Now, that’s a stupid question!

What’s the point of all this?

On a Q&A forum I found the following question: What is the point of riding on a motorcycle other than looking “cool.” Are there any physical advantages as compared to a car? I know the old adage says ‘the only stupid question is the one you didn’t ask,’ but the question that poster posed is dangerously close to a stupid question. I borrowed one reader’s answer as a starting point for my own rant.

The ‘point’ of riding a motorcycle is to ride the motorcycle. It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it.  People bandy about words like ‘freedom’ and ‘exhilaration’ but they are weak sauce compared to the reality.  The reality is so, so much more.

Me and my ’74 shovel (aka ‘The Bitch’) in West Texas enroute to Alpine. Man, I just love West Texas!

Again: the ‘point’ of riding a motorcycle is to ride the motorcycle.

It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it.  People bandy about words like ‘freedom’ and ‘exhilaration’ but they are weak sauce compared to the reality.  The reality is so, so much more.

Me and The Bitch riding through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, in the Colorado Rockies.

Seriously, how do you describe the challenge of leaning into a hard curve on a twisty mountain road in the Colorado Rockies, just a hair’s breadth from the high side that’s gonna hurt like hell if you don’t maintain your line?  What words can match balling through the New Mexican desert alone on a star-studded night, with ghost shadows marching across the sands as the chill night air seeps through the seams in your leather jacket?  Can language even begin to capture the feeling of blasting through the heart of Dallas on a Saturday evening, twenty or thirty of you in a pack, so there in that moment – so large and loud and alive – that the straights in their cars instinctively move aside to let you pass?  How do you tell someone who’s never been there about rocking through a mountain pass on a chilly autumn morning, sun at your back and your best road dog at your side as you crest the Continental Divide and rumble down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison?  Can you make any sense at all of the delight you feel waking up in a rain-soaked tent in Rapid City, South Dakota, on your way to the annual rally at Sturgis, and laughing about it because Who fuckin’ cares? We’re at Sturgis, baby!  

Into every life a little rain must fall…

And if that’s hard, try explaining how even the ‘bad stuff’ gets good, later. Things like riding through the wake of a hurricane in downtown Houston, water so high on the road that it’s burbling and bubbling at the ends of your exhaust pipes and dousing your ignition system. Things like spending a sleepless night camped on the banks of the Rio Grande, kept awake by the bitter cold and the new traveling companion who neglected to mention that he snores like a fuckin’ buzzsaw.

This is me riding through the Black Hills of South Dakota, doing a little sightseeing during the annual Black Hills Classic Motorcycle Rally, a gathering of the tribe that’s been going on since 1938.

Things like kneeling in the mud in a pouring rainstorm to help a stranger get his motorcycle started, because the biker’s code says you never leave another rider behind. Things like facing off with a shotgun-wielding deputy sheriff who is screaming at you and your buddies to get those goddam bikes out of there before he arrests the lot of you, because one of your buddies can’t get his bike started and the biker’s code says you never leave another rider behind. Things like your buddy suddenly remembering, after twenty minutes of trying to kickstart his shovelhead, that he installed a hidden kill switch as a security device just last week, and Oh, yeah! That’s why my bike won’t start….

One of my favorite works by Dave Mann: a loving couple two-up on a nice Spring day. Dave Mann’s monthly centerfold paintings for Easyriders captured every aspect, from the quiet pleasure of a run up the Pacific Coast Highway….
….to the drag of getting beefed by some biker-hating cop. and everything in between.

….because every biker knows the best stories are the ones that really sucked in the moment.

Are there physical advantages? Well, let’s see…

Me and The Bitch and the Marlboro Man’s Softail on Skyline Drive, above Cañon City, CO.

There’s the fact that you’re out in nature, breathing fresh air, instead of being cooped up in a cage with the air conditioner on, guzzling fossil fuel and contributing to global warming. And let’s remember that motorcycling is not a sedentary activity the way driving a car is, either. The constant shifting of weight and the tensing and relaxing of different muscle groups actually burn calories, really, and help you maintain a healthier body. Add a kick-starter to your machine and you can just about sell your Nautilus!

Look at the grin on my face. I am on a motorcycle I just rebuilt from the ground up: new paint, polished aluminum, a few chrome touches like new exhaust pipes and handlebars…. There are few finer feelings in this world than what I was feeling in that moment. I wasn’t posing or profiling or showing off. I was just grooving on the feeling: my Harley, the wind, a bunch of good friends all riding together, heading for a party. I didn’t know someone was taking pictures, and didn’t even know the photographer, but sometime later he came into the motorcycle shop where I worked and gave me several excellent photos made that day. Wish I could remember his name (and if you see this, Mr. Photographer, shoot me a kite, eh?) but wherever he is, I bless him!

