Smiths instrument restorer Dave Sauerberg — RIP

Dave Sauerberg died on Oct. 5, 2012. He was days away from his 75 birthday. A talented restorer of Brit-iron, and perhaps best known later in life for his deft touch with Smiths instruments, he will be missed. In the following story, written some five years ago, there’s a reference to the number of instruments Dave restored. On my 1951 Triumph T100, I’ve got No. RB1232, and I’m fairly certain it was one of the last — if not the last — to leave his bench.

Dave had recently sold his instrument repair business, and thankfully he had the opportunity to pass along his knowledge to Andy Henderson of www.vintagebritishcables.com.

God speed, Dave.

Dave Sauerberg in 2001 at the Ponoka Rally in Central Alberta. He was aboard his restored Matchless G3/LS. All of his restorations were simply meticulously detailed.

You just never know what’s around the next corner. Hopefully, it’s a new opportunity. When Lethbridge, Alberta resident Dave Sauerberg turned a corner in 2003 he discovered he had a remarkable talent for rebuilding Smiths motorcycle instruments.

At one time optional extras, Smiths speedometers and tachometers became standard fare on just about every make of British motorcycle, from Ariel, B.S.A, Norton and Triumph, and plenty of others in between. There are thousands of Smiths clocks out there, gracing what are now vintage machines. As those instruments age the chances are good they will at some point need servicing – lubricants dry up and needles get wobbly.

Sauerberg began his motorcycling career in B.C.’s lower mainland. In 1950 he was 13 years old when he bought a Whizzer motor for $10. His uncle, an experienced tug boat engineer, helped rebuild the engine. Sauerberg learned how to replace the Babbitt bearings on the connecting rod, and how to set up the Whizzer to run. The pair also fabricated some necessary brackets to hold the motor in a balloon-tire bicycle frame, something Sauerberg hand-sanded and painted with a brush.

“That’s probably where I got my philosophy ‘If you’re going to do something, make sure it’s done right’,” Sauerberg says of the mentorship provided by his uncle Knut Karlsen. “He’d tell me, ‘That’s not good enough; it has to be the best you can get it’.”

Sauerberg kept the Whizzer for a year or two, and moved up to larger and faster bikes as time went on. He road raced and drag raced his motorcycles, the majority of the bikes being British-made. So when Sauerberg began restoring motorcycles in the late 1990s some of the first projects he undertook were Brit bikes. He’d do full, factory correct restorations as well as custom jobs. But for every project he undertook, he never gave restoring or rebuilding the instruments a second thought.

That is, until John Oland of Motoparts in Edmonton challenged him to the task.

“I remember him (Oland) saying, ‘I’ve seen your detail work. If anyone can do it, you can. I’m going to send you two instruments with bezel kits – if you wreck them you can throw them away’,” Sauerberg recalls. “Well, I thought, the instruments are mechanical, why shouldn’t I be able to fix them?” Working in his own double-garage workshop, he had to make his own tools in order to get the clocks apart without doing irreparable damage. In fact, he had to make several tools.

A Smiths clock, whether it’s a speedometer or a tachometer, is about three and a half inches in diameter. The workings are in a housing that resembles a tuna fish can, except a little bigger. A piece of round glass covers the instruments’ face, and there is a seal sandwiched between the glass and the can, and between the top of the glass and the thin chrome ring that holds it all together. The chrome ring is called a ‘bezel’. Sauerberg can get the bezel off easily enough, but getting one back on requires a tool that will roll and crimp the band around both the glass and the can.

Smtihs produced two styles of instruments – chronometric and magnetic. Chronometric speedos and tachs are actual clockworks, the name itself derived from ‘chrono’, meaning clock, and ‘metric’, meaning all internal screw threads are metric. Chronometric instruments, according to Sauerberg, are very intricate and complicated, full of cams, levers and escapements. The second type — magnetic clocks, are much simpler.

The first two clocks Sauerberg repaired for Oland was the magnetic type. “I sent them back to John and he said they were just gorgeous, and that he’d be sending any more instruments that required rebuilding to me,” Sauerberg explains. He quickly figured out what makes the magnetic clocks tick, so to speak, and Sauerberg says he also soon learned what causes a magnetic instrument to fail. Usually it’s dried up lubricant, which turns into a hard wax. And he also learned three or four reasons why a needle will wobble – and it’s all got to do with internal clearances. “I don’t want to give too much away, here, though!” Sauerberg laughs.

Sauerberg rebuilt a few more clocks, and began sourcing his glass and even the printed faces locally. For the seals, he had a special press and cutter made. Every time he orders seals, he sends the tooling to the manufacturer. At some point Sauerberg gave up restoring the British bikes he loves, and focused strictly on repairing Smiths instruments, going so far as to build his own calibrator to ensure the clocks he repaired were telling the truth.

“Magnetic speedos are good up to about 60, 65, 70 mph,” he says. “Then they exponentially drop off, they get lazy, and can be out by as much as 10 per cent.”

It took some time before Sauerberg felt comfortable working on the more complicated chronometric instruments. “I sure didn’t like working on them at first,” he says. “The learning curve was quite agonizing. But I learned. I had to learn. Nobody was around to show me how, and it took a full year before I understood the intricacies of the chrono.”

There are now 27 dealers sending Sauerberg their Smiths instruments for repairs and rebuilding. He has dealers across Canada, from the west coast to the east coast. He also works with dealers in California, Oregon, Florida and even Hawaii. And it’s all word of mouth; he’s never advertised, and doesn’t have a website.

When he first started he wondered how much business there could possibly be, but says every time he turns around there’s another instrument that requires rebuilding. He keeps track of the clocks he’s repaired, noting them in a book and by placing a small decal on the back of the instrument. Starting with RB100 (RB stands for Retro Bike), on March 12, 2003, Sauerberg is now affixing label RB633. That’s 533 instruments in four years.

“By the end of today, I’ll be up to 535,” he says.

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