Friday, December 4, 2020

How to replace Royal Enfield clutch cable and get greasy

May as well admit it. My 1999 Royal Enfield left me with greasy hands one day recently and I couldn't be happier.

The occasion was the result of the broken clutch cable I wrote about earlier this year. At the time I simply removed the broken cable and installed the spare cable I carry on the motorcycle. All I needed to clean up from that experience was to wipe my hands with the clean rag I also carry.

But then, checking my supply of spare clutch cables, I realized I was getting low on extras, and decided something must be done.

This is where I was to get really slathered in grease and it took many more than one rag to clean up. The task left me with a big smile, because, I believe, motorcyclists secretly enjoy getting their hands dirty, no matter how many twists and turns it takes to solve a problem.

My first twist came when I thought I'd found the correct replacement clutch cable, advertised from India on eBay. I have never ordered a part from India that actually did fit. Nor have I learned anything, so I went ahead and spent my money. The cable that eventually arrived from India probably fits some Royal Enfield of the past, but not mine, not nearly.

My next plan was to have my broken cable repaired.

This looked easy, since the cable itself was fine. The problem is that the little nipple at one end, the gearbox end, had popped off the cable, the result of holding the clutch through thousands of gear shifts in Florida traffic. If the escaped nipple was replaced, or a matching one attached in its place, the cable would be fine.

I removed the outer gearbox cover of my four-speed Bullet and retrieved the lost nub. I was not surprised to find two loose lost nubs inside the cover. In 40,000 miles, clutch cable nipples on my motorcycle have failed this way repeatedly, at both the gearbox and the lever end.

The local Brit-bike mechanic said he could fix the cable. Come by anytime. So I brought the broken cable and its escaped nub over to his shop. He was out to lunch so I just dropped the package off with his daughter, who was minding the shop, and rode off.

My phone rang as I removed my riding gear at home. He'd never seen a clutch cable like mine, he said. The parts book didn't show it, he said. No way these little nubs could work, he said. It had to be wrong, he said. Bring in the bike so he could see what it should be like, he said.

I tried assuring him that my bike is just like it was when I bought it but quickly realized I should save my breath. He didn't believe me. So I put the helmet back on and went over.

There was much consternation as he insisted that the whole thing was totally wrong. Of course anything made the way my cable was would fail, he said, as the handlebar lever or gearbox clutch arm twisted off the cable ends.

But the motorcycle is exactly like it is and no amount of head scratching would convince steel to change its mind. Given this lever and this gearbox arm, the only cable that could connect them would be the one I had.

So he went ahead and soldered a new nub onto my cable, as I had hoped he might. I helped route the repaired cable into place on my motorcycle, a job that quickly descended into absurdity.

The mechanic lubricated the cable before handing it to me, so it shed super slippery goo as my motions caused the inner cable to saw back and forth in its outer cable. The adjuster at the midpoint of the cable was a virtual Exxon Valdez of oozing slime. The slipperier things got the more I had to push and pull to get the cable through the nest of wires behind the nacelle and into place behind the horn to the gearbox.

Thus my greasy hands, and pants.

The repair works fine, for now. But how long will it hold on before the next failure? That question arose in comments from readers. This came from John Donlon of Illinois:

"I don't like performing any service work on anything until I find out why the repair is needed to start with. If I discover I was the cause then I suck it up and deal with it, which means get out the wallet and my head out of my ass.

"In the case of the clutch cable, here is what I would do:

"No. 1, buy a Barnett clutch cable. They are the industry standard, not some crap from eBay  (with dubious claims of  being factory authorized) or something that 'looks about right'  from someone you not only don't know but carries merchandise of underdetermined origin... KNOW what you are buying.  Your life could and will depend on its performance. Yes, it is that important.

"No. 2, lube the new cable while it is still in the plastic bag. I use Marvel Mystery Oil and I ensure the actual cable in its jacketing sleeve is moving virtually friction-free. Do it before you install it. You can always wipe it off before routing it.

