Good Shop Practice #5: Don’t Get Cocky

The most inept mechanic is not the beginner but the reckless intermediate. A few years’ experience, a bit of success, and you start to get impatient and careless. You can see how much you have learned, but all that you don’t know is invisible. Your growing confidence is admirable, but see that it doesn’t grow faster than is warranted. Keep it in check. Watch yourself for the temptations to make shortcuts – temptations to which we are all subject. Force yourself to maintain those careful habits that got you this far. The swiftness and deftness of the expert is developed by the practice of care, not by careless shortcuts. As you gather momentum, downshift early or you will have to slam on the brakes when it is too late.

On the Ford GT

The mid-1960s were a high-water-mark in performance automotive design and styling. Many of the design icons of that era are still breathlessly coveted by gearheads and connoisseurs. It was a time of high art in machinery. Consider this brief honor roll:


1961: The Jaguar XKE. Long, low, and very modern. Sort of the beginning of the look of a modern sports-car, at a time when many contemporaries still had flaring fenders right out of the 1930s.

1962: The AC Cobra. A bulging little monster. Tough and sleek.

1962-1964: The Ferrari 250 GTO. The car that marked the maturation of Ferrari as a world sport leader at the height of its power.

1964: The Corvette Stingray. Just super cool. A design that still turns boys’ heads fifty years later.

1964-1968: The Ferrari 275 in all its variants. Perhaps the most gracefully shaped pieces of metal of all time. They are “Italian” in the sense that an Amati violin or Ferragamo loafer is Italian.

1965: The Ford Mustang and the Pontiac GTO. The beginning of the American Muscle Car. Cold War hubris in steel.

1965: The Aston-Martin DB6. British grit and elegance that just gets classier year by year.


In this Valhalla of velocity, the Ford GT40 beat them all. Literally. In 1966, GT40s beat Ferrari to take first, second, and third place at LeMans. A GT40 won again in 1967. And again in ’68. And ’69. It was the first and perhaps the only true American supercar.

frdconcepts 02detroit1, 2, 3…


The GT40 wasn’t just a race winner. It was beautiful and unique. It just didn’t look like anything else. The design had this broad, distinct American accent. It wasn’t lithe like a Ferrari; it was more of a bruiser. It had a brutal elegance, like a Chicago pugilist. It had a manner that would make the Lords drop the monocles out of their regal eyes. It was more Humphrey Bogart than Charles Boyer. It had the tough, confident, no-bullshit brush-strokes of an Ashcan School painter.


Bottom line: if there’s one American car to get romantic about, it’s probably the GT40.


In the past two decades, we’ve seen design revivals of pretty much every American (and some European) car model that’s come and gone. It’s some combination of nostalgia, Post-Modernism, and a lack of a new design language. Some of these have been great (Dodge Challenger), some not so much (Ford Thunderbird). The GT40 didn’t seem like a prime candidate for revival, since it wasn’t a mass production car, and it’s not as widely known outside of motor enthusiasts. It’s not the thing you see on posters in diners. It’s also not something you’re going to see an original at a Saturday cruise-in.


fordgt northamericaBut they did it: in 2005 – perhaps at the height of the retro wave – Ford released the GT, a very literal design revival of the venerated GT40. Some argued this design was too literal, hewing too closely to the 1966 car, but the 2005 GT was inarguably still beautiful and tough.

fordgt northamerica frdasia tokyo03 03tokyoIt was just a more refined, slightly more modern version. Unlike some of the other reanimated models, the GT kept all the essential sex appeal of the original. It was above all covetable.


At the North American International Automobile Show this week, Ford debuted the next generation: the 2016 GT. It was unquestionably the star of the show, and for good reason: it is spectacular.

2016 gt2017_Ford_GT_front by Latvian98

It is more of a design departure than the previous iteration. The most distinctive GT40ism is the broad, low front end and identifiable headlight and windshield shape. The rest of the machine, though, goes in more of a superhero direction. It feels more adolescent, like perhaps it should fold into a fighting robot. This makes that classic front end look out of place, like grafting a great Roman aquiline nose onto a dysmorphic runway model. This car will be amazing, but the styling has gone a little too much tequila and not enough fine whisky.

2017_Ford_GT_rear2017_Ford_GT_Rear by Latvian98

The original GT40 and the 2005 GT were brawny, but they didn’t rip their shirts off. They had a very grown-up virility. Fine things take time to learn to appreciate, but they are worth it. That is why we should be careful about letting teen aesthetics be the arbiter of taste. The best designs provide deep, lasting pleasure, not just eye-pop.


I don’t mean to pick nits off of what is definitely an amazing American automobile. It is lovely to see a car with a blue oval on it that will go toe-to-toe with any machine in the world. I am afraid, though, that all our attention will be on the funky, flashy bits, rather than its enduring dynastic elegance.



