Whatever! – The Wreck of the Old Everything

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By John Burns

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”.

Throwing more coal in that aperture makes more power, eventually. Unlike the new Honda Africa Twin, steam locomotives did have cruise control. Somewhere.

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 …read more

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