"No. 3, install and route the cable exactly as the factory workshop manual describes. Just because you found the defective cable routed a certain way does not mean it was routed the correct way; and it usually wasn't (seriously).

"No. 4, make your throw-out cable adjustments as the factory workshop manual instructs. 

"No. 5, lubricate the cable periodically as directed by the factory workshop service manual and make adjustments as needed. If it was installed correctly, you probably will never have to adjust.

"Now get to work and sin no more."

Something similar came from Maynard Hershon of Colorado:

"Today's cables are everlasting, I'd say. They are nylon-lined and stainless steel. The ends are swadged on and never come off. Some bikes with 100,000 miles on them are still on original cables. If you have been buying OE cables, get them elsewhere, like Barnett ones or those good ones from the UK. Whatever cables you've been getting are not good enough. And make sure you are not pulling the clutch lever so far that you are stretching the cable itself, not pulling against the clutch springs. I'm not explaining that well, but I hope you see what I mean. 

"And because I came up on old British motorcycles, I NEVER sit at traffic lights in gear with the clutch pulled in. If you did that in the old days, you only had a clutch once or twice. After that, you coasted up to lights because you could not stop. The clutch would not disengage. Your bike was never designed to sit for two or three minutes with the clutch lever pulled to the bar. No one in the old days would have done that."

And then there was this, from Chennai Wrencher:

"If a guy takes a file and rounds the shoulder of the lower nubbie a bit before using it, it can then swing somewhat in the actuator arm, reducing the bending forces on it which cause the fatigue failures. A bit of grease on the nubbie there, and a bit more at the lever end socket cut down on quite a bit of friction. I like the Hitchcocks heavy duty cables, but you do need to pre-fit them to make sure they aren't too tight in the fittings. The better 'feel' alone is worth the cost to me. Cheers!"

That mirrors something Alan Hitchcock of Hitchcocks Motorcycles mentioned in his email to me, where he tipped me off to the replacement cable I need:

"I have attached a photo of the end of our cable. There is the top hat outer cable ferrule which locates in the case of the gearbox (the originals had a crude domed ferrule). This looks to have a bigger diameter shoulder to the ones in your photo, which will prevent it pulling through.

Close-up photo of gearbox end of clutch cable.
The Hitchcocks Motorcycles clutch cable looks right.

"The nipple can be a plain barrel or have the extra nib, but should have a radiused end to locate in the lever at the gearbox lever as on our photo.

"However, one discrepancy we have found between the gearbox levers is the diameter where the extra nib would locate; some will fit straight in where other levers would need opening out."

Sounds as though I will be getting my hands messy again soon.

10 comments:

  1. Maynard and Chennai Wrencher both pointed out in as many words that RE needs to seriously upgrade its factory authorized parts and parts distribution system in North America. There is no reason why anyone should have to buy stuff that "sort of works" and then McGyver it so it actually does.

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    1. Well...The Bullet is the cheapest 1930's era engineering "daily-driver" antique you can own. I have mine because I wanted to dip my toe into the "traditional British motorcycling" pond without needing access to a Jay Leno grade fully staffed and accoutremented machine shop. First & foremost for me is the fabulous resource that Alan Hitchcock built. There are also endless Indian parts from a 50+ year production run. Enfield has wisely chosen to service the modern market instead of a microscopic niche one. Their new bikes are great. The service staff is all young people with essentially zero experience or interest in antiques or "Living Dinosaurs" as Snidal says. Royal Enfield has necessarily moved on, they're not going to commit resources to a 0.1% market sector. I'm fully on board with D. Wittlinger - Hitchcocks has everything you'll need, seldom more than a week or so out, often only 3-4 days. The BSA/Triumph/AJS/Ariel/etc. crowd can only dream of having a similar parts supply. Buy important bits in advance from H's. Play the e-bay lottery with some non-essential decorative items from India. If you really need a low-maintenance traditional looking Royal Enfield single, the new Meteor 350 will be here in the Spring. Of course the great R.E. Himalayan is always an option. As for me, "fettling" on my Bullets is a great hobby. They are perfect for these twisty Sierra foothill 35 MPH backroads.

