Discover more from The Next 30 Trips
Ben and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The power of compounding tools.
Two Old Bikes
My dad had two old motorcycles, a 1972 Norton Commando 750 and a 1969 Triumph TR6R Trophy 650. I grew up watching him work on and ride these bikes, and even got to try them a few times. But after he passed, they ended up under a sheet in my mom’s garage. I was away at grad school, then SpaceX, then trying to get my own little business up and running. It never felt like there was enough time to work on them and, truthfully, I doubted my ability to fix them.
However, this past spring I finally decided it was time to try. It had been almost 15 years since they’d run, and I realized there wasn’t much I could do to hurt them. I was still at Launch Co. then, and we built rocket parts, so it felt doable to setup in a corner of the warehouse and tinker on some bikes.
I wasn’t coming from absolute zero; I had worked on things with engines for a long time, everything from lawn mowers, to snowmachines, to cars, to boats, to airplanes (and of course rockets) but I worried about messing something up on these old bikes. I worried about breaking some irreplaceable part from over 50 years ago. And certainly, I worried I just didn’t have the ability to make them run again. I spent a long time worrying; years spent worrying. Meanwhile, they sat in the corner of the shop, protected under blankets, gathering dust and inertia in my mind.
This spring, something changed. Nothing big, as by then the specter of the project had grown so large that it would have taken a monumental shift to overcome. So, instead I came at it from an angle. One afternoon, I rolled the bikes out and started with little things. I replaced the battery in each bike, replaced the rubber mounts on all the pegs, checked that all the mechanical cables moved freely, tested the brakes, replaced the spark plugs, and made sure they actually lit up.
Those little acts gave me the momentum, and confidence, to take a step deeper. Using the power of YouTube, a PDF of a fifty year old maintenance manual, and a few deep breaths, I made the jump and tore down the carburetors. Everything was gummed up and clogged from old gasoline with additives sitting in them for so long. Everything from the float bowl to the main jet required cleaning and burnishing, but with a few hours of elbow grease I was able to make everything look new.
I changed the oil, checked the transmission, installed new fuel lines, and after only a couple weeks of morning and evening tinkering, to my shock the first bike was ready to attempt a start. My youngest, then not yet even two, and I were at the Shop on a cold spring morning. He sat on our shop couch nearby and yelled, “Dad! Fix!” every few minutes while eating a sandwich and watching from a safe distance. I tickled the carb and set the choke. Then, the moment of truth.
Four kicks and - to my everlasting surprise - the bike roared to life.
Cheers from the toddler! Roars from the bike! I felt a flood of satisfaction on a job well done, and happy that I could resurrect a piece of equipment that had meant so much to my own dad. But then, still sitting astride the bike fiddling with the idle screw, a new feeling broke through — shock which built to outright anger as I pondered a single question:
How in the hell had I let this seem impossible for so long?
After years of waiting, getting the first bike running had only taken a few hours a day for a couple weeks, and around $250 in parts. I realized that if I felt it was impossible, it was. The second I let that go and started small, which gave me space to warm up to the task, the barriers fell quickly. The hardest part remains, as always, just beginning.
As I rolled the first bike aside, and gamely started in on the second, I realized that there was another piece to the puzzle: My assets had finally compounded to a point where a project like this could become easy.
While I was hard on myself for waiting so many years, I also saw that those years were absolutely vital to my eventual success. During that those years after my dad’s passing, I went from graduate school (where I once replaced my car’s power steering pump in my apartment complex’s parking lot under cover of night), to SpaceX in California (where I replaced that same car’s frustratingly buried alternator using tools acquired on a dozen trips to the store), back to Alaska (where I lived in a small duplex with no garage and worked on cars outside next to a snow bank in the street). In short, I had no place to store, let alone work on, two classic bikes.
As I turned wrenches on the second bike, I realized that even though it was a cold spring day outside, I was warm inside our large warehouse. I hadn’t made tons of runs to the store for odd-ball tools, they were already nicely organized inside the toolboxes. Even little bits and bobs, like rubber sheets, standard bolts, gasket material, and adhesives all sat on a shelf waiting to be used.
One of the secondary benefits of building a company that develops space hardware, was that it also developed assets to do just about any mechanical project. And truly they were assets; as opposed to a warehouse or shop I built myself, our business’ headquarters helped us make a living. It paid its own way, and more! That’s powerful.
Second, even though I hadn’t worked on motorcycles directly in many years, I had earned two mechanical engineering degrees and built up my knowledge in industry as well as alongside my team as we developed new tech for launch sites. In short, my knowledge compounded, too. The challenges we’d solved at Launch Co. taught us how to take on just about any problem, reduce it to first principles, and take it one bite at a time.
What Comes Next
As of this summer, I moved out of the shop when I fully exited The Launch Co. All mechanical tinkering projects are now based out of my home garage. Ah well, at least it isn’t a snowbank. Losing the shop wasn’t something I thought about when I sold the company, but now that I know how powerful it is, I already know how critical a space like that will be when I jump into whatever is next.