Friday, December 31, 2010

Oil Change

" it supposed to be sparkly like that?"

It was August, just over a month since I had earned my motorcycle endorsement and bought my Nighthawk 550.  In that time, I had put just over 1,000 miles on the bike.  I was starting to reach that stage where I was feeling comfortable on the bike, but hadn't yet become complacent.  I had started pushing the envelope a bit, and was very pleasantly surprised with the power and performance of the little Honda's engine.  It wasn't overwhelming for a relative newbie like me, but still had enough power on tap to keep the bike exciting.  Twice, I had taken the power for granted and found myself doing wheelies as I left stop lights.  Nevertheless, as long as I didn't get cocky, the Nighthawk was a very well behaved bike.

However, if I was going to own a bike, especially a bike as old as the Nighthawk or the GoldWing, I also needed to learn to maintain the bike.  So I consulted with the Nighthawk Forums and jumped into an oil change.  After fighting with the oil filter can, I finally was able to get access to the filter itself, and what I found was not encouraging.  The oil filter looked like someone had thrown a handful of gold colored glitter in it.

The bike had had a noisy rattle since I bought it, but I had assumed it was the cam chain tensioner, a common but relatively harmless problem with vintage CB550s.  With a sinking feeling, I realized that my problems may very well be bigger than I had thought.  Once again, I consulted with the gurus on the Nighthawk Forums.  The consensus was to put the new oil and filter in the bike and see what happened next, so I did.  The bike ran great for a week.  The noise was diminished, power output was great...the bike seemed to be running like a top, although it was a bit difficult to start (which I attributed to weak coils and a spark plug wire that was wrapped with electrical tape around the spark plug boot).  However, on my way home a little over a week later, there was a slight jolt, and then the bike felt like it was stuck in quicksand.  By nursing throttle and clutch, I was able to get it home, but there was clearly something wrong.  I opened the oil filter back up, and it was full of glitter again.  I called the guys over at AK Cycles, and they suggested I bring it by.  They even loaned me a motorcycle trailer so I could tow it over behind my truck.  I filled up a ziploc bag with glittery oil, dropped the oil filter and can in another ziploc bag, loaded the bike up on the trailer and dropped it off at their shop.

The diagnosis was a bottom end knock caused by the brass bearings on the crankshaft giving out.  My heart sank.  "The good news is, we can get you a rebuilt engine for about $500."  My spirits soared.  "But it will cost about another $1,000 to install it."  My heart sank again.  I talked to my wife.  "No way. The bike isn't worth that much."  We had bought a bike that was a little rough around the edges because we didn't want the insurance premiums of a brand new bike, and because I didn't want to be heart-broken if I dropped a pristine motorcycle.  We had intentionally purchased a disposable bike, and much as I loved it, I had to admit, it didn't make much sense to spend $1500 to rebuild the engine on a bike that we had bought for $900...and which honestly needed more work than the new engine.  I searched Craigslist and E-Bay for other Nighthawks, preferably a 750.  I debated fixing the bike up, even though it didn't make economical sense.  I tried to figure what it would cost in time and money to get the GL1000 running.  I considered ordering the rebuilt engine from AK Cycles and installing it myself.  I had swapped out the clutch on my '92 Eagle Talon a few years earlier...installing a new engine in a motorcycle couldn't be any harder than that.  Finally, I thought long and hard about how much I would really trust an almost 30 year old motorcycle.

The truth is, I really wanted to tour Alaska and the lower 48 states on a motorcycle.  The Nighthawk had already stranded me at work once, resulting in a six mile hike home and a return trip to install a new voltage regulator.  While I really loved the Nighthawk, I really didn't want to go very far from home with it.  It was one thing to walk home from work; it would be another thing entirely to be stranded halfway between Anchorage, where I live, and Seward or Glen Allen.  Alaska has a lot of very remote country.  If the bike broke down anywhere more than half an hour out of Anchorage, you couldn't always expect to be able to call someone for a ride home.  No, while I loved the classic look of vintage bikes, I really needed a more modern, reliable steed.  After discussing the options with my wife, I decided to sell both of the Hondas and look for a new ride.  Sadly, I posted ads in Craigslist for the Nighthawk and the GoldWing.  Within a week, both were sold.  One man wanted to install a 750cc engine in the Nighthawk and build a custom chopper.  The GoldWing went to a kind, older gentleman who already had one running GL1000 that needed some work.  He actually was only interested in some of the parts I had, but since I had almost enough parts to build two complete engines, and he was intrigued with the possibility of rebuilding a second bike too, he bought the entire project from me.  Cash in hand, I started saving up for a brand new bike.  Triumph had some really slick bikes on their web site...maybe I should check out a new Bonneville in person?

In the Beginning

Yep, that's where it started.  That's my dad and me on one of the motorcycles he owned when I was a kid.  I never really had a chance, I guess :)  My dad loved airplanes -- I love airplanes.  My dad loved motorcycles -- I love motorcycles.  I still remember as a child putting on my dad's boots to see how I measured up.  When I grew up, I wanted to be just like my dad, because I had the coolest dad in the world.

