Greg Williams

Top 10 Mecum 2021

Covid continues to throw spanners into the works of daily life, and routines aren’t so routine. Last fall, Mecum Auctions planned to go ahead with its traditional late-January Las Vegas Motorcycle sales event. Just before Christmas 2020, however, Mecum announced that due to restrictions on live events laid down by the State of Nevada and the city of Las Vegas, the famous auction would be postponed. New dates of April 28 to May 1 were announced. Not only are the dates different, but due to a scheduling conflict, the 30th Annual Vintage & Antique Motorcycle Auction has had to pack its saddlebags and change venue; instead of the South Point Hotel, the machines will roll across the block at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

“With Las Vegas capacity restrictions still in place toward the end of 2020, we had to make the decision to change the dates from our historical January date to late April,” explains Sam Murtaugh, Chief Operating Officer of Mecum Auctions. “While everyone looks forward to the annual motorcycle pilgrimage to Vegas in January, I believe our customers were pleased with the decision as it provided more time to allow the pandemic to calm down to safer levels. As soon as we changed dates, the consignment roster grew exponentially, and we are now looking forward to having a fabulous auction at the convention center starting on April 28 with over 1500 motorcycles to choose from.”

Mecum's Las Vegas motorcycle auction is the largest in the world, and there is literally a bike for everyone who rides in their 2021 auction list.  Will there be records set?  With amazing bikes like a 1950 Vincent Black Shadow, a 1939 Crocker with patina, and a collection of every year H-D Knucklehead made, keep an eye on our Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles list!

Here are 10 machines on my personal ‘ones to watch’ list from Mecum’s bolstered sale roster:

1. 1939 Crocker Big Tank (ex-Bob Ross, Motorcycles Only LA)

This 1938 Crocker has an amazing patina, with classic American custom styling of the period. [Mecum]
Years ago, I gave a Crocker T-shirt to an old friend who promptly said, “That’s a crock of shit, what’s a Crocker?” The legendary machines were built by Albert Crocker. He started his engineering career in the early 1900s with Thor motorcycles, manufactured by Aurora Automatic Machine Co. Later, Al worked with Indian, and in 1930, bought an Indian shop of his own in Los Angeles, and proceeded to construct overhead valve kits to fit Indian 45 cubic-inch twin engines for speedway racing. Fast forward to 1935, and Al, with Paul Bigsby as an employee, developed the Big Twin – a 62 cubic-inch V-twin with hemispherical overhead valve heads and cast aluminum fuel and oil tanks. These tanks were enlarged in 1938 – giving rise to the term Big Tank -- and the hemi heads were revised with a different combustion chamber profile. His motorcycles were built to order, and it’s thought only 72 were produced. So, this example from 1939 with custom pipes and a sweaty paint job sprayed in the 1950s when it was restored by then-owner Bob Ross (of Motorcycles Only) is one to watch – simply because it’s been mechanically restored without removing any of that character.  It's a stunner, have a look.

Looking good from every angle, this and two other Crockers are expected to be among the top sellers at Las Vegas this year. [Mecum]
2. 1942 Indian Big Base Scout Racer ex-Ed Kretz

The ex-Ed Kretz Indian Scout racer is a well-documented machine with a chain of ownership as long as your arm. Great history - and a Von Dutch paint job! [Mecum]
“Some motorcycles ooze and dribble lubricant. Some ooze charm, charisma and history. A perfect example of the latter is this 1939 Indian Big Base Scout, a motorcycle built for no other reason than going fast on dirt tracks. That this machine is connected to several important figures in the world of motorcycles including Ed Kretz, Shell Thuet and Kenny Howard -- aka Von Dutch -- just adds to the entire package.” I wrote those words 12 years ago for an article in Motorcycle Classics about this very Indian with serial number FDB 381. In 1941, Ed Kretz received two Indian race engines, FCI 173 and FDB 381. The first engine, FCI 173, is in Ed’s famous blue and white race bike; FDB 381 is seen here. Starting in 1946 and through his Los Angeles Indian dealership, Ed had had many top riders campaigning FDB 381 in Class C racing, including Floyd Emde, Jack Horn, Bob Holt and Bobbie Turner. In fact, Holt took third in 1948 at the Daytona 200, and fourth in 1949 with FDB 381. When Kretz sold the machine in 1952, it passed through the hands of Galen Brookins, tuner Shell Thuet, and then Pate Killian – who had the bike painted three times by his friend Von Dutch. It’s the last paint scheme that adorns this machine today: have a look.

Number 38 was Ed Kretz' racing number of course, this Indian's most famous former owner. [Mecum]
3. 1913 Dayton Big Twin

Pretty as a picture, the Dayton was a significant player in the 'Teens motorcycle scene, with dealers across the USA. [Mecum]
Pre-’16 motorcycles are rare enough, but this 1913 Dayton is one of a handful thought to remain in existence – and it’s a beautiful example, having been restored by master craftsman Chris Cutler. Dayton motorcycles were introduced in 1911, and were an offshoot of the company’s bicycle-building business. Powered by the 998cc F.W. Spacke engine, a powerplant also found in Sears, Minneapolis and DeLuxe machines, the Dayton shows off the polished and engine-turned alloy crankcases and nickel-plated top end with aplomb. The Spacke featured a shaft and bevel magneto drive, a rarity for the early days of the American motorcycle industry. With all chain primary and final drive, this ’13 Dayton is a single-speed. By 1915, Dayton was building their own V-twin engine with two-speed gearbox, but the company couldn’t viably continue building motorcycles after the First World War – instead, they focused on their bicycle production under the Huffman Manufacturing Company and in 1924, these were branded Huffy bicycles. This Dayton Big Twin is reported to run, and has rare accessories including a Stewart speedometer and Hine-Watt Columbia headlight.

The Spacke engine was the prettiest American motor, with lovely castings and nickel-plated cylinders. [Mecum]
4. 1938 Zündapp K800

The most Art Deco motorcycle produced in Germany, Zundapp's K800 is a stunner. [Mecum]
One of the most elegant motorcycles built in Germany is the K800 from Zündapp. Introduced in 1933, the K800  featured a flat four-cylinder powerplant with four-speed transmission and shaft final drive – that’s what the K stands for – Kardanantrieb, or Cardan drive, after Giralamo Cardano, who invented the driveshaft. Designed by Richard Küchen, the K800 was the top of the Zündapp range, and smartly displays Art Deco styling with the pressed steel frame finished in classic black set off with the right amount of chrome. Produced for six years, the ’38 is the last of the line for what was an expensive, low-volume machine and finding one in America is extraordinarily rare. This one in restored condition with matching engine and frame numbers is, quite simply, a stunner.

Beautiful details - a jockey shift, a cover over the carburetor, and twin spark plugs to remind you you're riding a four-cylinder. [Mecum]
5. 1977 MV Agusta 750S America

Long considered among the most beautiful motorcycles of all time, any MV Agusta four is a coveted object. [Mecum]
This is one Italian-made motorcycle that is rapidly appreciating – but the 750S America was never an inexpensive proposition. In America, two men were involved in the MV Agusta story; Chris Garville of Commerce Overseas Corporation in New York and dealer Jim Cotherman of Freeport, Illinois. Both had been working with MV Agusta when together, in 1974, they approached the MV factory with an idea about producing an exotic 750cc sporting motorcycle that would suit the tastes of the U.S. market. The result was the 750S America, a four-cylinder, 789cc machine with shaft final drive that was produced from 1975 until 1977, when MV Agusta curtailed motorcycle production. That’s when they offered the remaining supply of 750S America machines to importer Ernest Wise of Cosmopolitan Motors. Ernest’s son, Larry Wise, says the retail price of the bike was $6,000. Cosmopolitan brought in 50 of them, and Larry was disappointed not to have kept one or two behind. Just a few years after selling the last one, the machines were changing hands for more than $35,000. This example is an original paint survivor with apparently only minor cosmetic touch ups. It’s one to watch.

It's only original once...and this beauty retains it paint from the Varese factory. [Mecum]
6. 1963 Triumph Bonneville TT Special

Made for America: the TT Special (or T120C0 is a coveted machine for its run of success on the West Coast especially, where this do-everything bike did best. [Mecum]
Also built solely for the American market is the Triumph Bonneville TT Special. In the U.S., parallel-twin Brit-bikes were being used to campaign in off-road events, and the TT Special was introduced late in 1962 for the 1963 season as the T120C West Coast, or TT Special. The machine featured Triumph’s latest unit-construction crankcase system, which became standard in 1963 across the 650cc range of machines including the Thunderbird, Trophy and Bonneville models. There were new, wider timing gears for quieter running, a smoother clutch and a nine-stud cylinder head and rocker boxes with fins instead of the plain boxes found on the earlier pre-unit engines. The last of the TT Specials left the line in 1967, and this original early machine at auction had of late been in New Zealand in the John Howard Collection. Displaying the right signs of age, the bike will go home with a new owner together with its original MSO straight from Johnson Motors – the famous Los Angeles Triumph dealership – where the TT Special was sold new. This one is a beauty.

Twin hi-pipes and no lights mean this is a competition-only model from Triumph. [Mecum]
7. 1950 Vincent Black Lightning

Awesome in visage and presence, the Vincent Black Lightning is celebrated in history and song. It's a blast to ride, too! [David Martinez Studios]
Essentially a made-to-order motorcycle, the Black Lightning was designed for racing and record-breaking. It was equipped with various go-fast goodies, including rear set controls, aluminum fenders, alloy rims and special lightweight brake backing plates. What really makes the Black Lightning special is the 998cc engine, specially assembled with hand-selected racing components, including modified heads with larger intake ports and polished valve rockers, beefier connecting rods, Lucas racing magneto, Amal TT carburetors and straight through exhaust pipes. Only 31 examples were built, and this particular Black Lightning, with serial number F10AB/1C/1641, was originally ordered by Danish sidecar racing champion David Axelson and delivered on March 20, 1950. It was raced before being disassembled in 1965 and stored in boxes before finally being resurrected by Sivert Bomberg over the winter of 1998-99. With a fully documented history from new, this well-sorted and strong-running Black Lightning will surely attract international attention.  Our publisher Paul d'Orléans road-tested this machine extensively, and made the film below with filmmaker David Martinez in 2020.  Paul says it runs like a beast, and sounds like one too!  Watch the film of him riding this bike, below, then check out the bike at Mecum.

8. 1937 Velocette MSS

Proper motorcycles have fishtail exhausts...just ask any Velocette owner! [Mecum]
A proper motorcycle has a fishtail silencer, and this 500cc Velocette MSS that appears to have been recently restored (although metal preparation on parts such as the toolbox, for example, is a letdown) is selling with no reserve. Starting in 1933 with the 250cc MOV, then the 350cc MAC in 1934, the MSS (for Super Sport) debuted in 1935. All M-models featured high camshaft overhead valve pushrod engines, and the pre-war examples with rigid frame and girder fork are great handling motorcycles. Plus, they just look ‘right’. Velocette was an innovative company, and developed the ‘footstarter’ and later, a positive stop foot shift mechanism. In 1922 Velocette introduced their unique clutch, an affair that sees a slim chain ring/basket and plates and all bearings inboard of the final drive sprocket. This clutch made Velocette a favorite among racers, as the drive sprocket can easily be changed to alter final drive ratio. If this MSS stays in North America, the buyer should join the Velocette Owners Club of North America (VOCNA for short), as the group is a tremendous resource and has hosted an annual 1,000-mile riding rally every summer for 35 years.  Who says Britbikes are unreliable?  Take a look.

A handsome machine with a Grand Prix pedigree, the MSS was Velocette's pushrod super sports model, which will cruise all day at 60mph. [Mecum]
9. 1978 Kawasaki Z1R

The Kawasaki Z1-R was one of the first Japanese motorcycles with an integral fairing. [Mecum]
Moving beyond the idea of the UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) of the mid-1970s, Kawasaki introduced this model with handlebar mounted quarter fairing and square-shaped gas tank, tail section and triangular side panels. Essentially, the machine is a styling exercise, with limited upgrades to the KZ1000 engine and frame of 1977. While the machine’s physical appearance with its 4-into-1 exhaust and racy lines was a hit, performance was less than impressive (according to the motorcycle press of the day) and in North America, the Z1R was dropped for 1979. Kawasaki returned in 1980 with a significantly revised Z1R, making the ’78 with its pastel blue paint a one-year only model. Prices, though, remain strong for Z1Rs of 1978, and this particular example in survivor condition might present itself as something of a bargain.

She's a bad motor scooter, with the heart of a lion. The Z1 was the fastest motorcycle in the world for several years. [Mecum]
10. 1970 Honda CL350

The best of the 1970s middleweights, the Honda CL350 was fast, reliable, and bulletproof. [Mecum]
As little as a decade ago, the once ubiquitous Honda CB/CL350s were available for the proverbial ‘dollar per cc’ price tag. Not so anymore. These mild-mannered yet eager to please and easy to handle mounts have since become harder to find in good, original condition as many of them have been heavily modified for racing, or have succumbed to the custom builder’s touch. This one is still in its original candy ruby red paint (although it appears to have been very well polished when compared to the patina showing on the headlight bucket), unmolested screw and bolt heads, rubber-tipped control levers and a paltry 1,564 miles showing on an unfaded speedometer that hasn’t seen a lick of UV light in decades.  Check it out.

Precious metal: despite hundreds of thousands sold, it's very difficult to find a really good, original paint CL350 these days. [Mecum]
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

'Balance And Power'

The word Motorcycle is nowhere to be seen in the Audrain Automobile Museum’s official title, but that doesn’t mean powered two-wheelers don’t play a critical role in their collection. In fact, of the over 400 vehicles in the Newport, Rhode Island collection, approximately 70 are motorcycles – and powered three-wheelers, such as a Harley-Davidson Servi-Car. Seven years after the museum first opened its doors to the public, it was time, according to Audrain CEO Donald Osborne and Executive Director & Curator David de Muzio, to put motorcycles front and center.

A little TE Lawrence history with your 1929 Brough Superior SS100? He owned six after all. [Audrain Automobile Museum]
'Balance & Power: The World on Two Wheels, 1885-1995' is the Audrain’s current exhibition, running through 16 May 2021. Donald Osborne explains, “Motorcycles have always been a part of the collection, but this is the first show we’ve done that has no automobiles in it at all. We have put some of the motorcycles in other shows that were largely automobile, but this is the first time that the two-wheeled wonders get to shine on their own." David de Muzio adds, "I was very happy to do this, it’s something we talked about doing from the very beginning, but it took this long on our busy exhibition schedule to get critical mass and feel it was the right time to do it – so, here we are.”

Audrain Automobile Museum CEO Donald Osborne and Executive Director & Curator David de Muzio. [Audrain Automobile Museum]
Where we are, specifically, is the Audrain Building on Bellevue Avenue in downtown Newport. Designed by architect Bruce Price of New York for merchant Adolphe Audrain, inspiration was drawn from the 15th century Florentine Renaissance period of architecture, noted for its inclusion of Roman elements such as arches and domes. When the two-story Audrain Building opened in 1903, it featured high arched windows and polychromed terra-cotta façade and roof balustrade complete with lion finials. The first floor was home to six retail businesses, while the second floor had 11 offices. Over time, elements such as the balustrade and finials were lost, and the building eventually fell into disrepair. However, in 2013, the entire structure was given a makeover, with the second level office space restored and, in 2014, the lower level completely redesigned to house the automobile museum.

