We were 18 when my pal Dave suggested borrowing a friend’s 1973 Plymouth Duster to drive east from Calgary to Saskatoon. He wanted to visit his dad, who lived in the so-called Paris of the Prairies, while I was eager for a road trip.

That tired orange Duster with its 318 cubic inch V8 engine was thirsty for both fuel and oil, but it traveled the 380 miles to Saskatoon. After meeting dad Ray, Dave immediately wanted to show me what was in the garage. A lifelong motorcyclist who commuted to his job as a press operator from the moment it was warm enough to ride in the spring until the frost would form on his beard in the fall, Ray’s two-car garage held a daily-ridden Harley-Davidson along with a couple of projects in pieces. Tucked into a corner, however, was a dusty Triumph Bonneville. I went straight for the Triumph, thinking it a rather attractive motorcycle.

Constructed immediately at the end of the Second World War, Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles shop circa 1946-47, with a Triumph T100 and A.L. Nicholson aboard an Ariel Square Four. [Greg Williams]
While in Saskatoon, Ray told us stories about riding and maintaining his machines and lamented the fact Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles had moved in 1977 from Saskatoon to Calgary. He said Nicholson Bros. had been his go-to supplier when he rode the Triumph regularly. At Ray’s encouragement, Dave and I got tattoos inked onto our shoulders by an artist working in the back of a custom Harley shop. The tattoo, now faded, is a visual reminder of that seminal moment in my motorcycle career, one that likely wouldn’t have started without seeing Ray’s Triumph. At the time, I also couldn’t clearly appreciate the mention of Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles and how large an impact that Prairie motorcycle institution would eventually have on my life.

Brothers Lawrence (left) and Bernie Nicholson pose in front of their first shop – a shed constructed of reclaimed packing-case wood — with two circa 1935 Douglas machines behind their parents’ apartment block in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. [Greg Williams]
When I was about 11 years old, I desperately wanted a minibike. Growing up in a new southwest Calgary suburb, there was plenty of vacant land surrounding our house, where a few of the neighborhood kids rode small off-road motorcycles and minibikes. One of those riders sold me his minibike, which was powered by a Clinton rototiller engine. He’d ridden it hard, but for $5, the hulk followed me home and my dad helped tune it and get it running properly. After that, for a few months that year I became one of the mechanized terrors on the block.

An insert sent out in Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles mail order catalogs promoting the First Edition of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics and Speed Tuning. [Greg Williams]
The minibike was sold to fund the purchase of a Yamaha GT80. Dad again helped do a top end job on that single-cylinder two-stroke, buying parts from Walt Healy Yamaha and having the cylinder bored in their dingy machine shop. A new piston went in, and I was off. But, with more homes going up, the new neighbors weren’t sympathetic to letting punks race around on noisy bikes, so phone calls to the police ended the fun. By this time, skateboards and BMX bicycles, along with music from Agent Orange, The Clash and the Sex Pistols were less trouble than motorcycles, so I left motorcycles behind.

Until I saw the Triumph in Ray’s garage. Although it took me another three years, and with a substantial loan from a very sympathetic girlfriend who is still by my side, I finally managed to secure the purchase of a 1971 Triumph TR6R. When I bought the bike, the seller handed me a greasy, dog-eared catalog and said, “If you ever need any parts or advice, call up these guys.”

After the wooden shed, this was the first bricks-and-mortar store front for Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles in Saskatoon, circa 1936. Douglas machine to the left, J.B. Nicholson on a Calthorpe (middle), and brother A.L. Nicholson on a Royal Enfield. [Greg Williams]
‘These guys’ turned out to be Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles. Proprietor J.B. (Bernie) Nicholson had moved the shop from Saskatoon to a northeast Calgary warehouse district, where mail-order motorcycle parts to fit Ariel, BSA, Norton and Triumph and many other brands were sold and shipped worldwide.

The Nicholson boys were eldest brother Lawrence and his sibling Bernie. Motorcycle-crazy from a young age in Saskatoon, in 1932 when they were 17 and 14 years old, they imported their first British machine, a 198cc DOT. By 1933, they’d put a few miles on the DOT, managed to sell it for a profit, and ordered more English motorcycles. Behind their parents’ apartment block, they used wood from the packing crates to knock together a shed, officially becoming Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles.

J.B. (Bernie) Nicholson at right during a trip to Long Beach, Washington circa 1940. The machine appears to be a pre-war Triumph twin, stripped down for racing – this wasn’t Nicholson’s motorcycle. [Greg Williams]
Early brands they sold were Calthorpe and Douglas, and in 1935 they published a single-page mail-order catalog listing commonly needed parts for American and British machines, including carburetors, magnetos, spark plugs, pistons and rings. According to the catalog, they were “The Motorcycle Specialists” and were prepared to sell an enthusiast parts and accessories or help repair whatever ailed a mechanical companion.

