Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Parakeet Express and the Subway Shuttle

Paul McCartney...why?
The mechanical endeavor begins with two scooters/mopeds, both from the early 80s: a good time for mopeds, a bad time for hair. defines a moped technically as a motorized cycle with pedals, yet a scooter as a motorized cycle that allows for a step-thru seating. Thus, this gives rise to the somewhat often used phrase "NoPed" for those cycles that are to small to be motorcycles, don't have pedals and don't step-thru. So, technically speaking, the absurdly cheap cycles we recently acquired  are "nopeds," but I think that's dumb and I will not use the word. On a side note, true barn finds are the way to go. Cheap, old, and just begging to have someone to hope in them again.

The two mopeds we bought are a 1980 Honda Express (NC50) and a 1982 Suzuki Shuttle (FA50). I call the latter the Subway Shuttle because the logo looks identical to the Subway logo, arrows and all. Both were advertised as running, but running rough. So, I snagged my dads truck and hauled out to Rockford, IL to pick them up and bring them 100 degree weather...still with a proper broken myself. But hey, everyone's still alive so who's to care?

Seller's photo: 1980 Honda Express (NC50)

 I brought them home, super excited, and my wife and I proceeded to start them up so she can experience the wonder that is moped. I'm a good 100 lbs over the weight limit, so I stayed off. We pulled out the Shuttle  kick  vroom!  starts right up. Pull out the Express (which has a spring-start, not a kick start) and crankcrankcrankcrankcrank  pop!...nothing.

Seller's photo: 1982 Suzuki Shuttle (FA50)
Nettie was, needless to say, not happy. In the frustration of the moped not starting (and the YELLOW one at that) I had to admit to her that no, I had not actually seen the little parakeet yellow Honda Express run...and yes...I did pay more for it than I paid for the Duplo blue Suzuki Shuttle...
Honestly, the old Harley enthusiast with a braid down to the middle of his back seemed honest enough...right?

So, it happens that she went off to the trenches to sling coffee at unsuspecting not-so-Pleasant Prairie citizens, and I'm left with this tragically disappointing piece of parakeet paraphernalia. I tried cranking the spring-start again and again, only to have it turn and fail.

To be fair though, the Suzuki really did ride quite nice. It was also my wife's first real experience with two motorized wheels. My mother and I stood there watching her ride it up and down the street nervously: down and back  NERVOUS, down and back  NERVOUS, down and back for a third time. This time though, she navigated the U-turn with confidence and when we saw her coming back towards us she was beaming. FREEDOM. And she's hooked.

And that to say that even though the yellow one didn't work, the day was not a complete waste. I did, however, take a coffee break (one of many in my daily regimen) and afterwards retreated to my mechanical sage: Grandpa. My grandpa is an odd yet incredibly awesome fellow. A bachelor for the first 40-odd years of his life he has not only built countless motors, machined an insane amount of gears and sprockets, but had also spent years illegally street racing in the backroads of Gurnee and Milburn. He even once drove from LA to Chicago by himself, non-stop, which I think is very impressive. Surprisingly he's only owned two bikes (not counting the Wizzer he rode between the ages of 11 and 15) in his entire life. The first was a 1957 Harley Sportster, purchased from a friend in '59,

A wonderful specimen of 1957 Harley Davidson Sportster,
not my grandpa's though....

 and the second was a 1972 Suzuki GT750, white, fully dressed.

1972 Suzuki GT750, also not an actual photo of my grandpa's,
but close enough for comparison.

But alas, when I showed up at my grandpa's, he was on his way out and not able to come take a look at the Express. So I turned around confused and befuddled, scratching my head at what could possibly be wrong. At this point I still refused to believe that the old man with a braid had lied to me about the running moped. And as I pulled away from my grandparent's house I looked back at their 2 1/2 acres that I spent so many summers mowing. I remembered all the shades of red and brown my skin turned out there, and all the soul-searching I was able to do atop that rumbling red behemoth (it was while mowing that lawn that I first discovered I HAD to marry my now wife), and I remembered how much trouble my grandpa's...six? Was it six different mowers? Yes, how much trouble those SIX lawn mowers gave me, and how so often when I couldn't start them he would come out, laugh at me, and turn the petcock on...


