Cars that Fly; Aircraft on the Road

CNN recently ran a release titled An Airplane in Your Garage? which brought back some memories of airplanes that could/might/were intended to be driven on a street (one with cars and trucks and people and dogs and babies, etc.) in between times in the air then would be parked beside the house. I think I encountered the first of these when I was around 10 years old or so. My father and his friends–all air force fighter pilots and most with engineering background–made fun of the idea. Well, the idea is still around and it’s more laughable today than it was back in the 1940s. Above is a Ford Flying Flivver, circa 1925, (photo used courtesy of Flugker/Z). Henry Ford thought the Flying Flivver would be a great idea; it wasn’t. The wings didn’t fold which meant the little bird was really not a car, though it was quite small and could be landed on a road. Charles Lindbergh took the stick of one of the tiny beasts: he called it “probably the worst airplane I ever flew.” After three or so prototypes were developed, the Flying Flivver was grounded for good of all concerned. Nonetheless, the idea of a car that flies or an airplane that is capable of being driven on a highway didn’t go away.

The latest iteration of the airplane in the garage has folding wings that retract into the body so driving down the street isn’t a real burden due to those ungainly lengths of metal sticking out the sides. There’s no word on how reliable the folding wings might be nor how much their activating mechanism might add to the vehicle’s weight. CNN’s reporter suggests that an FAA Light-Sport-Pilot certificate would be ideal for new pilot/drivers of these splendid vehicles. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I quote one of the opening paragraphs of the story: Personal aviation, where pilots operate small private aircraft, offers an alternative with the potential to get you where you need to be quickly, safely and on your own schedule, but it, too, comes with limitations. Ah, yes. Limitations.

Let’s examine the line about small private aircraft offering an alternative with the potential to get you where you need to be quickly, safely and on your own schedule. That’s Jess Dixon in his flying automobile to your right. He’s quickly, safely going somewhere on his own schedule. (Image courtesy of Kobel Feature Photos, Frankfort, IN) I’m not too sure how safe ol’ Jess is but I don’t even understand why his fedora hasn’t blown off unless it’s glued to his head. I angered more than one fellow flight instructor when I referred to NTSB statistics indicating private aircraft safety is on a par with skydiving and motorcycling. (Yeah, I’m screwed: I fly small planes, skydive and ride motorcycles.) Then there’s the quickly and on your own schedule. Most owners of small aircraft accept that flying is a great idea IF you have some leeway in your schedule…and IF you have the money to stay in a motel for a few days and you have enough sense to do so instead of departing into the teeth of that storm front you just know you can dodge around or scud run under and you don’t really have a choice because you don’t have enough spare cash/credit for lodging and food expenses.

Small planes have a significant number of limitations, including an inability of getting overtop of weather disturbances. Little planes crawl their way up to 13K, 14K, pilot is sucking oxy through a cannula…and the storm towers 25K higher in the sky. Bad times, dude: don’t do it. Landing in whippy crosswinds can also be somewhat challenging, even for a larger airplane. Then there’s the mountains. If you want to fly in the mountains, that’s an entire new set of skills you must master, even if your plane has the capability of performing at higher altitudes. Then, too, there are the communications/navigational aids you need to ensure you don’t go places you shouldn’t. It’s not legally required to have a radio but not being able to receive communications really limits your flying and the navaids are important because there is plenty of restricted airspace around that you really, really don’t want to intrude on. But before we worry about speed, landing capability, fuel endurance, weight limitations and such niggling concerns, let’s take a glance at the pilot requirements. The CNN article mentions specifically that an LSA certificate can be earned in weeks, a definite advantage compared to the months or even years that pass accumulating instrument, commercial, multi-engine, airline transport ratings with the associated time and experience.

In the case of an LSA certificate, what limitations might we be referring to once the piece of plastic is in the pilot’s pocket? Without going into the arcane details of what sort of aircraft qualify under the LSA rules and what their specific maintenance requirements are, here are a few rules that apply to the pilot’s certificate:

  • Requires either a 3rd class FAA medical certificate or a current and valid U.S. driver’s license as evidence of medical eligibility (provided the individual’s most recent application for an FAA medical certificate was not denied, revoked, suspended or withdrawn).
  • Does not allow carrying passengers for compensation or hire
  • Does not allow flights in furtherance of business
  • Allows sharing (“pro-rata”) operating expenses with another pilot.
  • Allows daytime flight only.
  • Allow sport pilots to fly vintage and production aircraft (standard airworthiness certificate) that meet the definition of a light-sport aircraft.

No instrument flying. That’s a not unwise limitation, as in a couple of weeks training, the pilot knows how to take off, land, and do basic navigation. Even in a suitably equipped small airplane–and I include a variety of twin-engined airplanes in this category–instrument flight is quite demanding. Big planes, you know, like the ones the guys at the big airport fly with lots of people sitting in the back: they require a crew. That’s two pilots to split the job; little planes usually have just one guy at the stick. No flights in furtherance of business. No nighttime flying–better leave work early so you’re not up there at night when you shouldn’t be. By the way, night flight has its own inherent set of problems and if you’re not trained to fly in the dark and your aircraft isn’t properly lighted, you shouldn’t be there anyway. No instrument, so there’s a problem entering the Class B around the cities. (That’s a Wagner Aerocar in the image to the left. Great idea, bet I’ll see one down the street soon…)

We didn’t go into the weight limitations of a light sport aircraft, which is around 1300 lbs gross. That’s craft, pilot, passenger, fuel, baggage and the dog. Hmmm. Say 325 lbs for pilot and passenger, 120 lbs for 20 gallons of gas, dog weighs 20 lbs, toss in two bags, 10 lbs each…I think we’re gonna have a problem. Folding wings, they’re gonna have to have some sort of activation system and that has to weight a few pounds. All that, the engine, the fuselage…adds up rather quickly. It’s why most pilots who own four seat aircraft consider them practical for only two people and a bit of baggage. My Mooney M20C was a good example. Two people, couple of bags, 50 gallons of fuel, we were up near the 2575 lb. weight limit. Remember, the M20C is a real airplane. Cut the weight in half–but don’t reduce the pilot/passenger load. I don’t think so…

