Thursday, December 24, 2009

Skara Brae

Its the time of year when thoughts turn to home and family. In my travels and reading, I've always been struck how people in other times lived lives much like our own. Not in the details of lifestyle, but in the aspirations for home, family, and a secure life.

Have you ever been travelling, out in the world exploring, and come to a place feels like home? Its almost spiritual, because you can easily put yourself into that place and imagine the lives of those people a long time ago.

It doesn't happen often. I've experienced this feeling strongly only 4 or 5 times in my life. One of the strongest of these was at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland.

Imagine yourself in the north of Scotland 5000 years ago. Even today, the Orkney Islands are a magical place. Back then, it must have been even more so. In Egypt, the pyramids are under construction, but here, in these North Atlantic Isles, its the time of Stone Henge. In Orkney, religion is centered around the Ring of Brodgar which is bigger in diameter than Stone Henge, but has smaller stones.

People lived in small groups of homes, small villages perhaps or possibly extended families. Skara Brae is such a group of homes and was found buried in sand dunes on the west coast of Orkney's Main Island.

This drawing is an artist rendering of what it may have looked like 5000 year ago. People fished, farmed, and hunted in the nearby woods. Although their technology was mainly stone, wood, and earth, they understood the world around them and their homes must have been warm, comfortable, and safe.

The houses were made of stone buried in the earth to the top of the walls with several feet of midden (garbage) between the stone walls and the surrounding earth. This was done intentionally because they knew that midden was a better insulator than earth.

The entry of the homes was a long, crooked tunnel with a branch off the tunnel that joined each home. This method kept the North Atlantic wind from the home while providing air to the fire in the middle of the house.

Scientist are guessing about the roof, but this reconstruction suggests a wooden structure covered in earth with a smoke hole in the middle.

I don't know about you, but I can imagine myself in one of these homes, sitting around the fire on a dark winter evening, surrounded by family and friends, and thinking that this is the good life.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Sad end of Saab

Today, GM announced that it will "wind down" operations at Saab, bringing the end to a unique and special brand. Although I haven't owned one yet, I've always been intrigued by their uniqueness. No one can accuse the early Saabs of being copies of any other car.

When I was about 8 years old, my family was on a vacation trip, and I was just starting to read about the things that make a car a sports car. One evening, we stopped at a motel and there was a Saab 96. Checking it out and reading about it later, I found an aerodynamic body, a monocoque structure with a built in "roll cage" for safety, front wheel drive (sounded exotic to me), independent suspension, and disc brakes. Not only that, it was Swedish back when that description alone meant 'sexy'. From what I could see, the Saab was the complete sports car and I measured every new car I came across against its design and specifications.

So much for the twisted mind of an 8 year old.

Still, Saab was a engineering statement from it first conception. Just look at how it pioneered things which are now common. Its even possible to see the first Honda Insight, even the GM EV1, as modern interpretations of the Saab 96 and its aerodynamics. In the later years, Saab engineers lead the way with efficient turbo technology and engine control electronics.

You could say that the beginning of the end was when Saab was acquired by GM. When Saab just became a more expensive version of a Saturn, then its individuality had evaporated and its ability to stand on its own was lost to the massive GM machine.

I mourn the passing of Saab. One less unique voice in the automotive world.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

AREX in Automobile magazine

As previously posted, with better pictures, Dave has completed his AREX and has it on the road. My father was kind enough to cut the article out of the current Automobile magazine and mail it to me. I apologize for the gap in the middle, etc.

Years ago, we came to know Robert Cumberford of Automobile magazine. By the way, its Robert, not Bob. As Robert has been known to say, if you call him Bob, he assumes he doesn't know you and you are probably a salesman.

In the early days, we got the AREX together as a body and chassis, but only had a mock up engine in back. In order to get some good pictures, Robert and his photographer coasted that car down the steep hill from Dave's house giving the car the blurred background of motion in the photos.

Later, when my car was running, but just in dull white gel coat fiberglass, he came back and drove it for real. At the time, he said that so many of these project cars are not well engineered. He said that he should have known that Dave and I, being in the auto industry, would make a real car.

He also noted something that I found for myself. The AREX was a friendly car. People would come up to you and just start conversations when you were in the AREX. Robert said that it was quite a different experience from driving a Lamborgini or other exotics. He felt like people assumed you would be an arrogant asshole just trying to show off in your Lambo, but the AREX was exotic without being intimidating.

