It was a rumor wafting over the San Francisco ‘old bike’ community for years – the crazy old guy whose son was killed on a Vincent Black Shadow, who spent the rest of his life hunting down Vincents, which he squirreled away in chicken shacks on his property. The rumor was, as far as anyone can tell, based on the real life of George Disteel. George was an avid motorcyclist and fan of Vincent motorcycles, owning a Black Shadow named ‘Sad Sack’, and was apparently a rider of some skill. Born in 1904, he discovered Marin county in the 1940s after serving in the military – a motorcyclist’s paradise, full of empty, twisting roads and year-round mild weather. No one today knows what machines George owned before the Vincent, but he seems to have purchased his Shadow brand new, and created an impression in the local motorcycling community, not only for his riding ability and choice of the World’s Fastest Production Motorcycle (as it said in the Vincent advertising), but of his increasingly erratic behavior, and appearance.

George Disteel towards the end of his life, with a gaffer’s tape eyepatch to help him work around his cataracts

A man of great personal discipline, George walked or bicycled many miles per day, maintaining a rigorous exercise routine. He was also fond of wearing very little clothing in sunny Marin, and his ever growing beard usually served as his only upper-torso modesty. Sometime in the late 1950s, his behavior became erratic, and he confided in an apprentice (Disteel was a master carpenter) the story of his ‘son’, who was tragically killed riding a Vincent at 20 years old. George was never married, although he did have a few liasons earlier in his life, but no-one has yet been able to corroborate whether he had a son, or a paternal relationship with a young man.

George Disteel with a young man – his son?

In a sense, it doesn’t matter, as this story became the justification for his bizarre actions, such as stuffing every nook and cranny of his home and jobsites with paper and old cloth, and searching northern California for fast motorcycles, especially Vincents, to buy and hide away, with the intention of preventing the death of another unsuspecting youth.

The late Alex McLean, a motorcycle dealer north of San Francisco, with one of Disteel’s bikes, a Vincent Black Knight, still bearing its English registration plate. Note the BSA Gold Star muffler, and luggage rack on the back.

By the end of his life, George had hidden 18 Vincents, two KSS Velocettes, a Norton International, two Moto Guzzi Falcones, an R51/3 BMW, Sunbeams, DKWs, Royal Enfields, plus a lot of rifles, clocks, oddments, antiques, etc.  He’d paid for all of this via canny investments in real estate, which made him quite rich – in truth it was hard not to become rich in the San Francisco real estate boom from the 1950s onwards. He certainly didn’t appear rich though, with his near-nakedness, lack of bathing, and odd behavior. While he owned 23 properties in Marin county, he lived for a time in a 1952 Hudson Hornet filled with trash. Eviction from the car meant moving into a single-resident-occupancy hotel in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district.  But first he took a sledgehammer to the Hudson, and had it towed. Towards the end of his days, with cataracts making reading difficult and driving impossible, he wore a pirate’s eyepatch made of gaffer’s tape, switching from side to side in order to see better.

The local TV station (KRON channel 4) covered the auction at Butterfield+Butterfield

He collapsed on the street in SF in 1978, aged 74, and a keen-eyed coroner realized he was no indigent, which began a chain of discovery of the man’s multiple homes, lands, sheds, hidden caches of motorcycles, storage units, etc. As no heirs could be found, the motorcycles were sold at Butterfields auction house in San Francisco, where the Vincents fetched from $800 – $1500… Some of these motorcycles were brand new or nearly so, and many merely needed a good clean after their years packed in rags within sealed toolsheds. A few of my friends own these bikes, so I’m fairly sure the story is true…at least, the Vincent-in-a-chicken-coop part.

Alex McLean again, with a c.1947 Velocette KSS ‘bob job’, in typical American late ’40s style
A Moto Guzzi Stornello
Testing compression on a Royal Enfield Interceptor
The pile of junk at Disteel’s house which had to be removed before auctionable items could be accessed

 

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