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#302 Praise for the perfect four-wheeler

We’ve all heard “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Where GM’s Astro/Safari models are concerned, it’s too bloody true. The passenger vans are, in every important specific, tailor-made to haul motorcycles.

February 2008. Six of us are heading south for two weeks of riding in Baja California, driving a V10 Ford Excursion hauling a big double-axle closed trailer with five bikes inside: three R1200GS Adventures, an R100GS Dakar and my Cagiva Elefant.
We plan to drive through the night on Interstate Five to San Diego, switching drivers as we go. It’s after our dinner stop at Rice Hill, Oregon that we make our first driver change.
I-5 is pretty benign along most of its route, except where it passes through the Cascade Range between central Oregon and northern California’s Sacramento Valley.
Here, the highway winds over and through the mountains and you better pay attention, especially at night. A mile long, straight downhill stretch is ahead with a long bend at the bottom. What exactly went wrong, we’re still not sure—brake balance, speed, driver error—but the trailer started to sway behind us, gently at first, then more aggressively, pushing the Excursion from side to side across two lanes.
The first full jackknife smashed the trailer into the Excursion’s left rear corner, crushing the bumper. Then the trailer hit the right rear, blowing out a window, slewing the Excursion sideways toward the concrete crash barrier. I remember thinking, “We might get out of this—if the trailer doesn’t flip …” The trailer didn’t flip, but instead slammed the Excursion front first into the crash barrier where it finally stopped—just one minor whiplash, no other injuries.
We opened the trailer door to find two bikes had been ripped out of their tie-down hooks and one had been launched across the trailer, smashing the plywood liner on both sides.
My Elefant was underneath a couple of Beemers in the middle. Though battered and with the steering out of alignment, the Excursion was just driveable. We limped to a motel. That was the end of the trip.
Even if you’ve never had a trailer mishap yourself, I guarantee you know someone who has—a blown tire or overheated axle at least. For me, it’s the absolute last resort in transporting a motorcycle. But if you need to move a bike, and the weather prohibits riding, what do you do? Use a pickup?
In a former lifetime, I worked as a guide with a couple of motorcycle tour companies. Once, I was driving the support truck, a Chevy pickup, with two spare bikes in the back. I rounded a curve and saw one of our guests at the roadside, his Sprint ST with a flat back tire. Our policy is to get the guest going again ASAP by putting them on one of the spare bikes.
I set up the ramp, unloaded a Speed Triple, and sent the guest on his way, then pushed the ST round to the back of the pickup. I’ve loaded bikes lots of times. What could possibly go wrong?
But I’d forgotten the flat tire. I pushed the ST up the ramp, but with the reduced clearance, the centrestand snagged on the Chevy’s tailgate. I pushed, pulled and lifted, but it stuck fast. What to do? A little power assist of course! I fired up the Sprint, snicked it into first, and let out the clutch. The rear tire bit on the ramp, firing it off the tailgate and sending it clattering along the road. The Sprint stayed right where it was, with its back wheel clawing at the air … So I’m not keen on bikes in pickups either. But there are alternatives.
I’ve owned five GM Astro/Safari passenger vans over the years. Like the DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver, they were originally designed to carry sheets of plywood, so they measure four feet between the wheel wells and eight feet from the front seats to the back door. The low deck height means you can get away with a makeshift ramp (though purpose-built is better), and the rear door height means most average size bikes will fit, even if you have to take the mirrors off. But at less than six feet, three inches tall, the Astro also fits in any underground parking lot.
When the second and third rows of seats are removed, their anchors in the floor make perfect tie-down points. And because the Astro has a full frame underneath (from an S10 pickup), the floor is flat. I made up a bike “carrier” by bolting an up-and-over front wheel chock from Princess Auto to a half sheet of plywood. This butts into the front seat mountings to stop it moving forward. Tie downs do the rest.
No, your R1200GS isn’t going to fit, or your FLHTCU. But I’ve hauled most kinds of British and Italian bikes, up to and including a 249-kg Laverda Mirage and a BSA Rocket 3. Neither of these are small bikes! On one trip, I loaded both my Norton Commando and a small MV Agusta in the back.
So when She Who Must Be Obeyed told me we were going to spend a couple of weeks in Palm Springs this winter, I loaded the Sprint ST in the back of the Astro together with all my riding gear, two bicycles, SWMBO’s golf equipment and all the associated luggage, coolers and tools etc. and drove there. Herself got to golf her brains out while I rode the ST around the San Bernardino and San Jacinta mountains.
But there’s a snag. My ’03 is showing its age and will need replacement soon. And if you want to get an Astro or Safari van, good luck. As the mainstay of contracting and utility fleets for almost 30 years, they’ve become hard to find since production stopped in 2005. While there are plenty of passenger vans of the right size in Europe, like GM’s Opel Vivaro for example, they don’t seem to make it across the pond. The Fiat Ducato will be sold here as the Ram ProMaster, but the versions available are too tall. But so far, I haven’t found the Goldilocks van that’s just right. I wonder if it exists?

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