“Is the connection to the machine gone?” It was a completely random question from the departure lounge as I was awaiting a flight. I was trying to get back to Philly, and then home. It was approaching boarding time for the flight and they had just announced that our aircraft would be 30 minutes late getting in. He had walked over to me because I was slouched in one of those impossibly uncomfortable airport waiting area chairs reading Motorcycle Classics. Those chairs are made of the hardest substance known to man and seem specifically designed to prevent comfort. You can imagine the design/engineering conversations.
Engineer: “So Bill, what do you think of the prototype?”
Designer: “No good John, our tester was able to remain seated without numbness or lasting reproductive damage for 7 minutes. You’ll just have to try harder.”
But I digest….Rick’s question was the kind that you only partly hear, because you don’t think the person is talking to you. I looked up from the story I was reading about a Vincent just to see who was that close and saw a smiling Rick. “I noticed that you were reading about old bikes, so I was wondering if you think the connection between man and machine is gone with all the new bikes full of modern technology?”. Now if you travel solo, by any means of public transportation, you can suddenly find yourself engaged in conversation (whether you want to or not) with the most interesting people sometimes. Rick fell into the instant-familiarity category. These folks skip the formalities of an introduction and small talk, and go right into probing questions of deep philosophy or personal hygiene. Its as if you are both close longtime friends, or perhaps family, but you have somehow forgotten. Rick was not being rude, and I quickly mustered up a non-committal response.
“Well I suppose that’s one interpretation.” I said matter-of-factly and returned to the article. However, this response apparently confirmed that we were twins, and he sat down on the torture device next to me. Rick had obviously put some thought into this question and was dying to engage someone on the topic. He had predetermined that I was both kin and kindred spirit. “I mean, man and machine were one in the past. Do you really have to know anything about a new bike in order to ride it? If you live in New Jersey, you don’t even have to know where the gas goes in right? No offense if you live in Jersey, because we should all have gas that cheap. But you know what I mean right? Altoid?”. The clock had only advanced 1 minute. From the bridge, Captain Kirk was yelling Evasive maneuvers, evasive maneuvers !!
“I’m from PA, no harm no foul. But I gotta go find the men’s room before the plane shows up.” I smiled. “No problem.” Said, Rick. More than a few minutes later I returned to find that Rick was right where I had left him and had moved his carry-on over as well. I had also left my Motorcycle Classics there which he was now reading. Rick looked up like a lion catching a scent. He spotted me immediately. There was no alternative. I put my jacket on the seat and sat down one space over. I remember thinking that at best this could be like a bad lampoon of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He extended his hand. “I’m Rick, and I should have introduced myself before. I was just glad to meet another gearhead. I just realized that you must have thought I was a bit too friendly the way I just started talking. I do that sometimes. Sorry if I offended.” It was as if he had taken some meds while I was gone. Night and day, but I remained cautious. “You were fine. Any news on the plane?” I asked. He replied, “It’s now an hour delay, this doesn’t look good. I’m heading to Delaware on business.” I nodded. “I’m trying to get home.”
Rick returned to the main topic, but in a calmer almost reflective mode. “I have an old Triumph Bonneville, and a Norton Dominator.” He said. “What do you have?” I paused and from the bridge Captain Kirk said lower the shields and open a hailing frequency. “I like old BMWs, but I have a newer one as well.” Rick’s eyes lit up. “So you are the perfect person to tackle this question. If you like the new, why do you have the old?” It was a loaded question, but I realized that I had not really thought about it at all. I have a modern car only because it is reliable transportation. The old ones are the preference on any given day. However, the bikes don’t need to satisfy any basic need, so why the newer one? It was the opposite of Rick’s question. “They satisfy different needs, and I’m lucky enough to have more than one.” It was the truth. Rick said. “I keep going to look at the new Triumphs, and they have no mojo.” He was about to wax philosophic, and tried to reposition himself toward me, but realized that he could not do so without breaking several ribs. “What the hell is with these seats?” he asked with annoyance. The gate attendant announced that plane would arrive in another 25 minutes. There was a collective groan from the gate area, but at this point, I actually wanted to hear what Rick had to say.
What followed was a very lengthy discussion that continued onto the flight as we took advantage of the half empty plane to relocate our seats. Rick advanced the argument that old machines need you as much as you needed them and that there was a bond going back to the beginning of the motorcycle. He suggested that you needed oil on your boots (he likes British iron, remember), fouled plugs in your leather panniers, and valve adjustments under your belt in order to realize the immeasurable benefits of this bond. I conceded his point, but countered that cafe racers and computer-programmed performance, and farkling were the modern equilavents, even if we didn’t always like the results. I suggested that the bond could be just as strong, and that you could do almost as much maintenance and repair work with the right tools and the Internet. “Would you rebore your own cylinders on the Norton?” I asked rhetorically. “Well, I wouldn’t recalibrate my own engine mapping.” I added. Rick nodded. We both agreed that older machinery has a cool factor that requires time and patina, so new bikes by definition can’t have it. Then we both condeded that a few of the attempts to build retro patina into new machines were actually quite good. After all, faded jeans are more comfortable and are often indistinguishable from an old worn pair. However, given $10,000 to spend on a bike, we both chose old ones. I chose an R60/2 and an R100GS Dakar (nobody said it couldn’t be 2 bikes, and in what condition). Rick liked the 2 bikes idea, and chose a Triumph TR5A and a 3TA both from 1958 when he was born.
It was one of the most enjoyable discussions I have had around this topic. We exchanged email addresses when we landed and vowed to meet up at some point. There was a major lesson learned. You never know when a delayed departure will cause you to make a connection.