Virtual Combustion

Nobody cares about the railroads anymore

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Contributing Editor Peter Jones shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

A fair amount of my emotional relationship with motorcycles is due to internal combustion engines. That might be true for you too. I love the sounds and smells of engines. Engines are the living symbol of man’s mastery of fire. In fact, many of my earliest memories of working on motorcycles are of getting burned. It took me far too long to learn that cold metal and hot metal look exactly the same.

Motorcycles wear their mechanicalness on their sleeves, so to speak. The engine is in view and right there between the rider’s knees. Even “full-fairinged” bikes leave a good bit of their engines in view—except of course for the Ducati Paso and a couple other historic aberrations. My favorite motorcycles aren’t even the ones that fully feel like a vehicle powered by an engine. I prefer the ones that feel like I’m totally just riding an engine, an engine that by accident of convenience just happens to have a couple of wheels attached to it. That’s because I like to feel a bit of the raw, fiery violence of my relationship with motorcycles.

Since childhood, though, I’ve known that the end to the era of the internal combustion engine is coming. The supply of dead dinosaurs is limited, and, I admit, filling the roadways with per­sonal carbon factories is inherently flawed.

But knowing there’s a worshipping culture of these creations of the Industrial Age, I used to imagine that the end of petroleum oxidizers would arrive like a forced fascist takeover. Military rule would be declared and soldiers would come to our houses to pry internal combustion engines from our cold, dead hands. Or so I envisioned such a romantic tragedy of epic sadness.

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Peter Jones Bike Life.Cycle World

But, alas, history tends to be an evolution, and only rarely is it a revolution. Change is slow. Things happen in inching steps that only become noticeable when reflecting on the past—after text­ing a picture to grandma while listening to music on your smartphone.

The first engine I dismantled was a well-worn Ford V-8 flathead. It had about 11 moving parts plus a carburetor. The motorcycle race engines I built in the early 1990s had four carbs, two cams, 16 valves, and sleeved cylinders separate from their crankcases. In those days, hot-rodding a racebike was a popular sport in itself, involving planing heads, adjusting timing, polishing crankshafts, five-angle valve jobs, boring cylinders.

In the second half of the 1990s EFI arrived. And then Nikasil coating. And coils were piggybacked onto spark plugs with the E of the EFI highly evolving. Now literbikes are ultra smooth, with so much power and such complicated electronics that amateur hot rodding is impossible. The hammer, screwdriver, and crescent wrench that I used to rebuild that flathead are worthless today against a six-plane sensor box, ride-by-wire, variable cam timing, and so on.

So now, even when I can see a new motorcycle’s engine, I can also see that the days of having an interactive relationship with it are long gone. Somewhere hidden beneath an electronic management system, and layers of rider controls, there is still an internal combustion engine, but it’s an item of technological prowess beyond an enthusiast’s interactive comprehension. Today’s most modern of modern motorcycles are basically sophisticated robots on wheels, with broad ranges of user interfaces. While, as enthusiasts, we might think that we’re evaluating modern motor­cycles, actually our motorcycles are evaluating us. Next week it might be an electric motor between our knees, and we might not even notice.

I now miss the modesty of a Ducati Paso. Those bikes never judged me.