Kenji Ekuan

As a child, he wandered the streets of his native Hiroshima just after the nuclear devastation, and spoke of hearing the voices of 'mangled streetcars, bicycles and other objects', lamenting they could no longer be used.  After his father died from radiation poisoning, Kenji Ekuan became a monk, but changed course to become the most celebrated industrial designer in Japan. He graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1955, and set up his own design business in 1957. Regarding 'futuristic' design, Ekuan stated, "When we think of the future of design, we might imagine a world where robots are everywhere, but that's not it.  The ultimate design is little different from the natural world."

The 1977 Yamaha TZ250, a classic entry-level production racer, with perfect bodywork designed by GK Dynamics

Ekuan's GK Design Group went on to work with Yamaha, and the VMax is one of Ekuan's most famous motorcycle designs. Far more famous is his ubiquitous red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle of 1961, which was inspired by watching his mother struggle with transferring a large bottle of soy sauce into a smaller container for the table.  The GK group also designed Japan's Bullet Train, corporate logos, and musical equipment.  Kenji Ekuan was awarded the 'Golden Compass' award in Italy for his lifetime of brilliant design.  Ekuan was born on Sep.11th 1929 in Tokyo, and Feb 10, 2015.

Kenji Ekuan

According to Yamaha, GK Design Group was responsible for nearly all of their motorcycle designs until very recently. In 1989, a separate division within GK Design Group was formed specially to deal with vehicle design, GK Dynamics, which also contracted with Toyota.  It wasn't until 2014(!) that Yamaha formed an in-house design team, headed by Akihiro 'Dezi' Nagaya.

Ubiquitous: no higher accolade for a man's work – Ekuan’s sketches for the Kikkoman soy sauce bottles


I've been familiar with the unorthodox design philosophy of GK Dynamics since 1989, when they published 'Man-Machine-Soul-Energy: the Spirit of Yamaha Motorcycle Design'...which I've always referred to as the 'Yamaha Sex Tract', as it is the first published motorcycle design document which explores the erotic and sometimes explicitly sexual nature of our relationship of "the second most intimate machine" (my quote - the first most intimate is, of course, the vibrator).

Among Ekuan’s most famous motorcycle designs; the Yamaha VMax

I recommend reading the book if you're a student of design, or would like to explore how differently the Japanese designers in Kenji Ekuan's firm thought about and discussed their work - it's a fascinating glimpse into a wide-open mind and industrial design philosophy, and I doubt any such discussion was ever held at Harley-Davidson or BMW!  And I reckon few industrial designers working for major corporations have publicly acknowledged the debt of modern design to DADAist artist Marcel Duchamp.  It's remarkable stuff.

An elusive but illuminating read!  And definitely my favorite corporate communication ever; it took years of searching to find a copy, but I recommend finding one.

Here's a sample from the book, written by current GK Dynamics President Atsushi Ishiyama:

"When I first came into contact with the motorcycle as an object to be designed, my first impression was that it is extremely sexy, even considered in terms of pure shape, the single cylinder engine is truly phallic...the part where the engine connects to the frame is thick, giving it the very shape of a sex symbol.  The muffler also has the unique glow of metal, making it look just like internal organs.  The tank has a richly feminine curve, and the metal frame bites tightly into the engine like a whip.  I am certain the the designers did not have this aspect in mind, but it is quite a shock to anybody who suddenly comes into contact with it for the first time.  The mechanical parts of the engine, the well as all other structural parts give the impression of a sexual analogy.  The first time I saw one, I felt like I had come into contact with a very abnormal world.

A great blue many-armed many-headed deity locked in sexual union with his consort, contrasted with the engine layout of the VMax. “Blazing energy soul Source”.  Awesome.

I feel that such works as 'Nude Descending a Staircase' and 'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors' by the father of modern art Marcel Duchamp were the first artistic expressions of eroticism through mechanism....Duchamp's fresh approach is seen in his use of mechanism as his means of expression.  The motorcycle is also created upon the basis of a thoroughgoing desire to create a loveable artifical life through a mechanical assembly of the mechanism of human sensitivities."