Nice to see AREX in print. Congratulations to Dave for getting it done.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mid America Motorcycle Auction - Las Vegas

Sometimes, I'm just a schill for stuff I find at other websites. In this case, those who love old motorcycles need to check out the Mid America Motorcycle Auction website. Lots of pretty pictures of lots of motorcycles I could never afford.

Mid America Motorcycle Auction Consignments

The most surprising one is the Honda Transalp. Who knew it was a collector bike?
Others I like are the MV Augusta Magni Superlight, the Gilera 125 Racer, the Penton Six Day, and the 1952 Vincent Black Shadow, just like the song.

Here is my photo of a Penton from the Mid-Ohio show, just for fun. Its interesting to think they went from green to orange, from Ohio to Austria, and from a small business to a much bigger one.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Swap Meet Sculpture

I'm sure some of you are tired of my ongoing motorcycle rant, but I just had to respond to Doug K. nice set of pictures from an Arizona swap meet. I took a few shots at Mid-Ohio and never got around to posting them. The idea here is not to look at these as useful motorcycles, but little bits of sculpture and minor tales of the past.
As you can tell from the water spots, it was a rainy weekend. Sidecovers like mushrooms.
Indian Boozefighters
The Boozefighters
Mid-Ohio Relic+

Honda StreetTracker

Honda Pipes

Nimbus 4 cylinder
Nimbus 4 cylinder
BSA tank

BSA Sidecover

Vincent Pipes

Vincent Gauges

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cafe' Racer Song

My post of Cafe' Racer's reminded Greg of one of his favorite folk songs. I picked a different performance of the song than Greg suggested but, thanks to YouTube, you there are lots to choose from.

And since he brought it up, a little bit of the sound of a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning. I know that, in a previous comment, Doug mentioned the Aprilia as his favorite V twin sound. For me, some of these British twins give the best of the V twins a run for their money, at least for sound.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Little Bits of Style

As I'm learning from my niece, these days there is not one style, but lots of different styles. For example, you can be goth, emo, punk, hippy, etc. I don't know what its called, but there is a little slice of the style wheel that has elements of the late 40's, early 50's. For example, women wear short shorts, big puffy skirts, and have a flip in their hair.

In about the same era, there were a bunch of young men running around England on their motorcycles. They would remove every unnecessary part to make it lighter and faster. They would cut the handlebars so that they could lean over on the tank for better aerodynamics. Then, in the middle of the night, they would race from cafe' to cafe' to see who was bravest or had the fastest bike. Bikes in this style became known as cafe' racers.

Recently, a business opened up in the Depot Town section of Ypsilanti that celebrates both the 40's clothing and cafe' racer bikes. Naturally, its called, Cafe' Racer. Up front, they serve coffee and tea to make up the Cafe' part of the name. They also sell unique components to help you convert your bike to a cafe' racer. In back, they work on vintage motorcycles, both repair and special projects. Overall, a very cool idea. I hope they are successful.

They did an interesting thing to help promote themselves. They have made a pin up calendar, combining the bikes and local girls in a common style. This pic is from their calendar and is my favorite. Doesn't that make you want to come visit Ypsilanti? The bike is nice too.

Now those of you who know me know that I enjoy taking an idea as far as it will go. I found this picture along with the shots of weird bicycles. I think it makes the ultimate cafe' racer. In this case, they've even deleted one of the wheels in an effort to make it lighter.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


For those of you western state friends that miss out on autumn.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Just for Fun

This is a subset of a photo presentation that Corena sent. I just liked the bicycle based pictures best.

If I understand this one, you have to pedal backwards??

Finally, a bike tall enough for me.

I don't want to be the guy on the back. BARF!


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Efficient Leaning In

One of the big pleasures of riding a motorcycle is leaning into the corners. Riding a motorcycle, you feel like you are carving turns while skiing. There is an art and a rhythm to carving out a path on a winding road that is very seductive.

On the other hand, riding a motorcycle in the wrong weather (rain, heat, or cold) can be tolerated but isn't the most pleasurable experience. Now I wouldn't want to give up the outdoor experience of a motorcycle, nor give up that perfect day when you feel you could ride forever, but as winter comes on in Michigan, I have been thinking more and more about an enclosed motorcycle to make riding possible in more conditions.

