It doesn’t matter if Emma Booton, a Bay Area mechanic who describes herself as a Mary Poppins of motorcycles, is fettling an historic Vincent Black Lighting for a wealthy collector or changing the oil on a humble Honda Spree scooter for an hourly worker relying on the machine to get to work on time; she treats every job with the same degree of attention and respect. For Emma, it comes down to the age-old adage, “Treat people as you would want to be treated yourself,” she says, and continues, “Just by walking through my door, you’re honoring me and you’re doing me a favor. I’ll do whatever I can to help you.” Emma’s door leads into a small 800 square foot shop called Moto Town in Marina, California. It’s the kind of motorcycle mecca where she’ll perform complete restorations to top end rebuilds to tire changes. And she’s really good at those tire changes.

Love for British-built machines runs deep in Emma Booton, here with a Vincent Black Shadow under repair. [Emma Booton]
Emma was born in England in 1962 at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital. That’s just two miles down the road from the Norton motorcycle works – and four miles from BSA’s plant. At nine years old she met her first motorcycle when her babysitter’s boyfriend arrived on a brand new 1971 Triumph Bonneville. “He sat me on the gas tank, and off we went,” Emma says. “Oh god, I was done, and that was it. I fell in love with motorcycles.” Raised in a single-parent home by her mother, Emma says the family couldn’t always afford a car, let alone support the dreams of a young teenager lusting after her first powered two-wheeler. Eventually, Emma got a job at a tire shop, fitting tires to automobile and motorcycle rims. “I had that job for a very short space of time, but the skills and techniques I learned there I use to do this day,” she says. Essentially, it’s not every motorcycle rim that can fit on a tire changing machine. If a technician can’t handle a set of tire levers, the rim is likely to get damaged. Doing it quickly and properly by hand is sometimes the only way of swapping skins. It’s a skill Emma mastered many years ago, “and my bread and butter is fitting tires – a machine makes it easy, but if the rim won’t fit, you’re dead in the water. You need to know how to fit tires by hand if you’re in this industry.”

Anything classic or even modern is welcome in Emma’s workshop, like this Suzuki GT750 ‘Kettle’. [Emma Booton]
At 16, a moped is what Emma could legally learn to ride in England but that’s not what she bought. Instead, she acquired a 1967 BSA B25 Barracuda, a single-cylinder machine with a 250cc engine. It was the kind of bike, she says, that you ride once, fix once, and repeat the process on almost a daily basis. But with that machine, she proved she had some fundamental skills with a rudimentary set of spanners. “Back then a lot of my friends weren’t that interested in maintaining their bikes, and I’d do the jobs.” Working flat rate on Saturday’s at Hailwood & Gould’s motorcycle emporium gave her pocket money while she studied mechanical engineering at university. She dropped out before obtaining a degree and says, “You’ve really got to earn money to survive, and my first proper job was as lead technician at Sutton Motorcycles in Birmingham.” It was there, under the tutelage of Mike Shaw, that Emma learned how Honda U.K. liked jobs done. “That’s where I learned to have an enormous amount of respect for the machine, no matter how humble they are,” she explains.

Hot pink is definitely an improvement for an early Honda Gold Wing. [Emma Booton]
When she was 32, Emma left her tools behind and moved to America. “I wish I had something profound to say about coming here,” she says, and adds, “I just wasn’t sure my life was going where I wanted it to go, and I’ve always been a very restless soul. I had a nice house and a good job, but Brits have always looked to America – this is where all the cool people lived.” Emma landed in Miami and took six months to cross the U.S. “I had a distant friend in San Luis Obispo, and I had the vague notion that’s where I’d end up.” Originally, Emma had ideas of purchasing a cheap car or motorcycle to make the trek, but instead rented a car. She made friends in just about every town and city in which she stopped, often meeting owners of British-made machines. These impromptu introductions inevitably led Emma to ask questions about why someone, for example, would be riding a 70-year old English bike. “Motorcycles to me have always been a path to friendship, and we’d talk about how those bikes sound, how they look. I’ve always had a visceral love of English bikes, and a designer such as Edward Turner was a visionary, but there were many other designers who were just as important.”