No matter your taste regarding the VMax or other Yamaha products, designers Ekuan and Ishiyama have created design for the ages, and have long been an inspiration of mine.

GK Dynamics designed the original and next-gen Bullet trains
Kenji Ekuan’s design team worked with Yamaha from the very beginning, and every iconic model bears their stamp; in this case, their first production racer, the YD1
A 1973 design lecture series in Australia featuring Kenji Ekuan
An early sketch of Yamaha’s Virago, perhaps the most explicit (and successful) attempt to cash in on the Chopper craze
Japan Domestic Market (JDM) stuff we never saw out West; the Yamaha SDR two-stroke café racer.  Looks like fun!

The Lost Peugeot Racers

Here's a fun fact: Peugeot is the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, since 1898. Sorry Harley, sorry Indian, the French got there first...but you knew that, right?  Most American factories based their early engines on a French design - the DeDion motor - whether copied or licensed (except for Pierce, who copied a Belgian design, the FN four!).   But Peugeot's heyday as the world's preeminent force in two- and four-wheel racing was so long ago it's nearly forgotten today. 

Italian racer Giosue Giuppone was a pioneer professional rider on the Peugeot team, racing both cars and motorcycles.  Here he rides a 1.7liter track-racing 'Monster' c.1906 [Aldo Carrer]
Over a century ago, Peugeot seemed to be 'first' at everything important in racing, even in the English-speaking world.  The first Isle of Man TT in 1907 (multi-cylinder class) was won with a Peugeot motor (Rem Fowler's Norton-Peugeot), and the first motorcycle race at Brooklands was too (the NLG-Peugeot).  The company also produced fearsome track specials at the dawn of motorcycle competition, with heroes like Henri CissacGiosue Giuppone, and Paul Péan riding monsters with 2-liter motors, weighing under 110lbs to comply with early rules restricting weight (not capacity!), riding on the makeshift bicycle tracks before the first purpose-built racing circuits existed. 

Henri Cissac on a 1.7Liter Peugeot track-racing v-twin c.1906; weight 110lbs! [Jean Bourdache]

Les Charlatans

While Peugeot's early v-twins (as used by Norton et al) were reliable and reasonably fast in the 'Noughts, in the 1910s Peugeot débuted the most technically sophisticated engine designs in the world, first for automobile racing in the burgeoning Grand Prix series, then in a series of remarkable motorcycles. In 1911, Swiss engineer Ernst Henry was commissioned by 'Les Charlatans' (Peugeot racing team members Jules GouxGeorges Boillot, and Paul Zuccarelli to draw up a new four-cylinder racing engine from ideas they'd discussed. Henry wasn't a 'qualified engineer' but a draughtsman, with enough experience in motor design already (for boats and cars) to have caught the attention of the Peugeot team drivers. 

Swiss draughtsman Ernest Henry at the drawing board.[Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
Racing men were no prima donnas back then, but skilled mechanics too, savvy enough to make the models for their dream engine's foundry castings, as well as machine components from raw metal.  The team of Henry and Les Charlatans worked independently of the Peugeot brass (apparently over the usual disagreement - investment in racing vs production), camping out in the Rossel-Peugeot factory in Suresnes (a Paris suburb), where their aircraft engines were tested.  Paris was a hotbed of the burgeoning aircraft industry, so most of the car's engine castings came from local aircraft subcontractors, even though it appears all the design work and pattern making was done by the Charlatans themselves.

The 1912 Peugeot L3 'Lion 3Liter' racer with Essai driving and Thomas as mechanic. [The Automobile]
What the Charlatans proposed was revolutionary; the first automobile engine with double overhead camshafts, and four valves per cylinder. The result of Henry's design work was the legendary Peugeot Grand Prix EX1 or L76 ('L' for 'Lion', Peugeot's symbol, and 7.6-liter) and L3 (3-liter) four-cylinder racing engines.  The overhead camshafts were driven by a shaft-and-bevel arrangement at the front of the engine block, and the engine was water-cooled of course. They were raced from 1912 onwards, and literally won everything they entered, including the Indianapolis 500! 

