In 1963, when I was learning to ride my new 80cc Yamaha YG-1, I discovered the value of metal bits that bent instead of broke whenever I managed to screw up and drop the bike again, usually in a rock-strewn streambed or sandy wash. I grew fond of that little rotary-valve two-stroke engine, which always restarted easily after I untangled the bike and myself from whatever mess I’d gotten us into. And I grew even more fond of the simple and rugged construction of the cycle parts as I bent back the brake pedal or the clutch lever after a low-side someplace.
You’d think, reasonably enough, that the take-away message would have been the most basic from Motorcycle 101—“Don’t crash.” But, in fact, the one I took most to heart was its corollary: “When—not if—you do crash, make sure you’ve got the tools to repair the bike and get going again.” Said tools being not just the onboard toolkit but the knowledge and skill to use it.
A few years shy of four decades later, I found myself with a bent saddlebag latch on a BMW R1100RT testbike in the bowels of the LAX parking lot, and I thought about the corollary again, because it turned out that BMW had seen fit to equip the bike with a toolkit that didn’t include pliers, which I needed to straighten the latch I’d inadvertently bent. Until I straightened the latch, I couldn’t open the saddlebag and therefore couldn’t load my gear and ride off to the appointments I’d made.
Decades of riding, testing and owning BMWs left me unable to fully grasp the idea of a BMW motorcycle without a fabulously well-furnished toolkit. I’d repaired, tuned and almost rebuilt BMWs with their onboard tools all over the world. So, to encounter a BMW without one of the most fundamental tools in the kit—the pliers—astounded me. I assumed somebody had just forgotten to put the pliers back in the kit. Until I looked at the owner’s manual photo of the tools supplied: no pliers.
Luckily, in those pre-9/11 days, I flew with my big Swiss Army knife, which includes mini-pliers, so eventually I was able to straighten the latch and get on with the ride. But when I told BMW’s press boss that his company had seen fit not to include pliers with the toolkit, he didn’t believe it at first. Then he checked it out and later admitted that there were, in fact, no pliers supplied with the then-new “Oilhead” bikes. Naturally, I asked for an explanation and eventually got a two-page fax from a senior BMW corporate guy in Munich. The explanation boiled down to the claim that BMW was supplying all the tools an owner/rider should need for authorized owner maintenance purposes.
Was this a result of cost-cutting or something else? Nobody at BMW would say anything more, but decades of experience in car, airplane and motorcycle magazines since 1973 suggested to me that the real purpose was to defend BMW against ignorant jerks who might use the pliers to screw up something on the bike, then crash and subsequently sue BMW for providing the very tool the fool used to mess up the machine. During my time on deck in motorhead magazines, I’d watched as lawyers successfully sued manufacturers for even less-plausible reasons, and been horrified to see how juries all over the country would agree that the manufacturer, not the user, was at fault. Defending themselves against these kinds of lawsuits had become immensely important to vehicle manufacturers, so in that light, I could see why BMW would say to me that an owner who wanted pliers in his toolkit could just buy one for himself.
Even so, at this same time, BMW was selling cars equipped with trunk-mounted toolkits that included Heyco channel-lock pliers. Evidently the car buyers using the pliers did not constitute the same lawsuit threat that we motorcyclists did. Or, at least, the motorcyclists who were buying the then-very-expensive new Oilhead Twins. To check this, I called BMW dealers all over the country and asked if any of their Oilhead customers had noticed that their bikes didn’t come with pliers in the toolkit. The universal response was that the buyers didn’t notice, because, many of the dealership folks said, tactfully, they weren’t the old do-it-yourself BMW types. The new BMW buyers, I was told, took their bikes to their dealers for all their maintenance.
Today, it’s clear that many BMW riders are still fiddling with their bikes, no matter how many might indeed be taking them to their dealers for maintenance or accessories installation. And toolkits? I asked my buddy Doug, when he bought a 2007 K12000R, what kind of tools his bike included. He told me he was appalled to discover that all the bike came with was a reversible screwdriver, and to make sure, he’d checked with a BMW dealer, which confirmed that the high-tech rocket was not outfitted with an old-school BMW do-everything toolkit. Doug also said that he was shocked to find out that his local BMW shop wouldn’t tell him what the torque settings were for the three bolts he needed to tighten when he installed a carbon-fiber “hugger” rear fender. The dealer’s service guy told Doug that the dealer was just protecting itself by that policy.
Back in the ’70s, at Cycle Guide magazine, Paul Dean and I discerned the onset of the hyper-litigious era when we noticed that Honda had been forced to stamp a warning into its bikes’ exhaust pipes advising people that the pipes were hot. This came a few years after a distraught mother sued Kawasaki for damages to her son because the 500cc H1 he’d been riding didn’t have a disc front brake, and her lawyer proved that Kawasaki was planning to introduce it on the next version of the two-stroke Triple. We were told by those in the know at the time that this decision, among many others in the early ’70s, resulted in the establishment of what lawyers call “strict liability” for the manufacturers in tort cases, whereas previously plaintiffs had to prove negligence or deliberate malfeasance on the part of the manufacturer. Suing for damages thus got a lot easier, we were told.
Given this environment, it’s easy to see the benefits of not providing a presumed jerk, who just happens to be a buyer, a set of tools with which he can really mess up the bike, crash, then sue. But it’s also hard not to think that something has gone seriously wrong with our culture since the days in 1963 when I was crashing my YG-1 and straightening bits of it with the basic but barely adequate tools that Yamaha put under the little two-stroke’s sidecover. Without pliers, it would have been impossible to get home in many cases. Good thing I wasn’t on an R1100RT.