Saturday, December 20, 2008

Museum of the Mind

I read yesterday that publisher Source Interlink has axed Motorcyclist Retro, which was edited by Mitch Boehm, who I worked with at Motorcyclist for the first six months of 1988 before I fled L.A. for the bucolic splendor of Oregon.

I’m sorry to see the title go, even though only a handful of issues were produced. I like reading about old motorcycles despite having little interest in owning or riding them. I used to own a very nice '75 Honda CB400F that I got while I worked at Cycle Guide. We had run an article on a couple of Honda 400s—a Japan-only 400cc four-cylinder with a trick valve train not unlike today’s VTEC, and a three-cylinder two-stroke decked out in Rothman’s livery—and a sidebar about the editor’s own CB400F.

The sidebar prompted a letter (no email in those days) to the magazine from a reader who said he had six—that’s right, six—CB400Fs in his garage, none of which had more than 1,100 miles on the clock. He had bought his first one in 1975, the first year of production, and loved it. Not long after that, someone told him Honda wasn't going to make any more of them after that year. So he did what anyone would do—he went back to the dealer and bought five more.

Sitting in my office at Cycle Guide, reading this letter, I had to wonder if the guy was putting us on. Then I got to the good part. He was willing to sell his bikes for $500 each. He said they were in pristine condition. All we had to do was come and get them.

At the time I had no history with CB400Fs. I had owned a CB500F and a CB550F years before, and they were competent if dull machines. I’d never ridden a CB400F, but I’d heard other people who had talking about them as if they were something special. That pretty much convinced me I had to have one. Mark Twain had a phrase for it—getting drunk on the smell of somebody else’s cork.

As it happens I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the man lived. It was December, and I had plans to drive north to visit my parents for the holidays. I finagled the Cycle Guide van for the trip, took $1,000 out of savings—to buy one for me, and one for a buddy—and hit the road.

When I got to the man’s house and he opened the garage door, I was amazed. Every word of what he’d written was true. I stood there looking at a row of CB400Fs—five red ones and a blue one—each one absolutely showroom fresh. I walked down the row checking the odometers. The highest mileage on any of them was 1,111.

The man explained that he used to ride them all once a week to keep the batteries charged, but as he got older this became more of a chore than he cared for, hence the decision to sell them. The sidebar had given him the impression that among the staff of Cycle Guide might be one or two enthusiasts who’d appreciate these bikes.

I appreciated two of them, a red one for me and a blue one for my buddy, into the back of the van, handed over $1,000 in cash, and grinned like a Cheshire cat all the way back to L.A.

Some people who buy vintage and classic bikes pamper them like Faberge eggs. I’m not one of those people. If I can’t ride a motorcycle I don’t see the point of owning it. And that’s where I began to see the flaw in my plan.

First, the little 400F was, as advertised, pristine. The problem was the real world was anything but pristine. For every hour I rode the bike I spent another hour cleaning it. That got old fast, but I wanted to protect my investment. The only other option was to build a museum and put it behind velvet ropes. But the house was barely big enough for its human occupants, never mind moving the inhabitants of the garage inside.

The second problem was how far motorcycles had come in the 12 years since the 400F was made. It just wasn’t much fun to ride. I had to wring its neck to get anything like decent acceleration out of it, and the brakes and handling weren’t up to the cut-and-thrust of city traffic, never mind L.A. freeways.

I brought the bike with me to Oregon in 1988, and rode it now and then. But the winters up here are long and wet, and it spent most of its time in the basement. I finally took the battery out, drained the gas tank, drained the engine oil and replaced it with fresh oil, and threw a sheet over it. That’s where it stayed until I sold it to a motorcycle magazine editor a few years ago.

Even though I never had much fun riding it, I always enjoyed looking at it. Some days I’d go down to the basement, take the sheet off, and sit on it. It was a beautiful little bike, as cute as a puppy, and reminded me of good times in a warm, sunny place.

And that’s why I’m so sorry to see Motorcyclist Retro go away. In four decades of riding that includes working at three national motorcycle magazines, I’ve thrown a leg over a fair number of bikes, and while these days I occasionally have a hard time remembering where I left my car keys, I can remember at least one day on every one of those bikes.

The last issue of Retro I saw had an article about the Yamaha RD-350. I have a lot of history with Yamaha twins, starting with an R5, and including an RD-350 and several 250cc road racers, all of which I rode in either AFM or AMA races, or both.

Just seeing the pictures in the article brought good memories flooding back. But I’m pretty sure that to ride any of those bikes now would only disappoint me. And since I still don’t have room for a museum in my house, I’ll just stick with the one in my mind.

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