1913 Indianapolis 500 winning Peugeot with Jules Goux driving.  Goux drove the entire 500 miles without a co-driver, the first driver to do so (1913 was the 3rd running of Indy).  The Peugeot L76 was the first wire-wheel car to run Indy (previously 'military' spoked wheels were the norm), and finished 13 minutes ahead of the second car, and averaged 76mph in the race. [The Automobile]
The Peugeot racers even won the Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prize in 1915 at San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exposition, driven by 'Dolly' Resta.  American driver Bob Burman purchased a Peugeot racer that year, and sent it to designer Harry Miller and machinist Fred Offenhauser to 'shrink' the motor to the new 5-liter limit for the Indy 500.  Burman spent $2000 transforming the Peugeot with Miller-designed light alloy cylinder/heads, tubular rods, a pressurized oiling system, stronger crank, and 293 cu” displacement...which coincidentally founded the Miller/Offenhauser engine dynasty.  It would not be far wrong to say Ernest Henry's 1911 design last raced at Indianapolis in 1976...or at least, its direct offspring, bearing a striking resemblance to the original.

Paul Péan on the 1915 Peugeot 500M on an advertisement for its successes. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
It's not known who or what prompted Ernest Henry to adapt his 'L76' engine design to a motorcycle, but in 1913 he drew up a totally new 500cc engine as a straight-twin or 'vertical twin', in the configuration first used by Werner in 1903 (and in 'laid down' form by Hildebrand&Wolfmuller in 1894!).   The cylinders and heads were one-piece in cast iron, and included four inclined valves per cylinder, actuated by twin overhead camshafts, driven by a train of gears between and behind the cylinders from the center of the crankshaft, running in angled aluminum cases.  The Peugeot 500M introduced in 1913 was the first DOHC motorcycle in the world. 

Paul Péan at the Parc de Fontainebleau, at its second race in June 1914. [RAD magazine]
In comparison to what the industry was then building - single-speed, single-cylinder or v-twin sidevalves and F-heads - it might as well have landed from outer space.  And as with most engineering 'firsts', the DOHC motor was the culmination of very rapid development of the gasoline engine; the first inclined valves in 1904 (Bayard-Clément), the first overhead camshaft operating inclined valves in 1905 (Welch, Premier), the first four-inclined-valves pushrod motor in 1910 (Mercedes-Benz), the first OHC four-inclined-valve motor in 1911 (Rolland-Pillain).  There were other engines with two camshafts up top before the Henry motor, but they used vertical valves and rocker arms, or were two-stroke diesels using louvers rather than exhaust valves, and more importantly, they were obscure, and usually only drawings or prototypes, and did not exploit the huge power advantage possible with direct valve actuation.  It seems fair to say the Peugeot was indeed the first proper DOHC motor as we know it today.

Driveline details of the Henry Peugeot, with direct belt drive to the rear wheel, and no clutch.  Note the use of a countershaft for the final drive, which also drives the cascade of gears to the cylinder head. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The Peugeot 500M was first raced by Lucien Desvaux on April 5, 1914 on a very muddy Rambouillet circuit; his was the only 500cc machine to finish the race!  On June 14th, during the Automobile Club de France's ‘Records Day’ in the forest of Fontainebleau, the 500M exceeded 122kmh (75mph) over a measured kilometer and 121kmh (74mph) over the measured mile.  While the 500M was clearly fast, the Collier brothers at Matchless recorded a timed 92mph (147km/h) with a 1000cc sidevalve v-twin that year, and board track Cyclones and Indian 8-valves were pushing 100mph.

