Since the inception of motorcycling, the How-To article has been a motorcycle magazine staple, which is understandable given that most motorcycle riders, be they man, woman or child, enjoy a little mechanical interaction with their motorcycle from time to time.
How much interaction an individual will enjoy varies, of course, so figuring out exactly what kind of hands-on technical articles will resonate with readers is what keeps technical editors up at night.
Some editors like long, drawn-out projects; one of the magazines that crosses my desk from time to time features very involved V-twin engine builds. The articles run for months at a time, and repeat themselves periodically, using different suppliers, mechanics and components. Frankly, I’ve always been puzzled by articles like that, in part because I figure anyone undertaking a complete engine overhaul, let alone building one from scratch, is probably capable of doing so on his own without the help of a magazine article. I also have to wonder how practical such an article is, especially when it may take six months to complete. I mean what’s a guy supposed to do if a particular installment ends after the cam bearings are in? Wait until the next issue to install and time the cams?
One of the classic bike rags I read did a feature story on restoring an early 50s Triumph Thunderbird. The story took nearly 12 issues to complete, and was a great piece if you were in the process of restoring a like motorcycle, but by and large it focused on the author’s particular problems, most of which it seemed were resolved by contacting the appropriate sub-contractor and having them straighten it out. I’m not sure that one did the majority of the readers a great service, though the sources list at the end of the piece was impressive.
Another pitfall any How-To article should avoid is tackling a subject that’s too model- specific. I recently read one about installing a particular luggage rack on your Suzuki Bandit; informative if you own a Bandit, and want to install that particular rack, though not so much as a general guide to luggage racks or their installation.
…Jennings found that a cheap set of off-the-shelf K-Mart automotive replacement coils outperformed everything else available, including the high-zoot aftermarket products "
Frankly, I, as well as most everyone who’s ever written a technical article, have fallen into that trap, in part because we’re often dependent on the largess of the OEMs as well as the aftermarket for raw material. If I wrote only about what I do to my own bikes each issue, the How-Tos would be short, you’d be bored and I’d soon be out of a job. So yeah, some How-Tos do get written because we have a particular bike, and someone makes something we need for it, although hopefully a good technical writer can skew the article to make it somewhat generic.
In candor, I think the older guys had it a bit easier. Back in the day, motorcycles needed a lot more maintenance, but paradoxically, they were easier to work on. One older article that I vividly remember detailed adjusting your bike’s ignition timing using the foil from a pack of cigarettes and a transistor radio. As Dave Barry says, “I’m not making this up,” and I will be happy to supply the details on request.
I think the very best How-To I’ve ever read was written by the late Gordon Jennings. Jennings, a man of considerable writing skill, and probably the deepest thinker to ever ride a motorcycle, was the technical editor of the late Cycle magazine. Starting with the July 1975 issue, he put together a series of articles detailing his efforts to build an inexpensive, yet powerful ignition system to replace the Lame OEM systems that were then the standard of the industry.
Long story short, Jennings found that a cheap set of off-the- shelf K-Mart automotive replacement coils outperformed everything else available, including the high-zoot aftermarket products. Follow-ups over the next two years revised and expanded some of his original theories.
I’m no Gordon Jennings—not even close—but as Technical Editor of Cruiser, I take an inordinate amount of pride in our tech section, particularly the How To segment. It’s to that end that I’d like a little help from our friends. In a nutshell, I’d like you contact me, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or my boss Andy Cherney at email@example.com and tell us exactly what you like, dislike or downright hate about the How-Tos and how we can improve them. Feel free to speak your mind and by all means, to suggest future articles. We can even carry on a dialogue via e-mail if you’d like. Don’t be bashful—I’ve got a fairly thick skin and look forward to hearing your constructive criticism. Besides, if I don’t hear back from you, it’s entirely likely the next How-To may detail rebuilding an AMAL 389 MonoBloc carburetor as used on my 1966 BSA Lightning.