Our first official build has just hit a major milestone; This week I put plates on it, and road it on the street with insurance, and lights, and everything.
Before I describe that, let me first jump into the way-back machine and recount my maiden-maiden voyage…
The first bike I ever “built” was my first ever bike. I’m using the term built very loosely here. I didn’t weld together the frame, or build up the motor, but I did take the bike from being a pile of unrecognizable parts to a complete and cohesive whole. To say I disassembled it, then reassembled it with mostly new parts would be a more accurate statement, but let’s gloss over that. I had built race cars and track cars before, but this was my first motorcycle and while I was already a seasoned (and salty) mechanic, I knew virtually nothing about motorcycles. The only reason I undertook a project of such scope was because my ignorance led me to buy a bike which needed far more work than I understood, and because the local bike shops had proven themselves utterly incapable of providing the kind of service that met my standards. After many cold months in the garage and innumerable packages of parts from my local vintage Triumph supplier, I had it all together. On the first warm spring day I took her out for a ride. I’m not going to lie, I teared up a little bit. It was a huge validation of all the struggles and difficulties I had encountered along the way. All the lessons I learned the hard way (stuff I broke), and the perseverance that ultimately led me to a machine that was almost as good as new. I remember that feeling very clearly; I was laughing joyfully. It was pure magic.
Having now finished the CB550 to the point where I can actually ride it, also fills me with a great sense of satisfaction. I pride myself in the unseen details; those things which if done right are invisible, but if done wrong are right in your face. The bike worked really well. Despite the non-standard exhaust and air filter, the first guess jetting was entirely rideable (chalk that up to keeping the intake plenum). The Dunlop K81s handled great, the first guess suspension set-up was a little harsh, but handled really well. The lights and horn worked. It was all good. After a couple laps around the block (with a fire extinguisher in my back pack), I did a couple bigger laps around the county block. I pulled back into the shop to check for leaks and looseness. It’s all good! So then, a trip a gas station to put in her first tank of ethanol-free premium since the tank was welded back together from six separate pieces.
While I don’t want to diminish the experience, it was nothing like finishing my Triumph. This time my mechanical ignorance, while still commendable, was greatly reduced. This I think, takes some of the thrill out of it. I didn’t wonder if the bike would work. I wondered what other work I would have to do to get it working better; The rear springs are too stiff for my taste, and I’d like less throttle slack. There’s a little flat spot in a fuel delivery between 5000 and 6000 rpm under heavy load; so I’ll probably need to go up on the main jets. The lock nut for the headlight switch needs to be lock-tite’d… That ride was a rolling to-do list of items I would need to clear up. It wasn’t a celebration in the same way that first ride on the Triumph was. It was an assessment. It was still freakin’ sweet to ride a 1977 Brat CB550 around my home roads, but… It just wasn’t the same as that first time. This is a clear and obvious case of chasing the dragon.
That first Triumph was just for me. It was something I wanted, something that I struggled greatly for. This CB550 is not for me. It’s for somebody else. That means a completely different set of emotions. Instead of celebrating the end of a long struggle, my mind was instead focused on ensuring that I delivered the maximum possible quality (without going overboard on price). I think perhaps that the celebration of finishing the CB550 will have to wait for its new owner, and I sincerely hope that person’s maiden voyage gives them the same “perfect moment” that I experienced years ago on my Bonneville… And honestly, that’s really the goal here.
Midnight Oil is really about a small group of people who desperately want to give that experience to others. What this is about is that transcendent experience that happens on a motorcycle when everything in the world is made okay. It’s about the smell of distant rain, and the evening swallows swooping overhead. Magic is absolutely a real thing, and it’s a thing we can conjure with the right tools. The potions are made from oil and gasoline, and the incantations are the syncopation of combustion and heartbeat. A successful piece of art is some medium that conveys the intended emotion from its creator to its audience. In this case the medium is the motorcycle.