Brian Catterson Turns 50 | Five-Oh! | Cat Tales

By Brian Catterson, Photography by Brian Catterson

I turned 50 recently, which, living up to all stereotypes, has made me feel more than a little nostalgic. It’s also made it harder to get out of bed in the morning, but that’s beside the point. None of this has been helped by Motorcyclist’s ongoing centennial celebration, nor by this issue in particular, wherein we name our Motorcycle and Motorcyclist of the Century. I’ve spent a lot of time looking in my rear-view mirrors lately, and while I haven’t been overcome by a desire to ride 100-year-old crocks, I will say this: Today’s motorcyclists don’t know how good they’ve got it!

Every year around graduation time, some journalist writes a column in which he lists all those things that the Class of (insert year) will never experience. So in that same vein, here’s a short list of mechanical procedures that, for better or worse, younger riders missed out on...

Carburetor jetting: Connecting your PC to your bike’s ECU to re-program its EFI is too F’in’ EZ! Back in the day, we had to remove the carburetor(s), unscrew each float bowl, physically remove and replace the main, pilot and/or needle jets, raise or lower the needle, then reassemble. The Phillips-head screws invariably stripped, we had to use a magnifying glass to read the illegible numbers on the jets and a needle circlip always shot across the room! Gas got everywhere, including on our hands, and there was no washing away that smell. If we were lucky, the bike ran better; if not, we got to do it all over again. We didn’t have dynos, either; we gauged performance by the seat of our pants.

Mixing gas and oil: Today, gas goes in the tank and oil goes in the sump, and never the twain shall meet. But when men were men and engines were fire-breathing two-strokes, we had to mix the gas and oil together in carefully prescribed proportions. At some point some clever fellow invented the Ratio Rite, and everyone forgot how to do math forevermore.

Ignition timing: Modern motorcycles have electronic ignitions, and timing is permanently set at the factory. But there was a time when doing a tune-up meant replacing the points and condenser, setting the gap on the former using a feeler gauge and moving the backing plate to set the timing. Much backfiring ensued when we got it wrong!

Valve lash: Like automobiles, today’s motorcycle engines are so complex that few owners dare do their own maintenance. Four cylinders times four valves each plus shim-under-bucket adjustment equals one long day in the garage—and two if it’s a desmo! Back when bikes were less complicated, we set valve lash ourselves via simple, screw-type adjusters. Doing the job right gave us a real sense of satisfaction.

Suspension mods: Nowadays, riders adjust their suspension with the simple turn of a knob, screw or spring collar—or touch of a button! If that doesn’t get them the desired result, they send the components to an aftermarket suspension company to “get it done.” Back in the day, we modified our suspension by drilling out (or welding up and re-drilling) the holes in the damper rods, and by varying the viscosity and volume of the oil. Some riders swore by ATF, others by STP. Preload was altered via carefully cut lengths of PVC pipe, and springs were made stiffer by cutting them with a hacksaw. You do know that shorter is stiffer, right? Try explaining that to a hipster in skinny jeans…

True a wheel: True (as in not false), some modern motorcycles come with wire-spoke wheels. But unlike the machines of yore, these wheels typically need only to have their spokes tightened a time or two when new, and then they stay true (as in straight). Gone are the days of painstakingly loosening and tightening spokes on opposite sides of a rim to make it spin straight. Let’s not even talk about patching tubes...

I could go on and on, but I’m about out of space—and I haven’t even touched on those things that riders even older than me had to do back in their day. Suffice it to say that we all owe a debt of gratitude to those two-wheeled pioneers who came before us. Especially those over the age of 50.

By Brian Catterson
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