The P.O.S. Dirt Ride | Clash of the Clunkers

What should you do with that old dirtbike in the garage? Man up and ride it!

A sewer line burst in the basement one time, and before we could say Rooter Man! black mold was spreading faster than herpes in a freshman dorm. Big surprise, I recently noticed my garage was the same way—only instead of mold it was growing a mound of derelict vintage dirtbikes, including three Ossas, a Ducati scrambler and a bumblebee-striped Yamaha. Several actually ran, but the more I looked at them, the more it pissed me off that they weren’t being used. That had to change.

Since misery loves company, last fall I began soliciting kindred deviants to embark on what I called The First Annual Vintage P.O.S. Dirt Ride. I e-mailed 63 motorcycle friends who own (or at least have expressed interest in) vintage bikes. We'll make a day of it in the mountains, I chirped. It'll be like old times, I promised. There will be plenty of beer afterwards—as long as you bring it. Though more than half wrote back, most of them said, Sorry, meaning they weren't interested in actually riding old sleds. That left a dozen or so likely contenders, but the effort of acquiring both a green sticker and a spark arrestor flung several others out of the pond, until we were left with nine.

Early Saturday morning, like the tide sweeping flotsam onto a beach, the bikes arrived. Former AMA roadracer and new Bonneville 210-mph record-holder Ralph Hudson arrived with a freshly acquired 1974 Suzuki TS185 in tow. Discovered on Craigslist, it was outfitted with a vintage desert tank and oversized headlight, and looked straight out of the Baja 1000. He paid all of $700 for it, and it ran great. With him was realtor and AHRMA vintage roadracer Bob Bryson, who was still recovering from twin crashes resulting in a broken pelvis and left femurand a nice limp. Glossy orange and fitted with a racy Stiletto MX tail section, his $800 ’71 Ossa 250 Pioneer looked the business.

More oozed in, including collector Mark Mitchell with a $750 all-original ’73 CZ 250 motocrosser, a Mesozoic spark arrestor clamped onto its expansion chamber, plus Ferrari mechanic Kirk Sloan with a street-legal ’65 BSA C15 scrambler. Formerly a greasy old chopper, the freebie Beeza is now outfitted with a Husky fork and wheels, full knobbies and an electronic speedometer. Sloan rides it everywhere, on-road and off. Next came John Fosmire, a Bultaco restorer with a Legend of the Motorcycle award to his credit, with a ’70 Matador he got in a trade involving a diamond for his wife. But the cruelest pairing was pulling Luke, my 16-year-old son, off his modern bike and putting him on a $250 ’72 Ossa 250 Pioneer born two decades before him. It’s orange, I said. Just pretend it’s a KTM.

When a shiny Acura pulled up outside, I knew a fresh victim had arrived. It was Jeff Karr, former Motorcyclist executive editor and the brains (?) behind Last Page. As an early-adopter type who subscribes to Wired and Scientific American, Jeff is invariably first to embrace the new and eschew old piles like those now infesting the driveway. He approached warily, pristine gearbagin hand, like an Ohio State fan entering a Michigan bar. I wasted no time introducing him to his loaner machine, a third Ossa. Sporting 3 inches of shock travel, 40-year-old Spanish seat foam and a tragic twin-needle IRZ carb, it was a dirty old dominatrix ready for a good time.

The posturing began as former AMA Superbike racer Thad Wolff rolled up, not with his promised early Yamaha DT1, but with a street-licensed Honda XR650R. Claiming he couldn’t get the Yamaha started, he’d snaked his way into a modern ride. This time only, dude. But at least we’d have one foolproof bike to tow us home...

And so we set out. Twenty miles up a long, winding mountain road to the trailhead buzzed one of the Ossas, Wolff’s overqualified XR and Sloan’s ambitious little BSA. The rest—dirt legal only—followed in nice, comfy trucks. A gate at the trailhead fortunately keeps out four-wheelers, and so our stellar coastal trail is pretty much a bikes-only affair with a 30-mile out-and-back route overlooking the sparkling Pacific Ocean to the south and Southern California’s evergreen Los Padres National Forest to the north. On the right day with the right crowd, it’s paradise. All alone on a day gone bad, a mountain lion eats you.

The trail is more like a fireroad in some spots, and it’s ripe for sliding corners—if you have the power. We didn’t, which illustrates one of the key differences between old and new off-roaders. While vintage bikes can technically go just about anywhere newer machines can, basically all they can do is lope along from Point A to B. Whereas over the same stretch, new bikes can playfully wheelie, roost and slide in a flying circus of adventure. Nonetheless, it was good fun to amble among the dinosaurs, smelling the Blendzall and admiring the wildly disparate engineering that preceded today’s modern bikes.

Easy sections included lazy straights and rolling terrain, with the occasional switchback or hardscrabble turn thrown in. But as ridge tops are wont, the trail also possessed some bipolar traits, like a radio station that morphs from easy listening to death metal. And suddenly there it was—the worst of several hill-climbs savaged by washouts and basketball-sized rocks. On a modern bike you scan the hill at a glance, pick a path and then crank it in third gear, accelerating hard and wheelying over whatever’s in the way.

This is not so funny on old bikes, because their lack of suspension travel and outright power make them closer to declawed housecats than tigers. More thinking is required. And so, like climbers roped together on K2, our little group stopped before each hill to study, speculate and draw up a field plan for getting to the summit, with the first ascenders waiting at the top to pull—and those strong of leg waiting below to push—any stuck amigos.