For those of you who don't know, a petcock is a sort of valve thingy that stops or opens the gravitational flow of gasoline down to the engine/carburetor. Usually they have three settings: ON, OFF, and RESERVE which allows a small reservoir of gasoline to be accessed in the event that you are dumb enough to ride until you're out of gas. Now, aside from having a simply horrid name, this dastardly little valve or switch or whatever hates me. Or I hate it. Or somewhere, somehow my brain decided it shouldn't exist, and so without fail I will suck at starting some sort of machine multiple times a year because I forgot to turn on the petcock. Four years of of private preparatory school, and four years of higher education but no, I can't remember to turn it "On." Just dumb.

4th of July weekend we took both working bikes up to a cabin with the in-laws. Mind you, it's a three bedroom cabin. My wife and I, her parents, two sisters, three of her brothers, three of her brother's friends, two of the girl's friends, and a spare boyfriend. A little crowded, yes. But fun. Right on the lake so much of the time was spent between paddleboat races and moped races. The Express and Shuttle got up to 28mph and 25mph respectively. After about a half hour of running though, they both bogged down and died. Much like my old dog they ran quickly for short spurts, then require a good four or five hour nap and a whole lot of encouragement before they will do anything else.

After the weekend at the cabin, the restoration starts. Unfortunately we are starting a little backwards and in the negative, since we brought the Shuttle back sans one of the turn signals it had at the start of that trip. But nevermind that. The real work begins with the guts. And for now, we're just dealing with the guts of the Honda Express. Nothing but a good old-fashioned carb cleaning with a spare toothbrush will do. Tools required for this project are combination wrenches, ratchet and sockets, variously sized screwdrivers, an old guitar string, and the toothbrush. Ironically enough, despite a decent collection of carpentry tools that came about from a few years working construction, the only mechanics tools I had in my possession were the guitar string, toothbrush, and a socket-less ratchet which belonged to my father (sorry dad).

$50 of a bare essentials trip to Home Depot later, I was happy to find out that a carburetor looks a whole lot like the reservoir of a toilet. Some carburetor cleaning solution, brushbrushbrush the venturi, floss the jets gently with a high E-string off a Martin backpacker sitting in my office, and hey! it looked a whole lot better. Praise God for that Italian genius and his beautifully simple mechanism by which we can dispense air and gasoline at proper proportions. Why did we ever switch to fuel injectors? Don't tell me. I know, I just don't like them. A few more minutes and that little guy was re-installed, petcock ON, crankcrankcrankcrank  pop!VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!

Ok, adjust the throttle and make sure the trottle stop is working correctly. Heh, who knew, right? Try again? crankcrankcrankcrank  pop!vroomvroomvroomvroomvroom. Say it with me: Vroom.

It is a thing of beauty, the simplicity of this machine. Years of neglect leaves it clogged up, dirty, unable to process. Eventually brought to a state where the only movement it will experience is fickle at best, even the slightest bit of pressure will shut it down. But you set it down, take it apart, and just spend a hour or so getting rid of all that crap that has gotten in the way, and yea...that little Honda Express purred like contented kitten on a warm laptop. Splendid.

Seller photos, edited.

 "Even there, in the mines, underground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths a lofty soul, a feeling, suffering creature; one may bring forth an angel, create...
....a hero!"

                                 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Genesis.

1981 Honda CB650C Custom.
It started with this motorcycle right here.

A nineteen.

