1985 Yamaha PW80

Bruce Brown’s 1971 motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday was gospel in my household, and it was watched religiously, reverently felt1. It suggested that riding a motorcycle was a path to transcendent experience, and as a child I would feel melancholy—occasionally enough to inspire tears—at the end of our VHS copy of the film (notably: a homemade copy dubbed from a Betamax source, and just about worn totally out by a decade and change’s worth of regular rewatching by the time it was replaced with a DVD), not because it was sad, but because I did not have a motorcycle and thus the utter soaring freedom they evidently afforded their riders was denied me.

But eventually we moved to a larger house, and our new backyard’s expanse was enough to conceivably accommodate a small dirt bike. And my father, wanting to share with his children his love of riding, bought a used 1985 Yamaha PW80.

It was yellow and black, the classic Yamaha colors, and despite its low seat height and design goals of being maximally approachable and unintimidating for the young novice rider, it seemed to me alarmingly powerful. The 80cc two-stroke engine was tuned as mildly as a two-stroke engine possibly can be, but for all the half-acre expanse of our backyard2, the ‘80 still traversed it with what struck my eleven-year-old self as excessive alacrity.

Once I got past those first few weeks of tremulous throttle-opening and overdeliberate, wobbly-elbowed steering, it turned out that old Bruce Brown was right. Riding a motorcycle was glorious, and almost impossible to describe in terms that aren’t just eye-rollingly stale; metaphors of flight, invocations of freedom, discussions of life qua journey. But as hoary as the Harley-Davidson Motor Company-approved, “live to ride, ride to live” rhetoric is, it is also all basically sound, and there’s no easy way to ironize your way around it.

That bumblebee-yellow Yamaha was my first motorcycle, and my next younger brother’s first motorcycle as well.

He was out riding one afternoon, out along the irrigation ditches that laced their way through the quasi-rural district of our medium-sized city, when he encountered two other boys, one larger and older than him. My brother walked home to tell us that the PW80 had been stolen directly from him, literally out from under him, and we never got it back.

For a few months after the theft, we would hear its distinctive ring-ding-ding engine note echoing from blocks away, louder than it had once been now that its new owners weren’t maintaining it properly.

It was a piece of my family’s history, and it became a piece of another family’s. I imagine they needed it. I don’t think they understood, though, that the PW80’s two-stroke engine was not like the four-stroke engine in their car. I doubt they knew to refill the oil tank when refueling the little bike, and as a result I expect the engine soon failed and seized after exhausting its supply of lubricant. I imagine it being subsequently shoved into the corner of a backyard somewhere, where weeds would grow up through the wheels, tires would dry and crack and go flat, jaunty “Number 1” decals on its number plates would fade and peel in the high desert sun.

At the time I felt a series of variations on the standard-issue middle-class entitlement/indignation narrative that everyone in my particular socioeconomic stratum tends to feel upon having something of moderate value stolen from them, but now I wish I could have told the boys that took my and my brother’s first motorcycle something else.

Look, I wish I could have said, if you need this bike, take it. It is my first, but it will not be my last. Everyone should be able to feel this kind of freedom. It’s good for you.

Just remember to check the oil tank every couple of weeks. It takes 10W30.

  1. I would be remiss not to mention that you can watch the film in its entirety on both Hulu and Netflix.
  2. A vaguely oval-shaped track developed in the backyard over the years of riding my brothers and I did there. My father measured it out, and came to refer to it as “the fastest 1/25 mile in the West.”

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