Books In Progress

What Motorcycles Teach About Maintenance

Maintenance: Of Everything by Stewart Brand
Chapter 2 - Vehicles (and weapons)


SStart with the motorcycle. A motorcycle is a two-wheeled, unstable, heavy, complex machine that you wrap your delicate body tightly around and ride at high speed. The combination of exceptional intimacy and exceptional danger invites exceptional bonding. Nobody proclaims “Live to ride!  Ride to live!” about cars. Philosophers don’t write extremely popular books about repairing cars, but two have about repairing motorcycles. Examining what interests them about fixing a motorcycle might turn up some instructive ways to think about repair in general.

The books are Matthew Crawford’s SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, and Robert Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE: An Inquiry into Values. Crawford’s Soulcraft—with a motorcycle on the cover—was the surprise hit of 2009, an instant best-seller that went through five printings in three weeks. Pirsig’s Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—with a wrench on the cover—was turned down by 121 publishers before finally coming out from Morrow in 1974. It sold six million copies in 27 languages, bent the culture of the day toward honoring maintenance, and was celebrated as “the most widely read philosophy book ever.” (Pirsig’s editor at Morrow, James Landis, advised him to cut his 800.000 word manuscript to less than 150,000 words and to add more about the motorcycle trip.)

Both authors use the details of motorcycle maintenance–especially the melodrama of repair--to ground-truth their philosophies, and their philosophies are deployed as a source of insight into the nuances of motorcycle maintenance. In both books, the motorcycle material serves as a framing device. Crawford uses it to celebrate the intelligence embodied in blue-collar work: “There was more thinking going on in the bike shop,” he notes, “than in my previous job at the think tank.”1

Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a model for figuring out the structure of reality.

Matthew Crawford got his Ph.D. in Political Philosophy at the University of Chicago and currently does research at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He is also a professional mechanic; for years he ran a repair shop for vintage motorcycles in Richmond. Robert Pirsig studied philosophy at Banaras Hindu University in India and the University of Chicago and then taught creative writing at Montana State University and the University of Illinois. He became a skilled technical writer and computer programmer.

Black and white photograph of Matthew Crawford standing beside a motorcycle in his repair shop

Philosopher Matthew Crawford at his motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. 2

Rob Adamo

While Pirsig was an amateur working on his own bike, Crawford was a professional, paid to repair and upgrade other people’s motorcycles. One time, when a customer asked him to help revive a beloved 1983 Honda Magma V45 that hadn’t been driven for two years, Crawford responded:  “Assuming it’s got all the usual problems from sitting, you’re looking at a thousand dollars to get it back on the road. The carbs will need to be gone through, it’ll need new fork seals, new battery, new tires, probably new hydraulic lines, and who knows what else. Have you kept the valves adjusted?”3

The need for maintenance doesn’t stop when usage stops. The upkeep of any machine is largely about tending to the four sources of most problems: 1) moving parts; 2) flowing fluids; 3) flowing electricity; and 4) temperature stresses. Every bit of the moving, flowing, and stressing causes wear and tear, but damage also comes from not moving, flowing, or stressing. Non-moving parts seize up. Non-flowing fluids leak or curdle into gunk. Corrosion gets into everything.   Crawford told his customer with the half-dead Honda, “You might want to just get rid of it.”4

Crawford emphasizes that repair comes in two stages--that problem finding comes before problem solving. “You try to think logically about a sequence of investigations and fixes that will reveal the most serious problems sooner rather than later.”5 Diagnosis often is more convoluted than a simple decision tree. He gives the example of dealing with evidence of a serious oil leak:

A thick three-dimensional layer of caked-on grime covers the bottom half of the engine and frame.  It could be something easy to fix (a leaking oil tank, or an external oil line), or it could be something requiring a complete teardown of the motor (certain oil seals, for example)…. But to make this determination, you have to first figure out where the oil is leaking from…. Oil flings everywhere in the blast of wind that comes with speed, so it’s near impossible to say where the oil is leaking from unless you first get everything clean and dry, and cleaning the bike is a big deal…. You poke halfheartedly at it with a screwdriver… and watch chunks of shit-colored bike cheese fall off onto the lift.  Next come the rags, lots of them, and various caustic substances.6

Once the motorcycle is clean, it still has to run before the leak can be detected, and getting it to fire up may require “removing carburetors, disassembling and cleaning them, sorting out buggered wiring, and who knows what all.”7 After all that, the oil leak could turn out to be so deeply buried that the bike should just be scrapped. Part of pragmatic diagnosis is being realistic about when to abandon repair and think about buying a new motorcycle or giving up on riding.