Let’s Talk About Crashes

You know that motorcycle riding is dangerous. We all know this. Well-intentioned dimwits remind us all the time with their epiphanic insights (“Isn’t that dangerous?”) and fatuous humor (Every time some maroon mentions the term “organ donor” [as if I’ve never heard it before], I whip out my driver’s license to show them that I am, in fact, an organ donor. [I really do this] That generally shuts them up.).


So, yeah, we all know it’s dangerous. Or rather, we have this general sense that it’s dangerous. We don’t truly understand the danger of motorcycling. How dangerous is it really? What types of riding are dangerous? What are the factors in crashes that I can and cannot control? How effective is “defensive riding” in preventing accidents? Do loud pipes really save lives? Am I becoming a safer or less safe rider as I get older? Is a big, heavy cruiser safer than a nimble sport bike? Does lane-splitting really increase or decrease rider safety?


We don’t have good answers for these, because motorcycle safety is seriously understudied. Maybe it’s because we’re a small constituency, or maybe it’s because, frankly, we haven’t asked for it, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes since nineteen-eighty-freaking-one. That study, Motorcycle Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, (informally called the Hurt Report [after its primary author Harry Hurt, not as a kind of sardonic humor]) looked at 900 crashes. This was an examination of case studies rather than an aggregation of overall national data. It was also limited to the Los Angeles area, so the results may not be entirely (or at all) extrapolatable to the whole country.


And it was 34 years ago; do you think anything might have changed since Dolly Parton sang “9 to 5” and Walter Cronkite retired? (Not trying to imply that those two events are related)


Well, there is a new study going on right now, and according to the AMA (the motorcycle people, not the doctors), it just received additional funding to continue through 2015. This is a good thing, but it also has some serious limitations.


The Motorcycle Crash Causation Study is being conducted by Oklahoma State University and is funded by the states of Oklahoma (natch), Iowa, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, and by the Federal Highway Administration, NHTSA, and the AMA (again, the bike folks). The study is expected to be published in Spring 2016.


Like the Hurt Report, the MCCS will examine a limited number of accidents in detail to understand causes with the goal of providing the background information to other institutions to develop countermeasures and safety standards. There will be about 500 crashes included in the final study. This type of in-depth analysis of specific incidents is critical to understanding the how and why of crashes and to training bikers in safe riding practice. Hopefully some of this will also filter into training car and truck drivers in how to not “not see” bikes.


However, this data set is even more limited than the original Hurt set of 900 crashes. We understand that this is a labor-intensive (and therefore expensive) process, but smaller data sets do not make for more universal results. This case-study analysis would be much more meaningful if it were complemented with large-scale data analytics of overall national crash statistics. This could illuminate regional differences and demonstrate how broadly the conclusions from the 500 case crashes can be applied to everyone and help states and individuals assess their risks.


This report also needs to be correlated with the June 2013 NHTSA publication of the Prioritized Recommendations of the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS). This report makes 82 specific recommendations for increased motorcycle safety. The very first recommendation is “Government and industry research studies, both comprehensive and specific,” so we are starting in the right direction just by fact of conducting the MCCS itself. Of course, the industry doesn’t appear to be involved here, which is a shame, but it’s a start. (I can understand why manufacturers might be shy about getting too real about the dangers of using their product, but they need to take the long view and help promote knowledge and education for biker longevity. They don’t want their customers being splattered.) The MCCS might validate or debunk many of the other 81 recommendations in the NAMS report. These need to be put together and assessed when the MCCS is complete.


The number of crashes in the MCCS is not the only limitation of the study. Similar to the Hurt Report, the MCCS is only studying crashes in California. No-one could reasonably say that CA is representative of the nation as a whole when it comes to riding. First, there is a different level of driver awareness of bikers in CA, and possibly a different attitude (bikers tend to be seen more as “outlaws” in CA, which might [do you think?] result in different behavior on the part of car drivers). Second, adverse weather conditions for riding are much more common in other states and so will be underrepresented in a survey of CA accidents. The lack of freeze-thaw in much of the state also means roads may be in better condition, thus underrepresenting potholes, cracks, and loose asphalt as causes. Finally, and most importantly, CA is the only state which allows lane-splitting. That means this survey cannot make any intelligent statement about whether lane-splitting increases or decreases biker safety. This is one of the most burning questions about motorcycle regulation and safety, and this study cannot address it. There are surely other significant (I mean “significant” strictly in the sense of actually statistically significant) differences between CA and the other 49, but these three are obvious important differences that seriously limit the applicability of the MCCS to other states.


