It wasn't until the rain started that I seriously thought about turning around. I'd already pushed through the previous warning signs, such as 30-year-old Lucas electrics, my absolute lack of riding experience during the past four years and the thought of traveling 50 miles (many of them rural) on a motorcycle I'd just bought off eBay — at night.
Any one of those circumstances would have been enough to keep a prudent individual from climbing onto a 1975 Triumph Trident T160 at the end of a long work day and riding it home. But I have an old friend who once told me, "You have to be up for anything that has the potential to provide a great story." Tell me a freshly bought, three-decade-old British motorcycle on its maiden voyage doesn't have the potential for a great story. Add in some rusty motorcycling skills, patchy fog and intermittent rain and we're way beyond story potential. This is the stuff of novels.
But I don't have the time to write (and you probably don't have the patience to read) a novel, so a quick editorial column about buying a classic British bike through an on-line auction will have to do. First I should mention that I've never purchased a vehicle off eBay, or any other on-line source for that matter. This was a complete impulse buy and a good example of "the eBay power," which I'll explain shortly. I sold my last motorcycle — a 1991 Ducati 851 — in 2001, and while I'd toyed with the idea of buying another motorcycle in recent years I had no real plans to do so.
But 10 years ago, just before I moved from Denver to Los Angeles, I sold a maroon 1975 Triumph T160 to my older brother. In addition to the Triumph, I had two cars and the Ducati 851, and seeing as how I only had one official parking slot at the West L.A. apartment I was moving into, I decided to make the ultimate sacrifice and sell one (of my four) vehicles. Since that time I've done the occasional Cycle Trader and eBay search for another T160, but mostly just to see where the market for these bikes was going.
Like the price of most unique vehicles over the past 10 years, the price of classic Triumphs has gone up. Not "Hemi 'Cuda" up, but up nonetheless. I bought that first Trident, a relatively clean but far from perfect example, in 1991 for $1,700. I sold it in 1994 to my brother for $2,500 (I'd put about $1,000 into it). Over the past two years I've seen maybe five similar bikes, all advertised at prices between $3,000 and $4,500. Then I did a search on eBay one late night a few weeks back using "Triumph Trident" as my search term. I got the usual assortment of T-shirts, posters and throttle cables and then there it was. A maroon 1975 Trident T160. Just like the bike I'd sold my brother a decade earlier, though in far better shape with far fewer miles.
It's interesting how much information a set of photos, if properly shot, can tell you about a vehicle located 1,500 miles away in a suburb of Dallas. This ad had nine different images of the Trident, all of them in focus, properly centered and well lit. Looking at the photos told me the bike was almost 100-percent original and in very good shape. Many of the items that commonly go missing on 30-year-old motorcycles, like the turn signal stalks and footpeg rubber, were still there. The description matched the photos, as it said the bike was not a showpiece, but in very good shape with no mechanical issues and new tires.
Ironically, a nearly identical 1975 Trident was also on eBay, and it was in San Antonio, about 200 miles away from the first one. This one had fewer miles, but it was described as having a faulty neutral light and worn tires. The auction for this other bike ended 20 minutes later than the first, but while the first Triumph was being sold by a dealership with 224 feedbacks (all positive), this one was offered by an individual with only 25 feedbacks (also all positive).
At that moment the "eBay power" took hold. It's something anyone familiar with eBay has experienced: the power to present obscure items that have little meaning to most, but priceless meaning to a select few. Often these presentations occur during moments of weakness, such as late at night when your wife isn't around to keep you honest. I suddenly saw myself wearing my Brooks black leather jacket again, the one that had a Trident image airbrushed on the back. I heard the unique whirring noise made by the 750cc three-cylinder exhaust system as it revs past 7,000 rpm. And then I was whispering Wayne's famous line as he explained to Garth, "Oh yes, she will be mine."
The price on the first and more desirable Triumph, at the dealership, was $3,250 with less than 18 hours to go. The price on the second Triumph was about $100 less. I put in a bid for $3,650 on the dealership bike and was instantly the high bidder. Then I went to bed (it was after 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning) and nearly forgot about the auction. But at about 6:10 the next evening I suddenly remembered the Trident and sprinted to the computer. The auction was 20 minutes from ending and the price was now $3,950. I sat there glued to the auction for the next 19 minutes while hitting the "refresh" button (now I know how eBay gets such impressive "average user session length" numbers) and then, with less than 30 seconds left, I threw in a bid for $4,100. A few more "refresh" hits and I was told I'd won the auction at a price of $4,050. My first vehicle purchase from eBay was now in the books. One interesting side note: the other Trident, the one that needed tires and a neutral light, and whose seller only had 25 positive feedbacks, sold for $4,850 exactly 20 minutes later. So even with my $600 in shipping costs I still paid less for mine (and who knows what the other buyer had to pay for shipping, on top of the $4,850).
Nine days later, the bike arrived in an Allied Van Lines truck, looking exactly as the ad, and photographs, described. Which brings me back to my first real ride on the bike. A 50-mile trip home, through rural areas of coastal California with spotty cell phone coverage. During inclement weather. At night.
Thankfully, the rain that almost made me turn around only lasted about 30 seconds, just long enough to soak my jeans and cause my legs to freeze in the cool night air for the remaining 40 miles. I also found the engine wouldn't rev past 4,000 rpm, but that was caused by a loose choke cable that took about 10 seconds to fix once I'd gotten the Triumph home and into a well-lit garage, which I did without further incident.
I guess you could say that the purchase — and the ride home — was a Triumph for yours truly.
And then the missus saw it.
Next month's column? "How to Save Your Marriage After Buying a Motorcycle Without First Consulting Your Lovely, Remarkably Understanding and Oh-So-Forgiving Wife"