At the intersection of my two favorite pastimes — motorcycles and dogs — lies the word «rescue.»
In the dog world, taking in an unloved, abused, or unwanted dog qualifies as a rescue. Sometimes you keep the dog, other times you foster it until a suitable new owner can be found. To me, it’s the same in the motorcycle world. For years I was a sucker for a bike whose potential was unseen by its owner, and the temptation to take it in and nurse it back to health was sometimes irresistible.
The Suzuki stray
The 1979 Suzuki GS850, an air-cooled, shaft-drive, four-cylinder, was sitting all alone in a weedy yard, tethered to a chain-link fence by a bicycle lock. The «for sale» sign taped to its headlight hit me like a pair of big brown puppy eyes and I made a U-turn in the middle of a residential street to go back for a closer look.
It had led a hard life, by the look of the dented tank and mufflers, but it had good bones. On the test ride, it proved itself heavy at stoplights but light on its feet once it got moving, like one of those hippo ballerinas in «Fantasia.» After some dickering, $850 changed hands and I took the GS home.
I was freelancing for a magazine back then (remember magazines?) and pitched a fix-up story on the GS. By the time I added brake pads and lines, a custom seat, tires, a rear rack and tail bag, and a QD windscreen, it strutted like a shaggy dog with a diamond collar.
That faithful hound and I went everywhere together until a steady knock gradually arose from the gearbox. A barista at the local coffee shop had taken a liking to the GS and offered to take it off my hands. I warned him about the knock, but he didn’t care. Once again, $850 changed hands and the GS was led away to a good home. I just hope it didn’t end up on a farm upstate where it could run free with all the other old bikes.
The Junkyard Dog
In a loft over the service department of the Honda dealer where I worked in 1982 were all the parts that had been taken off crashed bikes and replaced with new ones paid for by insurance companies. Some were beyond redemption while others were merely bent or scratched. Now and then, the service manager took pity on some hapless kid who couldn’t afford the parts to fix his bike and went up there to look for something to get him back on the road. One day he looked around and saw everything he needed to assemble an entire motorcycle out of discarded parts. Thus the Junkyard Dog was born.
My last bike had been stolen a few months before, so I adopted JD. It had begun life as a Honda CB550K four-piper, but there were F-model parts on it, and probably a few bits and pieces from a Honda lawnmower. The instrument faces drooped like the melting clocks in a Dalí painting and the tank had a dent in the side the size of a softball. The only straight and unblemished piece of sheet metal on it was the license plate. And it was all mine for $600.
The dented tank and both side covers were all different colors, a flaw I tried to remedy, only to prove myself worthless as a body-and-fender man as well as a painter. Dog people talk about «mongrel vitality,» the tendency of mixed-breed dogs to be healthier and more long-lived than purebreds, and the JD had it in spades. It fired up at the first touch of the starter button and ran as quietly as a Swiss watch, so quietly I could hear each link of the cam chain roll off the cam sprocket at idle.
Almost as fun as riding it was parking it next to some shiny new motorcycle whose owner would gasp in horror, fearing his bike would catch moto-fleas from mine. Then came a day when I got a job offer at a motorcycle magazine in Los Angeles, where I’d have access to a garage full of new bikes and the obligation to ride them every day. The JD went to a new owner for $600 and I went to Smogville.
The SR that was free to a good home
Four years in SoCal was about three and a half years too many and I eventually fled to Oregon. One of my neighbors there had a garage full of track bikes and high-end street bikes. If the garage door was open as I drove by, I’d stop and we’d talk bikes. One day he showed me a semi-basket-case Yamaha SR500 he’d been given and had no use for. I confessed a nostalgic attachment to that model and he offered it to me for nothing — he’d even deliver it to my garage just to clear out the space in his. Free roadkill? Sure, bring it over!
I’d had an SR500 in L.A. and liked it, and this one pushed all my bike-rescue buttons. The title that came with it, however, was both out of date and out of state, and the last known owner had vanished. I wasn’t going to invest time and money in a street bike I couldn’t ride legally so I went to the Oregon DMV, where a helpful employee named Bob walked me though what I had to do to transfer ownership.
Sad to say, not every rescue has a happy ending. Sorting out the paperwork on this one hit a number of bureaucratic speed bumps, and ultimately I failed. The fine details escape me now but I jumped though all the necessary hoops and still couldn’t meet the state’s criteria for transferring the title to my name with such a huge gap in the chain of ownership. I considered one of those outfits in Vermont or somewhere that washes shaky titles, but DMV Bob told me my SR’s VIN had already been entered into the Oregon system, and would be flagged if I tried to sneak it in through a side door.
The SR sat in my garage for a few months while I pondered what to do with it. I had a Honda GL1800 for sale at the time, and the first person who looked at it saw the SR and asked if I’d throw it in for an extra $200. It was the first time I’d ever made a profit on a rescue, and the only time I hadn’t managed to foster a bike back to health before someone else adopted it.
The bike I’m riding now is a rescue of sorts, in that its previous owner just wanted it gone and offered it to me at an irresistible price. This one’s my last, though, I swear. From now on I’m sticking to rescuing dogs. For one thing they’re easier to license — although the parallel barking test is hard — and for another I’ll never have to worry about not making a profit because I’ll never sell one after it finds a home here.