Apr 6, 2015

#103 Magura Levers and Preston Petty Fenders

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

Every year that I have taught MSF classes I’ve spent a good portion of at least a few BRCs cobbling together a lever out of busted pieces of Japanese aluminum. Beginning riders crash, they break stuff, the stuff they break most often are brake and clutch levers.

For my own replacements, I try to never, ever buy a factory Japanese lever. They don’t bend, they break. Always.

Almost any kind of alternative lever will be more indestructible and more reusable than the aluminum-powder crap that the Big Four dumps on their customers. Twenty-five years ago, that was the rule for brake and clutch levers and shifters, regardless of where they came from; England, Japan, Italy, Germany, and the US. All crap. The slightest impact and the levers snapped like pencils. For that matter, so did the bars. Today, nothing has changed.

Back in the bad old days pretty much every brand of lever was as fragile as factory metal, except a Spanish company called Magura. Magura made slightly more expensive levers that could be bent, straightened, bent again, and straightened over and over. It wasn’t that they were easier to bend, either. They were tough and repairable. For some of us who had wrestled with the problem of carrying a half-dozen levers in the toolbox, Magura levers were freakin’ magic parts. Once Magura came out with a replacement lever for the bike of the season, that problem was solved indefinitely.

Sometime in the early-70s Magura upped the ante by introducing “dog-leg levers.” Today, practically every bike lever sold is a copy of those 70's Magura parts. However, the levers pawned off on ignorant consumers by the major manufacturers only copied the shape. The reliability and strength of the original design got lost on the drawing board or on the manufacturing floor. Magura still makes really cool bicycle and vintage motorcycle replacement parts. Our loss. My last trials bike had a pair of Magura bicycle levers in place of the junk Yamaha had installed. I crashed that TY350 a few hundred times and the levers were still in like-new shape when the new owner picked up the bike and trailered it away.

A common gripe among sportbikers is the expense of replacing fragile plastic. “Drop a sportbike, spend a few thousand,” is the sequence we’ve all experienced. Even a slow spill in the garage can cost a month’s wage in repair parts, most of them plastic. Forty years ago, all factory fenders were metal and they were fragile and often replaced. Europe started using fiberglass bodywork, but that was only a cosmetic “improvement.” Parts still broke easily and replacement parts were no better than the OEM bits.

A west coast desert racer, Preston Petty, designed a line of ABS plastic parts that was guaranteed to be “unbreakable” and, under most circumstances, they were close to indestructible. Petty branched out to fuel tanks and other body parts and, for a lot of years, you could find a Preston Petty parts section in most shops that catered to dirt bikers.

My experience with Petty’s fenders varied a little from the indestructible reputation. Every spring my one-man bike dealership would ship a box of fender pieces for warranty replacement. After three years of this routine, I got a call from the company asking what my customers were doing when they broke the fenders. When I told them we were motocrossing in near-zero-Fahrenheit weather, they weren’t amused. It’s the truth, though. We’d crash and the fenders would break like glass. On ice and snow, we crashed a lot and we broke a lot of fenders every winter. I never broke a one between March and November, though.

I’ve been a big fan of ABS plastic stuff ever since. Maybe not for Minnesota winters, but it’s great stuff the rest of the year. Rustproof, durable, light, when it’s scratched it doesn’t show because the color is injected into the plastic, and it’s even weld-able so you can repair it or modify it, it’s the perfect motorcycle body material. Apparently, ABS is expensive. The street bike parts from the major motorcycle manufacturers has little of the qualities that made Preston Petty’s fenders so durable, except for the rustproof-ness. The only reason I can imagine they use this crap plastic is because it is cheap. Obviously, it’s no skin off their noses if we have to cough up thousands for replacement parts as long as we have no alternative sources for the parts we buy.

Acerbis has taken up the slack for dirt bikes and their parts are tough. I haven’t raced or crashed on the ice in more than twenty-five years, so I don’t know if their parts hold up at low temperatures. I’m curious, though. I have used Acerbis tanks, fenders, lighting, and all of that stuff has survived my abuse. It looks good, too.

Whenever someone tries to tell me that the major manufacturers are doing me a favor by building great bikes, I remember Preston Petty and Magura. When the majors couldn’t figure out how to do a job right, someone does it for them, turns it into an industry, and forces the big guys to do their job. Without all of those pioneer privateer bike part designers, we’d still be riding bikes with crap suspensions, fragile body parts, boring cosmetics, and poor performance. I don’t feel any need to thank Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda, or any other manufacturer for today’s motorcycles, but I do want to thank Preston Petty, Magura, and the other great designers and motorcycle fanatics for polishing the big company turds into the wonderful motorcycles we ride today.

MMM September 2011

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