunset stories. She told me often that nothing let her escape the cares of life more than riding her motorcycle.

After I would go out for rides I'd send her little notes and a picture so the daydreams would seem more real and she might try a little harder to get better. In truth, she only wanted to give up trying; she was so tired. I wanted to tell her it was ok to give up and I couldn't.

I grew very attached to her and her screwed up self.  More than I'd realized. I don't usually let myself do things like that.

I'm frankly amazed that I'm taking this so hard. I didn't shed a tear when my father died and I loved my dad. But he was old and had lived his life and enjoyed success in all the truly important things.

I was never in love her or her with me, we just grew close in some mysterious way that I don't really understand.  I hope I made her messed up life just a bit better for a few minutes sometimes. At least now she is in Heaven and the pain and the hurt are forgotten. I'm having trouble finding much comfort in that for myself though. She was just 36.

Monday, July 04, 2005

To Forgive is Divine

Motor Cycle News No excuses, indeed.

Let me say at the outset that I like BMW motorcycles. I've owned five of them over the years, certainly ridden more than that, and expect that I'll own one or two more before the Big Dirt Nap. So understand right here that I'm not picking on BMW or the new K1200S, I'm talking about how we perceive the motorcycles we love and forgive their sins.

The New BMW K1200S superbike is finally into the marketplace and the first tests have been seen in the moto press. The first report I read was from MCN in the UK and they compared the bike to the Kawasaki ZX12R and Suzuki Hayabusa. Naturally the BMW was chosen as the best of the three bikes even though it had less horsepower, was slower, has sloppy low speed throttle response thanks to incomplete development of the EFI, can cost $1500 more (likely $6k more in the US) and the styling is "oddball."

One could be cynical and say that MCN like many magazines is...um..."sensitive" to the feelings of BMW and their new flagship bike. Naturally I would never suggest such a thing as a connection between advertising and review results although my experience with bike magazines many years past and more recently with the automotive press indicates that it is possible to for manufacturers to have some influence on magazines. No doubt you are shocked at the notion that commercial considerations could intrude on the purity and sanctity of the Press.

Rather than be cynical (perish the thought) I'll ascribe the laurels often heaped upon BMW and some other companies as being the result of what I call the "Forgiveness Factor." Such is the prestige of some logos or even national reputations that certain shortcomings that would be glaring faults in other brands are simply ignored or "forgiven" in the more the more laudatory brands. I like the religious sounding "forgiveness factor" for our penchant to forgive the shortcomings of our favorite bike brands.

For many riders, their fealty to a brand is akin to a religion. This is true of Italian bike owners, German bike owners, and especially Harley-Davidson owners. Harley owners are the most fanatical of course, forgiving all sins in the name of the Motor Company and St. Willie G. Davidson, amen. As a Harley dealer told me once about buying a Harley, "It's like joining a #$%^$ cult or something."

My official Forgiveness Factor scale runs from 0 - 10, zero being no forgiveness for problems with a bike and ten meaning everything can be forgiven. A 10 usually means there is more to be forgiven, also. Most great classic bikes like Vincent, Brough, and even the lower tier machines like Bultaco or BSA are given 9s or 10's because they are now classics of their time. We may forgive the elderly many things by virtue of them having impressed themselves and our experiences with them, onto our lives and memories when we were younger.

On the Forgiveness Factor scale Harley's are given an 8 because to not forgive nearly everything about them is un-American and disrespectful to the flag and all those diligent workers in America, Taiwan, and Japan that are building parts for assembly into real American motorcycles.

Typically, a Japanese bike would rank very low on the Forgiveness Factor scale, probably about 1 or 2, as the Japanese bikes have no actual soul to connect with emotionally and must make up for that by being as mechanically perfect as robots and honor bound engineers can make them. A shaky electrical system or final drive failure in a modern Japanese bike is rare, it simply would not be acceptable to some 60 hour a week engineer who's personal and national honor are at stake in each wiring harness connector and fuse block. Frankly, I admire that. Since our expectations for Japanese bikes are so high, as their own expectations are so high for their own work, we forgive them less. We also get better motorcycles that way.

