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Mortality, Motorcycles and Life Lessons

Do You Remember When The Exact Moment You First Decided You Were Not Invinceable?

Have you ever had the experience of realizing that the event that had just taken place almost killed you? You “get it” that you almost died a minute ago – or ten minutes ago – however long it took to realize how close you just came.

I have.

The first experience was on a 1967 Triumph 500 c.c. Daytona when I found myself in a full drift at a speed in excess of the tire traction capacity of the Dunlop K70’s on that bike. As I came around a corner at full throttle, I was drifting towards a cliff on my left at full speed and the momentum was carrying me – first across the wrong side of the road where I would have been hit head-on at about 70 (if an oncoming car had been in that lane) and then finally coming to rest about 2 feet from the cliff below.

I turned off the motor and sat there shaking for about 15 minutes as the reality of what had just happened set in.

The Daytona was the twin carb version of the 500 and it had that deep throaty great sound that ’67 Triumphs made when you rolled on the throttle. An unmistakable sound that I can still hear in my head when I close my eyes and would recognize it from a block away – right now – if someone rode by on a vintage Triumph.

My ’67 was gloss black – hand painted by a friend of mine. Unlike the one in this picture, my fenders were chromed and the bike was immaculate six months after I got it.

There is something very special about your first motorcycle as a 16 year old. Sitting on that scooter as you screw on the gas, you are overtaken by a sense of invincibility coupled with the magic and freedom of a sense of flight.

You become one with the machine.

For me, this experience was magnified by the fact that the Daytona was truly a classic bike and provided an experience unique to its engineering and style. One of the reasons for such distinct sensations riding that bike was mechanical.

When I knew more about motorcycles, I realized that the long stroke of the crankshaft in that motor – coupled with the bearing configuration – created a specific vibration and sound that transferred up your arms from the handlebars and into your body – as the bike warmed up – the mechanical vibration and your body created a sort of harmonic resonance.

In 1977, I worked in a Suzuki shop. When I first got hired, I loved motorcycles but knew very little about them and even less about the motorcycle business. I used to drive the partner (who ran parts and service) nuts asking incessant questions as an enthusiastic and inquisitive new hire. He told me later that he almost fired me everyday the first six months for interrupting him so much, until he promoted me to become his parts department assistant. I was one of the few parts guys who became friends with the ornery head mechanic, Don.

Don was the kind of guy who chose his friends – you didn’t choose him – and if you got on his bad side, it was not a good situation. A burly, powerful barrel chested man with steel hands, he was a cross between the “troll under the bridge” and a bar fighter. And Don was one hell of a mechanic.

Don was very patient and could hold a long term grudge. He had a crazy, sardonic sense of humor and if you understood it, he was really funny. On the surface, Don could keep a straight face the whole time as the catastrophe he masterminded unfolded. Yet if you knew him well it was always fun watching him struggle to contain his imminent laughter. Don had a lot of authority in that shop, it was his kingdom. If Don told you to do something, or how to do something, he always had a reason. If you didn’t listen to his direction, he would always figure out a way to teach you a lesson you would never forget. If he liked you, the lesson would be some hilarious version of a practical joke. If you were on his shit list, it would hurt.

Anyway, back to the Triumph crankshaft. I learned a lot about Suzuki crankshafts as I pulled all the parts multiple times for service orders to rebuild those cranks.

Just look at the two crankshafts in the picture here. The Triumph 500 cc crank is on the left and the Suzuki 250 cc crank is on the right. There is significantly more bearing surface area on the Suzuki crank than the Daytona. The engineering design is superior in terms of torque load distribution and maintenance.

Almost every single part on the Suzuki crank is replaceable.  It is stronger. The parts are machined versus the cast components of the Triumph crank and the Suzuki crank is designed to be repaired easily by pressing it apart, replacing  the worn parts and bearings and pressing it back together.

Knowing what I know now, the bottom end of the Suzuki is an example of superior engineering. Although at the time, with the exception of the “cafe racer” crowd who made their own fiberglass tanks and seats (from scratch) in their garages, there was nothing glamorous about riding a “ring-ding” Japanese two cycle that sounded like it might shake itself to pieces at any minute.

Particularly compared to the beautiful sound of the Triumph…

About the same time 1970(?), a friend of mine had just gotten his Class C Professional Flat Tracking License and he had an X6 engine that Erv Kanemoto had tuned. I helped him a few times while he was fitting that 250 engine into a rigid frame made out of chrome moly tubing. I didn’t do much, mostly watched and handed him tools or helped him hold things in place to take measurements. I mention that motor because I think it was the quickest engine I had ever seen run in real life. My friend told me that his Kanemoto tuned X6 had held the track record for lap time at Ascot for 6 years.

In retrospect I know difference.

As I grow older, it’s clear that many things in life are like the comparison between the X-6 and the Daytona. Often we underestimate the little things that make a big difference. Working in that Suzuki shop taught me a great deal about how things work in the world and many of the lessons I learned there have become metaphors for living a better and more observant life.

My experience at the bike shop taught me that careful observation and attention to detail are important skill sets. It also taught me to watch and choose carefully and to listen to people who know what they are talking about – instead of talking about what they know.

I Am Michael Barrett


Link Sources for pictures in this article:
Here is where I got the picture of the X6 crank is here: Suzuki X6 Crankshaft.  It was so weird to me seeing his description of rebuilding that bike because we used to do those cranks regularly in the Suzuki shop – 3 or 4 a week was not uncommon in a busy shop. It seems like yesterday but that was actually 35 years ago. Reality check. But it’s a nice blog and a very personal story that he shared.

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