And welcome to Existential Motorcycles – a small joke that got out of hand.
Back when I was a respectable member of society, I had a shop at home in Maine where I messed around with my own bikes and those of a few friends. One day a new visitor was asking me – as they all do – if I had read Zen and the Art of, etc. I must have had a bit of a mood on as I said, “Enough of this wimpy Zen shit! Let’s go for the hard core – existential motorcycle mechanics.” And I took to calling my home shop “Existential Motorcycles.”
Fast forward a few years and I’m in Asheville, NC – broke – looking for work. I’d moved down here with a job lined up teaching high school – figured it would be a cool gig after blowing off the academic big-time – plenty of time to build cafe racers and all summer to ride. Boy, was I wrong. These days, the job is primarily about riot-control and only secondarily about teaching. I was fired at the Christmas break – much to my relief.
In the meantime, I was restoring a Royal Enfield Contental GT for my oldest and dearest friend in the world. I was having trouble separating the upper and lower fork tubes, and took them dowtown to what was then Strick’s Cycle on Patton Ave. One thing led to another and Gene and Mary hired me – bless them. That led to a year at Acme Motorcycles in Fairview, NC working on a mix of BMWs and everything else. At the same time, I was working on my own projects in the shop I equipped at my new home in Alexander, NC – still called Existential Motorcycles, of course.
An amicable parting with Acme and I was out of work and broke again. So I put a notice in the Asheville Craigslist for service and repair work on vintage Japanese motorcycles – what I own, ride, and know best. I figured I might get a few small jobs to help tide me over until I found another real job. And that was more than two years ago.
Existential Motorcycles; the shop that began as a joke and became a business by accident.
My shop is in an over-sized two-car garage attached to my home. I keep hours convenient for both me and my customers – evening, weekends. I have no retail inventory. I order all my new parts from Mary Strickland at City Cycle, 211 Merrimon Ave, Asheville, NC. You should too. Mary knows more about vintage bikes and parts than I do, her prices are as good as anybody’s, and she’s the nicest person you would ever wish to meet. Support your local independent businesses.
I do most of the work myself but farm out machine-shop work and high-end painting/powdercoating to specialists in these arts.
As well as servicing/repairing other folks’ bikes, I teach people to work on their own machines – anything from an oil change to a full restoration. I always enjoyed teaching when I was an academic – it was the rest of that life that I walked away from.
Here’s a note to a prospective student:
Thanks for your note of inquiry – and my livelihood is repairing, restoring, and building vintage Japanese motorcycles. So I can assist you in putting your GPZ in top running order. I run my shop quite differently than most. Not only do I allow customers to hang out while I work on their bikes, I also teach those who are interested how to do the work themselves. My shop rate is $40/hr. – which is about 1/2 of what the big shops charge. My shop is in what used to be an oversized two-car garage attached to my house so my overhead is virtually nil.
As for timing, I work by myself and can arrange time to work with my customers whenever is convenient for them – evenings, weekends, whatever. You will want to plan to leave your bike here overnight as a proper tune-up will included removing the carbs, strippinng them down to their component parts, and soaking them overnight in a marinade of carb cleaning solution.
The first thing we will do is run a compression test to ascertain the fundamental health of the engine. If that’s good, the next is to pull the carbs and strip them to their basic bits. Next is to check the ingintion timing – which should be fine as it is a CDI ignition – but it must be confirmed. These things we can do on the first day – and flushing/bleeding the brakes if needed. Internal clutch adjustment too. The next day we will blow out all the carbs and jets with compressed air, reassemble and install them. Then we set the valve clearances to spec. If the valves are not opening and closing at the correct point and in unision, tuning the carbs is partially compensating for errors in valve movement. Lastly, we sync and tune them. Figure four to five hours total. Teaching someone through a job takes longer than if I did it myself – but that is the last time you will pay anyone to do that work again.
Let me know a date/time that you would like to come over. Figure two or so hours the first day and the balance on the second.
My work is a calling, in the theological sense of the word. Ethical and moral questions arise every day – they are hard, sharp, unambiguous and unavoidable. Cranky old Japanese motorcycles are my chosen empirical ground for working out the problem of living a good life in one’s own terms. As I work on a bike, I am working on myself – observing, thinking, learning, changing, growing. My work – at its best – is a form of meditative practice. I regularly confront the limits of my experience, skill, and intellect. A machine is a rigidly deterministic system – if everything is right, it has to work. When it does not, it is because I have failed to correctly analyze and understand the problem. Humility is a fringe-benefit of my work.
