My shop is in an over-sized two-car garage attached to my home. 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.

The Wretched Truth about Vintage Motorcycles

Posted: February 9th, 2012 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Motorcycle Repair | 3 Comments »

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 Motorcycles

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.

page 1 of 2.

Buyer’s signature and date: ___________________________________________________
Have I made myself clear?

Here’s a precis:

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.

Motorcycle being sold: ________________________________________________________

Buyer: _____________________________________________________________________

Address: ___________________________________________________________________

State: _____________________________________________________________________

Telephone: ________________________________________________________________

Email: _____________________________________________________________________

I have read and understood the foregoing and agree in all respects.

Signature: __________________________________________________________________

Date: ________________________

The Politics of Language – a moto-free bit of rather gloomy new year froth

Posted: December 30th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Motorcycle Repair | No Comments »

Contention: Reality – daily/lived/meaning-full reality (what “everybody knows”)- is produced/reproduced/challenged/defended/changed through language – and particularly through every-day thought-less language.

Here’s an off-the-top-of-my-head example:

“He’s unconstrained by the facts.”

“He’s a compulsive liar.”

Same facts, different realities.

Here’s a reverse example:

“Muslim fundamentalist”

It used to mean a very strict and pious old man.

Now it means “terrorist” which means “legitimate target” which is a thing and not a fully-paid-up member of the human tribe.

One more example (addendum 12/31/11)

The here-and-now meaning of “Marxist” is subjugation of the individual to the will and whim of the State apparatus – generally an oppressive/totalitarian State.   Karl Marx would be horrified at much of what has been done in his name.  Marx was a humanist – a historically-informed romantic/utopian.  The dignity and fulfillment of the individual within a complex society was his main concern.  He accurately saw and foretold the subjigation of the individual, social life, and, eventually, the apparatus of State itself/the government to the heartless self-legitimating logic of capital.  Greed is good. (G.Geko)

Who chooses the language we use? Language is power, yes – the power to create reality. It happens every day – every time you write or speak or hear or read language. Who chooses the language we use? Do you like the reality they have chosen for you?

Let’s all pay a bit more attention this new year,

Rehabilitating disc brake calipers

Posted: December 27th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Motorcycle Repair, Wheels, Tires, & Brakes | No Comments »


The pitting is due to accumulated water in the hygroscopic DOT 3/4 brake fluid finding its way through the chrome plating on the surface of the pistons to the steel of the piston itself and rusting it. The aluminum alloy of the caliper body is unaffected.

I have found that a piston with mild pitting can be re-used. If you can send me a few pix of your pistons, I can tell you whether I would re-use or replace them.

The most common problem with old/neglected disc brakes is drag – the pistons not retracting fully when the lever is released. I almost never see fluid leaking past the piston due to seal failure around the piston. The drag is caused by crud building up behind the sealing ring and forcing it too tightly against the piston. I remove the seal and clean out the crud from the seal groove with a dental pick or similar tool. Also clean any crud stuck to the back of the seal. Nine times out of ten, this restores the brake to good working order – with no need for stupidly expensive parts – e.g. $30 for a rebuild kit which is just the rubber o-ring/seal.

If the pistons are stuck in their bores, you can remove the caliper from the disc but keep all the hoses hooked up and use the lever to pump the pistons out of their bores. Alternatively, a grease gun fits the tip of the bleeder screw like it was made for it. Blank off the brake line hole with a short bolt and crack the bleeder screw a 1/2 turn or so. I have yet to fail to move a stuck piston with this method. If you have a caliper with more than one piston, you will have to devise an ad-hoc method to hold one in place while the other is removed. A small C-clamp often works.

All of this can be prevented if the brake fluid is changed once in a while.



Waaaaay more than you ever thought you wanted to know about detonation and pre-ignition.

Posted: December 22nd, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Ignition, Timing, & Electrical, Motorcycle Repair | No Comments »

Here’s a link to an exhaustive discussion of the causes and effects of the two types of uncontrolled combustion in an engine.  The writing is a bit thick in places but the info/understanding is very good.

So I get this note from a guy in the Andes …

Posted: November 30th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Engine, Fuel & Air, Motorcycle Repair | No Comments »

… and this is what it said. But to make sense you should go to the end of this post and read back up. I’m too damn lazy to rearrange it for you. And please do visit Matt’s blog. He’s an extraordinary man – too smart to be fearless – but he is. I do believe the man loves living too much to be afraid of dying.

Begin copied text:


RE XT500 – yes, more power – lots – but also more size and weight – lots too. I’ve become a bit of a crank about weight in my cranky old age. Big power is big stupid fun but the additional mass needed to keep it all more or less in line is not fun – but still stupid. See? I told you I am a crank.

