04 September, 2011

Riding an antique motorcycle you resurrected with your own hands

As another blog post beckons, so too do the usual excuses I make for my absence on here. The school, the classes, the homework, the busyness. All of it seems to get in the way of what I think would be an ideal summer, yet I realize how important it all is in the long-run. Nevertheless, its persistence at distracting me worked, so I haven't been up in The Garage as much as I'd hoped recently.

Still, quite a great deal has happened since I last wrote on a slow day at work a month and a half ago. Granted I'm writing this at work (again), I have much more time and more pertinent updates. Where to begin, though...

I suppose the biggest success has been the Honda project. Almost surprisingly (to some), it's done! Well, the headlight bulb has not arrived yet, but when it does, and when it's installed, then the bike will be done!

This project has been a fascinating one for me. The prospect of a barn find ranks high in every gearhead's dreams in life, so to have a motorcycle-version of one tucked away in The Garage worked well. The perky little red bike had sat gathering dust for years in the back of The Garage in front of the old Woolworth's cabinets and Bruno's grave (where the Maxwell now sits) before we relocated it to the back corner, but after studying it and sitting on it secretly for quite some time I began to suspect that I could get the darn thing running. I knew my dad would be behind the idea (let's not even talk about what my mom thought), so a couple of years ago the two of us began our own Skunk Works, clandestinely sitting behind the old tractor and the dusty Model T. To a casual observer strolling into the garage, not too dissimilar from a curious mother, our activities would be impossible to discern before we relocated to the front of The Garage as if nothing had happened.

Before long I had replaced the points and spark plug and had re-timed the engine. I had cleaned it up, and we had bought a new Yuasa battery (also secretly from a local motorcycle shop). We poured new gas in the tank and tried to flush as much dirt and sediment from the bowl of the carburetor as we could. With the help of some starting fluid and a little Battery Tender, the old girl started for the first time since 1975. She sounded much quieter than I imagined, much more collected and healthy. She revved with a quick twist of the throttle yet seemed reluctant to idle. There was so much play in the throttle before it engaged, I wondered if it needed adjusting.

In the meantime my dad hopped on the bike a couple of times and was able to drive it without a problem---a fact he flaunts to this day. "I hadn't ridden that thing in 35 years! And I didn't kill it once! Just got right on and drove away. Damn, I'm good."

He had put 9,500 miles on the S90 since 1966, which was when he bought it new from a dealership 40 miles away. He was 16 at the time and rode it back and forth between home, school, and whatever sport he was in at any given time. He had dates on it. He raced it a bit faster than recommended (or so I can surmise). He may have also laid it over a couple of times, but he won't say. "You don't need to know everything I did when I was your age."

I came to find out later that my grandpa, the first Woodsie, drove it sometimes. My dad would doubt his ability to ride only to find that his dad took this bike to the store or across town for an errand he needed. And so the history of the bike broadened for me. With every story I can eke out of him I learn more about this little treasure I've come to love so much. For me it's not just having a motorcycle, it's having this motorcycle. It's having this wonderful little bike so cared for by my father as a child that he can pass on to me, that can be used and appreciated again as opposed to having rot away in the back of a garage somewhere. It's certainly better than having it sold to someone who knows nothing of the people who have ridden it and cared for it, who knows nothing of the stories surrounding it and the time put into saving each of the $413 it took to buy it in 1966.

So anyway, we got the bike running. I drove it around the yard a few times, but I had to mow over the tire tracks once and drive the golf cart over them another time under the guise of flattening molehills. I later took the throttle sleeve off and tried to adjust it as well as tightening the clutch cable, yet nothing seemed to help the idle issues and the momentary grinding I heard whenever I shifted into gear from neutral.

I sought help on the S90 forums online (of which there are many for the mid-'60s Hondas, believe it or not), and the people there were extremely helpful.

