Episode 01: Son of a Preacher Man Transcript.
1973 BMW R75/5
Christmas is the best part of my year; I’ve always loved it. I get homesick, overspend on presents that people don’t need and hang a shitload of lights in our living room. However, the bit I look forward to the most has only evolved in the last few years, since my wife and I moved to the West Coast - we lived in Northern California before moving to Seattle a few years agoon.
I grew up in Texas and we go back every Christmas – no exceptions. At some point my wife must have read in a magazine or saw some Pinterest board about all the wonderful things there are to do and see on a road trip between here and there, so it was easy to convince her that we should make the drive. What she failed to realize is that there is a whoooole bunch of Craigslist ads along the way, and the back of my truck can accommodate 2-3 motorcycles. So, as I made new friends and snagged some good deals, she would wait in the car and plot our next meal or any potential TJ Maxx stops along the way. She was a good sport.
By the 3rd year of this new tradition, I had a system of saving money, renting a U-Haul and plotting a route that would maximize the hunt. Though, by that time we had our new daughter and my old dog stuffed in the cab, and their collective impatience (plus a crappy ice storm in West Texas) would end the trip as a “family” affair. Since then, I just fly the ladies to Texas and do the trip myself. No sense in completely killing the tradition…
The last stop that year would become a longer journey than I had expected.
The ad was for a 1970-ish BMW R75 in San Luis Obispo. The price was great, so I didn’t hold much hope of beating the LA hipsters from getting up there before we hit the road headed south. I started calling in early December - left some messages, sent an email and a couple texts, but never an answer from the seller. We left town and I called from San Jose. No answer. We passed Monterrey. No answer. I called from the highway passing through SLO, nothing. As we crossed into Arizona, my phone finally rang with an 805 area code.
Tom was apologetic that he hadn’t been able to answer my calls, as things were busy. I told him I understood and we started talking about the bike. It was a black airhead, he didn’t know much about it – it was his Dad’s and had been parked since the he got sick years before, never riding again before he died. The engine was stuck and there might be something living in the fairing. A guy from LA wanted to come up in a couple of days, but Tom wanted to speak to me first, as I had been the first to reach out. I appreciated that – first-to-show-up-with-cash is usually the M.O. of Craigslist sellers. I told him I was sorry to hear about his dad, that my hope was to leave it as it is and get it running, I just wanted to ride the thing. That may have struck a chord; he offered to hold it for me until we made our way back after the holiday, rebuffing the LA guy’s offer. That was a relief – now I could actually enjoy Christmas without obsessing. It’s a rare, nice feeling when you feel like you can trust someone on his word, especially some Craigslist rando.
On the way back, the truck was full of presents and stuffed bellies, but I had a spot in the U-Haul ready for my new Bavarian friend.
Once back in California, Tom met me at his house with his son, and they watched me give the bike a once-over. One or both of the pistons were stuck, the seat was toast, the wheels were dried out and the tank had some rusty pinholes. On the positive, it shifted through the gears and all the keys were there, as was the original title and some sweet Wixom side cases.
We made the deal, and as my family waited, Tom introduced me to his. Tom was a preacher and had a big brood. They were all so sweet and were excited that Grandpa’s old motorcycle would be going to a new home. I said goodbyes, loaded the bike and closed the trailer.
The rebuild would take another year-and-a-half, with life and other projects coming and going. Both pistons were rusted in place and after a couple months soaking in a PB Blaster/Marvel Mystery Oil cocktail, only a 2”x2” block with the help of a 10# sledge would convince them to budge.
I learned the hard way not to force the exhaust nuts off the cylinders, but fortunately there is an enterprising German machinist who builds custom clamps - solving the rampant issue of stripped exhaust threads.
The carbs might as well have been dipped in maple syrup, but with a rebuild and some tenacity they would breathe again. The day I got a backfire, I nearly peed my pants.
But, fortunately for my britches, a consistent spark was still elusive. The timing advance mechanism was pitted and a hole had even rusted through the cam lobe, preventing the points from sliding smoothly and opening when they needed to. * Here’s where the universe aligned to inspire what I think is the most brilliant fix ever: that afternoon my shop mate had stopped by with his girlfriend. She had been stabbing little tapioca balls in a plastic cup (“bubble tea”, apparently) with a big fat blue straw before giving up and tossing it in the trash. They got bored of watching me try to futz with things and left. Then something occurred to me, and I ran over to the trashcan. As it turns out, that big thick straw is EXACTLY the diameter of the cam lobe of an R75. I cut a 1” piece and slid it over the cam, covering the hole and smoothing the pitting.
I set the gap and the timing, and ran to the bathroom before the German bastard eventually farted into a raucous CHUG-CHUG-CHUGACHUGGACHUG. It was nearly 1am and my wife didn’t much care for my good news, but I was very, VERY proud at that moment.
In mid-May we moved to Seattle. I squeezed a few of my smaller bikes into a giant rental truck, but the BMW would need to wait. My job still required some travel back to San Francisco, so I decided that the next time I went back, I would get a one-way ticket and then return to Seattle on the the BMW. In June, I got on a flight with a pair of boots and a change of clothes.
