When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I went to the Honda dealership on Lincoln Blvd., in Venice, to buy a motorcycle. In England I’d had a small Honda – the featherlight CB175 – which had proved very reliable. Today this humble bike, modelled on the traditional English racing twin, is considered a classic.
The one in the picture looks very like mine, though it’s no doubt a bit cleaner (the illustrations are all of bikes that were up for sale, so all are freshly-washed with no visible dings or pools of oil beneath the crankcase). I was looking for something along the lines of my old bike: only bigger, of course, because this was America. An hispanic mechanic showed me two bikes – an older 350 and a 360 – and indicated with his eyes that I should buy the 350. But what did I know? I was impressed by the extra ten cubic centimeters of engine room and the sit-up-and-beg handlebars and the fact that the 360 was a newer bike, and so I bought it, instead.
The Honda 360 did not last long. On the way back from a trip to San Francisco, a head gasket blew. I limped the cycle back to Los Angeles on one cylinder, and got home after dark. No sooner had I slumped through the door than someone hammered on it. “Trick or treat!” Having no candy, I offered the kids some peanut butter. They declined. I had much to learn.
Mine was a reddish colour, but otherwise like the 360 seen here. A later model had a disk brake up front; mine had a drum. It handled well and after I painted it black I was allowed to affiliate with a motorcycle club based in a side street half a block from the Pacific Ocean, run by a colourful chap called Varnum. The name of our gang was the Ambrose Bierce Memorial Black English Motorcycle Club. Varnum had a Norton, in pieces in his shop. Rhys had a Norton, also plagued with technical issues. McGuire had a BSA, which Varnum swore would one day run again. I think they let me associate with them because I was the only one with a working motorcycle. Anyway, we talked a lot about motorcycles, drank a fair amount of Rainier Ale (though my preference was for Mickey’s Big Mouth, in the barrel bottle, rather than the can), and inevitably Varnum began scanning the classifieds (for there was no Internet, nor Computer, in those days) in search of a suitable new ride for me.
What I wanted was a touring machine: something to take me in effortless fashion to Arizona, or New Mexico, or Baja California. Since my mechanical abilities consisted of changing spark plugs and putting air in the tires, it needed to be simple and reliable. It did not need to seat two people, as none of my girlfriends enjoyed motorcycle touring in the least. Ideally it would have a windshield, or a small fairing, and panniers to carry the camping gear.
To his credit, Varnum came up with a fine, sensible option: a Moto Guzzi California. It fitted all my critera, and more: it had floorboards, panniers, a windshield and three headlights. It was a big V-twin, air-cooled, 850cc (that was considered big back in those days). Most wonderful to relate, it had a shaft drive! No more monkeying around with and replacing oily bike chains by the side of the road. Since I wanted a machine primarily to escape Los Angeles (plus travel to and from UCLA, where I was being thoroughly educated in the art of film) this was the perfect bike for me. I took it for a test ride. It was heavy, cumbersome to wrangle around at low speed, unlike the dainty Hondas to which I had been used. I wasn’t used to riding a motorcycle too heavy to pick up, if it fell over. Which brings us to the other motorcycle Varnum proposed:
The Norton Commando. 750ccs, two cylinders in that classic English style, drum brakes, four speeds, no electric start, no turn signals, no frills at all. The large fiberglass “fastback” touring tank and side covers were painted British Racing Green. I took it for a test ride through the neighbourhood. The shift worked in the opposite direction to the Hondas and the Guzzi: four speeds, one down followed by three up, which made more sense than five or six speeds starting with an upward shift. The gearbox was unbelievably smooth. With sufficient revs gear changes were completely seamless, the acceleration out of them actually joyful, at least compared to gear boxes I had previously enjoyed.
On the way back, I paused at a stop sign and the engine died. I trod down on the kickstarter and the Norton purred effortlessly back into life. Though nominally a “touring bike” – thanks to plenty of marketing and the big fuel tank – this machine was entirely unfit for this purpose. It had none of the accoutrements necessary for motorcycle touring. It was a racing bike. I bought it.
Varnum must have been pleased, for he rechristened our association the Ambrose Bierce Memorial Black (and Other Colors) British Motorcycle Club. But his bike still didn’t run, and nor did Rhys’s or McGuire’s, and I soon learned the reason that Nippon, rather than Blighty, now ruled the motorcycle world. My Norton was a beautiful bike to ride, when it was running, but it was incapable of remaining in running order for any reasonable period. It couldn’t take me out to Monument Valley, say. It couldn’t even get me to UCLA and back, with any reliability. Why was this? Ah, let me count the ways. And bear in mind this was a used machine. I have never bought a new vehicle. But, growing older, I have put more time into learning about things before I get into them. In the case of the Norton, I had not done this.
The main problem was the carburetors. These had originally been of a brand called Amal, which were apparently famous for sticking, and denying air to the engine, causing it to suffocate and die. My bike’s Amals had been replaced, but the replacements suffered the same problem, so the engine had difficulty idling, and a tendency to stall. Then there were the brakes. Disk brakes, fore and aft, were essential for a bike as powerful as this one. But it didn’t have them: they were a generation away, and came in (I believe) with the 850cc Commando a few years down the line. No matter how good the drum brakes were, they were entirely inadequate, particularly in the rain. But no matter! Because if you rode with your lights on, you would drain the battery, and the bike wouldn’t run any more. According to Varnum, Mr. Lucas, inventor of Lucas Electrics, declared that motorcycles weren’t meant to ridden at night, but only in the daytime. So if you rode a Norton or a Triumph or a BSA in the dark you would inevitably drain the battery. Makes sense, right?
