The Surprising Thrill Of Reviving And Riding Little Motorbikes
Deposited like an ambulance delivering two terminally ill patients, a pair of ancient Honda Trial 90s were dropped off in front of my house silently; no fanfare, no excitement, no hurry or joy, unloaded quietly, then slowly rolled into my garage, their future operating room. Last licensed and running when President Clinton was entangled with Monica Lewinsky they languished outside for dozens of years worth of northwest sub-zero temps and triple digit heat. Decrepit and decaying, my job was to get them running. I promised their owner I could. I opened my mouth again.
Two dead bikes. Could I get them running?
Matt Duffy, a friend of mine, purchased the bikes from the now legendary Todd “The Carb Whisperer” Shiflett and I instantly promised Matt I could get them functional after their quarter century of hibernation. I hid my doubts.
Proper motivation meant I needed emotional buy in, so I named them. Since one was a 1970 CT90 I and the other a 1967 model, I gave them period correct names. Applying blue painter tape to their racks I grabbed a sharpie and labeled them: the 1970 became Captain, the 1967 Tennille. My love for these relics would keep us together.
Captain (left) and Tennille in the operating room.
Exploratory surgery on Captain and Tennille exposed the neglect. Captain had no spark. Tennille’s brakes were frozen. Captain wouldn’t shift. Tennille’s carb had barnacles like the hull of a cargo ship. Captain’s gears from the dual range transmission tumbled into my hands giving me a Tetris puzzle of gears and levers. Tennille would not charge her battery. Captain’s carb peed a puddle of gasoline on the garage floor every night making the whole house smell like petrol. I guess every 50-year old has issues with leaking fluids overnight. Don’t feel bad Captain, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
Carburetor barnacles, transmission gears and rust removal were all part of the process.
After disassembly came the mad dash of purchases: tires, tubes, rim strips, chains, sprockets, cables, gaskets, filters, carb kits, batteries, regulators and more as everything was polished, repaired or replaced.
And on it went, day after day, every small mechanical victory was met with a new failure point. So I solved each problem as they came, one by one by one, slowly, carefully: flushing the gas tanks, replacing lines, lubricating cables, smoothing brake actuation, cleaning off rust, adjusting float levels, all done in the blistering northwest heat wave that rocked our region that June.
Between bikes and parts, getting a little crowded in here.
Daily I would strip down to nothing but gym shorts and flip-flops, don my sweat stained, 20-year old Seattle Seahawks hat, wear it backwards and let the sweat flow as I spun wrenches. Wiping away the perspiration only put grease on my face but I didn’t care. The mix of sweat, metal and gasoline was therapeutic, my daily flushing of Covid worries, purging my mind of all concerns except what lay in my hands: mechanical points, a carb float or a voltage regulator. Nothing else going on around the globe mattered or existed. My whole world was my workbench and it extended no farther. So absorbed in the process, some days I forgot to eat. Every extraneous thought was forgotten, replaced by ‘Why in the world can’t Captain find a gear?’ Daily and nightly the sweat flowed, and progress crept along its petty pace.
Then it was time. In my mind I heard Kevin Cameron’s words: if you have fuel, air, spark, timing and compression the laws of physics dictate that an engine has no choice, it must fire. So I tried, prodding the kick starter in my flip-flops and greasy, backwards hat.
And Oh My God they fired. Tennille first, then Captain responded to the prodding of my flip-flop feet and sweaty brow, both with their first breath of fire since the FDA approved Viagra. They vibrated, smoked, and shook off loose parts sounding like sickly blenders on full whip but I didn’t care because they were alive.
Back among the living.
So I test rode them daily, no, hourly, beating my chest in self-righteous glory each time they responded to my kick of life. Knowing my luck though, I expected them to die on me, to quit for good, to end their life with the finality that machines often have, committing that kind of deliberate mechanical suicide when a bike tells you, “It’s okay. Let me go. It’s time. I’m tired, I’m ready and I’m not afraid. Maybe I’ll be reincarnated as a crescent wrench.” I was prepared to be stranded miles from home wearing only gym shorts, flip-flops and a greasy, backwards Seahawks hat.
Because I wore nothing else. Every test ride was just flip flops and my backwards hat like Steve McQueen, bare chested, flowing open in the breeze not giving a damn what everyone else living around me thought. Only my machine mattered.
“When you crash you are going to need one serious skin graft,” my wife said.
Maybe. Maybe not. I was more worried that if I crashed the blade screwdriver I had in my pocket for on-the-fly carb adjustments would shish kebob one of my man berries. My skin can regrow, but a punctured testicle? Can they re-inflate those? I have some extra Schrader valves on my workbench.
I could care less. Struggling to do the speed limit, I was in heaven.
Riding a slow bike fast is everything pure and wonderful about the art of motorcycling. Feeling the wind, sun, and speed in the open air, unprotected, hair blown back, eyes squinting, sweat running horizontally, vibrations making me feel like I am flying when I am barely doing 30, beating the holy snot out of a poor little 90cc machine I spent weeks reviving.
