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