Sixty Years Ago
I started riding in 1962, surprising no one more than myself. I'd never imagined I'd be a motorcyclist, never dreamed about bikes. I lusted after sports cars, sanitized, middle-class motorsport.
My vision of sixties sports-motoring was reading Road & Track and listening to hi-fi records of Stirling Moss downshifting. It was cloth caps, thin-soled shoes and tweed jackets with elbow patches. It was waving at other import drivers.
Sadly, sports cars of the era, even MGs and Triumphs, were expensive to buy and maintain. I thought I might never own a truly exciting automobile.
Then in '61 I bought an Austin 850, one of the first Minis that came to the US. Though great fun to drive, that mousy gray car looked strange indeed on early-'60s American roads, dwarfed even by the crummy new "compacts" Detroit reluctantly produced.
After a year or so, wildly overreaching, I traded the Mini for an old Jag, a lovely XK120 fixed-head. It promised paradise and delivered hell-fire. I sold it, a non-runner, its head gasket blown. I couldn't afford to fix it.
Just by chance, the guy who bought it and towed it away was the owner of the Honda-BSA-BMW store in Indianapolis, my hometown. That coincidence may have been the turning point of my life.
He paid me so little for the crippled Jag he felt sorry for me, offering a good deal on any bike I might want. His proposition couldn't have tempted me less. I wanted a TR-3 or MGA. I figured I'd join a club and compete in low-key rallies.
I'd never known a motorcyclist. I hadn't seen The Wild Ones, but I knew all about bikers. Unwashed misfits, rednecks and outlaws, right? Harley riders. Guys with jailhouse tattoos who pumped gas and dated thin-faced truckstop waitresses.
I never shook that B-movie image of Harley riders until they metamorphosed into today's Diner's Club bikers, so inauthentic they're as distasteful as ever. I don't get it, I guess. Not that my distaste has hurt the Motor Company any. Perhaps provoking the distaste of guys like me is a secret of their success.
Months later, I realized I did after all desperately want a bike, a Honda CB77, a 305cc sporty unit called a Super Hawk. What had come over me? I'd told a friend about the offer. The friend, a car and bike freak who may never have ridden a motorcycle, raved about the technical aspects of those Hondas.
Get one, he said, they're SO cool! They have electric starters, big alloy brakes, adjustable foot-pegs, overhead cams, high redlines and unbelievable performance for 18 cubic inch motorcycles.
Listening to him, I became excited too. When I appeared at the Honda shop to purchase a CB77, the owner offered me an even better deal on a rarer, harder-to-sell 250cc version, so I bought a CB72 Hawk. More horsepower per cc, I told myself. Sportier.
Despite its technical sophistication, it was still a motorcycle. In an hour, I'd become a redneck outlaw misfit myself. I had no friends who rode, no one to show me the ropes, no one to hang out with at the Dog 'n' Suds.
I visited the Harley shop and felt like a spy from another America. Guys wore ship-captain's hats and motorcycle cop pants with white stripes down the legs. They talked about "laying down" their motorsickles when the brakes wouldn't work. They called their wives "mom." Kids were "young 'uns."
You "rared back and romped down" on a rubber bicycle pedal to start those 74s. Most had sprung seats that looked awfully John Deere, and rigid rear ends. Footboards. White sidewall tires. Hey, I'd only been an ex-Jag owner for a few days.
But there was a Triumph shop in town as well as a BSA store, and guys who rode narrow, agile, imported motorcycles. Those guys could read and write. Their ride destinations were not exclusively taverns.
They were wary of my Japanese bike but willing to cut me slack; I might be okay despite my ride. I'd trade up for a Bonnie or Atlas soon enough, they thought.
I rode that 250 to Tucson, Arizona, about 1500 miles in three days. In Oklahoma on Route 66 a woman at the desk in a small-town hotel suggested I roll my bike into the lobby for the night. I must've thought that happened all the time but it's never happened to me again.
The third day, the Honda's clutch began slipping at speed. In New Mexico, a guy in a hardware store-Honda shop put a warranty clutch in my bike as I watched. He'd probably never serviced a Honda ridden in from so far away. Imagine.
I was a 15 cubic inch pioneer, and it was easy.
I rode from Tucson to northern California, hanging out around San Francisco for several months toward the end of the beatnik era, five years before the Summer of Love. There was love enough even then. When the love went south, I headed east toward home.
Still in California, I stopped at a roadside cafe. As I looked out the window, a pickup and trailer pulled in. On the trailer were two Harley KR flat-trackers, a miler and a half-miler. I'm not claiming I knew that at the time.
The driver came in, we struck up a conversation, and before you knew it my sleek red Honda was loaded on the trailer between the two scruffy but serious-looking flatheads. We were rolling east, 1,500 miles east.
On that trip I learned how different are the guys who race Harleys from the guys spillin' beer in the stands, or hanging around the shops.
The flat-track racer dropped me off in Illinois. I rode home and soon sold the Honda. Remembering my old lust for British machinery, I bought a Velo Endurance, basically a Velo Scrambler with lights. Well, lighting apparatus.
In the U.S. at that time you could ride your Velo 1,000 miles and never see another Velocette. If you rode it at night, you couldn't see anything at all...