All of this I could have dealt with, maybe. But for me the crowning glory of the 750cc Norton Commando was the kickstarter. Bear in mind, this motorcycle didn’t have an electric starter. There was no button to push (that too came in with the 850cc replacement, and added to the battery drain). If you wanted to get my machine going, you had to put your foot down. Now, on the Hondas this had never been an issue. Kick ‘em two or three times, they fire up, off you go. The Hondas had, Varnum told me with great resentment, “low compression.” Whereas the Norton Commando had very high compression and if you didn’t kick the starter just right – from something the cognoscenti called “top dead centre” you were in for an appalling pain as the starter flew back up and whacked you violently on the tender inside of your right foot. On my test drive, I had found “top dead centre” without a problem. Thereafter, less so. And the more times you failed to find it, and attempted to kick-start the bike, the more times you got physically hurt.
So, adios Norton. It took me forever to get rid of it. Whenever we got it running, it was a great bike and a joy to ride, and I didn’t want to sell it any more. Then it broke down again. Who wanted such a thing? If I had owned a garage or a place to store it, I could sell it for a lot of money nowadays… along with the comic book collection which my dad burned in our back garden… oh well…
Lacking reliable transport, I soon found myself the proud owner of two unreliable motorcycles: the Norton Commando, and a BMW 60/6.
We found the Beemer in the local British motorcycle shop, run by John Palfreyman. Do you see what a long time ago this was? Imagine a store, on a working class street in Venice, CA, selling and repairing used English motorbikes! Run by a limey name of Palfreyman. Anyway… in the back of the shop was a BMW 60/6, with its front end missing. It had been in a wreck, and needed a new wheel, tire, and struts. Other than that it was, John said, quite good to go. There was a ding in the metal fuel tank, which was painted black, as were the side covers. As I recall, it had low mileage: maybe 40,000 miles. Once again, I got involved in a deranged project. We found parts and Varnum rebuilt the front end, complete with the classic BMW 60/6 drum brake: a brake as inadequate, in its own way, as the drum brake of the 750 Norton Commando.
There is a reason motorcycles have disk brakes. For all I know, maybe they now have plutonium brakes powered by unicorns, which stop in record time, and disks are derided and laughed at. But drum brakes, front and back, on a reasonably powerful motorcycle, were and are entirely inadequate. I consider a reasonably powerful motorcycle to be anything above 350ccs. Drum brakes just weren’t up to the job of stopping a fast-moving machine, especially in wet weather. Other than that, the restored Beemer was a tremendous touring bike. Unlike the Norton, which was forever broken in some way, the BMW made journeys to Mexico, to the Anza Borrego Desert, to the hot springs of Kern Valley (now closed!), to Arizona and Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, often in the company of a Harley Davison, ridden by Bob Richardson, my cinematographer pal. Bob and I never considered a name for our outfit, which ultimately encompassed two Beemers (mine), a Moto Guzzi and a Harley (Bob’s). My old 60/6 remained a splendid bike right up until a regrettable road accident demonstrated the need for a better-braking machine.
The 60/6 was retired. And thus, at last, I acquired the best of all the bikes I rode: another BMW, of the same generation. A 90/6. This was a more powerful version of my previous Beemer, with few vices and the great virtue (in addition to its shaft drive) of a disk brake on the front. There was also a windshield and a modest fairing, both being attached to the handlebars – this was a set-up I found much more useful and manouverable than the attached-to-the-body fairing of all subsequent BMW models. The 90/6 wasn’t heavy: it felt lighter than the Guzzi, and a breeze to move around, even without the engine running, thanks to the low, balanced mass of the boxer engine.
All of the motorcycles I have described here were air-cooled! None of them had radiators, or computer chips, or two-liter engines, or stereos or GPS devices, or any of the improvements which have come along since then, and turned motorcycles from young people’s travel tools into retirees’s playthings. Later, I rode a Suzuki 550 and two BMW R100RTs, one of which appears in my film, Straight to Hell. But the best of the lot, based on the criteria discussed, was that 90/6.
In the late 1980s I left that bike with a friend of mine in Tucson: Bing. Apart from quick trips to the Loft, I didn’t visit the Old Pueblo for many years. I lost track of Bing. Then, not so long ago, I went back to Arizona to shoot Tombstone Rashomon. Sitting in the production office before things got up to speed, I wondered… whatever happened to Bing (and my BMW)? Odds were he’d long since sold it. But one never knew. I did an internet search, and discovered Bing had passed away only a few weeks previously. Since widows tend not to like complete strangers turning up on their doorstep saying, “Sorry about your loss; do you still have my motorbike?” I let sleeping cycles lie.
But I’ve managed to rustle up some pictures of that machine, including the one above, on one of its epic journeys through the American West. And in part 2 of this, I’ll tell that tale.