The 555. You may have heard about them. Although, if you’re not plugged in to one of Knoxville’s myriad motorcycle networks, it’s probably just as likely that you actually heard The 555. Seven small, old Honda motorcycles in various states of dubious repair ridden from Knoxville to Portland, Ore. this past summer. They pulled away from the Time Warp Tea Room, on Central Avenue, on the morning of May 16. Repair number one took place at mile zero.
“We’re all at the stoplight, revving and feeling cool,” recalls Will Cantrell. “Then somebody said, ‘Where’s Pete?’ We looked back and he’s still on the sidewalk.”
The group’s name, The 555, is a compression of its membership criteria: Your bike had to have a motor 500ccs or smaller. It had to be made during or before 1975. And the bike and any restoration combined had to cost $500 or less. Among the riders and those they encountered, the group’s signature became their broadband chorus of mechanical engine noise, far louder than any exhaust rumble they might have been making.
“We had split up, because a couple of us wanted to go down to this lake near Tulsa,” says 555-er Eric Ohlgren. “We got to the intersection where we were supposed to meet up. It was just a stop sign. And they were either east or west, and we sat there trying to decide which way to go. And all of a sudden we hear this aaannnnggghhhh coming from the right. We could hear them before we could see them.”
One Oklahoma reporter who got to know the group during an extended breakdown described the racket surrounding The 555 as “the sound of seven angry sewing machines.”
Meet The 555
Cantrell is an engineering research assistant and graduate student at the University of Tennessee. Mike Fairman and Cody McMahon are carpenters. David Sneed designs computer networks and security systems. (He’s also responsible for the group’s more or less real-time Web presence—thefivefivefive.com—and Twitter micro-blog account. “I’d put an SOS on Twitter and our phones would just explode with people offering help,” Sneed says. “No matter where we were.”) Pete Ludman is an architect. Ohlgren is a woodworking wizard, most often associated with Heuristic Workshop, the firm he co-owns. And Jess Fairman is a Portlander, who was essentially riding home.
They’re all old enough to know better. And apparently they’re all old enough to know that when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself, no matter how wild the hair, you either make your move or spend the rest of that lifetime wondering, “what if?” Interviewing a motorcycle club in a beer and barbecue joint is kind of like those sessions of British Parliament when the prime minister shows up for his regular lambasting. It doesn’t matter who you float a question to, the answer comes in pieces from the entire room. The 555 started in late 2007, when Mike Fairman was helping McMahon piece together his first motorcycle, a 1969 Honda CB450.
“He wanted his first bike, and he’d never ridden before,” says Fairman. “Somebody told me they had a bike, so we went and got it. Then we went looking for an engine. Those bikes are so cheap and there are so many of them out there, that nobody has just an engine. They always have a whole bike. Eric’s friend Jack had one. He said I don’t know why anyone would ever want one. But I’ll sell it for $100…”
Ohlgren interjects, “And a punch in the neck!”
“That’s right,” Fairman continues and laughs, “$100 and a punch in the neck just for wanting to buy one. He couldn’t believe anybody actually wanted to ride one of these.
“So we found that and we got it running that day or the next day. Our spirits were like whoo-hoo! It was over lunch we started talking, ‘Man we ought to go cross country and see my brother Jess out in Portland.’ Cody says he’s never been there, let’s do it.”
Comprehend The 555
The group recalls the decision-making process that led to what some people might consider to be over-limiting restrictions.
“We thought, everybody’s going to want to go,” Fairman says. “And everybody who wants to go is going to have reliable bikes, large ccs, and they’ll just want to make miles on the interstate and get there. So we tried to come up with a way to keep people from going too fast. We knew Cody’s bike was going to have trouble.
“That engine blew up twice, actually.”
Tim Miles, owner of Cycle Stop, in West Knoxville, was invited, but opted out.
“I go cross-country, but I don’t make a big deal out of it like that,” says Miles. “I go solo. And I don’t have a bike that small. I’ve got a 2007 Street Glide for that kind of riding.”
Nevertheless, Miles and Cycle Stop got behind The 555. Both during the run-up to the trip, and by long distance when necessary, he sold the members any parts they needed at cost.
“What they did is what every one of my customers dreams of,” Miles says. “It’s what I dream of. It was kind of ballsy.
“They were good at finding used parts. But if they needed welding or new parts we took care of them. We put new tubes and tires on all their bikes before they left.”
The Time Warp Tea Room, owned by Dan and Peggy Moriarty, is arguably the center of Knoxville’s old motorcycle universe. Mike Fairman worked there and sometimes still does. The daily postcards Fairman sent back from the trip are still proudly displayed there. Briefly, there was a chalkboard detailing breakdowns and repairs as they happened, but that became exhausting and was abandoned. It’s unlikely that a CNN crawl could have kept pace with the constant, niggling problems related to a bunch of motorcycles that most people wouldn’t trust to ride across town, much less cross-country.
“It evolved partly from here,” remembers Dan Moriarty. “It sounded good. I tried to help them out finding motorcycles that fit the bill. A lot of the people who come in here have old bikes to sell. A couple of the bikes that made the trip came out of here.”