Finally, the study only looks at accidents that resulted in injury. You might think, well, that’s fine: we’re really mainly interested in accidents that cause injury. Isn’t that the point: to understand injury? Safety, right? Yes, but to understand what causes injury, you need to understand the difference between injury accidents and non-injury accidents. Therefore you need to study both. It’s like having a control for the experiment. What are the factors that are common in injury accidents but not so common in non-injury accidents, and vice-versa? We cannot know from this report.


The final question is, how will this report’s findings be communicated to riders, regulators, and the industry? How will this information be translated to regular schmucks like you and me so that we can assess our threat? What, if anything, will manufacturers do differently once this report is out there? How might state laws change, and (very importantly) how will we bikers have a say in that? We (bikers) need to take ownership of this. This report is something that everyone who uses a road (or trail) should see and understand.


Of course this study is limited – my intent here is to be realistic, not negative about it. The MCCS is important, but it is only a long-overdue (as in like generation-overdue) next step in understanding and protecting ourselves against the hazards of our life on the road. Without unlimited funding and time, there is no perfect study. When this study comes out, it should be welcomed and lauded by the biker community, but we need to understand more than the headline (“Helmets prevent injuries!” No shit.) and get deeper into the methodology to really grok what the data are (and are not) truly telling us. Researchers are generally very careful about framing their results to provide the context of those limitations, but that framing tends to get lost in the re-telling and in the popular media, so let’s look deeper into the study and push for more research in the future.


A skeptical biker is a safer biker.




Good Shop Practice #4: Seek Mentors.

Learning is slow and hard without a teacher.  Yes, every piece of information you need is in a book or online somewhere, but a mentor shows, demonstrates, evaluates, rewards, and provides context and attitude.  The Grand Encyclopedia – the continuity of human capability – is not what is written but what is handed down from person to person, in person.  It is an unbroken line of know-how from the Achueulean hand axe to your machine.  This is the memetic transmission of culture and how we avoid having to re-invent everything from first principles each generation.  Novice mechanics usually intuit that they need guidance; it is the experienced mechanic who forgets that they, too, need a mentor.  Don’t be arrogant.  Unless you are some kind of Boddhisattva, everyone needs mentorship, and everyone has some mentorship to offer.  Be humble in teaching as well as learning.

A New Year in the Garage

Set the thermos on the workbench: coffee with Jameson’s. No work today; I just came out to the garage to “tidy up a bit,” my own preferred personal euphemism for doing nothing at all. It’s the first Sunday of January, but not too terrible cold for a’ that.


The only actual task I have today is to take down last year’s Garage Calendar (Rachael Clegg’s delightful, beautiful, sexy, and witty Milestones TT calendar) and put up this year’s (images of engineers rappelling off buildings from Wiss, Janney, Elstner; sexy in a very different way). I’m very particular about the selection of the annual Garage Calendar ever since I got the droolworthy 2010 Zero Engineering calendar.


So, January. Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. He has two faces, looking forward and backward. He signifies that every beginning is an ending and blah, blah, blah, whatever. January isn’t actually named after Janus, it turns out, but it’s close enough, so we’ll go with it.


So as we look forward to another year of, by the grace of Jupiter, riding, wrenching, tinkering, drinkering, revving, leaning, and getting home alive, it’s worth an hour or two to inhabit the garage, have some augmented coffee, and reflect.


Everything in the garage is put away so neatly now, as it never is during the season. Drawers are closed; King Dick wrenches are aligned on the wall in soldierly fashion; mower and wheelbarrow parked under the stair; hoses coiled; Triumph tarped and parked. It’s really quite pleasing to observe, and the temporary neatness masks all the undone projects nicely.


Of all the things still incomplete, I’d have thought I would have gotten the BSA on the road this year, but over there is the frame, and over there are the wheels, and under that sheet is the engine, and in those boxes… oh, boy. Look at that bucket full of nuts and bolts. This isn’t even at square one. It’s square zero.


Time to get realistic and realize I need to call in some help. Instead of lofty, hifalutin’ New Year’s resolutions, let’s be realistic this time. Sure, I’d like to be able to say I did it all myself with tools I forged myself from locally-sourced organic iron, but let’s get real. Let’s put ego aside and do what’s best for the project and give us the best chance of getting her on the road.


It takes some combination of time, skill, and money to complete any project. My resources of all three are limited. I’ve decided to decide that I can spend a little more money and borrow an expert’s skill. Do I lose a little authenticity? (maybe) Am I getting older? (yes) Well, I’m OK with it. I know I would enjoy doing more of the work myself (if I had the time), and I would surely learn a lot on the rebuild. I also know that, like everybody else, I’m going to be working my ass off this year and I can’t always put a bike rebuild first. “Others have excuses, I have my reasons why.”


This will be a good year. Maybe by giving up a little of my self-improtance, I’ll get a little more done and be a little less manic. Maybe I’ve had enough augmented coffee. (nope)


Well, the calendar is up. I guess I’m done here. Here’s to kicking the starter in 2015.