by Thomas Day

I’m thinking that the EPA and the Federal Transportation Department are all taking the wrong approach on motorcycles. With reasonable consideration of the purpose of vehicles, the environment, and decent manners, these agencies have attempted to encourage motorcycle manufacturers to build (and motorcyclists to own) vehicles that meet these objectives. The problem is that Americans (and rest-of-world American wannabes) don’t want reasonableness. To many of us, our motorcycles are not transportation but some kind of “lifestyle” icon. A nation of “born to be mild” types are buying and fiddling with motorcycles to demonstrate their individuality.

What if the government gave up on trying to manage all this stuff and just let the manufacturers ship us the absolute minimum vehicle, for us to redesign at will? Of course, at least one manufacturer is already doing this and making a bundle at it, so they might flex their powerful legislative muscle and prevent the competition from doing the same. Still, since the popular trend seems to be toward downsizing government. Imagine the whole thing getting downsized until diddly stuff like motorcycles are completely out of the federal and state viewfinders. It could happen. This fantasy occurred to me as I took yet another step toward returning my new-used bike to stock. I know this is the exact opposite maneuver from typical, but, so far, it’s been pretty successful for me.

I bought an almost new Suzuki SV650 from a kid in Michigan. The kid, like all self-respecting boy motorcyclists, had accumulated about 10 minutes of motorcycling expertise before he decided that Suzuki just hadn’t built the kind of motorcycle that someone of his talent and experience deserved. So, he took some of Daddy’s money and started re-engineering the SV. He had a shop install an expensive and noisy (the most critical characteristic) exhaust system. They applied a Dremel tool to the air filter, to allow “better breathing.” The shop boys fiddled with the carb jetting, mashing the throttle cable between the carb housing and the frame in the process. He installed sticky race tires. He added some racer-boy cosmetic accessories. After the fine-tuning and thread-stripping was complete, he dumped the bike in his driveway and decided that motorcycling was too expensive and dangerous. He put the bike up for sale and I bought it for an extremely reasonable early-March price.

I admit, without guilt, that I have a serious bias against noisy pipes. In this one aspect, I probably have more in common with non-bikers than most bikers. I see absolutely nothing wrong with a cop firing a warning shot to the head, when said cop pulls over a biker, a jacked-up SUV owner, or a semi-driver for noise emissions from a non-stock, non-EPA, non-DOT approved exhaust system. Even more non-biker-like, I don’t believe that 99.9xx% of the riders I see on the street have any capacity to manage the unlikely 1-4% horsepower/torque gains they might, on a miraculous perfect tuning day with the moon and stars just right, achieve with a “competition use only” exhaust system. I think most folks with loud pipes are just being antagonistic toward their neighbors and anyone they might muster up the nerve to pass on the highway.

In fact, I doubt that any modification made by a non-racer (or an unsuccessful racer) has a practical purpose. Having bought a few of these cobbled-up misengineering attempts over the years, I suspect that “buyer’s hysteria” is responsible for the sale of more motorcycle junk than performance. So, what I’m suggesting to the Feds and State regulatory folks is that they might try a little reverse psychology. Allow all of the bike manufacturers to make completely obnoxious and massively polluting bikes and, in that way, challenge motorcyclists to improve their bikes in the direction that they’re trying to lead us through current regulation.

After a brief burst of irresponsibility, bikers would start tuning to improve mileage and emissions. We’d would be pawing through exhaust system catalogs, comparing the systems’ noise output, and trying to quiet their bikes down so that neighbors would quit keying the bikers’ cars and teepeeing their houses, while they were out riding. Motorcyclist hobbyists would be involved in real engineering, rather than de-engineering. Imagine that. One of the early manufacturing engineering gurus found that assembly folks noticed an improvement in their working conditions when he modified the plant’s lighting system. Their output improved accordingly. Later, Mr. Guru change the same lights back to stock and the assemblers thought that was better, too. Again, their efficiency improved. Humans aren’t very good at making fine distinctions based on memory. We’re even worse about being objective regarding the results of our investments. We spend our money, put in a few hours fiddling with our bikes, and we’re convinced (regardless of any real evidence) that we’ve improved our bikes. The results of most of our modifications are grossly subjective, for those of us who don’t race. For most of us who do race, pouring money into the bike isn’t any where near as productive as spending time on the track. In my situation, I’ve started with a bike that’s had a fair collection of hop-up attempts made and I’m working backwards toward the stock bike. When the original owner had the bike, I read his posts to the SV owner’s mail list, bragging about how each pile of money and weekend of fiddling with the bike had done something wonderful to the bike’s performance. I’ve been spending my money and time to get back to stock. Regardless of the type of investment, I’m seeing the same kind of improvement that original owner reported, except that I’m removing the stuff he put on the bike to get those improvements.

I think this experiment is meaningful (it’s one I’ve run a few times with the same results). I’m just not sure what the meaning is. I’ll bet the accessory manufacturers would just as soon you didn’t think about it too much.

M.M.M.

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