Dec 29, 2009

Don't Ask Me

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

There are more things that I don't know than things that I do by such a large number that I consider it a divide-by-zero calculation. For example, I don't know why people like country music or why working class people vote Republican or why anyone listens to economists. These among the simple things I've contemplated for most of my life without resolution or satisfaction. The list goes on for miles and light years. When a friend or stranger has taken on the task of trying to explain these things to me, we always get hung up on the lack of logic in human decision-making.

So, I put a lot of items in the category of religion, politics, and sex and try to leave them out of polite conversation.

One of the topics I've recently moved into that category is "do you know a good motorcycle mechanic?" The answer is "no," but that doesn't mean much. I haven't really looked for one.

When my brother and I first stumbled (with his money) on to motorcycles, neither of us had money to repair the thing when we (usually, when I) broke the bike. The logical solution was to stick the bike beside the trailer I rented and ignore it until it rusted back to the earth from whence it came. Again, the lack of logic in human decision-making came along and caused me to pull apart things I didn't understand and couldn't reassemble to see if I could make a bad situation worse. Along the way, I learned to braze and weld. I learned a little about carburetor repairs and adjusting and replacing points and spark plugs. I became fairly talented at fixing flat tires. After a year or so, I could hammer out a bent steel rim, adjust spokes, replace bars and levers, crimp cable ends, and replace brake parts.

My father had a motto, "anything you can do for yourself, someone else can do better." He used that refrain to keep me from disassembling the family's broken cars, radios, televisions, and lawnmowers. Until I stumbled on to motorcycling, I thought I was as mechanically disinclined as my father. It didn't keep me from working on the bike. I didn't do those repairs because I thought I was good at them. I repaired the bike because the only other alternative was to not ride. I was the only mechanic I could afford.

A about the time I bought my first real car, a 1967 VW convertible, in 1969, the original John Muir's How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, A Guide for the Complete Idiot appeared to save me from my ignorance and convince me I could work on my own stuff. After a miserable and expensive experience with a VW dealer's attempt to overhaul my 1500cc motor and the near bankruptcy that followed, I started doing all of my own VW repairs. For the next decade, with Mr. Muir's well-greased book at my side, I became a shade tree mechanic and the only relationship I had with professional mechanics came from specialized part repairs; stator rewinding, brake drum and disk machining, and valve grinding. I discovered Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a few years later and Pirsig offered a convincing counter-argument to my father's assertion. In Zen, Pirsig convinced thousands of us that only a person who really cares can do Quality work. Any Libertarian knows that the only person who cares is the person who wants the work done.

A few years after I took over keeping my Volkswagen alive, a friend got serious about motocross and I ended up doing his track repairs. He was fast, I was not. He was a klutz with a wrench, I was not. He freely spent money to own the latest, most competitive bike on the track. I hung on to my race bike for three years; and it wasn't competitive the day it rolled off of the assembly line. In the first month of racing, my friend spent as much money repairing his first Suzuki RM125 as I'd paid for my three dirt bikes. I started wrenching for him so he could afford to keep racing. As a bonus, I got to ride his previous year's bike, which made me a little more viable. Eventually, I ran a part-time bike shop and worked on all kinds of motorcycles in my spare time. That lasted until I crashed and busted myself up, met my mortality and didn't like him, got serious about my career, landed my first engineering job, and gave up on motorcycle racing for the family life. These days, I don't work on my cars much because I know a good mechanic who hasn't yet broken my bank. I still, however, do most of my own bike repairs.

So, when a friend asked me if I knew a good repair shop, I had to rely on other friends' experiences. I have none of my own. I should have said "I know nothing," but I tried to be helpful and relayed the stories I'd heard from other riders. I had some doubts, but my friend wasn't in a mood to keep wrestling with his fuel system problems, so I gave him the name of a couple of bike repair shops. He picked one and things went downhill from there.

I suspect that the only people who get "good service" from repair shops are folks who don't do much of an inspection when the bike comes back from the shop. My friend isn't one of those guys. After coughing up $500 for a carb adjustment, he had high expectations for his motorcycle. He took a quick walk around the bike and discovered the shop had lost a variety of fasteners in reassembling his bike. When he got home, he discovered the threads mounting his petcock to the frame had been stripped and the bolts were held in place with some kind of adhesive. Like any reasonable person, he's now wondering what else was damaged by the "repair job." I suspect that the time he saved by letting the shop troubleshoot his carburetion problems will be lost in finding problems they left for him in other areas.

Of course, because I recommended the shop I'm on the hook for a portion of his misery. I'm the guy who gets to hear about the damaged parts and the customer dissatisfaction, since the repair shop isn't interested in hearing what they did wrong or putting out much effort in making it right. I'll probably get to help re-tap the petcock threads and supply the missing hardware from my giant jar of metric fasteners. Sooner or later I'll learn that I'd be better off keeping my mouth shut. "No good deed goes unpunished."

I'm going to try to learn something from this experience. Even more serious, I'm going to try to remember what I've learned. The next time some one asks if I know a good mechanic, I hope to provide my two honest recommendations for bike repairs: 1) Buy a brand new bike and sell it before the warranty expires. If you are lucky, you won't need to use the dealer's mechanics for anything more complicated than chain lube and tire replacement. If not, at least you won't be out a lot of cash when the bike spends the summer in and out of the shop. 2) Learn to fix your own bike and avoid the hassle of constantly crossing your fingers when you hand your ride over to random mechanics. If you are new to mechanics, this means you'll have to buy a bike that you have a chance in hell of figuring out, probably something manufactured before 1985 and no more complicated than a 250cc thumper. Those are the two rational choices. Otherwise, don't call me when you get a basket of parts back from the shop and a huge bill. I didn't send you there, I wouldn't recommend that shop or any other shop on the planet, and "I know nothing."


  1. What's happened to all the good mechanics in the world? I'm old enough to remember the days when every town had several local garages where there were guys wearing greasy overalls who could fix just about anything that had wheels, and they'd do it without an appointment. The bill was usually about what a nice dinner out would cost. When you left the car there you didn't wonder if you were facing bankruptcy. If you wanted to fix it yourself, these guys would provide free advice and possibly weld up something for you for free, or even lend you a tool or two. They often lived right next to or over the garage so they were part of the neighborhood. All gone now. My local Ford dealer can't even do a recall repair right, if they can find the tools. Usually, something new is broken after the car comes back. By the way, if you can believe it, the yahoos who work on boats are worse than motorcycle or car mechanics.

  2. Finding a good, honest, mechanic with integrity is difficult. I do like your philosophy of fixing it yourself. I do that on most things.

    Once I found that special mechanic I worked to make him my best friend. I drop by and say hi, take him a cold drink on a hot day (a lot of days in Texas), etc. A good mechanic is priceless.

  3. Dealing with the public is dirty, nasty work. Practically anyone with the skills to put up with the average customer also has the skill to do something less painful. It's no wonder few talented mechanics exist. If they are really good at what they do, they have a lot of choices in the workplace.


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