SI Vault
Thomas McGuane
February 21, 1972
Taking possession was to be a matchless moment, a dream—and then a nightmare—come true
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February 21, 1972

Finally, We Were Left Alone, Just Me And My Bike

Taking possession was to be a matchless moment, a dream—and then a nightmare—come true

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Like many who think they might want to buy a motorcycle, there had been for me the time-consuming problem of getting over the harrowing insurance statistics, the reports on just what is liable to happen to you. But two years of living in California—a familiar prelude to acts of excess—had moved me up to the category of active motorcycle spectator. I watched and identified, and eventually resorted to bikers' magazines, from which I evolved a whole series of foundationless prejudices.

Following the war motorcycling left a peculiar image in the national consciousness: porcine individuals wearing a sort of yachting cap with a white vinyl bill, the decorative braid pulled up over the hat, their motorcycles plated monsters, white rubber mud flaps studded with ruby stars hung from both fenders. Where are those machines now? Surely Andy Warhol can't have bought them all. Not every one of them is a decorative planter in a Michigan truck garden. But wherever they are, it is certain that the ghosts of cretinism collect close around the strenuously baroque plumbing of those inefficient engines and speak to us of an America that has gone.

It was easy for me initially to deplore the big road bikes, the motorcycles of the police and Hell's Angels. But finally even these "hogs" and show bikes had their appeal, and sometimes I had dark fantasies of myself on El Camino Real, hands hung overhead from the big chopper bars, feet in front on weirdly automotive pedals, making all the decent people say: "There goes one."

I did it myself. Heading into San Francisco with my wife, our Land-Rover blaring wide open at 52 miles per, holding up a quarter mile of good people behind us, people who didn't see why anybody needed four-wheel drive on the Bayshore Freeway, we ourselves would from time to time see a lonesome Angel or Coffin Cheater or Satan's Slave or Gypsy Joker on his big chopper and say (either my wife or myself, together sometimes): "There goes one."

Anyway, it was somewhere along in here that I saw I was not that type, and began to think of sporting machines, even racing machines, big ones, because I had no interest in starting small and working my way up as I had been urged to do. I remember that I told the writer Wallace Stegner what I intended, and he asked, "Why do you people do this when you come to California?"

"It's like skiing," I said, purely on speculation.

"Oh, yeah? What about the noise?"

But no one could stop me. A simple Neanderthal "gimme" expressed my feeling toward all unowned motorcycles. "I'll have that and those. Me, now."

There was the dire question of money that ruled out many I saw. The English-built Triumph Metisse road racer was out of the question, for example. Some of the classics I found and admired—Ariel Square Fours, Vincent Black Shadows, BSA Gold Stars, Velocette Phruxtons, Manx Nortons—had to be eliminated on grounds of cost or outlandish maintenance problems.

Some of the stranger Japanese machinery, two-cycle, rotary-valved engines, I dismissed because they sounded funny. The Kawasaki Samurai actually seemed refined, but I refused to consider it. I had a corrupt Western ideal of a bike's exhaust rap, and the tuned megaphone exhausts of the Japanese motorcycles sounded like something out of the next century, weird loon cries of Oriental speed tuning. My wife felt they were all unwholesome and only nasty people rode them.

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