I still remember the dark and dank evening from two decades ago as I sat on my haunches beside my black 1983 Escorts Rajdoot AC123, sheltered beneath a huge Peepal tree (the Ficus Religiosa for the purists here) some 40 miles from home. The contact breaker points had given up the ghost and all my efforts and prayers (in tandem) were focused on getting them to work. Magneto cover off (you had to press the rear brake pedal way down to get it off), magneto rotor removed (careful with that woodruff key fixing it on the crankshaft end) and you get to the CB points. There was that tiny Bakelite washer for insulation. Was cracked. The low voltage current from the primary finding its way prematurely to the ‘ground’. None left to fire the secondary for that life-giving spark. Oops! And an answer. Cut two of round somethings similar to the washer from a plastic bottle (that Swiss knife had scissors too you know), sandwich the washer in between, tighten the #8 bolt/nut combo and should be good to go! Prayer on lips again, this time loud enough to startle that owl perched on the branch above and a kick on the kick-starter. It fires! I was happier than the NASA launch control staff when the Jupiter lunar vehicle lifted off safely!
Those days though are long gone, the inherent reliability of modern day machinery having relegated the triumphs and failures of ‘in the field’ repairs to the cobweb enshrouded past. Unnecessary. Well, mostly. Once in a while even the modernity within breaks down but then usually it is a matter of transporting the stricken sick vehicle to its equivalent of a hospital and into the hands of a mechanic/doctor. The likes of me come from a generation of motorcyclists when technology did not yet have that label announcing ‘no user serviceable parts inside’. We were expected to and would tinker with it to keep it ‘serviceable’. And so the tourers, travellers, racers, rallyists et al amongst us learnt how to. Today it is not just the reliability but also the sheer complexity of the machines that normally precludes amateur spanner twiddling. And that has in an important way turned out to be a loss. More reliability, less uncertainty, more fun and miles with less tension a loss? Yes. The reliability has converted us from partners to mere consumers. The rider no longer needs to know how to change a spark plug, adjust the chain slack or even tighten the brakes, what of changing the engine oil or the brake pads. The service intervals are sufficiently far apart for him to have his fill of touring/travelling/commuting etc before the need arises to get the above listed stuff done on his bike. He pays, they do it. He rides off again. Consumer.
The detachment of a mere consumer has also relegated motorcycling to becoming more of a disposable pleasure rather than remaining a meaningful pursuit that it was and deserves to be. Of course to an extent the ‘trouble-shooting and tuning’ of the past has been replaced by customizing which is more of a choice and less of a chore and as a bonus involves less of those dirty rags and greasy hands. It is more like entertainment, a movie set and so the shinier the better. But in the bargain the easy simply attainable sense of achievement is practically out of reach, becoming more of another economically affected element of life. No wonder there’s so much of that lure left for the Enfield’s and the Harley’s today. And of course the retro bikes. Huge communities continue thrive on these as there’s loads of fertile ground left for sharing, learning, fixing, breaking, winning and losing. The effort needed to appreciate and understand technology is not just about ‘knowing’ your machine but is also about feeling in control of things intimate with motorcycling. Riding when interspersed with tangling and grappling with the machine has a sense of doing attached to it that feels a lot ‘higher’ than just filling, shutting and riding day in and day out….continued