In addition to that idea, the fuel efficiency of a motorcycle, especially an enclosed one with small frontal area and excellent aerodynamics would make this a very earth friendly vehicle. I've already posted on the Peraves Cabin Motorcycles. I've got a few ideas my own to explore in the future. But in the meantime, its interesting to see that others are thinking along the same lines.

In the BMW video shown below, they mention a fuel economy of 2 liters/100 km. That translates into roughly 118 mpg, although they don't say what test was used to get this number. I'm not sure I'm into their style on this one, but the concept is neat.

The Nissan video doesn't seem to have any sound, which is appropriate for an electric vehicle. I guess the point of making a 4 wheel vehicle lean into the corner is that you can make it narrow, without having it roll over in a turn. I think the future is looking very interesting indeed.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

An Update on Chrysler

Recently, I've been getting questions about Chrysler. "How are things going?" "Are you guys going to make it?" "Boy, things look pretty bad."

Watching the national media, you would think the best thing for us to do would be to slit our throat. But that's not how it feels on the inside and tomorrow, the company will present the long term product plan and, hopefully, win over a few people. Or at least have them give us the benefit of the doubt.

As for the actual product plan, I don't know anymore than any journalist. In fact, management will present the plan to the public before sharing it with the employees.

But I'm feeling pretty good about the company. Of course, we could still run out of money, make mistakes, or just have the economy take to long in recovery, but I don't think its likely.

As for all that money we borrowed from the government and the union, from what I can see no one is wasting it. No one is being paid any more than before and we are all working harder and longer. No one is wasting money on new toys or fanciful projects. In fact, we still aren't spending money we eventually need to spend on facilities and maintenance. All the money is going toward making our products better and making new products. Given time, we give you cars you want to buy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Amish Way of Life as a Sustainable Lifestyle

Eastern Ohio has the largest Amish community in the country. As a result, I cross paths with Amish in my travels. Although I respect their privacy and don't try to take their picture, I can't help notice something of the way they live. Naturally, these photos came from the web.

The Amish I see aren't old fashioned as we might imagine. For example, the local WalMart has about 30% Amish and Mennonite shoppers when I was there. I stopped at a convenience store near Wooster to use the conveniences. There I saw a young Amish man buying one of those pre-packaged salads and a drink for his lunch. His horse and buggy were "parked" in the grass outside of the gas pumps.

On another occasion, a young family of Amish pulled up in their buggy and stopped in a parking lot. The young father brought out a bucket and sponge to wash and cool off the horse while the kids played in the buggy. A charming scene that was finished up by the father going to the Chase bank ATM to get some cash.

Actually, from what I read on the Internet, the Amish are selectively adopting technology where it fits within their lifestyle. For example, its said that 80% of Amish homes have photovoltaic panels.

If you forget about their conservative religion and their closed community and just think about their local foods, their renewable agriculture, their living in a small area with a small carbon footprint, and even their adoption of solar, it would be easy to imagine the Amish as a perfect example of a sustainable lifestyle.

Now these last pics don't have anything to do with this post, other than they popped up while I was looking for Amish images and I thought they were fun.

The logical extension of the big wheel, skinny tire trend. Now, if I could just find some chrome paint.

Titled, "Amish Speedwagon"

Friday, October 23, 2009

Even More People You Meet on a Motorcycle

Not everyone you meet on a motorcycle trip is interested in motorcycles. For example, my innkeeper for two nights in Davis, W. Va. was Susan. After a career as a Creative Director at a marketing company, raising a family, and finally a divorce, she decided to move to Davis and buy an inn. Davis is a quirky little town that was settled on lumber in the 1800's but has had a rough time until tourists started coming in the last few years. Susan likes to explore the outdoors in much the same way I do, except she does it driving her Outback and hiking. Talk about local knowledge, she was happy to sit down at breakfast and share exploration stories. That, plus loaning me her own detail maps for my day's exploration.

I was lucky enough to be there while the fall color was changing.

The panhandle is full of small, quiet places. Its always worthwhile to slow down and follow that lane to see where it leads.