My first bike was a Hodaka Ace 100 – a 100cc. 2-stroke street-legal enduro bike. It made modest power but weighed just under 200 lb. In real off-road/no-road riding, one’s rate of progress is mostly terrain and traction-limited – not power-limited. So big power is worse than useless – you can’t use it but it still comes with all that extra size and mass. Stupid. Of course, the more nearly your course of travel resembles a road, the more you can put big power to the ground.

This winter I am building myself a hot-rod to my liking – 300 lb. & 40 rear-wheel hp. (approx.). A former customer had an XR650-L that he seized due to letting it run out of oil. Usually, the damage is worst at the extremities of the pressurized oil supply – the head (cams and valves). But in this case the piston seized hard enough to break off a big chunk of the piston skirt on the intake side. The cam journals got hot – cooked oil on the adjacent castings – but they did not score or seize so the rest should be fine. When I autopsied the corpse and gave him my estimate for a resurrection, he asked for some time to think it over. After a few months I ended up with it in lieu of. And not much of a bargain at that. But I have an earlier-gen XR600R frame which is smaller and lighter and I’ve got the new higher-compression over-size piston/rings/etc. and boring the cyl. and renewing the valve faces/seats will be under $200. Say another $1k for a CBR600 front and rear end tacked onto the XR frame. Make it $800 for cables, tires and widgets and what-not. I’m leaning toward a monochrome/bare metal aesthetic – no paint, no plating – everything fine-bead blasted to a dull satin luster and clear-coated – powder or epoxy. All fasteners of silicone-bronze. The tank a longitudinal stack of three aluminum alloy tubes approx. 6″ dia. w/ends slash-cut/tapered and capped at each end. A repro-tractor seat cast in aluminum – yes, they are available for around $60 intended as a decorator item and often used as seats on bar stools in the den – I guess. Seat rigged as a springer with those cool mini coil-over shocks. No fenders. I have no idea what it will really turn out to be – I tend to make things up as I go along. But you get the gist – a light-weight thug.

Yes, opening up the airbox can only help.



i meant drz400…. typo there at the end.

thanks chris!

you can see pictures of the whole journey (11 months on the road so far) at one of the best posts is called ‘’san blas
panama to capurgana colombia.”

i ordered a carb kit from keintech, but getting it delivered down here
has been an issue. i will take the carb apart and see what i find. i
seem to recall somebody on the ADVrider forum mentioning the
adjustable needle. i just put in a brand new air filter and applied
the recommended 2-stroke oil. do you think opening up the airbox
would assist any?

i am glad to hear the shop is coming together! i take it existential
MC is doing well! any more custom projects going on?

i ALMOST bought an XT500, but balked at the last minute for the
simple, reliable dr200. but i am already missing the extra umph of my
drz200 on the long mountain climbs when there are 10 trucks to pass.

and to clarify, i don’t recall ever claiming that the unicycle trip
was fun… :)


An adventure indeed – but that’s what I’d expect from a loon who thinks a 2k mi. off-road unicycle trip is fun.

You are almost certainly experiencing oxygen starvation – or, rather, your
engine is. The carb is jetted for sea level or thereabouts and the stock
jetting usually work pretty well up to about 3k ft./1k m. elev. It’s the
main jet that is most in play at full throttle – and the stocker is
too much fuel for the available oxy at your higher elevations making the
engine run too rich – you will be fouling plugs soon if you haven’t
already. So lean out the pilot mixture – screw it out if the pilot screw
is upstream of the throttle slide and in if it is downstream – and lean out
the mid-range by lowering the needle. I can’t recall if your needle has the
grooves and a clip that makes it adjustable. If so, put the clip in the
highest groove – lowering the needle. If your needle is not adjustable
you will need a smaller needle jet. If you are having problems now at 3k m., it
will be undriveable at 5k. And even if/when you have the jetting sorted, the engine will be making significantly less power – less fuel/air = less power. Make sure your air filter is clean clean clean. If it is at all occluded,that will exacerbate the rich condition. Please do add me to the list if you are sending out periodic reports. You would barely recognize the shop these days – fully insulated, well- lit, two real table lifts, floor to ceiling shelving, three workbench spaces, organized and humming.


hey chris!
i hope you are doing great. i have cooked up quite the adventure. i bough a 2003 suzuki DR200 with 6000 miles on it in medellin, colombia. i am headed south fast to ushuaia, argentina, then back north slowly. now here’s my issue. when i am running between 50 and 60mph in 5th gear, i am getting some power loss. it is especially noticeable when i jam on the throttle to pass, climbing, or when a wind gust hits me. the bike ran great at about 1500m and now i am between 2 and 3000m going up to 5000m in peru, any suggestions? drill out the mixture screw, as it might be too lean? or could it be some other issue? just wonder your thoughts.