The musuem inhabits a spectacular building in Newport, Rhode Island - the Audrain building. [Audrain Automobile Museum]
To support the weight of vehicles, the floor was reinforced and, to provide clear span floorspace, new steel trusses replaced interior load bearing walls. Using period photographs for reference, many of the original exterior design elements were replicated by artisans and re-installed. The building is stunning, and David says the museum sees more than 30,000 visitors a year. Spanning more than a century of two-wheeler and three-wheeler transportation history, 'Balance & Power' includes seven themes, starting with 'The Beginning – Velocipede to Bicycle to Motorized Bicycle to Motorcycle'. Two of the earliest wheeled exhibits include an 1886 Rudge Coventry Rotary tricycle and an 1885 Columbia ‘Ordinary’ high-wheel bicycle.

A pair of Pierces: a 1900 women's safety bicycle, and a 1910 Pierce Four, both using a shaft-and-bevel final drive. [Jonathan Porter]
“The story of motorcycles parallels that of automobiles,” David says, “in that you went from horse drawn carriages to horseless carriages to automobiles. And, in the case of motorcycles, you went from the earliest velocipedes to bicycles, and in this case, we have five or six bicycles and tricycles in the exhibition that really talk about the Victorian era and the popularity of being under your own power and pedalling a bicycle, and how the manufacturers of those bicycles quickly go to motorized bicycles and then motorcycles in a very short period of time. It’s also a story of the development of technology; the modern motorcycle could not have existed without the technological work that was done in developing the bicycle from the velocipede and the high wheeler to the safety bicycle and some of those things carried over into the auto world, and the technology of chains and direct drive led to the motorcycles we know in the 1920s. Our story goes on to tell how motorcycles developed through World War 1 and people’s exposure to it in the first mechanized war and then World War 2 and, afterwards to a place where the motorcycle eventually integrated into everyday life in America in the 1960s.”

The Postwar exhibit includes fast bikes of the era, like a Velocette Venom, Triumph Tiger 100, BSA Gold Star and Vincent Black Shadow. [Jonathan Porter]
'Balance & Power' carries the narrative forward in 'Between the World Wars', and includes important machines from the era, including a 1929 Brough Superior SS100, a 1930 Rudge Ulster and a 1930 Indian 101 Scout. 'Post-War Power Through the 50s & 60s' is followed by 'Scooters & Small Displacement and Scrambler & Dirt Bikes.' Most fun, however, might be the 1970s 'Superbike Shootout' display. “In the 70s, Cycle magazine published their shootouts,” David says. “Now, we’re all used to comparative performance stories about cars and motorcycle, but back in the early 70s it was really a new thing, the idea of picking British, European, Japanese and American bikes and comparing them directly. We have a nice presentation of Kawasaki, Ducati, Honda, Triumph and Norton that really speak to that moment. We actually reference two main Cycle supberbike reviews from 1970 and 1972, and then we go beyond that to early superbikes with a Bimota, Ducati and MV Agusta -- showing what was becoming prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s: a 1995 Ducati 916 is the newest bike in the show”

Machines from the 1970s and 80s include a Kawasaki and Triumph triples, a Ducati 750 Sport, MV Agusta America, and Honda CBX. [Jonathan Porter]
The curatorial team had difficulty narrowing their wish list of bikes down to the 65 that ultimately appear in the show. Their initial list quickly ballooned beyond 100, but with only so much room for the display, some of the machines have been left to appear in a future motorcycle exhibit. They intentionally stayed away from too many race bikes, and have focused more on the everyday rider and consumer. That’s not to say there aren’t references to the importance racing development played in the overall industry – there is a 1913 Indian board track racer and a 1925 Moto Guzzi factory racer on display. “We’re starting to plan our exhibitions a couple of years in advance, and there’s definitely room for a motorcycle race theme show,” David says.

Indian vs Harley in the late 1920s, with an Indian 101 Scout and Harley-Davidson Model JD. [Jonathan Porter]
Opening during the covid pandemic hasn’t slowed down response. Seventy-five people are allowed in the gallery at any one time, and the museum has been managing to move visitors through without having a line outside the main door. “We’re seeing over 100 visitors a day on weekends, and we’ve been able to function pretty normally during covid,” David explains. The Audrain was closed for two months at the start of the pandemic, however, and that gave the museum time to ramp up digital initiatives, including posting videos on their YouTube channel. Motorcars and motorcycles, by their very nature, offer an aural and visceral experience. “Curatorially, one of the biggest challenges we have when we’re in the gallery is, you’re looking at a wonderful object, but it does not get people to understand the visceral experience of riding or driving – and that’s behind the idea of producing more videos so people can learn what they sound like and look like when they’re being ridden,” David explains.

How much is that doggie in the window? Don't ask: a 'Teens Indian 8-valve board track racer is a very rare and desirable machine. [Audrain Automobile Museum]
The Audrain is always exploring ways to connect with the riding and driving public and, as an example of how they interact with the community, the museum serves as the starting point for the annual Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. Since its inception, the ride has taken place in September. To accommodate riders living in northern locations, however, beginning in 2021, the date of the ride has moved to May – the next ride takes place on Sunday, May 23 – a week after 'Balance & Power' closes its doors. For those not able to visit Newport prior to that, an extensive preview of 'Balance & Power' is online at audrainautomuseum.org. Follow the museum on Instagram @audrainautomuseum.

Something for everyone, including BMW's first factory cafe racer, the R90S in Silver Smoke. [Jonathan Porter]

 

 

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

Abandon All Hope: Patricio Castelli

Vintage Popular Mechanics magazines offer up a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration. In the 1950s and 60s, Popular Mechanics carried fanciful cover images and intriguing stories predicting The Future, especially the evolution of transportation - flying cars and personal jetpacks were perennial favorites. When a young Patricio Castelli of Argentina discovered a dusty collection of old Popular Mechanics, they expanded his horizons.  As a child, Patricio (now 45)  fantasized about The Future, drawing airplanes, cars and motorcycles. Basically, he says, anything that triggered his imagination, including space and time travel.

Patricio Castelli's remarkable custom, built with aeronautic techniques from retro-future inspirations. [Juan Paviolo]
Growing up in Buenos Aires, Patricio was forever taking apart and putting back together his toys, and later his bicycles. The gift of a disassembled Lambretta scooter spurred his mechanical enthusiasm even further.  “With my cousin we began motorizing some bicycles, using industrial engines,” he says. They had limited parts and materials, though: “Everything had to be manufactured, including the tools. It is difficult to think about from a distance, but our means were scarce. We only had a drill and little else.”  The discovery of the Popular Mechanics collection provided tremendous inspiration, including how to make his own tools. “It must be one of the magazines that influenced me the most,” he laughs.

Juan Paviolo photographed Abandon All Hope as a future/alien craft: fantastic. [Juan Paviolo]
Patricio’s uncle taught him how to work a forge, hammer and anvil, and he got a job at a blacksmith shop once he finished high school. He says, “I always had the idea of dedicating myself to the design of cars and motorcycles, and after the blacksmith shop, I was able to work as an apprentice in an aeronautical sheetmetal workshop.” There, he discovered the intricacies of working with aluminum and the techniques unique to constructing airships. “That was like opening a door towards the possibility of contributing the aircraft technique in other vehicles, it is what I find interesting because of the logic of weight reduction and resource management, similar to the racing world, those guidelines are what inspire my bikes. There is a beauty in airplanes, a beauty that is different from cars or motorcycles and that has to do with the logic of aerodynamics and the fluidity of shapes. That inspires me, and it is difficult to see an airplane and not get excited.”

The machine is remarkably slim and light, and it works! [Juan Paviolo]
Now, Patricio works in a small home-based workshop, where he takes on projects like restoring motorcycle fuel tanks, as well as commissions for customers requiring one-off aluminum parts for classic or competition cars. He enjoys working with hand tools when forming sheet metal, but if a large project requires laser cutting or CNC work, he’s up to the task. “In general, I try to combine artisanal methods with some CAD design. Now, my idea is to expand the business and offer design, construction, and development services for prototypes or special projects.” He hopes to open the doors to this venture, called Futura Macchina, sometime this year.

The aero details are fascinating and unlike any custom yet seen, with a remarkable consistency of vision. [Juan Paviolo]
As an example of what Futura Macchina can accomplish, Patricio worked with his friend Matias Ichuribehere to create a bike called ‘lasciate ognie speranza’. That’s a line from Dante’s epic poem, Divine Comedy, and loosely translated, means ‘Abandon All Hope’ [from a sign over the gates of Hell, reading in full, "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" - Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." - ed.] Patricio says, “It seemed to me that it is like a point of no return, not only in terms of design, but also for me this means no more half measures, it leaves no room for doubt. At that time I wanted to apply everything I have learned over these years, and the idea was to combine the motorcycle with the aeronautical or aerospace and some of the imaginary from science fiction.”

The turned-aluminum bodywork was arrived at after Patricio Castelli's years of experience working on actual aircraft. [Juan Paviolo]
Based on a Zanella 125cc engine (Honda Cub clone), Patricio worked for a year on the project. He started by drawing out his ideas and drafted the engineering details on a computer to determine how all of the mechanical components would work together. This included how the engine would mount and how the single front swingarm would be suspended, and quite critically, also steer. Under the aluminum bodywork, there’s a steel subframe that holds the swingarm, and that entire arm is what turns, instead of the hub of the wheel as is usually found in a hub-centered steering system. It’s a mechanical marvel, and while not road legal, Abandon All Hope is a functioning machine. There’s a drum brake hidden out back, and a thumb control throttle lever is hidden under the right side of the intricately shaped handlebar. There’s a scoop under the front nose cone to direct air to the engine and an uber-cool series of exhaust ports on the right side of the rear fuselage. Everything, apart from the engine, was custom built, foot controls and 19-inch wheel discs included.

The single-sided steering arm on Abandon All Hope is not a hub-center steered design - the wheel moves with the entire front fork. [Juan Paviolo]
“Obviously,” Patricio says, “it is not road legal although it works well. It is more about an exercise in how to translate a design concept into a motorcycle. Beyond the motorcycle itself, my intention is to cross art, custom culture and industrial design. I think the best thing is to think outside the box, interesting things happen there. I think that the ‘custom’ world usually repeats shapes and patterns, and I would like to be more free to design and manufacture and not be aware of the fashion style. But that does not mean that I do not like the classics. I love the English or American motorcycles of the 1920s or 30s, but also the first choppers of the 1960s. Having said that, I try to make my work all-original.”

Unique angles, original shapes. A masterpiece in a rarified genre. [Juan Paviolo]
Inspired by images seen in old Popular Mechanics, Abandon All Hope is certainly original, and takes ‘custom’ to a technically refined level. One could easily imagine his motorcycle featured on the cover!

Follow Patricio Castelli’s exploits on Instagram here.

The aero influence is clearest on the combined seating/steering upper frame member. [Juan Paviolo]
The workmanship is clearly exposed: this is a hand-built machine. [Juan Paviolo]
The remarkable Abandon All Hope: built with aeronautic techniques, inspired by old visions of The Future. [Juan Paviolo]
 

 

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

The Riders: Henry Von Wartenberg

Motorcycles are mechanical steeds that require a rider to harness the horsepower. Whether ridden for pleasure, for work, in competition or pure escape, a machine is nothing without its operator. Capturing the essence of that jockey is Henry von Wartenberg, an Argentinian photographer who has traveled the world, catching fleeting moments of mechanical time with his trusty Leica camera. His newest book, The Riders – published by Motorbooks – has been years in the making, but it all started for Henry when he was just 11 years old.

Henry von Wartenberg's latest book, documenting 25 trips through 30 countries: The Riders (Motorbooks)

Born and raised in Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, Henry was fascinated from his mid-1970s boyhood by motorcycles. Influencing that interest was the popular American television show, CHiPs. Pretending his simple pedal bike was a Highway Patrol motorcycle, he’d tear around the streets, chasing criminals just like his hero, Ponch. “Then, in 1978, when I was 11, my mom bought me a Honda PC50 moped – and my dreams came true! Four more Hondas in a row followed, including a 100cc, 550cc 400cc and 650cc.”

Bolivia's salt plains mimic the Bonneville Salt Flats, but are much more difficult to access, albeit spectacular. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
Six years later, Henry bought his first 35-mm single lens reflex camera, an Olympus OM.  “I spent long and happy days with that camera, when you had to focus really well before taking a picture. I’m completely self-taught, and I had a notebook where I was writing successes and errors. I also had a book called 'Be A Professional Photographer' - or something similar - that I carried everywhere.”

The crowded roads of India, with every imaginable type of vehicle sharing the roads, makes for spectacular photos. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
Add into the mix of motorcycles and cameras the sport of polo. From an early age he played the equestrian team sport, and horses, of course, require care. After finishing high school, Henry enrolled in vet school. In his fourth year of study in 1989, though, he received a contract to play professional polo in France. While there, he saw an exhibit of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the progenitor of the ‘street photography’ genre, making incredible photo on the fly by capturing, as he put it, 'the decisive moment'. Working from the mid-1930s with the then-recently developed 35-mm portable Leica camera, Cartier-Bresson captured thousands of images. In 1947, he helped co-found the photographic cooperative Magnum Photos. “I understood that I wanted to be a photographer when I saw that Cartier-Bresson show,” Henry says. “I was in France for two years, and when I was not on top of the horses working, I was taking photos all the time. In 1992, when I returned to Argentina for a process with my passport, I was able to photograph a very important event that occurred in Buenos Aires (military revolt against the democratic process), and the main Argentine magazine bought them from me, and also offered me a job. I accepted that job and did not return to France, nor did I continue studying veterinary medicine, having left in my fourth year of school.”

A rider in Altai, Mongolia. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
Henry worked tirelessly for ten years as a lensman with Gente magazine, and has since collaborated with numerous other magazines and newspapers around the world. He has no less than 24 books published with his photos. “But no matter where I am or what work I have been commissioned to do, there are certain things that hypnotically attract me: motorcycles and riders is the main one of those ‘distractions.’ At some point, I realized that I could have a good book project; then, I began to really ‘search’ for the images, and not just ‘find’ them by chance.”

A rider in Santiago Chile. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
With hundreds of images of riders in his portfolio, he reached out to Motorbooks publisher Zack Miller. Henry has worked with the Motorbooks team in the past, having photographed the 2013 book, The Art of BMW. From the start, Zack was impressed with Henry’s ‘rider’ photographs, and worked to bring The Riders to life with contributions from well-respected writers including our own Paul d’Orléans along with Andy Goldfine, Peter Egan and Dave Nichols. 'The Riders: Motorcycle Adventurers, Cruisers, Outlaws and Racers the World Over' is a hardcover book of 192 pages with 150 of Henry’s images, and it’s set to drop in early April. Support your vital independent bookseller, and pre-order there – it’s $45 US.

