By Charlie Giordano
“With great power comes great responsibility,” was the phrase Uncle Ben told to Spider-Man when the young Peter Parker was going through teenage angst. Keep in mind, when Peter first found he had super powers, he used it for personal gain. And so it is by a stroke of good luck that a fair amount of power and responsibility was bestowed upon me. Heavy, huh? Well, yes and no. Let me explain.
“Wouldn’t you like to be the man who rescued a 1968 Royal Enfield Interceptor on its way to the scrap heap? For $150,” was the headline on David Blasco’s “Royal Enfield Motorcycles” blog. But I didn’t know that yet…
So, I’m at the gas station reading a bike magazine and the kid pumping gas looks through my window and sees a photo of an old Triumph. We start talking bikes, and he tells me his friend has a Royal Enfield in the back of his truck that he’s selling for scrap metal tomorrow. I ask him if it’s an old one or a new one. He says old. So I give him my card and ask him to tell his buddy to call me. The kid calls, and I go to his house, and sure enough, it’s in the back of the truck with a lot of scrap on top of it and below it. I dig a bit and stand it up. And there she is. Rough as a cob but there for the most part. No seat or fenders. And a really beautiful engine. Anyway, one hundred and fifty bucks later and she’s in my barn and the Sherlock Holmes adventure begins.
So, what’s all this about “power” and “responsibility” you ask? Aren’t I just a lucky guy who found a neat old bike? Yes and no again. In attempting to determine the model, year, and displacement of the Enfield, I shot off several emails to guys who know about this stuff. Graham Scarth, Chairman of the Royal Enield Owners Club (UK) confirmed, “You are correct in thinking it to be an Interceptor, a Mk.1A in this case. The bike with frame 847 and engine 1A 847 was dispatched to Shores of Michigan on the 26th April 1968. It had a chrome tank with red stripe along the top.” Interceptor enthusiast Chris Overton added, “There were about 1,000 Series 1A built before the last English factory closed in 1970.” So Interceptors are rare. In fact, British motorcycle enthusiasts, when considering the Interceptor, oftentimes speak in terms of “repatriating” them. (Webster’s: re-pa-tri-ate: to restore or return to the country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship.) If you aren’t familiar with the British Marquee, it’s worth knowing that Royal Enfield is the only motorcycle manufacturer in continuous production during three centuries.
They began production of their quadricycles with De Dion engines and experimenting with a heavy bicycle frame fitted with a Minerva engine clamped to the frame down-tube in 1899.
Now the gravity of the project begins to reveal itself: We have a fairly old and rare motorcycle of decent pedigree that is in pretty rough shape. Do you restore it to its original condition, or do you make it mechanically sound and consider yourself fortunate to have the perfect blank canvas to start your new café racer project? Are you the purist who insists on absolute adherence to traditional rules and structure? Or are you the infidel who bucks tradition and forges on, re-creating what is relevant to the times? Also, what about the economics involved? If you’re not footing the bill you may be more inclined to reply, “Restore it.” But that could potentially cost a lot more money. And it has been said that, “If you want to make your old bike worth five thousand dollars, then put ten thousand dollars into it.” Then, there’s the historical impact. We’re in an age where people are beginning to truly understand that antiques are significant. There’s no today without yesterday. Hmm … weighty, to be sure. There are a lot of things to consider. I was starting to feel like a politician. No matter which way I voted, I was going to displease about half of the constituency.
Once a year I like to build a bike that is interesting, different, and cool. Something we can take to shows and talk with motorcycle enthusiasts about. Something that takes me away from work and allows me to play with friends, some of whom actually know how to make things run when I don’t. I had been thinking of building a British bike, as I’ve always loved them, but have never had the opportunity. This one provided the perfect opportunity.
Take a chance. Go out on a limb. Swing for the fence.
What do these idioms have to do with building motorcycles? Everything.
