by Gary Charpentier
Just north of Des Moines, I turned over 1,000 miles for the weekend, so I suppose I can be forgiven for not seeing Iowa State Trooper D.R. Kopp (YES! That’s really his name!) coming southbound on I-35. I was road-weary and just wanted to get home, so I let my throttle hand do the driving. Clocking me over the ton, Officer Kopp cut across the median and put pedal to metal to chase me down. I never even noticed him until he was “in the saddle,” on my ass at 90 miles per hour, lights blazing and my license plate already blasted over the airwaves. Gotta learn to pay attention, dammit!
He let me go with a $106 ticket for 90 in a 65 zone, and a stern lecture. I told him I had visited his fine state to cover the Baxter’s Classic British Rally for a “big Minneapolis Motorcycle Magazine”, and that I would make him famous. So, I photographed him writing the ticket next to my bike with his lit-up cruiser in the background, only there was no film left in the camera. I’m sorry Officer Kopp of the Iowa State Patrol, but your 15 minutes of fame are now officially over. I must say, however, you were the nicest police-type person I have ever had the misfortune to meet.
The Baxter’s Cycle Classic British Motorcycle Rally took place in the tiny town of Marne, Iowa. This place doesn’t even rate it’s own gas station. But it does have Baxter’s Cycle, and just two blocks away it has a little joint called The Roadhouse Bar and Grill. The roads surrounding Marne aren’t the most challenging, but they are rather scenic. Of course, that’s if your definition of “scenic” includes the word GREEN. Unfortunately, farms are usually parceled out in neat, square pieces, so all the roads servicing them are straight, and all the curves are 90 degrees. A creative rider can still have some fun on them, though.
When I arrived on Saturday, there were a few classics already parked in the lot in front of Baxter’s. John Dexter, a Triumph factory rep, was setting up test rides on the latest crop of Hinckley bikes, plus a pair of ‘Guzzis; the V10 cruiser, and the V11 Centauro. Each ride that went out was full-up, the variety of bikes a perfect compliment to the variety of riders who came out for this event.
After 425 Interstate miles on Gogo, I was happy to hop in the more comfortable cockpit of John’s T595 Daytona demo bike. I couldn’t believe how smooth the triple felt after pounding out so many miles on my snorting Italian V-Twin. A regular Gentleman’s Express. Of course, this bike was completely stock. I understand that with minimal modifications, however, the Daytona turns into a real screamer. I can believe it, and you really have to hear that triple come into the power band to appreciate what Triumph has done here. Nothing short of a Ferrari V-12 snarls with such authority!
My next sample was the T509 Speed Triple. This is the prototypical Hooligan Bike. Lots of midrange, wicked exhaust note, and a real sit-up-and-kick-ass riding position. I rode sweep on that run, so I could drop back before the curves, then accelerate through to test the composure of the chassis at speed. I was not disappointed, the new perimeter frame is a vast improvement over the old backbone job.
I was able to corner Randy Baxter for a short interview early in the day. Randy came to Marne to set up business back in 1980. Before that, he was selling parts out of an old chicken house. The operation has matured to the point where they do most of their business through mail-order and the Internet, and their warehouse showrooms hold some of the most desirable British iron in the country. I personally left a trail of drool everywhere I went on the property. Besides the vintage British bikes, Baxter’s is also a Triumph and Moto-Guzzi dealership. In fact, last year they won an award from Triumph for being the “Most Improved Dealership” in the region, having increased their sales by some 300% over the previous year. The staff is professional and courteous, the prices are fair, and this rally, now in it’s 17th year, is really a world-class event for lovers of old British motorbikes.
Early on Saturday evening, my attention was drawn to a flawless Triton, leaning on it’s sidestand in a premium parking spot at the front of the lot. Just completed the Friday night before the rally, it gleamed with brightly polished alloy in all the right places. Nothing extraneous or ornamental on this machine, everything was built to a purpose. A gorgeous Manx gas tank crowned a Norton slimline featherbed frame, and custom-made, billet engine plates held a Triumph 650 Bonneville twin just ahead of the Atlas oil tank. Akront rims mounted a set of Avon Roadrunner tires, the tread still unscrubbed, and the seat was typical minimalist cafe racer fare. Multi-adjustable Tomaselli clip-ons fitted to the Norton Roadholder forks completed this masterpiece; the absolute King of the Cafe Racers.
On Sunday morning, I rode the Lightning. No, not the electric chair, I have yet to be convicted. I mean the beautiful black and silver BSA Lightning that owner Tom Bettin was generous enough to allow me to test. Not exactly stock, Tom built this bike to ride. The gas tank and twin Amal GP carbs were both U.K. Spitfire spec, and aftermarket performance shocks held the swingarm in line a bit better than the originals would have. We traded keys, and rode off towards Atlantic, with me learning to shift the reverse/race pattern lever on the right hand side.
Highway 83 from Marne to Atlantic has about seven or eight 90 degree sweepers posted at 45 mph. Not exactly racetrack stuff, but enough to allow me to get a feel for how the bike handles. They say old BSAs are supposed to vibrate substantially, and this one was a prime example of the breed. At idle, the front wheel bounced back and forth at least a half inch, and at highway speeds the handle bars were a blur. The ride was very stable, and rock steady through the turns even at 80 miles per hour. Brakes were typical drums, which is to say effective enough if you were insistent and grabbed hold with all your fingers and toes. There was no real “power band” to speak of, not in the sense of modern bikes. Rather, the power came on strong and steady from low in the rev range, right through to my self-imposed S.E.M. (somebody else’s motorcycle) redline of 5,000 rpms. Well, to be honest, I probably went to 7K coming through the sweepers in third gear, but she pulled like a locomotive no matter when I chose to twist the grip. Except when we were about a block from Baxter’s and the engine quit altogether. Silence. I pulled in the clutch, rolled to a stop in front of the Roadhouse, checked the fuel petcocks: ON, checked the ignition switch: ON, then I kicked her through a couple times: NOTHING.
Well, here we have the quintessential British test ride, complete with electrical failure somewhere short of our destination. Perfect! Tom, I’m sorry I broke your motorcycle. I hope there is a warranty on that fancy Boyer ignition box. We can’t blame this one on Lucas.
I had a fantastic time at Baxter’s this weekend. They do this rally every year, and I will return. I want to thank Randy Baxter and his staff: Gary, Kevin, Jamie, Don and Tim for making this an event to remember, and special thanks to Tom Bettin for that undiluted classic British riding experience. I’ll send you that “Ace Cafe” patch as soon as I can find it.