Where art and motorcycles converge.

Perhaps one of the most interesting crossroads in this frenzied world is the one at which Motorcycles and Art intersect. When Keith Martin of Big D Cycle in Texas shared that he’d just completed restoring an ultra-rare Seeley Condor for renowned abstract painter Larry Poons, we had to learn more. For those not familiar with the name, Big D Cycle is an important one in the history of motorcycles. That’s thanks to Jack Wilson – a man who was involved in one way or another in setting 24 of Triumph’s 36 world speed records. It was Wilson who built the finely tuned Triumph Thunderbird engine in Stormy Manhgam’s streamliner that, in 1956, helped propel Johnny Allen to 214.4 mph across the Bonneville Salt Flats. That record in turn prompted Triumph to name, in 1959, its new twin-carburetor 650 the Bonneville.

Keith Martin holds the keys to the legendary Big D Cycles in Texas. [Keith Martin]
George W. “Jack” Wilson was born in 1927, and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was a wizard with a wrench, and in the early 1950s worked as a mechanic at Pete Dalio’s shop in Ft. Worth. At Dalio Motorcycle Sales, Wilson built hundreds of race-winning Triumph engines and was himself a fierce competitor. When Pete retired and sold his shop in the early 1960s, Wilson was eventually asked to run the business. He found a willing partner with ex-owner Pete, and Big D Cycle was established in 1963, selling and servicing both Yamaha and Triumph. Yamaha was parceled off in the late 1960s, and Big D Cycle carried on with Triumph until 1983. Essentially bankrupt, the Triumph name was purchased by developer John Bloor, who had elaborate visions of what a modern British machine could be.

But Big D Cycle never closed. Beginning in the early 1970s, Wilson had wisely been buying up old Triumph dealer inventories. In the mid-1980s, thanks to Big D’s well-respected engine building and restoration capabilities, the shop was busier than ever with customer work, mail-order parts sales, and racing ventures. “I wasn’t really aware of the importance of Big D Cycle back when I first started going there in my teen years,” says Keith, the current steward of the Big D Cycle name. “For me, it was just the closest place to buy Triumph parts.”

The Big D Cycle team with the ‘Texas Ceegar’, the streamliner in which Johnny Allen to the 214mph unofficial land speed record in 1956, which gave rise to the Bonneville line. [The Vintagent Archive]
Born and raised in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, Keith spent his formative years on a rural piece of property south of the city. His father wasn’t into motorcycles, but when Keith was seven years old, he got a 5-horsepower Sears minibike for Christmas. “I really wanted a guitar, but he wouldn’t let me have one – he bought me a minibike instead,” he recalls. But that minibike proved to be important. “My friends and I rode them on all the country roads. As long as we didn’t go into the city limits, we never got hassled, and that was the start of a fascination with motorcycles for me,” he adds.

From the minibike, Keith moved up to a 65cc Suzuki. It was a machine his father acquired from a workmate, and the piston was frozen in the bore. His father took the engine apart and Keith watched as a broken wooden shovel handle was employed to drive out the damaged piston. “We drove to a Dallas Suzuki/BSA dealership and they bored the cylinder while we waited,” Keith recalls. Other bigger machines followed, including a Honda 100. It was on this that he’d skip school and ride to Dallas to hang out with his friends at Big D, fooling around in the shop or simply staring at the 1956 record-setting streamliner. Keith didn’t sit around, either. “My father was always big into working, and I got a job when I was quite young in the trades, starting in a manufacturing facility, then at a gas station working on cars. I stayed there until the late 1970s, when I started in the cable TV industry.”

Keith Martin has sponsored a team of 1915 Norton 16Hs on several Motorcycle Cannonball cross-country rallies. [Keith Martin]
Keith’s first British motorcycle was a 1973 Triumph Bonneville, and he bought it from a friend’s older brother. That was in 1980, and the Bonneville became Keith’s main ride. It also provided the opportunity for Keith to start hanging around Big D Cycle even more. He’d lend a hand when needed, and was always willing to do something, even just push a broom. When Keith was laid off from the cable company in the late 1980s, “Jack said, ‘Come work for me here at Big D.’” Keith continues, “Dallas/Ft. Worth had a huge motorcycling community in the late 1980s, and we had a lot on the go. There was plenty of racing, and Jack did a tremendous amount of mail-order business. Jack was a hard-working guy – the shop was open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Sunday and Monday. Jack expected a lot, and he didn’t tolerate anything less than 100 % effort. He’d never ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do, the problem was, he’d do anything.”

Larry Poons on his Ducati 250 on which he regularly places in AHRMA racing: 21X is his chosen racing number. [Larry Poons]
Keith left Big D Cycle in 1998 to open his own shop, RPM Cycle, selling and servicing the new Hinckley Triumphs. In the early ‘90s, he’d entered into an agreement to buy Jack out, but the shop was eventually sold to a different buyer. That’s when Keith set out to open RPM, but he was ultimately able to purchase the inventory, tooling and Big D Cycle name. “I didn’t use the name for a while, until I sold RPM Cycle, but in 2008 I dusted off the Big D Cycle name and opened up again.”

