Sparkly Bits

In 2014, after a half-century on two wheels, I acted on a long-held notion of obtaining a sidecar rig. I wanted to make myself learn something new and add to the motorcycling experience. I flew out to DMC Sidecars in Enumclaw, Washington, bought a used sidecar rig and drove it home to Kentucky. My wife Brenda, who had ridden on the back of various two wheelers with me for nearly 40 years, quickly took to the sidecar life.

Brenda wanted to take a sidecar trip in the spring of 2015. It was going to be a two week excursion, without an agenda or even a direction other than “south” from our home in Kentucky.

I did the usual stuff to the rig to get ready, checked this, tightened that, inspected the other and then, as a final item on the list, did an oil change on Friday with just over a week until we left. This was the second time since I purchased the rig in Washington the previous April that I’d done the change on the BMW F650GS, not an easy task for one my age, involving a three-part draining and filter operation, complicated by the fact that the filter canister is on the right side, where the car is, requiring this old geezer to hang bat-like upside down over the seat to accomplish the change.

As I was pouring the drained oil into my used oil can, some part of my age-fogged brain said “that’s odd” because the fluid seemed to look “sparkly”. By the time that thought had registered, however, the oil was in the container, mixed with all the other oil that I’d changed from various vehicles over the last several months.

Having heard of the dreaded “sparkly oil” syndrome, which usually means that something is coming apart inside the engine or transmission, I then fished the used filter out of the trash and cut it open. Inside I found what looked like a few shiny bits and a little piece of what may have been clutch plate fiber. None of the bits were magnetic. There was nothing on the magnetic drain plug. I filled the bike up with new oil and ran it for a few minutes, then pulled some oil off the tank and put it in a clean black pan and took it out into the sun. Sparkly? I don’t know. The mind plays tricks at this stage, much like a miner panning for gold in the Yukon, finding pyrite and willing himself to believe it’s what he wants to see. I called the legendary Kent Holt at his BMW shop and explained my problem. Without being able to see what I was seeing, he could only opine that if there wasn’t much in the filter and it wasn’t magnetic, it could be just normal wear. He advised running it some more and continuing to sample. He said he couldn’t estimate accurately what it would cost to rebuild the 650 single, if something was coming apart, because they’d never had to do one before. The Rotax engines are widely known as bomb-proof.

Though I loved the F650GS for its big single thumping, and it just looked and felt right as part of the rig, this particular one was not without its issues. As I knew when I bought it, the bike had a salvage title, having been constructed from two examples of the breed, with the front end off one wrecked bike and the engine and frame from another. It was made strictly to be used as a demonstrator for the new sidecar model DMC had produced. The folks at DMC had been completely up front about its history and I knew the risk I was taking. I, however, had fallen in love with the rig and like anyone in the first flush of that emotion, was immune to the idea that my beloved could have relationship problems. The bike, or at least half of it, had been used hard off road showing all the scars and wear of that former life. I’d put over 9,000 miles on it in the year that I owned it and it never let me down. That said, though, the fork seals leaked, spraying my riding pants with a Jackson Pollock pattern, the starter switch had a passive-aggressive personality disorder and now it may, or may not, have Sparkly Oil Syndrome.

So there I was, a promised trip one week away, a bike I no longer trusted and the only options for restoring that trust requiring large amounts of time and costing more than the salvage-titled machine was worth. What to do?

A man doesn’t promise a sidecar trip to a woman as special as Brenda and not make the effort to complete the vow. I suppose I went past a lot of other possible solutions, but the one I chose in my desperation was this.