Emma tutors those interested in motorcycle mechanics at Re-Cycle Garage in Santa Cruz. [Emma Booton]
On her way across America, Emma was evaluating her life. “Motorcycles can become all-consuming and they can take over your life very quickly. When I got to the coast of California, I just wanted to breathe a bit. I had been unhappy in England and thought I wanted a complete change.” But motorcycles wouldn’t leave her alone. Sitting in a café in San Luis Obispo, she was approached by the owner of Coalinga Motorsports. “How he found out I was in town I don’t know, but he knew I was a mechanic and we talked motorcycles,” Emma says. The next day, she was interviewed and hired as lead technician, starting over and acquiring MAC tools as she needed them and working again in an industry she thought she’d left behind. Coalinga was primarily a Honda, Yamaha and Sea-Doo dealership and Emma was there in the mid-1990s during a boom in motorsport popularity. “I was working in a historic building and I had a picture of the Queen on the wall and a pink flamingo hanging by its neck over my bench. I got all of the problem bikes – which I quite enjoyed,” she says. Working with a fresh perspective in a vibrant and fun shop – which is now long gone – Emma fell in love again with motorcycles. But tragedy struck while working on a twin-engine Sea-Doo when the large watercraft fell on Emma’s right forearm. The result was a compound fracture with nerve, muscle and bone damage. After a lengthy healing process, “I had to figure out a way to make a living.”

When in America, American motorcycles beckon, like this post-war Indian Chief. [Emma Booton]
Becoming something of a vagabond, Emma learned to drive a Greyhound bus and drove the highways of America, basically anywhere west of the Mississippi. “Home base was San Francisco, and I had a small apartment there,” she says. “I always rode a lightweight 125cc or 250cc bike to work and was kind of learning to use my arm again. But Greyhound is a lifestyle, and my apartment looked like a motel room. I left there after three or four years and then drove public transit in Santa Cruz. I was also working part time at a couple of bike shops, but wasn’t confident I could move the heavier bikes around.” After buying property where the barn was larger than the house in Prunedale, California, Emma began to figure out how to properly work on motorcycles again without shying away from larger machines. With her new shop, Emma began working on motorcycles for local collectors such as Neil Jameson of Jameson’s Classic Motorcycle Museum in Pacific Grove. “I was still driving transit, but I’d build him bikes in my off hours and was just happy to be getting my strength back while working on motorcycles,” she says. Word spread, and next Emma was restoring and wrenching on bikes for baseball legend Reggie Jackson. “I’d bring full restoration jobs back to the house, or I’d go out and work in their spaces,” she says.

Triumph triples are among Emma’s favorites – they certainly offer rewards to the mechanically skilled, and challenges to the inexperienced. [Emma Booton]
While servicing some of these motorcycles, Emma would occasionally buy parts and fluids from Monterey Peninsula Power Sports in Seaside, California. Learning the shop was desperate for a mechanic, Emma was persuaded to come work full-time and made a name for herself as a Triumph whisperer. But with a change of ownership and the dropping of Triumph at MPPS, Emma was once again evaluating her choices. “That served as a catalyst, and I took stock of where I was and where I wanted to be, and that’s when I decided to open my own little shop.” There’s no website or advertisements promoting Moto Town. “I rely on word of mouth, and people tend to just come to me,” Emma explains. She works long hours, and also volunteers as a cook at a local shelter. Another passion is working together with Liza Miller at Re-Cycle Garage, a co-operative where the pair generously impart their knowledge to motorcyclists wanting to learn some of the basics. Now 60, Emma hopes to be working for another 10 or more years and says she will always have a British motorcycle of her own. A favorite of hers are Triumph triple-cylinder machines, and she has one in her garage. She’s also got a Suzuki RF900 and a 2008 Harley-Davidson Super Glide. “Would my life have been different had I not been quite eaten alive by motorcycles?” she muses, and rather philosophically adds, “I’m not sure they’ve been my downfall or my savior, and with a couple of diversions I’ve spent my life doing what I love. If I drop at the end of my ramp with a wrench in my hand, I’ll be the happiest woman in the world.”

Follow Emma Booton on Instagram here.

 

 

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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