Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

From the Archives: Reverse of Disassembly

After the success of last week’s Sons of Thunder review, here’s another Michael Carley classic: his review of the Haynes CB400/4 Owner’s Workshop Manual, which frankly marked a bit of a departure for us here at Vulpes Libris (and we wouldn’t have it any other way).  As comrade Moira said here, that’s what happens when you let blokes onto a book blog.  The first thing you know, there are unidentified oily bits on the kitchen table.

The art of motorcycle maintenance is inevitably connected with Zen in the mind of the unregenerate, but only those who have meditated on a stuck head bearing shell can know the deep spiritual content that comes with taking one from the freezer and driving the poxy object into place with great force. As an aikido teacher of my acquaintance put it: sometimes you have to waste a guy to restore harmony to the situation.

The basic texts of the practice of motorcycle maintenance are the series of manuals produced by Haynes, available for most motorcycles you might, by some unfortunate series of events, find in your ownership. They also produce manuals for cars, Spitfires and Lancasters, men, women and sex, which should cover most of the non-chemical vices of reasonable people. The focus of my ongoing meditation is the book of the CB400/4 and CB550/4, two of Mr Honda’s finest mid-seventies designs.

The motorcycle industry was revolutionized in the late 1960s when Honda produced the CB750, generally considered the first superbike. Today, the CB750 would be considered a middle ranking commuter (Schwarzenegger rides one in Terminator) but at the time it was the fastest production bike in the world and a death blow to the British industry. The CB550/4 and CB400/4 were smaller versions of the CB750 (the /4 refers to the number of cylinders in the engine, by the way). The 400 has a cult following while the 550 is appreciated by a small group of cognoscenti but has never really achieved more than demi-legend status.

Haynes manuals are produced independently of the vehicle manufacturers, by stripping a motorcycle and rebuilding it, an act of homage to the genius of the original designer. The relationship between the instructions in the manual and the reality has best been described as that of a docu-drama to the facts from which it draws inspiration: there are things you recognise but the author has taken liberties for the sake of writing the book. Haynes manuals are written by a David Peace with a greasy rag and a socket set.

The flavour of the text is unmistakable:

1. Seal the crankcase mouth with clean rag, to prevent small items and dirt dropping in.
2. Remove the wire circlip from the inner end of each gudgeon pin, using a small screwdriver.
3. Push out each gudgeon pin; if it is tight warm the piston. This can be accomplished by wrapping it in hot wet rags, or by putting a hot flat iron on the crown. If the pin is knocked out, the connecting rod may be bent.

and instructions inevitably end ‘assembly is the reverse of disassembly’ (it never quite is).

Here we have the revealed knowledge of the manufacturer’s service manual reformed into the vernacular of the home rebuilder: the arcane but not wholly incomprehensible language (circlips and gudgeon pins); the instinctive precaution (the rags to stop accidental damage); the misuse of household devices (warming a piston with an iron). There are surprising implications: the inside of an engine is clean and must be kept so; the parts of an engine, even highly-loaded, high-temperature parts, are delicate and must be handled properly.

This is work that attracts, or makes, a particular kind of man (much less often, unfortunately, woman). In a collection of texts that formed him as a writer, Primo Levi, an industrial chemist by trade, included the ANSI standard for testing cockroach poison, a manual for a particular technical job. Elsewhere, he talks of the process of chemical analysis as involving `humility, method and patience’. Similarly, the Haynes manual requires, or instils, a certain attitude to the world, just as much as the Sermon on the Mount or the Communist Manifesto do.

In the world of the Haynes manual, everything is possible: you, the owner of this motorcycle, can take responsibility for its operation and good order. When you undo a fastener, you may be the first person to do so since a Japanese factory worker tightened it up four decades ago. Undoing that nut may be an irreversible step which will lead to your motorcycle being unuseable, if you cannot get spares. There may be some fudge which allows you to carry out a job without the special service tool supplied to garages but much of the time, you will have to understand what you are doing and think your way round it: like a docu-drama, the manual may send you back to the original source for inspiration.

If you accept the responsibility of doing the work, you will learn how things are really made in the real world. The science of an internal combustion engine is simple: suck, squeeze, bang, blow. Building a device that will carry out this process is not simple and engineering is largely a problem of deciding which compromises to make in the interest of developing a design which can be built, maintained and used and sold for a reasonable price. A well-designed machine will allow easy access for the little jobs that need to be carried out – checking and changing oil and other fluids, inspecting spark plugs, adjusting the suspension or tightening and lubricating the chain – because Mr Honda’s gnomes will have thought about how to make it so.

Opening the engine reveals the elegance of the design. Where a Ducati engine is the baroque fantasy of the descendants of cathedral builders, the Honda inline four has just enough parts to make it work well. Rebuilding the engine is contact with the embodied art of a first class mind. Few people know their names, but the people who designed these engines changed the world. The motorcycles they produced made it possible for most people who wanted it to have a relatively cheap, reliable, fast form of transport that let them feel part of the sixties dream of freedom, Hell’s Angels at Altamont notwithstanding. Many of the family started by the CB750 are still in use, because a few salarymen were given the job of building a bike that would be fast enough to compete on the road with the Western makers’ and reliable and cheap enough to compete with them in the dealers.

In the end, the Japanese won and domestic garages quickly rang to the sound of customizers, rebuilders and home maintainers swearing at Haynes manuals and looking for their metric spanners. So talk to your neighbour who works on his bike at the weekend: you might learn something.

4 comments on “From the Archives: Reverse of Disassembly

  1. pam
    November 30, 2012

    ‘Where a Ducati engine is the baroque fantasy of the descendants of cathedral builders…’
    What bliss! What joy! A must read!

  2. Michael Carley
    December 1, 2012

    Baroque like this:

  3. Pingback: Derrida and Haynes manuals: why engineers should write properly | Paraffinalia

  4. Pingback: The creative process blog tour | Paraffinalia

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This entry was posted on November 28, 2012 by in Entries by Michael, Non-fiction, Non-fiction: philosophy and tagged , , , , .



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