After high school, Lawrence and Bernie attended Saskatoon Technical Collegiate and graduated from the Motor Engineering and Machining program. While they’d already acquired much hands-on repair knowledge, at Tech they honed their skills and learned how to properly operate tooling such as a metal lathe, cylinder boring bar and valve grinding equipment.

Although young, both brothers were exceptionally bright and competent in handling business and wrenches. They were as inquisitive, genuine and honest as a Prairie summer day is long and that helped earn them much trust. Leaving behind the wooden shed, a brick and mortar location in downtown Saskatoon saw the brothers firmly established, where Lawrence looked after the business side of the operation while Bernie, who seemed to be somewhat more mechanically gifted, naturally gravitated towards service.

J.B. Nicholson with his 1939 Ariel Square Four. [Greg Williams]
During the summer of 1935, the Nicholson boys sailed to England, staying with family and keeping appointments with many of the Motorcycle factories aboard a 1927 Sunbeam. Presenting themselves as capable young Canadians enthusiastic about the trade, the brothers gained agencies with Ariel and Royal Enfield – soon followed by Panther and Triumph. While maintaining something of a Better Buy British policy, they also took on Indian, giving prospective buyers the option of purchasing, aside from the Ariel Square Four they offered, a larger, more powerful motorcycle.

Now, with motorcycles being sold by Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles and shipped by rail to all corners of Canada and some locations in the U.S., consistent repair advice became a necessary commodity. Many of the British machines, however, simply were not supplied with anything that could be considered an essential owner’s manual. To remedy the drought of reliable information, it was J.B. Nicholson who sat down at a typewriter to begin work on a book he’d call Modern Motorcycle Mechanics and Speed Tuning.

…and aboard the same machine overlooking the Bessborough Hotel in Saskatoon. [Greg Williams]
He wasn’t a stranger to the printed word. In 1941, when he was just 24, Nicholson submitted a technical piece titled simply “Speed Bulletin” to editor Graham Walker of the British journal Motor Cycling. While Walker did not publish the article, he was impressed with Nicholson’s writing style and asked for help on another assignment.

Many overseas servicemen maintaining Indian military motorcycles had been writing to Walker looking for assistance. Information they had at hand was nothing more than a parts list, and unfortunately for the English-speaking mechanics, the list was published in French. Walker asked Nicholson to write a technical series to help his Motor Cycling readers understand the internal intricacies of the Indian.

Mail order catalogs promoted all that Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles had to offer, not only to Canadians, but to buyers around the world. [Greg Williams]
Upon acceptance of the finished draft, editor Walker wrote to Nicholson, and said, “It is difficult to express in words just how much I appreciate the trouble you have gone to. You possess the happy knack of describing the necessary work in such a concise manner and in such a logical sequence as to make it understandable to even inexperienced fitters, and yet, at the same time, suitable for the first-class mechanic.”

Nicholson’s first article, Servicing American-built Indian Machines Used in The British Army, was published Christmas Day, 1941. He followed that up in April 1942 with a two-part series with the rather ungainly title Servicing the 750cc Side-valve Model “45” Harley-Davidson: Details of a Complete Mileage Maintenance Schedule and Hints on Engine Overhauls Covering a Machine Used in Large Numbers by the American Forces.

J.B. (Bernie) Nicholson, the author of seven editions of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics, at work at his manual typewriter. [Greg Willams]
To compose Modern Motorcycle Mechanics, Nicholson devoted a few hours a day working at his manual Underwood typewriter, putting into words his repair advice. With techniques he’d learned for himself, supplemented by specifications gleaned from factory literature, it took him only a few short months to create the First Edition of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics and Speed Tuning. Illustrated with several black and white photographs taken by his wife, Lu, along with several line drawings, in its 13 chapters the then 25-year old Nicholson covered more than routine maintenance and repair. He discussed the Sport of motorcycling, as well as the industry supporting the enthusiasts. Motorcycle design was given its own chapter, as was proper operation and control of a motorcycle. By far, however, the bulk of the information would give trained mechanics and shade tree repair technicians alike the confidence to tackle a wide variety of jobs from tuning AMAL carburetors to accurately measuring piston clearance to determine how many more miles could be added to a motor before needing a full rebuild.

Essentially self-published and printed by National Job Printers in Saskatoon, the First Edition was released in June 1942, with a run of 4,000 copies. Immediately successful, another 10,000 copies were printed in 1944. It cost $0.95 a copy to print, and the book retailed for $2.50. Circulars promoting the book were printed and sent out with every mail order, and ads ran in American motorcycle publications as well as Popular Mechanics. Cases of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics were sold wholesale and shipped to buyers including Clymer Motors in Los Angeles and Johnson Motors of Pasadena.