Paul Péan with the third version of the 500M, designed by Gremillon, with right-side cam drive by a cascade of gears, and a clutch. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
Clearly the translation from a water-cooled 4-cylinder version of Henry's auto engine to an air-cooled parallel twin required further development.  Unfortunately, two weeks after the 500M's first speed tests, the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and 6 weeks later France was at war; Peugeot suddenly had bigger fish to fry, and the 500M was abandoned. Ernest Henry was not retained by Peugeot during WW1... he took his engine design first to Ballot, then Sunbeam/Talbot/Darracq, all of whom subsequently won a lot of races! 

 Post WW1

In 1919, the Peugeot OHC motorcycle project was revived by a new engineer, Marcel Gremillon, who added a clutch and 3-speed gearbox with all-chain drive.  Henry's original 500M was a nightmare for even simple maintenance, with its one-piece casting for both cylinders/heads and 8 valves, so even simple tasks like valve adjustment and decoke required a total engine strip.  

The Gremillon Peugeot 500M, with the cascade of gears on the right side of the engine, as was common in the 1950s in Italian racing singles!  This is the first iteration, with a 3-speed gearbox. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
In 1920, Gremillon totally redesigned the motor with the cascade of gears on the right side, rather than between the cylinders as originally; the layout will be familiar to any fan of Italian race engineering of the 1950s.  The clutch was redesigned as well, with multiple discs for greater resilience; the clutch was housed in a distinctive open cage, and looks very robust! With each succeeding improvement of Henry's design, the Peugeot was increasingly successful on the track, but it was the final, simplest layout that proved best of all for reliability and top speed.  Sadly, it required abandoning the two cam/four valve formula to achieve greatest success, which speaks to the metallurgy and lubrication of the day, rather than the original concept, which is absolutely standard today.

The Peugeot racing team with 3 Gremillon-modified 500Ms c.1921. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
In 1922, a Romanian engineer, Lessman Antonesco, replaced Gremillon on the project. Antonesco totally redesigned the motor with a single OHC, driven by a shaft-and-bevel system, and utilized only two valves per cylinder, which created both a more powerful and more reliable engine. This 4th-generation Peugeot 500M began winning races in 1923, and was campaigned for two more seasons, before Peugeot's motorcycle Grand Prix project was abandoned altogether, after Peugeot split its motorcycle and automotive branches. 

A Peugeot poster from 1925, by Geo Ham. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
It’s estimated by Peugeot that 14 of these special racers were built in total between 1914 and 1925, and only 3 in that first DOHC configuration of 1913/14.  No surviving first-generation 500M has been seen since the 1920s, and only a single last-generation 'Antonescu' 500cc OHC machine exists.  Its engine was installed by the legendary Jean Nougier into the frame of Peugeot P104 roadster. One more GP Peugeot exists, with a 350cc Antonescu motor, that shows up regularly at French vintage races. 

The robust shaft-and-bevel camshaft drive of the Antonescu Peugeot; note enclosed clutch/gearbox assembly (unit construction) and direct oil feed to the upper bevel drive.  A purposeful motor! [Francois-Marie Dumas]

The Recreation of a 500M

One of two suriviing Peugeot 500Ms, an Antonescu model built by Jean Nougier into a Peugeot 104 chassis, shown here with Bernard Salvat at the 2010 Rétromobile show in Paris [Yves J. Hayat]
The absence of the ‘world’s first’ DOHC Peugeot, barring photographs and stories from the period, is a tremendous loss to French heritage.  Several of the original 'Lion' automobile racers survive, but none of the 500M racing motorcycles built from 1913-1923.  But in the mid-1990s Emile Jacquinot, an archivist for Peugeot, discovered the original blueprints for the 1914 Peugeot 500M at the Peugeot family home in Valentingy.  They now reside in the Peugeot Museum in Sochaux, France.  Jacquinot told his friend Jean Boulicot about the drawings in 1998 during the Coupes Moto Legende event at the Montlhéry autodrome (before it moved to Dijon), and a spark was struck. Boulicot is well known in the French vintage bike scene, both as a restorer and officer of the Retro Motos Cycles de l'Est, one of the biggest vintage motorcycle clubs in France. During a mountain hike Jean Boulicot was inspired to recreate the 1914 500GP from the newly discovered plans. He reasoned that replicas of racing Moto Guzzi V8s, Benelli 4s, and Honda 6s had already been built, so why not a replica of the Peugeot, which is no less legendary? 

