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Motorhead Memo: Obsolescence

By Kip Woodring


Ob·so·les·cent. adj. 1. Being in the process of passing out of use or usefulness; becoming obsolete. This is the “Free Dictionary” Internet definition… Webster’s being almost identical. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is a bit more helpful (and in my opinion accurate) when they say: “Obsolescence is the state of being which occurs when an object, service or practice is no longer wanted even though it may still be in good working order.” Thing is, this concept is but a seed from which many a notion may sprout.

motorhead memo-Obsolescence

This particular part (number 11) is “pending” obsolete and no aftermarket version is out there, either. Someone who owns a machine that needs one should get it now, because without this part, the entire clutch operating mechanism is rendered inoperable. The only option is to update the whole damn thing to the ball and ramp arrangement, used from 1987-1999. Doable to be sure… but damned expensive.

Classically, one might begin with an ideal example like buggy whips or buttonhooks, or some such obviously archaic doo-dad to gain an elemental understanding of what it is for a thing to be obsolete. However, a little reflection rapidly brings to mind an idea most equate with the former GM of GM… one Alfred Sloan. His version came to be known as “planned” obsolescence—basically an artificial hastening of the real thing, cleverly accomplished by making folks believe their perfectly good used car needed to be traded for a new one—via the brainwashing skills of advertising. This nonexistent reality, yet very real perception, propelled General Motors to the forefront of auto making, worldwide, and past its major rival at the time—none other than Henry Ford—to whom the whole concept was anathema. Ford’s car actually did take nearly 20 years to achieve obsolescence, so revolutionary was it when introduced, and even that was mostly because it had not changed while everything around it had—including the nation’s demographics, the competition and maybe mostly… the roads. By the 1930s, roads and infrastructure had improved sufficiently to render cars and motorcycles designed before the Great War truly obsolete. We had to progress past the Second World War to see another quantum shift, which rendered everything designed and built before V8 engines and automatic transmissions (embodied in the truly all-new 1949 Ford, ironically) pretty useless for traveling at hitherto unknown velocity on (wait for it) the brand-spankin’-new Interstate highways. This high-speed road “system” was/is arguably the biggest thing in transportation since the Transcontinental Railroad 100 years earlier. And… it was personal! Planes and trains are for the masses. Motorcycles and cars are (ostensibly anyway) for the individual—and a more emotional choice than which bus, train or plane to catch. Harley was well aware of all this, hence the ’48 Panhead (while foundering Indian missed the message and built a Brit Twin clone). But, I digress…

Fact is, most vehicles built within the last half century or so are relatively suitable for use on any road… today. Some have even made a virtue of it, like Jeeps and Mustangs, Vettes and VW bugs, some well into their fifth decade and still seen on highways and byways. Harley’s Big Twins are much the same. Which means they are not necessarily obsolete by definition, just ’cause they aren’t new. Which, in turn leads to yet another perception of what it is to be obsolete.

Motorhead memo-obsolescence

This critical starter “shift arm” (also number 11) is obsolete… period! Unlike the example above, for lack of this critical component, the “workaround” involves eliminating the use of the electric starter altogether in favor of the only alternative… adding a kick starter as the only starter! Since most of us can’t or won’t bother to kickstart a Harley these days, lack of this $30 component renders a perfectly good motorcycle otherwise worth thousands (and intrinsically more valuable than that to a caring owner) useless… worthless… and obsolete!

Before we drill down on this one, let’s touch on another type of obsolescence we have all grown up with (whether we like it or not) that can best be portrayed in sharp contrast. I don’t know the scientific term, but for our purpose here, let’s call it rolling/random obsolescence. One example might be the drum brakes on those old Pans. Most anyone who intends to keep riding one is essentially forced into upgrading to disc brakes. First, perhaps, because the drum brakes simply aren’t able to perform as well as discs in modern traffic situations—and second, because drum brake stuff falls into that most irritating sub-category of obsolete… no longer available! Electronic ignition instead of old-fashioned points and condenser is typically a retrofit on older hogs, too, identifying another subcategory of obsolescence… no longer worthwhile. Both of these examples point to the genuine progress made by the industry in general and H-D specifically. No doubt there has been plenty. On the other hand, the rate of progress tends to link directly with the rate of obsolescence.

