If you could sit with us in a marketing meeting here at Bike Bandit, one of the questions you would hear us talk about is “what inspires people to ride”. As I look at it, it really represents the core of what we do. It certainly is what makes me tick and what drives our business and industry.
Ossa Importer John Taylor dreamed up this unique 500cc twin
As it was told to me, former Cycle World editor David Edwards used this idea as the yard stick for everything the magazine published. Does this photo/story inspire you to ride your motorcycle? Few things have ever struck a chord so completely with me, so I use it too. I will happily admit that I borrowed the idea.
I am blessed to have a strong photo record of my family history on motorcycles. It is a great motivator for me and a torch for me to carry on. It also seems to give me a penchant for nostalgia. I have mentioned this before, I love old motorcycle magazines. There was a style and panache that is gone from what we read today. The 70’s were heady days for the industry and money flowed freely at the magazines. They produced some great content that just would not be feasible today.
So this is brings me around to my point for the day. I have found my own inspiration for a new adventure from an old magazine story. I will get to that new adventure later. For now I want to share some of the story highlights. I am not quite sure what the etiquette is for sharing or reprinting something from an old magazine. But the magazine is long since defunct. Perhaps the editors may get some satisfaction from knowing that their work still draws a reader or two.
On the road through Canada and on to Alaska
This is from Cycle, December 1972. The story is titled “Two Yankees In Alaska”. The saga is of a ride from Seattle to Fairbanks and back on two Yankee 500s. The Alcan Highway was mostly dirt at the time. This was an epic adventure through Canada and Alaska in all kinds of challenging conditions.
If you are not familiar with Yankee motorcycles, they represent a small but rather unique place in our motorcycling history. Here is a very short biography. In Schenectady, New York, Yankee was the importer for the Spanish marque Ossa. Daytona winner and all around legend Dick Mann raced Ossa’s on short tracks with considerable success. Yankee went on to design a frame for Dick and later sold it as a Dick Mann replica.
Enduro bikes were still very much in their infancy. 360cc was typically the largest displacement. The idea was hatched to create a 500cc two stroke twin. Yankee would build and market the bike here in the states. Ossa would design and build the engine; it was basically two 250cc Ossa’s melded together.
The Yankee 500 Z was only produced for a short period in 1971 and 72(?), with less than 1,000 models built. There were many unique features that we take for granted today like rear disc brake, electronic ignition, six speed transmission and oversized frame tubing. Much of the bike was probably over built as it weighed in at 345 pounds with a full tank.
Our hero and author, Cycle editor Frank Conner tried to down play the weight. “And the rider will be able to do things he can’t do on a 250, like start off at the bottom of a steep gully and plonk right up the wall. Or climb a long, rough hillside that would stall anything else… Therefore a 500cc enduro machine doesn’t necessarily have to be built ultralight.”
So here is the story of this wild idea for Frank Conner and his drafted sixteen year old assistant Mark Calderone to ride two stroke dirt bikes thousands of miles through some of the most remote areas of Canada and Alaska, tilting windmills they went.
The bikes were flown to Seattle as the jumping off point. You will notice the complete lack of so many conveniences we would consider necessities today. Just a rain suit and some gear strapped to a rack. Starting north from Seattle in a downpour, the big twin cylinder kick starting routine had to first be addressed.
“To fire up the Z you turn on the fuel taps, tickle the carbs, fold up the right footpeg…There are at least two ways you can kick it through. One is to leave the sidestand down and stand on the left footpeg, and kick like hell with the right foot….Engine designer Eduardo Giro has only one major shortcoming. He considers all motorcycle riders to be 250 pound karate experts and he always comes up with the wrong kickstarter ratios.” Turns out using the compression release was the preferred method.
Kickstarting required a specific technique and sturdy leg
Getting into Canada and away from the bustle of the freeway the author describes the vista “On our right were the mighty Cascade Mountains, bright green with trees. High on the mountain, a thin stream of water would leap off the edge, fall 50 feet, flow lightly for another 200 feet down an almost vertical creekbed, then sail off into space for another hundred feet, kissing the mountainside here and there for thousands of feet all the way down to the bottom.”
Passing through the twisty tarmac roads of British Columbia the Yankee’s handling came to the fore front. “More S-bends, and I got a hair braver each time, hunching forward on the bike and crouching the way I do when I’m really feeling enthusiastic on a motorcycle. The machine was incredibly sensitive while I was gassing it through the corners and I could not detect any signs of flexing…At last I had found a big-bore bike that would out-corner the legendary Spanish lightweights.” An earlier reference had been made to the terrific handling of the Bultaco Metrella and Ossa Wildfire.
The unique rear disc brake of the Yankee
But life on the road on a two stroke dirt bike has its share of ups and downs. “Mark’s bike ate a plug and turned into a 250. A new NGK B9ES solved the problem. Between loading up one of the engines at night because of dripping fuel taps and wearing out plugs, we used a total of twenty sparkplugs during the long 5000-mile trip.”
The unique upswept Yankee muffler proved not very sturdy. After a couple of repairs and welds along the way, one finally disintegrated beyond repair. Another set were quickly shipped out from the New York factory, but between lost airline baggage and Canadian customs, it was a full 10 days before the riders were back on the road. No comment was made as to how they spent their downtime.