Most of the time, when a machine stops working, it’s obvious to a skilled mechanic what is wrong and what to do about it. But what about when it’s not obvious? Both philosophers have the same advice as the sailors Knox-Johnston and Moitessier. Stop and think. Crawford writes:

You have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. Any mechanic will tell you it’s invaluable to have other mechanics around to test your reasoning against, especially if they have a different intellectual disposition….
Some diagnostic situations contain so many variables, and symptoms can be so under-determining of causes, that explicit analytical reasoning comes up short. What is required then is the kind of judgment that arises from experience; hunches rather than rules.8

Maintainers learn to be causation experts when dealing with repair. They build two narratives, one for finding the problem, and one for solving the problem.  Working backward from the visible part of the problem to the issues hidden behind it is detective work into what-caused-what. Then with a solution (or plausible hypothesis) in hand, they have to figure out the correct repair--how to re-ravel the skein of causation in a way that avoids collateral damage and ensures that the problem will go away and stay away. That can be an elaborate caper story, carefully linking one crafty ploy after another in the most efficient sequence.

Every noteworthy fix is a detective story or a caper story or both, and that’s how they’re told among mechanics.

It’s a chancy situation. Repair is nearly always a disruptive intervention in an intricate system. Some of history’s worst disasters came from mismanaged maintenance. A bungled routine system test caused the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. The catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame cathedral in 2019 came during renovation of the badly rotted spire. In hospitals, when a medical examination or treatment causes illness, it’s called “iatrogenic.” Beware iatrogenic repair—when a sloppy attempt to fix a problem makes the problem worse or adds a new one.

Another author worth citing here is John Jerome. His 1977 book Truck, chronicling his year-long project to revive a broken-down 1950 Dodge pickup, is regarded as a classic of truth-telling about repair. For instance, when he thought his rebuilt engine wouldn’t start because he had mounted a component backward deep inside the engine, he vented:

Just because this stinking sag-ass trash heap happens to have its cam in backwards, let us not lose our patience. Just because the God damned ball-breaking ass-licking rotten scum-bag of a pig fucker is eating me alive, driving me right into the ground from fatigue and drudgery and boredom and hate and despair. Patience.9

Robert Pirsig honors the aggravation. “Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating,” he writes. “Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.”10 His approach is to inspect the aggravation itself. He proposes that when you’re baffled, it means your current theories about how to proceed aren’t working. You have to empty your mind of them, Zen style, and that takes time. He advises:

Just stare at the machine…. Watch it the way you watch a line when fishing and before long… you’ll get a little nibble, a little fact asking in a timid, humble way if you’re interested in it…. After a while you may find that the nibbles you get are more interesting than your original purpose of fixing the machine…. Then you’re no longer strictly a motorcycle mechanic, you’re also a motorcycle scientist, and you’ve completely conquered the gumption trap of Value Rigidity.11

Three terms in his last sentence bear examining. Pirsig’s technique for becoming a “motorcycle scientist” is through studying how he arrives at solutions. By “value rigidity” Pirsig means “an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values.” (Once, during the Golden Globe Race, the skilled radio technician Donald Crowhurst had a shrewd, wrong theory about why one of his radios wouldn’t work and took it completely apart to find the elusive problem. It turned out that the actual problem was a blown fuse--something he should have checked first.)12

As for “gumption trap,” the term and concept is Pirsig’s most heralded contribution to the field of maintenance. To push through frustration takes a level of zeal that he calls “gumption.” But certain situations in a repair job “destroy enthusiasm,” he says, “and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things ‘gumption traps.’”13

Of the seven gumption traps he names, Pirsig says five lurk in the mechanic—he calls them “hang-ups.” The other two are in the machine—he calls those “setbacks.” The Value Rigidity just mentioned is one hang-up in mechanics.  Another, he proposes, is an oversized Ego and the defensiveness that goes with it.  You need an unhindered open mind to detect subtle signals from the machine you’re trying to repair. If you can’t think that way, Pirsig has a profound suggestion: just fake it. Pretending to be open-minded can work well enough to reward you into gradually developing the real thing.  (This works for a great many desired practices.)

Another hang-up is Anxiety. In a state of agitation, he writes, “you fix things that don’t need fixing and chase after imaginary ailments. You jump to wild conclusions and build all kinds of errors into the machine because of your own nervousness.”14 To break the cycle, Pirsig advises first reading everything you can find that is relevant.  It will be calming as well as helpful. Then, before you start the repair, map it all out beforehand on paper. As you keep adjusting the sequence of what you will do, ideas will come to you, and your confidence grows.

