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Common Tread

Where 70-year-old motorcycles don't pose, they hit the road

Jul 01, 2015

Metal fatigue.

front suspension
Things to think about in the sidecar: I wonder how many jolts that 70-year-old springer front end has taken in its lifetime? Photo by Bill Andrews.
That’s pretty much what’s going through my mind as I watch the leading link front suspension bouncing around on this 70-year-old Knucklehead sidecar rig I’m riding in. A failure now would be pretty uncomfortable for me and my pilot as we cruise around the New England country side at around 55 mph, but the experience is incredible.

An imported Nimbus. The Nimbus was a Danish motorcycle produced from 1919 to 1960. Photo by Bill Andrews.

Ride 'em don't hide 'em
T-Shirts with the AMCA Yankee Chapter’s motto, “Ride ‘Em, Don’t Hide ‘Em.” Photo by Bill Andrews.
This is the third day of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Yankee Chapter New England National Road Run, where the motto is “Ride ‘em, Don’t Hide ‘em.” At most antique motorcycle shows, the machines pretty much sit around like sculptures. At this event, the sculptures live and breathe fire and move around. These folks are riding their antiques — the way they were meant to be — on three 180-mile day runs circling their main base in Keene, N.H. Though, as you would expect from machines built at least 35 years ago, problems do occur.

riding in Vermont
A rider among the lupines in Vermont. Photo by Bill Andrews.

The first day for the meet was under blue skies with spotty clouds here and there. As riders were unloading and signing up, wrenches were already turning. Two 1940s-era Harley-Davidson Knuckleheads were having their carbs worked on, a 1970s-era Shovelhead was losing so much oil it looked like a repeat of the Exxon Valdez disaster in the parking lot, and an Indian was having its kicker looked after under a pop-up.

Repairs being done under a pop-up on the first day of the event. Photo by Bill Andrews.

The Weather Channel was predicting gloom and doom rain for the next day, but the 75 or so riders were in good spirits. It’s a tight camaraderie of like-minded people, where the show is really designed for the participants to enjoy.

Honda CB750
A nice old Honda CB750 adds to the mix of old runners at the rally. Photo by Bill Andrews.

The bikes get buttoned up, and a little late afternoon breakdown run proved to be just that for Paul Graber, from San Diego. Another rider noticed the rear wheel on Paul’s 1948 Indian Chief was wobbling as they rode. In a matter of unbelievable luck, the first stop was a local’s barn shop of antique Indian motorcycle parts. There, Paul discovered a few of his lug nuts were loose. As he tried to tighten them, three studs broke off. No worries though, as the shop had all the tools and parts Paul needed to fix the rear hub.

old Harley
The patina of an old Harley-Davidson Panhead. Photo by Bill Andrews.
“Fool’s luck beats brains any day of the week,” said Paul.

And with that little bit of fortuitous happenstance, Paul is ready for the three-day ride.

Rain… the bane of every motorcyclist’s existence. On the morning of the second day, skies turned gray with a steady drizzle, pretty much what the forecast called for, with heavier rain and thunderstorms predicted.

I overheard one rider of a BMW R60/5 carrying a New Jersey plate say, ”I don’t mind if I’m already out riding, but to start out with it raining…”

Riders make their way among the rolling hills. Photo by Bill Andrews.

During the morning riders’ meeting, Dan Margolien, the chapter president, asked if anybody wanted to ride. Not a single hand went up. It was decided to cancel the day's run due to the weather. But since many people towed their bikes to the event, Dan suggested perhaps everybody should just drive the first day’s planned route to the Antique Police Motorcycle Museum near Weirs Beach, where the annual Laconia Motorcycle rally was happening.

Apparently not everyone attended that meeting.

Indian Chief
Mike, out of Ann Arbor, Mich., decided to ride with a sketchy six-volt electrical system on his Indian Chief. He got to Weirs Beach, a little over three hours away, and that was the end of his ride for that day. Photo by Bill Andrews.

Mike, out of Ann Arbor, Mich., took off on the ride with a sketchy six-volt electrical system on his Indian Chief. He got to Weirs Beach, a little over three hours away, and that was the end of his ride for that day. The chase truck would have to haul him in. The next day, though, we saw him riding around again with what looked like a laptop computer lithium battery strapped below his seat, with loose wires and alligator clips running to his ignition.

sidecar view
The view from the sidecar is fabulous. Photo by Bill Andrews.

On Tuesday, the rain dried up a bit and I got the opportunity to ride in Tim Gottier’s 1946 Knucklehead sidecar, as his girlfriend wasn’t really up for a day-long ride. As a motorhead, this is just an amazing thrill for me. I sat next to that ancient motor, watching it putt down the road. I could see the suspension working and all the other components we motorcyclists seldom get to see in action. Plus, the view of the rolling countryside was fantastic.

bikes in Keene, N.H.
One evening was dedicated to a small ride into the downtown of Keene, N.H., where locals fell in love with the old machines. Photo by Bill Andrews.

bikes in Keene, N.H.
A lineup of the old bikes in downtown Keene. One local motorcyclist, not knowing the event was going on, exclaimed, “I feel like I died and went to biker heaven!” Photo by Bill Andrews.
After a lunch stop, the rain caught up with us again, but it was just a real light drizzle, so we continued on. Unfortunately, another Indian started to backfire and slow down on an uphill climb. We pulled over, hoping maybe his distributor got a little wet. A quick inspection shows the distributor is actually wobbling around. Not good. I get out a cellphone and call in our chase truck as we soldier on.

century-old F Head Harley
Dan Margolien rides his Harley-Davidson F Head. Photo by Bill Andrews.

Despite reliability issues, I understand the draw of these old machines. It’s mesmerizing to watch the open valve train working on Dan’s century-old F Head Harley. Seeing the rocker arms bouncing away as he rides along through the New England hills, where much of the architecture is the same as it was when this bike was new, it’s easy to lose oneself in time.

Hogback Mountain
A rider on an old H-D Knucklehead rounds the corner at Hogback Mountain. Photo by Bill Andrews.

Mount Greylock
A Duo-Glide rider climbs Mount Greylock. Photo by Bill Andrews.
The last day of the run brings back the blue skies with a bit of a chill in the air. It’s also the most scenic day we’ve had as these old machines climb Hogback Mountain in Vermont, and then Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. From the top of Greylock the sky is so clear it looks as if we could see all the way around the world.

Mount Greylock
This rider of an old BMW works a tight hairpin on Mount Greylock. Photo by Bill Andrews.

Everybody makes it home this final day with no breakdowns — truly amazing, considering.

Sunset over the rally as an old knucklehead rests from a 180-mile ride. Photo by Bill Andrews.