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  2. Royal Enfield North America never sold these old Bullets here so don't bother to carry parts for them. With Hitchcocks orders mere days away I've not cared that a dealer 45 minutes from me doesn't carry/can't get parts for my old iron barrel.

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    1. True, but RENA is nothing more than a distributor for the products. It is the parent company's responsibility to ensure their parts go into their machines. Like the Chevrolet ad says, "Your name's on the title; our name's on the car."

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  3. I understand that a Triumph dealer might not feel any responsibility to stock Amal carburetor parts or Lucas electrical stuff for the old, Meriden Triumphs. But Triumph USA should have parts for the early Tridents and Sprints etc, the bikes they sold in the mid-'90s. Shouldn't RENA stock cables for Bullets of the same vintage? And shouldn't the cables fit?

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    1. The Bullet is a 30's era design. Neither Ford or Chevrolet carry parts for their 1935 models, or 1955 models for that matter. The aftermarket traditionally takes care of any actual market needs long after the factories move on. The Hitchcocks Online Parts Book is an incredible information resource as well as providing complete access to parts for our 80 year old Dinosaurs needs.

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  4. Sorry, but I don't buy the argument that you have to go to Hitchcocks any more than you should have to "fettle" your parts to get them to work unless you ARE working on much older machinery where NOS parts are sold like gold bullion. Granted, Hitchcock's is a first class operation but they should not be the only ones out there providing what you need for newer bikes where actual factory authorized parts should be filling the bill. When I work on machinery I go with who I can trust first; that's the manufacturer-not People's Factory #6 or something from a Subcontinent back alley shop that ends up on e-bay.

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  5. You shouldn't have to buy a clutch cable from the UK because it's inconvenient for RENA to stock cables for bikes that were legitimately imported to the US by the official importer. RENA wants to sell Himalayans and twins to trendy young folks. Cables for iron barrels? Meh...

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  6. First of all, Royal Enfield's OEM cables are excrement. There's a good reason that new bikes came with a spare set of cables. Just spend a few extra and get the robust "quality" Barnett one and worry no more. Hitchcocks' offerings can be found here: https://accessories.hitchcocksmotorcycles.com/s.nl?ext=F&sc=1&category=&search=Barnett%20clutch.

    The reason Hitchcocks is pretty much your one stop shop for our "legacy" Iron Barrel models is that a couple years back, when Classic Motorworks handed off the whole importation and parts supply thing to RENA, they, so very mindful of that "proud legacy" they're always going on about in their ad copy, promptly sold off those parts for the older models to Hitchcocks. So, that lovely Barnett cable from them in Solihull very likely spent some time on the shelves of Classic Motorworks in Ft. Worth, Texas. This perennial topic of snappy clutch cables recently came up on the "Unofficial Royal Enfield Community Forum" at https://forum.classicmotorworks.com/index.php?topic=29768.msg348335#msg348335. Every rider, regardless of the bike, should have a few of those "cable end screw-on barrel stops" described and shown there in their tool pouch. Using a proper Barnett cable will just greatly reduce or delay the chances of your needing one.

    And if you'd prefer to "Buy American", you can always give Classic Motorworks' former famous "Parts Guru" Tim a holler at his Western Cycle Supply at https://westerncyclesupply.com/. I'm pretty sure he can fix you up with cables not made from recycled cat food cans still smelling vaguely of tuna like those stock ones do.

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    1. Thank you for an excellent comment. For the June 1999 and earlier export Bullets (four-speed) I would go with Hitchcock's 142543A (normal length) or 142543L (long, allows looping around the nacelle) cables. That's what I'm going to get for my U.S. spec June 1999 Bullet with Magura levers.

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