Changing Horses Mid-Stream

While on my way home from the BMW MOA rally in St. Paul, MN in late July of 2014, I decided to meander down the Mississippi on the Great River Road on my 1993 R100R, a recent acquisition. The bike had some problems, including a failed alternator rotor on a trip to the Vintage Motorcycle Days event earlier that month, which required a parking lot parts swap. I had spent much of the summer chasing various intermittent electrical problems when I should have been riding. Then in Muscatine, Iowa it died in traffic and a quick check determined that the charging system wasn’t keeping up with the battery drain. (It couldn’t be another rotor because the red light was still working and anyway, I was carrying a spare rotor so that wouldn’t be the problem would it?)

The nearest dealer was Gina’s BMW in Iowa City, which the Google map said was just 26 miles away, so rather than try to do side-of-the-road diagnostics and repairs, late in the afternoon I headed over there.

I had been considering a parting with this bike, since I had been seduced by my brother-in-law’s F650 twin. I’ve been an “airhead” guy for over 36 of my 55 years of riding. I have had affairs with modern bikes, an R1100GS in 1998, an 09 R1200GS, and the “camhead” R1200 that powers my sidecar rig, and others, but I always had an airhead or two still in the garage. This particular R100 and I had never really bonded, though. The 800cc twins (yes, in BMW’s strange logic, the 800cc twins can be “F800’s, F650’s and F700’s, all with the same engine) had me intrigued, with its lighter weight, smooth effortless power and good handling. With these musings swirling through my head, I pulled into the lot at Gina’s BMW in Iowa City.

This is a best-of-both-worlds motorcycle shop, modern enough to meet BMW’s current standards, but with the feel and atmosphere of the old-style places I knew in my youth. It was not Taj-Mahal large and shiny, just big enough to be comprehensive and small enough to be manageable. The showroom was full of new and used bikes and the lot outside had more used offerings. The staff seemed knowledgeable…as one of them pointed out to me, “everyone here is a rider”. Sue, the parts and accessories guru, had just returned from a long ride to the MOA rally on her Beemer. In the shop in the back, the mechanic who was to work on my bike had his BMW airhead ice-racer project in the corner by his bench. I had called ahead to see if they worked on airheads (since many new BMW dealerships will not) and was told that they certainly did, with a puzzled tone that suggested, “why would you even have to ask that?” In the showroom, with pride of place, was a 1977 R100RS with a plaque that said it was the bike Gina and her husband Julius had courted on back in those days and while in beautiful condition, it definitely was not for sale.

I heard a woman introduce herself to a customer with “Hello, I’m Gina” and I turned around to see a pleasant lady in jeans striding across the crowded showroom with her hand extended. It was good to know that the namesake wasn’t sitting in a distant office poring over paperwork, but was a living breathing presence in the daily activity of the shop.

This shop had the true-motorcyclist’s policy that broken down travelers took first priority, but there were machines already on the benches that couldn’t be just tossed aside to make room for mine quite yet, so I wandered around the showroom for a bit. In a tidy row, there were several iterations of the F700GS, the successor to the 650, but one, down at the end, was in deep red metallic paint, always a draw for my attention. I looked at the hang-tag and saw that it had the minimum number of options that I would want, just the centerstand, heated grips and bag mounts. I walked away from it, sat down at the table provided for customers, had one of the delicious pastries and a cup of coffee and tried to concentrate on writing something on my iPad. But my gaze kept returning to the red machine.

The dialogue between the two angels on my shoulders was so loud and continuous, it drowned out any attempt at concentration. I thought that at any moment they would dissolve into ethereal fisticuffs.

Then, as has happened a few times in my life, I had a vision of clarity, a sweeping panorama of the future as it would occur. I could see myself leaving here with my airhead repaired, completing this trip…possibly with other problems… and returning home to spend more time tinkering with this particular machine in an attempt to cure its ills. The hours and days would go by, the bad language increase, and finally, after all that frustration, it was inevitable that this relationship still would end.

I walked over to Gina, who was finishing up with her customer and said, “would you consider trading my R100R for this red one over here?” She looked me over, the white-haired, not-from-around-here, fellow in overlarge bug-spattered riding pants and sweat-dampened t-shirt, with just a moment’s hesitation, trying to decide if I was serious or just some old geezer passing the waiting time with idle speculation. But, professional that she is, she said, “yes”, and we walked outside to inspect my bike.

Gina knew her airheads, her eyes going right to the spots that mattered, looking for oil leaks around seals, drips from the back of the oil pan, signs of bodge-work fixes. (Fortunately, there were none of those.) She spotted the non-matching mirror, the nearly done rear tire. and, as she pointed out gently, “we know it has a charging problem”. She started the bike easily, an airhead veteran, and listened, really listened, to the engine. Gina shut it off and said, “Yes, I think we can make a trade. Let’s go back inside.”

In very short order, the deal was done. I got a fair trade for the bike I had brought in, she made a fair profit on the one she was selling. The saddlebags weren’t in stock, but she said she could have them there tomorrow morning. It was a pleasure to make the exchange with someone who was a BMW enthusiast, not a sales hack. (She told me, with a far off glow in her eyes, about riding BMW’s on the Nurburgring race track at a factory new-model introduction). In “old school” tradition, when the issue of the title for my trade-in was raised, she said, “no problem, just mail it to me when you get home.”

Gina found me a motel in town, after first questioning me on what kind of food I might like for supper, picking one across the street from what she said was the best Indian restaurant around. She then gave me directions to the motel, tossed me the keys to the shop’s pickup truck and told me she’d have the bike prepped and bags on by mid-morning. This is how motorcycle business should be done.

True to her word, when I showed up at the shop the next day, the red GS was sitting outside, ready to go, Vario cases installed with locks matched to my key. Gina gave me a shop t-shirt and a bag full of BMW product advertising goodies and a 10% off coupon good until the end of the year, in case I wanted to call up the shop for more stuff. I went outside, affixed my tank bag and duffle and in a few minutes, I was heading for the road back to Muscatine to resume my ride down the river.

In slightly less than 24 hours, I had changed my situation drastically, for the better I hoped.

Back in Muscatine, I found a small restaurant for lunch and as I was getting off the bike in the lot, another patron going in said, “Nice bike. Is that one of the new ones? How long have you had it”. I looked at my watch before answering, “About an hour.”

It was just shy of 800 miles to home and then in the remaining four months of that year I racked up another 5,200 miles on this new machine. I think it definitely is a keeper.


About johngrice

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