We’re ignoring where the auto/plane will take off. Street traffic makes reaching rotation speed somewhat onerous, particularly considering the wings need to be spread. Ever whack a bicycle with a wing at, oh, say 30 or 35 mph? Or maybe clip a bush or a pole? Landing entails some of the same problems. Two of the photos above show a VTOL, vertical take off and landing device. No need for a runway. Still, that spinning rotor seems like it might be inconvenient anywhere there are power lines, trees, shrubs, tall people, horses…

It’s a great idea. I’m ready to buy one. After, of course, they’re certificated, tested…and practical. Until then, I’d prefer something safer. Motorcycles, bicycles, parachutes, small airplanes, young women…


Gremlins in My Past

An article in the New York Times hauls out memories of some of the cars of the 1970s, automobiles that would better be forgotten. Rambler’s odd little Gremlin was placed in a prominent position in this list of misfits. Ah, memories. Unlike the Sunbeam Alpine which I wrote about in an earlier post, there were almost no positives about the little Gremlin. The Sunbeam had its endearing traits and it was, well, cute. After all, Maxwell Smart drove a Sunbeam Tiger and we all know what he did to Agent 69 (or whatever her number was…) in Get Smart. Some girls liked the ‘beam. I never met a woman who saw any panache in the Gremlin.

Why would I buy such a nasty little car? I didn’t. However, the NBC affiliate for whom I worked in ’73-’74 had the misfortune of owning not one but six of the miserable automobiles. One was given to production, one to management (or what passed for management at our station) and four belonged to the news department. Our station manager preferred his Ford Thunderturd convertible so his secretary used the Gremlin for errands. Production had theirs for much the same reason; quick runs to the store for bottles of wine and rolling papers. We, the news people, had to rely (?) on ours on a daily basis if we didn’t want to drive our own cars for which the station would not reimburse us. So, the Gremlins it was.

Our four AMC cars were all pale blue in color, emblazoned with NBC logos and Newscope 13 advertisements. A little orange light was bolted on the car’s roof to give us some sort of indication of officialdom…when it would blink which was seldom. One of the cars was quickly out of service, its transmission unable to transmit much other than rude metallic grinding noises as the gears disintegrated. All four cars had 3-speed manual floor-shifters and I still believe the female reporter who got stranded in the car that lost its tranny didn’t quite know how to handle a stick shift. The broken box might not have been entirely the fault of the Gremlin.

The rest of the problems rested in the misbegotten soul of the Gremlin. What an appropriate name. Electric glitches were myriad. One car would blink its lights whenever we switched on the orange caution light. Not just its headlights but all its lights. Dash, head, tail and interior. Simple solution was to not use the caution light. Starter problems were endemic, most of which turned out to be a problem in a relay. We were cursed. Keys wouldn’t release door locks or one lock would work and the other wouldn’t. The hatchback port was also a problem. Two cars had rear windows that wouldn’t lock; a serious problem when one has $12,000 worth of camera equipment stored in the back. The other one would lock. It wouldn’t unlock. At all. Period. Ever. Hauling a big camera case and a tripod out of the back area through the front door was not easy. I preferred the hatches that wouldn’t lock. I didn’t own the cameras but my back pains from getting them in and out of the car were all mine.

Only one memory associated with the Gremlins can still elicit a smile. I had met a…friend…shall we call her after filming a feature in Fort Walton Beach. I suspected she might have a significant other at home but I’m not the jealous type. I took her to an out of the way spot where years earlier when I was a high school student I had parked on several occasions. The Gremlin wasn’t spacious but we were doing what we needed to do when thefront seatback support gave up the ghost. My new acquaintence had placed her dainty feet on the windshield–I think you get the picture without having a photo to explain it–and when the seatback flopped down, she straightened her legs. The windshield popped out of its rubber sealing strip. We both were mature enough to realize there was no reason to stop now. We finished our performance, rearranged our wardrobes then ten minutes of jimmying the rubber seal secured the windshield enough that I could drive back into town. Had it been any car other than the Gremlin, I doubt that my employer would have believed that the windshield just popped out while I was driving.

In retrospect I wonder if maybe AMC designed the Gremlins for that NBC station in Florida. We had problems with everything, not just the cars. At first we had problems with obtaining our FCC operating license; local people referred to the station as WHEN or WAIT. Not funny when you’re working there. Then we had almost constant transmitter problems. We were new, just going on the air, and we weren’t quite ready for prime time. We kept losing our network feed at the most inopportune times, a problem that turned out to be a microwave dish that was torquing in the wind, actually twisting the self-supporting tower on which it was mounted. Then, just as we began to get all the bugs worked out, the Arabs decided to withhold petroleum shipments to the US. Yes. The great Arab oil embargo of 1974. Located in a tourist area, all the local advertising dried up. We were devastated. We existed on network comp fees and that’s not enough to keep a 53 employee television station even close to being in the black. The litany of layoffs began.

Cut after cut was bleeding us to death. I dusted off my shoes and headed for the west coast. I missed some of the people I worked with but I never felt bad about leaving the Gremlins.

(Pix at top and bottom of this post are from the AMC/Rambler Club website. It’s a great site, well worth the visit and, if you’re interested in or own an AMC/Rambler, I would think it’s worth joining the club.)



Bicycling in the Cold

Bicycling in cold weather is not my favorite activity but bicycling in any weather ranks right at the top of my enjoyment list. So, what’s a guy to do? It’s in the mid-40s today, yeah, even in Arizzzona the temperatures drop, and I need my pedal fix. Freezing legs aren’t really a problem, constant motion takes care of that, especially when I wear knickers, gear that covers my knees. It’s hands, arms and chest…and haid, that container of hot air on my shoulders, that can be chilly on a long, downhill descent.