On the other hand a mistake in a design by a German engineer would not be cause for loss of face with one's peers or a cause hari-kari, merely another reason to take a week off in Spain or Italy to unwind from the stress of having to redo the design next year. In that same vein, a mistake by and Italian engineer would not result in huge stress as he did the best he could and besides, the bike handles so wonderfully and sounds so good, why worry about it? Let's go to lunch, drink wine, and whistle at beautiful women! In our stress filled, schedule driven, rat-on-a-treadmill world, somehow the crazy Italian concept has appeal and is more easily forgiven.

I have applied the Forgiveness Factor to nearly all my previous bikes and apply it currently with my beloved Aprilia and it's tendency to occasionally display for no apparent reason "error code 1" on the instrument cluster. All bike owners forgive their mount's shortcomings to one degree or another whether they admit it or not. I'm not sure it's good for the Press to be so accommodating though.

Italian bikes are famous for style, performance, and quirkiness, a well rounded and complete cachet that is uniquely Italian and when you buy an Italian bike you are required accept certain things like shaky parts availability as a given, it might even be in the owners manual somewhere. There will be electrical quirks for example. Italian electrical systems seem often to be a marriage of Italian and French parts and in what universe could the marriage of anything Italian and French be good? Ok, French bread with garlic and Italian cheese comes to mind but other than that?

Why put up with this grief when you could just as easily have purchased a Yamaha and gotten better response from the support system? Grief is endured because Italian bikes have an air about them, a feeling when you ride them; a crazed Italian passion for motorsports fused right into their alloy that makes them a unique experience in motorcycling. To experience that is worth the price, mostly.

In part it is because of the aforementioned Italian bike soul, a mystical blend of handling, performance, and sound, that indefinable quality that is so delightful, that we give Aprilia, Ducati, Moto-Guzzi, etc. a Forgiveness Factor of about 7. Many things are forgiven Italian bikes that, should they occur in a Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, or Kawasaki, would bring a class action lawsuit against Japan, Inc. For Italian bike owners, quirky electrics, fairing screws made of recycled Fiats, and a parts system always at lunch drinking good red wine is just a part of the culture and fun. You wear the inconvenience like a badge of honor, a symbol of your own passion for motorcycles and willingness to forgive for the sake of that motorcycle passion in the bike's designers and builders.

In the '50s and '60s, you wanted one of these to tour the world and know you'd make it.

But back to BMW. BMW enthusiasts are very close to Harley enthusiasts in blissful forgiveness of their favored brand. BMW have created a reputation for reliability that is rooted in the great "/2" series bikes of the '50s and 60's (Note to Beemer cognoscenti: I know that "/2" was actually only a few specific models but it's become a generalized term of all mid-century Beemers). At a time when traveling by American or British motorcycle meant carrying every spare part but a frame and probably needing them, BMW owners carried the nicely complete, high quality factory tool kit and a tire patch kit that came with the bike and probably never needed them anyway. In thousands of miles of travel with the five BMWs I've own (1969 - 1992 model years) I only recall ever opening a tool kit on the road once. When I was in Colorado on my new 1974 R90S I found a small external lock nut on a valve cover stud had loosened. That's it.

Along the way BMW has blessed us with, gear box clunk, plank hard seats, too soft cast wheels, EFI glitches, and more recently, weak final drive units on the GS series. All are forgiven because BMWs are reliable. Everyone knows that they are reliable. It's beyond question. They are German engineering of the highest caliber (BMW says so) so BMW are assigned a Forgiveness Factory of 5 by most owners whether they realize it or not.

BMWs do ride differently than other bikes, have a distinct feel about them, a Wagnerian sense of powerful capability and durability on the road. It's so good in fact that sins are forgiven for the experience of the ride. BMW has marketed their perceived reputation for quality as cleverly as Harley-Davidson has marketed their "bad boy" image. Therefore, for BMW much is forgiven by it's enthusiastic customers and even the Press.

What does BMW give in exchange for this moderate Forgiveness Factor of 5? The Italian bikes give passion, style and all that, but no one ever accused German bikes of having either passion or style. So why give the BMW K1200S a Forgiveness Factor of 5? Because it does have that cachet of German engineering quality, fully deserved or not at this point. The cachet is worth more than the reality so some forgiveness is in order.

