The Karmic Torque Wrench

In June I bought a 1980 BMW motorcycle, an R100RT. For some strange reason I'm drawn to old motorbikes, they often break, parts are sometimes nearly impossible to find and, despite a large engine, they make pitiful amounts of power compared to modern bikes. The insurance company however, bases its rate on the engine displacement, happily charging me the same premium as for a bike making a hundred horsepower more than mine.

None the less, I find myself drawn to old bikes. I've not been really impressed with anything made since about 1990. I think this might mean I've begun to turn into an old man.

The bike I bought was manufactured in the last month of the seventies. It's less than two years younger than me.

The maintenance is one of the things I like about old bikes. It's a commitment and a relationship develops with the bike as you work on it. The first time I had to tear half my bike apart in the dark at the side of the road; I paused a moment between expletives, smiled, looked at the bike and said to it, "ah, you see, now we are getting to know each other".

One of the first maintenance tasks I did on the bike was check and adjust the valve clearances. The valve adjustment is made at 5,000km intervals, at every fourth interval the bolts that hold the head and cylinder must be retightened a specific amount with a torque wrench. I did not know when the heads had last been retorqued, but judging from the slight weep of oil at the head gasket and cylinder base, I figured it was probably due. Not having a torque wrench, I made a mental note to get one and perform the service as soon as possible.

A week or so later, I had a good scare when I noticed oil on my rear wheel. The oil seemed to be coming out of the bevel gear at the end of the shaft drive. I'm lucky to have Shail's, a shop that specializes in old BMWs in the city I live in. They had the seals and gaskets in stock, but the shop was busy and it would be a week before they could work on it. I bought the parts and Ron at the counter told me to give him a call if I ran into something I thought I couldn't handle.

I brought the parts home and found some information on the internet about replacing the rear drive seals. The job was over my head, but it looked to be only about snorkel depth. It involved heating parts in the oven, something I can get away with as a bachelor, and definitely required a torque wrench. I resolved to give it a shot, you don't learn anything by avoiding risks.

It seemed like every time I did anything to the bike it cost $200. I knew I needed to have a torque wrench, but being cheap, I had put off buying one. I called up my friend who sells tools to get one. The model I wanted was not in stock and would take a week to get in. I told him to go ahead and order it.

What was I going to do in the meantime? The bike was not safe to ride with oil leaking from the rear drive and I had planned on escaping the city on it for a camping trip on the weekend.

I've known people who, in a similar situation, would just go to the store and buy the tool and then return it once they had used it. I always thought it was a sleazy thing to do and have said as much to people in the past.

I live two blocks from a Canadian Tire store, the canonical canadian source for all things automotive (and much more). Canadian Tire sells Mastercraft tools. Once a quality brand, they are now manufactured overseas to less than high standards. A Mastercraft tool is usually just barely good enough but, as was the case with a stud extractor I will never forget, sometimes not quite. A torque wrench is a precision tool and Mastercraft and precision are essentially antonyms.

Desperate, and knowing that the store down the street had a torque wrench on the shelf I did the wrong thing and went down and shamefully bought one, fully intending to return it once I had replaced the blown seal.

I brought it home and opend up the package. Sure enough, it was a crappy wrench. The micrometer thimble had about three degrees of slop and the handle was made of plastic. It would do the job, but if I kept it I knew I would feel like an idiot for having bought it every time I looked at it.

Sucking up the guilty, stupid feeling, I set about disassembling the rear wheel. I had had the tire replaced a few weeks prior at the shop and upon disassembly it appeared the mechanic who did the job was a little over generous with the grease. Well a lot over generous, the excess grease had liquified in the heat and that is what was escaping from the lip of the rear drive, not the gear oil I had assumed it to be.

I was relieved to not have to open the rear drive. The close tolerances had me stressed right out and the thought of putting parts that had been bathing in hypoid gear oil into my oven was not exactly appetizing, I could see that being grounds for divorce for some.

I wiped off the excess grease and put the bike back together. The next day I took the wrench back. I told the customer service person that I was not impressed with the quality of the tool, which was true, and that I had not used it, also true. I felt like an ass, but I got my money back.

That Friday, after work, I packed the bike up and headed north out of town. My destination was the historic town of Barkerville, a gold rush boom town that had been restored as a heritage site. Barkerville is about eight hundred kilometers north and east of Vancouver, not that far from Prince George.

Around noon on Saturday, I pulled in to a Husky station in 100 Mile House to refuel. 100 Mile House, as its name implies, is a small town in the interior of BC that is about a hundred miles from any larger town. As I idled up to the pump, I heard a strange sound, slightly different than normal with a bit of rattle to it. I looked down and saw that the top nut that holds the cylinder to the head had come right off and was leaning up against the top spark plug.

This is not good, I thought. I mentally went through the steps required to get the head bolted back on correctly. I had all the tools I needed to adjust the valves with me. I remembered the torque specification and pattern but I did not have a torque wrench or any sockets bigger than 13mm. I filled my tank with gas and asked the girl at the counter inside if there was a bike shop in town. She said there was a place on the outskirts of town that sold dirt bikes and snowmobiles.

Not wanting to ride around looking for the shop, I pushed the bike away from the pumps, parked it at the edge of the lot and walked across the street to a Kal Tire where I figured I could at least get directions to this bike shop.

I explained to the counterman what had happened and what I needed and he went off into the back of the shop to ask the mechanic what he thought. The mechanic, whose name was Richard, came out with a slightly bemused look on his face and I again explained my situation and that I knew exactly what to do, but lacked a torque wrench to properly tighten down the head. He offered to let me use his.

I rode the bike over to the Kal Tire lot and set about the job. I had the head back together, torqued up and valves adjusted within about forty minutes. The head really should be torqued when cold, but with five hundred kilometers behind me that morning and temperatures in the high thirties it would have to do. I drank a liter of water to replace what I had sweated out over the hot engine and spent a quarter of the money I got back from the first wrench on a case of beer for the Kal Tire crew.

Feeling that justice had been served, I continued my ride, no longer feeling guilty for trying to scam Canadian Tire. The bike had no further troubles and its heads were both properly retorqued when I got home.

Simeon Veldstra