First Bike

By Dave Murray

I was hangin' around Geoff's Bike shop, a couple weeks back, when they walked in; a father and his seventeen year old son. Funny, the father didn't look like a moron. The kid made a beeline for a barely used 800cc four cylinder ultra-Kamikaze. You know, the kind you ride with yer butt up in the air layin' flat on the tank. Those who know whereof they speak concede that bike to be good for about 140 MPH.

I should have gotten a clue by the way they walked right by one of Geoff's bikes (he's a Brit., they spell funny) without noticing it. It's a beautifully restored, and somewhat enhanced, Norton Commando. Most of us who have been around awhile regard that bike as a Holy Relic.

Anyway, the kid did "iwanit, iwanit, iwanit," and Dad starts to inquire about buying the bike for him. Geoff politely but firmly declined to sell it, explaining that he'd been to enough funerals. My already high respect for him soared. To have put a new seventeen-year-old, testosterone soaked rider on that bike would have been a criminal act. The father was very annoyed.

That kid might not have killed himself in the first week, as he would probably have scared himself into involuntary defecation the first time he twisted the throttle, but about six weeks later he would be an expert rider, ready to take on Mike Hailwood (I know, I'm dating myself.) He would have had a couple of beers, entered a sweeping curve at 100 or so, and gone off into the trees. After the funeral, his dad would sue the town for allowing the "killer turn" to exist.

I had a better "first bike," a Honda Super 90. Y'all can stop laughing any time now. It saved me from the stupid things I did in my first couple of riding years, frequently by simply not allowing me to go too fast to recover.

In 1964 I was a freshman at Rutgers, still seventeen, and buying a car was an impossible dream. My Dad, who remains the best man I ever knew, was a Marine Engineer. Mom was reading a letter from him postmarked Yokohama when she exclaimed "Oh no!"

I asked, and she said that Dad had bought me a MOTORCYCLE! It was pretty obvious that she didn't approve. (She still doesn't.) I tore the letter from her hands and read the line about three times: "a Honda Super 90"! Within ten minutes I had whined the car from her and was headed for the Honda dealer. It was beautiful. In fact, I still think it's a nice looking bike. I looked at the 305 Dream and the others but kept coming back to the S-90. Man, I drooled all over that bike. I grabbed the specs and memorized them. I spent more time at the dealer than at home or school, 'cause I want to tell you, it was a long six weeks until the ship was due back.

I couldn't go up to the port, as there wouldn't be enough room. As it was, Dad's luggage went on the roof rack, while the bike, sans bars and front wheel, went in the back of our family's Opel Kadett wagon. I was waiting outside. Had been since Mom left the house. When they pulled up, I'm afraid the bike got more attention than Dad did. He understood: it's a guy thing. I already had my permit.

We started putting it back together on the spot, with him telling me of the bikes he had known as a young man in Northern Ireland in the thirties, Broughs and Ariel "square fours" and the like. He was a mechanic, and got to drive and ride all the great cars and bikes of the time. He told me of the time he came into Newtonards in a Morgan three wheeler with an enormous JAP vee-twin on the dumb irons, pretty much at full chat in the rain, on cobblestones, when he hit a pile of horse manure and spun seven times down the high street without hitting anyone or anything. Sonovabitch! I had never considered that Dad had once been, well, cool. With his own hands he removed the exhaust baffle. I don't know why it had one in the first place. I noticed that it had nearly 200 miles on it. Did he get to ride it in Japan? No, he admitted, coming back across the Pacific, he and the rest of the crew had ridden it all over the decks of the ship, 200 miles worth! Well, it was broken in.

He handed me the key, and told me "I had two friends killed on motorcycles in the thirties. Always remember that you are going to be really close to the scene of the accident!" I was much older before I realized what an act of faith this was on his part.

I rode around our small town for a while, sorting out the controls. I had never been on a motorcycle before. When I could shift reasonably reliably, I went out into the Pine Barrens, found a long straight stretch, and opened it up. The acceleration felt like a rocket sled to someone with no standard of reference. I had asked the dealer about top speed, and he had eyeballed my 200 pounds and said, "Maybe 55." Well, 55 came and went and the needle was a good bit over 70 when it stopped climbing. I rode home grinning in the dark.

Dad cleared up that mystery that evening. The ship called in Japan twice, outbound and inbound. He had gone to the factory, which was little beyond the "Mama-San and Papa-San" stage at that point, and arranged to pick it up on his return in a couple of weeks. Dad could get along with anyone, you get that way when you live in a tin box with 25 other people for months at a time, and he went back to talk to the guys with greasy knuckles. He told them that the bike was for his son (in God knows what language), and was friends with all by the time he left. On his return, they proudly showed him the bike. They had used stock parts, but they had carefully selected them, balanced them, then ported and polished the head. It had no tach, but I know that bike would turn over ten grand. It would hit F sharp over high C.

It had a cyclic gearbox, where if you up-shifted in fourth, you got neutral. This was a potential deathtrap, as at speed, if you overshot and hit first, it locked the rear wheel while over-revving the motor. Still, it was nice not having to shift all the way down at every light. The cable brakes sucked, but at that time they all did and we knew no better. After about three hard stops from 60 MPH you had no brakes. You had to pull over to let them cool. That little S-90 handled like a dream; I dragged the pegs many times.

I rode everywhere for the next two years, rain or shine, solo and with a pretty girl named Cyndee on the back. This was miniskirt time, and she had legs that went on forever. Twenty years later, I had the brains to marry her. The Honda 50 was all over campus, so I was riding "big iron." I learned that you can get some heat in winter by tailgating a Jersey Transit bus. Yeah, I learned about motorcycles from that S-90, and nothing she taught me has proven false. If memory serves, she cost $315.00.

I joined the Army, my brother got the bike, and eventually I arrived in Vietnam. My old friend the Honda 90 was there, frequently seen carrying a family of four! Pop driving, #1 son on the tank, Mom sidesaddle on pillion, her Ao Dai (one of the most beautiful of feminine garments) blowing in the wind, baby-san in her lap. Honda 90's are long gone here, but I'll bet they're still running over there.

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Dave Murray. All rights reserved.