This article was originally published in Cycle World.
Triumph of the Spirit
One Man’s Attempt at Salvation Through Metal and Chrome
Santa Cruz, California, 1969. A young man, clad only in jeans and a white T -shirt, wanders into the local Triumph motorcycle dealer with a slight swagger. Earlier that day, a beautiful, two-tone Triumph Bonneville 650 had passed him on the street. The rumble was visceral; he felt it through his feet, and it went from there directly to his cerebral cortex. The impulse was carrying him now—propelling him forward.
He had been working steadily these past months, at a paltry job, and had managed to put a little something aside. In that moment, the wad of cash in his pocket acquired a destiny. But it was not college, as his parents had hoped. College and all that came with it—a job, responsibilities, a family—could wait. The Triumph was now.
He could not banish the thought that, at that moment, young men were dying at an alarming rate, in an obscure jungle, for a cause they didn’t understand. Vietnam. The young man had registered for the draft just the previous week. It dawned on him that he might never make it to college. So for the moment at least, he was going to alter his destiny with a British vertical twin motor and a double yellow line. This would be his way of setting himself apart from every other geek in penny loafers. It would be his Triumph,literally and figuratively.
These thoughts formed a sort of reckless collision in his mind. Everything he was about to do was at once irrational and utterly sensible. For all these reasons, and a host of others he could not name, he needed that bike.
Unbeknownst to the young man, the dealer had already performed a similar rite of passage for 10 other boys that week, all of them seeking to change their fate amidst the thunder of a British twin. Motorcycles, after all, can have that power.
The dealer took the cash, never once looking the boy in the eye.
That red, 1969 Triumph—serial number CC 13172—is the same one that now sits in my garage, some 35 years later. Though it cost just $1,299 new in 1969, I bought it for $2,500, because it is now deemed “collectible.” As I inspect the bike, time’s ravages are apparent. The finish is chipped (the bike was painted black somewhere along the way), and tatty looking wires dangle from beneath the seat. There is a big dent in the oil tank, as if the bike had been kicked with a heavy work boot. Every bolt shows a fine patina of rust.
But every motorcyclist knows that a bike has a soul that is unalterable by time or nature. When I look at my newly acquired old Triumph, I sense this. Moreover, I am counting on it.
Like that young man in 1969, I hope to summon the power of a motorcycle to alter the fate of men who are growing old too quickly and are saddled with uncertain futures. My aim is to restore the Triumph to its former glory. In this way, I will be battling 30 years of entropy—my own, and the Triumph’ s. Before long, this project will take on new, unexpected dimensions, carrying me through the death of my father, a layoff from my company of 10 years, and other events demanding mechanical and emotional repair.
I realize that we are alike, that Triumph and I. We both contain something vital—if only it can be uncovered and given a new luster. This will take some labor. My hope is the same as that young man’s: To achieve a sort of salvation in metal and chrome—a Triumph, in every sense.
Over the next five months, every nut, bolt, and washer will pass through my hands—more than 500 hours of hand labor. Done right, it will be my ultimate Triumph.
All along, I knew I wanted to restore a Triumph twin: the machine I lusted after in my teens. But I also knew that finding one would not be easy. After all, as with any collectible, only a finite number exist, as the remaining ones are acquired, crashed and destroyed, or returned to nature, corroding in a field somewhere, forgotten. I scour the papers, the Internet, and the local shops, following leads wherever I find them. These bikes are generally one extreme or the other: bastardized and beyond hope, or hopelessly overpriced.
One day, as I inquire at the parts counter of a local shop, a guy standing next to me says perfunctorily, “I have a ‘69 I’d like to sell.” I turn to see a slightly graying man with a goatee and the hardened look of a longtime rider. This is Doug, a kind and somewhat tragic loner who will become a fixture in my life during the next year.
We arrange to meet. I pull up a dirt drive in the mountains on my gleaming, modern BMW motorcycle, and find a slightly ramshackle house in the redwoods. The grounds are a memorial to the British motorcycle industry. In the drive is his own Triumph Bonneville (bought new in 1969), and the TR6 that he is willing to sell. (A TR6 is exactly the same as a Bonnie, but with one carburetor instead of two. While some feel a TR6 lacks the panache of a Bonnie, there are others who prefer it for its mechanical simplicity.) In the shadowy recesses of the garage, I spy the hulks of five or six more bikes, at once recognizing the svelte presence of a dirt-worthy Triumph Cub, and a mammoth’ 52 hardtail with a sprung saddle. In the garage are posters, old motorcycle magazines wrapped in plastic—and most amazingly—floor-to-ceiling shelving with the cadavers of no fewer than eight British parallel twins, stacked like cordwood. I have found a Triumph enthusiast’s Mother Lode.
Doug is passionate about all things Triumph, and it makes me feel good to have connected with an aficionado. Yet, I have some vague sense that this transaction runs deeper than money. “To tell the truth, I’d rather not sell it,” he opines, with his head down. He then launches into the debacle that is his life: lost job, divorce, and the loneliness of living way back in the woods with only a motorcycle shop worth of Triumphs for companionship. He is selling the bike under duress.
Talk of motorcycles clearly assuages the pain of all this, and Doug, beer in hand, starts gushing with the enthusiasm of a lifelong Triumph devotee. He speaks in the effusive, non-stop manner of one who is consumed by a thing. He lives alone in the hills. His new job is on the block. But amidst these vagaries, there are Triumphs. Down in the bowels of these machines, even amidst the rattlIng pistons and fickle electronics, is a strange kind of security. Life may be beyond analysis and reason, but things make sense in a rocker box.
“Can I ride it?” I ask. “Sure,” says Doug, in a way that makes me realize we are already at ease with each other. I strain to remember the arcane Triumph starting ritual, a precise sequence that is the secret handshake of Brit-bike owners everywhere. I swing a leg over and “tickle” the carburetor, causing gasoline to run down the back of the hand. I finger the choke lever, pull in the clutch, and kick it over a few times to free the clutch plates and prime the motor. Then I turn on the ignition, noting the faintest movement in the ammeter—the patient showing a sign of life. One more kick, and the TR6 comes gloriously to life. Then I shift into gear, and am underway.
I twist the grip, and find the Triumph is surprisingly willing. I lean into a curve on the aging, wax-hard Avon tires, and accelerate out with surprising alacrity, eliciting a broad grin. And oh that sound. While I love my modern, whisper-quiet BMW, I also harbor the base desire to rattle a few windows. The Triumph fills this need nicely.
When I turn back into the driveway, Doug is there, beer in hand, wearing a big grin. He knew it would be so, because he’s been there himself—the well-feathered edges of those old Avons are evidence of that. Old motorcycles bring a peculiar pleasure that registers deep in the soul. Clearly, I must have this bike, and Doug knows it. He’s got the disease, too.
Doug proffers a deal: If I pay full asking price, he will be my consultant and mechanical tutor for the duration of the project. My first instinct, of course, is to haggle. But for some inexplicable reason, I trust this guy. And I also have a sense that I will need all the help I can get with this project. I decide to invest in this machine, in Doug, and perhaps in the inherent goodness of people to do as they say. It is not the first time this project will require such a leap of faith. With this decision, it seems like a little bit of my own restoration has begun.
On a sunny Saturday, I withdraw a fistful of cash from the bank and catch a ride up to Doug’s Triumph boneyard in the mountains above Santa Cruz. I fire up the bike without incident, and ride tentatively home on expired tags, trying to be conscious of every shift. (The bike shifts on the right, instead of the left, as with my BMW. This leads to a few spastic moments as I stab the rear brake when actually intending to shift, the bike lurching and grinding forward.) Riding home down the familiar Route 9, a famous local motorcycle road, is like time travel. Of course, I stall four times, in full view of 10 motorists. “Poor guy,” they must think. “He can’t afford a modern bike.” I am happy to encourage the illusion.
Despite all this, the TR6 sounds positively symphonic, all its internal parts operating in a precise ballet of din and confusion. I am irrepressibly happy.
As I take the first steps on the long road toward restoration, one thought hangs over me like a dark cloud: my mechanical inexperience. After all, I have not worked on a motor since I was a teenager. The Greeks call this hubris, and I realize I am flush with a sort of mechanical hubris. What makes me think I can do this?
My last attempt was ill fated. In the mid ’70s, while working part time in a service station, starved for cash and transportation, I bought a Triumph Bonneville chopper from a mechanic working there at the time, for $300. It had flames painted on the tank, which was entirely appropriate, since it also spit flames out the exhaust. After months of work, it functioned only slightly better than when I got it. Surely I can do better this time. Or can I?
Time to find out. If am to work on this bike at all, I will need Whitworth tools, the special size that is unique to old British mechanical things. Whitworth threading was created for locomotives of the 19th century. As the popularity of Whitworth faded in the ‘60s, Triumph began adding American and metric bolts into the mix. Thus, choosing a wrench to fit any bolt or nut on a late ‘60s Brit bike is an ongoing mystery, mastered only through trial and error, or perhaps by consulting a ouija board or burning incense. This, as any Brit bike enthusiast will tell you, is part of the enigmatic “character” of these machines. Besides being necessary for working on the bike, owning a set of Whitworth wrenches is a sort of rite of passage for British bike owners. If you are daft enough to buy expensive tools that have no other purpose than to work on oily, 30-year-old British motorcycles, you’re in the club.
Of course, I want to be in the club—a certifiable Triumph nutcase. So I go to the local dealer and plop down $80 for a set of beautiful, British box wrenches. It’s my first accessory purchase for the bike, and it reminds me of a fact I knew only too well from my earlier restoration: A vintage motorcycle is a conveyance into which one pours money. In the following months, my Visa card will get unprecedented use in the name of the “Trumpet.”
I am reluctant to begin a complete teardown. Instead, I opt to refurbish small, manageable pieces of the bike and keep it road-worthy in the interim. After all, I want to ride this bit of history.
Today I spent four hours working on the four inches of the left hand grip area. I removed the old, rusted horn button. I disattached, cleaned, and lubed the clutch lever and its parts. I installed the new horn button I bought, only to discover a pre-existing horn button had been sitting on the handlebar the whole time. (It was integral with the high-beam switch, and I just didn’t see it.) I cleaned that section of the bar, the cable clip, and attempted to “bring up” the mirror, before finally declaring it a candidate for the trash. (Made in China, anyway.)
So now I am extrapolating. If a tiny, four-inch area took this long to refurbish, I figure I only have about 10,000 hours to go. Good thing I am enjoying myself
Next, I decide to tackle the rear wheel. I remove it, pack the wheel bearings, inspect the brake pads, lube the cams, replace a broken spoke, replace the tire, repaint the drum, and polish every bit of metal that is visible. At the same time, I replace the blown rear shocks with look-alike modern equivalents. (I am careful to store away the original Girlings—they have value, even if they don’t work worth a damn.) Then I reassemble the whole thing and go for a ride—just to prove I could do it.
It goes beautifully. To be sure, this rear wheel project is miniscule compared to what lay ahead, but it’s a milestone, nonetheless. It makes me think that I can still spin a wrench, even after a pencil-pushing interlude of some 20 years. It’s a kind of symbolic victory—and with it comes the confidence to move on.
With the Triumph back on its feet, I take it for a ride, the refurbished rear wheel glistening in the sunlight. Once again, I am struck by how spirited this bike is. The feeling is partly derived from the visceral quality of the Triumph, but it is also a feature of motorcycling in general. It’s a sport that induces a different state of consciousness, known to every practitioner but never given a name. I call it being “hyperaware.” When riding the Triumph on a mountain road, my sensory inputs are wide open—I feel every power pulse, every irregularity in the pavement. I scan ahead, to the next curve, and in the mirror, to the curve behind. Two fingers lay gently on the brake, the other hand on the clutch. Amidst it all is a constant monitoring of the engine and the myriad noises coming from it—a kind psychological tachometer. Meanwhile, the smells of the country are wafting through the opening in my helmet. I’m noting the mottled shadows cast across the road, the colors of the changing landscape. I’m wide open, and what’s coming at me feels good, going straight to my pleasure center.
I fired up the Triumph today to run an errand…and it nearly let me down. Suddenly, at a light, the rpms rose inexplicably, the engine coughed once, and…silence.
Dejectedly, I resign myself to the task of pulling the plugs, checking the wiring, and embarking on the usual mechanical detective mission. Just then, as if on cue, an aging California hippie, long beard flowing, ambles over and begins relating the usual story of bygone British bikes, snuffed out in a fusillade of 21st Century obligations: family, work, lack of funds. I listen for a while, then almost in passing he says: “By the way, did you know your choke was closed?” I quickly glance at the handlebar-mounted lever—he’s right! Could I have hit it with my thumb? Could this be the sole source of my mechanical misfortune? Could I be that dumb?
“You know,” he says, “Those will vibrate shut if you don’t torque down that top screw.” I open the choke, give the motor a hefty kick, and it roars to life. I feel stupid, but I am also thankful to have been inducted into this secret society, in which I am entitled to help from people I don’t even know. Triumph owners.
I am thinking about that young man in 1969, his throttle hand itching. He is helmetless, wearing a well-worn leather jacket. With each ride he ventures farther up the face of the Smith’s speedometer: 60, 70, 80 mph. Death could be there, in the shadows. He knows that. But death is everywhere for young, healthy men in 1969. So what does it matter?
The young man’s Triumph afforded small moments of pleasure—brisk acceleration out of a sweeping curve on a fall day; the overarching pride of escorting a helmetless young female passenger to the beach. In other ways, the motorcycle was not all he hoped it would be. Fickle to a fault, the bike left him stranded by the roadside on more than one occasion. And he lost more than a little skin, a result of some gravel in the corner, or the inevitable tag game with an automobile.
In the same way, my Triumph—once his Triumph—can never be all I hope it will be. The hope itself ensures this outcome. A Triumph can only be what it is—fickle, ephemeral, a thing and a moment in time all at once. Gone like the tread on a rear tire under a heavy throttle hand.
My own Triumph will be gone in time, too. But right now there is the visceral throbbing of those two cylinders, the snick, snick, of the four-speed gearbox, and the moment. And that is enough.
I am discovering that it takes a village to restore a motorcycle. I have assembled a menagerie of help for this project. There is Ian, a disheveled Brit with a dry sense of humor who does my metal polishing and bead blasting. There is Danny, a custom car guy who I’ve hired to paint the tank, sidepanels, mudguards, fork lowers, and headlight ears. I also have a powder coater for the frame and associated bits. Sundry advice comes from friends, local mechanics, anyone who is willing. Their names have become as familiar to my family as those of our neighbors. They are “my boys.”
In this way, a restoration project is the supreme juggling act. At most times I have four vendors working in concert, like a sort of symphony. And, like a symphony, they will all come together in a grand crescendo to create the finished Triumph—or so I hope.
And of course, there is Doug, who is my guiding light for the motor, with its dark recesses and British quirkiness. Together, we develop a master plan. I’ll pull out the engine, bring it to him at his home in the redwoods, and we’ll spend consecutive weekends re-doing the top end and whatever else needs looking after. During the first weekend, I’ll make a list of parts, take away the cylinder heads and rocker boxes for bead blasting, and come back with an armload of parts for another Sunday or two worth of work. It will proceed in this stepwise fashion until the motor is done, at which time Doug has agreed to drop it off at my home for final installation in the freshly painted frame.
As I survey the carnage that is my workshop, that day seems a long way off.
It’s not just the physical restoration process that takes time; it is the gradual accumulation of knowledge. I know a lot more about the Triumph than I did six months ago, but I do not exist in the same universe as Doug. I may have graduated from college, but in the domain of Triumphs, he has achieved a doctorate. He knows, for instance, that you must always be conscious of the fact that the electrical system has a positive ground to avoid pyrotechnics in the region under the seat. He knows that non-stock 1 ¾-inch header pipes will produce more low-end power, at the expense of high-end punch. He knows that Triumphs last had metal shrouds over the rear shock absorbers in 1968, and that 1969 front brakes were the best ever offered. Such knowledge, more than new parts and fresh paint, is what makes a restoration.
The pursuit of this arcane knowledge is starting to captivate me, and I can understand its allure. At night I find myself reading the Triumph parts book—for fun. The following passage, from a 30-year-old shop manual, fascinates me like the climax of a good novel:
The engine is of unit construction having two aluminium alloy mating crankcase halves, the gearbox housing being an integral part of the right half crankcase and the primary chain case an integral part of the left half-crankcase. The aluminium alloy cylinder head has cast in Austenitic valve seat inserts, and houses the overhead valves, which are operated by rocker arms housed in detachable alloy rocker boxes….
And so on, for page after page. I must have fallen under the spell of this project, for I can read things like this in a state of transfixed attention. My wife happens to look over my shoulder, and confirms that I seem to have gone quietly insane, claiming that reading a shop manual for entertainment is tantamount to reading the phone book.
So be it—it is a sign of my newfound madness. The right madness.
One evening I go out to the garage, and realize that there is nothing here you could call a motorcycle. The engine is at Doug’s, in the redwoods. The tank and mudguards are at Danny’s; the frame and miscellaneous bits are at the powder coater. In my garage are 50 or so Zip-Lock bags containing a jumble of parts and ID tags, with explicit instructions (written by me, to myself) for reassembly. It looks like the remnants of a prehistoric archaeological dig, and is just as daunting. I can only wonder: will it ever come back together again?
It’s so tempting to take the motor to Raber’s, my local Triumph shop and reliable parts source. I could just drop it off one day, and pick it up six weeks later in a pristine state of tune. How sweet! I could bring home the fresh motor, drop it in the frame, and it would be a one-kick affair. Vroom.
But for reasons I won’t ever know, I must do this myself. Maybe I want to know—just for the sake of knowing—that I have been in the deepest bowels of the machine, and emerged with nothing more than the knowledge it has been done. I decide to press on and do it myself—the hard way.
Why a Triumph? They are remarkably crude machines, especially when compared to their Japanese contemporaries. Designed by the famous and iconoclastic Edward Turner, Triumph two-cylinder motorcycles achieved great success in the first half of the 20th century, and flourished in the American market until the late ‘60s, at which time they were supplanted—and eventually bankrupted—by the big Japanese brands. (The intransigent British labor movement hastened the decline, with a 18-month factory sit-in in 1974.)
Triumphs are famous for speed—but also for leaking oil and fickle electrics. Stories are legion of parts vibrating free and dropping off while in motion, or lights flickering and dying on a cold, windy night. (All the wiring and lighting were made by a company called Lucas, derisively referred to as, “Lucas: the Prince of Darkness.”) Even new Triumphs on the showroom floor suffered the ignominy of having to spread newspaper underneath to catch the weeping oil from the crankcase.
But for a while, especially in America in the ‘60s, Triumph was king. What they lacked in sophistication, they made up in speed, a great exhaust note, and a svelte, wasp-like appearance. Triumph owners of the day included Elvis, Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen, Buddy Holly, and James Dean.
Not that I place myself in that company, but now I had mine, too.
I am beginning to enjoy my weekends with Doug at his place in the redwoods. By default, I have become responsible for lunch, and beer, which we consume with blackened hands amidst the wreckage, the dirt, and the cadavers of a dozen old Triumphs in his beautiful boneyard.
During my first visit, I assure Doug that I am doing this for pleasure, and won’t put undue pressure on him in this stressful time of life. I am rebuilding a motorcycle, and maybe something more. He is rebuilding a life, and just coincidentally, a motorcycle.
We’re from different universes, Doug and I. I work in an office, and he is a machinist. I have a family, and he lives alone, in the woods. But we find a common ground in motorcycles—in Triumphs of all kinds.
Each day, my goal is to inch something forward. Today I call the painter, photocopy the parts book, and pick up metal polishing equipment at the hardware store—all in spare minutes at lunch or after work. The project creeps forward, slowly, and my hope is that someday, it will reach a grand crescendo: a motorcycle. Either that, or I will sell the whole thing in a half dozen milk crates, defeated by archaic British engineering. The thought of such a defeat at the hands of British engineers makes me shudder. There, over my miserable grave, stands Edward Turner, with Lucas, the Prince of Darkness, smirking in the shadows.
The front wheel is one of many conundrums on this project. It’s perfectly functional—it spins true, is well lubricated, the chrome rim is intact, the spokes are great, and it spins like a top. In short, it’s in perfect condition…except for the hub. Thirty years of entropy have taken hold, and this center portion of the wheel is rusted and chipped.
Herein lies the restorer’s dilemma: Should you leave something intact that is perfectly functional and original, or give in to the urge toward perfection, tear the thing down, and “improve” it—in most instances making it better than it was when new?
The British have a word for sloppy handwork—they call it bodge. And as far as I’m concerned, dammit, the hand of bodge will not touch this bike.
In the end, I do the predictable thing, for I am not yet inclined to compromise. With an air of inevitability, I begin unlacing the spokes from the hub. Eventually, I will tear down the motorcycle to the last bolt and washer. So be it. There is only one path forward, and it is not going to be the easy one.
After all, I’m not going anywhere with this. The assembly, the process, is the goal. How can it be possible to cut corners, when there is no real destination? You can’t quicken the journey to the spot you’re in.
I have learned that there is something in the soul of a British twin that brings out the curmudgeon in people. This may in fact be elicited by prolonged exposure to Lucas electrics, oil leaks, or spontaneous explosions from sprung hubs. Doug can be this way, occasionally snapping and grumbling at my pickiness over such things as paint colors and aesthetics, none of which are priorities for him. His Triumphs are ragged looking, but they run great.
I remember, when I was growing up, the owner of the local Triumph shop in my hometown was a pit bull of a man. I can just see him, cigar in the corner of his mouth, leaning over the counter, looking me in the eye, and saying, “What do you want?” I spent hundreds of dollars there—big coin in those days—but it would curry no favor with the old man. He had the evil soul of a Triumph dealer, which is perhaps reflective of the long and painful demise of the brand. In the end, they all had to sell out to the Japanese brands, or shutter their shops in defeat.
There is even a dealer in Oakland who proudly goes by “Mean Marshall.” I hear the name is well deserved, though I have not met him.
This time around it is no different. The local Triumph dealer, if not outwardly hostile, is at least unhelpful. Fortunately, Doug has lots of NOS (New Old Stock) parts in boxes, and other parts are available at Raber’s, the shop over the hill.
I’m picking up help wherever I can, and it’s working. The pile of reconditioned parts in Zip Lock bags is now nearly equal in size to the pile of parts that are yet to be done. I can see this with a quick scan each time I go into the garage.
It’s Sisyphean work, moving parts from one pile to the other, but I like it. Visible progress.
Another day spent working at Doug’s. I take up an armload of new and reconditioned parts, and we install pistons, barrels, primary case, and gearbox—freshly painted, and with new, stainless allen bolts to replace the tatty Phillips screws. (Some would say this is a travesty, substituting modern parts for quirky old ones, but I like how they look.)
As I survey the wreckage that was once my bike, I realize that this whole project is turning out better than I ever expected. Without meaning to, I have become obsessive about small details and correctness: Was that fender mounting bolt inserted with its head in, or its head facing out? Was there a chrome stripe that ran the length of the gas tank? Which direction does the horn face, to port or starboard? I scour my collection of Triumph books for the answers. I look at the photos I took during disassembly. It all has to fit together—just right.
The wiring harness—a serpentine mass that looks like an artifact recently pulled from the Titanic—has been on ongoing source of dread. Do I laboriously recondition it, or throw out the entire thing and buy the $99 Taiwanese-made replacement? Surely, this is heresy. But in this instance, having sound electrics is more important than correctness—with apologies to Lucas, the Prince of Darkness. After all, I want to ride this bike.
In the end, installation of the harness turns out to be relatively straightforward—a big color-matching game. The white/brown wire attaches to the white/brown in the headlamp receptacle, the green/blue attaches to the green/blue in the tailight, and so on. I am through it in about a week, which, in the universe of the Triumph, is the speed of light.
I am beginning to blush with confidence about this project. The paint and powder coating are done, and the motor nearly so. Everything is reaching some kind of grand crescendo, as I had hoped.
Feeling in a celebratory mood, I take my family out for Mexican food. Upon returning home, the message light is flashing. It’s my brother-in-law. The message says, succinctly, that my father—a lifelong fitness enthusiast and tennis player—keeled over and died of a heart attack at age 76.
My father was a surprisingly willing participant in my motorcycle transformation. In 1972, in defiance of reason, propriety, and my mother, he allowed me to purchase a minibike, the type with a wheezing Briggs & Stratton engine and perennially slipping centrifugal clutch. I can still feel the finned grips beneath my fingers, the anticipatory thrill of twisting the right hand grip, and of course the utter lack of appreciable response from the engine.
The little bike produced an inimitable slide toward bigger and bigger machines. In the next few years, I marched through a steady progression, in roughly 10 cc increments. Each of these purchases was facilitated, and financed by, my father. Not once do I remember him expressing anger, or anguish, at my obsession. On the contrary—he encouraged such forays and called them part of my “education.”
The Triumph is set aside while we make plans to fly east, attend the funeral, and complete grim tasks involving paperwork, lawyers, and sorting through decades of personal effects.
I was close to my father, and had spoken to him numerous times about my big project. Apparently he had been telling anyone who would listen that “my son is restoring a Triumph.” He liked the idea.
Given this fact, my project will become his project. There is no question now. It will be done.
Each day, I am peeling back layers. I am also removing years, bringing past to present with a buffing wheel and 600-grit Emery cloth. I know it can never be perfection, but I will try perfectly to make it so. Triumph No. CC 13172 was not perfect when that young man altered his life with its purchase in 1969—and it will not be so now. The points fell lamely out of adjustment, the headlamp flickered and died in the middle of the night on an important date, and it dripped, inexorably, on his garage floor, as all British twins will do.
I am following the immutable laws of restoration. For instance, it is well known to restorers that every small project is destined to become big sooner or later. Generally, the tip-off to this scenario goes like this (you can fill in the blanks): “As long as I was fixing ___, I thought I might as well fix ___.” As in, “As long as I was changing the tire, I figured I might as well replace that broken spoke, and as long as I was doing that, I might as well repack the wheel bearings.” And so on until there is nothing left but scattered debris and wrenches, and a one-hour job has somehow balloons to a half-day’s work.
A little bit of a chasm opened between me and Doug today. He senses that I want things to be just so, for the sake of “correctness,” and that’s not his style. Though he is a lifelong machinist and mechanic, he is no perfectionist. He seems to get impatient with, for instance, my urge to polish a cylinder mounting nut before reinstalling it. He wants to slam the engine in the frame, but I want some time with it on the workbench, to detail all the nuts and bolts, and to savor it all.
Just to needle me, I think, he seals the alternator wire where it emerges from the crankcase with a huge, unsightly glob of silicone. It looks as if someone pasted chewing gum on the motor. I let him do this, but resolve to later redo the whole area. Nonetheless, he’s made his statement: loosen up; pal.
Throughout this project, Doug has played the role of benevolent father figure. I have allowed and even encouraged his role-playing—after all, I want to learn. But unwittingly, I have fostered an image of myself as a somewhat ham-fisted, helpless mechanic. Consequently, when Doug finally arrives to drop off the refurbished motor, his eyes go wide at the sight of the freshly painted, recondititioned, and rewired chassis. He seems to freeze in his tracks. “Whoa,” he says. “It’s just beautiful. “
Did he not think me capable? For a moment, I find the implication offensive. But inside, I’m gloating. “You’ve done a great job, Geoff,” he says with pride. Now if I can just get it done by March. And make it run.
Danny, my painter, is calling daily, asking me to pick up the finished parts. So far I’ve been reluctant to, because having these beautiful parts knocking around my shop puts them at risk of being scratched. In addition, Danny’s urgency strikes me as curious, because at the start of the project I could hardly get him to return my calls. In a phone call one afternoon, he blurts out the problem: his wife has asked for a sudden separation, with a divorce imminent, and he needs the lawyer’s fees. I’m interested in seeing the parts, of course, but in a way I don’t want them. A pile of dirty Zip Lock bags still sits on the floor of the garage. I’m not ready.
Nonetheless, one sunny Saturday, I decide to pick up the gas tank, mudguards, sidepanels, chainguard, and fork lowers on the way home from my daughter’s soccer game. The three of us are exuberant—my ll-year-old’s soccer team has just won the district cup in double overtime, and Danny’s good work piles more fuel on my good spirits. The parts look new—no, better than new.
The motor, the frame, all the painted pieces are beautiful, and as a result, I am experiencing a sea change in this project. My initial goal was to create a “good runner” and use it occasionally. But now my compulsive nature takes over. It is now turning into a “correct” ‘69 Triumph, to use the parlance of restorers, and it is a thing of beauty.
Once again, I am polishing bolts, removing the accumulation of years. But right now, it’s frustrating me. There are more exciting projects than this rust removal, which any bonehead could do. After all, the headlight sits on the floor, and the handlebar and controls are waiting on a shelf. Both would produce a spectacular result, and a great leap forward in the restoration process. But instead, I am polishing bolts. I grab each one with pliers, lay it against the whirring wire wheel, and two sides come clean. I rotate it in the jaws of the pliers, clean two more hexagonal surfaces, then two more. Then I do the top face of the bolt, switch to the buffing wheel, apply white rouge, and repeat the process. After six months, I will have done more than 200 bolts and nuts in this fashion, or about 50 hours worth.
At the same time, I am determined that there will be no drudgery in this Triumph, just as there should be no drudgery in any day. Boredom implies seeking, and I am not seeking. I am a restorer, a builder of faith, and this work never ends. There can be a Triumph, but there can never be a total triumph.
This unlayering is not unlike my own unlayering. I am refurbishing a motorcycle; I am refurbishing a life. The accumulation of 30-plus years sticks fast. Only by diligence, polishing and scraping, will the detritus come free. And for what purpose? Is it possible to find what has been there all along: a motorcycle? A man?
At some level, beneath the rust and corrosion, there is a Triumph as it always was: the elemental motorcycle. Deep in the casting is a mechanical presence that was never pelted by a sudden March rain in Santa Cruz, California, leaving the owner wet and cold. This elemental motorcycle—the one beneath the surface—exists beyond the cares and caresses and curses of any man. It is also beyond my restoration.
There are other events, besides my father’s death. On a Monday morning in February, the company human resources director is waiting in the office. This is odd, because she works in the main office, 3,000 miles away. She is there to deliver a message: We are to clean out our desks by the end of the day, turn in our corporate credit cards, and surrender our keys. We have been given pink slips.
Initially, this event would seem to make the restoration less important. After all, I’ll need to devote lots of time to the job search. But to my way of thinking, this event—combined with my father’s death—make it even more critical to finish the project. Each such event adds a layer of importance, and the restoration has suddenly acquired a whole new scale.
That night, I am out in the garage again—polishing bolts. Moving the project forward. Moving my life forward.
Like a great and powerful tide, this project has been moving inexorably in one direction: disassembly. But now this great locomotive comes to a screeching, grinding halt. At the moment all motion ceases, it immediately reverses itself. By picking up a single bolt—the one that attaches the “Triumph” badge to the gas tank—and screwing it in, the arduous process of assembly has begun.
A host of new concerns comes to the fore—will I scratch a new part? Even with my extensive note taking and pictures, will I forget the order of parts, or omit something critical to the Triumph’s operation? What if I screw up? Before, there were always opportunities for corrections. But this is for real.
The temptation is to move quickly, as if I am on the downward side of something. But this implies completion. I am determined that my Triumph will be a process, not just an end. The result will be better if I don’t think of it.
That evening, I attach the carburetor. When I hold it, it’s uncanny how much it resembles a human heart. And so it is—the heart of a Triumph. In a just a few weeks, the bike is complete.
For 40- and 50-something men in America, Triumph motorcycles are as much icons as Vietnam, Kent State, and the Kennedy family. They are part of our milieu. They represent a mix of freedom and danger that has long since been snuffed out by lives spent in a dull cubicle. As such, they induce longing.
The power of British bikes to attract aging or former hippies has its advantages, as I discover on my exuberant first ride on the freshly rebuilt TR6R. Within just a few blocks, I discover that I had put only a thimbleful of gas in the tank, and the bike sputters to a halt.
Within 15 minutes, five wistful ex-bikers had screeched to a stop to admire the bike and offer help. Each one, inexorably, had a tale to tell of Triumphs long gone, and hopes of Triumphs yet to come.
Everywhere I go, full-grown men get weepy at the sight of this bike. These ostensibly civilized and professional people are reduced to sniveling basket cases, wistfully longing for motorcycles and memories gone by. They emerge from storefronts, or stop their cars in mid-traffic, and approach making puppy-dog noises.
“Aw,” they say. “Awwwwww. Look at that bike. It’s gorgeous!” The next statement follows as inevitably as an oil leak: “I had a Bonnie once—kind of looked like that. Oh, what I’d give to have it now! Never should have sold it!”
I imagine many of these men command respect in their professions, and among their families. They are upstanding and level-headed citizens. But as they speak to me, caressing the Triumph with their eyes, they assume a far-away, misty look. In their minds’ eyes, they are replaying a helmetless escapade to the beach, with a long-lost and buxom love, the bellow of twin exhausts turning heads down the boulevard of their dreams.
But that was then, and this is now. Now, there is only my freshly restored Triumph, which brings a bewildering mix of longing and sadness. I have restored a motorcycle; this alone cannot restore dreams.
“I should get one of those,” they opine, as if a vertical twin had the power to propel one through time and beyond a dull, dot.com existence.
From these events, and from numerous incidents since, I’m learning that everyone seems to have a Triumph in the closet, figuratively speaking. It sits right there with the usual menagerie of secret desires, lusts for other women, and the barely suppressed urge to quit you job, stop shaving, and circumnavigate the country with nothing more than a credit card.
Membership is open to all, but de facto initiation rites include a knowledge of fickle Lucas electrics, oil leaks, and right~side shifting. We are, in a sense, expatriates, for we worship a distant and mysterious place called Meriden, and have elevated a man named Turner to the level of demigod. We use an arcane lexicon that includes words like “Girling,” “Amal,” and “Monobloc.” These things comprise our secret handshakes.
We are time travelers, my friends and I. We live only partly in the present, choosing once or twice a week to shuttle back to the seeming perfection of 1969, using only our right wrists.
Of course, it is all an illusion, for we live in a nether world—not in this age, nor that one. Or do we? It occurs to me that with the kindly offer of gas, or the flick of a choke lever, we span the decades.
In late May, after four months of fruitless searching, I am suddenly pushing all the right buttons in the job search. Three offers land on my desk in a week.
Frequently, I retreat to the garage at night, with beer in hand, just to reflect on the journey. It’s funny, but I am proudest of what is under the seat, hidden from view. The battery and wiring are there, and the oil tank filler cap. It’s all perfect, and to me, it signifies that this Triumph runs deep.
With the old bike on the road, I am feeling especially triumphant. It runs beautifully, and has looks to match. I am rattling windows daily, enjoying the music and the pulse of the 30-year-old motor. Everything positively hums.
Of course, there is still the distinct possibility I will be left standing by the roadside, at midnight, in the rain, hurling epithets at the Prince of Darkness. No guarantees. But this is true of life, as it is of motorcycles. For the moment, at least, I have used the tools at my disposal to the best of my ability, and the demons remain at rest. No small Triumph.