Is There a Doctor in the House?

Story by Clinton Smout//
January 1 2009

Do you have a favourite bike doctor? Someone who you turn to when your bike needs more help than your tool kit and knowledge can provide? I have met dozens of bike mechanics over the years. If you are as passionate about your motorcycle as I have always been, a good mechanic is very important to you. Many of the men who helped me fix my first motorcycles were not licensed mechanics. My dad was English and handy with tools. A lifetime of not spending much on cars and motorcycles provides one with a variety of basic mechanical knowledge. Paying someone else to fix it wasn’t my dad’s style. If you don’t have the money to buy new or even “good shape”, then you will soon end up with the opportunity to learn how to fix things.

I can remember a large biscuit tin in our garage that was full of nuts, bolts, screws, springs, fuses, bulbs and thing-a-ma-jimmies. I often amazed my young riding buddies who had lost a part when I found something we could use in the ‘biscuit tin’.

When my dad or I couldn’t fix my broken bikes, I would push them across the road to Mr. Adams. Lavern Adams was a much-loved neighbourhood character. His regular day job was being a mechanic for the local township where he fixed all the machinery from lawnmowers to trucks to tractors. His second job was puttering away in his home shop inventing things and fixing all of his neighbour’s broken mechanical items. Many of the original water wells in my old stomping grounds were drilled by Lavern’s 1950-something Ford tractor. He designed and made a well-drilling rig using the power take-off of the ancient farm implement. He also used the tractor to weld the motorcycle frames I broke when my jumps exceeded the bikes suspension capabilities. The welder worked off of the engine’s magneto.

Mr. Adam’s greatest resource to us was his used parts and bits. Lavern and his wife, Lenora bought tin tobacco and rolled their own smokes. Years of smoking provided hundreds of tobacco tins and Lavern stored lots of spare parts and special bits in them. He had an amazing memory of where things were in his one-room shop, heated by a wood stove in the corner. I can remember enjoying many hours in that little shop listening and watching Mr. Adams bring broken things back to life. He certainly didn’t help his neighbours in return for money, since most of us never paid him. Mr. Adams is long gone, but his passion for machinery lives on in his son Darrel and his motocross racing granddaughters, Melany and Tiffany (who now works for us teaching kids how to ride).

After watching others fix broken parts and working on my own bikes, I tackled a few of my own engine rebuilds. Two-strokes were easy and I learned which shops could bore out cylinders. It’s amazing what you can do on your own with the proper tools and a shop manual. At the age of seventeen I rebuilt a Kawasaki two-stroke twin called the A-7 Avenger. I bought the bike for $50.00 after my buddy, Brian Foster seized the engine. Another buddy, Roy King painted it the lime green racing colours of the day and Roger Trudelle did the engine work. I did everything else; frame painting, tires, polishing, bars and assembly. I remember a very frustrating day and evening spent trying to put the engine back into the frame. It wouldn’t fit and it was only after smashing my knuckles and scratching the freshly painted frame that I decided to read the shop manual. For installing the engine it said, ‘NOTE: engine only goes in from the left side’.

My first street bike was a very tired 1970 350 Honda which my brother and a few other previous owners had enjoyed. It was blowing smoke and a mechanic I met riding off-road said he could rebuild it for $100.00 plus parts. I took the engine out and put it back in to save some money. It was very exciting to carefully ride the fresh engine for the first four miles. Then it seized. Apparently, when you assemble the oil pump wrong, a 350 twin will only go about four miles, a result of no oil going to the top end.

After school my first full-time job afforded me my first new street bike in 1980. I didn’t want to mess with its maintenance other than the basics, so I met the mechanics of the now defunct Brampton Cycle. There may have been a sign that said “Mechanics Only” above the door leading to the shop, which I ignored. I was the next of kin to my bikes and did my best to meet the doctors that were treating them.

It was the early eighties when I met Tony Somers. He was a British mechanic who immigrated to Canada. I rode over 30,000 km in 1980 and just as the warranty ran out on my new 750 Honda Custom, an inner header pipe cracked and started rattling against the outer chrome pipe. Tony went above and beyond the call of duty by drilling a hole, doing some tricky inner pipe welding and then patched the pipe so you couldn’t see the work. His extra effort saved me hundreds of dollars and he became the only guy I wanted working on my bikes.

Years later, Tony and his wife, Marion moved to Barrie and eventually opened his own bike maintenance shop. It wasn’t really a bike shop since Tony occupied one bay of Louie’s Automotive two-bay garage. Tony worked on anything with two wheels and many with three (sidecars).

When I started my own rider-training business with a fleet of ten used off-road bikes, Tony was a huge help. Not only did he go over the fitness of each bike, he taught me how to do it. Many shops have the sign listing the shop’s hourly rate and it usually stated a higher rate if you watched, and an even higher rate if you helped. Not at Tony’s, he didn’t mind if you watched or even took part. I once made the mistake of asking him to show me how to lace a spoked wheel. My feeble attempt at at wheel alignment took me three-days of spinning the rim between two WD-40 can straws and adjusting spoke tension until Tony finally accepted the quality of my efforts. “That is good enough” was not something you ever heard in Tony’s shop.

He often amazed us, and his regular clients, by looking casually through the garage door window at a bike and then commenting, “That bike’s front end is out”, “the frame on that bike is bent” or “that tire is down ten pounds”.

Many of Tony’s clients, including myself, would gather for coffee and a chin wag in Tony’s shop while he operated. Tony took the time to get to know his clients and he made us feel special with customized service. I really cherish the memories of sipping Tony’s coffee while I drank in the knowledge and the atmosphere.

Today’s motorcycle dealerships have evolved into big business, big showrooms and dozens of employees who often don’t stay there long enough for you to meet and get to know them. I am still not as comfortable in shops where I feel I have to wipe my boots off before going in. I do love the selection that a larger automotive style bike dealership offers with huge showroom floor space and parts and accessories areas, but I am picky about where I shop.

One of our staff from the off-road course got a part-time job at a huge motorcycle accessories chain store. She is the only person out of the dozens of part-time staff at the store who even rides. I guess I am getting old and nostalgic for the charm of dusty, oil- stained shops where characters that rode became mechanics. The shop owners were usually guys who used to race and ended up in the bike business. They were seldom businessmen who chose our industry for its projected monetary returns.

Half the battle of finding a shop and a mechanic you really like is up to us. Go in and meet the people who work there. Do they ride? Are they passionate about our sport? How does the mechanic take his or her coffee? If you get the impression that you are just a number paying another invoice, then keep looking. Today’s industry still has lots of passionate employees and owners. It will be these people who’ll ride out the economic downturn that our industry is facing and I hope those shops survive. One way we can help them survive is to buy our parts and labour from them. If too many of us buy over the internet, shop across the border or buy parts and supplies at the hardware store, then there will be less shops to choose from. I will do my best to support my local shops, but I do have a large biscuit tin full of nuts, bolts and thing-a-ma-jimmies just in case. After all… it’s a family tradition. MMM

Ride safely!

Clinton Smout, Chief Instructor
Canadian Motorcycle Training Services www.canadianmotorcycletraining.org

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