Riding in winter: Timeless motorcycle maintenance tips from the 1960s

Published on 25 January 2016 by Gill

Imagine the scene: it’s a dark winter’s night, the snow is falling heavily and as you cross the lonely moors the wheels begin to spin. You need to get home – you have had a desperate phone call and your wife is in labour. You’re going to miss the birth!

Do not despair – there is an answer! A well-prepared winter motorcyclist can be snowready with DIY snow chains! Let me explain…

THE DISCOVERY

I was having a clearout of old motorcycle paperwork when I found an old manila envelope postmarked 1966 containing a Pitman’s motorcycle maintenance book and some Amal carburettor spec sheets. Sandwiched in between was a 20-page paper booklet, which contained loads of handy motorcycle maintenance tips from the ’60s.

There was a whole section of winter tips as back then a motorcycle was an essential mode of transport for work and not just for leisure on nice sunny days.

Alongside tips like “stuff newspapers inside your jacket for insulation” was another that made me do a double take: “how to make snow chains”. The tip came with a diagram showing you how to make them. Perhaps it was just a crazy idea dreamed up in the days before injury claims, but I decided to try it on myYamaha RD400.

THE MANUFACTURE AND TEST DRIVE

1960s 2Not having a handy old chain in the garage, I asked my work colleagues for cut offs of drive chain. It wasn’t long before a pile of various sizes built up on my bench. I eyed up the approximate scale of chain to tyre size on the diagram and decided to go for ½ inch. After a couple of weeks I still didn’t have enough chain, so I sent the engineering apprentice to dig through the scrap skip – just the sort of mucky job that apprentices were made for!

When he found out what I was up to he was soon enthusiastically sketching improvements, which involved drilling holes through the tyre and bolting small lengths of chain diagonally across the tread!

Sticking with the old drawing, I cut short lengths of chain to wrap around the tyre. Pieces of stiff wire were then twisted around each end to create a hook.

The old instructions made no mention of the amount of chain needed to goaround the wheel. My RD400 has the seven spoke alloy wheels and equal spacing worked out to a pair between each spoke, so I made 14 chains.

Next was the easiest job of all, which was cutting some bands from an old inner tube – luckily I have a terrible habit of using old tyres on my RD400, so I had a glut of them to choose from in my garage. Fitting the chains is a fairly easy job, especially if you have a motorcycle bench lift. The only problem I encountered wasthe slight fouling of a few of the chains on the chain guard as the wheel turned. It was not a severe problem – just a passing brush of chain on tin.

I pushed the bike out of the garage to take a few artistic finished photos with the bike and me looking skywards waiting for snow, even though I live in North Wiltshire and have not seen more than one day of snow in the last 30 years! I did a short test ride down the drive with the rear wheel bumping along – not pleasant and I wouldn’t want to go at any speed. I thought that was it – the idea is plain daft and it will never work!

THE SECOND TEST DRIVE

I keep my RD400 on the road all year and during winter I like to take it out to clear the cobwebs. It was freezing cold last winter and the council covered the roads with bike-rotting grit and we had nearly two days of constant rain and grey skies. (I must say thanks to the Aircooled RD club member from Australia who kept sending me his weather reports – temperatures 30-40°C with a UV index of 11 (extreme). The same chap told me that they ride in full protective gear because the tarmac gets so hot that if you have an accident and cannot move you will soon become toast if the emergency services don’t arrive quickly!).

On New Year’s Eve, the weather finally cleared, so I took the RD400 for an end of year run and got the expansion chambers ringing. Bliss! When I got home I put the RD400 back on the bench and the rear wheel was soon out for a tyre change. (The more keen-eyed reader may have noticed the lack of tread on my old rear Avon Roadrunner.) Not intending to rush the job I removed the old tyre and left the refitting to another day. A few days passed and then it snowed nearly everywhere in the UK, bringing the country to a stand still.

When I realised the snow was going to last more than one day, I seized the chance to get some snow chain pictures with actual snow!

The best tyre I had was a super grippy ‘Shin Hung’, so that was fitted along with the bits and pieces of the DIY snow chains. It became immediately apparent that the idea of chains on a motorcycle was not as daft as it sounded because, ridden slowly, the chains were actually pushed down into the snow and ice by the weight of the bike.

All things considered, the idea was only supposed to give you basic drive with no wheel spin, so speed was not important. The ‘Shin Hung’ tyre has a smaller profile than my old Avon Roadrunner, so the wheel turned without the chains touching the guard. A few gentle rides up and down the drive soon proved how well the idea worked and it did a good job of breaking up the compacted icy surface, making clearing the drive a doddle!

So, in the end, the motorcycle snow chain idea was not as daft as it sounded and it performed well, as long as you only used them on snow and ice. I won’t be using them in day-to-day life, but I must congratulate the old motorcyclists who were determined to get to work and not stay in bed like us modern wimps!