Sunday I went on line and searched for 06 or 07 BMW F650GS’s (to match the sidecar framework that I already had), located a likely prospect in Kalamazoo, Michigan, 7 hours away, bought it sight unseen and recruited brother-in law Jay to drive up there with me on Monday to get it. We arrived at the owner’s home about 4:30 in the afternoon, had the bike loaded up in the pickup and were on our way by 5:30 PM, spending the night in Benton Harbor. By mid-morning Tuesday we were south of Indianapolis where some curvy roads began and found a gas station where we could unload the machine and I rode it the rest of the way in. If all went well, I’d never have another chance to ride it unattached and I wanted that experience. It was, by the way, marvelous.

Wednesday morning, early but not so bright, I started on the process of dismantling two motorcycles. First I had to remove the 06 from the sidecar, which was daunting, complicated by the fact that the bike has no stand of its own once it isn’t held up by the third wheel. I wanted to keep all the dimensions exactly the same on the fittings because this rig had been set up perfectly by DMC when I bought it and, not having any other experience myself, I didn’t want to change anything .

With great trepidation, I began the process of disconnection. I took measurements of various points, hoping that by matching them again I could keep the alignment. The bolts that hold the four mounting points were so tight that I had to stand on the wrench to get them loose. Those DMC guys have got some muscle that apparently I no longer possess.

I had not realized until I began the process that the F650 had a subframe of its own that held the side stand and also served as the bottom half of the bike’s frame. That had to be removed from the 07 and the sidecar subframe from the 06. The DMC subframe is in three pieces that needed to be transplanted carefully to keep the alignments the same and to keep everything solid enough for the car.

Earlier that spring I had installed a new rear shock, specifically set up for the rig, on the 06, which made a huge difference in handling, compared to the completely worn-out one it came with, and I wasn’t going to forgo that benefit with the 07, even though its stock shock seemed to be working perfectly. Having the car attached had made that job difficult, so I wanted to get the swap done while neither bike was so encumbered. But, the shock absorber seems to be the first item coming down the assembly line when these things are built, so the motorcycle has to be removed from the shock, not the other way around. Twice.

There was wiring to do, both to remove a bunch of aftermarket bits the 07’s owner had installed and then to recreate the sidecar wiring needed to match up to the car.

Jay came over to help and with two people working intensely, we got the shock and other swaps accomplished. With one bike on the lift and the other one in the garage bay, we felt like transplant surgeons shuttling back and forth with parts in hand. Jay asked at one point if I needed an ice chest for the transport.

Eventually, by Saturday afternoon (remember, we’re leaving on Monday), the crucial hour had come. The new bike had to be joined. Jay came over again, a glutton for punishment . We got the bike and car side by side and then pondered how to move them closer when neither could stand independently and our days of being able to lift a bike were long past us. Jay came up with the solution, which involved him holding the motorcycle and me lying under the sidecar to lift and crab-walk it slowly toward the target. Imagine the docking scenes in the space movies where the shuttle mates up with the space station…but then add one of the characters under the shuttle on his back trying to lift the thing into place without the aid of weightlessness.

More as a credit to DMC Sidecar’s engineering and precision than any mechanical skills on our part, the two docked perfectly and the bolts slid into place without tension.

A quick check of the wiring proved that the lights worked as planned with no unwanted escape of the essential smoke. I hooked up the sidecar brake arrangement, which again requires hanging upside down over the seat to manipulate the small bolts into place.

A few minutes later, I was donning my helmet and taking the new rig down the driveway, hoping that it would stay pointed in some semblance of a straight line. It did. It tracked beautifully, ran smoothly and nothing fell off. I could breathe again .

There were more details, more incidents proving that Murphy’s Law is immutable (why, oh why did BMW engineers put windshield clips upside down in a place that when they fall off, the entire instrument panel and headlight have to be removed to find and replace them?) but by Sunday afternoon, it was ready to go. The 06 was red, the 07 black, but I exchanged the body panels to keep the rig in its original color…except the front “beak” which just didn’t make the time cut. The rig looked sort of like the loser in a nose-punching contest, with its black proboscis sticking out from the red bodywork, but that fix would have to wait for our return. We left, as scheduled, on Monday, headed south.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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