MD Moto-Musings: Wrenching in the '70s

May 13, 2011

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As a bike-crazy kid when I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1971, I wasted no time finding the best motorcycle shop in town. Mid-South Wheel and Custom was started by a Super Enthusiast as a BSA, Norton, Triumph, Penton, Puch, and Yamaha. Beyond complete bike sales and service, if you wanted a dirt race bike, his shop could build it and set it up. If you wanted a street custom with a wild paint job, the shop was ready to provide it. But when I started working there as a mechanic in 1975, the Super Enthusiast had sold the shop, and the “concept” had been trimmed back somewhat to a steady sales and service Yamaha dealer, with a little dirt racing on the side. The British makes were on the ropes anyway, although we still serviced them and sold their parts.

Although I didn’t suspect it, the first repair job given to me was a hazing as well as a genuine test. Behind the shop—in all weather—was an unruly pile of salvaged motorcycles protected from theft by a 12-foot steel cage. The Service Manager rolled one of those bikes into my bay with the simple instruction, “Get it running.” I didn’t see the smirks on the faces of the other mechanics who were laying mental bets against my success; I just jumped into the repair with youthful abandon. The red, mid-sixties YD250 twin had a seized motor. With a huge helping of chemical persuasion I pulled the cylinders and yanked the crankcase out of the frame, putting the whole thing right in the parts wash to flush the gunk out of the bottom end. I honed the cylinders, re-ringed it, and finished off with a new battery and a sharp tune-up after hanging the freshly rebuilt carbs. I shot WD-40 on a lot of stuff, but I didn’t even have to bleed the brake—they were both cable-operated drums, sonny. To everyone’s amazement except my own—I was too green—it fired on the second kick. Smiles all around, including the Service Manager, who wheeled the bike away. I’d passed my first test.

Our shop would service anything and I changed a lot of back tires. If you haven’t tried to put a stiff Swedish-made motocross knobby on an alloy rim, well, you haven’t struggled. Weeks later, a touring BMW needed a rear tire. This Beemer had a large contoured seat, the kind Corbin made famous, and a really big rectangular trunk set sideways behind the seat. It wouldn’t fit through the shop door so I decided to just remove the wheel in the parking lot and asked two other mechanics to help heave the beast onto its center stand. Very pleased with ourselves that we’d finally done it and hadn’t damaged anything, we started eyeing the trunk. It wasn’t the flimsy fiberglass we were used to on other touring trunks; it was very heavy and awfully well made. Too well made to be a typical motorcycle accessory of the 1970s. And very white…kind of angelic. After a moment’s contemplation, Andy says, “That’s a baby casket!” I guess our brains were starved of oxygen from all the recent exertion, but we just fell out laughing until tears ran down our faces. “Who puts a freakin’ baby casket on a motorcycle?” Gilbert said. “A BMW rider,” Andy said.

One Saturday, near the end of my time there as a mechanic, two guys brought in a wrecked late-model RD350 in the back of a pick up. It was for sale. Cheap. The engine started easily and ran well, so I bought it. At the time, these were the squids’ favorite for building canyon racers in California, but the style was all but unknown in big BR. The bike was the victim of a typical front-end collision, so I sourced a front wheel and gas tank from the attic. I installed new fork tubes, a sexy fiberglass front fender, and a small headlight from the Yamaha 200 twin. I cut back the rear fender and pruned the bike of everything I could: air box, reflectors, right mirror, turn signals, etc. I removed the stock foot pegs and turned the shift lever around to employ the passenger pegs as ad hoc rear-sets—just like I’d seen the Cycle magazine staffers do on their proddie racer. I performed a mild porting job on the cylinders under Andy’s tutelage and bought a set of expansion chambers.

Gilbert had his input, too. He had me trim the wiring so that there was no stop light switch on the front brake lever. “So when you pass a cop too fast, you can hit the brakes and he can’t see that you really did need to slow down.” As you can see, Gilbert was brilliant. The speedo was broken, so I threw it away. The crowning touch, all out of proportion to its simplicity, was the way I mounted the tach above the nice, low drag bars. Everyone commented favorably on this one mod. However, I have to admit to a bit of motorcycle vandalism here. I needed a bracket to mount the tach and I found, in the attic of course, a new old stock Bates skid plate for a Triumph desert sled. Yes, I carved an aluminum bracket from this virgin piece. Sure, no real Rocker rode a bike like this, but it gave the bike an unmistakable café-racer vibe. Shorn of speedo, its rev-clock set high like Tritons of yore. The bike would clear The Ton, too, and make it back before Rock Around the Clock was finished on the jukebox. Okay, considering the time and the location, maybe something by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

One day, a little late for work, I was blithely exceeding all the posted speed limits, and doubling a few. I had stopped, for what seemed like an age, to make a left across an expressway when I heard the sirens. Wow, I thought, they’ve got somebody under high-speed pursuit. Then the police car skidded to a halt in the gravel near my right foot. The cop jumped out and said, “I’ve been chasing you for miles. Didn’t you see me back there!?” Actually, no officer. Gulp. I guess you were too far back. He calmed down quickly, I think, because I was so polite and clueless. Fortunately he had never been close enough to actually clock my speed. I did get a vague ticket for “Excessive speed.” I was really lucky not to get a reckless driving charge.

No doubt, the bike was light and quick and effortless to ride fast. It was my main transport for a time, my long tangled ponytail streaming out behind my flat-black helmet. I made it to all the local hangouts. Not long after, I started seeing other stripped RD350s and 400s with drag bars around town.

I moved on to other jobs but I never forgot the lessons I learned at that crazy motorcycle shop. I’ve also come to realize it was a unique moment in time. The 1980s came and everything was different.

Rick DePuy is a reader and contributor to CityBike, Northern California’s independent motorcycling magazine.  Illustrations are by Jon Jensen.  Share your ’70s wrenching memories below!

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