Curmudgeonly Cons of Vintage Motorcycles

Gone and better for it?

Faults of vintage bikes
Vintage bikes, as fun as they are to ride, have some aspects that don't necessarily have you looking at the past through rose-colored goggles.Illustration by John Breakey

Fond as I am of vintage bikes, I rarely view the past through rose-colored goggles. Those old "sickles" may have been fun to ride, but they certainly had their faults. Consequently, there's a lot about them I don't miss.

For starters (that's a pun, son), most of 'em had to be kick-started. True, a few small bikes had an electric leg, and after 1965 the Electra Glide (where'd you think the name came from?) and H model Sportster would start on a button. But until the Honda 750 came along, real motorcycles were coaxed to life with a swift boot and the sweat of your brow. Sometimes the first kick would do the job, but just as often, you got nothing but spits and sputters until you'd worked yourself into a lather. Experienced riders never put on their helmet and jacket until the thing was up and running. If you think I'm kidding, try prodding a magneto-fired CH Sportster to life on a 30-degree morning—you'll be sweating like a stuck pig before you get anything to show for your efforts despite the freezing temperature.

Starting the old crocks might have been easier if they'd had decent ignition systems. They didn't; even the best of them would have had a tough time electrocuting a moth. Some of those old points-fired magneto systems were seriously lame, and the battery and coil systems that followed them weren't much better—especially when it came time to work on them. Setting the timing on many of the older bikes, in particular the larger British models, meant pulling the primary cover, affixing a degree wheel to the crank and then tweaking the points until the timing was coaxed into some semblance of accuracy. Japan, Inc., ignitions were an improvement, but even some of those were troublesome. As I recall, you had to remove the upswept exhaust system from the 250 Kawasaki Samurai just to get to the points, which were recessed into the crankcase. Those of us who worked on them for a living don't miss them in the least.

Another thing I don’t particularly pine for is old carburetors. Too many were leaky, wear-prone and less than accurate in their fuel metering. Even worse, some of the leaking was intentional!

Since the easiest way to start a cold engine is to create a rich mixture, many of those elderly atomizers employed ticklers. No, not that sort of tickler—these were small buttons used to hold down the carburetors' float until raw fuel overflowed into the inlet tract. That created a super-rich mixture, which even the recalcitrant ignitions of the day could manage to light at kick-start speeds. Unfortunately, it also overflowed onto the engine, your hands and into the atmosphere, but gas was cheap as dirt in those days, and most riders were fairly smelly anyway so no one really cared.

I also don't miss chronic oil leaks. At one time motorcycles that didn't leak were something of an anomaly; in fact, if yours didn't drip, it was a sign the thing had run dry. And by no means were leaks endemic to machines manufactured in the U.S. or old Blighty; even BMWs would mark their spot on occasion. The Japanese put paid to oil leaks as a way of life, and for that we should be ever grateful.

I’m not sure who thought a plastic/Teflon/nylon swingarm bushing was a good idea, but anyone who’s ever ridden a UJM knows it wasn’t. Those silly things created more wobbles than a tanker truck of cheap wine.

I guess next on the list of things I really haven’t missed are top-end jobs at 20K intervals, fouled spark plugs at 2 a.m., stretchy control cables and seats as hard as Chinese math. Oops, we still have those, don’t we…

The more I think about it, the more I realize how many of those older bikes were seriously flawed. For example, the highly revered Vincent Black Shadow was capable of a genuine 120 mph. Unfortunately, its brakes had a smaller swept area than a modern 250 and were good for maybe one hard stop at 65.

Despite my ranting, which should be considered in its curmudgeonly context, I really do love restoring and riding classic bikes. Every time I take one of my own for a ride, preferably on a balmy summer night, I'm reminded that while these bikes may have been flawed by today's standards, in their time they were state of the art and, for a lot of us, the stuff dreams were made of. Likely, in another 40 years, some other jaundiced old fart will be saying the same thing about the bikes we're riding now.

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