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Motor Skills

This post has nothing to do with BMW Airheads.  In fact, it really has nothing to do with motorcycles at all.  It’s about a vintage clock.  If you’ve never seen inside a vintage mechanical clock or watch, you should.  Even better is a mechanical clock or watch that is actually working.  It truly is a marvel of engineering and mass manufacturing.  Pictured below is an Elgin Grade 562 8-Day A-11 clock from 1942.  These clocks were mass produced for the war effort and were installed in almost everything that flew for the USA as well as being issued to many ground vehicles like battle tanks.  Elgin alone produced about 350,000 of these movements (the working part of the clock) and there were many other manufacturers who made a version of the same thing for the US Government.  I can’t imagine how many of these clocks were produced in total for the war effort and, like most items made during that time, they were all ultimately disposable.  Every day that military equipment survives in battle is a gift.  Another mind-blowing example of military expenditure.


This particular clock belongs to a friend of mine.  He got it from his dad and it’s been hanging around the family for 50 years or so.  The clock was ‘working’ but didn’t keep the correct time and would stop every little while.  Being interested in all things mechanical I offered to have a look inside to see if there was something obvious gone astray.  With nothing to lose, my friend agreed.  What a good friend because, although I am pretty handy, I am NOT a watchmaker or clock maker or maker of anything at all.  I really just wanted the challenge.

Without describing every detail here, I did take the clock completely apart, cleaned it, and put it back together.  It went back together and now works!  This sounds simple – took the clock completely apart, cleaned it, and put it back together – but there really isn’t anything simple about the process at all.  NOW I understand why there is such a thing as a watchmaking apprenticeship and watchmaking schools.  It truly is a skill that needs patience, understanding, and fine motor skills.  Most importantly, one must know what one is doing and WHY in order for something like a watch or clock to be brought back to working condition.  Is this much different than working on our precious BMW Airheads?

Like the Elgin Grade 562, the engines that power our motorcycles are a fairly simple example of the species.  The Elgin tells only the time and doesn’t trouble us with dates or months or, if you can imagine, moon phases.  Our type 247’s, with their pushrods and air cooling, also don’t trouble us with complications unessential to the task at hand.  The BMW Airhead – the very archetype of motorcycle longevity – will go on running year after year and will do so with only the slightest maintenance.  But it does need maintenance.  Like the clock, which was built to be cheap, robust, reliable, and maintainable, our BMW Airhead engines need someone to help them through life.

I had never cleaned a vintage time piece before.  It was difficult.  In the end it was courage that pulled me through the process.  If I didn’t know what I was doing at a particular moment, I’d stop and do some research.  Sometimes the work would stop for days.  If I thought I was pushing the limits of my skills and tools, I’d stop.  I bought many new tools along the way.  Courage.  I had the courage to fail at repairing the clock and, instead, in the end I succeeded.  It could have gone the other way.  I could have botched the whole affair and ended up with an exotic paperweight, but I didn’t.

If you’ve never set your own valves or changed the pushrod seals on your bike, give it a try soon.  Buy the parts you will need.  Read everything you can about the operation.  Go for it!  Remember we are all pre-wired with courage, and using it to repair your beloved motorcycle is as good a place as any.  Dare to fail!