So, why ride in cold weather? Maybe not for the reason one might imagine. Exercise is a necessity, particularly as one ages, but I don’t ride just on account of maxing out my heartrate and burning off some calories. If that were all I wanted, I’d buy a training stand, plug in a flatscreen and watch the Kardashian sisters having sex with Justin Bieber while I pedaled my arse. No, it’s the mental activity that gets me out regardless of the temperature. There’s something about providing my own motive power down the road in the real world that engenders a sensation of well-being and accomplishment. Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five miles on a bicycle takes me from the metal womb that encases most of us when we venture outside. Pausing on the side of a dirt road to listen to the rustling of the wind through the dry brush is the best meditation I know. (When I medidate at home, about three minutes into the session I find myself involved in a sexual fantasy with Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Helen Mirren, the spirit of Donna Reed and three large Alsatian dogs.)

The motorcycle provides an entirely different type of mental fix; I appreciate the difference.


The Sunbeam: Not all misfits have just two wheels.

Above is a photo of the 1963 Sunbeam Alpine that once lived with me. The Alpine taught me (or reiterated) a lesson: not all misfits of the vehicular world have just two wheels. I’ve detailed some of my experiences with a Lambretta scooter, an Ariel Leader, a Honda CBX, several Hardly-Ableson Sportsters…all posts composed with significant tongue in cheek…but all dealing with the foibles of two-wheeled weirdos. It’s time to write about an oddity with four wheels.

I bought the Sunbeam in 1988. It had less than 60,000 miles on the odo; that should have been a warning flag. The car hadn’t been maintained in showroom condition, it wasn’t pristine, in fact it was parked out on a carport with a couple of desert tortoises living underneath it. The owner, a middle-aged school teacher, had made no attempt to preserve the car and her asking price was low enough to make apparent her desire to make the little monster go away. After doing a walk-around, I considered a possibility that the low mileage might have been the result of a replacement speedometer or a broken cable but, no, closer inspection of the vehicle convinced me that the numbers were correct. The owner stood silently, watching me as if she were proctoring a student she knew would cheat on a test. Like the old man and the prostitute, I made her an offer, she honored my offer: all night long it was on her and off her. I bought the Sunbeam.

The car had two tops, one a replacement soft top that didn’t fit quite right and the other a black, angular, rough-textured, plastic device that was so ugly it would have been appropriate bolted onto a Borgward or a Goliath (those are, for the uninitiated, both makes of automobiles though they were neither auto nor usually mobile). I hid the hard top in my hangar after trailering my new acquisition home. The Sunbeam had benefited from Arizona’s lack of humidity in that it no patches of oxidation; it suffered from Arizona’s sunbeams in that its original paint had given up the ghost. A replacement paint job was apparently chosen to compliment the hard top. It was a truly ugly shade of yellowish beige that only someone with color vision problems could have selected. Several runs were apparent around the lower portions of the fenders. Hopefully the teacher hadn’t paid too much for the work. I planned on having the car repainted but wanted to drive it first.

That’s always a mistake when dealing with a 1960’s British car. By the time it’s been driven for a few miles, there are so many areas that need attention the paint never reaches priority stage. In the case of the Sunbeam and its roaring 1600cc four-banger, we’ll begin with the electrical system. System is a charitable term when applied to forty year old wiring created by Joseph Lucas and his elvish demons. (I plan on doing a future post on the foibles of electrics by the Prince of Darkness.) Several hours were dedicated to pulling each rubber connector block apart and replacing the oxidized connectors with more modern (and moisture proof) fittings. The generator was replaced with an alternator and sundry other little black parts that would hopefully maintain a charged battery. I put the vehicle back on the road feeling somewhat secure that tiny electrons would find an acceptable path through their labryinthine routes without going to ground and melting their overcoats. An explanation at this point: I paid $2,500 for the car. Regardless of the low mileage, it was intended to be a driver. If I had wanted to restore and show a vehicle, I would have chosen something other than a Sunbeam Alpine.

Trip to Phoenix during winter’s cooler temperatures brought to my attention a few additional areas in need of maintenance. The clutch slave chose to leak fluid and lose pressure. I returned home syncing my shifts with the throttle and avoiding full stops unless absolutely necessary. Brakes were also indicating they were picking up air in the lines. OK, I replaced all the hydraulic lines and installed kits for both brake and clutch slaves and masters. While working with the brakes, I realized the wheels–13″ spoke types–had accumulated moisture inside and welded some of the spoke nipples to the rims, thus contributing to broken spokes. Sending five rims to a shop in Los Angeles that had done wheel maintenance on an E-Type Jag I once owned was going to set me back more than half of what I paid for the entire Alpine. I chose to use penetrating oil–Mouse Milk to be specific–on the rims then replace broken spokes with new. From this point forward, I knew I was renovating the Sunbeam for resale, not to bond with and let it become a family member.

Why did the British automobile industry curl up and die like a centipede after eating poison? The Sunbeam is a paradigm of their problem. The car itself was rather cute, if one is into cute. It was pathetically underpowered.  (A variant of the little ‘beam, the Tiger, cured the performance problem by shoehorning a 260ci V8 Ford into the engine compartment, providing way too much grunt for way too little suspension, braking, and so on. Maybe a twin OHC modern four-valve with fuel injection and alloy construction would have been a worthy addition along with a better suspension system, brakes, etc. Just changing spark plugs on the Tiger involved removing both front wheels and taking panels off the inside fender wells.) Mechanical problems plagued the Sunbeam, not in one specific area but a never-ending line of niggling squawks. This condition was endemic to Brit cars of the time. A pantheon of sports cars rolled from Britain’s factories in the ’60’s, providing drivers with everything from the Alpine to the Triumph TR-3, 3A, and 4 (owned one of each); the wonderful Austin-Healy 100 through 3000 series (yep, had those, too); and the memorable Jaguars from the 120’s in the 1950’s through the XKE’s with 3.8 and 4.2 liter big six cylinder engines to list just a few. (I don’t include the Jag 12–I hated them.) All these vehicles had characteristics that endeared them to the owner/enthusiast. Every single one of them had foibles that created gray hair, tears of frustration and oaths signed-in-blood to never own another English car.

The Sunbeam was a perfect example of that creed.


CBX..Honda’s answer to a question…no one asked…

The year was 1981. I was visiting in Seattle where I committed the mistake of stopping by a local scooter shop. There, in all it’s many silly-cylindered glory, was a 1978 Honda CBX 1000. I’d encountered CBXes on numerous occasions but hadn’t been attracted to the monsters. After all, six cylinders meant six carburetors with six throttle bodies to synchronize. There were four tiny valves nestled on top of each of the cylinders. That meant twenty-four valves to check, each with a shim that might need replacing. Too much of too much.

