Common Tread

Communing with machinery: The allure of older motorcycles

Mar 14, 2017

I am an active participant on several motorcycle-related forums and lurk on a few others. It has been my observation that for many riders a bike that does not have the latest features (ABS, traction control, multiple riding modes, etc.) is considered undesirable or even dangerous.

There may be some truth to that, if a bike is to be used as an everyday all-weather commuter. But old-timers often push back with stories about how they did just fine without today’s modern accoutrements.

I think something is being left out in the motorcycle technology either/or debate. That is: There is a place for old technology.

Why do people go camping? At one time, camping was a form of low-cost lodging for travelers. However, with the advent of inexpensive motels, camping has become, mainly, a recreational pursuit.

To some people it is illogical, perhaps even bizarre, that someone would choose to deliberately do without modern amenities and sleep on the ground. Tent camping probably seems a mad undertaking to them, but there is something primal, even visceral, about getting back to basics, if just for a weekend.

The same is probably true of those who fly vintage aircraft. Why climb into the cockpit of a 70-year-old biplane, exposed to the elements, with oil splattering your goggles while you rip along at 80 mph when even small private planes offer heat, fuel injection and modern avionics?

It is because there is something about going back to basics. It becomes just man (or woman) and machine. Folks who tinker with classic cars and trucks are likely to tell you the same thing. Just as a camper might talk about communing with nature, a pilot of vintage aircraft or the driver of vintage automobiles might list communing with machinery as the motivation for their avocation.

Honda CB400T
My Honda CB400T. Bought used four years ago, it only needed a little attention and a few new parts to become my "weekend runabout." Photo by Tom Byrne.

It is no different for those who have an affinity for vintage or classic motorcycles. The smell of the exhaust, the mechanical sounds of the engine and the idea of the ride being about the bike and the rider, with no interference from an electronic big brother, are seen as benefits rather than detriments for those who desire to commune with machinery. With vintage or classic motorcycles, every ride feels like a small accomplishment. Every maintenance procedure or repair delivers a sense of satisfaction. It is about enjoying the road, enjoying the machine and getting back to basics. It is about living, rather than simply being alive.

Lest you think me a Luddite, I am in no way stating that a vintage motorcycle is as good or better vehicle than a modern motorcycle. Even a budget bike is a better everyday vehicle than the best vintage or classic motorcycle, just as a starter home is better everyday shelter than a tent. However, which delivers the best memories?

To be sure, old bikes are not for everyone. They are maintenance-intensive and are less forgiving (even unforgiving) of rider mistakes, but they have a Hemingway-like appeal to them. Ernest once opined: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”

I think riding vintage and classic motorcycles may qualify as a fourth “real sport.”

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a carburetor to adjust.