Posted by: silverback | 2018/03/07

twenty-year-old machines

My father was a brilliant and creative, yet tortured, and socially awkward, mechanical genius. I grew up in his shadow, spending most Saturdays and summer vacations working in his auto repair shop. I learned so much from him that I graduated at the top of my Navy Machinist’s Mate “A” school without hardly cracking a book.

As with most male children, I imagine, my father was to me both awe-inspiring and terrifying. He could be incredibly tender and nurturing, or he could be angry and distant – the stormclouds often visible across his brow and behind his eyes. My own son must experience the same thing with me, only I hope to have improved somewhat; perhaps a little more warmth and a tad less thunder…

I began this blog several years ago, with a few posts about mechanical things, and the connection I feel with deep, universal equations when I’m fixing or creating things. The past several years have been incredibly fulfilling in the machine shop, as I get to do math all day long, get to fulfill my need to create things or fix things constantly. As with most jobs, there are good days and Mondays (euphemistically speaking). In my own garage, however, I don’t experience too many Mondays. Especially when I’m deep into a machine, cleaning, inspecting, restoring old interfaces to operation. This winter, I’ve had a deeply cathartic experience with a twenty-year-old Triumph Speed Triple.

Growing up, my father always had a twenty-year old project car that became, against all common sense, a daily driver for the family. In the early seventies, we had a fifties-era Jaguar MkII Saloon:


(I have very early memories of tossing giant pop-together plastic beads out the back window, just to watch them bounce down the road behind the car…)

Being an auto mechanic by trade, my dad would get these cars on the cheap because paying somebody to fix them would be too expensive an undertaking for their owners. Then, he would easily fix them. I imagine he had aspirations of restoring them, and flipping them, only to discover that nobody really wanted to own a twenty-year-old project car.

When I was in high school, I drove for a while (including a solo trip from NC to Arkansas to visit a romantic interest) a seventies Lancia Beta sedan, like nobody in most of the country had ever seen:

lancia beta.jpg

(On the aforementioned trip, I suffered a flat tire, then found out the spare wheel was a thirteen inch Fiat item vice the stock fourteen inch wheel, and I had to remove one rear brake caliper in order to mount the spare and get home. I tied it up in the undercarriage and wedged something in there so it felt like I had brakes…)

My T509 Speed Triple is much the same. I got a really good deal (I think) on a classic British motorbike from a classic British marque. The bike had all its bits, but had been sitting for some time.

Having owned this 2005 model Speed Triple,

Picture 001.jpg

(I loved this bike. She brought a smile to my face every time I rode her!)

…when the opportunity popped up to buy this 1998 version of the same bike, I went into a near-panic to make it mine:


I’d always loved the classic lines of the T509 model – those absurdly overdone side scoops, the more conventional silhouette, the novelty of the twin headlights.

More than that, the idea of a restoration project has a soulful appeal to me. It tugs at me – I want to take it all the way apart, down to its most basic assemblies. I want to touch every single piece, the way I might touch a lover. With curiosity, with tenderness. I want to understand what the engineers intended, and then bring those parts all back to life, return them to proper function at least, or at best, to improve upon the original.

As I spent time on this restoration project, I felt my connection with my father more deeply than at any time in my life. Every evening I retired to the garage to spend an hour or two (or three) engaged in communion with deus in machina, I began to feel that same incomprehensible (tho not really) connection to the old machine.

As she showed herself to me, part by part, assembly by assembly, I sensed the ghost of my father watching, guiding my intuition. As she came together and the fire was reignited in her metallic belly, the lubricating oil circulated around her various journals and meshed gears, I experienced the same joy and satisfaction that he must have felt putting the final touches on countless twenty-year-old machines, hearing those same fires ignite.

The pure nervous joy that comes with rolling the machine to the roadway for the test drive must be genetic. After all, nobody is really going to be clamoring to buy a twenty-year-old motorcycle with 57,000 miles on the clock, so I guess I’ll ride it for awhile.


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