Lounge Chair on an old bridge support where Location Road crosses the Cheat River. A new twist on the old swimin' hole.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Run, Bight, Bottom, and Tickle

When I travel, I like to meet local people and understand local language. Sometimes its an unusual pronunciation, other times a special usage, but it always adds some personality to a countryside that is new to me.

A good example of uneven pronunciation comes from northeastern W. Va. Place names Jordan's Run, Canaan, Job, and Onego are all around the panhandle. I assumed that the first three would be pronounced like in the bible and the forth would be something like "on-a-go". That's true for Jordan's Run and Job, but it turns out that Canaan rhymes with insane. Onego is pronounced as one-go.

Jordan's Run highlights another local language twist. Run, creek, hollow or hollar, and bottom are common names in the Appalachians. Based on conversations with locals, a run is a whole watershed, typically made up of several creeks. A bottom is the flat land alongside the creek and a hollar is the narrow valley with steep hills on either side and a bottom in the middle.

Up in Newfoundland, everything is focused around fishing and boats. There are several different types of harbors, but my favorites are the bight and the tickle. As a local explained it to me, a bight is a broad bay that looks like a giant took a bite out of the coast. A tickle is a harbor with long, narrow entrance that opens into larger harbor. Of course, a tickle is a safer harbor if you can into it before the storm starts, but more challenging to sail into during a blow.

Friday, October 16, 2009

More People You Meet....

On a suggestion from John Chamberlin, I headed to southern W. Va. and Hawks Nest, the "Grand Canyon of the East" on my second day out. After a day filled with all kinds of interesting roads, the run from Gauley Bridge up to the Hawks Nest Lodge was great. The climb from the river to the top was a series of S turns and hairpins, each curve a perfect cereal bowl of banking. As you popped out of one and into the next bowl going the opposite direction, it felt like those shots of MotoGP racers snaking through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca. Excellent!

I arrived at the Lodge at about the same time as another biker on an Aprilia. We introduced ourselves (Keith from Wisconsin), exchanged pleasantries on the weather and the roads, and agreed to meet for dinner at the hotel restaurant.

It turns out Keith and I had roughly the same concept, that is, a last motorcycle trip of the season, made after school started to reduce traffic, and solo this time keep our options open.

I certainly liked Keith's Aprilia Futura, but you have to be careful with these Aprilia owners. They remind me of Ferrari owners that seem to worship the perceived technology and the style. In Keith's case, he not only had this nicely maintained Futura, but he had searched the world to own an Aprilia Moto 650. The Moto 650 is an artistic piece that was featured as part of the Guggenheim Museum motorcycle show. The interesting thing is that both the normal Aprilia's like the Futura and the Moto 650 are powered by Rotax engines from Austria. I guess that an Italian motorcycle is still art, even if its powered by an Austrian engine.

Having said that, there are now two Aprilia's on my short list of used motorcycles I would like to own. Both the Futura and the Caponord are available used in the $3000 to $5000 range. Both share the Rotax 1 liter twin, similar touring geometry, and look to be a heck of a value when compared to other sports touring machines.

So the short list is down to Tiger 1050, Caponord, and Futura. Ah heck, maybe I'll just build something.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The People You Meet on a Motorcycle

On my recent trip around Ohio and W. Virginia, I found out again that my motorcycle is an introduction to some very nice people.

On my second day out, it started raining mid-afternoon, and since I had already had a full morning and partial afternoon of fun exploring, I decided to head more or less straight to my hotel. That hotel was a strange little historical hotel in the little town of Pennsboro, W. Va. Kind of a combination hotel and ministry center.

After cleaning up a bit (both the bike and me), I walked down to the only restaurant in town. As I'm walking out of the restaurant, up pulls a pickup truck with a couple of KLRs in the back. They guys in the truck had noticed my bike parked in front of the hotel, gone inside to ask about the bike, then come down to the restaurant to find me. Mike and Doug (I think it was Doug) just wanted to talk bikes and I ended up being invited out to Mike's house, about 10 miles out in the country, to "hang out".

Mike is an interesting guy and so is his wife, Kay. First of all, their home. To get there, you take a narrow country highway, 2 one lane paved roads, and a narrow gravel road about 10 miles out of town to get to their driveway, which is itself more than a mile long and winds alongside a run (creek). At one point, you splash through a tributary creek before getting to their 215 acres of ridge and bottom. By the time we got there, it was getting kind of dark, so these cabins, which don't do their home justice, are simply internet shots appropriate to their home.

