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An Issue of Trust

The Japanese workshop manual is as logically written as the Oxford English Dictionary. So why can't I free the engine from the frame?

I have not hurled a wrench down the laneway. I haven’t raised my voice, cursed my neighbour’s dog, or slugged the cinderblock wall. I’ve kept it together for seven hours and forty-five minutes. But, just now, I’ve crossed a threshold, and the calmness with which I’ve embraced the unimaginable startles me. I’m going to do it. I’m going to saw my motorcycle in two. I really am. And it’s too late for me to be stopped.  


It’s a beautiful spring Saturday. Cats are howling at birds and boys are howling at girls. Tomorrow, I will take the engine of my 2003 Honda CRF450R to a man who will rebuild it for the coming season of low-key Tuesday-night dirt-track thrashing. The man who builds the engines is very busy. He runs his own team of pro riders and builds engines for many more pro riders. I am not a pro rider. But the man likes me. I’m flattered. I don’t believe his kindness to me is warranted. But I’ll take it. Friends are hard to find. The man and I have agreed that I will deliver my engine to him tomorrow, Sunday. But as Saturday morning turns to afternoon and now to the dusk of early evening, I remain unable to remove the engine from the frame of the motorcycle.


It’s natural for you to presume I’m cursed with a degree of ineptitude. And, while I’m not a schooled technician, I’ve taught myself (more-or-less) to strip a motorcycle down to nothing and (more-or-less) bolt it back together. I’m not an idiot. And I can read. And this is where my disappointment begins.


I haven’t owned many Japanese motorcycles. One of my character quirks (read flaw) is the perverse necessity to surround myself with objects that torment. It’s not healthy. But it’s who I am. Despite Japanese motorcycles falling outside my sweet spot of disfunction, I love them. I do. Because had the Japanese not revolutionized motorcycling with exquisitely-designed and built machines—forcing American and German and Italian and British manufacturers to get their shit together and make better motorcycles—we’d still be standing roadside wiping oil off our boots from leaky pushrod tubes. Japanese motorcycles are the reason you can say “Italian touring bike” or “German sport bike” and not have your friends slug you in the ribs, toss you in the lake, and leave you for dead.


My trust in Japanese engineering is absolute. When the official Honda manual for my CRF450R tells me to “remove the engine from the right side of the frame” I take the words as sacrosanct. If the Japanese manual writer says the engine, freed of its fasteners and stripped of exhaust and induction, will come out the right side of the frame, then it will. But it won’t. The engine, sitting like a loose tooth in the jawbone of the frame, will not, in seven hours and forty-five minutes of wiggling and twisting and dipping and knuckle-bashing, release itself. I will cut the frame in two, deliver the engine tomorrow morning to the rebuilder, and deal with the cost and humiliation of sourcing a replacement frame another day.


The phone rings. A friend asks how it’s going. I share my tale of woe. He says “YouTube” and hangs up.


I retreat inside the house and find YouTube on the laptop. I search with the words “engine out of Honda 450” and the suggested video begins with shaky-cam footage of an engine (just the engine) sitting in a man’s driveway. I try again. I type “how do you remove an engine from a 2003 Honda CRF450R?” “Don’t cut your frame. You can do it!” jokes the voice from the video. In shame I bury my face in my hands. Then the video, with alarming nonchalance, demonstrates that removal simply requires a slight lift, a forward cant, a left-leaning bank, a follow-up dip, additional degrees of counter-clockwise rotation, a sharp cylinder-head toward-the-ground bob and finally an up and out with a twisting flourish. I follow the steps and in less than a minute the engine is free.


That should be the end of it. But I can’t shake the absurdly simple words from the Honda manual. How can “remove the engine from the right side of the frame,” without further detail, be the work of a Japanese company? German manuals are too verbose. Italian manuals are, simultaneously, too byzantine (I don’t need to make the engine, just fix it) and too vague (essential information is omitted). Without the Japanese manufacturing model to positively influence every other brand, the home mechanic is hopelessly at sea.


The next day, I take the engine to the man who will rebuild it and tell him of my struggles. He stares at me. “All it takes to remove the engine,” he says, “is a slight lift, a forward cant, a left-leaning bank, a follow-up dip, additional degrees of counter-clockwise rotation, a sharp cylinder-head toward-the-ground bob and finally an up and out with a twisting flourish.”


In the 1930s, manuals taught owners how to remove cylinder heads, reseat valves, and scrape carbon deposits from the combustion chamber. When pulling an engine was common—and it commonplace for an owner to do it himself—Honda couldn’t have gotten away with such shoddy technical writing. Today, few will notice. Except, of course, for that dwindling number of us who revel in parts strewn about a garage with a concrete floor stained in oil, antifreeze, and the sweat from our thwarted efforts to keep our machines sweetly running.

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