The typical limb-lost rider tends to buy a sidecar for stability, but not this Vespa fan in Buenos Aires. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
As for Henry, he’s still very much enamored of motorcycles. Over the years, he’s tinkered with some classic machines including a 1948 Norton ES2, 1948 Harley-Davidson Flathead, 1941 Indian 500, 1948 Douglas 350 and a 1948 Sunbeam S7. Now in his garage at home in Tigre, a small city just 30 minutes north of Buenos Aires, Henry has a 2013 BMW F800GS he’s nicknamed Jimmy. Several years ago, he rode this bike from Alaska to Ushuaia. He also has a 1977 BMW R60/7, 2017 BMW 1200 NineT Urban GS and a 1999 Piaggio Vespa 150. In February, he plans to ride the Vespa over Route 40, “The most wild road in Argentina,” he says.

A trip through South America on a vintage Gilera Saturno. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
After that, in April he plans to pedal an old racing bicycle across the U.S., riding from San Francisco to New York. He’ll spend 46 days on the road, documenting the journey with his trusty Leica camera – in fact, Leica is helping sponsor the trip. This adventure could end up in a book, as he’s already been communicating with Zack about the possibility. For now, though, Henry says seeing his life’s work of photographing motorcyclists published in The Riders, “It's the award for perseverance with a subject. It is following an assignment without anyone asking you to, but trusting that the path I take is good. We reached our destination with success!”

Laura Antoine, a regular fixture of Wheels&Waves Biarritz since the beginning, with her amazing custom machine. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]

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


Aristocratic Motorcyclist, Issue 0

Straight from a mind from another time comes Aristocratic Motorcyclist magazine. The work of Paris-based artist Lorenzo Eroticolor, Aristocratic Motorcyclist (A.M.m) is perhaps the opposite of a mass-media publication. It is instead a limited-edition run of only 99 signed and numbered copies, comprising 32 pages of art, photography and words, hand-printed using lithography at the storied Draeger printing house – a company founded in 1886 by Charles Draeger – on a 1910 Marinoni-Voirin press. Lorenzo says this about his work, “Aristocratic Motorcyclist magazine is a manifesto. You can read and enjoy it on a simple level. You can read it at other levels, too, and you can dive into its signs. It is a testimony of the Other World. It’s all about roads, travels, inner journeys, landscapes and breaths.”

Lorenzo Eroticolor signing copies of a poster produced by Editions Anthése/ N. Draeger in Paris.  [Lorenzo Eroticolor]
Nothing about Lorenzo is conformist. He says his elders, “whispered in strange family gatherings, shared secrets, stories thousands of years old. (These were) faces and souls from another time, another People.” He adds, “I was from the start out of the century, out of society; ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, as Guy Debord wrote in his 1967 book*, this world that is organized as a theatre, this adoration of the false, this manipulation of souls. As for education, mine was simple: do what you have to do, honestly, with faith. Trust in you, don’t let anyone think for you, follow your instinct. Search, learn.”

The wonderful old lithography press that must be hand-fed sheets of paper, and the ink spread on the rollers by hand, and each sheet lifted off by hand, in a two-man production team. [Editions Anthése/ N. Draeger]
Schools did not hold much importance for Lorenzo, and once he finished with the obligatory, he immersed himself in a self-directed art education. He also dove into Philosophy, Literature and History, finding some good mentors along the way. But, as he says, from an early age he was always drawing, and enjoyed telling stories. “It was obvious I needed to find myself,” he explains. “I received keys, so my work was to find the doors, and explore for myself the real World. So, I started to create pictures, like windows on the Reality, not the actual reality that comes directly from sick brains, not this dystopia, like the most terrible ‘society of the spectacle’. I have followed this road, and I try to share this ‘map’ of the world.”

Motorcyclists welcome! The delightful printing studio of Editions Anthése/ N. Draeger of Paris [Lorenzo Eroticolor]
Figuring prominently in Lorenzo’s life are motorcycles; machines, he says, that allow a free spirit to journey and discover the world. But he has no taste for the modern. Give him the simple, the uncomplicated, that which does not come equipped with GPS, fuel-injection or anti-lock brakes. In fact, he doesn’t like what computers have forced upon us. “People accept the ease, in the case of their screens, the illusion that the machine (in the computer sense) acts and thinks for them,” he says, and continues, “It’s sad because people don’t see [computers] ‘built’ a world, a world that will ultimately not need them, and faster than they can imagine. So, I don’t need marketing to sell me another gadget, a 'cruise control'. I need to control the machine, the machine in the mechanical and original sense. Something archaic, built on a human scale and made by humans. The limits must be those of our relationship of domination over the machine and the elements, not the calculation of a digital creature.”

Three 'runs' through the press...or more depending on how many colors you want. Each color gets its own photoetched litho plate, and its own run through the press. [Editions Anthése/ N. Draeger]
His current mount is a bitza BMW, assembled from parts found in several eras of the Bavarian flat twin to create his ideal daily rider, powered by a 900RS engine. He refers to his motorcycle as ‘the Queen’. The Queen, he explains, is manageable within his means, and he cares for its maintenance. If he runs into difficulties, he relies on the help of one or two ‘wizards’. For longer rides, he has a 1987 BMW K75, and one of his treasures is a Moto Guzzi Le Mans 1000 café racer. “Keep and maintain what is well built,” Lorenzo says as he laments a throwaway society. “This eliminates the ballet of giant oil tankers, the globalization of products and requires learning, teaching, transmission. It helps to keep the world in a human dimension.”

Nicolas Draeger examining a poster as it rolls off the press. [Editions Anthése/ N. Draeger]
Lorenzo hasn’t kept track of the number of posters he’s created, but he figures it’s well over 400. His work covers all manner of subjects, not just motorcycles and the female form, but those are two of his favorites. He spends days and nights, sometimes weeks, creating an artwork. It’s a solitary process, but he does have help with the lithography: his partner and good friend in that specialized reproduction method is Nicolas Draeger of the Draeger printing company. To create his vivid posters, Lorenzo uses whatever he has at hand to get to the final result; brushes, pastels, pens, etc. “I don’t care about good drawing, or virtuosity, or demonstration of talent. I’m not a draughtsman. For me, the story the poster will tell is more important, so if you check all my work, you will see I never use the same style, I don’t want to be trapped in one idea or style.”  And yet, of course, his style is instantly recognizable, and he has a growing fan base.

A double-page spread from Issue 0 of Aristocratic Motorcyclist. The scale of each page is 12x15", meaning a double-page spread is 24" wide with the magazine open. Impressive! [Lorenzo Eroticolor]
Getting back to the Aristocratic Motorcyclist project, Lorenzo says there’s nothing traditional about that, either. It’s a ‘magazine’, but there are no subscriptions, and no schedule for when the next issues might be printed. “There are no rules about this, the magazine is a way to share a universe, a vision, to reach your soul, to offer this inner world with great people I admire, and appreciate --from Alberto Garcia-Alix to Chas Ray Krider, to Bill Phelps and others. It’s a way to share all this precious light with you.”

Framed images by photographer Bill Phelps, taken from the magazine.  Bill is a regular contributor to The Vintagent, whose work is included in Aristocratic Motorcyclists Issue 0. [A double-page spread from Issue 0 of Aristocratic Motorcyclist. The scale of each page is 12x15", meaning a double-page spread is 24" wide with the magazine open. Impressive! [Lorenzo Eroticolor]
Aristocratic Motorcyclist is available to order online, and each issue is the product of a long and elaborate process.  Being a hand-made process, printing the magazine using traditional lithography is expensive, and is not, as Lorenzo states, “adapted to the speed and emptiness of the 21st century. With Nicolas, we work on it as it comes, in a bubble of another world. We know it can’t reach masses, because it’s not created for them.”  See more of Lorenzo’s work on Instagram @aristocratic_motorcyclist.

Another double-page spread from Aristocratic Motorcyclist. The text is in French and English, with a bit of Spanish and Russian thrown in. [Lorenzo Eroticolor]
[* Guy Debord was a filmmaker and writer, and a founder of the Situationist International. Situationism was a theoretical fusion of avant-garde art and libertarian Marxism, which grew out of the post-War Lettrist movement, which was itself a development of Dada and Surrealism. The Situationists fueled the May 1968 student uprising in Paris, and later played a role in the creation of the British Punk scene, as Malcolm McLaren, founder of the Sex Pistols, was deeply invested in Situationist theory. - ed.]

A late evening in 2015 at Au Cheval de Fer in Paris with Lorenzo Eroticolor and Bill Phelps [Paul d'Orléans]
Order your copy of Aristocratic Motorcyclist here.  Not many are left!

 

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

Research Into Contemporary Outlaws (RICO)

Old mythologies blow the advent of ‘outlaw’ motorcycle clubs all out of proportion. These clubs weren’t formed as gangs of criminals, but motorcycle enthusiasts living life the way they chose, as working-class Bohemian riders.  The clubs were mostly composed of men who’d recently returned from the Second World War having fought the spectre of Fascism.  But almost as soon as these early clubs had been formed, the mainstream media, followed quickly by Hollywood, introduced the trope of the Hollister ‘riots’ of 1947, and created a new boogeyman: the Biker. The Hollister story was mostly fabricated for sensational news impact, and included outright lies and staged photos. Truly, fake news.

A typically evocative photo in the RICO archive: Papa Ralph's lady friend on his Shovelhead chop, which is now parked in the RICO warehouse. [RICO]
Here’s the reality. ‘Hell’s Angels’ was the name of a very successful 1930 movie made by Howard Hughes, about fighter pilots in WW1. Fast forward to 1951, when Hells Angels MC founder Dick White thought it would be a good name for a club. He was a member of the Redlands Road Runners when he had the now infamous Hells Angels winged skull logo tattooed on his arm. At the time, it was just a design his friend drew over and over again. “He really liked it,” says Bo Bushnell of the logo. “When Dick enlisted in the Army (during the Korean War) and before he went off to boot camp, he had the Hells Angels San Berdoo rockers and patch made up. If he survived, he thought he’d start his own motorcycle club.”

Papa Ralph and another Hells Angel, and a hearse! San Francisco, late 1960s. [RICO]
Obviously, Dick survived to start the Hells Angels, and a short 49-second film in Bo Bushnell’s collection documents White’s founding of the club. It’s just a fraction of what Bo has collected and documented about motorcycle clubs, including scrapbooks, photographs, arrest records, letters, denim club cutoffs, and club patches. For several years, Bo Bushnell used four Costo gun safes to store an outstanding collection of 1950s – 1970s outlaw motorcycle club ephemera in the bedroom closet of his turn-of-the-century Los Angeles home. If he was going away, even just overnight, he’d pack up his treasure-trove of memories of bikers from a bygone era, and take it with him: he was that protective of the collection.

The PANtom of the opera in front of the RICO vault, with a distinctive organ pipe exhaust, a 1957 Panhead and a famous machine in its day. [RICO]
Now, he travels a bit easier. With backing from a partner, Paul Zuckerman, Bo has his growing collection tucked away in a secret 5,000 square-foot Los Angeles warehouse, cleverly called RICO (Research Institute of Contemporary Outlaws).  The RICO Federal racketeering law has Kryptonite-like powers against motorcycle gangs, as this 1970 statute was successfully used to arrest whole clubs in the 2010s, in an era when 1% clubs were prosecuted as organized crime rings: mere mention of RICO to a known member of a 1% club who threatens, say, a collector of club memorabilia, is enough to send them slinking away.   Now two professional archivists – a husband and wife team -- are hard at work at the RICO archive scanning and cataloging the entire collection. And it’s no longer in four Costco gun safes, but stored in a walk-in Class II bank vault, with cameras and alarms everywhere, with backup power in case someone pulls the plug.

What lies within: tens of thousands of 'forbidden' photos of outlaw motorcycle club members, all purchased from the members themselves, or their descendants. [RICO]
Preserving the ephemera, plus a few original choppers, of outlaw motorcycle clubs wasn’t something the now 40-year-old Bo thought he’d be doing when he was a 13-year-old skater roaming the streets of Los Angeles. Growing up with little parental supervision, he hung out with punks, graffiti crews and gangsters. His interests later turned to American low-rider cars such as a 1964 Chevy Impala on hydraulics. But his early influences proved beneficial when he began working in 2011 with documentarian Byran Ray Turcotte on ‘The Art of Punk’, a series of shows that dissected the imagery behind seminal hardcore bands Black Flag, Crass and Dead Kennedys.

A period photo of Sonny Barton, an original Galloping Goose, with his Panhead that currently lives in the RICO warehouse. [RICO]
“I spent about two years working with Bryan and his collection,” Bo explains, and adds, “I’d always been a collector of strange things, and Bryan really inspired me.” With Bryan, Bo began haunting West Coast art book and zine fairs [which is where I met Bo – ed.]. At one event, he tried to purchase a collection of 400 Polaroids documenting the Crips. When that deal ultimately fell through, he recalled getting an email from someone who had inherited from their parents a Straight Satans photo album. Bo was offered the opportunity to buy an album that held hundreds of images of the motorcycle club that had been based in Venice Beach; a club with connections to Charles Manson and his Family at their Spahn Ranch headquarters. Bo negotiated a deal, and this Straight Satans collection was his first acquisition of 1%er biker material. “I got the album, and in all these photographs I saw the human stories within them,” Bo says. He wanted to learn more about who these people were, hoping to interview them, talk to them, and by working to understand their past, preserve a unique era of Southern California motorcycle culture. Trouble was, all of the people in the images were identified only by their nicknames. For Bo to have any hope of locating a living person represented in an image, he’d need to find their birth names, and have more help.

Three of the titles recently published by Western Empire: the third editions of 'Halfway to Berdoo', 'Grubby Glen', and the masterpiece of the bunch, the 'Coffin Cheaters', a worthy heir to the mantle of Danny Lyons' 'The Bikeriders', with amazing period photos, and contemporary interviews with surviving members. [Paul d'Orléans]
Serendipitously, there was a series of police booking photos taped into the album. Carefully peeling these images back revealed full names and dates of birth. Working in Excel, Bo created a spreadsheet to link club monikers with real names. And that’s how he became friends with Droopy. One of the early original members of the Straight Satans from 1961 to 1963, and then a member of Satans Slaves, Droopy had Stage IV cancer when Bo met him. Bo would bring food and drink to Droopy, and then stay and visit, talking about the past. It was Droopy who helped him pull together a few more scraps of information about other club members in the photos.  Another connection was made, and this one suggested that if he was interested in locating more MC photos, he’d have to find Mother Ruthe – one of the only women allowed to sit in on many Hells Angels meetings. According to Bo, everyone trusted her, but no one knew her real name -- making tracking her or any of her progeny a difficult task.