[A small aside: I've worked for a German company for the past couple of decades and know the German engineering mindset well.]

So it looks to me like the BMW K1200S benefits still from this Forgiveness Factor built on the reputation of the old /2 bikes and cultivated so carefully by BMW over the decades. According to MCN the K1200S still has obvious fuel injection mapping problems and the performance is less in nearly every respect than it's Japanese counterparts. So it wins. All shortcomings are forgiven to a point sufficient to make the K1200S the winner. Watch it happen in other magazine tests too.

Seems odd that people will happily pay in the US $6000 more than for a Hayabusa, get a little less motorcycle in many respects. But they will get a BMW and all the important intangibles attached to that marque and that's what really matters. So it is with Italian bike owners too, we forgive a lot, maybe too much, but at least we don't have to pay a 30% premium for the privilege.

Forgiveness is a powerful thing. I could forgive this bike much.

The big, new BMW isn't nearly as interesting to me as the Aprilia Futura with it's melodious V-twin, slightly avant-garde Italian styling, and scarcity on the road. The Futura is older, slower, has no ABS, and parts and accessories are a challenge. It is no match for the K1200S in any objective comparison. Just the same, I'll take the Futura, out of production though it may be, quirky electrics and all, just in the name of passion and style. All it's shortcomings would be forgiven, allowing it in my heart, to win over the BMW K1200S.

BMW may have out pointed the Kawasaki and the Suzuki in the MCN review by using the unacknowledged Forgiveness Factor but using the same system in my world, Aprilia wins over the BMW. No doubt you think I'm crazy or stupid (I've been called worse and fairly recently) for preferring a six year old Italian design of the latest state-of-the art German design. I'd rather ride a 1974 Bultaco 250 Pursang than a new YZ250 too. Personally, I think it's crazy to pay thousands and thousands of dollars more just for a badge and technology that you don't need but that some how fits into the Forgiveness Factor also. It's ok though, regardless of what you ride or why you chose it, because in the end, riding a motorcycle, choosing a motorcycle, is never about logic anyway, it's more like choosing a religion.

Sunday, July 03, 2005


My two Pembroke Welsh Corgi dogs have a wonderful pedigree even if they themselves have never been in the show ring. Their father's class and success shows in how they carry themselves and in their spirit. Nearly every great and successful current brand of motorcycle has a competition pedigree also and it shows in their class and their spirit. I believe that for all the successful motorcycle brands there is a spice that's added to their image and to their desirability that is brought about by their racing successes and that NOT having a successful racing program diminishes a motorcycle brand.

My point is that racing is a crucial aspect to a brand's broad acceptance and success in the market place and the imprinting of that brand on the customer's perception of the brand. All the current successful manufacturers including lesser known but successful brands like Aprilia and KTM have laudatory racing records (yeah, I know about the Aprilia / Suzuki / Yamaha / Rotax connection). BMW's racing successes go back to the time before WWII and extend to modern times in the torturous and deadly Dakar Rally. KTM may not have half the credibility that it has without it's success in the Dakar Rally. Ducati without it's racing heritage would just be a stylish Italian motorcycle and not quite as desirable. Those world championship trophies and scores of race wins mean something in the showroom, at least to the knowledgeable enthusiast.

Now for a mini-rant: Heritage cannot be purchased outright either, anymore than buying the latest fashions makes an ordinary person a celebrity, just ask the people from the defunct Excelsior-Henderson brand or the once again departed Indian Company. Just because the folks from Gilroy bought a name from the past doesn't mean they were entitled to the substantial glory attached to the name but earned with the blood, sweat, and passion of racers and engineers of 40 or 50 years ago. The "Indian Wrecking Crew" of Bobby Hill, Bill Tuman, and Ernie Beckman brought racing glory to Indian in it's dieing days in the early 1950s. A modern Indian wrecking crew wearing business suits instead of racing leathers brought nothing to the marque but shallow marketing of overpriced fashion apparel and poor quality bikes boasting copies of Harley-Davidson engines. As close as you'll ever get to a real, new Indian since 1953/54 is the Kiwi Indian. If I had a spare $40k laying around I'd be tempted because I love Indian Motorcycles and the Kiwi folks are passionate in the face of common sense. You have to admire that. (End mini-rant)