Maybe my antipathy was based on an experience in Florida that took place not long after the CBX was first  introduced. My girlfriend of the moment was a clinical psychologist. Her son had been apprehended in the act of filching a pound of marijuana from the director of the mental health clinic where my girlfriend worked. In lieu of, well, in lieu of I’m not sure what since punishment was circumscribed by the circumstances, she chose to engage the 13 year old son in therapy as a solution to the situation. The child psychologist she chose to administer the dose of “make-it-right” was located about an hour from where we lived. We captured her son and trundled him off that distant office for the initial treatment.

There, in the parking lot outside the psychologist’s office was an immaculate, brand-new, bright-red and chrome CBX. Turned out it belonged to the pshrink we were coming to see. “Doctor,” I certainly don’t want to identify him by name–he knows who he is–was no more than five-six at the outside and couldn’t have tipped the scales at much more than one-ten or so. I empathize with short guys riding big bikes. I’m vertically challenged myownself. However, I think it’s a good idea to choose motorcycles which allow getting at least one foot on the pavement without putting the bike flat on its side. In his case, that meant limiting choices to a Vespa scooter or a moped and I’m not sure about the moped.

The Honda was tall. As we were leaving, I wanted to ask Doctor if he strapped a stool to the back of the bike for getting on and off. I didn’t. My GF was already unhappy with my lack of respect for the shrinking profession; no need to toss matches on the trail of gunpowder.

Here in Federal Way, Washington, was a red CBX that was an identical twin of one in Florida. “Wanna sit on it,” the salesman/manager/whatever asked. Salesmen know that once a fanatic gets his ass on the seat, half the sale is consummated. The next step is lighting the fires. “There’s a problem with the bike,” I was told after wondering about a ride, is “the rear brake seizes.”

The rear brake seizes. Randomly? No, it happens after riding for a few miles. Hmmm. After a few miles, the rear brake locks up? No, it gradually seizes then it won’t release.

A mechanical conundrum. I am for some perverse reason attracted to mechanical conundrums. I buy vehicles I don’t particularly want because they’re a baby bird with a broken leg. (I don’t like electrical conundrums but that’s another story.) This was an intriguing problem. Honda dealer had replaced the rotor, the caliper, the lines…took the bike back from the original purchaser then wholesaled it to this indy shop. Negotiate, verify funds, then we loaded Honda into the back of my Datsun pickup where it resided for the trip back to Arizona.

Salesman/manager/whatever had been truthful. I took the Honda out for a ride. Within ten miles, the rear brake was dragging. I thought I’d have to load it back on the pickup to get the sucker home but after three beers at a nearby place of rest and recuperation, I discovered the brake once again functioned. Did heat cause the fluid to expand? That couldn’t be. Fluid had been changed, probably several times. Hydraulic fluid doesn’t expand and contract without having air or water in it. Brake had been solid–no sponginess–so air couldn’t be the culprit. Water? Again, fluid had been changed.

Clue: parked in my crumbly, dirt-floored garage, I discovered that the brake would seize if I pumped it enough times. No heat involved. I went to work. Clue two: caliper operated properly. With the brake seized, release pressure by opening bleed valve. Pads immediately retracted. OK, certainly can’t be rotor, either. Time to disassemble. Clue three: fluid passes through lines without restriction. That leaves only one possibility. The master cylinder. A little black anodized tube no more than four inches long had to be the culprit. I ordered a new master repair kit, accepting that elves working for Honda would lovingly craft the little seals and get them to me by Christmas. No telling which year but by Christmas some year.

While waiting for the replacement kit, I couldn’t resist playing with the cylinder. There are two minuscule holes where fluid passes back into the system (this is accurate as I remember…years have passed…so has my memory…). Fluid seemed to re-enter as it should but it seemed slow. I inserted a dental burr on a rotary tool and carefully lowered it into one of the holes. The tip of the burr went into the master cylinder without any resistance. The other hole turned out to not have been drilled through. I used the burr to open it. Problem was solved.

Brakes worked. Both ’em. Now it was time to ride the CBX. Wheeeee! Six-effen-cylinders. It sounded like nothing I’d ever ridden before.

Not at uncomfortable bike, not really as tall as it looked (gee, I’m sorry, Doc…it’s just that you resembled Woody Allen about to have sex with Darryl Hannah) and felt like I imagined an F1 Gran Prix car might feel (or an MV Agusta six or something of that ilk). Handled like: poop. The early CBX went like hell in a straight line. Brakes were what we expected for brakes back then; nominal at best. Rear suspenders were rudimentary and front porks…er…forks were pathetic. I don’t remember the tube diameter but they were tiny, like toothpicks holding up a tank. Add a massive head necessary to hold all those valves, cams, pipes and so on…weight was high in the frame as was the big gas tank…and the bike felt noodly when banked over to go around a turn. Yeah, even in Arizona we have roads with bends in them. Not many, but some. The beginnings of head-shake whilst riding on AZ 83 from Sonoita to I-10 caused my pucker-factor indicator needle to swing right through the red zone and bang against the limit peg.

I wanted to like the CBX. Really, I did. Well, kinda. I liked the idea of liking the CBX. I just didn’t like the motorcycle itself. I couldn’t afford to park the beast in my living room as a display piece; particularly not as I already had a dysfunctional Norton 850 that suffered from casting porosity in the crankcase displayed in the living room. Two dysfunctional motorcycle displays might make people think I was…well…odd, like someone who is addicted to using ellipses in his writing.

The CBX went away as did so many other strange motorcycles and odd sports cars that rolled into my life over the years. Photo at the top of the post is the CBX in its milieu; out on I-10 where it could go like hell and not have to brake or turn. Lower photo is near Patagonia shortly before I stained my jeans on AZ 83. I almost bought another CBX a few years later, a silver ’82. It had a sleek fairing, matching saddlebags and much larger forks but most of the rest of the bike was the same stuff warmed over to become a road cruiser that wasn’t expected to go fast in the curves. I passed up on it; one CBX had been enough. I was on to greater things such as a series of BMW bricks; the infamous K bikes of which I still have an example parked outside.

