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Old 08-04-2015, 08:20 PM   #1
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Ruby’s Epic BMW Sidecar Ride

Mile zero, leaving Keith Turk’s garage in Enterprise, Alabama.

Sibling rivalry is a powerful force. Especially for the younger one who grows up in hand-me-downs, clutching pre-loved toys. Each bagel must be bisected exactly, each soda split to the last milliliter, and nothing—not bedtimes, back-seat real estate, or who picks out the breakfast place—is ever fair. Everything must be equal—or equivalent at least. And kids never, ever forget.

The bigger the prize, the stronger the protests. For my two daughters—Kiva, age 14, and Ruby, 10—the ultimate prize is something called the “sidecar trip.” It started two years ago, when I was offered a Ural sidecar to review for the magazine. I invited Kiva to be my ballast and travel buddy during a three-day sidecar adventure along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. The resulting story (see “Side by Side” from the March 2013 issue HERE) made Kiva a celebrity among friends and family, and before she and I even left for Los Angeles, little sister Ruby was already talking about “her sidecar trip” with the inevitable certainty of a clock striking 12.

Ruby rests under a roadside mural in Alabama cotton country.

So I did what any decent father would do—I decided to buy a sidecar, of course. But which one? I desperately wanted a Ural—I’m enchanted with the Russian machine’s tank-like construction and old-world charm—but pricing north of $15K remains beyond an editor-at-large’s range. Same for a late-model Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic, the other OEM sidecar option. For one hot, sweaty minute I even considered a Hannigan Sprint strapped to a Hayabusa, but that hardly offered the go-anywhere attitude I admired in the Ural.

Plan B was a vintage outfit, maybe built around a Moto Guzzi Ambassador or early Honda Gold Wing, but everything I found on Craigslist or eBay was junk, expensive, or both. It wasn’t until I passed on a mid-’80s, gray-market Ural with lots of rust and a horrible rattlecan paint job (for $4,500!) at this year’s Mid-Ohio Vintage Motorcycle Days swap meet that the perfect sidecar rig presented itself.

On the way back home to Wisconsin, I detoured to the Ohio Mile land-speed racing venue to visit friend and East Coast Timing Association race director Keith Turk. Sitting in the cab of Keith’s Dodge Ram catching up, I mentioned the Ural I almost bought earlier that day. “You want a sidecar?” Keith said casually. “Heck, I’ve got the perfect sidecar for you. Can you get to Alabama to pick it up?”

Getting acquainted with the machine just a few miles from Turk’s house.

I said yes immediately and instinctively, without asking a single detail about the bike—not even the price. Keith Turk is a minor legend in the hot-rod world, an accomplished land-speed racer (he belongs to six 200-mph clubs and holds 15 records above 225 mph), a master mechanic with impeccably off-kilter taste, and, most importantly, a man who appreciates a good story. If this motorcycle made it into his Enterprise, Alabama, workshop, it was something worth having.

We covered 1,100 miles in three days, on a bike that had sat idle for nearly 30 years. Remarkable!

Thirty years spent baking in the Alabama sun creates unmatched patina.

The bike in question turned out to be a 1971 BMW R75/5, and the backstory didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t a barn find, per se—call it a porch find instead. His buddy Jimmy Gaskin bought the bike used for $1,500 in 1974 and rode it intermittently until the mid-’80s, when it took up full-time residence on his front porch as a what Keith derisively calls “yard art.” Jimmy recently suffered a stroke, and since he was never going to restore the bike, he wanted to pass it along to someone who would. Some bike whisperer like Keith, who paid a token $300 for the (barely) rolling pile.

The bike was complete and low-mile—just 28,000 miles showed on the odometer—but getting it running was no small task. Everything on the left side of the boxer engine—downstream when it was parked on the porch—was seized and needed to be replaced. Keith did the rest of the necessary maintenance—new rear shocks, rebuilt fork, rebuilt brakes, everything—then put it back together with all the original nuts and bolts. “Most of that stuff just needed to be loved,” he says, “just taken apart and put back together again so everything is loose and happy.” The only concessions to vanity were a Euro-bend handlebar and period Tommaselli grips. A few weeks later he had a well-running—if rusty and very leaky—vintage BMW.

