For years I've known I would someday get around to buying a classic bike. My heart told me it would be a British bike. And since finding one is no longer a problem - what with so many auctions going on and sites like cycletrader.com now commonplace - I didn't really have any excuse for not looking around at least. So, I decided to follow my heart and explore some of the Internet offers.
And then one dreary Sunday afternoon...
Raindrops hammer the office window as I compare a 1972 Norton Commando and a 1978 Bonnie. Their identical pricing doesn't make the decision any easier. The paint and chrome favors the Bonnie, but for some reason the Norton looks more desirable. I postpone my evaluation for a moment and venture upstairs to discuss it with Christa. Bad timing.
"Why on earth would you want a stack of old iron?" she asks.
Not quite the show of support I expected from my cherished mate, it reminded me of the laconic response I got from an elderly American lady I once met in Austria when I proudly showed off my 1972 Corvette: "Who buys an old car with dirty carpet?"
Maybe it's a woman thing or some non-gender specific OCD thing, but it doesn't deter me from the quest. Back in the office, I pick up the phone and call the Norton owner. Joseph launches into a detailed history and honest assessment of his bike. The only owner, he tells me he has always taken good care of his "baby," but admits that the head should be done and maybe the tires aren't the best anymore.
When I ask about riding the bike down from the greater Detroit area to Winston-Salem, he starts to laugh and says, sure, if I can spare 10 days or more for the ride. "Okay, here's something a Norton novice or a guy in hurry needs to know. You shouldn't do more than 150 miles a day," he recommends, "and you can't ride 6 hours with a full open throttle." That's an eye-opening admission that would affect my plans for doing a story on the way back. I thought I could jump on the bike and do the distances that I usually do. So, we leave the subject open with the understanding I would make a decision and call him back the next week.
Time to give Vernon in Kansas City a call. No one picks up. I try the cell phone number. Same result, but I leave a voice-mail message. Something of a psychological nightmare follows. In my heart, soul and head, I've decided - I'm already riding the Bonnie, and I'm just waiting for a call. Nothing on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Finally, on Wednesday, there's a sonorous voice on the other end of the line. Vernon apologizes; he was in the hospital for his knees. They're the reason he's selling his bike. He can no longer kick it without pain. The second owner of this British beauty, Vernon soon sets the hook a little deeper by zipping a batch of digital images my way. The bike is a beaut and she appears to be in excellent shape. Two weeks later, I'm flying to Kansas City, anxiously anticipating a rendezvous with this online match, the object of long-held desire.
Wearing my RoadRUNNER cap and neon-blue frames so Vernon can pick me out of the crowd, I hear a voice in the airport asking if I'm there for a Bonneville.
"Vernon?" Duh. Of course it's Vernon.
"Yes." A white-haired guy with a trim body and nimble eyes stands beside me, taking my measure. Obviously wondering if I'm the right rider to have his Bonnie, he looks me over from head to toe as intently as a leery father sizing up his future son-in-law.
Then during the getting-to-know-you phase, Vernon reveals more about the bike and its history on the way to the house. My excitement builds when he opens the garage door. I can only see a grayish blanket covering the bike. Sliding it off with a flourish, Vernon announces: "May I present the Bonneville." And there she stands - in all her blue-and-silver glory.
Admiration of this adorable bike washes over me, and then I start in on the reality check, precisely placing the Bonneville under the "magnifying glass." Frame and motor numbers match. Check. The tires, chrome, and paint are in perfect condition. Check. But the new leather replaced on the seat displays a sloppy job of upholstering: The Triumph logo on the rear of the seat is no longer centered and it's too low. And the left mirror is missing. Otherwise, she looks good - in great shape cosmetically.
When I mention what a great job he'd done taking care of the bike, Vernon's chest swells. And after tickling both carburetors to fill them with gas, I only need to kick the bike once to hear the twin. It coughs hoarsely and then the engine idles fine. I pull the bike from the center stand and begin our maiden voyage. Working properly, the 750cc quickly convince me. Decision made: I have to have this bike.
Deal done, an hour later I'm learning how things really are when you own an older bike. On the way to my hotel, the motor is losing power in third and fourth gear. I ride back to Vernon for an explanation. He's clueless. We inspect the spark plugs. The left one is black and wet as hell, but the right one is in good shape. We clean the darkened miscreant and start the bike. But after running her ten times around the block, the same problem pops up again. There goes my plan to ride the bike home, and Mike, our Director of Sales, kindly picks me up two days later.
The Bonnie now stands in my garage in Clemmons. George, a good friend of ours, has agreed to become the primary caregiver for the ailing Briton. He discovers vibrations were always opening the choke, and therefore the left side of its heart was running too rich. Furthermore, he recommends an overhaul of the forks and cylinder heads next winter. Other than that, the old girl is in great condition. Oh yeah, the day-trip odometer gave up the ghost. But that's the only new irritant from an excellent running companion.
So what, you may ask, does an adventure like this cost? Well, I bought the bike for $ 3000 and then I had to add the airfare expense. The transportation costs for the van and other travel expenses came out to 500 bucks. And George's fees? Vernon was kind enough to take care of that bill. - Thanks, Dad.
Year 1978 first year with left side shift chain driven vertical, parallel twin cylinder, air-cooled and overhead valves operated by push rods
bore and stroke 76mm x 82mm
compression ratio 8.6:1
spark plugs Champion N3
carburetors 2x Amal L930/93, R930/92
gas tank 2 1/2 US gallons
oil reservoir 4.8 US pints
front 4.10 x 19, pressure 28 lb./sq.in.
rear 4.10 x 18, pressure 32 lb./sq.in.
rear wheel 47T
front hydraulic disc brake
rear similar to the front
seat height 32in.