J.B. (Bernie) Nicholson and his first wife, Lu, aboard their well-used 1939 Ariel Square Four – a particular favorite of the author of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics. [Greg Williams]
So well-received was Modern Motorcycle Mechanics and Speed Tuning, Nicholson set to work in 1944 on a revised Second Edition. This volume is greatly enlarged with specific chapters dedicated to certain marques only generally referenced in the First Edition. As such, it is this book that truly advanced Nicholson’s maintenance procedures for most of the American and British machines available at the time.

In the Foreword to the Second Edition, published in April 1945, Nicholson wrote: “The revised edition, as the original, has been prepared to render service to all associated with motorcycles, from the novice to the experienced rider and professional mechanic. Design, Operating, Maintenance Requirements and Servicing Procedure are amongst the items extensively covered. In scope and detail the new issue of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics surpasses any previous motorcycle publication.”

Half-way up a hill on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon, J.B. Nicholson is stopped with his modified 1939 Triumph Speed Twin. [Greg Williams]
While still maintaining and operating Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles with his brother, Nicholson went on to publish subsequent editions of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics – the Third in 1948, Fourth in 1953, Fifth in 1965, Sixth in 1969 — culminating in 1974 with what he considered his penultimate achievement, the Seventh Edition. As each volume dealt with Modern motorcycles, information from earlier editions was modified, added to or deleted, but Nicholson retained as much as possible, right to the end, even including a short section in on girder forks in the Seventh Edition when hydraulics had long been the norm.

When I bought the ’71 Triumph Tiger it ran. Poorly. With the dog-eared Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles catalog in my hand and the words of both the seller and Dave’s dad, Ray, echoing in my mind, one of the first calls placed was to the shop. It was possible to make arrangements and meet Nicholson himself at the warehouse and purchase parts. On our first meeting, I chatted with Nicholson for several minutes and believe I purchased a set of Lucas points and other tune up parts. As the discussion wound down, Nicholson pulled out a copy of his 766-page Seventh Edition, handed it to me, and said I’d find it useful. If I had any questions, he added, I shouldn’t hesitate to call.

Circa 1952, the showroom of Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles in Saskatoon. [Greg Williams]
It took a few attempts, but finally with a new single AMAL Concentric carburetor on the intake manifold the Triumph began to run like a champion, and it became a workhorse, taking me to my job as a cook in the evenings and to Journalism School on weekdays. Upon graduating with a Diploma, I began to wonder what was next. Not overly enthusiastic about packing up and finding a job with a small-town weekly newspaper as my peers were doing, I cast about for story ideas I could pitch to magazines.

After I’d bought the Triumph, I discovered Billy’s News in downtown Calgary. On the stands were titles such as Walneck’s Classic Cycle Trader and British journals including The Classic MotorCycle and Classic Bike. Since 1992, I’d been purchasing and reading these magazines with interest, and thinking of Nicholson, pitched a story about the man and his book to The Classic Motor Cycle. They agreed to let me have a try.

Clean, well-lit and very modern with hydraulic motorcycle lifts, the service area of Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles circa 1952. [Greg Williams]
Nicholson had retired and sold the majority of Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles parts to an outfit in New Zealand in 1993. In 1996, when I approached him about sharing his story, he agreed to an interview. The resulting piece ran in the October 1996 issue of The Classic Motor Cycle and a connection to the Nicholson family was firmly established.

And that brings this tale forward to 2009, when nine years after his death, I began working on a book about Nicholson – essentially a book about a man who wrote a book. In the process of publishing Prairie Dust, Motorcycles and a Typewriter, Nicholson’s son granted me the rights to reprint any of the seven editions of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics. I’ve done that, having enlisted Prairie-based institution Friesens in Manitoba to print and bind both the Second Edition and the Seventh Edition of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics. With a steady demand, another run of the Seventh Edition was reprinted late last year, in 2019.

First published in 2009, Prairie Dust, Motorcycles and a Typewriter was expanded in 2017 to include more early Saskatoon motorcycle history with Bowman Brothers, Limited (1908) and Walters Cycle Co. (1913). [Greg Williams]
During that initial formal interview with Nicholson in 1996, I asked him why he wrote Modern Motorcycle Mechanics – a book that had sold worldwide with more than 100,000 copies having been printed between 1942 and 1974.

Nicholson replied, “There was little done by others in the way of compiling a motorcycle manual, and I considered a manual a necessity. The manuals that may have come from a manufacturer were good, so far as they went. But we had machines going to remote corners of this country, with no repair facilities at hand. The manufacturer’s manuals missed a lot of things that could only be gained by personal experience.”

And that’s still the case, although now almost 50 years out of date and certainly no longer Modern, the information contained in Nicholson’s tome remains applicable to any disciple of the Internal Combustion Engine and the motorcycle.

Keeping the story alive, as it were, with fresh reprints of the Second Edition and Seventh Editions of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics, plus a book about a man who wrote a book with Prairie Dust, Motorcycles and a Typewriter. [Greg Williams]
To order any of the books above, go to Greg Williams’ website!

 

Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics

 

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