Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 718, April 28, 2013

When democracy becomes tyranny, those
of us with rifles still get to vote.

Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

I just got done putting my bike back together from the usual winter maintenance time. This time has become less and less pleasurable over the years. Time for an old fart's rant, I guess.

Sometimes I think societal wealth is not quite as wonderful as it's cracked up to be. When wealth is widespread, even mediocrities can do well, and people get all sorts of weird ideas in their heads such as the notion that it is unnecessary to work, or that charity is more needed in a wealthy society than in a poor one, and consists of stealing from some group and distributing the loot to feckless peasants. On the other hand, when there is not a lot of wealth around, people have to concentrate on the basics of human relations just to keep their bellies full. They work harder and are necessarily more honest (because reputation matters more).

This even shows up in the world of motorcycles.

Back in the 1950's, rather than being a toy, motorcycles were basic transportation. So, despite the mediocre quality of the product (British and other bikes were put together by socialists after all, just like the cars) the bikes were simple and easy to maintain. One cylinder, one carburetor, two valves (with screw adjusters), one exhaust pipe, suspensions as sophisticated as a box of rocks—hell even tires were routinely changed by their owners. The bikes could be improved by the simple expedient of taking them apart on the kitchen table down to the last bolt and carefully fitting the parts together, as someone I knew once did. The shop manuals were supremely useful with line drawings that were works of art. They had to be, because bike owners depended on them. They hadn't the money to take the bikes into a shop, so they did all the work.

The main thing I did with my '99 Triumph last winter was adjust the valves. It took many days and an insane amount of work for something previously so trivial, and by the time I was done I still had a tight valve. I was about to do some changes with the carburetion (get rid of the huge airbox, re-jet, etc.) but after the valve fiasco I just gave up on that. The whole thing was an exercise in frustration.

Here is an incomplete list of wrong turns in the motorcycle industry:

1) No-maintenance bikes. Sure, they are more reliable, but there ain't no such thing as a no-maintenance bike. Anyway half the pleasure of owning a motorcycle used to be the maintaining of it. No more. Take it into the shop, and prepare to pay and pay for work of variable quality. Even Harley riders, who ride primitive technology, are scared to take a wrench to their expensive bikes.

2) Race madness. More and more power out of tiny engines screaming at 14,000 RPM. Many cylinders and carburetors. Expensive components stressed to the breaking point. Is this supposed to make for pleasant riding? At such high speeds it is suicidal to dress in anything other than heavy armor and a fully-enclosed helmet. It's as if you are not outside any more. It's also somewhat anti-social to be zipping around cars at twice their speed, although I do still cheer when bikers can evade the cops.

3) Weight and size. I got a Norton Commando back in 1974, kept for many years, which used to be considered a large bike. I went on a ride a couple years ago and someone showed up with a Commando. It looked as if it had shrunk in the wash, next to all the other bikes in the ride. I used to get 55mpg with that bike, the most powerful of its age, without trying (this in a bike with primitive technology). These days only puddle-jumpers can beat that kind of mileage.

4) Dirt bikes get ugly. Look at any dirt bike. Ridiculous loud flashy plastic that gets scratched and gouged with the first fall. Juvenile stickers all over it. Looks like they were designed by a committee of 10th-graders, who were competing to build the ugliest possible monstrosity. And the seats are designed by a Homeland Stupidity torture enhancement committee. Never mind that the vast majority of them can't be ridden on the roads at all. Toys, remember?

5) Street bikes get absurd. Who was the idiot who invented the stinger-type tail, up in the air? This style has taken hold everywhere so that nobody can imagine a bike without it. Yet it makes no sense at all. The seats have to be dished to accommodate the style, and carrying a saddle bag is a joke with many bikes (high exhaust pipes also to blame here—again pointless). The proper general form of a motorcycle was set probably back in 1920 or so, but now we have toys rather than useful vehicles.

Don't get me wrong, I like modern suspensions, and it's wonderful having some actual brakes on a bike, unlike those 1950's wonders. But still, I think we've missed something over the recent decades. I suspect with the coming dollar crash, motorcycles will start to become useful vehicles again, like the 1950's bikes, but with brakes (Honda just came out with a budget 500cc parallel twin, wonder of wonders). Some reasonable amount of poverty might not be so bad after all. Can you imagine American teenagers back in garages with wrenches rather than an I-Pod in their hands? It could happen, and wouldn't be such a bad thing, either.

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