Motorcycle racing was a mainstay in Keith’s life, too, after he and a friend traveled to Daytona in 1987 and took in the vintage racing scene. “I saw them racing 750 Triumphs, and decided to get one of those and get involved in AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) competition.” That’s how Keith first met New York-based artist Larry Poons. Larry, born in Tokyo in 1937, moved to America and studied music from 1955 to 1957. After taking in an exhibition of work by Barnett Newman, Larry’s focus shifted, and he began studying painting at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. He graduated from that program, and in 1963, his work was shown in a solo exhibition at New York’s Green Gallery. He continues to paint in his East Durham, New York studio, while still being an avid motorcycle enthusiast. From the age of 16, Larry’s been riding either British or Italian machines, and in the early 1960s, also played guitar in an avant-garde band called The Druids.

Larry Poons’ Seeley Condor he’s owned since new, and still races, here at the Big D Cycle workshop. [Keith Martin]
While Larry rode on the street, he also raced during the 1970s, later becoming involved with AHRMA aboard a 1971 Seeley Condor – a motorcycle he’d bought new. Powered by a single overhead camshaft Matchless G50 engine, the Condor was built by English racer and frame builder Colin Seeley. When Seeley, operating as Colin Seeley Racing Developments, purchased the manufacturing rights to the Matchless G50, AJS 7R and Manx Nortons in 1966 he planned to build complete engines and place them into his specially designed frames, which evolved over time to become the Mk3 chassis. The straight tubes of this frame run from the top of the neck to the swingarm mount, while a second set of straight tubes run from the bottom of the neck back to the rear shock absorber top mounting points. This design made the engine appear as though it was virtually hanging out in front of the tubes, but it and the separate gearbox were securely mounted in substantial plates, while the engine’s cambox was fixed to the upper frame rails.

The frame was also used for Yamaha and Ducati competition machines and proved to be a race winner. In the early 1970s, while the big Matchless G50 engine was losing its competitive edge on the tracks, Seeley thought it would be a good idea to put the powerplant in a street-legal machine. He drafted plans for a café-racer style motorcycle, and equipped it with a Lucas dynamo, lights and proper silencer. This became the Condor, a motorcycle with a very small production run of just seven — one of them, of course, was bought by Larry.

Larry Poons and the Ducati 250 racer on which he does particularly well. [Larry Poons]
“I met Larry in Topeka, Kansas in 1990,” Keith recalls. “I was admiring his bike in the paddock as he was trying to change the front sprocket on the Seeley. He was yelling and cussing trying to get the main shaft nut off. I told him to turn it the other way as it was lefthand thread. It came right off and we have been friends ever since. I did not know he was a famous artist until about ten years later. He was a good guy who was always racing hard, and always on it. When we quit racing, I’d see him at Barber on a regular basis, and in 2019, he asked if I’d restore the Condor. He told me to build it as if it were mine, and I went all out.”

According to Keith, Larry’s Condor was a well-used racing motorcycle when it rolled into the Big D Cycle restoration shop. “It had lived a hard life, and he’d been seriously racing it for 22 years,” he says. “The motor was tired, and after one crash, the frame had been reworked by Rob North. But it was nicely done, and the frame was straight.”

The Big D Cycle crew is Ryan Ambrose and Keith’s long-time friend Scott Aday. They all worked hard on Larry’s Seeley Condor, and fabricated fresh alloy engine mounting plates for a new reproduction Matchless G50 engine sourced from NYC Norton. The gas tank was cut open to repair it, and the exhaust modified to run inside the frame to provide more leg room. To achieve this, the oil tank was cut for clearance while new footpegs were fabricated. Instead of being nickel plated as the original Seeley frame would have been, Keith opted to powder coat the chassis. The gas tank was painted orange, with the Seeley name hand painted on its flanks. It took about 10 months for the restoration to wrap up, and when finished, Keith took it for a quick blast down the street.

Another shot of the ultra-rare Seeley Condor, built by Colin Seeley from remaining stocks of AMC racing engines and his own frame, originally for the street as an ultimate single-cylinder cafe racer. [Keith Martin]
“It runs really nice and the motor is strong, but I can’t really ride it because it’s too small for me,” he says. They have, however, had the Seeley to the track for some shake down runs. “Even before we started this job, I thought rather than hand Larry a bill I’d ask him for a nice big painting to hang in our house – what could be better than one of my friend Poons’ works at home?”

Larry agreed, and sent Keith some books of available works. Keith’s family then met Larry and his wife Paula in their New York studio and selected a painting. So far, the Condor is still with Big D, and the painting is still in New York. The plan was to meet at a track where the Big D Cycle crew could pit for Larry while he put the restored Condor through its paces. Covid might put a wrench in those works, but when it comes to Motorcycles and Art, it won’t be long before everything intersects.

Keith Martin with one of Larry Poons’ large abstract paintings. [Larry Poons]


Greg Williams is Profiles Editor for The Vintagent. He’s 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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