The Black Buell rumbles in…Sportster Pt IV…the end…

Maybe it’s genetic. You know, like damaged genes. In my case, DNA irreperably altered by youthful indulgences. Not anything as exotic as huffing glue or snorting girl’s bicycle seats but the simple act of riding a Vincent Rapide around the streets of Hurlburt AFB when I was a kid was enough to permanently damage my cognitive abilities. I am inextricably drawn to the rhythmic burble of big V-twin engines. (I’m also attracted to giant radial aircraft engines but I can’t afford to indulge…) The damage isn’t extensive enough to make me endure the pain of riding chrome-drenched American V-twin motorcycles for significant distances but I really do like the sound. That’s why…even though the XLC 1200 was gone…I remained vulnerable.

Just days after watching the Blue Beast disappear into the west toward the wilds of Sierra Vista, I tie-strapped a crated Lycoming O-360 aircraft engine onto the platform of my Kendon trailer and transported it north to an FAA certified rebuild station in Phoenix. On my way out of the big city I stopped to see John Walkup at Chandler airport to discuss some continuing aerobatic flight training. So far, so good. Then, fate intervened. On my way out of Chandler, I spotted a sign emblazoned with the familiar BMW roundel. Hmmm; a shop I’d never visited before. Who could resist?After all, I was a member of the BMW Motorcycle Owners Association and was quite happy with an ’85 K100 that had served me well on several cross-country rides. I wanted to touch a K12RS, not buy one but at least look. Three BMW K bikes adorned the showroom–new motorcycles all–each one emblazoned with intricate flame paintjobs. “Nice,” a salesman said, nodding toward the row of visual atrocities. “They’re custom,” the salesman added, as if I might be under the misapprehension BMW was shipping new motorcycles splashed with flame paint. (The hideous decorations became understandable when I later learned that the dealership was part of a Harley-Davidson bike and Cadillac car conglomerate.)

“Why would anyone fuck up a nice paint job by adding flames?” I asked.

“Some people like it,” the salesman said with a sniff. I was about to leave when a young mechanic rolled a black Buell motorcycle into the display room and parked it at the end of a row of used cycles. I didn’t know much about Buells but I moved closer to take closer look. “Came in on a trade,” the mechanic told me. “We haven’t even checked it out yet.”

The salesman reappeared. “That one doesn’t have flames,” he said sarcastically. “Show me your license and motorcycle endorsement then you can take it for a ride.”

I saw, I rode, I don’t need to go into the gruesome details of our negotiations. I walked out the door twice, once I was almost to my vehicle, before a final price was agreed upon. It was just like buying a fucking car; nothing was easy even though I paid cash and paid just what I first offered. Eventually the Buell was loaded onto my Kendon and I was on my way home chanting, “oh, shit; oh, damn; what an idiot I am…” the entire four hours back. Why? Why would I buy another Sportster, even if it came with a different shirt and pair of pants? It’s still a Sportster. I had lost my mind.

The next day, leather jacket and chaps strapped and snapped into place to partially ward off the cold, I went for a ride. The grin was back. I liked the Buell. It had the big-twin sound without the nut-numbing vibration of the Harleys. The Buell might be a keeper. I even paused to take a few pix of my new machine (such as this one with the Broken Spoke Saloon trailer in the background. I was enjoying myself. Performance wasn’t that bad, handling was fine, a troublesome check engine light was blinking on and off but I figured I’d have some maintenance to catch up on. Ah, yes.

Home with Eric Buell’s revenge parked in the basement, I began learning about the vagaries of working on this odd Harley. For one, the engine hangs suspended from rubber mounts in a trellis frame. That’s not so unusual; my first Ariel had a suspended engine (though not from a trellis) as do several other motorcycles. What I came to learn about the early Buells was their tendency to eat the rubber suspension biscuits and occasionally do something odd such as dropping the engine out of the frame when the front mount shears. Has this actually happened? I’ve not seen it occur myself but during my research on the subject I found a number of photographs of serious damage caused by these mounts failing.

OK, winter was still wrapping its icey claws around the southeast Arizona mountains and I had time to sort out any difficulties. The engine light turned out to be an intermittant failure of the head temperature sensor. My local HD stealer agreed to order one of the little suckers, promising that no more than three or four weeks would pass before a new sensor would be on the shelf. I have no faith in the HD parts desk. Fifteen or twenty long distance calls later, I located the part at a Buell shop in Modesto, California. (Good thinking on my part. More than ten years since I ordered the sensor–the parts counter guy said I could pay for it when it arrived–and I still haven’t heard back. Maybe next week.)

No part of the Buell suspension is particularly easy to check out: Nothing, at least not on the older Buells such as the S3T that I’d purchased. Usually it’s a matter of disassembling a major part of the motorcycle then determining clearances or whether the rubber was misshapen or failing. Still…as I said…it was winter. I had  work to do, some flying, some writing, some instructing but in my spare time, I tinkered with the Buell. The bike was really in pretty good condition. A prior owner had failed to keep the machine clean (a common fault for sport bike owners) but it hadn’t been attacked by a cobbler with a brass mallet and a crescent wrench like some of the cycles I’ve seen.

Once the work was underway, I found a few spare parts (eBay to the rescue) that I couldn’t resist adding or replacing. First among the new pieces was a Buell performance upgrade kit that included a high rpm ignition modual, a somewhat more traditional air intake system (the breadbox as many riders refer to the original Buell filter went away), and a much curvier set of pipes/muffler combination that supposedly improved performance. The muffler was a necessity as the bike had a Vance and Hines can that someone had fastened together with cherry rivets after it had fallen off once or twice. Since I had both the time and the necessary tools, I lightly sandblasted the new pipes then power coated them with a black, heat-resistant finish before final fitment. Front brake pads were replaced with a semi-metallic compound that supposedly would effect a vast improvement on the big, single-sided disc, all fluids were replaced, a thermostat-controlled oil cooler was attached to the frame downtube, shift linkage was updated to replace the clanky multi-rod system on the early Buells and by then, winter was coming to an end. I still had some changes planned–I wanted a new rear shock and progressive springs in the front tubes–but that could come later.