Over the past few years, as I've said before, we've been subtly working on my mom to get her to accept me riding the bike. For years it was "I will not have my only son die on a fiery crash on a motorcycle! We should have sold that thing years ago! He will not ride that thing" and so on. But over time mentions of the Honda merely elicited an eye roll or, after a while, no response at all. One morning we decided the time was right. The son was at the right attitude, the winds were coming from the ideal direction, the moon was in the seventh house, and we started the Honda with her in earshot.

We shut off the engine shortly before she burst into The Garage with a puzzled look. My dad smiled back. "What?"

"I thought I heard an engine. A small engine," she accused.


"Was that the Honda?" Her eyes fell on the bike which now sat prominently in front of the old tractor. And with that, there was no turning back.

Interestingly, though, she quickly fell in love with the bike as well. Using her incredible sleuthing skills that served her so well when she and Dad would find parts for the '61 Corvette, she was able to track down a bevy of new old stock (NOS) parts as well as insanely discounted tires, tubes, foot pegs, a new clutch cable, front fork boots and lights. She tracked them down along with another old mirror (the S90 only had the left-side one) that exactly matched the original, all for very low prices. Soon I had the tires and tubes on, the mirror in and adjusted, and the wheels scrubbed (as you saw in a previous post, I believe). This was a tough task, as I had to systematically use green kitchen scrubbers and water to knock the initial layers of rust and dirt off, then I used a degreaser, more water, naval jelly and finally Mothers metal polish. What resulted were wheels I could hardly believe were our originals! There was a time when we contemplated getting new rims, but I declined and said that I wished to fix up the old ones. Boy am I glad I did.

Also, perhaps serendipitously, while going through a small box of jewelry at a garage sale I somehow came across an item that was vastly out of place: An old style metal valve stem cover like the one missing on the S90! It wasn't a perfect match for the rear one, but it was very close and vintage. Also thankfully the owners of the garage sale gave it to me for free.

In the meantime my dad somehow found a side plate that was missing from the bike, which was the one covering the frontmost part of the chain. I cleaned it up and had to go to the hardware store to get special metric bolts with Phillips heads, but I got the thing hooked on. I then removed the front wheel and unscrewed the fork uprights (below the springs). Inside was a special fluid that you have to make sure not to spill, but after those were off I was easily able to get the old fork boots off. They had dry-rotted and fallen apart over time. With some lubrication and gentle persuasion I got the new ones on, and they looked fantastic! I screwed the fork uprights back on, reattached and torqued the wheel, and it was just about ready to go.

Realizing at one point that the rest of the work may be beyond my means (I.e. taking the entire engine apart to address the aforementioned grinding), we took it to a shop to look at that and the idle adjustment.

News came back that the grinding seemed fine and normal on an old bike that hasn't been run in 35 years, but the idle issue was a bit different. The guy soon realized that, like my assessment had said a while ago, the throttle either seemed really on or really off. True to that the guy found that releasing the throttle effectively shut off the engine. When he went to adjust the throttle screw on the carb, he found it to be gone! Well that explains that, I guess.

After he ordered a new one and installed it, the bike was running like a dream again and we were allowed to bring it back. The hard work was over, right? Not so much.

When I went to take my written test, which I passed, they said in order to take the driving test I needed to have a valid license plate and proof of insurance. Well we didn't have the license plates updated, so I couldn't. Moreover, there was an increasing suspicion that my grandma had thrown away the old title and registration from long ago.

"Well you'll need this to get the plates."

"Can't you look it up in the system? My dad's been the only owner since 1966."

She looked it up and found nothing. She found the other cycle under my dad's name (he recently had to go to the state courthouse to get my grandpa's death certificate to transfer the Honda 350-Four into his name), but nothing on the '66. "We only keep the vehicles in here that have been registered in the last --- years."

Crap. This bike hadn't been registered since 1975. In fact, that's the license plate that was on there at that moment.

So I went home and told my (thrilled) father. He was determined, so we grabbed the old license plate and headed uptown. When we came back to the courthouse, he showed them the plate and asked if they could trace it.

