The Munro Special


LEADFOOT_9735-12bI’m guessing New Zealander Burt Munro liked building a fast motorcycle as much as riding it, maybe more. He says he enjoyed the rotating machinery and making it go fast. His offerings to the God of Speed are pistons and connecting rods he made to optimize performance.

Burt Munro's Engine I can imagine him spending one or two orders of magnitude more time working on the highly modified 1920 Indian than riding it. In his case it’s about the bike more than the riding. The movie is called the World’s Fastest Indian, not the World’s Fastest Old Guy, or Old Guy Kicks Butt, the latter being my favorite. In 1967 at the Bonneville Salt Flats, running his Indian bored out to just under 1000cc, Munro set an official new land speed record for his class that still stands today. 183.586 mph.

2 (1)

Burt Munro at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967


The Munro Special. Click on it to enlarge.


Getting a License

The idea of needing a motorcycle license was a bit intimidating to me, to the point where I spent time researching bikes I could legally ride without one.

I was almost able to make that work. I loved the idea of a 50cc machine and the possibility of operating in the moped class. I was even willing to accept the underpowered status and get off the road when someone was behind me. But in New Hampshire, mopeds are limited to 2 horsepower, 30 MPH on flat terrain, and cannot shift. Automatic shifting is OK. The 50cc Honda Ruckus reportedly has 5 horsepower at 8000 RPM. I could see myself always pushing the limits of legality with 50cc scooter. I felt like the withering bureaucratic onslaught, in this case the DMV, was keeping me from my simple mode of transportation.

I assumed I would take a safety course and get my license that way, but when it came down to it, we bought the motorcycle and I had no license, and it was easier to just get a permit and start riding. New Hampshire has a digital motorcycle manual and I studied that pretty well and went down to Concord and applied for the permit.

You take a computerized test based on the manual and the clerk handling my case said, “People who don’t read the manual don’t pass the test.”

Fortunately for me the test was multiple choice and I am hard to defeat when I’m up against multiple choice. There were 25 questions and you had to get at least 20 correct. You could skip questions, which would effectively just move them to the end of the list.

There were some close calls with at least two good answers and I had to fall back on, “Why would they include this question? And what would they want the answer to be?”

In the end, I didn’t miss any and didn’t skip any so after the 20th question, I was done. I got my permit, good for 45 days, during which time I needed to take a riding skills test to get the actual license.

I’m busy building a retirement home so I had to fit in riding as best I could. The F650 is slightly heavy for me and slightly tall for me and it is not the smoothest thing at slow speeds with the clutch fully engaged. And frankly, it was scary riding it at first. I had lost whatever skill I ever had from 40 years ago. I didn’t know what the riding test was going to consist of and couldn’t find out, except to read about other states. The weeks began to slip by. At some point, I just made an appointment in order to avoid running out of time. They give the test on Thursdays and I left room to come back a week later if I failed the first attempt. I was getting way out of my comfort zone.

My appointment was at 9:00 A.M. and by some stroke of luck I arrived about 45 minutes early. Some riders were already being tested ahead of me and I was able to check in, get in the queue, and then watch what they were doing.

The first exercise required you to weave between 5 cones spaced 12 feet apart, then make a left U-turn inside a boundary and stop with your front wheel inside a 3-foot square box.

The second exercise had you starting from stop at the entrance to a tight right-turn,  L-shaped lane 6′ wide with cones on the corners. Make the right turn while staying inside the lines then make a right U-turn inside a boundary.

The third exercise had you accelerate from stop to about 15-20 miles per hour and then brake hard after crossing a line. Your speed and stopping distance were computed and scored.

The final test was similar to the third, but you swerved around an obstacle instead of stopping.

10 demerits and you fail. Fall over on the bike and you fail. 2 demerits for putting your foot down, stalling, etc.

I thought I had a 50-50 chance of passing. The riders were all male in this case, all younger than I am, and some of them failed. But I was encouraged by a very wide guy ahead of me. He didn’t look capable of riding a motorcycle but he sat on a small cruiser and somehow he could make that bike do whatever he wanted, and at slow speed.

As I started towards the cones, my foot went down automatically, but the official either didn’t see it or didn’t give the demerits because it was before the cones. I made it through the cones okay. I rode the clutch, tried to keep my head up and avoid losing it. I U-turned and stopped with front wheel in the square. I made the tight right turn okay, barely. I got 2 demerits in the hard braking test. He made me repeat the swerve because I wasn’t going fast enough. Then he shook my hand. I had passed!