This is the best pay a man can have; A letter from a first-time rider’s parent.

Posted: November 23rd, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Random Things of Interest | 2 Comments »

Hi Chris,

I cannot thank you enough for befriending and guiding Loren. He sure is one happy kid. He had many twists and turns on his road to getting a motorcycle and proved his growing maturity through taking them all in stride. But just last weekend we had an argument for the first time in ages over his thinking he should get a 600, this led us to you, somehow (I happened on you when googling madly for motorcycle information, desperate to find something to dissuade him), and now, he has a great bike and a knowledgeable new friend to help him on his way. It is rather amazing how things turned around. Pretty cool. I am glad that you enjoyed the process as much as he did.

Perhaps we will meet someday when visiting Asheville . If you are ever in the Boston area, I would be grateful for the opportunity to cook you a nice meal. Thank you again.

Happy Thanksgiving!


A note to a young man in search of his first motorcycle.

Posted: November 20th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Random Things of Interest | No Comments »


You could have hit the jackpot on the first toss. And it’s a tasteful black and not some of the hey-look-at-me colors they have come in. I did a quick check and NADA avg. retail for an ‘06 Ninjette is – coincidence? – $2,100 – exactly what the seller is asking. The low 4k mi. and it’s alleged excellent mechanical and cosmetic condition make it an above-average bike. But note well that the seller solicits cash offers – always a good sign. And the NADA guides do not take into account the seasonal price cycle – highest on the first warm day of spring and lowest from now through Jan. or so. This seasonal effect is around 20-30%. This is very good for you.

I’d guess from my many years of reading ads that you could load this bike up and take it home for $1.8k – $1.9 for sure. Yes, he could get his $2.1k come spring – but not now. And any motorcycle’s sell-it-this-week-because-I-need-the-money value drops with every passing day for the next 2-3 months. Which means a first offer of $1.5k assuming my inspection confirms its alleged excellent condition. And it also means that if you are not in immediate need of wheels, you may well be able to do better after Thanksgiving when folks are scraping around for Christmas money.

A lot of this can change in the process of on-the-spot negotiations. I buy and sell bikes quite often and am both a student and fan of the process – it’s fun. It’s psycho-theater made up on the spot. Which is to say that a lot of my prior estimates of value and the outcome go out the window. The first thing to find out is whether the seller’s

relationship with the bike was positive or negative – or, rather, if it currently represents a positive or negative in his/her life. Negative and you go for the lowball. On the other hand, I’ve gone to see bikes that were so obviously right – so good in every way – and the seller knew that because he/she made/kept them that way – that to offer less would have been a boorish insult.

But back to the Ninjette. Get one of these jewels, learn to ride the wheels off it, and you will absolutely kill most every big-swinging-dick with a GSXR1000 or suchlike mega-bike when the road gets twisty. You’ve heard of Deal’s Gap aka the Dragon’s Tail? The unofficial record is held by an old guy on a hot-rod Ninja 250. Give the megas a straight bit and they’re by and gone, of course – 180 hp. vs. 30hp. – but it doesn’t take much skill to point it straight and screw it on. My opinion. They’ll stop calling it your “Barbie bike” after you one or two crash their bikes trying to keep you in sight in the mountains.

On a tactical note, you have both my permission and encouragement to forward this missive to your folks. Take my word for it, they will find it reassuring. Well, maybe not the part about going fast – but I did preface that stuff with something about really learning to ride your bike – which means reading/learning/practicing advanced riding skills every time you ride – I still do. When I’m out for a ride – not just running errands – every corner I have a plan – entry speed/turn-in point/line through the corner/exit-and-or transition to the next corner. As I execute that corner I am comparing how reality compares with my intentions. And on exit I am thinking about what I can do better next time. And these are corners I ride almost every day during the season. I still am learning them. Same corners, same bike – for five years and I’m still learning them both.

Please note that to be able to both ride my bike and think about riding my bike means I am not going as fast as I possibly can – not really close – because then I would not be able to think about what I was doing. I’d be re-acting – not acting. Hence my maxim; To go faster, you must slow down.” And it really works. Once I got that simple truth, I was soon sailing serenely through corners at speeds faster than I’d gone with white knuckles and very big eyes. With plenty of mind/control in hand to deal with whatever reasonably might occur.

So, riding a motorcycle well is a mindful practice – and this is true at any level of experience. But wait! What am I telling you this shit for? You are a mtn. bike racer and I’ve been trying to teach my granny to suck eggs – an expression that I never understood but I know what it means. On the other hand, perhaps your parents will be reassured by my advocacy of mindful practice and serene/sustainable speed.