Impatience is another form of agitation that can lead to rushing into big mistakes. He has two recommendations. One is to allow what at first seems like an excess of time for your tasks, because things in fact always take longer than expected. The other is to take time to put away your tools periodically. It’s a calming thing to do, and when your tools are where they belong, you won’t get frantic trying to find them.

(My further suspicion is that tidiness, like cleanness, is a social signal—as much to oneself as to others. It is visible evidence that something is respected.)

Then there’s the drain of gumption that comes with Boredom. In that case, Pirsig’s advice is to do something else for a while. Sleep is ideal. If you can’t stop, dose yourself with coffee. Another solution is to treat the boring task as ritual, alive with aesthetic nuance and a welcome respite from the clamor of thinking. Find your own Zen in motorcycle maintenance.

As for the gumption traps that lurk in the ailing bike itself, a classic setback is what sometimes happens when the work is almost done. You’ve triumphantly reassembled the whole machine, and “What’s this?  A connecting rod bearing liner?!… Oh Jesus, everything’s got to come apart again!”15 To head off the crushing Out-of-sequence Reassembly Setback, Pirsig again offers two techniques. One is a notebook in which you write every step of the disassembly process with reassembly in mind. The other is to lay out every disassembled part on a safe surface in precise sequence left-to-right, top-to-bottom—every screw, washer, and pin.  

Finally, an all-too-common gumption killer is the maddening Intermittent Failure. The power shorts out at times while you’re riding. Back home, you do something you think will fix it, but on your next ride, it’s shorting out again, and you realize that the problem will always disappear entirely in the shop. Despair ensues. Pirsig advises taking some tools with you on rides so you can stop immediately when there’s a short and look for the problem while the machine is in the condition that caused it. “When intermittents recur,” he suggests, “try to correlate them with other things the cycle is doing. Do the misfires… occur only on bumps, only on turns, only on acceleration? Only on hot days? These correlations are clues for cause-and-effect hypotheses.”16 Science your way out of the trap.

In the book, Pirsig explains that he was motivated to become a skilled motorcycle mechanic by two disasters.  On an earlier road trip with his son, his bike quit in the middle of a rainstorm.  Pirsig figured that the rain caused the problem, but nothing he tried would restart the engine, so he had the bike towed home.  Later he realized that the problem wasn’t the rain, it was him.  He had simply run out of gas in the main tank and didn’t think to turn on the petcock to the reserve tank, where there was plenty of gas.  His one wrong theory about the cause of the problem had destroyed the trip.

The second disaster came with a regular shop mechanic.  The bike was seizing up at speed.  The mechanic said it was a tappet problem and fixed it.  The motorcycle kept on seizing and the mechanic gave up.  Pirsig then discovered that the source of the tappet problem was sloppy work by the mechanic.  As for the original problem, “the seizures had been caused by a sheared internal pin blocking oil from reaching the head at high RPMs.”53  After that, Pirsig decided to study everything he needed to know to fix his motorcycle himself.

Pirsig proposes that to become expert at keeping anything in good repair, you need to understand it in two ways—how it works and how it’s made. How it works will be relatively straightforward and universal to similar machines. There are operator-controlled functions such as steering, throttle, and brakes, and standard running functions such as the actions of a four-cycle engine—intake, compression, power, and exhaust. And so on.

Repairing your specific machine requires knowledge about how it was made—the nested component assemblies of the particular make and model you have. Pirsig writes:

The engine consists of a housing containing a power train, a fuel-air system, an ignition system, a feedback system and a lubrication system. The power train consists of cylinders, pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft and a flywheel. The fuel-air system components….17

And so on.

This kind of understanding, Crawford says in Soulcraft, is what it takes to become masters of our stuff. Just owning and using something is not yet mastery. We need, he says, “a basic intelligibility to our possessions: in their provenance, in their principles of operation, in their logic of repair and maintenance.”18

Another element of mastery, says Pirsig, is to acquire the best tools you can afford and become skilled with them. Like the Golden Globe winner Robin Knox-Johnston, Pirsig revels in listing the tools and spare parts he packed on the bike for a long road trip:

A large, adjustable open-end wrench. A machinist’s hammer. A cold chisel. A taper punch. A pair of tire irons. A tire-patching kit. A bicycle pump. A can of molybdenum disulfide spray for the chain…. Impact driver. A point file. Feeler gauge. Test lamp. Plugs. Throttle, clutch and brake cables. Points, fuses, headlight and taillight bulbs, chain-coupling link with keeper, cotter pins, baling wire. Spare chain.19

A large part of maintenance is routine inspection. Pirsig’s habit on the trip was to take advantage of any pause to “check the oil level and tires, and bolts, and chain tension.”20

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a novelized account of a real road trip he took in 1968 with his troubled 11-year-old son Chris. One of their partners on the trip took this photo. (Persig and Chris wore helmets when riding.) Over the course of a month, they traveled 5,700 miles from Twin Cities, Minnesota, to San Francisco and back. His motorcycle was a 1966 Honda CB77F Super Hawk, Honda’s first sport bike. The model’s speed, power, and reliability made it a standard-setter for modern motorcycles.

