I was highballing up the freeway on a shiny new V Star 950 last week, feeling the mighty pistons of her 942cc radial Twin pulsating through my forward-mounted dogs, when the same song popped into my brain that often does when I’m riding a swashbuckling American-style cruiser; “The Wreck of the Old 97”. Mine’s the Johnny Cash version, which was on like the first album I ever bought, but the song was already old in 1968. The Old 97, for you kids, was a train powered by a steam locomotive. Running late, Johnny Cash turned and said to his black greasy fireman, “shovel on a little more coal”.
More coal, you see, would result in a hotter fire, more steam, and more speed. A little too much, unfortunately, in the case of the old 97. On the V Star, you just roll open the throttle, but that really just starts the acceleration process in motion rather than making the bike actually accelerate, like your typical sportbike or the Suzuki Bandit 1250 I’d just traded it for. On fast, multi-cylinder bikes like those, it’s easy to forget there are pistons providing the power, but on long low, shiny ones with cooling fins like the V Star, my synapses automatically make the steam locomotive connection like a telephone switchboard. Which is not to slam the V Star, since I love my steam engines.
Steam engines, of course, are where pistons being propelled through cylinders to provide motive power came from in the first place. In a steam engine, expanding steam pushes the piston down the bore. In an internal combustion one, it’s an ablation of fuel and air that pushes the piston. Either way, it’s technology that was first brought seriously to market by James Watt in the late 1700s. Before that, we were horse-drawn or traveled by LPC (leather personnel carrier). I like to think the idea came from somebody riding along behind a flatulent horse: Hmmmm, if only we could harness the power of expanding gas inside a sealed tube, hmmmmm…
Natch, when James Watt pulled it off, there were plenty of problems and explosions and people who said it would never work and that our heads would explode if we traveled faster than 13 mph. But it did work, and steam powered the planet for 200 years. Heck, it still does: Far as I know, most if not all power plants, be they nuclear, coal-fired or whatever, generate power by turning water into steam. Seems pretty archaic when you think about it. But not nearly as archaic as four pistons, 16 valves, and two camshafts spinning wildly around at 15,000 rpm to produce mostly wasted heat.
I’m reading quite a bit of news lately, after last month’s big climate talks in Paris, to the effect that we’ve really turned the corner on alternative fuels, that going forward fossil fuels are going to be on the downswing, and that “alternative” energy is increasingly a financially viable alternative as prices on things like solar panels continue downward. Even in Dubai, solar panels will be made mandatory for all rooftops by 2030. “Our goal is to become the city with the smallest carbon footprint in the world by 2050,” said Sheikh bin Rashid Mohammed, vice president and ruler, when announcing the initiative.
Most of these kinds of news items go on to say change will come more slowly to our transportation devices, mostly because of the simple fact it’ll take a while to replace gas stations with charging ones (while overcoming the lobbying power of XOM and BP), and because of the limits of current battery technology. In the grand scheme, these seem roughly equivalent to what James Watt went through with a few boiler explosions, or what the first guy who decided it would be a good idea to climb on top of a horse to pop round to the liquor store encountered.
So far, I think it’s pretty cool to know my old Yamaha R1 will fire up instantly on its Shorai lithium-iron battery even though I haven’t plugged it into a charger for years, and I can foresee a time when you probably won’t even need charging stations for your electric car since your bodywork will be made of solar panels. Or something. This is borne out by Finn and Rey finding the old Millennium Falcon in a junkyard, hopping in and having it start right up in the new Star Wars movie. Will we miss infernal combustion? Of course, but maybe not as much as we think; did you happen to see Jay’s Cobra get smoked by a Tesla on Jay Leno’s Garage the other night? I haven’t ridden an electric streetbike that’s really blown my skirt up yet, but riding the Zero FX off-road a few years ago awakened me to the awesome potential of a motorcycle that lets you hear the birds tweet and the river splash, while making maximum boulder-climbing torque from a standstill.
In the end, it’s the motion that matters, and how you generate it may be largely inconsequential. Though steam locomotives are hugely romantic and interesting to look at, when you climb into the cab of one, you don’t get the idea that they were very comfortable workplaces for the people whose job it was to operate them every day. I guess I was expecting lots of teak and brass when I toured the USS Iowa a few years ago; the reality was cold, thick, claustrophobic armor painted gray, and cheap linoleum; not a pleasant place to be terrified while other battleships hurled Volkswagen-sized projectiles at you from over the horizon.
Will today’s BMW S1000RR be as archaic as a Vincent Black Shadow in a few years? The answer is yes it will, and the current Yamaha R1 may even be mistaken for a torture device. I may not get there with you, but I won’t be surprised if there comes a time when I take my first-gen R1 out for a spin and have to stop and ask at a few charging stations for directions to the nearest fossil fuel station, since I probably will still be too stupid to find one on my iPhone 32.
Change is good, people, especially the kind that helps ward off our extinction. Why fight it? If you must answer that rhetorical question, feel free to Comment below.