Still from a film of Sonny Barton during a club run to Bakersfield. [RICO]
Droopy also helped put Bo in touch with a member who was now living on a boat. Bo showed him the Straight Satans album, and while at the docks, a San Bernardino Hells Angles’ member named Harold was pointed out. “He was with the San Bernadino Hells Angels,” Bo says, and continues, “he said most of these guys are my friends. I asked if he had any photos, and he said no, the cops had taken all of his stuff. I told him I’d make him copies of all I had for him.” Meanwhile, a year has gone by and Bo was still trying to track down the real identity of Mother Ruthe. He managed to learn that she’d been married – and he’d already met her ex-husband, Harold, at the boatyards. Through him, Bo finally managed to put a full name to Mother Ruthe – who had died in 1996. “I started looking for her daughter, and it was a very generic name. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack in Los Angeles,” he says. But he found her, and was shown several photo albums that included family and MC activity. “I offered to buy them, but she said she couldn’t sell them without her sisters knowing.”

It's all in the details: a bit of surviving fancy paintwork on the PANtom of the Opera. [RICO]
The trouble with that was they only corresponded via letters to a post office box. Bo found her sisters, and asked if they’d be OK with him buying the family albums with the funds going to them. They said yes, and wrote a letter to their sister stating if she had the books, they were fine with Bo completing the purchase. After that, he says, “I began finding more and more photos, and was posting a lot of my stuff to Instagram and was also working on my book, Halfway to Berdoo.” That was in late 2015 and into 2016. Many challenges stood in the way of Bo publishing the book that would ultimately total 144 pages and include more than 70 large-format portraits taken between 1961 and 1965 by Mother Ruthe at her Baldwin Park, California home. These were all Southern California bikers who stopped at her place, as it was the midway point for rides between Venice Beach and Berdoo; Berdoo being the shortened form of San Bernardino.

Johnny Orvis' Panhead inside the RICO warehouse in downtown LA. [RICO]
As Bo himself writes on his website (www.thewesternempire.com), where the third edition of Halfway to Berdoo is now available after being out of print for three years, “It's difficult to self-publish any book, but try self-publishing one that explores the history of several major outlaw motorcycle clubs. I wore every hat imaginable: I wrote it, edited it, designed it, published it, marketed it, shipped the books, and stood up to the most powerful outlaw MC in the world, on my own.” While he was working on the book, Bo lived off the grid with only a post office box for an address.  He adds, “The storms I weathered in order to release this book, back in 2016, could be a book itself; from extortion, to death threats, a shady publisher, greed, and lawsuits. My determination and persistence allowed me to document the real stories of early Outlaw Motorcycle Club members in SoCal. It is the definitive behind-the-scenes look into the day to day lives of the Hells Angels, Straight Satans, Satans Slaves, Galloping Goose, Road Regents and Coffin Cheaters motorcycle club members of the early 1960s. No fluff, no gimmicks, no crime, no undercover law enforcement, no bias.”

A subtle detail embedded in the paint of Johnny Orvis' 1950 Panhead chopper: the Zig Zag man. [RICO]
It was two years after releasing the first edition of Halfway to Berdoo that Paul Zuckerman reached out and offered to lend a hand. With Paul’s backing, the pair were able to locate a suitable warehouse, renovate it completely and install the bank vault and establish the Research Institute of Contemporary Outlaws archive. “Publishing the books helps us track down, and preserve, more items,” Bo says, “We’re not trying to exploit any of this; it’s just about getting the stories out there. And nothing in the archive has come from eBay or anywhere else. It’s all been properly obtained directly from those involved and their families. “I do deep ancestry checks, find children or wives, explain that I have photos I’m able to share if they’re interested in seeing them, and get to know them if I can.”

Johnny Orvis in a period photo with his 1950 Panhead. [RICO]
Bo regularly posts to his @outlawarchive Instagram account, where he showcases a small sample of the 35,000-plus pieces in the collection. In the future, once the entire collection has been archived, Bo would like to see it become a non-profit organization, and he’d attempt to secure a government grant to mount an exhibition or traveling show. He concedes, “This isn’t a profession most people would sign up for, and perhaps there’s a little bit of insanity mixed in with what I do. But, regardless of what happens, I’d always want the archive to remain in Southern California. This is where it all started for outlaw motorcycle clubs.”

RICO also houses a collection of 'Andy's Pipes', which are extraordinary examples of 1960s handmade ingenuity. Originally based on Zippo lighters, these multi-purpose tools for getting high include a clever telescoping pipe stem for smoking weed in the cap of the lighter, a slide-out cocaine tube, and a detachable roach clip on a hand-carved chain. All of these pieces are intricately carved, with gorgeous enamel work baked on. This was Johnny Orvis' pipe, and includes his name, astrological sign (Leo), and his chopper, all surrounded by exquisite enamel work. [RICO]

 

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


'The Motorcycle': Ultan Guilfoyle

Twenty-two years ago, the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ rolled into New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. In a few snooty sectors of the art world, sensibilities were offended that something as base as Motorcycles had camped in the rotunda gallery designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But most critics and every Motorcyclist certainly got it. So did hundreds of thousands of others. Two decades later, AotM is still one of the most well-attended shows in the museum’s history, with 301,037 visitors. As reported here earlier, it’s only taken two decades for another gallery to pay attention to powered two-wheelers as the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Brisbane, Australia has opened its doors to ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’.

Lines around the block on opening day for 'The Motorcycle' exhibit in Brisbane at QaGOMA. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
Just who is behind these displays? They are the work of co-curators Ultan Guilfoyle and University of Arizona optical physics professor Charles M. Falco. Ultan spoke to me early in December, just days after the doors opened at GoMA to reveal ‘The Motorcycle’. Our discussion arced back to the beginning, and this conjunction of architecture, art and motorcycles lays firmly at Ultan’s feet. In the late 1980s, Ultan was an independent filmmaker working with Bob Geldof. They contributed arts programming to the BBC, and were interested in telling the story of Frank Lloyd Wright. That led Ultan to the Guggenheim, where he met then-Director Thomas Krens. “When I met him, we were talking and he showed me a document that he’d started writing,” Ultan explains. “It said that Harley-Davidson was the first motorcycle, and that he’d like to, one day, put together a motorcycle exhibition.”

Ultan Guilfoyle at home with a few of his motorcycles. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
Ultan says he wasn’t a motorcycle historian, but he knew that Harley-Davidson did not build the first motorcycle. He returned home to London, found some good books on motorcycle history, re-wrote the paper, and sent it to Krens. Not long after, Krens hired Ultan to put together the Guggenheim’s nascent film department. Ultan moved to New York to work at the Guggenheim, and Krens pulled out Ultan’s re-written document and suggested they get to work on mounting a proper motorcycle exhibition. Ultan says he didn’t immediately commit, and took some time to think about the proposition, but finally agreed.

Among the most remarkable machines at the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum was the amazingly original 1871 Perreaux steam cycle, that lives in the Sceaux Museum in Paris. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
As a young lad, Dublin-born Ultan spent hours on his bicycle. “We went to school on bikes, delivered newspapers on bikes – bicycles were freedom for us,” he says. “I’ve still got bikes, and enjoy riding. Back then, we didn’t have mountain bikes, and had they been around when I was 10 years old my life might look much different than it does now.” His early pedal bikes included both a single-speed and then a three-speed Raleigh, and while not ideally suitable for rough stuff, he rode them in the dirt. One of his favorite bikes was his father’s old VeloSolex moped. The motor, which sits in front of the handlebars and drives the front wheel via friction roller, had seized. Ultan stripped off the engine and says the ‘bicycle’ rode like nothing else he had – with low gearing and a now much lighter front end, he could wheelie for blocks. Because of his predilection for rough ground, as a teenager his attention turned to internal combustion engines and trials riding aboard an OSSA Mick Andrews Replica. Scholarly training was obtained at Trinity College Dublin, where he read English, Philosophy and Art History. Ultan adds, “Those were truly the days of a liberal arts education.”

Ultan Guilfoyle in New York City in 2017. [Paul d'Orléans]
After moving to London, Ultan rode a Norton Commando on the street. When he arrived in New York to work at the Guggenheim, he picked up another Norton, this one a wrecked 850 Commando with a bent front end. He recalls, “I brought it into my office in the Guggenheim, laid a sheet down on the floor, and took it apart there. It wasn’t long before I was told I couldn’t be doing that in my office, so I worked on it in the Guggenheim’s workshop.” It was while toiling on AotM that the Guggenheim’s chief curator Lisa Dennison suggested Ultan needed some intellectual backup for the event. “She said, just get somebody academic,” Ultan recalls. “I knew Charles, and I knew he had one of the best book collections on motorcycles in the world, and he had an academic approach to motorcycles. He was someone who could tell you the facts, and we asked him to be a curatorial advisor. That’s how we became known for the Art of the Motorcycle.”

Ultan with his BSA B33 hybrid, a back-lane bike perfect for his Catskills weekend home...at which he's spent many months this year. [Paul d'Orléans]
With 150 machines on display, the AotM became one of the most important shows thus far highlighting the motorcycle. After its successful June 26 to September 20, 1998 run at the Guggenheim, it traveled to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, then Bilbao, Spain before appearing in 2001 at the Guggenheim Las Vegas followed by the Guggenheim-Hermitage. Combined, more than two million visitors saw the show at these four museums. Years later, when Charles was conducting a lecture at GoMA – also known as the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art, or QAGoMA – director Chris Saines approached Charles about mounting another motorcycle show. Ultan was quickly brought into the discussion, and the three met over lunch in New York City. “Chris said he didn’t want to rehash the Guggenheim display, and asked what did we think we could do? We suggested looking to the future and the rising prominence of electric bikes,” Ultan says, and adds, “This was to be about personal transportation in the 21 st century, but with a few highlights from the Guggenheim mixed in.”

The truly awesome 1994 Britten V1000 displayed in the Guggenheim: the same Britten is on display in Brisbane, and appropriately graces the cover of 'The Motorcycle' exhibition catalog. [David Heald]
One example, in particular, was the Britten. “The Britten is,” Ultan says, “The greatest motorcycle ever designed and built, and especially in Australia, you’d have to have a Britten as it’s from New Zealand. In fact, my first call after that initial meeting was to Kristeen Britten, John Britten’s widow. She couldn’t loan her motorcycle, but she said she’d find us one, and it turned out to be the original Jim Hunter bike that we had at the Guggenheim. The new owner/lender is thrilled to show it – and that was all a coincidence.”

...aaand the catalog in question, which is available now. Shameless plug, it lives next to Paul d'Orléans book 'The Chopper: the Real Story' in Ultan's living room! And the keen-eyed will recognize the original 'Art of the Motorcycle' exhibition catalog below. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
The other was the c.1871 Perreaux steam velocipede from the Musée Sceaux in Paris. “Apart from those two that were included at the Guggenheim, we wanted to look at every other bike and change it up,” Ultan says. “Whether that was a different bike, or one that represented the same design ideas. Some bikes you can’t change, like the Vincent Black Shadow – but you can decide whether to go with a later Series C or an earlier one. Same with a BSA Gold Star; that’s one of the most important bikes in British motorcycle history – the DBD engine was ubiquitous. But instead of a DBD34 Clubman Gold Star, we wanted to find a Catalina Gold Star rather than repeat what we’d done at the Guggenheim.”

The curators on site: Charles Falco and Ultan Guilfoyle at the GOMA Bodhi Tree Terrace, wiht one of the display Indians, and 8-Valve racer. [QaGOMA]
Ultan and Charles prepared initial lists of machines, and swapped them between themselves. Then, their combined list was handed to QAGoMA, where it was soon noted there wasn’t a chopper on the list. “I like bob jobs and cut downs, but eventually we made a decision to put in a Panhead chopper we found in Australia,” Ultan says. The exhibit would not be laid out in chronological order; rather, Ultan chose to create themes, including Sport, Custom, Speed and Electric. In the last category, the team wanted to highlight many new machines, but Ultan tells an interesting story about finding Swedish-built CAKE bikes. “I was in Sydney at Deus ex Machina and saw a CAKE bike there. I talked to them about it, and made a note to myself to look into it. Soon, I had a call from a fellow in Sweden, and he talked to me for a bit as we’d both contributed to a book called Spoon (100 designers, 10 curators, 10 design classics). I still wasn’t really sure who he was, but it turned out to be Stefan Ytterborn.”

The design brilliance of the CAKE Kalk, one of the electric bikes chosen for 'The Motorcycle' exhibit, which looks more timeless every year in its spare simplicity. [CAKE]
Stefan had at one point operated his own design consultancy and had worked with the likes of Swedish furniture powerhouse IKEA. “Turns out, Stefan had gone from design consultant to designing all his own POC Gear (cycling, skiing, sunglasses, etc.),” Ultan continues. “He’d always been irritated that dirt bikes left a big footprint on trails, and thought an electric bike with a mountain bike tire would leave a smaller footprint on the environment, and designed the CAKE. He was calling me because the people at Deus had told him I’d taken an interest in the CAKE, and the conversation went on from there.”

A local hero on display, the 1951 Vincent Black Lightning originally raced in Australia by Jack Ehret, that famously fetched nearly $1M at auction, and is the star atop our 'Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles' tree. [Bonhams]
By late February 2020, the majority of 100 bikes for the QAGoMA show had been chosen. Ultan had the loans all lined up, and says they’d cherry picked many motorcycles without yet having any formally signed agreements. Then, Covid hit. “March 13, the shit hit the fan,” he says. “Many of those loans just disappeared, from Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy, everyone shut down their operations. About 30 per cent of the exhibit was coming from Europe, and those loans just evaporated, leaving us scrambling.” By July, QAGoMA confirmed they had the green light from the Australian government to go ahead with the show, mainly due to low Covid case numbers. Could Ultan and Charles deliver? They said yes. “We were already heavily into both David Reidie’s Harley-Davidson and Crocker collection and Peter Arundel’s Indian collection, but it forced us to go much deeper into other Australian collections to find machines that told similar stories to ones we’d lost. And, we found some very good examples of Australian-built motorcycles, such as the Spencer, Tillbrook and Whiting. Covid caused me my biggest problem, but it offered me great solutions with opportunities we’d not have otherwise recognized. With the time difference between here and Australia, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night I was on the phone talking to collectors.”

Even with all the bikes chosen and agreed, COVID threw a wrench into the works, and many bikes had to quickly be re-sourced from willing exhibitors, like this 1914 Whiting, and 1927 Douglas DT5. [Ultan Guilfoyle]
Ultan says they wanted to have 100 motorcycles on display, simply for the fact that in motorsports, 100, or the ton, is a mystical number. One of the 100 motorcycles telling a distinctly Australian story is the Spencer, a machine made by David Spencer in Brisbane c.1906. Spencer made bronze and cedar molds and patterns – several are on display with the machine -- for his components, from crankcases to carburetors to control levers; all pieces are numbered and bear his name. It is thought Spencer produced 10 engines, and one of the two complete surviving machines in ‘The Motorcycle’ has been restored with its 475cc single-cylinder engine, bearing the number 3, in its frame. At the other end of that spectrum is the 1951 Vincent Black Lightning ridden by Jack Ehret in 1953 to set a 141.5 mph Australian land speed record. It set another record at Bonhams’ 2018 Las Vegas motorcycle auction when it hammered closed for $929,000; making it the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction.