The sidecar, a 1980 Velorex Classic 562, was more former yard art, this time from a guy on the edge of town who Keith once bought an $80 Gold Wing from. Keith took the sidecar home for $250 sans seat, which his buddy Steve at Bruce’s Rods and Customs was able to expertly recreate in an afternoon. Properly attaching the sidehack required a subframe from DMC Sidecars that cost more than both the bike and sidecar combined, but that was money well spent to make the rig safe and sound. New Sidecar Triple Duty tires from Avon, one of the few companies still making sidecar-specific “square” tires, made the rig roadworthy for the first time in almost 30 years.

Keith rode the outfit once—a 1,400-mile shakedown trip the length of the Natchez Trace to Nashville and back—before pronouncing it roadworthy, if not exactly inspiring. “Old BMWs are just such incredibly average motorcycles,” he told me over the phone one night. “And when you tie a sidecar on the side, well, they don’t really do anything right.”

I couldn’t care less. I promptly booked two tickets to Montgomery in late October to retrieve the sidecar with Ruby and ride it back home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin—finally, she would get her sidecar trip. I was floored when I first laid eyes on the outfit in Keith’s workshop, tucked between his bright-orange ’32 Ford highboy roadster and a small fleet of ’70s Honda café racers. I had seen pictures, but pixels hardly captured the beautifully dilapidated, impossible-to-replicate patina that only comes from 30 long years baking in the Alabama sun. I was instantly in love. My co-pilot was less enthusiastic: “Are you sure that thing can make it all the way home, Dad?”

Keith betrayed all the Beemer’s secrets—the sticky choke cable, the Bing carbs’ Styrofoam floats that occasionally become gas-logged sinks, the best petcock strategy to get every last drop from the rare, 6.5-gallon big tank—then presented a separate learning module on adjusting the sidecar. “You basically have to think in five axes,” Keith explained. “Make one change here, it changes four things over there.” Then Keith examined my tool kit and laughed. Opening a special “PLOW TOOLS” drawer at the bottom of his toolbox, he produced a massive, 16-inch screwdriver with a bent tip for levering the sidecar up and down and a 1-inch open-end wrench to adjust the main attachment bolts. We were ready to ride.

Only one task remained before our departure early the next morning: to name our new machine. Keith and I had been affectionately referring to it as “Hack Job,” but Ruby was adamant on a “real name.” Keith’s wife, Tonya, came up with the blue-ribbon suggestion of Hansel (the bike) and Gretel (the sidecar). “It’s a double meaning,” Keith joked, “because the busted-open seat leaves a trail of foam crumbs behind, just like the fairy tale kids dropping breadcrumbs.”

We left Enterprise on a sun-soaked 70-degree Saturday, riding in formation with Keith and Tonya on their recently acquired replacement for Hansel and Gretel, a clean and intact early ’90s Harley-Davidson Electra Glide with factory sidecar that Keith recently scored off Craigslist for the incomprehensibly low price of just $3,500, plus a recently inherited handgun. “Good karma payback for giving you the Beemer,” Keith explained. Of course, after gifting “his” sidecar to me so I would have one to share with my girls, the universe opened up and dropped another, even better three-wheeler in his lap. Of course it did. The entire scenario—him showing up at exactly the right time with exactly the right sidecar for me—had more than a bit of cosmic bliss wrapped around it.

This sidecar endeavor was exactly the right adventure at exactly the right time for all of us, in fact. Barely 10 miles out I looked down and noted the first dark oil spots on my boots and thought about the envelope of new seals and gaskets in the sidecar trunk, reminders of unfinished tasks Keith planned but didn’t get to. A few weeks prior to the pick-up date Keith’s son Chris was injured in a freak construction accident and remained a coma in a nearby hospital that morning. The few hours Keith was able to spend wrenching on the Beemer in those last weeks were no doubt a precious respite from an increasingly challenging new reality for him and his son.

