Friday, June 26, 2020

Back in '65 you didn't tell this guy to get a Vespa

Young motorcyclist has a cigarette after a race.
Maynard Hershon at Nelson Ledges in 1965.
In a recent blog item I admitted to being thrown for a loop — and nearly thrown off — when my Royal Enfield Bullet ran out of gas in an intersection and I was too flustered to switch to "Reserve." 

That got reader Maynard Hershon remembering what things were like back in the days before gas gauges were common, and riders couldn't just get on a cell phone when problems arose. He writes:

I've been riding all these years, almost 60 years now, and almost every bike I've owned has had a petcock (or two) and most have had "reserve" positions. I cannot ever remember a bike going on reserve in traffic at an inconvenient time.

Speaking for us older riders, veteran riders, we did not ride to ride in traffic. We rode to get out of traffic, to get outta Dodge, to get out onto country roads or rural highways where we could relax and not serve as targets for every bozo driver.

If you'd have suggested to us that an entire generation of motorcyclists would own bikes to use in cities, we'd have thought you were crazy. Who'd waste a good motorcycle going from traffic light to traffic light?

Now we have 10,000, 12,000, 15,000-dollar motorcycles with 100-mile fuel ranges. They're URBAN bikes. They have over 100 horsepower, six gears, three brake discs, on and on — and they're for the same tasks at which Vespas have always excelled. No one rides them any distance.

When I had my '06 Triumph Thruxton, I could not get over how soon the bike went on reserve: 110 miles, give or take. So I asked other Bonneville and Thruxton owners about how far they could go before they hit reserve, and none of them knew. They never paid any attention. They never left town on their trendy, retro-British roadburners.

Still unsatisfied, I wrote someone at Triumph asking what the deal was. The response: "That's right in line with the model's job description." It's an urban runabout.

David, that was years ago, and I still can't get over it.

When I started riding, and we're talking about 1962 and a Honda 250 Hawk, a cool sport bike of that era, not many guys traveled on motorcycles.

Harley guys did, the few Guzzi guys did, BMW guys did, but British bikes were far too unreliable. More guys raced their Triumphs and BSAs than traveled more than from town to town.

But a 650 Triumph or BSA or a Norton (there were very few) or Royal Enfield (even fewer) was a big, fast motorcycle — and could do anything. There were no Interstate highways, or very few, so you could not sustain much more than 75 mph anywhere, and even to do that meant cracked parts, some of them critical.

Fender stays, the fenders themselves around the mounting bolts, oil tank brackets, bulb filaments, anything hung out from the bike any distance that would resonate with the ever-present vibration would eventually break. So if you rode any distance, you had to carry tools and spares.

You came to know which of the pieces of your bike would cause problems and you found ways to prevent those problems. Riders would share their solutions with other riders.

The bikes were so unreliable they "made mechanics out of riders," as the Guzzi guys say. You couldn't just take your bike to the dealer. Your bike wouldn't make it to the dealer.

You'd be stuck somewhere with a broken motorcycle and you had to help yourself. Plus there was so much work, you could never afford to pay a dealer to do it. It was understood that you did all but the major overhaul stuff yourself.

In the '70s, I would ride from the San Francisco Bay Area to SoCal to watch the races at Ascot Park. I'd ride British bikes. I'd carry lots of tools and spark plugs and I'd do a thorough check-over before I left so I wouldn't be holding up my Honda and BMW-riding friends along the way.

Once I rode a CH-model Sportster. I ran out of gas on Highway 101 and had to push the thing a mile or so on the road shoulder in the dark to a gas station. Today with far fewer stations, you might be in real trouble.

Buying a bike that ASSUMES that you won't take a trip on it seems so limiting to me, David, especially a bike that is so capable in other ways. And so expensive.

Maynard Hershon has been riding motorcycles since 1962 and writing about them since 1985. Of the photo above he writes: "Here I am in 1965 at Nelson Ledges Road Course in Ohio. I have just raced my Ducati Diana 250, gone oh-so slowly, and I'm having a post-race cigarette. I borrowed the leather pants, gas money for the VW van I drove to the track and probably that cigarette. My friends rode from Bloomington, Ind., to watch me ride on the Bultaco Metralla and Yamaha YDS-3 you see behind me."


  1. Great posting David - I have always enjoyed Maynard's writing, which appears over here in UK in "Motorcycle Sport & Leisure"

  2. Nice article I'm in that age group. Maybe a "little" older. lol

  3. Great read! "Never ride an unproven machine any farther than you are willing to push it back." has served me well. I'm also amazed how many newer riders think that big displacement is necessary for travel; some tools and just paying attention will get you a long ways. Thanks for publishing Maynard's letter. I don't believe I've ever owned any bike that wouldn't go 150-200 miles between fill-ups - the factory designing in a 100 mile range seems absurd to me. The Bullet's 4 gallon tank is a practical compromise between bulk and comfort. I've seen aftermarket Indian tanks rated at 35 liters (9+ U.S. gal.)!


Follow royalenfields on Twitter