Dare Jennings and Carby Tuckwell, the founders of Deus Ex Machina, with one of their signature modified Yamaha SR500s. This is the 'Drover's Dog', which comes complete with a surfboard. [Dare Jennings]
Just as AotM had an outstanding 432-page catalog to complement the exhibit, Ultan and Charles worked together to write a 320-page hardcover exhibition catalog for ‘The Motorcycle’ complete with fresh new photography. Published by Phaidon Press, The Motorcycle is, according to the QAGoMA description, “An essential and compelling exploration of the design, history, and culture of the motorcycle – an icon of the machine age.” Ultan and Charles made two visits to Australia pre-Covid to meet with collectors and discuss the displays with QAGoMA staff. The last time they were there was February 20, just before the world pivoted to lockdown mode. Although ‘The Motorcycle’ was permitted to go ahead, with no international travelers allowed into Australia, this meant the entire installation was done at arm’s length – again, with Ultan working long into the night via telephone and online conferencing to set up the galleries. Now, with the doors open, Ultan says, “In the end, we’re very happy with the exhibition.” Will the show be able to travel, as AotM did after its run at the Guggenheim? “That’s always in the conversation, but now I think all bets are off with Covid,” Ultan says, and concludes. “I don’t know, maybe with vaccines on their way, it might be realistic to travel it.”

A pleasure temporarily limited to Australians: visiting 'The Motorcycle' exhibit in Brisbane. The exhibition design includes extensive wall graphics and continuously running motorcycle films. [QaGOMA]
We’ll have to wait and see, but for now, Australian art, design and motorcycle enthusiasts are the lucky ones; they have the opportunity to attend an exceptionally curated, landmark motorcycle exhibition.

2015: Ultan Guilfoyle joined the judging team for the Motorcycle Film Festival. l-r: Mark Hoyer (Cycle World), Jack Drury (co-founder MFF), Ultan Guilfoyle, Marin Cianferoni (La Mala Suerte Edicioines), Corinna Mantlo (MFF co-founder, now Editor for Film at The Vintagent), Melissa Holbrook Pierson (The Perfect Vehicle), Cliff Vaughs (Easy Rider), Paul d'Orléans (Chief Judge MFF), Stacie B. London (LSR racer), Larry Marcus (Easy Rider). [Mark Hoyer]
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

Shooting for Us All: Shane Balkowitsch

In a well-tuned internal combustion engine, ten seconds at 5,000 revs per minute is enough time for a crankshaft to rotate 833 times. Ten seconds for the average person is at least a couple of eye blinks and a few inhalations of oxygen. And that ten seconds, to wet plate photographer Shane Balkowitsch of Bismarck, North Dakota, is a lifetime. Ten seconds is roughly how long, after pulling the lens cap off his large-format camera, a sitter would have to remain motionless for a clear portrait to be captured on glass plate.

A wet plate/collodion self portrait of Shane in his natural light photography in his North Dakota studio. [Shane Balkowitsch]
“There’s no getting back that ten seconds of exposure, there’s no getting back that part of your life, that’s gone,” Shane says in the inspirational documentary about his art, simply called Balkowitsch. Created by Chelsy Claravella and Gregory DeSaye, this is a film that provides insight not only into Shane’s wet plate photography, but also the importance of pursuing one’s passion regardless the creative endeavor. In the film, Shane continues, “I can sit you in that chair and we can do the same pose and we’ll never get back to that ten seconds of life. So, I’m capturing some person’s life in silver, and that silver will be here for generations to come.”

Shane in 2013 with his outlaw Porsche 356 and BMW R75 custom, from a Vintagent article that year. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Having never owned a camera or been intrigued by photography, wet plate photography is a process Shane knew nothing about until he was 44 years old. Creatively wandering, Shane had dabbled with oil painting, marionette making, and motorcycle building. In 2010, Shane was nearing the completion of a 1965 Porsche 356 restoration. He’d enjoyed that project to the extent he wanted to do something similar, but this time with a German-engineered BMW motorcycle. Having zero motorcycle experience didn’t bother him. Instead, he searched for a competent builder and discovered Josh Withers of Los Angeles. Although a renowned creator of café-style BMW machines, Josh earns his living working as an award-winning professional photographer and instructor; some of his commercial clients include Beats By Dre, Diet Pepsi and Nissan. He’s also famous for shooting musicians, such as the Foo Fighters, Faster Pussycat and Tame Impala. While collaborating with Josh on his 1971 BMW R75 build, Shane learned of the archaic wet plate photography format purely by accident. Searching for motorcycle images and other information online, he stumbled across a photo of esteemed editor/photographer Paul d’Orleans standing in the back of his Sprinter van, working on the wet plate process for one of his Moto Tintype projects. For a reason Shane can’t completely comprehend, he was deeply moved by that image. “What was he doing in the back of that van?” Shane wondered.

The work of MotoTintype team Susan McLaughlin and Paul d'Orléans inspired Shane's deep research into the archaic photographic medium: this dual self-portrait was taken in Dodge City, Kansas, at the site of the old Dodge City board track, where this 1915 Harley-Davidson (owned by Bill Rodencal, archivist at the Harley-Davidson Museum) won an important 200-mile race in 1915. [MotoTintype]
He sent a note to Paul, who was happy to answer Shane’s questions about wet plate photography, a rather involved process of capturing a picture by exposing light on a piece of plate glass specially prepared with chemicals and liquid silver. “Paul told me about wet plate photography, and I got started by getting John Coffer’s book, The Doer’s Guide to Wet-Plate Photography,” Shane explains to me during a telephone interview. “I sat on the couch, got out my highlighter, and started learning all I could about the process.”

What the photographer sees: an inverted, backwards image on a ground glass focusing plate. This is Britney Olsen with her racing Harley-Davidson. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Forty-five days later, on October 4, 2012, armed with a great deal of enthusiasm, a large-format field camera he ordered from the Star Camera Company and two lights, Shane set up in the back corner of a warehouse. Used for the family business, Balkowitsch Enterprises, the warehouse is where Shane created a rudimentary studio/darkroom. His brother sat for that first image. And Shane has never looked back. “I wasn’t calling myself a photographer,” Shane says, and adds, “I didn’t want to insult anyone. But without having any previous camera experience or other photographic knowledge, I was under no constraints. I was just focused on getting an image, and I didn’t even realize I was using light to take these portraits. ‘Oh’, I said to myself, ‘I can move these fixtures and change the result or alter the mood of the image.’”

The finished result: a unique portrait from a highly technical, hand-made photo process long thought 'obsolete' as commercial considerations overtook the inherent qualities of the medium. Just like old motorcycles, wet plate photos take skill to make work, but have unique rewards. This photo of Brittney Oslen is spectacular! [Shane Balkowitsch]
Many of his first portraits were of family members; his brother, his wife Bonnie, his mom, his children. From the very first plate, Shane began numbering the images, and he began posting some of his results online. Word of his work spread, and soon others were inquiring about sitting for a wet plate photograph. While not short of volunteers, Shane also looks for interesting people to photograph, and in 2015 that’s how Brittney Olsen of 20th Century Racing found herself posing for a portrait with her 1923 F-head Harley-Davidson flat track racer.

Another portrait from the Britney Olsen photo session in 2015. Her JDH racer was built at home with her husband, restoration specialist Matt Olson. [Shane Balkowitsch]
“I found out about Brittney through the motorcycle community, and when I realized she lived relatively nearby in South Dakota I invited her in to pose,” Shane says. “The day she came into the warehouse with her bike, I set it all up but didn’t have enough lights to illuminate both her and the motorcycle. It was raining outside, but I came up with the idea to open the warehouse overhead door and have Brittney and the bike just under the awning. We got some images, and those images are a marriage between natural light and studio light – that experience led me to the realization that a motorcycle was too big a prop for me to illuminate with the studio lights I had at the time.”

A remarkable portrait of World Champion prizefighter Evander Holyfield, now part of the Smithsonian Museum Collection. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Chalking that up as a learning experience, Shane carried on honing his craft through 2015 in the warehouse studio/darkroom, including working with champion pugilist Evander Holyfield.  “He must have thought I was nuts,” Shane recalls. “Because I had no dividing wall between the studio and the darkroom, here he’s sitting in this dark warehouse while I capture his image on a plate, and then with red lights on while I’m loading the plate and then developing it.” But that plate caught the attention of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Shane offered the image as a gift to the NPG, and it was after that the North Dakota Historical Society told him they’d take every plate he created. “Prior to that, the Historical Society had an approval process, and they’d take one or another of my images that I offered, only taking what they wanted,” Shane says. “After the Smithsonian took the Evander Holyfield image, the Historical Society called and said ‘Anything you want to give us, we’ll take’”

Shane's natural light photography studio, which he reckons might be the first built in generations using natural glass for full UV penetration. [Tom Wirtz]
While Brittney and Evander were important sitters in Shane’s first makeshift studio -- in fact, every person who has sat for Shane has, as he says himself, entered his studio as strangers, but left as friends -- his life’s work in the wet plate medium truly began when he photographed Sitting Bull’s Great Grandson, Ernie LaPointe, on September 6, 2014. Less than two years after learning the intricate art of wet plate photography, Shane took the image titled “Eternal Field”. It’s a significant plate, because on July 31, 1881 wet plate pioneer Orlando Scott Goff took an image of Sitting Bull in Bismarck, North Dakota. Some 133 years later, in the same state, Shane made an image of Sitting Bull’s Great Grandson, and this experience opened a door no one was expecting to open. Shane, after taking Ernie’s image and following up with subsequent portraits, from youngsters to elders belonging to many Native American tribes, began a series now referred to as Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective.

The first step on a new path in life: this photo of Ernie LaPointe was Shane's first of a Native American, and has led to a remarkable relationship with Midwestern tribes, whom Shane is continuing to document in his series 'Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective'. [Shane Balkowitsch]
“This is the most important wet plate made for this series, in fact it represents the first steps taken on this journey,” Shane notes in the Acknowledgements printed in the back of his outstanding book, Northern Plains Native Americans.  “Ernie was the first Native American to trust and believe in my camera.” The book, the first of four volumes that will comprise the entire series, contains more than 50 wet plate images of Native Americans, all taken by Shane. Ultimately, he plans to photograph 1,000 Native Americans for the series, creating a contemporary record using an antiquated process.

Frank Albert 'White Bull' with his customized Indian motorcycle, part of Shane's 'Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective'. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Four years after taking up wet plate photography, Shane found he was somewhat limited by what he could do in the warehouse. He doesn’t have any misgivings about working in the space; in fact, some of his favorite images were made in the warehouse. And, he adds, good results can be obtained in a rather simple environment. However, to further grow in his wet plate hobby, Shane sketched out on the back of a napkin a natural light studio featuring a large area of north-facing glass, in both the wall and the ceiling. Regular glass has UV coatings, and research showed panes of glass used in agricultural greenhouses were required. According to Shane, it’s the first natural glass wet plate studio built in the U.S. in over 100 years.

A panorama of the interior of Shane's natural light studio in North Dakota. [Tom Wirtz]
Located on his family’s property, Shane only works in the studio on Friday. From Monday to Thursday, Shane steers Balkowitsch Enterprises, but spends much of his time considering and mentally preparing for his Friday studio time. “Every day is a creative day for me,” Shane explains, and continues, “but it’s so nice to consider one day a week as a chance to play; we need those safe havens where we can toss aside what we do as adults and just play, and I do consider this playing.” When the studio is not in use on Shane’s Friday, with a remarkable generosity of artistic spirit, he leaves the door open for other creative individuals to use the space. Painters, musicians and photographers have all availed themselves of the opportunity. And, Shane says, “At no time have I ever been let down by anyone else using the space.”

Shane's most famous image, of climate activist Greta Thunberg, during a brief window he arranged for the photo process during her tour of the Native American resistance camp against the now-blocked Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).  Shane was granted 10 minutes to take the photo, but Greta was so charmed by the process, she posed for this, second photo, which is now in the collection of the Library of Congress. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Shane most recently gained a degree of notoriety after he took two wet plate images of internationally known climate activist Greta Thunberg. In October 2019, Shane met with Greta at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas. He donated one of the images, called “Standing For Us All”, to the Library of Congress. Working with a Bismarck building owner and local bakery, Shane proposed to install a 7-foot-tall mural of the image on the exterior wall of the downtown business. Shane planned to cover all costs. However, as soon as the proposal was made public, threats were made to either boycott the business, or deface the mural once it was up. Cancel that idea. He didn’t want to put a family-operated business in jeopardy over his artwork. Shane has two other murals in downtown Bismarck, and one of these was egged in response to his photographing Greta. The controversy was, he says, one of the most painful things he’s gone through.

A gorgeous glass plate of Ira High Elk 'Scares the Eagle', a member of the MHA Nation / Lakota tribe, from Shane's series 'Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective. [Shane Balkowitsch]
But he didn’t let it weigh him down. Instead, he focuses on creating more work, and teaching neophyte wet plate photographers the intricate process. One of his students was Josh Withers. Yes, the Josh Withers who built Shane’s 1971 BMW motorcycle. In a note to me about his friendship with Shane, Josh adds, “Shane is a generous, sincere, soulful and intrepid person. With zero photography experience he decided to fearlessly embark on one of the most difficult, and oldest photographic processes known to the medium. Then, years later and with my career as a photographer, I found myself in North Dakota learning from him. His passion towards his process is truly infectious. He quickly became a master of his craft and an inspiration to others. Now, every time I shoot with collodion, I use the same techniques and even the same phrases he uses.” Reflecting on the creative path he’s traveled, and continues to move along, Shane says, “Josh is such an accomplished modern-day photographer, and I’m so proud that I was able to teach him wet plate photography. If you’d said to us when we’d first met, ‘Josh, one day Shane is going to teach you wet plate photography’, we’d have just laughed.”

The finished 1971 BMW R75/5 'toaster tank' custom built with Josh Withers. [Shane Balkowitsch]
What of that gateway vehicle, the 1971 BMW café racer, that helped Shane stumble upon the wet plate photography process? After completing the collaborative build, Shane learned to ride and kept the R75 a few years before finding his time occupied pursuing wet plate photography. The machine was sold, but when Shane isn’t behind the lens of his camera, he remains mechanically dedicated to maintaining and driving his ’65 Porsche 356.

You can follow Shane's work on Instagram and Facebook: there's also a documentary on his wet plate work -  'Balkowitsch' - and you can watch the trailer here.

 

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

Velo on the Chase

Working with nothing more than a hammer, a Crescent wrench, a screwdriver and a pair of Channellock pliers, a 15-year old Larry Luce assembled his first motorcycle. Those simple tools and the skills he learned led to a lifetime of repairing, riding and touring long distances on vintage machines – including most recently covering 2,400 miles on his 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2 on the first Cross Country Chase. An off-shoot of the Motorcycle Cannonball cross-America adventure, this inaugural event included motorcycles built between 1930 and 1948, with riders traveling north to south from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Key West, Florida.  Those skills helped him become the first rider to successfully cross the USA on a Cannonball event riding a sophisticated overhead-camshaft machine.