By the first night I had the new tires on and the tank patched up - also, the new advance mechanism had come, replacing my bubble-tea-straw fix. I managed to get a few rides around the shop the next day – no more than 2-3 miles – enough to tune the carbs and re-torque the heads. The aluminum kickstart lever cracked and a friend helped me weld it back to a useable state. It was coming together. It had to – I didn’t have another way home. My shop space was on Treasure Island, and if you’re not familiar with the geography, there’s a bridge in either direction – go figure, it’s an island. That meant that leaving at all was a commitment; the bike had better run.
Hoping that fortune did actually favor the bold, I got packed and loaded, maps set, geared and nutted up.
Day One: I eventually pulled away, after telling myself the bike needed to warm up. In truth, I was a little nervous and just stalling. I packed tools – the original BMW tool roll was intact, but I brought a socket set, some zip ties and tape, etc.. and the route was simple enough: 80 to 505 to 5 all the way. As I threw my leg over the seat, my phone fell out of my pocket, shattering the whole face. Damn it.
Twenty-five miles into the 800 mile trip, the bike started to hesitate, missing once every few minutes at first, then increasingly to the point of nearly bogging down under throttle. Unfortunately, the twenty five mile mark from Treasure Island is right in the middle of the I-80 bridge connecting Crockett to Vallejo.
Thankfully, I made it to the little toll booth on the other side of the bridge and cut across a lane to pull into the toll workers’ parking lot. This was actually pretty exciting – my first pit stop! I figured it was fuel or timing and I could probably fix either of those.
I removed the cover (yes, I disconnected the battery, BMW guys) and adjusted the point gap – the points had somehow not been tightened all the way down and had apparently shifted. As I lay prying, a toll truck rolled over and I expected to be shooed away. A big guy leaned out and chuckled, “That didn’t sound too good coming over the bridge, you gonna get a Harley now?”. As much as I’ve ribbed my Harley friends about their engineering woes and the superiority of German machinery, I deserved this bit of humble pie. However, as far as breakdowns go, this was a piece of cake.
I redeemed myself with Harley Guy when I reconnected the battery and the engine started right up. The next two hours were a breeze, propelled by 750cc of pride in my mechanical aptitude. At certain combinations of speed and RPMs, riding a Boxer engine feels like floating. With my bell-mouth exhausts, it was easy to imagine I was flying a World War II Stuka through clouds of commuters and soccer moms.
Then, in the middle of nowhere, i.e. around Willow, CA, the sputter returned. I pulled over again and tried to summon some die ruhe with a cigarette and lukewarm coffee. Under the forks again to see the point gap had somehow returned to ‘too much’. Not sure what that’s about. Final adjustment, quick selfie, and off again. Not only had I resolved the issue… I did it twice.
These two unexpected stops and some looming weather made me decide to bunk just short of the Oregon border. I called my wife to let her know how awesome of a time I was having and heard a bunch of voices. She was having pizza with our friends and she made pie… without me. The nerve.
Day Two: Early rise, beautiful morning, easy start and frankly, I looked really cool riding off on this fabulous example of a vintage BMW airhead. For about four hours this awesomeness kept up.
Sputter. Dammit, you stupid kraut bastard P.O.S.
I pulled into the little town of Cottage Grove to see if there was a BMW shop or dealership (hah hah) or some place from which I could poach some new points. I found a strategically located shade tree – in a Taco Bell parking lot with an AutoZone across the street. Win, win, win.
Under the forks, yadda yadda. I realized that the oil wick on the points plate was missing. AH! The cam lobe had actually ground down the little plastic bit on the points, ever increasing the gap. It turns out that oiled piece of felt is pretty important after all, kids.
Fix, lube, fix and start.
If you’ve ever witnessed a ‘failure’, whether it’s mechanical or just some dumb animal falling off of something, you may recall that small moment wherein you see a thing transitioning from a state of balance and stasis to a state of being completely fucked. The feeling in your heart that all is ok and that after your burrito, you’ll just get back on the road and continue being awesome is shoved up your throat by your stomach, creating a panic and complete despair at the level of how fucked things have become.
That about sums up when I saw the arms of the timing advance unit open up to grab the wire that connects the points to the condenser, rip it away from its solder and wind itself up like the snug little burrito I was so looking forward to.
I walked across the parking lot, treated myself to a Mexican Pizza and a root beer.
“This is the adventure.” “You got this.” “What would Johnny Cash do?” “What would Han Solo do?” I shed some gear and walked to Autozone, humming “When the Man Comes Around”. There would a lot of walking and humming for the next few hours.
You can’t really fault auto parts store employees for not knowing anything. They’re trained to find any given part by a series of questions about the corresponding vehicle – year, make, engine size, number of doors, etc… So I didn’t have much hope of finding an obsolete part that would be compatible with a 40 year old motorcycle. Fortunately, I did learn that my shady tree was more strategic than I thought – there was a Yamaha dealership right around the corner. So I hustled over and found a massive showroom of 4-wheelers and dirt bikes, it didn’t look like they had a real focus on European moto parts. There was a nice looking someone’s-mom behind the counter, though.