Still lacking the leg strength to stand on the pegs, Bryson had a good think before launching upward. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, and I know that you can’t ride that stuff sitting down, he admitted later. I was also having trouble riding that bike, with the stiff suspension and old tires that were as hard as a rock. My only concern was getting back in someplace and then getting hurt again and screwing up everybody else’s ride. Always the racer, Bryson gassed it anyway, making it halfway up the hill before the rear tire caught a loose rock and snapped sideways, pitching him off to the right. At least I fell on my good side, he laughed.

Wolff was first to the scene and got the Pioneer restarted, and then scratched and bounced his way to the top, with a chagrined Bryson following on foot. Somehow the rest of the machines also made it up, save Sloan on the little BSA and Mitchell on the CZ, who had turned back, they said, to attend to other business that afternoon. What in the freaking world could be more important than this? Wolff called from the hilltop.

Our group, now depleted to seven, rode onward, with the path continuing to morph between easy beginner level and wicked black-diamond sections—one of which pitched Bryson over a steep banking, where he was found literally hanging from his Ossa’s handlebar.

If you're young and missed the incubus of our sport, some mention of the character of these bikes is in order, and may help you regret it less. Among the finest off-road machines of its day, the Ossa Pioneer finished second only to Suzuki's TS250 in Cycle magazine's '71 enduro shootout. It's an old-school piston-port two-stroke with a pussycat of a powerband, a huge brass flywheel, tons of ground clearance and surprisingly decent Betor fork. But the short-travel rear suspension stinks, as does the narrow seat, rude left-side kickstarter, lazy half-turn throttle and a carb that floods quicker than the St. Bernard Parish. It looks like an orange rattletrap of death, my teenager said, but the challenge of riding it made it almost as much fun as a modern bike.

Fosmire also got along well with the $700 ’74 Yamaha MX125A he’d adopted after worrying about having no spark arrestor on his Bultaco. This was Yamaha’s proletariat motocrosser of the day, lacking the YZ125’s chrome-bore cylinder and alloy gas tank with its iconic mounting straps. The suspension is typical of Japanesebikes from that time period, Fosmire said. Don’t expect to take any big jumps and you’d better hang onwhen you go through the rough stuff!

The Suzuki was the second-smallest bike in our fleet, checking in at 183cc and maybe 17 bhp. With the trail peaking at nearly 4000 feet, there was some 14 percent less oxygen for the engine to work with, but Hudson’s expertise kept the TS185 moving along at flank speed—minus the occasional ricochet into the manzanita. I noticed in the first 50 feet that there was no oil in the fork, he joked. It was a pogo stick. I couldn’t go fast at all through the rocks or I’d get bounced around and pointed in another direction.

Beady eyes may notice that there were seven surviving riders, but only six bikes mentioned here. Time to confess: Since giving all my running claptraps to the needy, I hurriedly borrowed an ’83 BMW R80 G/S from the family of departed friend Bob Sinclair, the former CEO of Saab, Baja 1000 racer and lifelong motorcyclist. Jeff rode it up and I rode it back, and outfitted with street Avons, a touring saddle, windshield and low-slung exhaust, one could scarcely imagine a worse choice for trail riding. But thanks to its stall-proof torque and plenty of flywheel, the blasted thing made it up every hill, over every rock and across every gully with nary a scratch or bruise.

Which brings up another defining point about vintage off-roading: While modern bikes are plush and joyous and foolproof, old sleds require cunning, planning and patience to own and operate. But completing a difficult trail ride on one brings a genuine sense of accomplishment, unrivaled camaraderie and smug satisfaction at having survived. And if it’s all too easy, you can always get a crappier bike.

Next year, I’ll be on a Hodaka.

When Bob Bryson’s Ossa Pinoneer’s carb stuck WFO, it was all hands on deck to fix it. Here Bryson, Thad Wolff and Ralph Hudson peer into the IRZ’s innards while John Fosmire digs for parts.
What do you expect for $700—oil in the forks? Hudson’s Suzuki TS185 had everything but that, and the former AMA roadracer bounced that puppy up each and every climb regardless.
Realtor Bryson’s $800 Ossa proved a worthy trailbike until its carb DNFed. The 250cc Pioneers offer a mellow powerband with virtually unstoppable torque, and are way undervalued.
Flummoxed by how to attach a spark arrestor to his Bultaco Matador’s exhaust, Fosmire hopped aboard the author’s peaky Yamaha MX125A vintage motocrosser. Rev it up, Johnny!
The trail grows narrower toward the top, so one guy’s problem creates a bottleneck. Sharp manzanita branches would just as soon poke through your leg as let you by.
When your bike is 40 years old,you spend half the time verifying everything's still attached. Mark Mitchell readies his $750 CZ while Kirk Sloan's ex-chopper BSA awaits.
Because aftermarket silencers/spark arrestors aren’t widely available for vintage sleds, Bryson welded a pipe adapter to connect an FMF universal unit, and called it done.
Survivors of the First Annual Vintage P.O.S. Dirt Ride each received a parchment certificate. This one reads, “Sadistic Ritual Baptism into the Vintage Ranks.” Only the strong survive.
Ah, the sweet smell of success! Breathing the rarefied atmosphere at the summit are (from left to right) Jeff Karr, Bob Bryson, Ralph Hudson, cheater Thad Wolff, author John L. Stein, son Luke and John Fosmire.