Larry Luce riding his 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2 off the line from Aune Osborne Park in Sault Sainte Marie, the site of the official start of the Cross Country Chase motorcycle endurance run from Sault Ste. Marie Michigan to Key West Florida. Thursday, September 5, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Long before he took part in the Cross Country Chase (Sep 6-15, 2019), however, Larry’s first machine was a one-year old 1968 BSA B25 that a friend had taken to a repair shop; it was making an odd noise in the lower end. When the shop called Larry’s pal about the BSA, they told him it was $40 to take it apart and another $300 to fix it and put it back together. Not interested in spending the $300, he paid the $40 bill and sold the bike to Larry. Larry’s $100 investment got him the rolling chassis, plus three boxes of parts – one with the bulk of the single-cylinder engine, the other with the transmission shafts and gears and the last filled with primary components.

Larry Luce on the 2019 Velocette Owner's Club Summer Rally in Weed, California, July 2019. [Paul d'Orleans]
“I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Orange County,” Larry says. “Orange County was pretty rural at that time and there was a big field near where we lived where lots of people rode motorcycles. I wasn’t allowed to have a motorcycle, and my brother and I never even asked – we just both knew it wasn’t going to happen.”

But that didn’t prevent a mechanically inclined Larry from taking apart and fixing all of his friends’ motorcycles, go-karts and minibikes. By the time he was 15 and bought the BSA, the family dynamics were different, and his parents thought him responsible enough for a bike. Plus, there was doubt he’d ever get the B25 functional. Larry promptly diagnosed the source of the lower end noise; the oil pump drive gear was chipped. Finding a replacement gear, he says, is what introduced him to the world of British motorcycles and the people who dealt with them. “English motorcycle businesses tended to be enthusiast operated,” Larry explains, and adds, “I dealt a lot with Jim Hunter – and he was a curmudgeon, he’d just give you shit, saying things like, ‘What the hell are you doing here? What are you looking for and what’s the part number? You wouldn’t be here if you knew what you were doing.’”

The grit and the glory: in its completed but unpainted state, Larry Luce's 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2 had extra super patina. Velocette's overhead-camshaft Model K 350cc single motor was designed in 1924, and gained an aluminum cylinder head in 1935, making for the Mk2 KSS.  The design was copied by Arthur Carroll for the second-generation Norton CS1/International line starting in 1930.  Larry's KSS is the first overhead-camshaft motorcycle to make every mile on a Cannonball event. [Pete Young]
While looking for parts for the B25 he came across a BSA Gold Star flat track motorcycle in the now-legendary LeBard & Underwood BSA dealership. Fascinated by the single-cylinder Gold Star, Larry carried on with his B25 project and soon had it back together and running, He kept it a few months, but sold it to fund the purchase of a dilapidated 1960 500cc Gold Star California Clubmans from curmudgeonly Jim Hunter. The Gold Star adventure led him down another path, and a meeting with mechanic and Gold Star guru Dick Brown, who was responsible for performing a great deal of tuning on BSA racer Al Gunter’s machine. “Dick is also generally credited with developing the cylinder head which was used as a prototype for the design of the head used on the Venom Thruxton,” Larry says, and of his interaction with Dick, he adds, “While I was working on my Gold Star, he told me at a BSA club meeting that he could help. And, although he told me the Gold Star was a good bike, a real motorcycle was what I needed.”

A typical scene at the end of the Velocette Owner's Club summer rally, a lineup of the machines that did the 1000-mile week. The VOCNA is the only old motorcycle club that includes such a rally in its calendar (since 1983), a testament to the reliability of Velocettes, and the enthusiasm of their owners. Larry Luce's 1938 KSS Mk2 stands in front of the St. George Hotel, which is haunted! [Pete Young]
A real motorcycle, according to Dick, was an iron-engine, rigid frame Velocette MAC. Larry began accumulating Velocette MAC parts, eventually pulling together enough of a pile to put together a 1951 model. Through the Velocette and Dick Brown, Larry met another enthusiast who would influence his life, and that was Mike Jongblood. “Mike was quite a good mechanic, and he worked in a machine shop,” Larry says of his now close friend. “Mike became my go-to guy and he helped me get that MAC to be my first functioning Velocette, and he introduced me to the Velocette Owners Club of North America.”

Keen Velocette owners in the U.S. and Canada formally organized the Velocette Owners Club of North America (or VOCNA for short) in the early 1970s. Quite simply, these Velo-fellows wanted to share their mutual interest in the English marque that got its start in 1905 when German-born Johannes Gutgemann (who became John Taylor before formally changing his name to John Goodman) and partner William Gue built their first motorcycle, the Veloce. By 1913, Velocette was simply the model name of a two-stroke, 206cc machine and Veloce was proud of early engineering features such as the ‘footstarter’. Later, Velocette developed the first positive-stop foot shift gear change.

The star of our show, the cross-country 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2 that made every mile of the 2368-mile rally. [Pete Young]
Two-strokes were the company’s bread and butter until 1925, when a new overhead-cam four-stroke machine was introduced, with the Velocette trade name finally being registered in 1926. That same year, the firm moved to its Hall Green, Birmingham factory. The 348cc KSS was the Super Sports version of the new-for-1925 OHC K model (K signifying an overhead-camshaft model, which included the K, KSS, racing KTT, etc). Larry found his 1938 KSS Mk.2 through his friend Mike when the owner originally asked for Mike’s help sorting the machine out before ultimately deciding he’d rather sell it. “The KSS was clapped out and on its last legs,” Larry says, and adds, “but I was really attracted to 1930s-era motorcycles. They’re the cleanest and neatest looking bikes, even if they’re not all that practical.”

By now Larry was working as a civil engineer with the City of Los Angeles, and he had a small fleet of motorcycles. The KSS was taken apart and stashed into boxes, while Larry began looking for replacement parts. Long story short, though, “The KSS wasn’t my main focus, and it sat around in pieces for probably 20 years. The best part of the bike was -- to the best of my knowledge -- it’s the original frame, engine and transmission. But the worst part of it was, there wasn’t one part on it that wasn’t seriously worn out. For example, the crank was junk. The head was junk. “The gas and oil tank were good, but the fenders and stays were all bodged up and kind of a mess. I’d maybe work on something and make a little progress, until I decided that for the 2013 VOCNA rally in Volcano, California, I was going to get it together and use it there.”

The lineup at the 2013 Velocette Summer Rally in Volcano California. [Pete Young]
Annually since 1983, VOCNA has hosted a summer rally. These events are not the park-the-bike-on-the-grass and polish variety – held in locations such as Mission, British Columbia, Hot Springs, Montana, and Crawford, Colorado as well as spots in California, Oregon and Washington – each really consists of five days of riding roughly 1,000 miles in total. Freeways are a complete anathema to the group. Instead, the rallies most often occur on scenic and pastoral routes with some dirt and gravel included, but always with plenty of twists and turns. [Full disclosure – your editor has been President of the VOCNA 8 times, and organized as many summer rallies]

Larry has attended most of these rallies. Not only does he complete the 1,000 miles of the event, he also has often ridden to remote rally locations. So, by his reckoning, he’s covered more than 100,000 miles aboard old Velocettes. For the Volcano rally in 2013, Larry had help from Mike and many other VOCNA members to finally get all the parts together for his KSS. Mike helped with the engine build, while Richard Denaple built and balanced the crankshaft. With zero miles on the odometer of the completed KSS, he trucked it to the start of the Volcano rally. “I’m not long on cosmetics,” Larry laughs. “I usually get a bike running and sorted, but don’t spend a lot of time fussing with the aesthetics. The KSS was in bare metal and some primer when it got to Volcano.”

Larry Luce in the endless cornfields of the Midwest during the 2019 Chase. Stage 4 saw a 315-mile ride from Urbana, IL to Bowling Green, KY USA. Monday, September 9, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Pete Young, of the blog site Occhiolungo and a fellow Velocette enthusiast said of Larry’s machine, “My favorite bike of the week. Larry Luce’s 1938 KSS. He’s had the bike for decades, and has put it on the road with a full mechanical rebuild. But the big lumps are in bare metal, not paint. By the end of the week, there was a good assortment of soils, oils and crud stuck to the bike. And it looked even better than when it started.”

Eventually, Larry ended up spraying the bare metal with a rattle can paint job, but there are no distinguishing Velocette decals or gold lines anywhere to be seen. This is the bike he’d ultimately ride on the Cross Country Chase, an event he knew nothing about until a chance encounter with Todd Cameron, son of legendary Velocette rider Dee Cameron and grandson of the legendary John Cameron, a founder member of the Boozefighters motorcycle club, one of the first SoCal 1%er clubs made famous by the 1953 film ‘The Wild One.’ “I didn’t really know Todd at all, but Mike (Jongblood) and I were at a vintage motorcycle gathering here in Huntington Beach when Todd showed up on a Velocette GTP (another of Velocette’s two-stroke models). We looked at it and asked him what he was going to do with it. That’s when he said he was going to ride it on the Cross Country Chase.”

It was the first time Larry had heard of the Chase, but he quickly deduced the GTP was not in any shape to run a long distance. He and Mike talked to Todd for some time, humbly informing him of why they thought the 250cc GTP wouldn’t make the adventure. After that, Larry went home and looked up the Cross Country Chase. He learned the event, staged by the same people who host the Motorcycle Cannonball, was open to bikes built between 1930 and 1948. “I’d always been intrigued by the concept of the Cannonball but didn’t have any motorcycles that were built prior to 1929, one of that event’s criteria,” he says [actually, the rules vary on the Cannonball – from strictly 100+ year old bikes to as late at 1936, depending on the event – ed]. “On the Cannonball, you’re allowed a support team to follow you along, but on the Chase you are on your own. You need to carry everything you’ll need and keep up the maintenance and repairs – but you can ask a fellow competitor for help, or any casual volunteers.”

Larry Luce (L) and Todd Cameron on his victorious BSA Sloper riding their antique British bikes in the Cross Country Chase. Stage 7 covered 249 miles from Macon, GA to Tallahassee, FL USA. Thursday, September 12, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Sign me up, Larry thought. Although he was late for the application process, organizers did accept his entry. Mike offered to freshen up the engine of the ‘38 KSS while Larry got ready to ride in the 2019 VOCNA rally at Mt. Shasta, California. He and his wife, Ela, had a great run in early July aboard their 1963 MSS and upon returning home Larry got in touch again with Todd, thinking they might organize motorcycle transport to the Sault Ste. Marie starting point. After the GTP, Todd had bought from Germany a 1930 BSA Sloper with its forward-canted 500cc OHV engine. It still hadn’t arrived, but the pair made plans to haul their bikes on a borrowed trailer behind a Sprinter RV – Todd runs a business renting the vans.

Larry put the freshened 348cc engine back in the KSS, adjusted chains and tightened all fasteners before adding 150 test miles to the bike. Deeming it ready to go, final modifications included the installation of a modern programmable speedometer and a route sheet holder. Canvas saddlebags bought for $26 from Amazon went over the rear fender, where he stashed oil, an assortment of fasteners, a good assembly of tools, and extra cables and a complete spare magneto. He didn’t need much of what he packed, but Todd utilized some of it.

Todd’s unrestored BSA arrived just nine days before the pair’s departure date. In that limited window of opportunity, Todd did his best to familiarize himself with a machine he knew nothing about. Together, they loaded the Velocette and the BSA on the trailer behind Todd’s Sprinter RV, drove to Sault Ste. Marie and started off on the Chase. Now, the Chase is a competitive event testing endurance (of both motorcycle and rider), speed (completing the 250 to 350-mile stages in a timely manner), navigation (following the prescribed route), and general knowledge. Yes, there was a test – and the results counted toward an entrant’s final score.

A portrait of Larry Luce with his 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2. Photographed at the end of the Stage-9 ride from Lakeland, FL to Miami, FL USA. Saturday, September 14, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
“I’m not competitive by nature,” Larry says, “and what attracted me to the Chase was simply the opportunity to ride a vintage motorcycle and see parts of the country I’d not seen before. I wasn’t going to study for any quizzes or really take the schedule too seriously. But Todd had other ideas, he was in it to win it. “I followed Todd’s lead a good portion of the way. But I didn’t study for the quizzes, “Larry says and adds, “There was a quiz every day. You had to be careful not to ride past where the quiz crew was parked along the route. We did not know where they would be.”

On the backroads of eight states covered in 10 days, Larry’s only breakdown was a flat rear tire; an easy fix he completed in the parking lot of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. Todd’s BSA consumed a quart of oil every 100 miles and could not be ridden faster than 55mph, normal travel speed was less than 45mph. Larry says they did not stop much during each day’s ride. Todd managed with dogged determination, some advice from others (for example, retarding the magneto timing so the 493cc Sloper engine would carry him up hills) and some parts and pieces from Larry to become the unlikely hero of the Chase. He won the Class I award, and earned himself a Legend award, a Jeff Decker custom bronze, special number plates if he decides to partake in another Chase, and $7,500.

Todd Cameron (L) and Larry Luce (R) fill out a pop quiz at a checkpoint on the Cross Country Chase. Friday, September 13, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Larry completed the ride with no penalties – and he finished in 12th place out of a field of 70 starters – very respectable for someone who did not study for the quizzes. But he says if he’d taken it more seriously, the event wouldn’t have been as much fun. “I just really enjoyed riding those quieter roads filled with pleasant and pastoral scenery, and I got a feel for how the country changes as you move south,” he says, and adds, “You could guess where you were by the roadkill you encountered, from deer in Michigan to alligators in Florida. Thankfully, the Velocette didn’t fail me once.”

Taking pleasure in his journey was certainly due in large part to the careful preparation of the KSS engine by Mike Jongblood, whom everyone whispers has some kind of voodoo magic with Velo motors.  Success in the ride was also testament to Larry’s wrenching skills, learned decades ago and beginning with nothing more than patience and perseverance and four simple hand tools.

Larry adds, “There is something to be said for a level of technology which allows an enthusiastic kid with few tools and eve less knowledge to turn a pile of parts into a functioning motorcycle. A machine which, if it falters, there is a fair chance you can fix it with what’s in your toolbox and what you find on the side of the road,” and of his latest adventure, he concludes, “The Cross Country Chase is an event that allows vintage motorcycle enthusiasts to use their machines in the manner the makers intended. It also proves vintage vehicles can be viable long-distance transportation. In my opinion, there are few better ways to travel.”\[Many thanks to Michael Lichter for allowing use of his amazing Chase photos.  Michael has photographed every Cannonball event since 2010: see all this photos here.]

Success! Larry Luce rides his 1938 Velocette KSS across the finish line of the Cross Country Chase motorcycle endurance run from Sault Ste. Marie, MI to Key West, FL. (for vintage bikes from 1930-1948). The Grand Finish in Key West's Mallory Square after the 110 mile Stage-10 ride from Miami to Key West, FL and after covering 2,368 miles of the Cross Country Chase. Sunday, September 15, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
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

 


Coping with COVID: the Auction Scene in 2020

It’s not a brave new world: it’s a strange new world (apologies to Aldous Huxley).  Life has certainly changed during the COVID pandemic, but one thing remains the same; riding a vintage motorcycle or cruising in an old car or truck IS a socially distanced activity.