Slyvia Sutherland, July 1968

In Pirsig’s book there is never a mention of the make and model of his motorcycle. He did write, “I don’t think I’ll ever sell it. No reason to, really. They’re not like cars, with a body that rusts out in a few years. Keep them tuned and overhauled and they’ll last as long as you do. Probably longer. Quality.”22

Robert Pirsig’s motorcycle, a 1966 Honda Super Hawk, did outlast him.  After he died in 2017, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History acquired what they described as “the most famous forgotten motorcycle in American history and literature.”23 Along with the carefully maintained bike, they procured his leather jacket, favorite tools, and his worn 1966 Honda shop manual for the Super Hawk. (A special exhibit of Pirsig's book, motorcycle, and sailboat artifacts is planned for 2024 at the Smithsonian.)

Pirsig’s 1966 motorcycle was still in good repair and running in 2019 when his wife Wendy donated it to the Smithsonian. It showed 33,213 miles on the odometer.

The Smithsonian

Motorcycle maintainers take heart from what they repair for—the glory of the ride. Crawford writes, “Fixing bikes is… meaningful because not only the fixing but also the riding of motorcycles answers to certain intuitions I have about human excellence. People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in service to it.” He describes riding behind an expert customer, who

leans hard through a corner on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to the point of deliberately dragging his well-armored knee on the inside. This moment of faith, daring, and skill casts a sanctifying light over my work. I try to get his steering head bearings as light and silky as they can be without free play, and his swing arm bushings good and tight, because I want him to feel his tires truly. Only then can he make the road fully his own…. I want to hear the confidence he has in the chassis I have tuned, expressed by the way he rolls on the throttle, brashly, through the exit of a turn. He is likely to pull away from me; I may find him waiting for me at Cumberland Gap with a verdict that lighter fork oil is called for, to get less damping in the front end.24

Ride to live.

Motorcycle Footnote 1: Ride to die.

Motorcycles tangentially confer a public benefit. Fatally injured motorcycle riders are in great demand at hospitals looking for transplantable organs because: one, the donor riders are often young and healthy, marred only by what killed them; and, two, there are quite a lot of them—around 5,400 a year in the US currently, a death rate 27 times greater per vehicle mile than in cars.25

The spare parts most needed for repairing humans in America are kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, pancreases, and intestines. Tissues that can be grafted include bones, tendons, ligaments, skin, heart valves, blood vessels, and corneas. There are never enough donors to meet demand—over 100,000 patients are usually waiting for a donor organ, and 7,000 die every year because an organ could not reach them in time. The supply of organs and tissue from motorcycle riders has gone up in recent decades, especially in the 22 states that still don’t have helmet laws.

Motorcycle Footnote 2: The instruction in disassembly.

This is a story of three generations in the family of the eminent mathematician-physicist Freeman Dyson, who died in 2020. His father, Sir George Dyson, in 1913 was a music teacher at Marlborough College in England. A friend related this anecdote to Freeman:

Your father had just bought his first motorcycle. They wheeled it up to the top of the school playing fields behind the College, next to the open grassland of the Wiltshire Downs. Your father then proceeded to dismantle the machine entirely, laying out all the different parts neatly on the ground. Then he reassembled it again, putting it all back together correctly, so that when he filled the tank with petrol and turned on the motor, it started immediately. He mounted it, and drove off at speed.

When I heard this story from Freeman’s son, science historian George Dyson, I asked him, “Did your dad do that kind of thing? Do you?”

Sir George’s grandson George wrote back:

Freeman, yes, but in a totally different non-physical way. I think anything he looked at he mentally dismantled down to the level of quantum field theory (below the level of even atoms or elementary particles) and then re-assembled it before trusting it. I think that’s how he could just walk into any field and make sense of it. But he didn’t do it with his hands. I’m more like his father -- physically taking things apart. Still maintain a 37-year-old Volvo, etc.26