I remember telling my mom that as soon as I got my driver's license, I was going to get a motorcycle, and she did her best to discourage me.  She had been scared by motorcycles, twice.  The first time was before I was born.  Dad had a 125cc dirt bike -- I don't even know what brand, but it doesn't really matter -- and had taken her out to learn how to ride.  She twisted the throttle wide open, but fortunately never let go of the clutch.  If she had, she would have been a quarter mile up the road, with the front tire clawing for the stratosphere the whole way, before she would have even known what happened.  Nevertheless, the smoke and noise -- and Dad's concern -- was enough to turn her off.  The second event didn't even involve her, but somehow or another, she heard the story.  Dad was cruising down the streets of San Angelo, Texas, where we lived at the time, on his bike, when a garbage truck pulled out of a side alley right in front of him.  He planned to lay the bike on it's side and hope he could slide between the front and rear tires of the truck, because at his speed, hitting broadside on a garbage truck would probably be fatal.  He didn't think the odds of sliding under the truck were much better, but if you've got a reasonable certainty of death with one option and at least a glimmer of hope with another, take the glimmer of hope!  Just as Dad began to lay the bike down, he saw a third option: there was a break in traffic across the road, parallel to and opposite the direction the truck was going.  On the far side of the road was a gas station.  If he made a 90 degree right turn, he could bypass the truck by pulling through the gas station, then making a left back in to traffic.  He reefed on the throttle, shot through the gas station, then turned back out on the road.  Later that day, visiting the same gas station in his car, the owner of the station (who knew Dad) came out to regale him with a story of "some complete idiot on a motorcycle" earlier that morning, who tore through the station like a bat out of...well, you get the picture.  My dad coolly responded, "Really?  Some people..."

In sixth grade, one of my best friend's dad owned what I thought was the most beautiful motorcycle in the world, a Kawasaki KZ750LTD.  My friend told me he would sell the bike to me for one dollar...but the key would cost another thousand.  I should have taken him up on that offer!  For years, that bike was the epitome of what a motorcycle should look like.  Then, in my first year of college , a friend of a friend offered to sell me his 1983 Honda CB550 Nighthawk.  It was love at first sight.  The Kaw had been dethroned!  Unfortunately, I didn't have the money, and there was an undiagnosed engine problem with the CB550, so I regretfully passed, but I never stopped thinking about that bike.

Another 20 or so years passed.  I learned to fly, got married, became an instant parent of a teenager (my wife had a fourteen year old daughter from a previous marriage), had another daughter with my happened.  Then one day, as fate would have it, my wife had to pick up something from the landlord for her business.  Sitting by the dumpster at the landlord's place was the frame of a motorcycle.  It was a sorry sight -- the engine had been removed, spark plug wires dangled from the coils, the side trim panels had been removed, leaving the coolant reservoir exposed, there was rust on all the chrome parts.  But in my mind, it was an object of beauty.  Here was a UJM -- the Universal Japanese Motorcycle -- just like all the old street bikes my dad had ridden when I was a kid.  My wife asked her landlord about the bike, and he told me it had been his son's bike, but his son had disassembled it to rebuild the engine, and never put it back together again.  Finally, he had told his son to either rebuild it, move it, or get rid of it.  The son didn't have time to do anything with it, so the dad was throwing it out.  We asked how much he wanted for it, and my wife's landlord said "pack it up, and it's yours."

There was a moment's hesitation at one point, as I realized what we had found.  Emblazoned in gold leaf on the center console, where the gas tank would be on a typical bike, were the words "GoldWing".  GoldWings weren't quite the motorcycle I had envisioned when I had dreamed of learning to ride.  The ultimate touring bike, modern GoldWings are part recreational vehicle, part La-Z-Boy recliner, all packaged up with every modern amenity a motorcyclist could desire, and somehow balanced upon two wheels.  They were not beginner bikes, however.  Still...the price was right, and all the parts to reassemble the bike were there, stored in huge Rubbermaid tubs.  Even if I decided not to keep the bike, I could always rebuild it and then just trade it for something more suitable.  So, my wife and I rigged up a ramp from an old table (which we also found by the dumpster), and, huffing and puffing, loaded the GoldWing and all of the Rubbermaid tubs in the bed of my her pickup truck and took the whole, sorry lot home.

The next morning, I did some research and found out that what we had inherited was a 1978 Honda GL1000 -- one of the original GoldWings.  I was relieved to find that the GL1000 was considerably smaller than modern GoldWings, at just over 500 pounds, and at 1000cc, has an engine roughly half the size of the current model.  Still, a liter bike is big for a beginner, and my motorcycle time to date was limited to a quick trip around a corn patch on a Honda 80 (which ended rather ignobly in a spray of corn stalks, dust and two-stroke smoke, but fortunately with no damage to either me or the Honda) and an even quicker jaunt around a parking lot on the aforementioned CB550.

As I began rebuilding the GL1000, my wife and I decided that something smaller was definitely in order.  A quick search of Craigslist revealed that my dream bike, another 1983 CB550 Nighthawk, was for sale in Wasilla, about an hour away, and was a steal at $900.  Once again, we jumped in the trusty F150 to retrieve a bike.  A quick test ride, since I still didn't have a motorcycle license, ended up much the same as the earlier ride on the Honda 80: I ended up in a patch of waist high grass.  I pulled the bike out of the grass, pulled the grass out of the bike, and returned to the owner.  Cash exchanged hands, we loaded the bike in my wife's truck (I wasn't about to ride it home until I learned what I was doing), and I was the proud new owner of my first *running* motorcycle!  Within a week, I had completed the MSF course, taken my new credentials to the DMV, lined up some insurance, and was commuting daily to work, rain or shine.  I was hooked.