My motorcycling began almost as an accident. Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Sun Valley, I did the normal things that 10-12 year old boys did in the mid 70s. I had a variety of pieced together BMX bicycles. Of course, every boy who rides a BMX bike, secretly yearns for an engine--especially living in the hilly Verdugo Hills that we did.
One warm spring Saturday in 1977, my Mom arrived home from a swap meet. She asked me how much a Yamaha 60 was worth. I had no idea but evidently she had found one for $110 at a garage sale. At this time, my father Albert was in bed with a pinched nerve in his back. I guess she didn't tell him what she was about to do. We went to see it and she bought it. We loaded it into the back of our station wagon and drove home. She casually walked into their bedroom where my Dad was laying, almost totally bed ridden, and announced to him "I just bought Greg a motorcycle for his 12th birthday." I can still remember the squeaking noise my Dad made as he tried to sit up, obviously overcome by the pain.
Like most people who learned to ride back then, my introduction was 3 minutes of the previous owner showing me how to start the bike, what the levers did and how to kill the engine if something went wrong. "There ya' go kid--you're a motorcycle rider now."
The bike turned out to be a 1971 Yamaha JT1 Mini Enduro. It was exactly as the name implied, a mini motorcycle. It had an incredible 4.5 horsepower--well, all right it FELT incredible to ME as my 12 year old wrist unleashed it's fury. It had a real clutch and a 4 speed transmission. That bike began my obsession with motorcycling. My Dad understood my propensity to tinker with things. Since HE knew very little about motorcycles, he absolutely forbid me from touching a wrench to the thing. Of course, this changed as time went by and within a year, I had disassembled the engine and split the crank cases.
This picture of it was taken around 1978. That's my sister Denise
under that helmet and goggles. She inherited it from me when I moved up
to the YZ125. This is probably the only picture I have of that bike. It
was red when my Mom bought it, but I wanted the traditional Yamaha
yellow. One warm afternoon, I took it apart and spray painted over the
factory red paint (much to my Father's dismay). It would still own this
bike 10 years later, when I was finally forced to give it away. A lack
of storage space and a need to slim down my inventory meant my trusty
bike was to go on it's way. I miss that little bike.
Since I now had a motorcycle, Dad had to get one as well. While at Foothill Yamaha, he spotted a very lightly used, red 1975 Yamaha DT125. It had been converted to a 175 with the larger model's cylinder and piston. Other than that, it was in good shape and within his budget. He bought it. That's him squinting at the setting sun in probably the only picture I have of him on a bike. I would soon take over his bike since I was rapidly outgrowing the little JT1.
Soon after buying his bike, he rented a trailer, we threw our bikes
in the back and headed out to Indian Dunes. If you grew up in Southern
California, Indian Dunes was legendary for motorcycle riders. It was
Bike and Motocross Action did all their testing through the
70s and early 80s. It was along Highway 126 just east of 'Six Flags
Mountain.' My Dad wasn't interested in riding too much. He preferred to
sit in the shade and read a book. That was fine with me. We parked in a
spot where plenty of trails were nearby and he relaxed.
I rode, he befriended the guys parked next to us. They had a 1976 YZ125
C that they were going to be selling soon. When I returned, they
telling me about it and offered to let me try it out. It seemed awfully
tall to me at the time but you can see by my face in this picture, I
mind. It was my first time at Indian Dunes, I was riding a cool bike
having a generally great time for a 12 year old. This photo was
June of 1977.
think my Dad kept track of my wants and was sick of me riding his bike.
On my 13th birthday (1978), my parents got me this used 1976 YZ125X. In
1976, Yamaha made two versions of the YZ125. The C model which I rode
Indian Dunes 6 months earlier had only 6 inches of travel.
in the middle of the year, they introduced the X model. It had 7.68
of travel front and rear and a more highly tuned engine. Here I am
to look cool with my mop of hair, my Bell Moto helmet, Scott Goggles
hung from the bars and my soon-to-be-outgrown, Hi Point boots. Of
I had to have the 'number 1' on my plates, just like Bob Hannah. This
was during the summer of 1978.