Then I looked down at my blonde-haired, blue-eyed ray of sunshine in the sidecar, grinning in her helmet and singing the opening verse of one of her favorite songs, “Home,” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, over the in-helmet intercom: “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa…” A few days before we left for Alabama, Ruby, one of the most active and athletic kids I know, was diagnosed with scoliosis. The day after we returned home from this trip she would be fit with a restrictive back brace she will likely wear for the rest of her childhood, and she still might require a corrective spinal surgery after that’s all over anyway. She was blissfully ignorant or ignoring; I was borderline terrified. This three-day, freewheeling road trip would be our last few days of innocence before we confronted the reality of how scoliosis will impact her future.

None of that mattered here and now, though, puttering northbound through Alabama’s red-dirt flatlands toward the Talladega National Forest, where I got my first chance to assess my new/old sidecar rig. I instantly remembered all the dynamic disabilities of a sidecar, with its trio of tires arranged all akimbo, so it barely gets down the road in a straight line. To my surprise, however, the sidecar masked some of the shortcomings I remember from my last ride on a vintage Airhead—specifically the shaft jacking. And the fiberglass-bodied Velorex sidecar is quite light, and so it seemed to exert less influence on handling. Properly aligned and on good Avon rubber, the rig tracked mostly straight and turned surprisingly well, with less tendency to pivot around itself than I expected.

Trying vainly to keep the oil in the crankcase.

Even in its aged and oil-incontinent state, the air-cooled flat twin makes enough power to allow 80 mph, but the combination is really happiest around the double-nickel—the perfect pace for the rural route I envisioned for this homecoming ride. Very soon the two-lane tarmac began to wind and rise into the foothills that mark the southernmost tail of the Appalachian Mountains. I had a little fun, pushing the bike into turns until the front tire squealed and skittered, and I was equal parts surprised at how sure the handling was and terrified by how poor the trio of drum brakes performed. Ruby, stripped down to her sweatshirt in the warm afternoon sun and still singing along with Edward Sharpe, remained blissfully unaware.

Ruby is a legendary moto-narcoleptic; at least the sidecar offers a safe sleeping berth.

Sights were set on Nashville for the first overnight, but I woefully underestimated just how long it takes to get anywhere by back roads. We were still 200 miles from The Music City at 5 p.m., so we recalculated and spent the night in Chattanooga instead. I wanted to take Ruby to see Ruby Falls—known from the dozens, or maybe hundreds of “See Ruby Falls” billboards for 500 miles in every direction—and collect our first bumper sticker for the back of the sidecar. We awoke early and puttered to the top of Lookout Mountain, high above Chattanooga on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, and bought tickets for the morning’s first tour of the 145-foot high waterfall in a cave some 1,120 feet underground. After exiting through the gift shop—Ruby got the bumper sticker for the sidecar and the T-shirt—we finally set out for Nashville much later than anticipated, not arriving there until 3 o’clock. Over tacos at the downtown farmer’s market we agreed to abandon our back-road route in favor of the interstate, to have half a chance of getting Ruby back for school by Tuesday.

Celebrating our arrival in Chicago with hot chocolate at Ed Debevic’s.

Drafting 18-wheelers at 75 mph up I-65 wasn’t the most scenic and definitely not the safest way to travel, though it was adorable to hear Ruby coaxing, “C’mon, Gretel, give Hansel a push!” when long, uphill grades sapped our speed. Once again we missed our goal, Indianapolis, where we hoped to sleep in a train car in the downtown train station since converted to a hotel. Instead, we found ourselves eating cardboard pizza in a Holiday Inn Express just across the border from Louisville, but at least there was a hot tub to fight the chill, as it was 45 degrees when we rolled in.

