When I’m looking for a new motorcycle–which is pretty much always, even when I already have a bike–I tend to buy all the motorcycle I can afford. But there are times when my budget won’t stretch far enough to bring home a shiny new scoot with all the bells and farkels–times like right now, when I’m broke, bikeless, and jonesing hard for a ride.
Still, a man has needs, so this is when I pull my hat down over my eyes, turn up my collar, and head for the seedy part of the motorcycle market: Beaterville.
It’s not like I’m new to that side of the tracks. At a Honda dealer where I worked for a short time, there was a loft above the service department where they stored parts that had been taken off wrecked bikes. Most of these parts—dented gas tanks, ripped seats, a bent fork tube with a usable slider, an engine that had suffered a single broken cooling fin in an accident that completely destroyed the rest of the bike—were damaged badly enough to replace under the rider’s insurance policy, but not so badly that they wouldn’t work if you didn’t care how they looked.
Every now and then some pimply-faced kid trying to cobble together a bike to ride to school or work would shuffle in looking for used parts. He had little or no money, which meant it wasn’t a question of beating the parts department out of a sale, so someone would trudge up the stairs and dig out the dinged pipe or the bent lever that would get him on the road, accept a token donation for the Six O’Clock Beer Fund, and send him on his way before the white-shoed boss worked up the courage to see what was going on in the greasier parts of the store and came snooping around the service department.
One day the service manager was looking for something for the latest hard-luck case when he realized there was enough stuff up there to build an entire motorcycle. So he did. It was a CB550K/F/WTF, with some parts from the four-pipe K model, others from the sportier F, and a few that appeared to have come from a lawnmower.
I was without a ride just then, and when he offered it to me for $600, I took it. Then as now, I was not sufficiently ruled by vanity to turn down a good deal, no matter how homely. But eventually I decided a few small cosmetic enhancements wouldn’t hurt.
I put matching grips on it, found a pair of side covers the same color–though not the same color as the gas tank–and hammered out a baseball-sized divot in the front fender that rubbed on the tire. The speedometer face drooped like Dali had painted it–it’s possible the instrument had been in a fire–so I found another one that looked right but had a needle that became spastic at any speed over 25 mph as if terrified of the consequences of achieving such a reckless velocity.
There was a big dent in the tank. I filled it with Bondo and spent hours sanding and refilling it to a contour that stubbornly refused to match that of the surrounding metal, dispelling any illusions that I might have had a fallback career as a body-and-fender man. I painted the tank in what turned out to be the ugliest shade of orange ever—the color on the can was probably listed as Ugly Orange. The resulting finish had the same texture as the peel of an orange, though, so in the end it was an inspired choice.
I don’t remember how many miles I put on that bike, mainly because I don’t remember how many speedometers from the loft I put on it until I found one that worked for more than a week. I remember one odd trait it had—the quietest idle of any bike I’d ridden before or since. Most of the time, if it hadn’t been for the tach needle twitching like a frog leg hooked up to a car battery, I wouldn’t have known the engine was running at all.
Compared to the bikes I’d owned before, including a snarling Ducati and a spotless Yamaha triple I bought from a concours judge, the CB550 represented several dozen rungs down on the prestige ladder. At first I wanted to wear a helmet with someone else’s name on it so nobody would recognize me, but it wasn’t long before I discovered the tawdry yet alluring appeal of riding a beater.
A beater proved to be the perfect excuse on weekend rides. If I got to the lunch spot first, the other guys would say, “Wow, he goes pretty fast on that old beater!” and if I was last they’d say, “Well, of course he’s slow, look at that old beater he’s riding.” If someone else’s nice bike crapped out and had to be towed home, he caught shit because mine didn’t. If it was me on the flat bed, nobody was surprised.
Despite having my previous bike stolen, I didn’t worry about the CB550, which looked as appetizing as the rejected produce in the Dumpster behind a Safeway. It was so ugly no one would want to steal it, and even if someone had boosted it, the other bike thieves would have made fun of him until he brought it back.
In 1984 I was offered a job at Rider, which required moving from the Bay Area to L.A. Since I’d have access to new and infinitely nicer-looking bikes in my capacity as features editor, I sold the CB550 to a friend of a friend before I left, for the same $600 I’d paid for it.
If I could find another like it today I’d snap it up in a heartbeat. But all the CB550s I find on Craigslist are non-running junk, or have been café’d, bobbered—which is to say irrevocably rat-fucked—or meticulously restored right out of my price range. I’m not into cruisers, as they just don’t do what I want a motorcycle to do, and all I have to do is look at a dual-sport and I can taste rocks and dirt and loose teeth.
I see more beater sportbikes for sale than anything else. There’s something about the lure of speed mixed with the heedlessness of youth that turns many a fine high-performance motorcycle into a rolling trash heap that looks like it was dragged behind a truck through a rock quarry. I avoid the big-bore sufferers of this affliction because if you need to replace or repair anything major it’s going to cost you big. At the other end of the price scale are used and used-up Ninja 250s.
They’re as plentiful as fleas on a stray dog, and tempting if only to bring back memories of the high-revving two-strokes I started riding and racing on. But I’m a big guy and they’re so small I’d need one for each foot, like skates. Lately, though, there’s a Ninja 650R I have my eye on, and it might be my next cheap date.
My friend Larry has ridden it from his home in Oregon to Alaska, Nova Scotia, and Mexico, and it bears the scars of Dempster chip-seal pavement, the petrified remains of every insect species between the Pacific Coast and the Maritimes, and evidence of the hard-knock life of a middleweight twin drafted into pack-mule touring duty.
You could look all day and not find a square foot of bodywork without a scratch, a crack, or a hole inflicted by road debris somewhere in North America. But even though the valves haven’t been checked in 36,000 miles–since new, in fact–the engine still ticks over like a Swiss watch and runs smoke-free and oil-dry. It even has new tires and a Scottoiler.
The Ninja was the darling of Larry’s fleet, but lately it’s just another toy to push around the garage so he can get at one of his seven (or is it eight?) other bikes. He’s thinking it’s time the Ninja went away, and I’m thinking “away” should be my garage. I figure a couple of weeks of after-dinner wrench sessions and a jumbo helping of sweat equity can get this little darlin’ looking pretty good.
Guys on newer bikes will still park down the street to avoid looking like they’re riding with me, but I’ll just smile and wave as I ride past the Beaterville city limits sign and out into the world of cheap fun.
What’s your experience with beater bikes?
Jerry Smith has been a full-time motojournalist for more than 30 years. You’d think by now he would have found a real job.
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