“Do you have any ignition points?”
“…do you have a soldering iTom?”
She said, “I think so… hang on.”
Hope! My poor little points were so bent and abused, but they may just be convinced to hold out a bit more. She came out from behind the counter and I followed her to the side of the showroom – which was opposite from what looked like the shop area, but I just followed the nice lady.
Through some double doors and into a very noisy room filled with a giant pile of dirt. I mean it, a great big pile of dirt. I mean it was literally a 10ft high mound of brown earth– with some little flags on top. Suddenly, the source of the noise revealed itself as a tiny car jumped over the top of the pile between the little flags. It was a room – as big as the Yamaha showroom – dedicated to RC rally cars. A booming robotic woman’s voice started talking about lap times and a bunch of teenagers were whooping from the top of a platform that overlooked the giant pile of dirt. I asked the woman, “is this for real?”. She smiled and led me to the back of the room and a long wooden table that housed five or six electTomics work stations, with legit soldering iToms and wires and those little solder suckers and everything. It turns out that yes, they have a soldering iTom. She turned to a gaggle of adolescents and said “MARK! Can he use one of the soldering iToms?!” The gaggle parted and Mark – presumably the king of the local RC nerd teenagers – said, “Sure…”. I got the feeling he was curious to see how many times I’d burn myself using their up-grade kit.
I managed to mend the points and splice the wire to a recognizable state, but didn’t have much confidence in their reliability. Unburned, I thanked Mark and headed back to the bike, where I called my friend and bad-decision-legitimizer, Blaine. Blaine knows a thing or two about a thing or two, especially about quick fixes to get one back on the road. He seemed to recall Volkswagen or Porsche points would work in a pinch, but Google was failing us in the moment to confirm a specific year or make –remembering how crucial this information would be for the aforementioned parts store employee. Back to Autozone. I took the old points with me and managed to convince them to just let me dig around in an area roughly associated with ‘Ignition’. I settled on some Porsche 914 points, roughly the same size and orientation as mine. Back to the bike.
Every solution has the potential for creating new problems, and in such spirit, I realized that the points plate would need to be drilled out to accept these beautiful new Porsche points. The existing mounting hole for stock BMW points wouldn’t allow for the gap to be set correctly with the new ones. Back to Yamaha.
I made friends with the shop guys – they could tell my day wasn’t going according to plan. I also think they were curious to see if I would ever actually leave their town, this was the third time in as many hours that I had been in their building. They let me use a drill and some bits to ‘modify’ the points plate. Close enough would count, I could make up the difference when I set the gap. Now, with the points able to be mounted, the lead from the Porsche points was much shorter than I needed. The BMW points connect to the condenser nearly 10 inches away. Back to the RC club.
I had to interrupt Mark’s entourage once more to see if I could use the iTom again and if he had any wire I could snag. He sneered another “Sure” and gave me a spool of super-thick neon pink wire. A snip, solder, heatshrink, crimp and would I have the best-looking ignition setup ever to grace a Beemer’s belly. Back to the bike.
I’m so proud of that pink wire. The points plate went on, the gap set perfectly and I tucked my hot pink lead safely away from the foul arms of the timing unit. When the bike started up, I couldn’t help but smile with pride. I wanted to call someone. I was very aware of my luck and am extremely grateful to Hot 4-wheeler Mom, RC Mark and all the Yamaha shop guys.
I geared up and took off, but a hundred yards or so down the road, another GOD DAMN sputter. I was defeated. This is too much to do again. It started to rain. It’s getting dark and a storm’s coming. The RC club is about to close. I’m screwed. I can’t fix it. I’m going to die here. OH… I didn’t turn the fuel on. No sweat.
Day Three: If anything had gone wrong on this last stretch, I may have just given up and called AAA or just taken up residence wherever I happened to be. Fortunately, a few hours of crappy weather and traffic were just a nuisance compared to the trials of the previous day. Tacoma, Boeing, stadiums and the lake.
I pulled into my driveway and shut off the engine. My hands were numb from cold and vibration. I wonder now if my new neighbors were watching me as I stared at an old black motorcycle in the driveway, still in my helmet and gear. I made it home. It was the longest trip I have ever taken on two wheels, and certainly on the oldest vehicle I had ever owned. It dawned on me that the trip was the ‘trial run’ for a bike that I had managed to resurrect. It was on a lift in pieces only a month before, and rotting in Tom’s garage not too long before that.
As I stared, I began to mentally pat myself on the back. That bike was dead, and I brought it back. It was broken, and I fixed it. Things went wong and I improvised a solution. I figured it out. I am totally getting laid tonight.
The sound of the garage door opening must have let my wife know I was back. And as I pushed this magnificent machine into its new home, the inner door cracked opened and my longing wife stuck her head out. She smiled and said…
“Hey… before you shut the door, can you bring in the recycling can?”