The YZ125 was to be my primary mount for 3 years though I would have a number of junker bikes to tinker with during that time as well. By 1981 I had outgrown the little YZ. My birthday gift that year was this used 1980 Yamaha YZ465G. When we went to look at it, it was beautiful. I loved the graphics, the big aluminum swingarm and the huge tire. It was the fastest open class motocrosser on the planet at the time and it would wheelie forever. In fact, a stock YZ465 won the 1980 US Grand Prix with nothing more than a pair of aftermarket Simmons forks. The owner had a desert tank and spark arrestor as well as the stock parts. He was on crutches from what he explained was a "basketball injury." I should have known better.
On my first trip to Indian Dunes, I was enjoying the big YZ's prodigious power. The problem was that I never rode anything faster than my 125. My 'normal' timing for one turn on the International track was to hit the berm, nail the throttle, upshift while straightening up, nail the throttle, upshift, take the next jump. Just like that, "throttle, shift, throttle, shift, jump."
The problem arose when I tried that on the 465. On one of my early laps, I hit the berm one gear too high. "No problem." I fanned the clutch and was catapulted off the jump before I could even straighten up from the corner. This bike compressed space on that track in a way that I was not ready for. In midair I attempted to recover from my mistake but I ended up doing a wild, 'Roy Rogers,' flying side dismount. The bike landed on, and hyper extended my left knee as I body-slammed into the clay. To make a long story short, I soon knew what an 'Anterior Cruciate Ligament' was and what I had done to mine. It was to be the first of 2 injuries to that ligament (the second would be softball).
Around this same time, my Dad and I had gone to a local dealer who
having a 'big blowout sale.' Suzuki Fun Center in Burbank California
a major mail order accessory shop during the 1970s. After going inside,
we soon discovered that they were going out of business and everything
was being liquidated by auctioneers. My Dad--being the schmoozer he
talking to the guys handling it. Before long, we found out that the
department still had stuff in it and it was for sale. My Dad talked to
them awhile longer and they settled on a price. $50 for EVERYTHING in
service department! The deal was that we had to take it ALL--garbage or
otherwise. It had to be cleaned out to the walls. That was the seed for
many of the service tools I still use today. There were 2-55 gallon
of Bel Ray EXP oil in the deal and 2 smaller drums of gear oil (1 of
I use today, 20 years later).
The one item that we couldn't take that day, but eventually became mine was a 1975 Norton 850 Commando. It had 3000 original miles and was abandoned there for service. It was a beautiful example of the marque. 1975 was the last year Norton would import motorcycles to the United States before they completely folded in 1977, and it would later prove to be collectable. In 1980 though, it was merely 'British junk' that the owner didn't want back. Following a lien sale, the Norton was mine. After repairing it's ailing engine at 15, it would become my first street bike.
I should have been more suspicious of a 'free' motorcycle with only 3000 miles on the odometer. The bike cleaned up well enough but it clearly had a shady mechanical past. Upon disassembly, we discovered why it was abandoned. The left piston skirt had parted company from the piston. When the piston jammed on the next up-stroke, the aluminum connecting rod split in half. This was a NEW motorcycle. In later service, I also discovered that Dunstall stainless valves had been installed, even though the airbox, Amal carbs and exhaust were all stock. I guessed that they too needed repair somewhere in those initial 3000 miles. Strangely, over half of the engine case screws had already been heli-coiled. No surprise when I started working on it and the threaded holes in the poor castings would just pull out with almost no torque.