I want to make it clear that building motorcycles involves one of the most important processes on earth: making art. And art, my friends, is the reason we no longer live in caves. Thankfully, there has always existed a portion of the population that doesn’t stick to the script. They think outside the box. And even though they are likely to be scorned and ridiculed for their efforts, they do it anyway. They believe in themselves, and their vision, and they steam ahead with conviction. Of course, this does not mean artists are always successful. In fact, often they fail. (Think of how many paintings lurk in musty old basements compared with how many hang in galleries and museums.) Making good art, and motorcycles, requires the same main ingredient used in the evolutionary process: mutation. Unfortunately, most mutations are unsuccessful, and that makes us tend to not want to deviate from the path. In fact, I looked up mutation in the dictionary and was presented with these terms: freak, deviant, monstrosity, monster, and anomaly. There was not even one kind word about the process that brought us central heating, cable TV, and Spam.
I bring this all up because I almost botched the resurrection of the Royal Enfield. I almost gave into the pressure I was getting from both sides to restore it or make a custom. And not wanting to bear the strain of letting down one side or the other, I decided I wouldn’t. I would have my cake and eat it too. I would cheat fate. I would neither correctly restore the bike, nor molest it. I’d come up with a way to please (or at least not displease) the people who wanted to see it restored to its original state, and those who wanted to see it re-emerge as a custom. But then I remembered a quote by someone famous; “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” Then it dawned on me that not only was my plan a recipe for failure, it was also a copout. So I have accepted that I need to do what I believe in. No matter what comes of it.
Oftentimes when I’m stuck with a dilemma, I’ll fall back on the immortal words and wisdom of the Isley Brother’s 1969, number-one, Motown hit song, It’s Your Thing (Do What You Wanna Do). And for me, and this bike, that was rebuild it from the ground up as a mechanically sound, 1968 motorcycle that retains its British heritage while taking advantage of some modern marvels like suspension and dependability. After all, I like the bike because it’s antiquated, and I want to retain that charm. But I’m too old to be pushing a brokendown motorcycle.
There are basically two ways to approach building a motorcycle. You can begin with a concept and build the bike from scratch to meet that vision. Or you can start with an existing motorcycle, and look at it for a very, very long time, until you understand the geometry, mechanics, and history, and then make your creative decisions based on what will work within that framework.
When I build a motorcycle, cosmetic refinement yields to copper patina and the dimpling of handhammered aluminum. The Wabi-Sabi sensibility of the acceptance of transience and imperfection is always present.
The Wabi-Sabi aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” I believe this principle to be more representational of life than striving for perfection. It’s more beautiful too. The merit of the overall design will always trump cosmetic perfection. If you consider the fine-art masters, what makes their work significant is the overall concept, originality, and design. Not their exacting execution of any particular technique. They were great thinkers and seers more than technicians. In keeping with their approach, I’m free to concentrate on the overall shape and objective of the bike I’m building.
Man vs. Machine is a lot of what the bikes I build are about. Not “machine” as in the particular motorcycle I’m building, but “machine” as in the need to rely on modern, computer-numericalcontrol (CNC) equipment to build them. This bike is built using old-world techniques, hand tools, and hammers. A drill press is about as technological as I get. One of the greatest examples of fine art is the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo created it with a paintbrush, candles for light and rickety old scaffolding. No computers were required. The most sophisticated devices ever created are the human hand and eye. I really believe that. And I think it shows in this bike. Riding it is a thrill. It’s a throwback to a simpler time, when all that mattered was that the bike actually started and the wind was blowing through your hair, and everything else was behind you. I like this bike a lot.
Charles Giordano owns two awesome motorcycle exhaust companies, Tailgunner Exhaust and Von Braun Exhaust in West Tisbury, Mass. He knows a lot about motorcycles, but would never say so himself.
Tailgunner’s Special Project Division “GUNNER” bike is currently available for purchase. It’s unique design and attention to detail make it ideal for a top collector or enthusiast. Contact: Charlie Giordano, Tailgunner Exhaust. www.TailgunnerUSA.com / 508-693-1944