The $100,000 motorcycle I’d been riding for the past two hours through the undulating farmland of the Western Cape was no longer flowing majestically through the sweeping bends. It now lay silent, as pointless as a beached whale, outside my chosen B&B in the small town of Napier.
Just two hours earlier I had ridden my black cherry candy Honda Valkyrie Rune out the doors of Motorcycle World in Parow, Cape Town, revelling in its peerless style. Purchased sight unseen online eight weeks earlier in December, this was my first chance to see the cruiser in the metal, and it didn’t disappoint.
I’ve always liked Gold Wings, ever since I tested a new K2 1,000cc model for Motorcyclist Illustrated back in the late ’70s. In ’82 I even wrote the first book about these wonderful machines, with their large cult following and their fair share of detractors (Bike magazine in the UK referred to it as a two-wheeled car).
I was especially fond of the unfaired versions (nowadays we’d call them naked) and was impressed by the ’97 Valkyrie. I bought one when I lived in Hong Kong in 2000, and owned another for five years when I returned to the UK, and bought my third in Blackpool in 2014. So you could say I liked them.
The Valkyrie was discontinued by Honda in 2003 and in its place came the (by 2004 standards) hugely expensive and outrageous-looking Rune, featuring the latest 1,832cc engine from the Wing. People who loved the Valkyrie for everything it represented found the Judge Dredd look of the Rune a little, um, strange.
Honda created the Rune from a pure design exercise aimed at finding a direction for the new Valkyrie. The story goes that the giant Japanese manufacturer wanted to show the world that it could be fun, fashionable and style-conscious as well as being known for quality and reliability. As the photo shows, they certainly succeeded!
They built an indeterminate number of Runes, variously thought to be between 2,000 and 2,500 or so. Journalists at the time reported that each bike cost Honda $100,000 to make, yet they sold at $25,000 to $27,000. No wonder, then, that after proving its point Honda pulled the plug on the Rune after just over one model year.
Love the 1,500cc Valkyries though I do, I always felt that the 1,832cc engine was just begging to be fitted to the bike. That, plus tales of exceptional build quality even by Honda’s high standards, drew me to the Rune.
I found one online late last year in Connecticut with only 350 miles on the clock from new, but closer investigation showed that it is almost impossible to register a motorcycle in the US if you are not a resident. So I searched instead closer to home and found an identical model in Cape Town, albeit with 27,000 km (about 15,000 miles) under its belt. A few emails and phone calls later it was mine. Due to a work/life schedule that sees my wife and I spending time each year in the UK, the UAE and South Africa, it would be eight weeks before I could collect the bike.
The dealer had filled the tank, performed a full service, checked the tyre pressure and polished the Rune till it looked like new. So it was with great expectations and a broad grin that I negotiated the Friday evening rush-hour traffic on the Voortrekker Road in the early February sunshine. The plan was to head back to our house in Plettenberg Bay, with a detour strongly recommended by my wife to visit Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the African continent.
Like all motorcycle tourists travelling without a tent, I kept an eye out for hotels. The only one I spotted was before Caledon and way too early to stop, so I passed on through the rolling countryside on almost deserted and suitably twisty roads.
Initial impressions of the Rune bore out what I’d read in the relatively few available magazine reviews: the massive weight disappears once rolling; the silky flat-six engine is more awesome than ever in this incarnation; the leading-link front forks work superbly; the seat isn’t hugely comfortable; and the rear suspension is too hard, with too little travel. I also found that the bars, though not as high and wide as on many factory cruisers, were nevertheless tiring at sustained speeds much over 120 km/h. No surprises there.
What was a welcome surprise was the sheer feel-good factor of riding a mobile work of art. Everywhere you look, the attention to detail is amazing. The chrome seems a mile deep, the metallic red paint likewise. And that chrome really is everywhere: clutch and brake master cylinders, handlebar switches, levers, clamps. If it’s not painted it’s chromed, apart from the alloy frame spars. Mine was the “chrome version”, which cost $2,500 more than the base model and gives you spectacular chromed wheels. Why would anyone choose the base model? It’s like accepting a BLT without mayo.
