Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club National Meet

Text: Peter Jones • Photography: Peter Jones

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is a freaky place.
Your average city is a place where history happens in the course of incidents inevitably occurring over the duration of time. But Oak Ridge is a place created specifically to make history. Big history. History that mankind will remember for as long as man exists. History that changed the meaning of history itself. Oak Ridge is responsible for a flashpoint in history so horrible it altered who we are. And in doing so, Oak Ridge also changed the meaning of the future. Whether you've ever visited the place, not one of us can escape from Oak Ridge. So, yeah, it's a freaky place.

It's where uranium was refined for use in the first atomic bomb.

Up until 1942, the narrow valleys of Oak Ridge were flush with fields and forests, indistinguishable from the rest of the western Appalachians. The few inhabitants farming the flat land between the ridges were relocated and within less than two years an industrial complex had risen, with worker housing supporting a population of 75,000, making it the fifth-largest "city" in Tennessee at the time. It is now a third that size.

But it wasn't really a city because it didn't officially exist. Initially it was known only as the Clinton Engineering Works. The name Oak Ridge came after the war. In the forties, if you got too close to the place without proper clearance you would have been instantly, mysteriously, and unofficially detained. Originally a fence surrounded it, with guard towers at each entrance, ominous remains that still stand like Cold-War sentinels along the roadside. Many who lived and worked there only knew they were "somewhere" in Tennessee.

So, given all that, the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club's 2005 National Meet in Oak Ridge certainly had an ironic weirdness about it. Sort of like holding a British bike meet onboard "Old Ironsides" in Boston Harbor. Or an Indian bike meet at Wounded Knee. Maybe with the passage of history we're supposed to forget about the meanings of place and get on with our vintage bike meets without distraction. But the logic of that is ruptured. I mean, the commerce and character of a vintage bike meet celebrate history. And Oak Ridge casts long shadows that can't be ignored.

On the other hand, "Hogan's Heroes" was a TV comedy about the madcap days in a German POW camp, and oh, how our American households laughed at the comical doings of those wacky Nazis. So having a meet to honor Japanese bikes in a city peculiarly conceived for the sole purpose of blasting the Japanese into the Great Beyond is normal, appropriate and happily American.

Today, riders cruising along Oak Ridge's main drag see that it looks much like other American towns. But any side trip quickly shows that the town is unique. Hidden in a small valley behind the sharp wall of a low ridge (oak-covered I presume) is the Y-12 site where the uranium 235 isotope was refined from natural uranium to meet the needs of the Manhattan Project. The imposing complex is still an active government facility, and I don't know what goes on in it today, and I didn't see a thing, and that's all I'm saying. Some roads are still closed to public traffic and there are a peculiar number of white SUVs wandering around town and following confused visitors who do u-turns for no good reason. They don't appear to have followed me home. I could be wrong.

A trip through the residential parts of town shows how little most of the place has changed in 60 years. Nearly every neighborhood is characterized by small, temporary housing for wartime workers. The structures are identical ranch houses of three varieties, each off-angled to the winding streets. In one part of town the houses give way to rows of cinderblock apartment buildings. And as you may already know, there's not a single structure in town that's more than 63 years old. It takes a little while to sink in - but hey, this place has no downtown! Since all workers shopped at the company store, which is now gone, there is no commercial core to the community. People now find what they need at postwar strip malls and one real mall that is about 90 percent abandoned. Like I've said, it's a freaky place.

The North American version of the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club (VJMC) was founded in 1977, but grew slowly until the last few years when membership doubled to over 2,000. Four years ago, in Nashville, the VJMC held its first national rally and has done so ever since. As club President Jim Townsend said, "We had members all over the country whom we'd never met. Now that we have national meets each year we have new friends all over the country."

This year's meet was hosted by Tennessee Chapter One, First Volunteers, a name harking back to that state's participation in the Civil War. Local member and past President Pete Boody was the 2005 National Rally Chairman and a kind host. (That reminds me, I still need to check to see if I have that original CBR400F exhaust system he needs.) And this year's meet gathered on the grounds of the American Museum of Science & Energy, a site that preserves and interprets the history of the war effort at Oak Ridge.

The VJMC has a number of active chapters hosting their own events throughout the season. The national rally is officially three days long, but some members arrive two days early to go on an overnight ride. At the rally itself, day rides are featured, like the Oak Ridge meeting's zip over to the Motorcycle Pit Stop on Route 129, about ten miles west of Deals Gap. The Pit Stop, owned by Dave Ramsey, is a rather unique café that sells rider gear and repairs bikes while filling the demand for cheeseburgers. After lunch there, riders swung through a loop up along the Foothills Parkway and back across the Tennessee River Valley to Oak Ridge.

The last day of the meet highlights a judged show of bikes, a swap meet, and a chance for members to hang out with like-minded folks who remember when all motorcycles had kick-starts and riders weren't afraid to use them. Pete Boody and fellow member Rich Sulik served as the meet's dedicated and gracious judges.

The VJMC is open to every enthusiast, but for a bike to be considered a VJM it has to be at least 15 years old. Of course, every bike has to be Japanese, if you please. At this meet there were bikes representing each Japanese manufacturer, and their conditions ranged from the impeccably restored to the utterly worthless state of being. I saw a couple of "lovely, tasteful" rat bikes, not to be confused with worthless crap - even though the difference does take a discerning eye to appreciate. Many of the machines were completely stock while some had been significantly modified, such as Rich Williams' Suzuki GTXR750 "water buffalo" with homemade triple pipes winding their way around the engine, Gold Wing rotors, and a thousand other mods. But few bikes of any age or origin can equal the magic of a clean Yamaha XS650.

Taking a look at a field of vintage Japanese bikes wakes one up to the furious pace of technological history they represent. There are two-strokes, four-strokes, the Suzuki RE5 rotary, singles, twins, triples, fours and sixes, two-valves, four valves, five valves, and so on and so on. And unlike a showing of automobiles from the last half century, these are prototypical exemplars, not copies of accepted technologies. Each of the companies that created these bikes had to meet the needs of an adventurous balance of utility, world marketing and ruthless competition.

There's no initiation to worry about for membership in the VJMC. You only need to have a heartfelt enthusiasm for adventure and the willingness to share it. It's true: You still do meet the nicest people on a CL350 or CBX.

Next year's VJMC national meet is scheduled to take place at the Caberfae Peaks ski resort in northwestern Michigan, a state that's home to one of the club's most active chapters. And every year the club has other meets at the White Rose and Daytona events. I never would have visited Oak Ridge were it not for the VJMC, which is another reason why rallies are a great idea. Everyone has an opportunity to make new friends, discover new places, and feel the fabric of history firsthand.

For more information about the VJMC, visit vjmc.org.