Contrarian Bastard: The Motorcycle as an Appliance

We might be one of the last generations to know which end of a screwdriver to grab. I hate to pick on picked-on millennials, but by most accounts the whole idea of actually holding a tool in their hands is … well … weird to them. 

Then there’s Gen Z —they came after the Millennials. The skinny on them is that a driver’s license is not all that important. (Say what?!) In fact, according to J.D. Powers, the number of 16-year-olds applying for a license is half of what it was in 1980. Apparently, our species is falling out of love with the whole suck-squish-bang-blow fun that has powered so much of our lives. 

The result of all this is that motorcycle marketing folks are in a bit of a panic as they watch their sales charts do the How low can they go? limbo. Their response, naturally, is a frantic hunt for new customers, with that target-rich ‘prime demographic’ (18 to 34) being the focus, particularly so with The Motor Company.

And then there’s us … aged-out, shelf-life expiring, sell date passed … us. Our aging selves may not get the corporate love, but we know something that may be a lost to current and future generations: We know how to fix things.

Chopper Girl’s father Steve Margeson tends to her chopper. In this family you built it, break it, fix it.

We know this because we grew up with crappy frames, thrown chains, stuck float needles, leaky forks, flat tires, points ignitions, burned valves, leaded gas and a baker’s dozen other things that would conspire to interrupt a trip. This was normal, and it was a given that on just about any trip, well, shit happens. ‘Roadside Assistance’ meant that another rider stopped to help, and the combination of two tool kits and decades of experience usually could get things running again. And woe to the rider that didn’t stop!

Today’s motorcycles are wonderous devices… Technological marvels that generally need nothing more than gas and a willing rider. They’ve become so reliable that many are absent tool kits. In the rare occasion when they fail, traditional tools are mostly useless as the problem can only be fixed in a shop environment: They are true ‘Go or No Go’ machines. Hence, what we now call a tool kit typically consists of a cell phone and a credit card.

Mostly this is a good thing, but I’m bugged a bit by this antiseptic reliability because it separates the rider from the machine. The bike is ridden, then parked next to the power mower, or jet-ski, or meat freezer or pressure washer. Just another appliance in the garage.

There is an existential part of owning a motorcycle… a very passionate part. And this passion only comes from a hands-on approach, literally. When you work on a motorcycle you become familiar with it. Along with the skinned knuckles and honed wrenching skills you begin to understand how and why the machine works. You learn to appreciate the motorcycle rather than just use it like you do that power mower (Hey, if you’re passionate about your power mower, well, I don’t want to hear about it.) 

But this goes beyond the warm-and-fuzzy stuff. The more you understand the mechanics the better you are able to assess what the motorcycle is telling you and, yes, it does talk to you. Is that noise coming from deep inside the engine or is it just a vibrating external part? A seasoned rider instantly knows when a different noise pops up; an experienced rider has a pretty good idea what the noise means, and has a better chance of fixing it than does the rider who has never opened a toolbox.

A few years back I was riding a more desolate part of Highway 12 in eastern Washington when I came on a stopped rider. I don’t want to embarrass anyone, so I won’t mention that he was on a BMW GS. He’d stopped for a drink of water, but couldn’t get the bike restarted; no click, no nothin’. I wasn’t familiar with the bike, but I told him I’d look at it if he’d like. He was more than happy to transfer that monkey to my back. 

In need of a new pulley insert.

Anyway, some basic checking had me believing it was either the kill switch or the kickstand switch. Looking at both had me zeroing in on the kickstand switch, as it was packed with road grime. As I carry a small aerosol can of WD-40 in my tool pack, I had him hold the bike upright while I worked the stand up and down and liberally sprayed the switch. Problem solved! Apparently, the switch was gummed up and stuck. He happily rode off while I stood there gloating.

This “knowing how to fix things” doesn’t give us a pass to sainthood but it does reflect the way we live, think and act. We earn our respect, give it in return and, in general, approach life with an independent, “I got this” attitude. It’s amazing what you can do by knowing which end of a screwdriver to grab. 

If you’d care to explain to Kittrelle why his existance on this planet is no longer required, or any other pithy comments, you can email him directly at reg.kittrelle@comcast.net

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