There is scarcely an name more worthy of honor in racing than MV Agusta and yet, as wonderful as their modern bikes are, everyone who has been around motorcycling for a while and can see past the marketing and knows that Count Agusta is long gone and the current bikes have no real connection to the glories of the howling red four cylinder Grand Prix racers of the '60s and early '70s beyond the Agusta name. The men behind the engineering of the new MV Agusta bikes are passionate motorcycle enthusiasts and MV Agusta may yet earn a new reputation for superb modern racing bikes and sport bikes but glories of Isle of Man victories are forever reserved to a company of people led by a wealthy motorcycle patriarch who got lost between a helicopter company and a Malaysian business empire. The soul of MV Agusta was laid to rest with the Count.

Knowingly or instinctively, many customers in the motorcycle dealership showroom know that the bike they are looking at has a real pedigree or a purchased one. The BMW faithful initially at least shied away from the first BMW 650 "Funduro" as they knew the engine was from Rotax, not BMW, and the bike was assembled by Aprilia. On some level in the group consciousness of the motorcycle world, posers and pretenders are ultimately avoided whether they are RUBs decked out in their official faux biker Motor Company garb or a Vincent resurrected with a camouflaged Honda engine in it. The new Vincent is beautiful, by the way, but it's not a real Vincent. Even dear Aprilia has used too many foreign engines in their bikes; at least their wonderful liter bikes have an engine designed within the confines of Italy even if it's been built by lederhosen wearing Austrians. [I seem to recall hearing lately that the building of the 990cc V-twin engine has been moved in-house though]
The H-D V-Rod which has been less than a rousing success for the Motor Company, I think suffers somehow because it has little more than a smoke and mirrors racing heritage based on one third place finish in AMA superbike racing years ago. Having a losing engine re-engineered for the street (read: completely redesigned from the ground up) by Porsche doesn't seem to add much to the desirability of the bike since the H-D cache is built on it's American roots. The V-Rod engine is probably the future of H-D though because of emissions rules but it will take some more racing and marketing of that before the bike has an honest pedigree of it's own. Currently H-D is doing some interesting things with the V-Rod in drag racing so at least they are making an effort. I wonder if we'll see the V-Rod engine translated into a flat track motor some day?

V-Rod drag bike (photo via Vance & Hines)
And for every rule there is an exception. If you know bikes you know that John Bloor and the revived Triumph brand have done very well without doing anymore than dipping their little toe into the racing waters. Credit Bloor for being a much better businessman than the others who tried to raise the motorcycle dead and also for building a first rate product. So it's "not a real Triumph" with an engine designed by Edward Turner but the new Triumph Thruxton 900 is built in the U.K. by Guinness drinking Limies and that's worth a little something.

I guess ultimately it depends on how passionate you are about motorcycle history in general and how much you are willing to pretend or not pretend you own a part of it. In the modern corporate bottom-line driven motorcycle industry there are bound to be compromises. The days when a single, wealthy enthusiast like Count Agusta or F.X. Bulto (Bultaco) could fund a whole company with their own money and passion for bikes just because they want to are long gone. The breeds are inevitably branching out, becoming diluted.

Theoretically, wonderful design and engineering should always take the day and glory purchased and applied to the side of a gas tank should not be necessary. I would suggest that if the owners, designers, and builders really love motorcycles and can take honest pride in their own work there should not be a need or even a desire to trade on the name, labors and passions of people to whom you have no real connection.

The blood of champions runs through my little Pembroke Welsh Corgis, I didn't buy a mixed breed with the pedigree of an single, entirely different bloodline.  Top breeders tell me that crossing  two breeds often does not result in the best of both in the new dog but the worst of both.

"Watson" - Cymru am byth!
For nearly 600 years people enthusiastic for the Corgi breed have ensured that it would not only be refined and preserved and improved but that it arrived undiluted for each new generation of Corgi enthusiasts to enjoy. Would that it could have been so with many of the great makes of motorcycles like Indian.

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