Travels with Guido: Hand me that shifter

Ever wondered what it was like to wrestle a 60-year-old monster with a hand gearshift? Guido didn’t, but found out anyway…
 Over a quarter of a century down the proverbial track, I should know better than to respond when long-term trade identity Phil Pilgrim gets on the speaking trumpet and says, “I have a plan…”
It has at various times led muggins into all sorts of weird and wonderful situations, such as working for Triumph (a long story for another day) and, more recently, buying my own Gilroy Indian at great expense to management.
The latest wheeze was something along the lines of, “You’re going on the Great Race (note the lack of choice here – Ed), and it’s about time you grew up and learned to ride a proper hand-change motorcycle.”
Okay, I’ve had sillier proposals, and wasn’t about to dispute his judgement or generosity. For those not in the know, the Great Race is a Harley versus Indian classic bike trial, which this year attracted 160 entries.
In case I missed the point, he turned up one morning on Black Bastard, a 1948 Chief with stock 74ci powerplant and three-speed ’box, looking a little rough around the edges. I liked it, though riding the beast could be a whole other nest of vipers.
“Listen up,” he began, “you use full choke and give it a few priming kicks. Then, back the choke off to two clicks, switch it on, give it a touch of throttle and boot it.”
Okay, that I can live with. And the catch?
“That’s the clutch,” he explained, pointing at the left-side pedal. Now that’s a silly bloody place to put it. “This one will be easy,” he went on, “it’s got the throttle on the right-hand – standard, they had them on the left.”
So I guess that means the giant knob on the left of the tank (normally on the right) is the shifter? Yup.
“Don’t dither,” went the briefing, “once it’s running just shove it home. You’re really gonna have to practice with this thing. I don’t want to see you stuffing up on the Great Race start line by not getting away – they work to two-minute intervals.”
Great, so no pressure then. Eventually, I got around to borrowing BB for a morning (pre-race) and used it to lower the real estate values of the leafy suburb of Ivanhoe for an hour or so.
I’ve ridden foot clutch motorcycles before – one was powered by a Subaru engine and the other a Chevrolet V-eight. Neither had hand shifters and, in fact, the builders hadn’t bothered with anything as refined as a gearbox. Though holding their own terrors, neither experience was much use.
I wobbled out of sight of Pilgrim’s workshop and managed all of five minutes’ riding before I cocked it up and stalled. No worries – BB was in a good mood and we got going again.
The process repeated a few times until I finally worked out the secret. An Indian twin, even one this old, has a ton of grunt and is quite forgiving. So forget finesse. Just squeeze, turn and release the appropriate levers and concentrate on making sure it was pointing in the right direction.
Riding in the suburbs is one thing, doing several hundred kays through the Snowies is another. And this is where I got the biggest surprise.
The handling was primitive and vague, but perfectly predictable and stable. Its brakes were nothing to write home about, and I’ve used worse.
What really shocked me was how comfortable it was. It could teach a lesson to a lot of modern cruisers.
Cut loose on the open road, that big and lazy powerplant is a gem. I’ve ridden a variety of Brit classics over the years (and own a Sumbeam of similar vintage), but this big American was a whole other experience. Just give the damned thing its head and it would pull through.
Okay, so the odd first-gear switchback sometimes had me scrambling for levers in some weird frenetic dance, but we got there.
Black Bastard and I became friends. I really didn’t want to give him back. Dammit, where’s that cheque book?
(Thanks to Motorcycle Trader & to Guy Allen 09/08/12)