The headlight is set about four feet in front of the rider, it’s top chromed, looking like a large, gleaming ostrich egg. The tactile controls (throttle, brakes, clutch, gear-change) all have a reassuring solidity and smoothness. The engine delivers its 118 bhp and 123 lb-ft of torque with expected silkiness, and the bike is no slouch despite its 850 lb weight.
The frame and steering geometry and the suspension make for easy, fluid bend-swinging and the handling is “high-end cruiser”. Comfort could be improved, especially the rear end over less-than-perfect surfaces, but the sheer pleasure of riding the beast outweighs such considerations. Stopping for a drink brought admirers aplenty (for the bike, not me). Riding through Caledon brought thumbs-ups, and stopping for three sets of roadworks brought stares and smiles.
The sun was now sinking below the horizon, casting beautiful golden shadows over the hillsides, and the strong Cape winds grew colder. I hadn’t seen a hotel sign for about 60 km now and so breathed a sigh of relief when the town of Napier produced a selection of B&Bs. Parking outside one of these brought immediate interest in, and questions about, the bike. Happily the establishment had one room left at R300, and the barman even gave me a key to the back gate so I could get the Rune off the street and into a safer overnight parking area.
I wanted a cold beer and some BBQ ribs but thought I’d be sensible and move the bike to its secure parking place first. Hah! Ignition key in, switch it on, and…nothing. Not a peep. None of the usual array of ignition and warning lights, nothing from the starter button.
This cannot be happening! I check that the bike is in neutral, pull up the side-stand just in case, re-check the kill switch – all okay. The dealer was by now long closed for the day, but he had given me the previous owner’s number who says he’s never experienced anything like this. He tells me where to find the well-hidden seat lock so I can check the battery terminals, and they are all tight. I lift the fuse box cover and wonder (not for the first time) how on earth you tell if a fuse is blown without replacing it; no replacements are included.
And so began my long Saturday in Napier: alert the dealer at 08:30 next morning, and he promises to do what he can. Meantime he suggests I try jumper cables. I’d managed to borrow some from one of the bartenders the night before, and while searching the empty main street for a candidate vehicle to supply the power I ask a couple of passing bikers to help me try to push-start the bike down the hill. We pushed but the bike didn’t start.
I coast to a halt next to a parked bakkie (pick-up truck for non-South African readers) and the kind driver, Andre Pietersen, agrees to hook the bike up to his battery. Again, not a spark of life. He offers to put the battery on charge, and I readily accept. Give it till midday, he suggests, so I go off in search of breakfast at the excellent Gunners restaurant. My Kindle keeps me entertained till midday, when I walk back down the hill to try the bike again, aided once more by the jumper cables and partly charged battery. This time all the ignition lights come on and the starter motor gives a forlorn click, but no start-up. Not even close.
The dealer says he’s still looking into solutions. I check the regional phone book for local motorcycle shops, but there aren’t any. I look for a taxi service or car rental agency, but they don’t exist either. All the while, people are stopping to admire, photograph and discuss the stranded Rune. I contemplate hitchhiking to the next town of Bredasdorp, 18 km away, where I’m told there is a motorcycle spares shop that will be closed by now but has an emergency number in the window. I even think about hitchhiking back to Cape Town, but that seems daft.
The dealer calls to say that he’s found me a new battery and he will deliver it personally – tomorrow. It’s the best deal available, so I check into a more comfortable B&B for R 350 for my second night in Napier. Then I sit back, sip cold beer and read books, pondering the irony of how something so fine, so beautifully designed, so exquisitely built, can be rendered useless for want of a simple motorcycle battery.
At least there’s a moral here: when buying an 11-year-old motorcycle that may have been in the showroom for some time, splash out a few extra bucks on a new battery!