Mecum's Indy sale on July 12th 2020: masks, bidders sitting 6' apart, regulated foot traffic, and strong sales. TV commentator Scott Hoke noted, "A nine page safety document, masks required as per the mayor, lots of hand sanitizing stations, much less seating in the arena. No-contact transactions as much as possible." And it worked. [Scott Hoke]
“There is no greater socially-distanced hobby than driving a vintage car or riding a collector motorcycle by yourself or with a loved one,” says Sam Murtaugh of Mecum Auctions. “There’s no slowing that down, you can still get out on a nice cruise or a ride.”

Buyers and sellers of special-interest vehicles are keeping auction houses busy, but there have been challenges in the sales calendar. Luckily, in the land of motorcycle auctions, the large January 2020 Mecum sale in Las Vegas was unaffected by any COVID fallout. The story was different by mid-March.

Sam Murtaugh is a familiar face at Mecum Auctions: he's VP of Marketing and Presentation. [Sam Murtaugh]
“We joined the rest of the world in lockdown mode, and had to cancel upcoming events,” explains Sam, who is the VP of marketing and presentation at Mecum Auctions.

From their website, posted March 17, an update said, “In accordance with the CDC’s recommendation to postpone events involving more than 50 people over the next eight weeks, we will be rescheduling our March and April events.” Some were rescheduled, like the Gone Farmin’ Spring Classic and Indy 2020 auction. Other events, such as Portland 2020 and Denver 2020 were canceled outright. Mecum’s first live auction took place June 17 to 20 in Davenport, Iowa, with the Gone Farmin’ sale of vintage tractors.

The big bike sale at Indy: probably the best original-paint Pierce 4 in existence, which sold for $225,500, a record for a Pierce, and tied for #78 on our Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles list. [a podium monitor capture from Scott Hoke]
“We’ve had four successful live auctions since mid-June,” Sam says. “Consignments have been strong, and bidders and sellers have been attending. In conjunction with that live bidding, there’s been an increase in phone and internet bidding for those not ready to attend in person. In fact, internet bidding activity has been 10 times higher than prior to the pandemic.”

To ensure each live event meets state, county, town and venue guidelines, Mecum submits their plans well in advance to authorities. New regulations include temperature checks at the door, mandatory use of face masks (whether indoor or outdoor), physically distancing in auction arenas and one-way entrance and exit scenarios.  “We adjust and add to our plans to the point where we all feel safe, it’s a great team effort,” Sam adds.

The typical scene at Mecum's Las Vegas sale, the largest motorcycle auction in the world. This is only one of three halls with bikes. [Mecum Auctions]
The Indy 2020 auction at the Indiana State Fairgrounds from July 10 to 18 offered 117 motorcycles. Only 16 went unsold. From a 1982 Yamaha Enduro 100 for $2,750 to a 1918 Indian board track racer for $40,700, the highlight of the sale was a 1911 Pierce Arrow Four that hammered at $225,000. “There was a good mix of bikes at Indy,” Sam explains, and adds, “Some of those machines were consigned prior to COVID restrictions, while others, thanks to the postponed date, were consigned during lockdown.”

Don't expect crowding at the big Las Vegas auctions...but nobody can predict the run of this pandemic. [Mecum Auctions]
Recognizing life would not instantly return to normal post-lockdown, Mecum upgraded their internet bidding platform. Video was introduced to allow an internet or phone bidder to follow along in real time with an auctioneer, hopefully stimulating that sense of excitement that’s part of a live auction format. Also, because photographs of consigned motorcycles are submitted by the seller, there’s new importance placed on the quantity and quality of images submitted for the sale catalog and online gallery.

“There could be up to 50% of bidders just online or on the phone, and the more photographs the merrier,” Sam suggests. “The more you can give a potential bidder, the better the result. We’re helping sellers understand why we need as many photos as possible, because there might not be as many potential bidders able to see a motorcycle in person. We also encourage sellers to send in video of a bike being ridden or starting and running – that’s highly educational for bidders to see, especially those who can’t or won’t be there in person.”

Coming to Las Vegas: Bryan Bossier's amazing and very fast 1950 Vincent Black Lightning. [David Martinez]
As of now, the huge Las Vegas 2021 motorcycle auction is going ahead as scheduled and consignments are open; machines are being added on a daily basis. Star attractions include a 1950 Vincent Black Lightning that our Editor Paul d'Orléans recently road tested and filmed (with Vintagent Contributor David Martinez) in action in the hills of Marin County.  It's a fearsome beast with an unforgettable roar, and has a fully documented history from new, which will certainly stir international interest.  There are rumors of an ultra-rare Cyclone racer and a Crocker coming to the Mecum podium, too.

Another beauty coming up: a 1917 Excelsior Big X. [Mecum Auctions]
But, Sam recognizes, “January is quite a way away. Whether we’ll have to pivot and adjust is anybody’s guess; what happens today could change tomorrow. We’re learning to adapt so we provide the same platform for commerce we always have, but generally speaking, the market seems to be largely unaffected. Unquestionably, the economy has been hit, but there’s still a lot of demand here in the U.S., not only for collector vehicles but used vehicles in general. At our auctions, people are still wanting to sell, and people are still wanting to buy.”

Will the apex collectibles continue their rise? Keep track of the most coveted machines on our Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles list, regularly updated. [Mecum Auctions]
Automotive auction prices have actually seen an uptick since March, probably because folks with disposable income haven't been able to spend it elsewhere.  It's hard to take that vacation in the South of France when American citizens are barred from international travel, and big-ticket shopping is out the window too.  So, cars.  We'll see what happens with motorcycle sales come January: will pent-up demand send prices through the roof, or the cratered economy send them crashing down?  We predict both will happen, with quotidian machines continuing their downward trend as paycheck buyers stay home, while blue chip bikes float heavenward, as the widening economic gap in the U.S. is expressed in the collectible motorcycle scene.

 

 

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

Daredevil in Training: Corinna Mantlo

Riding the Wall of Death is a hard business. It’s a particular brand of vertiginous motorcycle daredevilry requiring long hours of backbreaking labor and little pay. Moving, setting up and riding the Wall takes dedication and commitment, with danger as a constant passenger. Once a part of almost every traveling carnival, the Wall of Death has almost disappeared from modern culture -- as few as four remain in the U.S., with 11 or 12 still operating in Europe. It’s a hard life, but the Wall of Death and other mechanized daredevil shows have captivated Corinna Mantlo. The New Yorker, with a background in history, film, fashion and upholstery, is riding in the tracks of women and men who, over the past century, have ridden the Wall and entertained hundreds of thousands at carnivals and country fairs. She’s learning the art of getting horizontal at speed – and 2020 was to be her year to finally get higher up the boards. Coronavirus cancelled those plans, but Corinna remains a champion of the lifestyle.

Corinna Mantlo setting up a Wall of Death: hard work for little pay, but a unique lifestyle. [Corinna Mantlo]
“My parents were artists and activists,” Corinna says, “and I never learned anything about cars or motorcycles in my younger years. I didn’t even get a driver’s license until I was 21.” Corinna’s dad, Bill Mantlo, was a prolific Marvel comic book writer during the 1970s and 80s. He wrote a 1976 issue of Ghost Rider, and Rocket Racoon is just one of his many creations. Bill brought his political intelligence to a medium aimed at young minds, and was an agent of change who later became a public defender. Tragically, when Corinna was just 12 years old in 1992, her father was hit by a car while he was rollerblading. In a coma for two weeks, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and now lives in permanent care. Comics may be considered lowbrow, but Bill came from a fine art background. That’s the environment in which Corinna was raised, and she’s become adept at moving back and forth between multiple disciplines that, eventually, have melded together in a unique way – and it all started with fashion and film. “My mother was a seamstress, and that’s a job that helped put her through Cooper Union [a prestigious New York art school that Bill also attended]. She never taught me to sew, but because I was wearing vintage clothing from the 1930s when I was 13, I bought myself a 1930s-era Singer Featherweight sewing machine.”

Corinna's day job is making custom seats and accessories under her Via Meccanica brand. [Corinna Mantlo]
She set up the machine to fix her vintage threads, and quickly began sewing her own designs. Enrolled in an alternative high school, Corinna took on an internship at a couture fashion house, essentially factory sewing high-end garments. Here, she learned pattern making and eventually found herself working at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The Met has a 70,000-piece collection of clothing, and I sat in The Met’s basement sketching patterns from some of those items,” she says. All the while, she was also immersed in the art of film, working in that industry to help others bring their stories to the screen. “Film is accessible and affordable to everybody and I’d watch anything and everything from the obscure to the mainstream. How do you watch something like 'The Wild One' and not fall in love with it?”

It takes a lot of miles to follow the carny life, and Corinna uses a Triumph for most of them, but sometimes a Dodge or even a Sportster. [Corinna Mantlo]
'The Wild One', perhaps, informed Corinna’s impulse to ride. She took a motorcycle riding safety course and bought a crappy 1982 Honda Rebel – a 250cc twin-cylinder machine that, on her way home after handing over the cash, blew up and left her stranded. Impressed by the aesthetic of British motorcycles, she then got a 1976 Triumph Bonneville and met legendary Brit-bike mechanic Hugh Mackie. She showed up at Hugh’s shop, Sixth Street Specials, with her Triumph and he took a minute to explain how to kickstart the Triumph and coax the machine down the road. She says she’s not a competent mechanic, and this attention was a special moment for her as she knew you don’t get very far on a broken vintage bike, and adds, “But you learn a lot, and establish some really good friendships in the process.”

The glory of a Wall of Death on the plains in the predawn light. [Corinna Mantlo]
That’s also how she got started in the upholstery business. During a conversation at a bar with some biker friends, one asked where they could have a seat made. Corinna said she could sew and would take on the task. A motorcycle saddle requires a three-dimensional pattern, something Corinna handles with ease. “I’m a shitty mechanic, but I can make seats.  That made me feel like I had something to offer and helped make me feel like a part of the community – one that was very vibrant in New York.” Working under the moniker Via Meccanica, Corinna has stitched together custom seats and repaired saddles and saddle bags for the likes of Billy Joel and his 20th Century Cycles collection, the new Tarform E-bike [as seen in our exhibit 'Electric Revolution' at the Petersen Museum], and hundreds of builders and museums around the globe.

Down time with the American Wall of Death. [Corinna Mantlo]
Her love of film inspired Corinna to establish Cine Meccanica in 2008, where she showcased biker and hot rod films of the 1960s and 70s, and newer productions featuring mechanized conveyances. She reached out to filmmakers, inviting them to speak at screenings. “I’d put ads up on Craigslist, and every Wednesday night showed an obscure film. It turned into a real underground happening that aired a number of premieres so niche they would easily have become lost in a regular film festival. In 2013, Cine Meccanica rolled into the Motorcycle Film Festival.”

[Corinna's film career included the only documentary on NYC's Fulton Fish Market, 'Up at Lou's']

She continues, “By 2013, to take these films to a much larger audience, I cold-called Paul d’Orleans (founder of The Vintagent), and said, ‘I’ve got this project I could use your help with.’ Within 10 minutes, we were together on the idea.”  The 'idea' was to create the first international Motorcycle Film Festival, riding the wave of energy building around the new custom bike scene.  The Motorcycle Film Festival was incredibly popular with filmmakers, with over 100 new films submitted every year, and had the support of the motorcycle industry too, with support from Honda, BMW, and Cycle World, among many others.  Paul came on board as a mentor and Chief Judge, using his industry and media connections to build an amazing international judging panel, including the likes of Ultan Guilfoyle (curator of the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit), Mark Hoyer (Editor of Cycle World), Melissa Holbrook Pierson (The Perfect Vehicle), customizer Paul Cox, and many other heavy hitters in the world of motorcycles and their related culture.  The MFF premiered many features, like 'Why We Ride' and 'On Any Sunday: the Next Chapter', and had satellite screenings at Wheels&Waves in France and at EICMA in Milan (via Deus ex Machina).  The arts festival scene is every bit as difficult as riding the Wall of Death, and the MFF was knocked down in 2016.  But when the front door shuts, there's always a window, and when The Vintagent was rebooted in 2016, film became an integral part of its architecture, and Corinna came on board as the Editor for Film.  She brings new films every week to this site, which has become the world's largest collection of curated online motorcycle films.

Corinna at the Punks Peak Hillclimb during Wheels&Waves 2017, where the Motorcycle Film Festival screened films. [Paul d'Orleans]
After riding in New York City for a decade, in 2013 Corinna wondered why she didn’t know more female motorcyclists. Wanting to support other women in the sport, she sent an invite to meet for dinner followed by a ride to four female motorcyclists. Those ladies invited their own friends, and soon the gatherings became a group called The Miss-Fires, growing from a handful of women to a group of 250 riders. “I wanted girls to feel like they had a community, a place where they could quietly connect and ask as many questions about motorcycling as they wanted to,” Corinna says.

The Miss-Fires as featured in the New York Times. [Todd Heisler/The New York Times]
Her expertise in film and motorcycles had Corinna on the road, often speaking on the subject at organized events. “I wasn’t making a dime, just having my airfare and hotels covered,” she says. “But that’s how I wound up in Germany, and that was my introduction to the Original Motordrome, built in 1928, that’s 32-feet across. The outfit needed someone to drive a truck and help them out. I was with them only two days, but I started dreaming about the Wall of Death, and could not get it out of my head – it blew my mind.” In the airport on her way home, Corinna began Googling the Wall of Death, and wrote emails to those few still operating in the U.S., offering to come out and help – nothing else. She soon learned that in the world of 'carnys', it’s hard to trust a stranger, as it takes a rare individual to truly commit to this difficult, dangerous, and underpaid world. Undeterred, while attending a motorcycle event in Austin, Texas she found the American Motor Drome Company Wall of Death was set up and operating. Corinna simply arrived with hot cups of coffee and offered to help, whether to take tickets or dismantle and load the wall on the trailer when the event was over.

Hands-off riding on the bally is training for a ride inside the wall: balance under pressure is a must. [Corinna Mantlo]
“I think I thought I was going to do a film or write a story about the wall, and you can’t do that without doing the work. The real story isn’t about the glory shot, where the daredevil is speeding around at the top of the wall, hands off the bars. It’s about the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. There can be no complaints – if you hurt yourself, you get back on. I’ve seen alcoholism and I’ve seen anger issues, but then you see the dedication and the hard work, and I’ve fallen in love with it.”