Existential Motorcycles
Alexander, NC 28701

TEL: 828-683-9289


Posted: November 17th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Pix | No Comments »
Sir Robt. contemplating the ineffible future

Sir Robt. contemplating existential questions.

Scenes from a Renovation

Posted: November 17th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Around The Shop, Motorcycle Repair, Random Things of Interest | No Comments »

Most of the past month has been occupied with a major renovation and upgrade to the shop. Pretty much tore it out to the walls and put it all back with four years of experience informing the new ecology.

Is it terribly pretentious to speak of the ecology of a shop? Probably, but it’s my whimsy of the moment to do so.

My shop is a complex dynamic system – massively interconnected/interactive. Everything effects everything else – some interactions/relationships are insignificant, others focal. And these relationships change/evolve over time. After nearly four years, the fundamental structural relationships no longer supported the life of the shop but constrained it.

The fossil record shows that evolution has not been a smooth continuous process but what Stephan Jay Gould has called “punctuated equilibrium” – long periods of same-old same-old and then explosions of wild and crazy life forms – followed by a new period of quiescence.

So it goes with a shop – my shop anyway. Long periods of working within an established structure/conceptual order, adapting to/working around the accumulating inefficiencies/inconsistencies/incoherences. Until one day something happens – some small insignificant thing – and I say, enough. A small riot of creativity settles down into a new equilibrium – for a while.


A note on winter/long-term storage.

Posted: November 16th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Engine, Fuel & Air, Motorcycle Repair | No Comments »

Greetings fellow motorcycle owners,

Do the right thing for your two-wheeled companion – do a few simple and inexpensive things now so that your bike is ready to ride on the first great day of spring.

Or you could wait until that first warm day only to find that your battery is dead, the fuel in the tank gone bad, the carbs gummed up from sitting full of untreated fuel for months, the chain rusty and the sprockets shot – and every bike shop in the known world is booked for weeks out with work for other lazy-ass motorcycle abusers just like you. Is there really a choice?

So here’s what you do:

A. Take your bike to one of the several shops in the area for a winter-storage prep.
B. Do it yourself.

Either way, this is what should be done.

Have the following material ready to hand:

Oil and filter
Stabil brand fuel treatment
Cable lube
Chain lube
Fork oil
Cleaners and polish

1.) Ride your bike until you have to switch to Reserve.
2.) Add the specified amount of Stabil to your fuel tank for its capacity – directions on the back of the Stabil bottle
3.) Fill the tank to the brim and ride it for five miles or so – enough to ensure that the fuel in the carbs is treated fuel.
4.) Top up the tank.
5.) While the engine is still hot/warm from your ride, change the oil and filter.
Change transmission oil if separate from the engine oil – shaft-drive oil too if you have one.
6. Clean/lube/adjust the chain.
7.) Pinch the chain between your fingers at the 3 o’clock position on the rear sprocket.
If you can pull it more than 1/3 the way up off the tooth, the chain is stretched and will only trash your sprockets if they are still good – which they probably are not.
The teeth on the sprockets should be symmetrical – not worn more on one side than the other or hooked. The ends of the teeth should be squared off – not pointy.
You will need to remove the front/countershaft sprocket cover to examine the teeth.
Worn sprockets will trash a good chain and versa vice. Ideally, they are replaced as a complete set – chain and sprockets.
8.) Replace the chain and/or sprockets as necessary.
9.) Examine your brake pads/shoes – replace if worn.
10.) Replace brake fluid.
11.) Flush and change coolant – if your bike is a water-pumper.
12.) Drain and replace the hydraulic fluid in the front forks. Consult your manual for the right type and amount.
13. Replace the fork seals at the same time if there is any evidence of weepage.
14. Remove all the control cables. Using a pressure luber, run cleaner and then lube through them. Replace and adjust.
15.) Change/clean the air filter.
16.) Replace the tires if worn more than 1/2 way.
17. Remove the battery and marry it to a trickle/float charger someplace that does not freeze.
18. Clean and polish your bike. Clean/treat plastic/rubber with Armor-All.
19. Put it on its center-stand or some other stand – take the weight of the bike off the springs and the tires’ contact patches.
20. Cover it with a dust sheet if stored inside – the best cover you can afford if outside.
21. If the bike is to be stored outside or in an unheated garage/shed, spray the whole thing down with WD-40 or some such to prevent condensation corrosion.
In the spring, spray it down with a cycle cleaner like SS-100 and hose off.

Now for the pay-off.

On that first day of spring, install your battery, turn the key, and go riding.

This public service announcement is brought to you by Existential Motorcycles on behalf of all the WNC motorcycle shops.

Chris Finlayson
Existential Motorcycles
Alexander, NC 28701
TEL: 828-683-9289