Reason for this website:
It’s not to drum up more business – I already have just about all the work I want – particularly during the spring/summer/fall months. But I carry on an extensive correspondence with my customers about my work on their bikes. Often these notes meander off into other realms of life – and many have urged me to do a website to share these bits with others. My stock answer had been; “Fine – if someone builds me a site – free, of course – so that all I have to do is cut and paste text and pix, I’ll do it.” Finally, one of my teaching customers, whom has become a friend – Aron Kressener – actually did it.
I have no intention of maintaining/updating this site on a regular basis. I may post a truck-load one day and nothing for weeks – who knows?
Here is what I had to say about a website before Aron cajoled me into one:
“No website. Everyone tells me I should have one – and a cell phone – and a business plan – and … Why? Between repairing and/or customizing bikes for others and working on the bikes I buy for later sale, I’m as busy as I want to be. I turn away work on bikes that don’t interest me or for people whom I do not like. And that is a luxury I value highly. I can do this because my monthly nut is very low – a small mortgage, no other debt, shop attached to my home (no rent), no employees, no retail inventory – just me and my tools, the bikes, and the radio. And it means that my shop rate of $55/hr. is about half of what store-front/retail shops have to charge. Ten-fifteen billable hours a week is enough to keep me warm, dry, well-fed, and entertained. Why would I want to fuck it up? I’m in vintage bike-guy heaven. I choose my work, choose whom I work for, work when I want to with the time to do it right, charge for a lot fewer hours than I put in, do pro bono work when it pleases me to do so.”
This next bit it really important and really serious.
So You Think You Want a Vintage Motorcycle?
The following is a text I have written to be read and signed by everyone who buys a vintage bike from me. Common sense is, apparently, no longer common. Too often recently I have sold a bike to a customer only to have them call me that night/next day because it is weeping oil or won’t start – or this that or the other thing. These folks have bought a 30-plus year-old machine bike expecting it to be as thoughtlessly reliable as a new bike.
So here is …
The Wretched Truth About Buying and Living with a Vintage Motorcycle
You are buying a geriatric machine designed and built 30-plus years ago during the Golden Age of American consumptionism. Much like computer technology today, motorcycle technology in the ’60s/’70s was evolving at a furious rate. A conservative design-life back then was 10 years. None of the designers, engineers or buyers dreamed that these bikes would be in use for more than a few years.
But they are – and we have to think of them and live with them much as we would with a geriatric human. Think of your cranky old grandmother.
We treat our old folks very differently and expect different things of them than we do people in their prime. Our old folks need a lot more of our time, patience, and help than do our friends. They have their “little ways.” So do our vintage motorcycles. Some will not start unless a specific series of steps is taken – and taken just so.
About the bikes I sell:
I am in this crazy vintage bike biz for the long-run. By now I am essentially unemployable so this is the only gig I’ve got. It does not serve my interest to rip anyone off. Au contraire mes amis – I go to some lengths to ensure that a buyer gets a good deal – or “good count” as some of us used to say way back when. I’ll waive a delivery charge or give a copy of the service manual or a special tool that I have two of or a box of spare parts.
I sell bikes in all sorts of conditions – from boxes of parts to ready to ride. I describe each accurately/honestly/fairly. That is its current condition. I can’t predict the future. Vintage bikes can fail at any time – anything from a minor nuisance like a turn signal switch to a catastrophic engine failure. Japanese production quality control was already pretty good back then but I have seen parts break in perfectly maintained engines due to an unseen/undetected flaw in the basic casting of a machined part.
The weakest link in vintage Japanese motorcycles is the electrical system and, particularly, the charging systems. Most of them were designed before the “headlight on” laws so the output is marginal under the best of conditions. At some point one or more components of your charging system will fail – sometimes all of them at once. The good news is that modern better-quality replacements are widely available. The bad news is that they are not cheap.
A vintage bike can give reasonably reliable regular service, but the maintenance intervals are shorter and the service more extensive than with a modern bike. Plan on a full service at the beginning or, better yet, end of each riding season. Actually, a vintage bike should receive a full service at least once a year no matter how much or little it’s ridden.
I describe my stuff honestly. I give my customers a good/fair deal. There is no warranty of any kind. If it breaks tomorrow, I will fix it – at my usual shop rate.
Now, if you want to complete this purchase, please fill in the following info and sign your name in blood.
Have I made myself clear?
Buyer’s signature and date: ___________________________________________________
Motorcycle being sold: ________________________________________________________
I have read and understood the foregoing and agree in all respects.
Comments and correspondence:
My current level of email correspondence is already ’bout all I care to deal with – so don’t expect replies to your comments posted here.
Organization of this website:
Not much. I will be mining my old correspondence for stuff to post here and I will be posting stuff hot off the press, as it were. So there is no reliable chronological order.