The Buell was ready to ride. Photo to the left is the S3T sitting out behind my house awaiting a roar around town for the first time since it had entered my basement torture chamber two months earlier. The big twin rumbled to life with no hesitation. I clunked it into gear–even with Mobil 1 synthetic, Harley transmissions are noisy–and went riding. The blinking engine light was gone, the bike was responsive and I liked the sound emanating from the new muffler. The old aluminum can had a tinny note. Maybe it was just a couple of baffles rattling together but it soundled like a Royal Enfield with the rods about to make an appearance through the side of the case.

So, weather improving, the Buell and I made several short trips together. I was learing the eccentricities of this machine. (All motorcycles have their eccentricities, just some have a lot more than others. Make a list of Italian bikes to begin with…) The Buell method of attaching the capacious saddlebags was a bit odd and I fashioned some grommets to improve stability. The bags themselves were wonderful; large enough to conceal a full-face helmet with space to spare and, unlike the plastic cases on many motorcycles, they don’t mount close to the exhaust pipes where eventually heat destroys the plastic. The Buell muffler is under the center of the bike, attached to a set of curly pipes that look large enough to be headers on a B-25 engine. Said muffler, at least the high-performance iteration, is a huge, industrial looking can that raises a cloud of dust toward the left rear of the bike when the throttle is cracked.

I’m not a racer–I break and bruise easily–plus Arizona has few roads that really cater to knee-draggers. This is great for bikes like the Buell…and old guys like me. The seat, though not particularly thick, was comfortable. The bars were low enough to give a nice body position; semi-erect but not like sitting back in a Barclay recliner with legs spread, ready for the speculum. Night time outings exposed a common failing of most older motorcycles. Headlight strength is measured in candlepower; there aren’t many candles burning behind that rectangular glass. Older people suffer from diminished night vision–rods need far more oxygen than cones and the rods are what the eyes use for seeing at night. Maybe an oxy bottle strapped to the seat and a cannula under my helmet would provide an improvement but I find myself taking the safe way out and not riding at night when I can avoid it, particularly not on long, dark highways with psychotic animals waiting for an opportunity to commit murder/suicide. On the positive side, the tail light on the S3 is giant, stretching the entire way across the big, wide tail section. Drivers approaching the back of the bike can see the brake light clearly (unlike so many motorcycles that have tiny red lenses that are almost useless as a warning).

So, the Buell and I were bonding. I enjoyed the attention the motorcycle received when I parked it downtown at the coffee shop. Harleys are like fat old men; they’re everywhere. The Buell, Harley that it is, still merits a second look. This particularly pertains to the original Buells, the Lightnings and the S series. I don’t find myself drawn to the ugly frame of the newer Buells or their stubby appearance. Apparently many other riders agreed with me, as Harley-Davidson saw fit to pull the plug from Buell production in 2009. Whether I appreciated the later bikes or not, I hated to see the Buells go away. They provided an alternative for the riders who like the Harley engine and the Harley sound but don’t want the retro-bike ride.

In the end, someone liked my Buell better than I did. I ventured north to Tucson for a leisurely afternoon, planning on a couple of stops, a bite of food then a putt back home before the sun dropped. I parked in a mall lot, tucked my shiny black Arai helmet into the saddlebag then spent an hour or so at the stores, ate a greasy sandwich then went outside. The mall I was at is not, at least in my way of thinking, laid out in a simple manner. I thought I knew where I parked the bike…but I’ve been known to err. Frequently. I circled the lot, walked the entire way around the mall. By the time I was back to where I thought I’d parked, I knew. The bike was gone. I called 911 then sat outside waiting for a sheriff’s deputy to appear. An hour later he was there, copying down the necessary info for a report. He was not encouraging.

“It’s probably already parted out by now,” he said. “They don’t last long…”

The bike was insured. That was about the only positive part of the experience. I have owned many, many motorcycles. This was the first time one was ever stolen. Left outside a bar while I indulged in mortal sins, parked on the beach overnight while I don’t remember what I did, left sitting in an apartment lot for weeks while I was gone: never before had a bike been stolen from me. I gathered up all the Buell parts I had accumulated, put them on eBay and turned my back on the affair. That was almost ten years ago. I’ve been tempted more than once but there was something final about the disappearance of the black Buell.

Anyway, now I have a big-twin Ducati, a 907ie, bright-Italian-red, and it provides my big-twin fix when I need one. Plus, anyone who ever did the valves on a desmo Ducati (or knows what a pain in the ass they can be) wouldn’t bother to steal one.




The Blue Beast (’98 Harley XLC)…Pt III and Next to Last in the Sportster Series…

The ’74 XLCH had been easier to sell than I’d anticipated. I lost a bit on the deal but that was fine with me; I just wanted the bike to to be not in my life. Its new owner had driven to Bisbee in a small car; he left the CH with me for a few weeks while he finagled a way to get it from my basement to his apartment in Phoenix. At least he had enough sense not to attempt riding it that far. At long last, his sister and her boyfriend arrived from Midland, Texas, on their way for a visit with brother. A small trailer was attached to boyfriend’s new Lincoln Navigator. Boyfriend was not a biker. Carefully groomed short hair (but not a skinhead), creased slacks, a long-sleeved shirt buttoned up to his adams apple and a mind buttoned up to his arsehole, he informed me that he was an accountant and he was merely assisting with the transfer of the (wrinkle nose at this point) motorcycle.

Sister was…well…they were an odd couple, she and the accountant. I would guess he had dollars; she had something he wanted. On this occasion she was adorned in the style she imagined a scooter chick should flaunt. Like the CH, she had an immense set of jugs; also like the CH, she had plenty of excess weight that didn’t look bad but probably affected her handling. Her Levis were spray-painted in place (I would loved to have watched her heat her ass so it could be poured into those pants) but the effect was spoiled by the saddlebags that adorned the outside of her butt cheeks. A bas relief of her breasts was carved into a tight, bright-orange shirt; like the jeans, the effect was marred, in this case by spare tires circling her midriff. At least the rolls packed in place by the shirt kept those pendulous knockers from falling down to her navel.