To build their house, they found two, 19th century, 2 story log homes and put them together into a modern home of, my guess, about 2500 square feet. Imagine two houses something like the first picture put together in a 'T' shape. The construction was 'v' notched logs like the 2nd picture with a traditional root cellar and barn as separate out buildings. The rest of the evening was spent in Kay's warm kitchen sitting around a rustic cooking island telling stories. Kay is an artist with a little studio above the root cellar.

Of course, they built all this themselves. Some of the stories were about the land and building the house. Some were about ice dams and floods on the creek. And some were about motorcycles and trips. Mike is a true rider. He came back to motorcycles in 2004. He bought a brand new KLR and between his trips and commuting 80 miles a day to work, he has more than 70,000 miles on it in 5 years. Kay has a KLR too, just with fewer miles. Mike also rides a Triumph Tiger 955 and says its fast but not as good on the dirt roads as the KLR since it only has a 19 inch front wheel.

Mike's most recent trip was this summer. To get to the Taiga Road, you ride north up the east side of James Bay. Then you turn North East on a dirt road that goes for about 300 miles of deep gravel to a massive hydro electric dam. Mike even talked the workers from Hydro Quebec into letting him ride on top of the dam and, thereby, getting as far north as you can go by road on a motorcycle. Of course, once you've done that, there is nothing to do but turn around and ride back.

Mike wasn't done though. After he got back to pavement, he rode south for a while and then turned east until he could ride across the Labrador Highway to Goose Bay, another 500 km of gravel road. By that time, he was running short on time off from work, so he turned around and rode back across the Labrador Highway and home to W. Virginia. The whole trip was, 5 weeks, more than 1000 miles of dirt road, and probably about 6000 miles total. Mike said that he liked to travel light. Just a change of clothes, a small tent, sleeping bag, and an air mattress. Oh, and a few tools, just in case.

As I said, you meet some pretty interesting people on a motorcycle trip. And see some nice old cabins along the way.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Singing the Praises of Ohio Roads

OHIO? Yes, these are some of my favorite driving/riding roads in the country. What makes Ohio backroads special?

First of all, there are generally fairly few people on the roads. That contrasts to W. Va., for example, where you always seem to be behind a truck of some sort. Of course, you have to take care for what is out of sight. You could find anything from an Amish buggy to coal truck.

Next, the road reading challenge is excellent. These are not easy, predictable winding roads. They duck and bob like a lightweight boxer. Actually, they would be fun to drive in a lightweight Boxster.

Finally, they follow the land, they do not cut through it. These are old roads where people went around or over the hill, whatever was easiest. Certainly, there are other old roads in the country, but many of those have been overrun by civilization and straightened to civilization's expectations. Not these Ohio roads. They are still wild at heart.

Its hard to photograph roads. The most interesting part of the road is that which is hidden ahead over a crest or around a bend. For example, the road in the picture above turns right. Before the barn.

I would like to dedicate this post to Steve Baumbach, who would love this drive, but for various very good reasons has never ventured into south eastern Ohio. There are lots of excellent roads to try. This is just one idea that minimizes navigation requirements and includes some of my favorite roads. Think of it as driving Hwy 26 down and returning by either Hwy 555 or 83. Hwy 555 is a real challenge, so its probably best kept for a dry day.

Hwy 83 is a long time favorite. Especially the section from Beverly to Cumberland. That section has few houses because it was once coal mining country. These days, the land has been reclaimed and is now a recreation area and quite empty on a weekday. The other reason I love Hwy 83 is that it stays curvy further north than any other road.

View Ohio Twisty Road Tour in a larger map
Naturally, I marked up a map. This is the standard Google map deal, zoomable, terrain and satellite, just with a route and comments posted on the map. This makes a long, but enjoyable 2 day run from the Detroit area. I recommend the Historic Lafayette Hotel in Marietta, Ohio as a interesting place to stop. It a great old hotel that has been beautifully restored, is right on the river, and has reasonable room prices.

Of course, sometimes you get rain, but the country is beautiful anyway. It doesn't hurt that the leaves were changing, which looks good in the rain or sunshine.