Uncrating Dreams

Oct 04, 2021 View Comments by

Some Gifts Come in Big Boxes

By: Jeff Buchanan

RoadRUNNER - Uncrating Dreams

It was the summer of 1975. The Buchanan family had just relocated to North Hollywood, CA. I was 17 and deeply immersed in my hobby, my passion: motorcycles. More specifically, motocross. It was a heady time for the sport—and motorcycles in general—with the industry enjoying phenomenal growth. I was working a dismal part-time job at a gas station when a friend showed up with an opportunity. He said Bill Robertson Honda was in need of two employees to uncrate new bikes at their main store on Tujunga Blvd.

We went in and interviewed together, walking out with full-time positions. The following Monday morning, we showed up with our toolboxes and were ushered to a large, warehouse-like area of the service department dedicated to uncrating new bikes. There were crates of Hondas stacked to the ceiling, with a small area reserved for uncrating and assembling the motorcycles.

We received training on the uncrating process—which pretty much any motorcycle enthusiast possessing the most rudimentary mechanical ability could perform. The biggest challenge was learning how to operate the forklift to retrieve the crates, which in some places were stacked five and six tall. That’s a lot of weight up high.

For a teenager who hadn’t ventured further than Yosemite, there was something exotic about the whole affair of handling crates fresh off the boat from the far-away, mystical Japan. And inside those crates were brand new Honda motorbikes. I often wondered about my Asian counterparts across the Pacific, disassembling and packing the bikes. Did they wonder about America the same way I did about Japan?

The Art of the Crate

There’s a craft to uncrating motorcycles. Bud, the store manager, would come out of his office and stroll across the large, open-air patio area where rows upon rows of bikes were parked, and tell us what he needed. Whether it was bikes that had been sold and needed to get into service, or merely getting a nice range of Hondas to flesh out the showroom, we would get our marching orders for the day.

We’d find the proper crates (side panels carrying particulars about what was inside: model, color, this side up, etc.) and get them settled into our workstation. Then we’d shut off the exhaust-spewing forklift, replacing it with the sound of an FM radio, and get to work. First, we’d snip the straps holding the cardboard cover over the crate. After cutting the corners with a mat knife, we removed the cardboard box. Visible through slats of wood, looming beneath sheets of plastic, a brand new Honda could be seen within. A walk around the crate with a crowbar, prying off the top, broke the integrity of the shipping crate and the sides dropped. We stacked the pieces of discarded crate and cardboard and pushed them aside.

RoadRUNNER - Uncrating Dreams

Most bikes are shipped with the front wheel and fender removed, as well as the handlebar, turn signals, and mirrors. However, each model has its own quirks, some needing a great deal of work and time to uncrate and assemble, while others are quite simple. For the record, the most time-consuming bike to uncrate was the Trail 90, due to all the racks and brackets, the skid plate and down tubes, exhaust heat shield, and a bunch of other pieces that needed to be bolted on in addition to the usual stuff. The easiest? Probably the MR50 Elsinore; it needed just the front wheel, fender, and handlebar. The thing was so small, you could practically hold the bike up with one hand while putting the front wheel on with the other.

To the sound of FM Rock (which was actually pretty good fare in the ‘70s) we would work, wiring up turn signals, putting handlebars on, and screwing mirrors into place. Then we’d team up to lift the bike out of the crate and put it on its centerstand, one guy weighing the rear end while the other put the front fender on, followed by the wheel. Last, we’d fill the crankcase with oil. A quick wipe to remove the packing grease, complete the paperwork, and the bike was rolled out onto the showroom area to seduce customers.

[The author at 17. Five years into the love affair with motorcycles. Long hair and Wallaby’s, the style then. On the eve of starting a new job at Bill Robertson Honda. Photo by Barry Buchanan]

A Band of (Not Always Professional) Brothers

Bill Robertson would hire more people to help us during the summer months to accommodate for the increase in bike sales. Sometimes there were three or four of us working alongside one another. Naturally, with that much testosterone wafting the workspace, the air was ripe for challenges to see who was the fastest. We’d set identical crates down and someone would time us to see who could nail the best time. As I recall, a CB750 took about 22 minutes (that was really going for it).