Before I could say shazzam, the CH had vanished along with accountant and his faux biker chick. The orange latex (well, maybe it was spandex) shirt and a cold winter day implanted in my memory an image of nipples sticking out like the valve covers on a Harley knucklehead.

Just a week later (seven days without a Harley makes one weak), I was at a party in Tucson. No need to go into the details but a young UofA prof and his wife were also at the gathering. He wanted to talk bikes; she wanted to know whether I might buy his Sportster. I politely declined. “He’s going to sell it,” she snarled, “or I’m going to park it in the street and leave it there until it’s stolen.”

Nice lady, his wife. The poor, whipped young academic smiled apologetically. “If you know someone who might be interested, I’ll take what I can get out of it.”

For whatever sick reason, I tossed out a tentative offer about three grand less than I figured the bike would be worth…if it were in fair condition. I guessed that his Harley was rather like the CH I’d just ditched–other than being newer, thus with little value as a classic or collectible. Motorcycles are like a submissive animal; they can be beaten down rather quickly. “We’ll take it,” the wife said.

I made a half-way back pedal, explaining that I’d have to look at the motorcycle before I’d seal the deal. “It’s in perfect shape,” the husband offered. “My wife doesn’t like me to ride it so mostly it gets polished.”

“It’s loud and obnoxious,” the wife said.

I so wanted to add, “like you.”

'98 Harley XLCNext Monday afternoon, I was at their house with cash and a trailer. The Harley was waiting. The bike was pristine. Less than 4,000 miles on a four-year-old he’d purchased used (title indicated it had 3,000 on it when he bought the machine), the XLC literally looked better than it had when it was first on the showroom floor. I mumbled my apologies for the low price I’d offered and gave him the opportunity to back out of the deal with no hard feelings.

“Oh, no, I can’t,” he stammered. “My wife would kill me.”

I handed him the cash, accepted the title, loaded the Harley and left for home.

Maybe this Sportster would be the one. It didn’t leak oil, had no chain to spread lubricant about the surrounding area, started with the touch of a button, still had that huge mass of metal engine hanging out there for everyone to see, featured enough chrome to satisfactorily adorn a ’59 Cadillac with some bits to spare and was really quite comfortable as I settled onto the cushy seat. Maybe…

A few chilly days passed before I tugged on leathers and helmet, braved low 40’s and went for a putt.

Sounded great. Looked great. The narrow front wheel accentuated the bike’s lithe figure. Blue paint was irridescent, a lovely effect in the high desert sun. Unfortunately, the chrome-drenched bars and instruments reflected enough light to blind me when the sun was over my shoulder. Handling was, to be charitable, not confidence inspiring. Forward-set controls may be wonderful for some riders but not for me. I wasn’t sure how far I’d need to ride to vibrate parts off the bike but 20 miles was enough to jar my own nuts loose.

Foiled again. I waited for spring then advertised the motorcycle in the local rag. A retired army first-sergeant drove over from Sierra Vista to indulge his mid-life crisis. The Harley was perfect. Girls were already lining up in his mind, begging for a ride on his new motorcycle. His baldness and paunch would be immaterial once he owned a Harley-Davidson. He accepted the asking price, no quibbling, and agreed to bring funds and a friend who would ride the bike back the next day. He’d have been better off not adding that he’d never ridden a motorcycle so he had to take an MSF course at Fort Huachuca before swinging a leg over his new toy.

“You don’t have to put oil in the gas, do you?” he asked as he lovingly ran his hands over what was soon to be his first bike.

I remained silent. Some questions shouldn’t be dignified with an answer. Sarge had some learning to do; I wasn’t going to get involved in the process. Below is one of the photos I took of the Harley during the times it stayed with me. The best part of owning it was making enough profit on the sale to cover the loss I took on the XLCH and still put me well in the black. Would I save the money, invest it, or buy a motorcycle that was more in line with my tastes? Of course not. Next in the Sportster series: The Buell S3T.



Vehicles of the past…’74 XLCH…(Part II)


Here’s my “new” ’74 Harley Davidson XLCH (numero dos) after it’s first 20 mile ride out to the hangar. Memories of my first ’74 CH were already coming back in nightmareish ways. Just like the other CH, this bike did not always like being prodded to life. No particular reason for its recalcitrance; on occasion–seemed to be a random thing–it didn’t like having its fires lighted. OK, a tune-up, maybe the addition of solid state ignition, all would be fine. Unfortunately, that type of reasoning when applied to an XLCH–for that matter to most Harleys–is like rationalizing that the new girl friend will be fine. Sure, she downs a few too many every so often and she puts a fresh cigarette between her lips every few minutes and when she drinks she takes her clothes off in public and she can’t keep a job and she bounces a check once in a while but with a bit of tender, loving care she’ll be a real charm. Yeah, right.

During that first ride to the hangar, one of the tank badges fell off. That’s what happens to metal emblems which are attached with two-way sticky tape. No matter; I didn’t like the badge anyway…and I’m not sure even welding the suckers to the tank would keep them from vibrating loose. I would use decals. Much more of a problem, oil was leaking leaking from the primary. WHAT? Surprised by a Harley iron-head with an oil leak? But this looked, well, serious. I’d checked the levels just before our little journey and now the case was almost overflowing. I parked the old girl in the hangar and caught a ride back home with another pilot.

Much of the reason I wanted the CH was its engine. Just look at that hunk of metal in the photo to the right. It looks like a cycle engine should look, even more than the two Nortons I had at the time, more than anything short of a Vincent, for that matter. It looks like a cycle engine, sounds like a cycle engine; just such a shame that all too often it’s a piece of dung with fins and a carburetor. (In this case, an S&S carb that sucked too much air for the mostly stock engine.)

No need to examine the engine any further; I knew what was wrong. The crank seal on the primary side was leaking. Not uncommon, particularly not on the bowling ball Harleys  (a not-affectionate moniker for bikes manufactured by AMF, the sports equipment company). I’d been sucker-punched again. The guy who sold me the bike absolutely, positively had to have known about the leaky seal. Even worse, I knew about the prevalence of bad seals on these engines. Shame on me for not doing a better pre-buy examination.

