The Beater Goes On

It is always at the least practical time--with black-ice season just around the corner, with kids requiring hauling to school activities, with a heightened awareness of passenger safety--that anyone who is truly hooked on motorcycles suddenly needs a fix.

I want a new bike, and I want it now.
Although my new bike could be an old bike, I've finally accepted that it may not be the motorcycle of my dreams. It has taken me decades to accept the fact that Indians are headed for extinction. I have wanted to own one of these bikes--last produced in 1953--since I was nineteen, and that's when I should have saved up the couple thousand it might have required. Because now, twenty years later, I would still be the proud owner of the coolest motorcycle known to man.

But, of course, I didn't do that at nineteen, or even at twenty-nine. I squandered my fortune on lesser Japanese rides, one of which sits rusting under a nearby tarp right now, though it hasn't run in years. I should have aimed higher. I should have purchased an Indian.

Over the years, I have been periodically, and painfully, reminded of this. My hopes were once revived, however briefly, by a guy named Lonnie Labriola. He invited me to write down the whole story of how he and his business partners were on the verge of reintroducing the Indian motorcycle--brand-new bikes, but just as good as the originals. Better yet, they would be assembled by real Indians on a reservation in Oregon who'd put aside $3 million from their casino profits for the project. I could practically taste the test drive.

Instead, Labriola pontificated for hours about a business undertaking so complex that I lost the thread within five minutes. The gist seemed to be that more than one bright investor group had concluded that the sudden, extreme popularity of high-end motorcycles among the middle and upper classes constituted a perfect climate in which to reintroduce the Indian, as well as several associated accessories. So many groups got this idea at once that a nasty court battle ensued to determine who actually owned the copyright--which turned out to be someone in Australia. A judge in Boston assigned a law firm in Denver to sort out the warring parties, one of which included Labriola. He was about to win the contest, he told me, promising that the first new Indian would roll off the assembly line momentarily. (Another, crummier Indian had been unveiled at the Sturgis rally that year, Lab- riola said, but no one took it seriously.)

I dutifully accepted Labriola's file of important letters and documents but never found the strength to read through them. What I was waiting for, though, was an actual motorcycle.

Four years after I met with Labriola, I now notice, with great flagging of spirits, that assorted members of the media, both local and national, have managed to make their way through the Indian story, complete with its tortuous bankruptcies and disputed licensing agreements. But although articles about the businesses that want to build the bikes have finally surfaced, Indians themselves are nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, on Larimer Square, the sound of well-oiled Harleys continues to fill the air, mocking me and my motorcycle jones. This year's head-to-toe leathers come in distressed matte brown, as opposed to shiny black--Joe Camel to last year's bondage. World War I flying ace helmets are much in evidence. The accessory? Chewing tobacco, in cute little metal cans.

"There they go," I mutter. "The entire law firm of Holland and Hart."
Yeah, I'm bitter. The gleaming lineup along curbs from here to Morrison consists of spotless rebuilt Harleys, magnificently engineered BMWs, the occasional vintage Triumph or Norton. (Or Indian, which I don't even want to think about.) When I visit a motorcycle dealership, I feel like Rip Van Winkle--as if I've been asleep for twenty years, and suddenly all non-Harleyesque bikes have morphed into gargantuan crotch rockets covered in some kind of futuristic body armor.

Suddenly there are no cheap, reliable, uncool beater bikes on the face of the earth. And so I desperately want one.

But do I really? Is there a place for a motorcycle in my life? Does someone make a Snugli that fits on the back of a sissy bar? Can you drop an eight-year-old off at pre-Bat Mitzvah school on some old Honda? If I simply need a motorcycle, couldn't I wait a few years?

No, damn it, for two very good reasons.
1. Every family has its official guilt-inducing topic, such as, "It just breaks my heart that you don't you play your cello anymore, dear." Or, "I see you don't remember a word of your Serbo-Croation." In mine the guilt-inducer is my father, glowering as he asks, "Is your motorcycle running?" Oh, he knows it isn't, but he has to rub it in.  

2. My father is bound to bring this up at Thanksgiving dinner, after which a brisk ride on a beater bike over black ice would be the perfect digestive aid.

But this is where things get complicated--and expensive. There is no way my husband is going to let me be the only biker in the house. Getting our two early-Eighties Japanese bikes to run again--if you could find the parts--would cost about $1,000. Far, far more than they are worth. (Our 125cc dirtbike would be a better investment, but who wants to ride down Larimer on that?) And there is not a Japanese bike made today that I can bring myself to covet. For close to $10,000, I might afford an entry-level Harley, but even if I had this kind of cash lying around (and remember-- I'd have to double it), I fear a new law has been passed that says all Harley owners have to keep their bikes spotless and, when riding them, dude up in the outfits Harley dealers call "motorclothes."