“It was a way to thin the herd but also equalize the herd,” says Ohlgren of the decision to limit the bikes eligible to participate.
Sneed says, “Almost all of us had CB450s. But they were all different years and had different characteristics. There was one 350, one 360, and five 450s.”
“These bikes don’t go that fast,” says Fairman. “If something falls off of his today, something’s going to fall off of somebody else’s tomorrow. This was a way to keep everyone moving at about the same speed.”
The relative similarity between all of the bikes allowed for easy cannibalization. Several had electrical problems, and intermittently refused to charge their batteries. So those with sound electrical systems would carry the batteries of those without, and swap again near the end of the day so that come morning everyone had some spark.
For some reason, however, Cantrell’s seemed never to have a charge.
“This guy,” Ohlgren says of Cantrell, “could jump-start his bike going uphill.”
“He lost his clutch lever, his kickstarter, and his sparkplug cap all within an hour,” Fairman laughs. “He’d have all his gear on, be running alongside, pop the clutch while he’s still running, and then jump on.”
“And then the clutch handle would fly off,” Cantrell finishes. “It was kind of like a rodeo trick. I’d be riding with just one foot on the bike while I tried to get my leg over all the stuff strapped to the seat.”
What Can You Learn From The 555?
First of all, anything is a potential repair part. Ludman’s ignition problem that kept him on the sidewalk at the Time Warp, was cured—at least temporarily—by spare change.
“It died on the way there and I had to push it over St. Mary’s hill,” says Ludman. “It was a bad battery connection. Dan drilled a hole in a quarter and we used that as a washer and tightened it up. In Missouri, down the road, we realized that the starter itself was failing.”
“We were out west,” remembers Cantrell. “We had stopped for gas or something. And I looked into this trash can and saw this piece of wire. And I remember thinking, man, I can’t believe somebody threw away this perfectly good piece of wire. So I grabbed it. I never needed it, but I probably would have if I hadn’t taken it.”
As the group began to come together over the winter of ’07/’08, another rule bandied about was “every man for himself.” That, of course, evaporated at that first Knoxville stoplight when they realized they were short one architect.
“Nobody would have made it on their own,” admits Cantrell.
“We said that just to deter people who were looking for a free ride,” says Fairman. “Even though people didn’t know what they were doing, they tried. Everybody put forth some effort, instead of just saying, ‘Hey man, help me out with my bike.’”
Everybody took basic tool kits, lots of spare parts, determined by the quirks and weaknesses of their particular machines, and they took turns carrying some communal tools and staples.
“Everybody had tool rolls, but everybody carried a couple esoteric tools,” says Ohlgren. “We schlepped a front and rear cog, coils and points, a rectifier. Everything people told us to take we ended up not needing.”
Sneed pipes up with an exception: “Sparkplugs. I left with 15 sparkplugs and probably used 11 of them.”
Above the bar in the room where they’ve gathered is a lobby still from the film Easy Rider, for many still the definitive motorcycle adventure movie. Two hooligans set off across country with a gas tank full of ill-gotten gains to find the real America. The America they found, of course, was often vicious and disappointing at best. Let it be known that that was not the experience of The 555.
“The mean America, we found, was next to the interstate,” says Fairman.
Ohlgren agrees, “The whole vibe changed whenever you came within 50 miles of an interstate or large city.”
“No one cared,” says Fairman of the population centers. “They were just like, move along, get your broken shit out of here.”
One of the group’s best breakdown/community repair stories is also a great testimonial to the notion that America is alive and well and caring of its own…at least away from the interstate.
“I blew a hole in a piston going down the road,” says McMahon, smiling, with more than a little pride. “The engine just stopped.”
“It was no big deal,” says Sneed. “People pulled over about once an hour. So we circle around and see what’s going on. Mike and I take the sparkplugs off, not a big deal, happens all the time. Mike took me aside. He didn’t want to tell Cody yet. He says, ‘Look at this.’ The sparkplug was all covered with metal and shit. The piston just blew up. We were all like, ‘Oh no! This is it.’ But we immediately went into let’s-fix-this mode.”
“Fastest engine pull ever,” says McMahon. “We had the engine off the bike in 15 minutes.”
“In a town of 1,300 people,” says Fairman, “we found exactly what we needed in an ostrich barn.”
“We were at the DMV talking to Pam,” Sneed re-enacts, “who got on the phone to Shorty, who got on the phone to Leon. Twenty minutes later we were sitting at the coffee shop when this guy on a Harley shows up with this 1969 Honda piston in his pocket.”
Good or bad, The 555 has set an example. As you read this, a group of Portland bikers are grooming their own 555 rides for a trip east. They plan to arrive in Knoxville on July 4. The fact that the Portland group has a day-by-day itinerary and what they consider a bankable ETA is cause for much humor among the Knoxvillians. And summer of 2010, the Knoxville 555 plans to return to Portland, this time by way of the Trans-America, a completely unpaved route that’s now relatively easily navigable by GPS.
“That takes 35 days on a good machine,” the Knoxvillians agree. “It’s going to take us two or three times that.”