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Spare Parts: When the shine wears off

By Ernie Copper

It’s no secret that I like old things. Everything that’s older with moving parts fascinates me. From tractors to typewriters, for me, the older the better. As you may well imagine, I’m not the guy waiting in line overnight for the latest smartphone, tablet or technology release, but if someone was having a sale on 18th century English straight razors I’d consider pitching my tent in their parking lot.

The days when parts and pieces on a machine that you could see with the naked eye moved with relative precision to create a desired result have gone the way of the rotary phone, but you can still look at them and see how they worked their magic. When you push the lever, this bumps into that, which engages the other thing. Even so, machines can keep secrets locked away in their faded finishes that leave a lot to our imagination.

It’s easy to look at an old worn shift gate on a tank-shift Harley and imagine how those dings got in the tank and it’s fun to imagine where the rider has been. The materials on vintage machines show real age and real wear, especially if they are original paint, unrestored examples. Worn leather, steel and wood tell us stories.
Wood and steel are the materials of choice for many early 20th century machines, but wood has never been widely used in motorcycles. I’m not saying it’s never been used, just not very often and not very prominently. It’s kind of a shame because as old things go, it’s tough to beat wooden ones. Like the antique desk I sit at while pecking out this column on my not-so-vintage laptop. The desk features a hole for an ink well, some ink stains, and smoothly-worn edges on its top from more than a hundred years of service with no end in sight.

Nearby sits a recently-rescued 1922 Remington portable typewriter. Dad used the Remington for his business papers back in the 50’s and 60’s before word processors and business computers were in vogue. It still types and works well, save for a dried-up ribbon, but mostly, it just looks good sitting there. It’s hard to imagine in 1922 you could type and print on the same device. We haven’t circled back on that convergence with modern technology yet and it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to display this Lenovo Ultrabook in their home office a hundred years from now.

Form, function and workmanship seem to apply to all things collectible. When all three converge, you have yourself a collectible and maybe that logic will apply to contemporary products at some point, but so many of today’s desirables seem to be dependent on fleeting network support. Even my cable TV updates its platform nightly to be sure my entertainment experience remains the best it can be. Forty years from now, I predict it’ll be a useless piece of plastic and outdated circuitry. The only signs of age and use will be the worn buttons on the set’s remote control because I can’t remember the last time I touched the TV!

If your summer riding takes you into any of our country’s older big cities, you might enjoy finding the train station. Most of the stations I’ve visited on the east coast feature some well-worn stairs and thresholds from the millions of passengers who have passed through, each one leaving their mark and taking a tiny piece of the granite or marble floor with them on the bottom of their shoes to their next destination.

Looks can be deceiving. Rat bikes were originally a product of the road and featured repairs and accessories born of necessity. They tell the story of the bike, the owner and where they’ve been. The car culture’s version, a rat rod, is entirely different. A rat rod is more of intentionally-built machine that looks older than the sum of its parts which are often uniquely mismatched and vintage, but thought out in advance in the comfort of a garage.

My aunt Kate was fond of saying, “Let’s see how you like it when the shine wears off.” She could apply this advice liberally to most of life’s events from a new car to a new job. It’s ironic that when she passed at the age of 91, she left behind her nearly-new 20-year-old Chevy, with just over 16,000 miles on the clock and the better part of the shine they put on in it at the Lordstown assembly plant. In contrast, she also left behind the most well-used deck of playing cards I’ve ever seen. She did not discriminate as the cards were equally worn on the top and bottom and face and back. Apparently, she shuffled often. These are conclusions you can make from well-worn objects.

So, it seems the older I get, the more the shine wears off something, the better I seem to like it.

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