Desperate, I call Richard McCarrey, owner of the Oatmeal Speed Shop, a thirty-year-old mobile mechanic business. McCarrey will come to your house and slap your bike back into shape. He's particularly good when a machine's trailing electrical wires have been stuck together with duct tape and something smells burnt. His prices are reasonable, his demeanor no-nonsense. One look at him and you know him for the authority he is.

"Look," I begin, "remember about five years ago when you said you could get me a cool old Norton for a thousand dollars?"

"I said five thousand dollars," he corrects. "And I can't do that anymore."
"Well, then, I want to buy a beater bike," I say, "but I can't find one."
"No? I see them all the time. They don't run. They belong to people who are looking for cheap, half-assed work, parts and labor." All of which, he notes, are hard to find. "Dealers don't stock the old parts they used to. Old parts are discontinued. No one tinkers anymore. In the old days, one of the crucial survival skills was knowing how to fix things without hurting yourself. Now people who used to do that write Windows."

"You could do that," I suggest.
"I guess, but I have all these tools..."
He also, as it turns out, has a file pertaining to the Indian matter. His succinct summary: "Don't hold your breath. It will take forever to separate all the little Indian kingdoms and get it sorted out. By that time, they will miss the market. The white-collar people are pressing on to SUVs."

"Do you have anything I can buy?"
"Of course not. As soon as I get something to run, I sell it. I still have that 850 Norton I was gonna sell you, but I haven't gotten it running because one of my cats died. You could always look for a Moto Guzzi. I mean, if you want to be different," he adds, in a withering tone.

"How could I afford it?"
"You couldn't. Plus, it's hard to keep them running."
I see.

I call Gene Plue, a north Denver vintage-motorcycle restorer who has plied his trade more than forty years. He has nothing for sale. As for the alleged new Indians? "It's all hot air," he says. "Them bikes are junk."

I call Isles, the British motorcycle guys on West 29th Avenue. I drove past their shop one summer evening and saw tantalizing glimpses of Norton/BSA/Triumph species. "Yeah, except we have nothing for sale," says mechanic Rick Black. "We work on bikes; we don't sell them. You could come down here and look at the bulletin board."

British bikes are hipper than ever, which is saying something, as they have been out of my league for as long as I can remember. "And this is why," Black agrees. "People like me and you--mature people--we walk into a Jap bike dealership and are completely alienated. What are those machines? A simple bike, where you can see all the parts, is very nostalgic, very successful."

"And probably has to be futzed around with all the time, just so it'll run," I say.

Black has to admit this is true, but he's a mechanic, so the constant fiddling he has to do with the eleven bikes he owns doesn't bother him at all. "I think it's rewarding and fun," he says cavalierly.

I'll show him. I'll call up Freedom Harley-Davidson, where they happen to carry a line of obscure Russian sidecar motorcycles. I'll get one, and I'll have the only one on my block! On my continent, maybe.  

"Oh, jeez, we have one of those around still, I think," says a Freedom salesman. "What's it run--nine, twelve thousand dollars?"

Jeez! This represents an almost 100 percent price increase since I last checked. "They're called the Earl, you know, like the Earl Mountains," he adds.

I am baffled. The Earl--or Ural, if you will--tops out at 50 miles per hour and is said to be used mainly for hauling bricks in Siberia. Who would pay twelve grand for that?

"Collectors," says my source. "They're more like a conversation piece than a motorcycle."

"Are you ever gonna get one of those new Indians in?" I ask hopefully.
To think I ever turned up my nose at a Japanese bike from the disco era.
"That's all I carry," says Cliff McGaughey at Legends Motorcycles.
"How much is your cheapest?" I pant.
"Depends. Do you wanna push it or ride it?"
"Ride it."

"Oh. You're picky, are you? So. I deal only in real clean older Japanese bikes. Semi-collectibles."

And what, exactly, does that mean? Wait--I know. It means the Suzuki 500 Titan two-stroke twin, a wonderful old workhorse of a bike both my husband and I once owned (long before we owned each other). A bike, I now realize, that could instantly recapture my youth.

"Do you have one?" I ask, breathless.
"A Titan? You're sick!" McGaughey yells into the phone. "Sure, I have one, a 1970 with the original sick green paint job and the tires with the red stripe, for $795!"

I have no idea what he's talking about, but I rush down to McGaughey's shop, located on a corner of 65th and Federal that he describes as "obscure, but it keeps the riffraff out." Sure enough, there is the Titan, looking like a relic from the Summer of Love. We can't test-drive it, though, because its fluids, exasperatingly, have been "drained for the winter."

Is there no one else on earth who experiences motorcycle lust in November?
I offer McGaughey a chance to take our two broken Japanese bikes in trade. When I tell him what they are--an '82 Yamaha Seca 650 and an '81 Honda 400--he says, "Oh, I think I'll pass on those two."

We have, in effect, been accused of owning the last two beater bikes on the Front Range. Which, come to think of it, makes them downright semi-collectible. In which case, they constitute an investment. So here they will sit, freezing and rusting under their tarp, until a more auspicious moment.

In the meantime, where did I leave Labriola's number?

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