Fire! The Lucky Hell Drivers recreated the stunt driver shows plying every country fair and carnival across the USA from the 1920s - 60s. [Corinna Mantlo]
Dating back to approximately 1914, the Wall of Death, Corinna says, likely comes from a vaudeville background. “Anybody who got into this was coming from a theatrical background – and like anything theatrical, you put a girl in it to make it more exciting.” That’s why there have always been female daredevils riding the Wall, and it’s something Corinna is committed to mastering. “I’m not a natural daredevil,” she admits, and adds, “I really have to work at it, and you think you know about the Wall, but nobody just watching can really understand the forces at play when you’re horizontal on the boards.” It takes about a year of training to go horizontal, and most everybody trains first in a go-kart. Starting with two wheels on the floor, and two on the wall’s starting track, the spinning begins. There is no speedometer fitted to the stunt karts or bikes, and one has to gauge when they’re moving between 25 and 30 mph, a speed where centrifugal force will hold the vehicle to the wall. Her teacher is Jay Lightnin’ of the American Motor Drome Company, and by February she was just getting up on the wall in the kart. Then, the COVID pandemic put the brakes on her training.

Riding the Wall starts with a kart, which is more forgiving than a motorcycle as a rider learns the tricks of the trade. [Corinna Mantlo]
During her time working with the Wall of Death, Corinna was invited by a group of Pennsylvania hot rod friends with a hell-driving troupe to be their ‘fire girl’ – essentially, she would ignite the wooden boardwall in preparation for a flaming stunt. Corinna agreed, with the proviso they also train her to perform stunts. The Lucky Devil Hell Drivers, as they called themselves, had two 1940s Fords with flathead V-8 engines and two Harley-Davidson 45s. “Hell-driving troupes were around from since the 19-teens,” Corinna says. “Daredevils would jump cars over ramps, and through a wall of fire. These shows were tied to the heyday of local tracks and racing events. They started to disappear in the 1960s, when sponsorship began to drop off.” Corinna got bookings for the Lucky Devil Hell Drivers at local tracks and, coming full circle to her days in the film and fashion industry, ensured the ‘set’ was dressed and all the daredevils wore period-correct 1940s clothing. “There was lots of stuff to drag around and literally no budget to do it and after a couple of years the troupe began to fall apart. I really enjoyed that time, because those events connected the past to the present, and I got to meet several old timers who recalled their days of daredevilry.”

Assembling a Wall of Death from a kit of parts carried on a flatbed to remote locations. [Corinna Mantlo]
Traveling America’s roads to work the modern carny lifestyle had Corinna putting 20,000 miles a year on her 2006 Triumph Thruxton motorcycle or 1986 Dodge Ram pickup truck with its 1964 Shasta trailer. When not on the road, she was left looking for a place to live beyond the typical rental arrangement. She set up Bonestown, a unique space with shipping containers and plenty of space to park travel trailers. Bonestown became an artists’ collective and traveling performers’ haven in New York. For her own space, Corinna set up in a 40-foot sea can. Divided in half, the front is her Via Meccanica shop and the rear her residence -- follow her on Instagram @miss1932. She continues to twist several different throttles, keeping all of her interests engaged simultaneously. Ultimately, she says, “I chose this daredevil lifestyle, because it’s something I believe in. This isn’t all about me,” she adds, and concludes. “I just consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to follow in the footsteps of some really hardworking men and women.”

 

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

Cooper Smithing Co.

A warm summer rain is falling in Washington state when Joe Cooper answers the phone. He missed picking up the first call; probably he was swinging a hammer to form a signature Cooper Smithing Co. custom motorcycle / hot rod fender. Or, he was wearing hearing protection while manipulating metal with one of his vintage machine tools. Either way, after talking about the sere conditions and how welcome the moisture is, we slowly segue into talking about Joe’s passion for metal and machines.

Joe Cooper at work on a mechanical hammer, forming one of his fenders. [Joe Cooper]
Growing up in eastern Oregon in the small community of Crane - population 100 - taught Joe some valuable lessons. With the nearest city 130 miles away, the most important lesson was self-sufficiency. He thanks his mother Bonnie for insisting that if he needed anything, he had to figure out how to make something to suit his purpose.  Today, Cooper Smithing Co. is a one-man operation in Lewis County, Washington. On a forested 10-acre property with his house and family nearby, Joe works in a small shop. Beyond making fenders, his passion for fabrication runs deep: another lesson he learned early is: the distance between what you have and what you want is bridged by what you can do.

Joe's first motorcycle job was sweeping the floors at Lucky's Choppers. [Joe Cooper]
As a decent student in high school, Joe’s academic and sporting record helped him secure a student loan to attend college. While the funds were earmarked for education, most of the money went towards a 2000 Yamaha Road Star, a 1600cc motorcycle that was his only transportation, carrying him out of Crane at the age of 18.  Eventually he made his way up to Seattle. “It wasn’t brand, brand new,” as Joe describes the Road Star, “but it was the closest thing to straight off the showroom floor a kid like me had ever seen. I rode it for quite a while just the way it was.”

How things changed from screwing up a perfectly good Yamaha, to building award-winning customs: the Georgetown Merlot form Redsoul Customs. [Joe Cooper]
In the early 2000s, a chopper craze was rapidly gaining momentum. After riding his Road Star for a couple of years, he decided it was time to add his own stamp on the factory-original machine. Without yet understanding the nuances of building a custom motorcycle, Joe took the Yamaha apart and cut the neck in order to rake the frame. The cutting part was easy. The rest was a learning experience. “I can learn things really fast, but the problem is I only learn things my way. Usually that means breaking things and having to figure out how to put them back together.” Joe never did finish his college education, and learning things his own way led to an opportunity at Exotic Metals Forming in Kent, Washington, an aerospace company that works with companies like Boeing. He’s not sure how he got the job, as he arrived with no appreciable metal working skills. “I hadn’t even run an angle grinder before I applied, but they put me in the grinder room where they can tell real quick if someone has any finesse or if they’ll just butcher everything.”

At home with the machinery, Joe in his shop with a few of the vintage machine tools that taught him respect for older industrial products. [Joe Cooper]
After two weeks operating a grinder, it became apparent Joe could toil with finesse, and was taught how to TIG weld. He’d clock in at six in the morning, and for days, learned how to fuse together metal using the best equipment available, turning out sample after sample, before he was entrusted with the ‘real’ jobs.  With those TIG welding skills in his metaphoric tool chest, he put his Road Star back together. That’s when he took a deep dive, studying motorcycle design and style and the custom bike industry. He attended a motorcycle show in Seattle and was wowed by the design and execution of customs by Lucky’s Choppers.  Joe rushed home and welded two cardstock-thin pieces of titanium sheet into a business card, wrote his name and number in Sharpie, went back to the show and handed it to the rep at Lucky's Choppers.  “A day or two later, I got a call from the owner. He invited me up to look around, and we talked for a bit. Obviously, there’s so much more to building a custom than just being able to weld, but he said he’d be willing to let me work in the shop -- he just couldn’t pay me a full rate while I was learning. He made a deal to pay me a few hundred dollars a month to keep the place clean and do the odd welding job, and any spare time I could find I’d have free access to learn all of the tools and equipment.”

The Jefferson under construction at Larry's shop: a do-or-die moment that taught a lesson on economic sustainability. [Joe Cooper]
Soon Joe quit his job at Exotic Metals, and was living above Lucky's Choppers, located in a former Seattle brothel, in one of the 30 small rooms above the shop.  Joe worked as a bouncer at night to make ends meet, and at the custom motorcycle shop during the day.  With the luxury of not being ‘on the clock’ with the custom fabrication work, Joe built a planishing hammer and got up to speed on forming and finishing sheet metal. After three or four years, Joe and Lucky’s Choppers chief fabricator Matt Adams decided to strike out on their own. Moving a few blocks down the road in the Georgetown neighborhood, they opened RedSoul Choppers and together, fabricated a few customs with every part either handmade or modified. His favorite? “That would be Georgetown Merlot,” Joe says. “Yeah, it’s another chopper, but that one needed to exist – it came out so nice with the stainless-steel panels on the handmade tank and all the hand-tooled leather. By that point our machinery collection had grown to include a milling machine and a lathe, and we really started to push our capabilities.”

The WW2-era lathe that taught him so much. [Joe Cooper]
Joe now has a deep appreciation for vintage motorcycles and cars, but he came by that interest in a roundabout way. He wasn’t buying and riding or driving old stuff, instead, he was working with heavy duty tooling that was manufactured, in many cases, before the Second World War. “We started looking for big, old industrial machines that were too big for a home hobby shop and too old for a modern machine shop to run. That makes them easy enough to afford without sacrificing any of the quality,” Joe explains, and gives as an example the lathe they ran. “It was built in 1942, and it was used in the shipyards by the WWII war production board. It’s absolutely massive and can hog off 1-inch of material in a single pass. That whole era of machinery is something special, and we probably won’t see that balance of quality, style and capability ever again.”

That's short from Cooper Smithing Co. [Joe Cooper]
With their age, these sturdily constructed tools often need repairs. And that, Joe says, is what got him interested in vintage motorcycles and cars and their inner workings. “These machines,” he adds, “Are forgiving in their repairs. The longer you own and operate them, the better you get at fixing and maintaining things to keep them running.” By this point Joe was in his mid-20s and figured it was time to move beyond the flamboyant choppers he’d created. That’s when he met blacksmith Larry Langdon. Looking to purchase more machine equipment and establish his own business, Joe found a Pullmax on Craigslist. This piece of heavy equipment allows a metal shaper to shrink, bend, flange, cut and louver sheet metal using fixtures or dies that are hand-made for a given task. “I contacted him, and started asking questions,” Joe explains of his soon-to-be mentor. “He invited me over to have a look.”

The Jefferson in its finished state, a winner first time out. [Joe Cooper]
Larry Langdon had an innate ability to locate and collect old metalworking machinery and other bits and pieces, including motorcycle projects. While Joe couldn’t afford the Pullmax outright, he and Larry made arrangements; Joe would contribute his time to a number of projects, thereby working off the purchase price of the machine. “I wasn’t working for him, I was working with him out of his shop.”  There  Joe began one of his most important projects of his own, when Larry gave him a wrecked 1999 Harley-Davidson XL. Cutting away the bent frame tubes left Joe with the Sportster engine in the factory cradle. He machined a new neck and proceeded to craft a custom rigid frame anchored by 16-inch Harley-Davidson rims and hubs. Foreshadowing some current plans, Joe built his own springer fork using gusseted tubes and forgings made by Larry. In the well of a hollowed-out tree stump, Joe hand-formed the gas tank and rear fender.

What We Make: an example of a rippled rear fender hand-made at Cooper Smithing Co. [Joe Cooper]
Black paint went on the frame, while pieces such as the front fork legs, handlebar, headlight mount, oil tank and sprocket cover were copper plated. Gas tank, rear fender, handmade headlight and exhaust were all treated to nickel plating – and in tribute, Joe called the bike The Jefferson. It won second place at the 2010 AMD World Championship in Sturgis, and was shortly sold. In a show of respect, Joe gave half the proceeds to Larry as thanks for his time and the parts, while the other half was invested in his own industrial-sized metal working machines. “Larry had the parts, and he had a huge arsenal of industrial machinery. I had absolutely nothing but the ambition to open my own shop, and he helped me bridge that gap.”

An example of the reverse-lip fenders built at Cooper Smithing Co, and why they are in such demand: beautiful quality. [Joe Cooper]
Joe started working independently in a small garage beside a rented house, and was barely making ends meet. He was surviving on close calls, and tells a tale about having a motorcycle 90% complete, and facing the choice to either finish the bike, or pay his rent. The International Motorcycle Show was rolling through Seattle that month, and a first-place finish in their show would bring enough prize money to cover his bills. Joe put everything from his bank account into the machine, which took the first-place trophy he needed.  While he was able to pay for another month, that kind of living just isn’t sustainable.  He’d learned how to make sheet metal gas tanks and hand formed fenders, but wasn’t sure if he should focus on building complete custom motorcycles, or turn his attention to vintage motorcycle restorations.

A couple of the power hammers used to shape his fenders. [Joe Cooper]
“Probably the best advice I ever got,” Joe says, “was when I reached out to this accountant from the DC area. I pitched him every business idea I had, and after listening politely, when I was finally finished he told me I was never going to do any of them. It kind of shocked me, but he was right, I was going in too many directions. He told me to just pick any one of my ideas and see it through to completion. It didn’t matter which one it was, just focus on it and do it so well that it would be the thing I was known for. When I finally reached that place, he said then I could think about adding another idea to it.”

Bring a Crane! While big machine tools are available and inexpensive, not many shops can handle them! [Joe Cooper]
That’s how Joe Cooper's name became synonymous with fenders. He had the process and he had the tools. The custom motorcycle market, thanks to word of mouth and the rise of Instagram, was ready for him. It was like night and day, Joe says, the difference between just scraping by and then being able to save a few dollars and pay the bills. Fender production enabled Joe and his patient wife – a bartender he’d met while a bouncer in Seattle – and their three young girls to purchase their property in Washington. It was a rundown house and Joe had to fix the roof, the walls, and the septic system. There was a shop with a dirt floor, and concrete had to be poured before the equipment could be installed.

Product! It's mostly Joe making this stuff, but he does train assistants. [Joe Cooper]
During this, Joe kept the fenders going out the door, and with things running smoothly, he wondered if he could teach someone else his fender-making process. He brought in a complete novice to metal shaping, and taught him how to hand-hammer a fender. “There was no discrepancy in quality,” Joe says of the fenders that his helper was making, “the fender quality was great, and the work environment was smooth because I made it clear he wasn’t working for me, he was working with me. Eventually circumstances pulled him away and he had to pay attention to other areas in his life, but not before he’d built 50 of these flawless fenders in the shop. That’s got me wondering now, where do I go from that experience? It might be best to look for some kid straight out of high school with a belly full of fire, bring them in, teach them the process, and stoke those flames. Maybe they stay a few months, maybe a year, who knows. I started with just the welding - maybe my shop can be the place they’ll learn that one thing starting them down the path heading right where they need to be in the world. Show them how to build something they can hold in their hands that can’t be argued with. It’s more than just building parts; you start building your own self-confidence. After a while that turns into a superpower and you can do anything.”

Even deep-skirted fenders get their due, for customs needing rain protection. [Joe Cooper]
Remember the foreshadowing? Four or five years ago, Joe picked up a vintage Fenn swaging machine – a machine that, essentially, can create a tapered tube – the type of tube often seen in springer and girder fork legs. Legend has it, the machine Joe has, was used to produce aluminum baseball bats. Whatever life it led previously, the swager required a complete rebuild. And although familiar with its inner workings, when writing on Instagram about it (follow him @coopersmithingco for some of his philosophical and witty posts), Joe said, “I’m not sure if it’s a machine, or just a small house that a little wizard lives in.”

 

Got ribs? A central rib fender with reverse bead. [Joe Cooper]
With the Fenn swager, Joe is able to offer repair tubes for rusted out or crash-damaged springers. One day, he says, he wants to offer a complete front end. And then, maybe even a fun and simple little vintage-style motorcycle of his own design, using many of the components of his own making, including the engine. One step at a time, though, and he appreciates the slow, organic kind of growth that allows him to produce a part, offer it for sale, and thereby help fund that process. And surely, just as the rain arrives when those Washington woods need it most, some of Joe’s most ambitious aspirations will come to be realized.

 

 

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

Modern Motorcycle Mechanics: a Dual Origin Story

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