#325 Ride and Wrenching an Airhead BMW

Those Airheads sure are a sociable bunch when it comes to getting a job done.

I feel like I’m having my own personal renaissance. The last month has been thrilling, in an Airhead sort of way. It started at the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group national rally in Paris, Ontario and ended at a BMW rally, with a tech day in between. But there’s more…
This year, BMW was the feature marque at the rally in Paris, where a man who couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Dead stickers on Casper approached me. My 1987 R80 G/S is not just the Paris Dakar model, it’s also adorned with a few aging Grateful Dead stickers. And that got me an invite to an Airhead tech session I had known nothing about. (Airheads were manufactured from 1969 to 1995, and are simple and sturdy.)
It turned out there were a number of people at the vintage rally who were headed toward Ottawa the following weekend for a tech day. When I inquired as to where, the answer was vague, but that it would be a four-hour ride. I looked on the map and saw a favourite road that runs south of Griffith, then up to Calabogie. I hadn’t run that road in too many years and thought, what a great idea. I can go to this gathering, which is a campover, and I can incorporate that road in my ride. Bonus: first weekend of summer in fact.
A group of guys circled around a bike lift working on a gearbox that had already been removed when I got there. I didn’t know it would be all men until I arrived, and realized it was just like where I work doing construction. But it was also just like most of my experience wrenching on motorcycles. I’ve known a few women who have done substantial work on their bikes, but most of my experience has been with men, in their shops or mine—or in the case of my British bikes, on the side of the road as well.
So there I was, greeted by a group of men as surprised to see me, as I was to see them. I think just riding up on what is now one very coveted bike was a good start. One realized I was the only person who’d had an airhead for 29 years and labeled me for it, which gave me some extra status. But beyond that, I jumped in with everyone else, and quickly fit in the middle, with people who knew less than me who I could help, and people who knew more than me who could help me!
What fun! I’ve never worked with so many people on one bike. There were two lifts in the garage and a covered space outside for tuning. The idea of a ride-in camp-and-wrench weekend is fantastic.
One of those, you know, year-long BMW adventure riders found us. Jaakko Antila of Finland had a problem with the gearbox on his 1995 air cooled PD, which was being rebuilt. I was tickled to learn of a “witness mark,” an engineering term for evidence left by use of a makeshift tool. It was nice to peer inside a gearbox again.
I set up my tent and joined a lot of grey hairs and some young ones too. There was a cooler of beer and soda. And there was another woman there, who I really enjoyed meeting. She made the most amazing food appear. We all contributed to a jar, and meals formed on a table. I was impressed. Again, there’s something to be said for being established. Treachery and experience tops youth and beauty.
Early risers were wrenching when I got up. And more bikes arrived. We must have been 25, chatting and working away, fixing one bike and then another.
I was thrilled when a Saturday afternoon group “test ride” took us down my favourite road. Someone commented that they were surprised to see me ride so fast … “and on that!”
I know my Beemer looks like a giant dirt bike, but really, she handles just fine on the twisties. Either that, or I don’t know any better and push her into each corner as hard and fast as I can, for the greatest amount of pleasure. I admit I made my way to the front of the pack, because the spot right behind the leader is always the fastest place on a group ride.
Two weeks later I rode to yet another tech session. This one was at the International BMW MOA Rally at the Hamburg Fairground, just outside of Buffalo, New York. Thousands of people camped in tents with BMWs parked all over. Many were from the 1980s, and unlike the rally I passed by in Michigan in 1987 when my bike was new, they didn’t all look like they’d just left the showroom floor. There were few old ones, but many from the ‘70s on up. I found my way to an Airhead tent, a group I officially joined weeks earlier, and was well met.
A new friend gave me a tour of the vending area, where I met friends from the Ontario tech session. They directed me to a class tech session hosted by Tom Cutter, master mechanic of the Rubber Chicken Racing Garage.
People identified the year and model of their machine and asked technical questions. I really enjoyed that. I had a brake fluid question, one about the difference between DOT 4 synthetic and non-synthetic, if there is such a thing.
If making new friends and finding people to wrench with isn’t enough, I was thrilled to find an original BMW service manual for my bike, something I would have bought when new if I’d known they existed. Tommy of AirheadCycles.com had the book. And WunderlichAmerica.com is now making “reproduction” parts for the G/S series, because so many people want my bike that they’re turning ST’s and R65 frames into Casper! This means that unavailable parts specific to my bike are becoming available again!
I spent a day in between with Al Blanchard, now retired BMW mechanic outside Port Hope who is renting shop space and expertise by the hour—and I needed a little help with a head bolt I thought needed a hell-coil. We shared stories of our trips to Central America, where he travelled in the ‘70s – ‘90s. It was a different world back then.
I’m looking forward to the next tech session. Once upon a time I wrenched with British bikers. It’s taken 29 years, but I’ve found a new group to wrench with. The social club gathers, not to ride but to wrench. How have I been isolated all these years? I read my first newsletter, Airmail. They have tech sessions all over! Pick one, or more. You ride to the session, camp, wrench, and keep airheads alive. Hurray Airheads!

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