I noticed the guy after me was using a big, new Harley cruiser. I know he failed because he never came into the DMV building to pick up his license but the guy after him did. I felt bad for the Harley guy, but I could easily understand how it happened.

As for me, it was a big upper to have an actual motorcycle license and I felt very lucky to have passed. I could now ride anywhere in the country, on any public road, at night, take a passenger, on any size motorcycle. All this despite being barely able to ride the F650, a legal moving chunk of public danger. I would have to be super-careful.

A Place For Your Stuff

The F650 came with a lockable tail case that will hold my modular helmet, gloves, and bungee cords. I can even stuff a thin jacket inside the helmet if needed. It’s easy to pop the case open and access the contents.IMG_0710a

While you are in a store, the case can hold your riding gear and when you come out of the store you swap in your groceries or whatever you bought. Larger items can be lashed onto the rear seat just ahead of the case. I’ve also used a supplemental backpack on big grocery runs.

I now consider the case, or something like it, indispensable on the motorcycle. The bike isn’t nearly as much use to me without it. Storage is the thing that makes the bike practical, makes it something more than “art you can ride.”

That said, almost all motorcycle ads and photos don’t include luggage items. The exceptions are the bikes that have them built in, rather than added on as accessories. Motorcycles like the BMW R series, Kawasaki Concours, Honda Gold Wing. Yeah, the big expensive touring bikes. I’m just saying the images coming at you don’t include the very thing that will make the bike useful.

A friend suggested, “Here in the USA motorcycles are toys, not means of transportation.”

I got lucky with the F650 because it is a good hauler. But I hadn’t thought about it enough. I was drawn to the image of an older, weathered KLR650 ( recall the fantastic dented, faded patina of a 50’s era work pickup truck), and I did realize it was good for packing around adventure gear, but I hadn’t realized that storage would be so critical for everyday, local use.

Oil Change #2

I changed the 1997 F650 oil yesterday at 6100 miles, using Suzuki non-synthetic, 10W40 motorcycle oil. The first change was about 2000 miles ago in July and I used Castrol non-synthetic, 20W50. The 20W50 was fine in the summer, but at 27 degrees it feels too stiff until the bike has run for 10 minutes or so. With the clutch disengaged, the bike would still leap ahead a bit when I dropped it into first gear from neutral. The F650 is normally very easy to shift, so the cold oil sluggishness and subsequent missed gears is annoying. It will be interesting if there is any improvement with the 10W40.

For the last oil change, I bought the kit from BMW that included a filter, large o-ring for the filler cap, another for the filter and new crush washers for the two drain plug screws. Clymer says to change the oil every 6000 miles and I’m at 2000, so I skipped the filter.

The magnetic drain plug had noticeable “swarf” on it last time (at 4100 miles), but not this time. I bought the bike at 3800 miles and I don’t know the oil change history, but I’m assuming the swarf came from the normal break-in action as the rings seat themselves in the cylinder. Some F650 owners like using synthetic after the break-in. I’ll probably stick with the non-synthetic. For one thing, I don’t run my engine above 5000 RPM.  Currently, I’m thinking of the Castrol 4T 20W50 as my standard oil.

Most of the oil stays in a reservoir inside the frame behind the front wheel. The drain plug for the oil tank is just above the exhaust pipe near the front of the engine, so to keep the oil off the pipe I cut a 4″ long gutter from a plastic caulking sleeve and held it under the opening as I twirled the bolt out with a socket on an extension. I have a 12 x 16 aluminum pan to catch the oil. The bolt stayed in the socket along with the crush washer, so I didn’t need to fish them out of the hot oil. After the flow slowed to a drip, I removed the gutter and a few drops went down onto the inside top of the engine shield. I could have reached in with something and wiped them out, but I just left it. Put the bolt back in and tightened it.


Then I moved the oil pan a little and took the drain plug out of the bottom of the crankcase and let the rest of the oil flow into the pan. After it stopped running I replaced the drain plug, making sure I had the washer on it, and tightened it.


Oil drain plug in the bottom of the crankcase.

I then used a funnel to refill the oil reservoir in the frame.


Refilling is complicated because you can’t just fill it and be done. You have to fill it until it is pretty full and then slow down and keep adding oil until the level stops receding. You have to keep lifting the funnel to check the level and then add in a little more until it stays full. Then start up the bike and make sure the oil light goes out and let it run a bit. Then recheck the oil level and top it off. If the oil light doesn’t go out promptly, stop and add more oil. But you have to run the bike in order to fit all 2.2 quarts in.

