In the summer of 2007 I was motivated to pursue my first motorcycle, a 1979 Honda Hawk CB400, alongside many of my friends. In Vancouver there had been a surge of interest in restoring old Hondas, modeling them into cafe racers, and a group of us girls were not going to be left behind. Canadian Biker featured an article about this phenomena in August 2009 called “The New Rebels,” describing the scene and the curious individuals in our city leading the trend. In a half-hearted way, four of us girls even formed a motorcycle club called the Majestic Unicorn MC, hand-stitching intimidating purple unicorns into patches for our jean jackets. We definitely caused a few heads to turn, ripping along the highways with skateboards secured by bungy-cords to our beat-up motorbikes, or “East Van Rat Bikes” as they are also referred to. This first bike was appropriately called “Tony,” in reference to pro skater Tony Hawk, since the model was a Honda Hawk. As much fun as the old Honda was, I dreamed of acquiring a classic British bike, particularly the Triumph Bonneville, and learning more about motorcycle repair.
The members of the Majestic Unicorn MC evolved, as one girl had a child, and two others moved overseas to pursue studies and charitable work with youth in Afghanistan. Fortunately, I had made some new connections with like-minded young women, and ended up going in on a communal garage with six other motorbike enthusiasts. Our initial goal was to restore old dirtbikes and have some fun out in the Richmond dunes. We started to call ourselves “Dirtymoto,” and were even featured recently in a local ‘zine called Motorcycho. The group meets officially every month to discuss our rental dues, plan parties in the alley by our space, and strategize around how to fix up our collection of five dirtbikes. During the week there is usually someone at the garage puttering away, enjoying a beer, and the highs and lows of motorcycle maintenance.
Initially, I wasn’t clear how I would benefit from having membership in a garage, since I had a regular routine to keep my old Honda a solid, reliable beast. I was used to doing my oil changes and trouble-shooting right outside on the street, although the constant banter from passersby, simply stunned to see me wrenching away, started to grate on the nerves. And then I made the mistake of scrolling through the Craigslist motorcycle listings one fateful afternoon. To be honest, I had been looking for a Triumph on and off for a few years and occasionally a deal would pop up south of the border, but I didn’t have the means or a truck to go track it down. In October 2012, a 1976 Triumph Bonneville T140v appeared, and not only was it reasonably priced at $2500, it was also located just east of the city near New Westminster. The bike seemed to be pristine! I could not believe my luck.
So, I picked up the phone and dialed the digits. A cheerful woman’s voice answered, and then the woman’s husband was beckoned to speak with me. He said “Hello,” in an expectant, encouraging way. But when I replied, I could audibly distinguish his dismay and impatience in his voice. This old timer was just not going to give this young lady a chance. He started rattling off all kinds of rebuilds and work the bike needed. He even mentioned that he wouldn’t sell the bike to just anybody. In fact, I got the sense that he did not want to sell it at all! The conversation ended abruptly, and no visit was arranged. I was really disheartened and confused. I was genuinely interested in the motorcycle, and had actually accomplished quite a few mechanical feats with my previous bike. And yet, I knew I would not be able to convince the seller how motivated I was. A certain prejudice blocked my path.
I let a week pass and the advertisement remained mysteriously online. I happened to be visiting my friend Michelle, who manages a local skateboard shop called AntiSocial. Michelle has had a fair share of beater Hondas, and many mechanical adventures, so we were talking about this bike when in walks Dean. It’s sometimes hard to determine what kind of foul mood Dean will be in, but underneath the gruff exterior is a dear old soul. I knew he would be my ideal advocate. I told Dean about the Triumph, and he was well aware of the advertisement, being a mad hunter of online motorcycle deals, with an impressive collection of vintage bikes in his garage. Dean proclaimed that there was no way the Triumph would still be available, but strangely enough, it was still listed. With a little coercion from Michelle, I asked Dean if he would call the seller. And it was magical! The two guys bonded like a long-lost father and son reuniting after years of separation, practically finishing each other’s sentences in a kind of bizarre mating ritual between the motorbike obsessed. After a half-an-hour conversation Dean flips his phone shut. He turns to me, “Yeah, it’s still available. If you don’t buy it, I will.” Dean begins to head to the back parking-lot to start his day, when I get a boost of adrenhaline and confidence. It’s now or never! I then ask Dean if he wants to go look at a bike, and it just so happens he has a truck, tie-downs, ramp, and a day off work!
The weather turns nasty, with hail and rain dumping down in typical Vancouver fashion. Our progress is made slow by construction, but we finally arrive at our destination. The seller acknowledges Dean with a knowing nod and leads him to the backyard. I follow a few paces behind. We turn the corner and discover the Triumph posing under the verandah. It was a thing of beauty, spotless and gleaming! The man had kept the bike in a heated garage, tweaking and fixing it, and the bike would kick over first try! Sadly, the old timer never rode the bike. It had last been insured in July 1983, which meant that it was sitting for 30 years. It sounded like the guy had ridden motorbikes in his youth, and didn’t realize that the new regulations required him to get a specific motorcycle license. He simply didn’t have the energy to pursue it and now it was time to let the bike go. A few other interested buyers had come by, but they did not meet the right standards of appreciation or knowledge, and were denied access! Thank goodness Dean talked the talk, and could reassure the man that the bike would be cherished.