French moto-historian extraordinaire Bernard Salvat with the recreation of the 1914 Peugeot 500M, at the 2012 Rétromobile show. [Paul d'Orléans]
After going over the plans with the Peugeot Museum, the reconstruction began in the basement of Boulicot's family home in Evette-Salbert, Territoire-de-Belfort, France. An inventory of the plans showed a complete set of engine drawings, but the chassis drawings were incomplete. It was necessary to scale up frame drawings from period photos to supplement the plans.  Even the 'complete' engine plans, dated 1913, had only raw dimensions, without built-in tolerances accounting for heat expansion, or normal running tolerances.  The plans needed to be recalculated and drawn afresh with those constraints accounted for. Then Boulicot’s home lathe and milling machine were put to work making almost all the moving parts; sprockets, shafts, axles, etc. The connecting rods and the crankshaft were created from raw steel chunks.

A close look at the aluminum camshaft housing and open valves for the 8-valve motor, with central spark plugs. [Yves J. Hayat]
Recreation of the crankcases and cylinder block/heads were handled by a friend of Jean’s, a retired expert model maker. He hand-built (no 3D printing!) wax models of each part, then used resin to create the molds. For complicated parts, several "cores" were needed to create one piece; for example, the cylinder/head casting (as this was one large piece) required eight cores of cast iron. Jean machined and finished the raw castings himself. The cycle parts were fabricated by Peugeot specialist Dominique Lafay, who built the fuel tank in brass, and the frame from steel tubing. 

Where it all happens! Jean Boulicot in his workshop. [Yves J. Hayat]
The fork began as a Peugeot 175 ‘cyclomoto’ item that Jean cleverly modified, by attaching extra bracing of the correct dimensions. He hand-formed the mudguards using an English wheel roller built for the project. A few parts, such as the wheel hubs or the rear crownwheel, were machined up from solid. The reconstruction of this magnificent motorcycle required over 15,000 hours of work, spread over a period of 10 years. It was reborn almost a century after it was born, and made its first public appearance at the 2010 Coupes Moto Legende event in Dijon. It was fitting the project was revealed at the same event the seed was planted 12 years prior, and Jean Boulicot now demonstrates his remarkable machine at events like Vintage Revival Montlhéry. It’s certainly worth a close look!

The cam drive housing is clearly seen between the forked induction tube to the Zenith carburetor. [Yves J. Hayat]
Sources and Thanks:

'Motos Peugeot, 1898-1998; 100 ans d'Histoire', Bernard Salvat / Didier Ganneau, 1998, EBS

The Automobile, 'Peugeot Racing Engineers: Ernest Henry', Sébastien Faurès Fustel de Coulanges, 2012

RAD magazine, 'Résurrection d'Une Peugeot 500 DOHC', Alain Jardy / Fabrice Leschuitta (photos)

- 'La Motocyclette En France; 1894 - 1914', Jean Bourdache, 1989, Edifree

- Bibliothéque Nationale de France digital archives

Aldo Carrer archives

- Yves J. Hayat/ NewYorkParis

The Crocker Story

The story of Crocker motorcycles has been obscured by tall tales and myths since the very day they were introduced, first as Speedway racers, then big V-twins, and finally a scooter, all built before official US involvement in WW2 put a halt to civilian motorcycle production.  Wading through the murk around this famous American name, one bumps against vested interests and fast-held opinions, but enough facts emerge to which we can anchor our tale.  What is definitely known is they have skyrocketed in value in the past decade, filling many spots on our Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles list.