We woke the next morning to a cold drizzle, a stark contrast to the Indian summer sunshine we enjoyed 24 hours and 240 miles earlier—welcome to the Midwest. Hansel’s first start is always hard; this one, on a 40-degree morning with a tired battery, had me worried, but the air-cooled lump eventually fired off. The rain lifted just past Lebanon, where we exited I-65 in favor of US 52 then US 41, rural four-lanes through stubbled corn fields where traffic and life both moved at a more vintage-friendly pace. With little to look at besides the occasional wind farm, Ruby and I chatted endlessly over the intercom about everything from grade-school minutia to geologic landforms to favorite relatives to—for only a few awkward moments at a time—the battery of X-rays and MRIs and orthopedic fittings and other uncharted medical territory waiting for us when we returned home. Unlike Kiva’s trip down the California coast, where around each bend we were stunned to distraction with some giant redwood forest or seal-covered beach or charming vegan bakery, in the vast homogenous emptiness of northern Indiana Ruby and I had nothing but each other for entertainment, so we made the most of it.

The view from the sidecar in downtown Chicago.

Eventually cornfields transitioned to the industrial prairies surrounding Gary and then the crooked skyline of downtown Chicago. I promised Ruby a late lunch at her favorite Ed Debevic’s Diner, where the trademark loudmouth wait staff heckled us mercilessly after I inquired about an outlet not to charge my phone but to charge our motorcycle helmets instead. From Ed’s we set out through the concrete canyon of Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile then toward the moneyed mansions lining the lakeshore suburbs of Evanston, Winnetka, and Highland Park. There’s a special satisfaction found weaving among big-wheeled Range Rovers and Porsche Cayennes in a rusty, oil-spewing sidecar rig and knowing that every driver is jealous of you and your little girl.

That odometer reading works out to about 680 miles per year.

The last 90 miles from Chicago to home is an endless morass of heavy traffic and road construction—situation normal for southeastern Wisconsin. I’m amazed we made it this far with so little trouble—I fully expected to load the whole pile into a U-Haul before we reached the Alabama border—a testament to Keith’s considerable mechanical abilities, my good faith, and, of course, the strong moto-karmic force field surrounding this ancient machine. Ruby says she knew we’d make it all along and then tells me I worry too much.

We rolled into Milwaukee just after dinner on day three, just enough time to drop Ruby with her mom and pick up Kiva after ballet class. She breaks into a huge smile as soon as she sees me sitting in the saddle outside the school and doesn’t even complain that she has to undo her perfect ballet bun to put a helmet on. She squeals with laughter when I fly the chair around the first right-hand corner then reaches over and punches me hard in the thigh, just like old times. “And we don’t have to give this one back, Dad!”

That’s right, baby. We don’t have to give this one back. We marvel in that reality for ?the next week, while we ride Hansel and Gretel every day—to the grocery store, soccer practice, and, to Ruby’s special delight, the appointment for her brace fitting. I pick her up after school in front of all of her friends, who stare and point and giggle like she’s some rock star. I even ride it when I’m by myself, despite a garage full of perfectly good, two-wheeled motorcycles. I’m totally, irrationally in love with this rig and what it means to my motorcycling life.

Hansel and Gretel and Ruby and Aaron at home in Milwaukee, little worse for wear.

I call Keith a few days later to check in and deliver the post-ride debrief. We commiserated about the -annihilating saddle—“I told you to bring a sheepskin!”—the impossible-to-extract ignition key—“Just leave it in there. No one else is going to figure out how to start that bike.”—and my ruined Red Wing boots—“Let me check your warranty. Nope, not covered.” But mostly I just tell him what a great and carefree journey Ruby and I had, how much all of us have been enjoying Hansel and Gretel in the days since, and how much we’re looking forward to more three-wheeled adventures in the years to come. I thank him, and then Keith, a man who is rarely without words, is quiet for quite some time.

“Thanks, man,” he finally says. “I’m just really glad you like the bike. It’s nice to be able to tell a story with a happy ending every once in a while.”

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