Rough roads, piles of gravel, potholes and big trucks were constant hazards along the Alaskan Highway. There were a few mishaps, but the riders and bikes both proved to be tough enough to handle a few spills. Mufflers and luggage racks would continue to need periodic maintenance and repairs.
After a few weeks of life on the remote northern roads, the city came as a bit of a shock. “Fairbanks blew our minds. Twenty miles out the road turned into a four lane highway. The temperature was 90 degrees and we rode into town past mile marker 1523, the end of the Alaska Highway. We were caught in the middle of a traffic jam…It was like spending your life riding dirt roads in the Ozarks and then getting plucked down in New York on 42nd street at 4:45pm on Friday.”
The Yankees drew a crowd everywhere they went. Some had heard of them, but never expected to see one in person. “Mark looked out the window and saw a guy with a beard standing just outside, memorizing our machines. He was a high school teacher and motorcycle dealer named Ren Rueger. Ren had heard that we were in town, but he didn’t know where, so he just started checking motels until he found one with the two Yankees parked in front.” As you might expect, Ren was an instant best friend and wanted to share everything about the bikes and experience. The bikes were treated to a full tune up and service in Ren’s shop, including more welding repairs. In exchange test rides were offered to him and his service manager.
1972 Yankee 500 Z
The miles were starting to take a toll on the bikes and the return trip had not even begun. “…got ready to leave Fairbanks. Then his clutch cable broke at the handlebar lever. My muffler fell off the header pipes. Back to Ren’s shop.”
One bike got reluctant to start. It would flood even with the fuel taps turned off. The fuel line had to be removed each night. But bump starting became the norm. One luggage rack came off for good. Spares were transferred to the second bike and a package of non-essentials took a bus trip home. Then a rear brake line sheared off at the fitting. The front brake only riding technique caused more than one close encounter.
“At Whitehorse we found another brake line, but there was also a leak in the slave cylinder and nobody had a kit that would fit. Somehow that didn’t bother either one of us very much. The Z had such good manners that both of us were perfectly willing to ride the bike the next 900 miles without a brake. Our rear chains had been stretching, but they weren’t kinking, so we took two links out of each one. Our lights didn’t work…”
Duct tape and cardbord, a makeshift mudflap
The nonplused writing may be more to soft foot around the fact that the Yankees seemed to be falling apart around them. Damn the torpedoes, I am going down with my ship! What motorcyclist hasn’t felt those kinds of loyalties to his machine?
As the trip neared the end. More parts broke and more welding and bubble gum repairs were devised. One sprocket was worn down to the nub and the chains were well past the end of their useful life. “We only got 400 miles to go, and I want to see if the original chain and sprockets will make it. We’ll tighten the chains every fifty miles.”
Despite the valiant effort, one bike still didn’t make it. The fuel cross over hose broke and drained all the gas leaving them stranded many miles from the nearest station. That was just the immediate problem. The writer attempts to describe the desolate situation; empty road, impending rain, mosquitos and a big black bear. The result being they were forced to bum a ride for one rider and one bike from a passing pickup.
But still the finish line would not give up her prize easily. For the solo bike continuing on, the road gave way to a mudfest that proved to be more like riding an enduro. A bulldozer was towing cars out of the muck. The hard running drained the fuel and now the second rider, covered in mud, had to thumb into town.
Homeward from the land of the midnight sun
“Only 300 miles to go, but we were fast running out of time and money. We decided reluctantly to ship Mark’s bike back from Fort Nelson.” The best remaining parts were cobbled together on the remaining bike. One rain storm more and “late that afternoon I pulled into the parking lot at the Fort St John airport and the rear chain jumped its sprocket. I coasted the bike down to CP Air’s cargo terminal. Two of the men wheeled the bike away to crate it up, and I really didn’t want to see it go. I would miss it badly.”
There are a few more footnotes to the story. Total mileage for each bike was about 5,000, 2,400 in the dirt. The editor dutifully talks of all the things that didn’t break and how proper scheduled maintenance would have avoided some issues. He also followed up with some of the lessons learned and improvements Yankee would have coming on subsequent production runs. Yet the Yankee would prove short lived. An interesting idea, but Yankee was never destined for commercial success.
Minor crash damage to the odometer, but it still worked
I have read Frank Conner’s Alaska adventure three or four times now. Somehow it just captures my imagination. Part of it is the sense of nostalgia. Part of it is riding bikes that we would consider archaic today. This story comes from a time when the world was much larger and unknown, but motorcyclists ventured out just the same. Not that the road to Alaska was that unknown, in some ways it may have been more popular back then at the start of the 70’s oil boom. My folks drove it twice during the same period and have lots of fun stories to tell of the people they encountered.
The author’s gritty adventure and homespun writing style absolutely inspire me to ride. So much so, that I am right now working on an idea to ride bikes from the same era on some similar kind of adventure. I will let you know when that plan comes together. For now, I hope this story does the same for you. Spring is coming, so get out there and make the most of it.
Testing the Yankee suspension in Alaska
Finally, one from the family album, Bad Rock ISDT Qualifier, 1972. Gordon White talks with Yankee rider Charlie Vincent (?)