I trailered the bike to Red Hartman’s shop in Sierra Vista. Red was a legend; he’d already been selling and wrenching Harleys for many years back in ’74 when this one was new. Red had the tools necessary to remove the seal without splitting the crank cases. “Don’t how how long it’ll last,” he said when I paid him for the work, “sooner or later you may need to pull the crank.” One can never tell how for certain how long a repair such as this might last. In this case, I feared failure would arrive sooner rather than later.

Seal was fixed; leak stopped. It wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t ride it much; might not even if I did. However, and I’ve only owned a couple vehicles that were created under such a dark cloud, I had come to understand that this particular machine was meant to be admired, to be photographed, to be displayed. It wasn’t a rider. I knew why, in the box of spares that accompanied the bike, I had two heads, a spare barrels, pistons…on and on and on. Time for the Harley to find a new home. Pretty bike, nice photos…I was honest with the new owner. Well, mostly honest. I told him the bike was hard to start, that it required too much maintenance and that I didn’t like it.

I didn’t tell him the thing had an immutable curse that could only be removed by spells that I had no way to access or implement. Didn’t matter; I don’t think he’d have believed me, anyway.

Did I learn? Of course not. Part III of this tale of many Sportsters will introduce a ’98 Harley XLC that snorted and snarled into my life just as I was waving goodbye to the ’74 CH.


Vehicles of the past…some didn’t quite work out…(Pt I)

As I continue to sift through the detritus of my past for interesting images, I found this. The ’66 Chevrolet 3/4 ton pickup was my restoration project in the mid-90’s. The truck had less than 90,000 miles when I bought it. Yeah, 90,000; it was a farm truck from up by Stockton, California. Still had the original owners manual and the yearly licence receipts and maintenance papers to show mileage. The old Chev needed paint, a few dents ironed out, new trim, replace the bed wood with white oak, replace the split rims with modern ones…added a tonneau cover for the bed and I had a nifty truck. The old beast had no rust; one advantage of spending its life in central California. Unfortunately, the original 283ci engine was a dog in this big, heavy vehicle; particularly since it was attached to a two-speed turbo-hydramatic.

Ten mpg in town or on the highway. I considered dropping a modern 327 with a four- or five-speed manual in but had far too many other projects on hand…to include maintaining several motorcycles, a Mooney M20C airplane and a couple of beater Cessnas I was using to conduct flight instruction. I begrudgingly sold the Chevrolet. Wish I hadn’t but there were many vehicles I wish I would have kept. The ’74 Harley XLCH in the back of the pickup in this photo is not one of the keepers. I didn’t mind the kick starter; having owned many kick-start bikes, it’s really not a big deal if the machine is in tune and one knows how to use the starter properly.

Not just this particular XLCH, either, though it had its own set of peculiar problems. I had owned other Sporties, all of which had their unlovable oddities. My first was a ’59 H. No pix, I was too young to know saving photos was worthwhile. At the time, all motorcycles had their eccentricities so the HD was no exception. The sucker liked to vapor lock in hot traffic. I was going to school in Phoenix, AZ, where it was always hot. I sold the beast.

My second XLCH was a ’74 shown in the photo to your lower right. (The Datsun Z belonged to a girl friend.) The CH wasn’t fast; it merely sounded fast. Yes, it snorted, roared, snarled, popped…and any decent riceburner would run and hide from it in handling, braking or performance. That first ’74 was unlovable in many ways. It had a mind of its own when starting. If it didn’t want to start…it didn’t. Four kicks, no fire: go in and have another brew. That was OK occasionally but not as a matter of common practice.

There were two great moments in the history of owning that first ’74 XLCH. The second best great moment was when I bought the bike; my great moment was when I sold it. Twenty years later when I bought the second Hardly-Ableson XLCH, I was trying to recapture those great moments of the ’70’s which, in reality, hadn’t been that great other than my being twenty years younger. What in the world possessed me to fork over $3000 for a motorcycle that looked all too much like a bike I had been so happy to get rid of? Several things. I had a hangar where I could work on the motorcycle, where I could maintain it in peak condition. I had several other motorcycles so I didn’t need to depend on the HD. I no longer imbibed so maybe the sucker wouldn’t strand me at a bar giving me an excuse to get knee-walking drunk.

(Part I of the story…Part II tomorrow)





Scooting to Tucson

Sequence 02

New toys are always fun. I added a Kodak Z3X camcorder to my gadget bag recently. It’s a little sucker, about the size of a regular cell phone. It’s a camcorder that’s said to create relatively high resolution video at a variety of rates. I stuck a 32GB SDXC card into the slot, mounted it on a clamp affixed to the top triple tree on the BMW and went for a cruise to Tucson.

There are several scenic roads around where I live–surprise, bet you didn’t think desert rats had scenery, didja?–but one of my favorites is AZ 83 (connects I-shitty-10 to Sonoita). The ride was great and I was duly impressed with the Kodak. Click on sequence 2 at the top of this post to view 45 seconds of glimpses of the road. OK, you’re looking at low-res, low-frame rate, no sound video. That isn’t what came out of the camera. Audio was rough but was to be expected on a windy day, open camera on a motorcycle. Video was better than anticipated.

I had considered a Muvi mini to clip to my helmet or jacket but there’s no viewing screen so it’s hard to see where the little sucker is pointed and the resolution is less than I wanted for incorporating into some commercial clips. The screen on the Z3X isn’t big but at least I can see what it’s recording. Additionally, and this was one of the two selling points, the Kodak is waterproof to 10 feet. I don’t intend to go swimming with the camera but rain is not unknown here. I fret about water drops when I’m working with a $500 or $600 camera, let alone a piece of professional gear. This little gem set me back less than $100, not including the SD card (which I already have a stack of). If it gets wet, if it falls off, if I break it…I’ll grouse but it isn’t the end of the world.

Experimentation will continue. I may do some foley work with the sound tracks. I have tapes of several aircraft (including a Lear 25 on the takeoff roll) that might be fun to dub to the video over the BMW bars. Too much time on my hands…that’s what it’s all about.