"Wow! Look at that old license plate, Barb!" one woman exclaimed.

"Geeze, I haven't seen one that old in a long time!" another laughed.


"No we can't trace something that old. We don't keep registration records that long. Do you have any old registrations or insurance claims on it? Because if so we can trace it that way."

My dad wasn't too happy to hear that. "What the hell do you think, I'm stupid?!" he yelled to me later in response to the woman's question. "Shit, I must be. You don't think I've thought of that and tried it? I even said to her that we couldn't find anything!"

My father's musings went unheard. We went to the police department to see if they could trace the plates. They shook their heads saying that they don't keep records beyond a few years old, and that all the rest got thrown out. Maybe we could check with the courthouse? Dad loved hearing that, as you could imagine.

If we couldn't find any documentation, there was no way the law could verify my dad was the owner as opposed to someone who stole it. They couldn't just go off of his word or his stories, or his pictures or anything. Instead we would have to bond for it and pay upwards of $3,000 over a few years (which we may or may not have gotten back), have it inspected by the DOT and have it appraised for insurance.

And so we took it upon ourselves to find that title or else. We tore apart every level of our house from the downstairs to the attic. We looked in every old lockbox from my grandparents that we had (and found some amazingly cool stuff along the way) to no avail. I looked through The Garage. I thought I knew where some old leather folders were that contained papers from that era, but when I found them they were without the S90 title. Our final option was the fruit room in my grandma's old house.

Over the course of an hour we dug through it, finding countless toys from my father's youth as well as artifacts from my grandparents, great grandparents, and even great great grandparents. After quite some time I was digging through an old box when, way at the bottom, I found an old cigar box. Opening it, paper began to fall out. I grabbed one and found it to be a registration for the '66 instead of the 350! Moreover, as I flipped through the stack, going back in time through the years of its registration, at the bottom sat a humble yellow sheet proclaiming itself to be the title.

I rushed to the courthouse to prove the old women wrong. Again I was greeted with laughs. "Look at how old this title is!" "I haven't seen one like this in ages!" "This thing's as old as me!" "You ever seen a title this old, Barb?" Good Lord. At one point they told me earlier that I would need my dad to come with me if the title was to be transferred to my name. I laughed and told them he'd get a kick out of that, but that instead he just wanted to update the title and get plates. They shook their heads and said that I had a nickname with the women in that department, although she then laughed and claimed she was kidding. Hmm...

So they updated the title in their computers and issued me a new license plate for $10, and we were good to go. Finally. The bike runs, is fit in the eyes of the law and ready to go. Now all I need to do is find time to take that driving test and then figure out how to get it to school where I plan to ride it to class and back some days. As a result I have it cleaned up, but not too well. I don't want unnecessary attention on it, but just in case my mom took it upon herself to buy the biggest, sturdiest security chain out there. She also somehow found the only Buco rack for sale in the entire U.S. from a guy who bought it from a Honda dealership in 1966. It was a type of rack specially made for the S90 and fellow 90 models, and it was in fantastic shape.

"What do you want for it?" she asked after conversing with the gentleman about S90s.

"I paid $20 for it in 1966, and I'd like to make my money back," he said simply. So with that the wonderful guy shipped us the rack and it is now affixed to the back of the bike. My dad loves it, saying that the only reason he wouldn't have bought one of those in '66 is because he spent the only $413 he had on the bike.

So, in all she's come a long way. Almost as long as this blog post is in length. Sorry about that, I just wanted to get it all down before I forgot any details and let any more of the bike's story slip into inaccessible memory. I'm proud to say, though, that the bike is done and is completely reborn, which, as any car guy or girl will tell you, is one of the most awesome feelings you could ever have. It's a proud moment, and there are few emotions that can match the ones you feel when you're riding down the road, wind in your face, riding an antique motorcycle you resurrected with your own hands. It's a feeling I'll never forget.

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