Adorned in his vintage gear, Spannerman takes a rare opportunity for a two-bike ride with his cheese ‘n kisses and spectacularly passes through a portal which returns him to the 1970s..
It’s complicated. Ms Spanner has a Royal Enfield Himalayan which I’ve modified for her to reduce the seat height but there was still a problem with the reach from the bars to the levers for her small hands. I ordered a set of dog-leg, adjustable levers from England but, as some of you may already be aware, mail has gone down the toilet recently and parts you order from overseas can now take months to arrive.
So. We have this window for a ride but her bike isn’t finished. Up the back of the workshop is a Honda VT500E which has the correct seat height for her massive 5’6” vertical but I can barely remember its provenance. I think I swapped it for a Honda XL100 which I didn’t want but slightly more than I didn’t want the VT.
The legendary late-but-great Peter Smith fancied the VT and took it back to his HQ in Quirindi where it languished in his shed before he brought it back to be picked up by still-alive Greg Shoemark who recently returned it because he’d changed houses and couldn’t fit it in his garage.
I think I owned it for 15 years before actually getting around to riding it.
It’s an ’83 model and Honda made it because it couldn’t sell its CX500 model in the US due to its perceived ugliness. Typical of Honda at the time, the VT was the product of exceptional engineering. It was the company’s first V-twin and the engine design went on to power the Revere, the Deauville, the Transalp and the Africa Twin with minor variations in engine capacity.
My bike is the VT500E which is European soft styling on the great-looking flat-tracker American models. I wish we’d gotten the US-spec version.
It needed a complete service, a new brake master cylinder and some minor electrical work. The end result was a slightly chipped and rusted but still very usable bike.
Carry that load
Importantly, the VT had a genuine Gearsack rack and, even more importantly, a genuine Gearsack bag!
Gearsack arrived in Australia in 1972 with Jack Burger who invented the idea of a rack and a large, square bag. It turned up at exactly the right time when the bulbous, industrial styling of superbikes in the ‘70s and 80s didn’t look unusual with this kind of luggage system. The bag and rack were strong enough to carry two slabs and were a common sight at most of the rallies in the mid-to-late 70s. The Gearsack brand was as recognisable as Honda.
The clever design allowed you to put the bag on the rack itself or, if you didn’t have a pillion, to put it on the pillion seat. It could never move and never needed to be adjusted during a ride. Revolutionary.
As is the way with capitalism, Jack’s design was instantly copied by others who had the racks and bags made less expensively in SE Asia. Gearsack, however, was always the best.
Gearsack made other motorcycle-related products including throw-overs, tank and seat bags but the competition was ferocious for an Australian manufacturer.
It’s ironic that the current Federal government has now decided that manufacturing is important for Australia’s future. Jack had little help and eventually sold to PGF. The brand ended up with Ron Angel where it disappeared a short time after the millennium.
A vintage bike calls for vintage gear
Ms Spanner has always ridden but had a short break to produce the 20 or 30 children I currently have so missed the bus a little in riding fashion.
Get this. I’m fooling around in the Castlemaine animal welfare op shop about six months ago when I discover a Belstaff Trialmaster jacket and pants for a combined cost of $90. They’re new.
Here’s what I think happened. He fell in love with her but he was a motorcyclist. She tried to share his interests and bought pillion gear which included this set. She rode with him once and she hated it. The relationship broke up and, after 25 years of the riding gear sitting unused in her wardrobe, she donated it to the op shop. The op shop, sensing value, put the top dollar price on them without looking at the interweb and determining that the new price of a Trailmaster jacket alone is now around $800.
It gets better.
In 1992 Belstaff entered into an agreement with Aussie company Driza-bone to make the Trailmaster in Australia and Belstaff would sell the Driza-bone stockman products in its stores in England. The arrangement only lasted for three years before Belstaff was bought by an Italian company. Ms Spanner’s set is the rare Australian-made item.
The jury may still be out on waxed cotton. Belstaff started waxing Egyptian cotton in 1924 as the process allowed riders to stay cool as well as be protected from the weather. Re-waxing the jackets periodically usually meant you’d ask Belstaff owners to remove most of their clothing before they sat on your lounge in the ‘70s – the stain they left was hard to remove.
How much cred do Belstaff Trailmaster jackets have? Try this list: TE Lawrence, aviators Amy Johnson and Amelia Earheart, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Steve McQueen (yes, he wore it on the first jump in ‘The Great Escape’) and even half the cast of Mission Impossible 3.
Ms Spanner had an 80s bike but, in all other respects, she’s a girl of the 70s.
What about me?
No brainer. I’d ride my 1976 BMW R60/6. We were never going to be above the speed limit and the BM would be a very suitable companion for the VT500E.
As it happened, my luggage set-up would complement the VT500E’s Gearsack. I had a set of Gearsack throw-overs and a Gearsack seat bag which had been BIKE Australia magazine-branded for promotional purposes in the early 1980s. I bought the throw-overs at the Bendigo Swap Meet a few years ago but their poor design suggests they were post-Jack Burger’s quality regime.
The /6 BMWs were a turning point for the manufacturer. Many feel the /5 bikes occupy this position but they had instruments set in the headlight binnacle and four-speed transmissions. The /6 bikes had proper instruments, five-speed gearboxes and included the legendary R90S in their production list.
My bike is the absolute poverty-pack designed for police use. If it had windows, they’d be wind-up and there certainly wouldn’t be any power steering. The R60/6 was the last BMW with a drum front brake.
Ironically, by the time BMW came to disc brakes, they were cheaper to manufacture than drums. It probably cost more to make the R60/6 than it did the R750/6. The drum front brake works well but lacks the feel of the discs – it’s either on or off which slows you down in company. My R60/6 did, however, need a new front tyre.
In the spirit of the adventure I did what many of us did in the ‘70s – I bought a tyre and fitted it myself. Tubed tyres were common then because of spoked wheels and the procedure for fitting the tyre without pinching the tube was to ‘walk’ the tyre onto the rim. By pushing the bead deeper into the rimwell as you walked, the bead on the opposite side of the tyre had more chance of stretching onto the rim. It takes a bit of time and you look silly, but it was neat to reacquaint myself with an otherwise lost art.
To match the 70s vibe, I have a pair of Gaerne boots which I acquired from the Mill vintage bazaar in Daylesford in Victoria for $50. They were made in Italy in a time when manufacturers understood that you might be obliged to walk in them occasionally as well as ride so they were actually comfortable. Ms Spanner’s boots are Australian-made Rossi women’s boots with an increased calf diameter to allow for, well, women’s increased calf diameter. They’re the best women’s boots in the world and, sadly, Rossi recently stopped making them. The boots are so well made they’ll outlive her.
In these pandemic times, it was wonderful to leave the house and enjoy the countryside. Hall’s Gap in the Grampians is an excellent destination if you like moderate bush-walking and great restaurants. The R60/6 ran without fault. The VT500 used a bit of oil but without blowing any smoke or leaking it onto the cement where it was parked. We might move it up to 15W40 oil to see if it makes a difference.
As for living in the 70s, Honda engineering, Gearsack, Gaerne, Rossi, Belstaff and BMW are still hard to beat. Yes, there was plenty of junk around but, as always, high quality stuff which can still do its thing 50 years later makes you forget about the extra cost at the time.