Is new equipment better?

May 7, 2008
Chief Paul Studebaker, CMRP, asks if keeping old equipment is worth the risk.

Have you noticed how everybody seems to be driving faster, closer together in heavier traffic, accelerating and braking more briskly with less regard to road and weather conditions? I think some of it has to do with attitudes, congestion, more 18-wheelers and strained highway maintenance budgets, but a good portion is because cars and trucks are significantly better than they used to be. It’s gotten a lot easier to go faster.

My motorcycle is 36 years old this year. It has only 161,000 miles on it and it runs well. It handles and stops just like it did when it was brand-new back in 1972, maybe better with its modern tires. Gas mileage is good, it pollutes no more than it’s designed to, it’s comfortable and it’s been my companion ever since I traded my car for it in 1976. (It’s a BMW R75/5, black with white pinstripes, Vetter fairing and bags.)
Parts remain available at reasonable cost, and my garage is stocked with hundreds of new and serviceable used ones, including a disassembled spare bike and salvaged accessories (thank you, eBay brethren). I have books, manuals and files full of maintenance lore and information unique to my machine and the model line it represents, as well as a number of special tools I’ve acquired and fabricated over the years that allow me to do virtually any maintenance or repair to the engine, brakes, wheels, suspension, electrical system, etc.

For example, every 60,000 miles or so, for one reason or another, I’ll have to go into the transmission. I made a heavy-duty puller to remove the output flange from its tapered seat, and fabricated a lever that allows me to hold it while I torque the retaining nut to precisely 170 ft-lbs. I found a Plastigage-like material that allows me to measure the bearing-to-housing clearances, have sources for shims to set the preloads, and figured out how to use a Weber gas grill to heat the housings and shrink-fit them around the shaft assemblies.

I know where to find parts, who specializes in the tasks I can’t do (like overhauling the speedometer or welding up and re-machining the rear-wheel splines) and how to get accurate, useful information when I come across a new problem.

So I have a lot invested in this machine and many good reasons to just keep using it, and nothing indicates that it won’t easily outlast me.

But times have changed. Most of my miles are commuting on Chicago’s expressways and the occasional two-day business trip a state or two away. These days, I’m either running with Interstate highway traffic at speeds I won’t put in print, jamming cheek-to-jowl through potholed, gravel-strewn construction zones (often in the rain) or eying twitchy oncoming left-turners too eager to get into the strip-mall paycheck loan store.

I imagine sometimes that rising gasoline prices or the increasing number of automatic speeding-ticket-writing machines will slow drivers down and make the highway environment more hospitable to me and my old motorcycle, but realistically, that’s probably not going to happen. Like my old BMW, time has no reverse gear.

Today’s machines are faster and more efficient. More powerful engines; bigger, stickier tires and highly effective antilock brakes help them cruise more safely and comfortably at much higher speeds, soak up rough surfaces and stop fast enough to stay out of trouble.

It’s crazy to compete with the rest of the world with less than the best equipment, right? I should buy something newer with today’s capabilities so I can keep up, and improve the odds I’ll survive.

E-mail Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker at [email protected].

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