The pan had about 2 quarts of old oil in it and I poured it into the empty new containers, using the funnel.

After the oil change, I check the level a few times as I use the bike and check the drain plug screws to make sure they remain seated and there are no leaks.

Two-Wheeled Transportation Part 2

Last Spring while I still had my 2001 Jeep Cherokee and before I got the motorcycle, I backed into the transfer station with a full load (about 400 lbs.) of construction debris and began unloading. A big white pickup truck backed in beside me and I recognized my friend Norm. He had a few items in the bed and threw them off quickly.

“Great truck, Norm.”

“It’s my F450 dump truck. I converted it to a pickup. Only 30,000 miles on it. They wouldn’t give me enough trading it in, so I kept it.”

“Those wheels are massive.” And they were. Huge hubs with a circle of big bolts. The truck was industrial strength.

“Need a truck? I’m trying to sell it. I sold the masonry business, so I don’t need it.”

“It’s too much truck for me.”

“Yeah, I don’t use it much. I run a 3-ton pickup truck to the hardware store for a tube of caulking. That’s about it.”


Hauling a case of caulking

You need a truck if you need one. You don’t if you don’t. The logic is trivial, but I see a lot of pickup trucks on the road with nothing in them. Maybe it should read, you need a truck if you might need a truck. Or you need a truck if you can imagine hauling something. Or if you can imagine a different life as a different person and that person can imagine hauling something. This latter is similar to just wanting to be seen as a pickup truck kind of person.

Let me see, I’ll just check the MSRP on a new F350, something lighter than Norm’s. Here it is: $31,235 – $69,250. Tell yourself you can do it for the $31,235 right up until you actually go to the dealer and buy it. You’ll wind up with a nice deal of 5K off a $50K truck.

In June, 2014, the Cherokee dramatically failed inspection. We got $300 for it at the salvage yard.  Instead of an F350, We bought a BMW F650 for $2500 and another $250 to register and insure it.

I’ve put about 500 miles a month on it picking up tubes of caulking.

The bike will carry 95% of what I need to pick up. Another 4% will fit in my wife’s 2010 G37X. I can even haul 5 8′ 2x4s by dropping the arm rest in the rear seat, opening the little trunk door and sliding them in through the trunk. Longer pieces require a bungee cord to hold the lid down. Also,  I can rent a truck by the hour at Home Depot. I can buy lumber from Boulia Gorrel and have it delivered. I can buy some plywood or even the entire contents of Lowes and have it delivered for $65.

Nonetheless, part of me was entertaining the notion of buying Norm’s truck.


Two-Wheeled Transportation, Part 1

Most of my rides are short, 5 miles one way, and I can easily handle temperatures down to freezing without any electric heat. So why don’t I see any other motorcycles on the road at these temperatures? The answer that makes sense to me is that other bikes aren’t being used for transportation. I’m semi-retired, building a small house myself, and my bike is a second vehicle, my only means of getting around while my wife is at work. I’m happy riding it in cold weather.

At a windy 35 degrees, I rode over to pick up some fresh eggs at a local farmhouse.

“I’m surprised to see you on that today!”

“Yeah, but it’s all I have and it’s fine. If I had a warm car, the bike would be no good. Heh, heh.”

He laughed in a satisfied way as he put on his winter barn coat and headed out. His wife sold me 2 dozen large for $7.

Yamaha XT225

How far can you ride a 225cc motorcycle that weighs only 238 pounds dry? In 2003 Lois Pryce quit her job at the BBC, shipped her early model XT225 to Alaska, and began a solo journey that ended in Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southern tip of South America.


Lois Pryce and her Yamaha XT225 Serow.

Early in my recent phase of motorcycle fascination, I latched onto the XT225 because it is so light, not too tall, easy to ride, and will apparently take you anywhere you want to go, although not at high speed. I read Lois Pryce’s book Lois on the Loose with great interest. She hooked up with various riding companions as she biked down the Pan American Highway on the west coast of the Americas. It’s a good book.

I like the look of this 2007 version.


2007 Yamaha XT225. From a photo

223cc air cooled 20 hp, 6 speed, 238 lbs. dry, 53″ wheelbase, 32″ seat height, front brakes disc, rear drum, 2.3 US Gal., 1986-2007

You can buy a nice 2007 with maybe 5K miles on it for around $3000.