And for most riders there is also an emotional benefit to being in the wind. You see it in the slogans on biker t-shirts: Four wheels move the body, two wheels move the soul; Sometimes it takes a whole tank of gas before I can think straight; and You never see a motorcycle parked outside a psychiatrist’s office. I know that, for myself, nothing can clear the cobwebs and help me forget about a crappy day like some time in the saddle. It’s two-cylinder meditation. My mind is focused on the ride – the shifting of gears, the changes in pavement texture and potential hazards, traffic patterns, the weather, et cetera – and tending to all that frees your mind from the weight you carry.

To quote Jackson Browne: ‘It’s a peaceful, easy feeling…’

There are also the benefits of being a smaller vehicle in traffic, in those enlightened states that permit motorcycle ‘filtering’. This is the low-speed lane splitting which allows motorcyclists to work their way through stopped traffic. It gets them where they’re going faster and reduces carbon emissions. It also eases overall traffic congestion, which helps get everyone moving faster, further reducing emissions, et cetera. A real win-win. I just wish the Texas legislature would get on that bandwagon, rather than all the horrid, hateful ones they have seen fit to climb on lately.

I was in a pack of thirty or so motorcycles when we stopped for lunch at a roadhouse. Before we could get back on the road, we were surrounded by heavily-armed law enforcement officers, who drew down on us with AR-15s. They proceeded to run every one of us through the mill – driver’s license, tag number, VIN – just because they could; just to inconvenience us, just because that many bikers in one place absolutely must mean something criminal was going on. They did get one guy, who had an outstanding warrant, but had to let the rest of us go.

Finally, in cities where land is at a premium, and motorists are desperate for parking spaces, motorcyclists require much less space than cars and trucks. If office buildings, colleges and malls would provide secure parking for motorcyclists, they could reduce the demand for parking by the drivers of full-sized vehicles, and again, contribute to lessening carbon emissions, fuel consumption, global warming, and so on.

So, it’s all that and more, and you notice that none of that has sweet fuck-all to do with being ‘cool.’  We ride because we’re riders.  We don’t know any other way to be.

Your mother did warn you about me, right?

The Famous James Motorcycle

Me and the Famous James at Walter Jones’ shop in Marion, Texas.

Forty years ago I attended an antique motorcycle show here in Austin, and came across two Famous James motorcycles.  I’m a Harley guy, and I knew something about Harleys, but aside from that?  Not so much.  I kinda sorta knew of Indian and some of the better known metric brands – the Triumphs, Nortons and B.S.A.s friends rode when I was a teen, and the Italians and Japanese makes I’d see in motorcycling magazines – but I knew nothing about the hundreds of marques that rose and fell before and during Harley-Davidson’s tenure, and had never heard of my namesake motorcycle company.

The 1949 Comet arrives to great fanfare.

The James Cycle Company Ltd. began manufacturing bicycles in 1897, and produced their first engine-powered cycle in 1902. After a short residence in Sampson Road, Birmingham, the works were moved to Greet, Birmingham, and from that locale the company produced a number of popular motorcycles, all the way up to 750cc, in solo and sidecar configurations. They put out some good-looking machines with a reputation for reliability.

This is a 250cc Villiers-powered model owned by an Australian. Although the model is unknown, the engine was manufactured between 1934 and 1940. The paint appears to be custom. All in all, that is a good-looking motorcycle; one I wouldn’t mind owning for myself!

They also produced some innovations that didn’t quite fly – a hub-centered steering system is one such – and even teamed up with an outfit called Samson to create a three-wheeled ‘Handyvan’, complete with enclosed cab.

The James-Samson Handyvan, just the thing for the British entrepreneur!

James earned a name for itself in TT races, which helped sales, and its economy models like the Comet proved popular in a Britain still reeling from the aftereffects of World War Two. However, as automobiles became more affordable in post-war Britain, and Japanese motorcycles later began eating up remaining market shares, sales of British motorcycles fell. A number of marques were either discontinued or swallowed up by the conglomerate Associated Motor Cycles (AMC), including Francis-Barnett in 1947, and James in 1951.

A 1951 advert for the Commodore: little more than a Comet gussied up with leg shields, an enclosed engine and a deeper-valanced rear fender.. Now the British commuter could zoom to work in his street clothes, rather than dealing with overalls or other riding apparel.
The Comet’s reliability is touted in this 1952 advert.

