Are Modern Motorcyclists Rubbish? John Robinson’s “The Motorcycle Doctor”

Were people from even the recent past better at understanding and working on their own bikes than they are these days?

It’s a question I’ve come to ponder, often reluctantly, as I answer the occasional request emailed at me as a largely invisible bike blogger and ground-feeding amateur mechanic. Some are technical and arise from genuine puzzlement after otherwise fruitless enquiry. And some are just plain worrying in their evident flailing lack of ability, even judged by my own very basic mechanical skills. But what unites all these queries is that all of them, daft and clever, come from a place of wanting to know – a good place, I think, for any motorcyclist to start their journey into motorcycle mechanics, no matter their current levels of ignorance. We all have to start somewhere after all.

John Robinson’s 160 page, 1977 classic The Motorcycle Doctor is a book specifically written for people who wish to understand their motorcycle intimately but comprise this latter beginner category. It’s a book that assumes “no prior knowledge on the part of the reader”, making it a breath of 40 year old fresh air that could well do with being blown into the stale fug of many an online motorcycle chat room, those places where a demonstrable lack of  technical knowledge is easily frowned upon by some of the more anal-retentive members of the motorcycling community with unmonitored keyboard access.

For those who don’t know, the author is the sadly missed former technical guru of Motorcycle Mechanics and also longstanding technical editor of Performance Bikes before his untimely loss in 2001. He was a recognised authority on technical motorcycling subjects, not for being the greatest mechanic or technical mind out there – for there are many who are great mechanics of real ability in the world – but for being the one who could also get that technical information across to normal people in an accessible, relatable way. If you’ve ever wondered who did the most to popularise the use of dynamometers in magazine testing not to look like a clever clogs with a big machine, but so mortals like you and me could instantly visually understand and compare power and torque curves between bikes with a graph, well, now you know.

But back to my general point – are people from the past better at this kind of hands-on stuff than today? Well, perhaps not better – but reading Robinson’s prose from forty years ago definitely gives me the impression that the past was a foreign country. If you take the author’s claim that this book requires no prior knowledge at face value, you could certainly make a case for modern folk knowing less about what they ride around now than they did in the recent past.

Before you bite, this isn’t a criticism of modern bikers (in which category I include myself). A lack of interest in developing hands-on aptitude or knowledge these days is just something I’ve noticed and that Robinson’s book demonstrates almost by default. Even by page twelve of the introduction he will have lost many a modern layman with the following transmission-related explanative gem:

The torque now being applied to this wheel is the force x radius of the wheel – that is T/r x 4 – in other words, 4T or four times the torque applied to the first wheel

It’s hard to imagine the introduction of a similar modern book without the phrase “sit facing the clocks” appearing somewhere prominently first.

OK, so it’s a bit difficult for modern total newbies and in a way I do feel bad for them. Perhaps today’s lack of biking knowledge is simply the developmental result of what modern riders are served with: Reliable bikes which don’t require endless disassembly or repair. Bikes hidden behind the plastic bodywork of the child’s toy designer and layered with because-we-can electronic sensors. Bikes sold by manufacturers desperate to frighten you into accepting in-house servicing for parts that can only be substituted by fitters (not repaired by mechanics) lest you forfeit your rights in their draconian PCP finance package small print and pay the price come refinancing time.  All very well you might say, but it can’t only be me to notice that this whole ‘progress’ thing is starting to pan out like The Ascent of Man in reverse. The more time passes, the less we all seem to understand – beginners and experienced bikers alike.

Or perhaps I’m just being romantic. After all, the relative affluence of today’s consumers who sign up to leasing new bikes with a service plan rather than buying outright and running something into the ground makes owner-maintenance an almost ephemeral concept. Has being hands-on become a lifestyle choice? More time riding and less time poking guitar strings down carb orifices can’t be that bad, right?

Whatever, it makes me sad to see people scared of their own machines, but I do think calling modern folk uninterested isn’t totally correct, at least if you look at how many active technical forums exist on the web and consider how long this supposed dumbing down has been going on.

Even the most Eeyore-ish doom monger should note that Robinson too bemoaned the fact that 1977 had become “an age to replace not mend a broken part.” I expect someone said the same when Henry Ford started stamping out axle casings in large numbers for his Model T. Inability; dumbing down; a lack of skills; call it what you will, the presumption to follow the course of least resistance when it comes to resolving our motorcycle problems isn’t a modern phenomenon after all. It’s been around for some time.

Thankfully Robinson’s brief beginners guide is something that can make a difference even in today’s hi-tech world of biking. Knowledge is power as they say – and never more so than when you’re reading about motorcycle engines.

What you get in this 50 pence opus (really – it cost 50p in 1977) is several logically discrete chapters from how to undertake regular checks to explanations of the major separably identifiable systems of a motorcycle (engine, electrics, suspension etc) all elucidated upon in a clear and careful way, like your dad did before it was looked down upon as ‘mansplaining’, on how things work, why they fail and what to do about them when they do. Robinson wasn’t just about how to fix things, He was as much about perusal, inquiry and correct diagnosis as he was the actual spannering side. Quite rightly, of course. One should not exist without the other.

But what’s really great about books written by evidently knowledgeable folk who knew how to get an idea or six across (like Richard Ballantine who wrote the the slightly more polemical but equally useful Richard’s Bicycle Book of the Seventies) is that production costs were not wasted on reproducing endless and confusing photographs of parts because, you know, everyone likes photos. Here we have – joy! – clear line drawings showing only the detail you need to understand as a beginner.

So, you want to know what a very basic motorcycle charging system looks like? Here it is!

You want to know how a shock absorber compresses quicker than it returns? Here is why!

CV carb explanation? Zing!

Fixed jet carb? Coming up – in real artist’s pen!

Couple these with Robinson’s precise explanation and you’ve got a winner. But again, I stress, if you’re a person of no prior knowledge you’ll maybe need a bit of background, especially with parts nomenclature and general bike architecture before you can get to grips with some of it. It’s not really written for the total beginners of our time who grew up without having to heat their spark plugs over a gas stove to get things going on a cold morning. If Robinson was still with us, I’m sure he’d do it all again for the latest generation of bikers. More’s the pity that he’s not.

Original cost: 50p (£3.31 in today’s money)
Picked up in charity shop for: 75p
Verdict – Essential bookshelf reference for fault finding and useful resource for development of John Travolta-style strut in technical forums.

The Motorcycle Doctor, John Robinson, Paperfronts / Elliot Right Way Books, 1977

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