Al Crocker, Sam Parriot, and Paul Bigsby at Muroc dry lake in 1940; Parriot recorded  136.87 mph on June 19, 1940 with the 'parallel valve' engine. [Bonhams]
Albert Crocker, born in 1882, had an engineering degree from Northwestern University's 'Armour Institute', an engineering school. His first job was with the Aurora Automatic Machine Co, builders of Thor motorcycles, and Crocker not only developed Thor engineering, he was a keen and successful racer during 1907-09.  In the natural course of a racing career, he met and conversed with the pioneers of motorcycle manufacture and racing in those early days, including Oscar Hedstrom and Charles Hendee, the chief engineer and owner of the Hendee Manufacturing Co, makers of Indian 'Motocycles'.   Al Crocker developed a friendship with the Indian camp, and some published accounts suggest he worked at the Wigwam, others contend he never did.

Rider Sam Parriot with Al Crocker at Muroc Dry Lake. [Bonhams]
By 1919, Crocker had opened an Indian dealership in Denver, Colorado, and there met, and eventually married, Gertrude Jefford Hasha, widow of Eddie Hasha, a famous 'Board Track' racer involved in the most notorious motorcycle racing disaster of the era.  On Sept.8, 1912, four schoolboys were killed (along with Hasha), and ten spectators injured, when Hasha's 8-Valve Indian went out of control, slid along the top safety railing on the banking, and clouted the four boys, who were craning their necks over the railing for a better look.  Spectator deaths generally mark the 'end of an era' for races (just as with the Mille Miglia).  Crocker surely knew Eddie Hasha, given his position in the industry: Gertrude and Al had one son (Al Junior), in 1924, the year they were married. 1924 was a big year for Al Crocker; with a new wife and infant son, he took over the Kansas City Indian dealer/distributor, but by 1930, the call of the West could not be ignored, and he sold his dealership to 'Pop' Harding, then purchased the Freed Indian dealership at 1346 Venice Blvd in Los Angeles.  This address would become legendary as the home of Crocker motorcycles.

The Crocker 'conversion' engine, from an Indian Scout, in a Rudge speedway frame. [Bonhams]
In 1931, the staggeringly famous American dirt-track rider Sprouts Elder, who had been 'Thrilling the Millions' from England and Australia to Argentina, brought the sport of Speedway to the US, and it rapidly gained the same popularity as in the rest of the world, as the best-attended and most lucrative sport of all.  In response, Crocker put his engineering skills to the test, building a speedway frame to accept a '101' Indian Scout engine 45cu" (750cc).  This proved satisfactory, and in 1932, Crocker set about producing an OHV conversion for the Indian motor; the bolt-on cylinder and head echoed Indian factory racing practice of 1925/6, when their OHV Indian '45' was timed at 126mph, running on alcohol. These first Crocker OHV conversions had a 500cc (30.50cu") capacity, and when tested in the Crocker-built speedway frame, proved satisfactory in power output, out-performing the Rudge engines which were then dominant in Speedway.  A few Crocker OHV kits were apparently sold to the public.

The Crocker 750cc OHV conversion for the Indian Scout motor. [Bonhams]
In 1933, Crocker and Paul Bigsby next developed a single-cylinder 500cc (30.50ci) OHV Speedway racer, undoubtedly in response to the lighter weight of single-cylinder engines vs. the Crocker OHV v-twins.  A side note here; while rumor considers Bigsby (later famous for inventing the 'Whammy Bar' or tremolo for electric guitars) to be responsible for the Crocker engine design, Al Crocker was a trained engineer who had worked in motorcycle engineering for decades with Thor and Indian, as well as being Bigsby's employer...and while Bigsby was known to 'blow his own horn', certainly the Crocker motorcycles had input from many quarters.