Whether it was racing the other guys or working alone, I took the job seriously. I made sure the handlebars were set in the proper position, clutch and brake levers followed a natural flow of the arm, and mirrors were aligned. However, during the years I worked there, a host of employees came through that didn’t have the same work ethic. It used to irk me when they would just throw the handlebar on, positioned way forward, with levers all askew—one pointed down, the other up—cranking uneven torque on various nuts and bolts. Often, as a result of laziness, they would wire the signals so that they were reversed. They never understood why I got upset at their shoddy approach. Anyone reading this wondering about safety should know that once a bike was sold, the servicing mechanic went over the entire bike before delivery.

Naturally, our little haven became a kind of hangout. Moto-friends would drop by and we’d talk bikes and racing. Inevitably, while chatting casually, someone would absently pull in the brake lever of a partially assembled bike. With the front wheel off, the brake pads would close up, requiring the hassle of prying them open again—much to the embarrassment of the guilty.

How to Be Your Own Boss

During my time at Bill Robertson Honda, I developed a pride in the job. Each time I uncrated a new machine, I wondered about who was going to buy it, and what kind of purpose they were going to fulfill. Motorcycles are rarely—if ever—a practical purchase, usually leaning toward personal passion. Whether it was for daily commuting, weekend trail riding, sport riding, short- or long-distance touring, each bike represented an individual’s adventurous spirit—something they’d saved up for, lusted after, researched, compared, and finally decided on. One of my favorite aspects of working in a motorcycle shop was seeing a lot of happy faces.

Some of the best times were when I found myself working alone. Management would fire the various clowns I was saddled with and the uncrating area would become my own private sanctuary. I was in my own meditative world, assembling brand new, zero-mileage Hondas fresh out of the crate with the FM radio playing. I would intentionally stack up crates to create a wall that granted me absolute privacy from management’s view.

I had the job dialed in. If I wanted a day off mid-week to go to the track and ride, I would park the newly uncrated bikes slightly further apart on the outdoor show area, making it appear overcrowded. And like clockwork, the manager would come out and say: “We’re pretty well set for now, why don’t you take tomorrow off.” And I’d be off to the Indian Dunes on a weekday—heaven for a motocrosser, because you often had the track all to yourself.

In equal measure, if I needed the hours, I would park the bikes really close together, creating big, gaping holes in the show area. The manager would come out and tell me I may have to work overtime to get more bikes uncrated to fill those spaces. It was merely harmless managerial manipulation.

RoadRUNNER - Uncrating Dreams

[41 years after uncrating bikes at Bill Robertson Honda, the love affair had blossomed into a professional journalism career. Photo by Robert Pandya]


Minor Driving

On my 18th birthday, I came into work and, as I was punching my time card, I made a comment to Bud, the manager, that it was my birthday. “Oh yeah, how old are you?” he asked. When I told him I was turning 18, Bud went ashen. As it turned out, he’d assumed I was a legal adult when he’d hired me. He informed me that as a minor, I wasn’t bonded when driving the dealership flatbed down to Carson several times a week, returning with it stacked high with crates of brand new CB750s, CB400Fs, SL175s, Gold Wings, and other bikes. The insurance would’ve been null and void. Fortunately, I never had an issue. That would’ve been a real situation. Still, it took Bud a day or two to recover, shaking his head every time I was in his vicinity.

Every few days, the accumulation of discarded crate pieces, cardboard boxes, and folds of plastic would overflow my sanctuary. I’d back the flatbed in and fill it up, then head to the landfill. I can still conjure that distinct, pungent smell of decomposing refuse. It was five bucks to dump a full load back then. Afterward, I’d detour to Taco Bell for lunch before heading back to the shop.

As new Honda models were released, I felt privileged being the first person at the dealership to actually lay eyes on them. As the crates came apart, I’d get glimpses of new gas tank shapes, a bold palette of striking new Honda colors, a teasing of chrome strips, exhaust pipes, and wheels. Each crank of the crowbar pried off pieces of crate, revealing a little more of the prize within. After assembling the machine, I’d roll it out onto the show area, wondering who was going to buy it, and what kind of adventures and memories it was going to gift its new owner. Yes, I saw a whole lot of smiles. Somewhere in all that was a kind of gratification in knowing I’d pulled their dreams out of the shipping crate.

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