That can be pretty bad on several levels. For one thing your friendly local dealer can’t abide being stuck with parts he can’t sell. The math tells the story and money tied up in old pieces that have no future is money that cannot be used to buy new parts that might. If it gets out of hand (as it easily can) that dealer will not survive. For the owner of an older bike it means perpetually hoping you can get the part via a special order—and that can be a PIA of the first order as time marches on. This happens too often in modern parts-on-demand and bling-on-the-walls environments, which the factory actually condones and tacitly cultivates. The disparity between the few, new and/or redesigned “hard” (functional) parts and the ongoing avalanche of shiny things and electronic trinkets has created a situation that pushes dealers (Harley’s first customer, after all) to allocate reduced resources skewed to elective rather than basic inventory. The ideal that a dealer should have any part required to keep a machine running and on the road has given way to the grim reality that pistons and rings, which don’t sell well these days, and chrome trim, which sells like hotcakes, are no longer in competition for dealer dollars… let alone yours. Trendy as the shiny stuff can be, and stable as functional parts are, the sales (and profits) force these decisions on them. There is also a growing need to cut costs at the factory. This can lead to longish back orders, as The Motor Company attempts to “re-source” vendors for many a critical part. One example: a fuel pump module that has been on backorder since October of last year and is supposedly due by the time you read this. Imagine that it’s your bike that needs this item—not to look snazzy—to run! (To be fair, Harley offers all the critical components in the module as individual pieces, but that costs about 70 percent more than the back-ordered assembly.) Not a good thing! The module fits bikes that were built for about six model years, about five years ago. Does this portend obsolescence of a relatively new machine for lack of critical component availability? If so, what can those who own even older Harleys expect?

There was a day when folks had to wait a long time for their hog. Once theirs, they kept them even longer. Now, it seems, the

Motorhead memo-obsolescence

This is a Norton Commando. (Sorry!—I couldn’t resist!) It is shown here because:
A) By accident rather than design, the parts division of the company survived, even after the manufacturing of the motorcycles ceased. As a result, even today it is possible to build a brand-new one of these from N.O.S. (new old stock).
B) Unlike its contemporaries, the Harley Shovelhead and Ironhead Sportster, original factory parts for Commandos have been available for over 40 years… and continually updated into the bargain. As a result of this, and their ability to cope with modern traffic, Commandos have never become truly obsolete. They are unique among vintage/classic motorcycles for this reason and a textbook example of exactly how new gets old and old can be made new. A real keeper, and one you can own and ride as long as you wish without fear of obsolescence.

average length of ownership is about like everything else in this disposable society: the life of a damn iPad… or about three years! Jeez! Reminds me of the old story about trading in your Rolls Royce as soon as the ashtrays got filled—or in Harley terms, about the time you need a new battery to start it. This is disheartening to those who believe hogs, particularly old ones, are keepers. It can be a disaster for those who practice this belief. It can be like fine wine getting better with age. You hang on and enjoy it until someone pulls the cork out and it goes sour, through no fault of yours. This is forced obsolescence at its worst. Anyone who’s been to the dealer to order certain bits for a 15- to 20-year-old H-D knows the horror of a term dealers use much more often these days; “pending obsolete.” This is a cliffhanger, meaning a particular factory part—while still in factory stock—will never be again once it’s gone. Some (typically old-school types) that love and plan to keep their bike—regardless—upon hearing the needed part is “pending,” order multiples to stockpile (hoard) for future needs. Some will try to scrounge swap meets, salvage yards and Internet sources. Most will eventually give up and either dump a perfectly good machine, limit its use to special occasions or retire it to a sort of museum piece status. A travesty resulting from obsolescence and lack of parts.

Right or wrong, we are in an epoch of engineering in which our machines simply don’t need parts—as many or as often, as in times past. When they finally do wear out or break down, getting what’s needed to put it right is a bit more of a crapshoot than it used to be. Old Pans and Shovels are already in a state where major parts support comes from the aftermarket; a workable, sustainable situation largely because those bikes use parts—all kinds—regularly. One can’t help but speculate on the state of obsolescence in which Evos and Twinkies might find themselves a decade or two in the future. EFI components and electronics will likely be the downfall of the majority of them, since such bits have a designed-in service life of 10–15 years… max. But who really knows? What is known is the sea change in philosophy by manufacturers. Instead of long-term support of necessities to keep perfectly fine vehicles on the road, focus is on enticing folks into buying new vehicles, whether as fine (and durable) as the old ones or not, by subtlety manipulating that Wikipedia version of obsolescence.


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