Leno: Brough, corks, and karma

1925 Brough Superior SS100 Mecum/Glen R. Anderson

Because the world is so crazy now, everyone has their own horror stories of inflation and problems with the supply chain. Here’s mine: I have a few Brough Superior motorcycles from the 1920s that have these little cork squares that go into the clutch. There are maybe 18 of them in each clutch, and the cork inserts are the friction material that transmits the engine torque while also taking up some of the sponginess of the engagement. A lot of English bikes had this setup even into the 1950s because, well, England. I needed a set of corks for a Brough, so I called this place in England that specializes in them to ask if they had any.

The polite gentleman on the phone said, “Oh yes, yes, yes, of course, very popular item. No, no, we don’t carry it.” I told him that I was surprised, because the corks are a common wear item and you would think they would have some. Was there a global cork shortage? He said: “No, no, that’s not the problem. The problem is people calling all day for clutch squares. We couldn’t get anything done. Finally, we said the hell with it, and we stopped carrying them.” Apparently, while they were answering the phone all day and making money on tiny cork clutch squares, the shop was otherwise at a standstill, so they stopped selling them. So British.

Another Brough shop was advertising a new exhaust for a price that I thought was a pretty good deal. So I called them up and the guy who answered said, “I’m rather busy now. Can you call back when we’re not so busy?” I said, “Sure! When do you want me to call back,” figuring he wanted me to call back in an hour or so. He said that I should call back in the fall. The fall?! I want to ride the bike this summer! “Oh no, god no,” he said. “It’s just a bit busy now.” Maybe they should join the crowd and raise their prices.

Well, what are you going to do? Everything seems to be scarce these days, for one reason or another. If you’re personally feeling the pain of inflation, here’s a case where inflation actually worked out for somebody: A woman called me up and said she had a Ferrari for sale that her late husband owned, and she asked me if I wanted it. Even though I’m not a big Ferrari guy, I asked her which model it was, and she said a 275. I said, “OK, well what do you want for it?” She said her husband paid $5800 for it in 1971 and told her before he died that it was worth $350,000, so that seemed like a good return and that’s what she wanted.

I know what you’re thinking, but not everybody Googles everything with their phones all the time—or wants a million people rushing to their door when they advertise an expensive car for sale. I told her, “OK, I’ll give you $350,000, but the car is worth closer to $4 million.” She didn’t believe it, so I said: “I’ll tell you what, I’m going to give you the number of a friend of mine who works at an auction company. Let him sell the car for you. If you get more than $3.5 million for it, you have to bake me some chocolate chip cookies.” The car went for $3.75 million, and she was stunned.

I leave it up to you to decide how you would have handled that call. I’m not a huge believer in karma, I just didn’t want to be That Guy. I already have a lot of stuff, and I wouldn’t have felt right taking advantage of that woman. Then again, I don’t know; I’ve had enough lucky instances, enough close calls with antique motorcycles—like the time a bike’s front wheel seized at 10 mph instead of the 80 I had just been doing on the freeway—that if good karma is a thing, it’s not exactly going to waste around here.

Life has been pretty good to me, so my attitude is that I’ll keep up with this karma thing, or whatever it is, until it stops working out. Maybe if something falls through or I get screwed really bad someday, then I’ll be a jerk. In the meantime, though, does anyone have a lead on where I can find some cork clutch inserts?

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