And the machine likes it. No, asks for it, begs for it, wants to be ridden at full throttle all the time, all day, everywhere, maxed out until I almost feel sorry for flogging this poor little engine, gulping air and fuel as fast as it’s poor little piston can muster just so I can feel like McQueen, riding around with no shirt, gym shorts, flip-flops, greasy faced and smelling like gasoline, hat on backwards and smile on frontwards, pure and in the wind, unencumbered by anything that could insulate me from feeling that freedom, that pure relationship with the machine.
Matt and I decided to take Captain and Tennille to the northwest woods for their full test. I packed tools, my cell phone, cheap beer and greasy chicken because that seemed period appropriate. Washboarded roads on our ascent made the bikes rattle like paint shakers as we climbed higher into the mountains but all we could do was smile. Who needs 600 lb adventure bikes costing over $20,000? Total cash outlay for both bikes plus parts was less than the cost of their saddlebags and our grins were twice as wide.
Into the wilderness…
Until Tennille died. Yes, she quit with an ugly finality of no warning, no symptoms, just total, complete, instant death like someone had flicked her “off” switch. Crap. So Matt and I did what any motorcyclist would do- we parked the bikes and dug into the beer and chicken.
As I polished off my brew and licked chicken grease from my dusty fingers I just happened to glance at Tennille’s carb. It was hanging from the bike, barely attached, dangling like a partially amputated appendage, one carb bolt away from being completely ejected off the bike. The washboard vibrations had exacted their toll.
Matt muttering, “Start. Pretty please?”
I bolted the carb back on and Tennille fired off, mostly. Altitude was beginning to mess with her fueling and the farther we climbed, the more she stumbled. So we declared the day a success, turned around and headed back to the truck. Almost.
At my insistence, we rode past the truck and headed a few paved miles uphill to the end of the road for a few photos. I ride these curves weekly on bikes in excess of a hundred horsepower, but I never had so much fun as doing it on a bike with barely seven.
This is what success looks like.
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Great writing! I can feel it and smell it. The miracle of ignition is like no other!
So many of us were introduced to motorcycling by Honda’s little Trail bikes. There’s something quite nostalgic about them, for sure.
The smell. When Captain would leak a dinner plate sized puddle of gas onto the garage floor overnight, our vent system would bring the smell inside making the whole house smell like a gas station. I love the smell of gas but wife’s reaction was, well,…different.
Great to see them saved from the scrap heap! If you haven’t checked out C90 Adventures on You tube it is now a must for you, https://www.youtube.com/user/c90adventures
I have watched CT90 adventures with shock and awe. The most amazing part of the whole story is that he found a girlfriend to join him. How?
I can’t tell you how much I loved this article. I learned to ride on my Uncle Jim’s Trail 90 in ‘71 and that started a lifelong love affair with bikes. And anybody who’s had a garage project like that will know and admire the time spent on lost causes that really aren’t. Thanks.
Thank you Marco. Your ability to relate to the ubiquitous CT90 and your enjoyment of the story and is why I love this job. Like you, I learned to ride on a Trail 90 and it is how motorcycling found me. Putting Captain and Tennille back on the road was laborious and rewarding. As long as word doesn’t spread that I can put decrepit bikes back on the street we will all be just fine.
I can absolutely relate to your experience getting those little bikes going and the reward and satisfaction of doing so. I just did the very same thing this spring to a 73 & 74 CT 90’s that had sat for decades. Also for a buddy. I just love bringing old forgotten things back to life so they can be enjoyed once again. Great article.
Glad you enjoyed it Daniel, and thanks for reading. Old things coming back to life, sounds like me getting out of bed in the morning.
I rode one similar to those from Tucson to San Diego then LA then back to the Ozarks, over 4000 miles total. In New Mexico I noticed a slight vibration and pulled into the Honda dealership in Albuquerque. Purchased a wrist pin, changed it out and it ran like new for the rest of my trip. That was in 1963, mine was a Honda 110, 50cc 3-speed. It was the best trip I’ve ever made.
Then you get it Lem. Sometimes you stop and smell the roses, sometimes you go so slow you have no other choice.
My wife and I have 4 90s. Three run, one is not always in a good mood and runs sometimes. We have generically named them “putt-putts”. We terrorize the local roads on weekends, visit the grandchildren, go to Currie’s for a sip of wine… My first bike was a Trail 55 with leading link front suspension and dual rear sprockets, one for “highway” and one for trail. That bike began my love of motorcycles and riding both dirt and street.
Hello Hutch, pleased to “meet” you. Your legend precedes you, via Ted’s scribblings. Thanks for chiming in.
Tennille, the 1967 Trail 90 in the story, has the leading link suspension that you are talking about. The trials tires I installed were just a tad too big so on large bumps the tire would rub the fender. Self clearancing I say. Love those “putt-putts” and their quirky personalities.
A most excellent write-up ! I wished it would have continued, but the point of the article was well in hand. Thank you, and good job !!!
Enjoyed the read, almost thought Peter Egan came out of retirement 😎
Ted would consider that a very high compliment.
Peter Egan is my story telling hero and has been for decades. You have no idea how much that compliment means to me. Thank you.