Scot Steel: A Face In The Crowd: Let’s raise a glass to the survivors


Let’s raise a glass to the survivors: bikes that, against all odds, are still with us, still running after all these years, as if blessed by some supernatural mechanical momentum.

After a few decades of riding, a number of bikes will have passed through your garage, some of which you hated to sell and knew you would miss, and others of which you were glad to see leave. Regardless of how you felt about them, many of these will not get the care from the new owners that you gave them, and ultimately, most return to dust. But a few others…just hang around.

Eleanor the Elsinore is a good example. She’s a mid-70’s Honda MR175 that was a leftover from the Garage of the Living Dead’s roadrace years. She’s one of the dirt bikes we rode to keep in shape between races, and also just because.

Eleanor is an enduro bike, meant for enduro competition (as opposed to the dual-sport bikes that were sometimes sold as “enduros” in the 70’s.) Most of the year, she sits quietly collecting spiders, but resurrecting her at our annual holiday gathering is one of the Garage of the Living Dead’s traditions. Eleanor still looks good, and it’s usually easy to get her to breathe fire. One year, we had to shoo some wasps out of her air box, but usually some fresh gas and a few pokes at the kickstart do the trick, after which we all take a few token laps around Larry Titus’ property (the Fireball Ranch). Once in a while, one of the kids (Daughters of the Living Dead) will give her a lap around the goat field.

This year, after Eleanor’s annual workout, we retired to the garage, and there we found ourselves leafing through old shop manuals. Among them was an operating manual for a turn-of-the-century steam engine (and we’ll leave you to concoct your own adolescent jokes about the proper maintenance of the–no kidding–Pussy and White engine).

We also found a pair of manuals for Triumph twins, and it took a moment to recall why we had them: we had resurrected a Triumph 650 Bonnie for an acquaintance, back when Titus and I were living in San Francisco and racing in the AFM. And, in one of the manuals, we stumbled across a time portal–one of those bits from the past that shakes you loose from your place in time. It was a work order from Munroe Motors, a San Francisco shop, and I’m sure it was for the same bike we had worked on. (How many brown Triumphs could there have been?).

The work order was for a bunch of common stuff: “Get all electrics working. Blowing fuses. Replace brake cable.” And a weird one: “Switch carbs, left right, right to left.” Must’ve been an attempt to diagnose something like a spark plug fouling problem. Part of the order was indeed for a pair of plugs, which the service writer (“John”) wrote as “sparkies.” And which cost 75 cents each. The whole order was for $136, which is less than we charged the same owner to get the thing running again later that year.

I wonder if the brown Triumph is a survivor or if, as Gordon Jennings wrote about his fictional Browne motorcycle, “Its color foretold its fate”?

The biggest twist in the fabric of time was when we looked at the date: August 2, 1977. I knew right where I was on that date, and so did Dave Uhlig: We, along with Ben Delaney, were on a two-week bike trip through the Northwest. Ben and I rode 750cc Honda fours, and Dave had a Ducati 860.

All those bikes have slipped through our hands, and I don’t know if any are survivors. Maybe the Ducati still lives, if only because nobody ever throws a Ducati away. I suspect the Hondas didn’t. Ben’s bike barely survived the trip, after it snapped a camshaft in a part of Idaho that we came to call the Stinkin’ Desert, and we had to rebuild it in a motel room. At least it got there on its own power, puking oil, but running on two cylinders at highway speeds. Taking it apart in the motel was fun, but I remember wishing I knew Spanish for, “No, we don’t need any clean towels, go away now please.”

I doubt that my Honda survived. I saw it a few years after I sold it, and it looked quite a bit worse for wear, so it’s hard to imagine it still being alive. Seeing it sitting there woebegone on the sidewalk in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and missing one of its Dunstall mufflers, was sad–like running into an old flame, to whom the passage of years has not been kind.

As Dave and I reminisced about the trip and wondered what happened to the bikes, I found myself slipping into a maudlin mood and wishing I still had every bike I’d ever cared about, even the race bikes, all of which were used up and in tatters after our attempts to make them go fast. Then I realized what I was leaning on: Titus’ 1982 Honda CB750F; which he’s had for more than 20 years, and which is another survivor. It’s been demoted to loaner status, as Titus now has a Honda VTR. But it survives. And through it, in a mechanical sort of reincarnation, so do our earlier single-cam machines.

So, here’s to the survivors. The human and the machines.

Scot Steele lives in Northern California and was the News Editor for City Bike for seemingly ever.


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