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The passing of the petcock

By Terry Roorda

It’s been nearly two years since the last motorcycle equipped with a carburetor rolled off the Harley-Davidson assembly line, and it occurs to me that we’ve failed to pause and take a moment to pay our proper respects to the passing of the petcock. With that passing we leave behind the grand traditions associated with the device, and as we move inexorably into the fuel-injected future we’ll hear less and less the time-honored taunts of our fellows to “Turn the gas on, you idiot!

That’s enough in itself to get me misty-eyed, but there are more practical reasons to rue its eclipse as well, the biggest one being the loss of anything approximating a true “reserve” setting, and with it the knowledge of when you absolutely, positively have to get your butt to the pump. In lieu of the manual petcock and its emphatic, inarguable indication of critical fuel level, we now have a high-tech array of indicators that purport to do the same thing but, frankly, fall infuriatingly short. On the ’08 Big Twins, that array consists of a fuel gauge, a warning light, and a range-to-empty readout on the odometer, and what a contentious bunch they are. They can’t seem to agree on much, tend to contradict one another and reality in general, and ultimately succeed in informing you unequivocally only that the tank is no longer full and has some room for more gas, so if you feel like it, go get some, but if not, well…it can wait.

That’s some valuable information to have, no?

Let me illustrate the difference: With my ’87 FLHS, I know the score damn near precisely. At about 189 miles it sputters and I switch the petcock over to reserve and have a sure 30 miles to find fuel—35 if I baby it. That’s set in stone. That’s comforting. There’s no guesswork involved in the whole remaining-fuel issue, and I can spend my riding time considering other things.

On the ’08 FLHT I recently reviewed, on the other hand, I would bury the needle of the fuel gauge in the red zone, and after a spell of varying duration the warning light would blink on, and the range-to-empty readout pop up on the odeometer telling me I had, maybe, 33 miles to go. Ten miles later I would stop for gas—the range readout now at maybe 32 miles—and I’d fill the tank, getting maybe 4.4 gallons into a six- gallon tank. Go figure.

Go figure? That’s exactly what I don’t want to do while riding, and this modern warning system has brought an ulcer-inducing state of confusion and stress; all these signals foretelling immediate doom while my rational psyche knows otherwise, yet worries that these gizmos might know something I don’t—that, perhaps, my average fuel economy has plummeted for some damn reason and if I ignore the warning signs this time, well, I can’t blame them.

Sure, the actual odometer remains the most reliable gas gauge, but it too has drawbacks, the main one being that you can forget to reset it. Beyond that, it can’t tell you if the last time you filled up you were feeling impatient and just squirted a bunch of gas in the tank instead of pulling back the boot on the nozzle and truly topping off. The only dead-accurate indicator of fuel level, the only true DEFCON 1 alarm of a critical shortage, is the sputter of the motor when the gas no longer rises above the main intake tube of the petcock.

So why not just put a petcock on fuel-injected bikes? The answer to that question is complex. I’ll put it as simply as I can, but there will still be a lot of technical jargon, so stay with me:

See, the heart of any electronic fuel injection system, or EFI, is the ECU, which stands for “engineering-crazed universe,” wherein dwells a magic genie with a drinking problem. The magic genie hits the sauce constantly, his mouth right on the tap, and if the tap runs dry momentarily, the genie “cavitates,” which is a scientific term for “cops an attitude,” and rather than wait for the tap to start flowing again, he stomps off to a skin bar to knock back Jäger bombs and blow his paycheck on lap dances while your bike rolls helplessly to the side of the road. Got all that?

I hope so. Making fuel injection sexy ain’t easy, and it’ll never be as sexy as the word petcock, which rhymes with pet rock, yet in the end this is all pretty much moot anyway. With the price of gas going up seemingly by the hour, it no longer matters how much gas you have. It has now become prudent to top off at every opportunity, because if you wait until you absolutely, positively have to get your butt to the pump, it’ll cost you.

It’s all right here in the diaries.

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