Four cylinders. Coffee brown paint. Hand stitched black and brown seat. The guy selling it had put Goldwing handlebars on it, claiming they were more comfortable.
Nine months into marriage and down to one car, three-ish jobs between the two of us, my wife Nettie and I went hunting for a new, cheaper, more adventurous means of transportation. Not entirely sure why. Maybe it was because at 22/23 neither of us really wanted the stability that rent and job assurance bring, or maybe because after 5 years of the opprobrious college experience we needed more self-inflicted chaos. Whatever the reason, we picked up this beauty, which had an oil leak. But quite frankly, I have yet to own a vehicle that does not have an oil leak.

Some death-trap of a dirt bike.

Sorry, minor correction. This is where it all started. Or, I imagine it was on something very similar to this. As a little kid, my family lived in Quito, Ecaudor and would go visit friends in the Amazon. I was seven and my friend's older brother drove up in a dirt bike of absolute disrepute and told me to "hop on." The low rumble of the little motor might well have been Kaa the Python's death song. Mezmorized by it, I "hopped"...failing to see the complete lack of muffler guard. Not that I even knew what a muffler guard was let alone the possible danger its abscence posed toward a passenger. After about three seconds, I understood the danger all too well. A good, solid, third-degree burn across the back of my right leg.

Despite the deep sense of danger and foreboding that accompanies narrowly missing gangrene, from that point on I set my mind on getting a motorcycle when I turned 16. Specifically a red crotch rocket that I could ride to high school, along with a red leather jacket. I'm pretty sure that in reality I had this   

Mr. Awesome-Ducati-Racer.

desperately confused with this   

The Red Ranger. Lightning and all.

Ultimately, tastes change. I don't think I would ever be caught dead on a crotch rocket now, no offense. They're just not my thing. And I seem to remember a brief period of time, somewhat ironically around age 16, when I wanted a scooter more than I could stand. But nonetheless, seeds will be planted and will soon grow into obsession. And the obsession reached fruition with the CB650C. I found it, talked it over with Nettie, bought it, and brought it home  all in the course of 24hrs. I couldn't stop think about it. I kept it in a shed near a parking lot and would drive out there just to look at it, to sit on it. I told everyone who would even remotely care about it, and my excitement nullified in my soul the negative waves that an unruly ammount of aquaintances had for me concerning the bike. Also, being somewhat stupid I just started riding. I thought "Hey, why don't I just ride this around. I'll take the safety class if I need it."

It is at this point in the blog that I would like to encourage every new rider to TAKE THE SAFETY CLASS!

Three months later I walk around with a cane, a leg full of metal and 2 1/2 ft of scars. Oh, and a missing bike key, which is quite frankly, the worst of it all.

Anyways, in the time I was spent held up, unable to walk (I didn't leave my house for the entire month of April, save the three days prior to the crash) I was left with nothing to do but look at photos of bikes, read about bikes, watch movies about bikes...
...and I realized something. I loved it. I loved every bit of it. This biker subculture I found. I never new it existed. No, not the hog and chopper army that every person I met thought of when I said the malediction "MOTORCYCLE," nor the posse of bros in visors that would race every night by the boardwalk drinking Tecate. It was a subcult that I thought only existed in discombobulated thought, an almost Rock'N'Roll species of motorcyclist.

Bob Dylan
Constituted by actors, musicians, poets, it is borne on Nortons, BSAs, and vintage Triumphs and Hondas. There is a lifeblood that flows through its comrades veins which is romantic, dauntless, intrepid, free.

 As I started to realize the existence of such a sub-culture and come to terms with it as a reality I found that there were in fact many "riders" in my area who would gladly weave

Steve McQueen
into such a group. But sadly, there were very few of them who had ever seriously considered it due to the fact that most of the beautifully vintage rides are hard to come by in working condition. It was at that point that I decided, with my wife, to fix that. Constantly on the hunt for broken down, abandoned bikes and mopeds (because hey, they can be fun too) to repair, transform, recast, rescue.

Just a little bit of 70s colors here, and smidge of steampunk there, and our hope is to put a little bit of two-wheel motorized freedom and expression back into our generation.

"Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul."