Thursday 29 December 2011

Last of a dying breed?

In a comment to a recent post where I described an early experience with motorcycle repair, Gary France made the followng observation: “It makes you wonder where children today will get those same sorts of skills, but more and more they cannot even begin to repair things, so are faced with a life of throwing things away when broken.”
This got me thinking. For many years I did all the work on my own vehicles – engine rebuilds, transmission repairs, brakes, etc. I did it all, often with little more than a basic tool kit working in an apartment parking garage. (Some of the neighbours were less than impressed, but doing regular maintenance on the building superintendent’s car made that issue go away.) But now when I have a problem and look under the hood black boxof my 2011 vehicle I realise the best thing to do is take it to the dealer. With the reliability of modern engines and components, the most likely culprit is one of the dozens of ‘black boxes’ and there’s no way any backyard mechanic can afford the $100,000+ worth of specialised electronic gear to test, upload, and re-calibrate any of those computers. And if a firmware fix doesn’t solve the problem, into the scrap bin it goes, to be replaced with a brand new part sourced from China or Mexico.
This means the role of the mechanic is changing. The old style “fixer” is being replaced by the “diagnostician”, the stethoscope by the computer, and years of experience by a parts book and a telephone (or, more commonly, a direct computer link to the parts supplier).
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing as, thanks to the all the electronics, feedback loops, sensors, 100,000 mile spark plugs, and so on, today’s tune-up consists of little more an oil change. But it puts general repairs out of the question for the backyard mechanic and takes away the simple joy and sense of satisfaction one gets from maintaining one’s own vehicle.
Perhaps that’s another reason (as if I needed one) I so enjoy owning motorcycles. While it’s true that getting home with some cigarette package foil wrapped around a blown fuse (which I have done in the past – smoking could truly be considered a life saver in those days) is not an option with a modern bike, any decent wrencher with a good shop manual and a few special tools can still do most of their own work.
Photo0001 for webWhich may become a moot point as now we're hearing from Europe that the European Commission is considering anti-tampering laws that would prevent modifications to engines and exhaust systems (as a minimum) and in the extreme could prevent unlicensed mechanics (you and I) from working on their own motorcycles. Stupid politicians (Is that a redundancy?) aren’t restricted to Europe, so needless to say if the anti-motorcyclist faction over there is successful implementing these initiatives, US and Canadian lawmakers won’t be far behind.
As Dylan said, “The times they are a-changin’”. And not always for the better in my opinion. All I can say is that I'm thankful that I at least had the opportunity and skills to do those things because I expect I’m a member of a dying breed, possibly the last generation to be able to do so.
It’s sad really.


  1. I'm 45 years old and new to of the things I've quickly realized is how little I actually know about the machine I ride.

    One of the things I love about it is the fact that I can "putz" with the machine. Change my own oil, change a belt, change the brakes. I'm learning as I go and frankly am not mechanically inclined (I studied Philosophy in college for God's sake), but the fact that I can do this still fills me with satisfaction.

  2. This kind of crap won't fly in the US. Trust me on this.

    You people in Europe need to kill the EU. And I mean drive a stake thru its heart, chop the body into pieces, and burn it all to ashes.

  3. Adam - That's a huge part of the sport in my opinion.

    No Name - I'd like to think you're right, but biker's rights aren't exactly a concern for legislators here either. You need only look at laws being brought in to restrict acess to certain communities, to support the police's right to stop and check motorcyclists at will, restrictions on passenger ages in some states, even the helmet law. If we just say "can't happen here", it will.

  4. Canajun:

    they are also killing off all the small shops who can't afford dynostic equipment for each make and model that they can service due to the computerized systems needed to check on all those sensors, relays, & black boxes, plus there's no refund on electronic parts if you guess wrong. they charge $80. just to plug your car into the computer before they even put on their white smocks.

    Riding the Wet Coast

  5. You are so right Canajun, in the early days when I owned motorbikes that had carbs I could strip and clean them, and trace faults and try to fix them, with mixed results! But now I wouldn't know where to start, wouldn't even try. I would actually like to have an old bone-shaker in my garage next to the BMW, something that has a kick-start just for old times sake!

  6. Canajun:
    Like you , I grew up in an era when tinkering with bikes was a necessity as well as personal fun. Little surprise that I became a professional engineer. We can still get our "fix" by owning what you might call classic bikes. However, I'd have to be honest and say that whilst I'd still enjoy tinkering with a classic bike, I have zero interest in doing the same with a modern bike (or car, come to that). The reason is that my greatest enjoyment is being out there riding than being in the shed.

    With respect to the proposed EU anti-tampering laws, I'm currently having some dialogue about it on the UK Honda Blackbird website. In principle, I'd have no problem with the law if motorcycle modifications were having a measurable impact on global pollution which they're not. The insurance companies are also championing restricting modifications on the pretext that modified vehicles are a bigger drain on accident payouts. As far as I know, no hard evidence has ever been produced to support this.

    All this from the Eurocrats who tried to limit motorcycles to less than 100 hp some years back and tried (and I'm not kidding) to legislate that cucumbers have no more than 10mm bend over their length. It's a wonder that Europe hasn't risen up and stuck the Eurocrat heads on long poles to deter others from wasting taxpayer dollars like that.

  7. Bob - That's true too. Small shops are pretty much limited to brakes, tires, and exhaust systems now. Gone are the days when you could lean over the fender with 'Joe' and have him describe what was wrong and what it would take to fix it.

  8. Andrew - I hear you. As much as I hated it when one of my Nortons would go and get all snippy and not start, at least I never had to worry about a dead battery (except for lights). And I'd be surprised if you could even bump start a modern bike with a dead battery with all the power-sucking electronics on it.

  9. Geoff - I'd heard of the cucumber boondoggle, but didn't they also pass rules standardising the shape of carrots and other vegetables? It seems to me the Eurocrats could do with a collective lobotomy, or failing that, a good smack upside the head with a 2 X 4. (Or in Eurocratese, "A piece of wood meeting the EU Council on Timber Standards as specified in provisional handout 346-129.4 "Construction Theory and Standards" as they relate to residential and commercial building codes."

  10. :( i feel this way too and agree with you canajun/gary... im really sad for the local mom and pop shops. great thought provoking post, thank you. im really glad to have grown up when i did.

    ps, happy new year!

  11. Canajun,

    I may never have actually used foil on a blown fuse, but there have been plenty of road repairs on the '78 Honda. That's why I take it out. Well, part of why I take it out, that thing is adventure.

    By the way, my wife was next to me when I read your comment about 12,000 miles on a 550 without so much as bags. I repeated words like 12,000!? and No bags?! over and over again. What a trip - but someone who knows their way around a machine like that - and who maintains it - can get a lot of life out of one. My '09 Concours is great, and has no real maintenance (even after 7k miles it only needed oil and final drive oil - the Honda would have reached it's 3 standard oil change.)

    If I lose the right to work on my own machine 1. I may just ignore it, and 2. It might be time to join the protest movement.

    Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

  12. Ms M - Thank you. And a Happy New Year to you as well.

    Brady - Well it was 1976 and the bagger revolution hadn't yet begun, so I guess we just didn't know any better. But that's not to say they wouldn't have been useful in keeping us from periodically strewing sleeping bags, etc all over the road when a bungee broke. :) Great memories nonetheless.

  13. As I'm reading and responding to the comments I just realised I was mistaken in my assertion that nothing went wrong on this trip. I'd forgotten about the blown oil gasket blogged about here:

    Mea culpa.


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