I repaired the Norton but in the next 3 years, I only squeezed another 3000 miles out of it. In that time, I had the engine out of the frame and disassembled 3 times. I was convinced that I could make that bike stop leaking. It never happened. During my 3000 miles, I could never keep a battery charged, the points needed adjustment every 100 (yes one HUNDRED) miles because of vibration and it never idled quite right. The diaphragm spring clutch was a work of mechanical art--carved from a solid billet of steel. Unfortunately, it also used a hair-brained 6 inch circlip to hold the spring in place. One day, while riding down Angles Crest highway, it decided to just walk out of the groove and my clutch plates fell out inside the primary case. On another trip, my Amal carburetors FELL OFF the engine. I was on Highway 138 near Quail Lake. There were no phones, no service stations, NOTHING. I had to cut a tail light wire off and use it to tie the carbs back to the manifolds to get me home. Of course there was the time the rear turn signal mount fatigued from vibration and just fell off somewhere. Did I mention the oil tank cracking open and dumping it's contents onto the rear wheel? Yup, vibration.
While I loved a lot of things about the Norton, it soon became a
thorn in my side. It sat in the garage and constantly leaked oil. When
I did ride it, I could count on SOMETHING breaking or falling off. Even
though I was riding in the street from 15.5 years old and took my
test on it, my loyalty was growing thin. A 150 mile trip was a LONG
on it. I only made it to the top of Angeles Crest once on that bike. I
didn't want to get rid of it, but it obviously wasn't meeting my needs.
I did take one girl out on a date with that bike. She burned her leg on
the left side exhaust (Beth, if you're reading this, I swear I was
That was my best memory of the bike.
It was around this time that my Uncle Jim had come into ownership of a 1976 Honda GL1000 Gold Wing. Now I was almost 17 years old, and a Gold Wing seemed like an odd thing to have, but after the Norton, it was a dream bike. My Dad told me that if we sold the Norton, he would pay the difference to get the Honda. It had a water cooled engine, shaft drive, saddle bags and a RADIO! It was in sorry shape, but as bad as it was, it surely couldn't be as unreliable as the Norton. I agreed and we went to pick up the big GL.
Over the next 2 years, I ended up tearing that bike down to the frame and putting it back together. I actually rebuilt the engine myself (at 16 years old). I even did the machine work using equipment in the motorcycle repair class I took for high school credit. It was an old man's bike, yes, but I was able to ride it places that the Norton could not reliably take me. I rode that bike all over southern California. Before I turned 18, I had ridden more places than many riders twice my age. I wasn't exactly accepted in the 'Gold Wing' circles either. After all, I was younger than most of their kids and they many couldn't accept that an 18 year old could like touring too. It was okay, I loved the looks and the comments. Some of the people were great . They made up for all the 'old farts' who couldn't get past my age. That's okay, those people don't welcome me today because I now ride a ZX11. Some people, you just can't reach...
As I turned 19, my interest in motorcycles waned. I didn't ride the big Gold Wing as much as I used to. My 465 didn't run anymore (the victim of "just one more ride" on a bad chain). My time was being eaten up by the cars I was involved with. I even reasoned that maybe my riding days were over. "Maybe it is dangerous" I thought to myself. At my parents urging, the Honda was sold during the late fall of 1984 with 85,000 miles on it--18,000 of them mine. For 2.5 years, I was to be bikeless--for the first time in my life.
Two years later, I got a job working for Northrop Grumman. I was part of a HUGE hiring surge. During my first month, our department grew from 10 to over 40. They decided to have a 'get acquainted' picnic about 5 weeks into my employment. At that picnic, I joined a softball game, during which I ran toward a fly-ball. As I looked up, I didn't watch where I was stepping. I put my foot into a sprinkler hole and wrenched the same knee I injured 6 years earlier on the 465. I knew I had reinjured it.
A week later, I was having knee surgery by the same doctor, in
the same hospital. As I lay in recovery, I had a dream, in which I was
riding my old Gold Wing down a long desert highway. When I came
of anesthesia I realized that I HAD to buy another motorcycle. I vowed
to give up softball forever since it was obviously too dangerous.
I even got out of that cast, I was shopping for my next Gold Wing.
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