Production continued, but little innovation was ventured – on occasion the only difference between a James and a Frances-Barnett was the tank badge and paint scheme! – and sales continued to plummet. A scooter, released in 1960, might have helped save the marque had it been released earlier. However, it was a case of too little too late, and AMC (and James) died in 1966.

The scooter enthusiasts claim might have saved James Cycle Company from extinction.

Standing there in that exhibition hall, I had no way of knowing all that. I just saw my family name on a pretty sweet-looking motorcycle and thought I ought to have me one of those!  However, I had not a clue where to begin looking for one. 

In amongst all the adverts for Hondas and Harleys, an ad for a 193? James 125cc. Well, he got the brand name right, anyway! However, ‘complete’ was a bit of a stretch.

Then, just a few months later, a co-worker who was desperate to get himself a Harley picked up one of the freebie advertising magazines that were popular in the days before craig’s list – this one geared to motor vehicles – and sure enough, there was an advert for a James!

I didn’t have a truck (or even a car) at the time, so I ‘borrowed’ my work truck to go fetch the thing!

I made arrangements to meet the seller at his shop in a small town north of San Antonio, where he had the bike suspended from the ceiling by a come-along. I bought the thing, hauled it home in the back of my work van, and started researching.

This was the tri-fold handout for the Famous James Comet, given out at dealerships and motorcycle shows like Earl’s Court.
Quite a sales pitch, that!

This was pre-internet days (for me, anyway) and ‘researching’ involved chatting up anyone who might know anything about vintage machines, scouring magazines for any mention of the James, writing letters that were often ignored, calling long-distance (remember those days?) and running up my telephone bill, et cetera.  I even got up early one Sunday morning and rode my motorcycle halfway across Texas to attend an antique motorcycle show, on the off chance someone there might know something.

Your humble narrator on his 1949 Famous James 98cc Comet.

Someone steered me to a company called Meeten & Ward, Ltd. of Surrey, England, and they identified the bike as a Comet, powered by a Villiers 98cc 1F engine.  They thought it was made somewhere between 1949 and 1953, and assured me they could provide engine spares as needed.

The venerable Villiers engine. Villiers produced powerplants for a number of different British marques, from AJS, Francis-Barnett and Greeves to the New Hudson, Panther and Sun.

I later discovered an Ohio-based company called Accessory Mart (aka DomiRacer), and from them I purchased a copy of Roy Bacon’s Villiers Singles & Twins.  It was from Mr. Bacon that I learned mine was a 1949 model.

With the help of Mr. Bacon, I was able to discern that my bike was in fact a 1949, the first year-model for the James Comet.

Sadly, both Meeten & Ward and Accessory Mart have since gone out of business, but my quest went on.

If nothing else, the James Cycle Company had some of the prettiest decals. This is on the steering head.

Over the years I acquired a branded James shock absorber spanner and footpeg rubber, a large advertising poster and a 1956 parts manual, but never got anywhere on the actual restoration. 

I considered this a real find, not only for its connection to the James Cycle Company history, but the fact that I am a 1956 James model!

The James made a lovely telephone stand in my bachelor pad, and I lugged it with me wherever I went, until I married and settled back in Austin.  There it was consigned to a backyard shed, dry and safe but utterly neglected for the next eight years.

The James in my garage at Whitehall, Texas, circa 1986 or ’87.

I had a fun experience one evening, while on a ride with some friends. We had stopped for supper, and when we came out an older gentleman was looking at our bikes. Now, anyone who has ridden for any length of time has encountered the fellow who comes up and says, wistfully, ‘I used to have one of those, but…,’ followed by the explanation that it was sold to pay for school, or because the kids needed new shoes, or some such thing. However, this old boy shocked the hell out of me when he said ‘Have you ever heard of a James motorcycle?’ I shocked him right back when I told him ‘I have one in my living room!’

What are the odds of us running into each other like that? Two strangers, bonding over an obscure motorcycle brand very few Americans have ever heard of! Like I said, fun!

My disabling work injuries made the dreamt-of restoration even less likely, and finally led me to sell the James in early 2008 – a decision I have questioned ever since – but I’ve not lost my fascination with the history.  In fact, I was doodling around on the ‘net when I discovered Sheldon’s EMU. If you’re into motorcycling history, that site will keep you busy for a good long while!

Finally, courtesy of British artist Garry Hurt: what my Comet could have looked like, had I ever gotten ’round to restoring it.

So, that’s my history lesson for the day.