The main challenges were that the hydraulic disc brakes were in pieces in milk crates, the master cylinders would need to be rebuilt since they were leaking, the rear spokes were busted, and the “tyres” were cracked. I was intimidated to say the least. My old Honda had drum brakes, which I had replaced on one occasion, but this situation was a whole other matter. Fortunately, Dean encouraged me to go for it, and I am so relieved that I did. The deal went through at $2100, with new tires and rims thrown into the mix, alongside two crates of parts and meticulous notes. The best part of the day was when the gentleman realized that I was the one forking out the cash. It was like a light came on, and he was seeing me for the first time! The man asks, “You ride motorcycles?” I was about to snidely reply, “Yep, and I’m riding yours!” but I humbly acknowledged that I was the girl who had called him before. He seemed to soften a bit towards me, especially when I complimented his cedar strip canoe in the back lot, since my dad also built canoes. I actually think he really enjoyed our hour together, sharing his passion for Triumphs to eager ears, and when we left there were even tears welling up in his eyes. It was heart-breaking.
We loaded the bike, and the old man exclaims to Dean and I, with his two fists clenched in the air, “Ride! Just ride!” I look at Dean, and his eyes are watering as well! I thought to myself how odd these burly dudes can be, and the strange moments that will stir their hearts. These two were cut from the same cloth, and could relate to the bittersweet emotions that come with saying goodbye to an old “friend.” We transported the bike to his new home and for the next six months I spent the winter in the chilly Dirtymoto garage making slow but steady progress. I called upon friends like Tyler Lepore, a custom motorcycle builder who was included in the “Born Free 4” event in 2012, to re-build and tune-up the rear wheel. As well, I messaged Keddie Brown, a member of the Night Fighters Motorcycle Club with a passion for old bikes and loads of patience! He got me through the process of re-building the rear master cylinder. The biggest challenge was actually re-installing the master cylinder, connecting the spring, and attaching it to the frame and rear tire by myself, since I had limited information, not having disassembled the pieces in the first place. Miraculously, it all came together in time for the 2013 season with the brake fluid staying where it was supposed to.
Naturally, the Triumph continues to present a whole new bag of tricks and challenges as the season rolls along. I discovered that both fuel taps were “reserve” style, draining the tank, leaving me stranded on the road on one occasion, and gas dribbled constantly from the face of the petcocks. I quickly replaced them, imagining my horror if someone accidentally had a smoke break remotely near the bike! I was told to expect that the Triumph would leak oil, but this thing pours it out like the Exxon Valdez, so I’ve been tracking down O-rings and new gaskets. I was also misinformed about the position of the choke lever, and kept wondering why the bike crapped out at 60 mph! It was a delight to discover that mistake, and how the lever was reversed, so that the slides were simply blocking access to the carbs.
As a result of owning a Triumph, I’ve cultivated several new friendsships, including a VW mechanic and a few elderly British chaps, who are full of encouragement, at a local motorcycle gathering. Every month, “The Mansters” (a crew of laid back, pipe-smoking, men and women riders) meet at a local Tim Hortons to shoot the breeze and talk bikes. They call the events “The 18%er Monthly Moto Meets,” in homage to the 18% milk used in Tim Hortons coffees! I got the nerve to roll into the parking-lot in a cloud of burning oil, and was immediately swarmed. My initial reaction was to be defensive towards everyone’s banter, assuming that I was being criticized, even though the bike had just come out of 30 years worth of hiding and was clearing its system! But as I listened and got to know the fellow bikers’ names and mannerisms, I became more open to their advice and realized I was not being rejected, but welcomed.
I’m hoping to go on my first roadtrip with the Triumph in August, without leaving a trail of condemning oil behind me (maybe a dribble), as well as a variety of show ‘n’ shines on the west coast. I feel fortunate to have a community of men and women, young and old, to advise me in the process and enjoy the freedom and adventures that motorcycles provide. It is inevitable that more random stories, some good and some bad will emerge from this experience. I’ve already had a run-in with two European men at a motorcycle barbeque who refused to believe that I owned the Triumph and accused me of lying to them, convinced that the real owner was the young man standing beside me! I quickly clarified the situation with a solid kickstart, and a prompt departure. Hopefully, the positive interactions will outshine the discouraging ones and the choice of pursuing this temperamental beast will prove to be a “triumph.” I’ve now dubbed him Jimmy because I’ve received the most help from a Jim and a Dean, which equals James Dean, and I faintly recall that my first documented kiss was with the neighbour boy Jimmy at an early birthday party. This will be a different kind of romance, but am confident it will lead to new adventures.
by Natalie Porter 2013