The 1934 Crocker Speedway catalog. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Crocker Speedway racers first appeared on the Emeryville CA speedway track on Nov 30, 1933, and won 9 of 12 heats in one evening, prompting The Motorcyclist (Dec 1933) to rave of their début, "...two spotless and keen pieces of racing equipment surely worthy of the best the country had to offer as their pilots. The first race was ridden by Jack Milne…speedman par excellence...and Cordy Milne....Two American-built night speedway racing engines swept the boards…9 first places and 3 second spots out of 12 starts…The call came suddenly for the builder, for Al Crocker who was in the pits…[He] came to the microphone. His speech was short, brief; just the sort of thing that the situation called for…He was glad that they [the bikes] were good…They would be better."

The Crocker Speedway racer of 1934. [Bonhams]
With limited production facilities, only 31 of the Crocker Speedway models were built; Crocker even built a pair of experimental chain-driven OHC engines in 1936, which were intended to counter the new JAP Speedway motor, with 42hp.  It was clear the Crocker Speedway engine would need further development to remain competitive, but rather than continue with Speedway racing, Al Crocker turned his attention to the project which would hammer his name in stone; the big V-twin.

Not a sanctioned Speedway outfit; the Crocker Speedway machine. [Bonhams]
Designed during 1935, the Crocker big twin was intended as a durable and powerful, yet fast and nimble machine.  Its 45degree V-twin engine had hemispherical OHV cylinder heads, and a nearly 'square' bore/stroke (3.25"x3.62" - 62 cubic inches displacement), with an incredibly robust 3-speed gearbox.  While Bigsby made the patterns, most castings were subcontracted, then machined in-house.  The first models (the 'Hemis') used HD valve gear, Indian timing gears and brake shoes, plus occasional HD or Indian headlamps and ancillaries, leading to later rumors that Crockers were built entirely from Indian or HD parts, which is of course untrue. The heavy steel gearbox formed part of the lower frame, its case being brazed in place, its 3-speed gears and shafts so overbuilt that damage is unheard of even today.  Their most unusual feature was a pair of cast-aluminum fuel/oil tanks, holding 2.5 gallons initially (the 'Small Tank' models).  Most ancillary parts were purchased from standard motorcycle industry suppliers like Autolite (electrics), Linkert (carbs), Messinger (saddles), Splitdorf (magnetos), and Kelsey Hayes (wheel rims).

Al Crocker in 1936 with an early customer, ready for speed! [Bonhams]
Introduced in 1936, there was no 'standard' Crocker, as every customer, echoing Brough Superior practice, could specify the state of tune and displacement of the engine; the cylinder barrels were cast with extra thick walls, and could be extensively overbored; engines were built from 1000cc, to 1490cc, in the most extreme case.  The 'typical' 62cu" Big Twin produced ~55-60hp, which exceeded the current sidevalve Indian and HD models by 50%.  So confident was Al Crocker in the superiority of his twins, he offered a money-back guarantee for any Crocker owner who was 'beaten' by a standard HD or Indian, and of course, no such buyback was necessary.  Crocker had built the fastest production motorcycle in the US, with speeds over 110mph the norm.  Harley Davidson introduced their first OHV v-twin - the model EL 'Knucklehead' - 6 months after the Crocker, but it was at least 15mph slower.

Rider Homer Wood at Muroc dry lake with his 1936 'Hemi' Crocker. [Bonhams]
If not the fastest production motorcycle in the world, the Crocker was certainly in the same league as the HRD-Vincent 'Series A' Rapide, and much faster than a Brough Superior SS100.  While the Crocker's 3-speed gearbox and rigid frame were technically inferior to the Vincent's advanced swingarm and 4-speeds, the Vincent's bought-in Burman gearbox and clutch were unable to cope with that v-twin's power.  Conversely, one cannot imagine a Crocker racing at the Isle of Man!  'Horses for courses', it seems...

A 1936 'Hemi' Crocker engine, with exposed rocker and valve gear. [Bonhams]
The first 17 Crocker twins had hemispherical combustion chambers and a lovely 'Crocker' embossed rocker arm housing.  Known as the 'Hemis', their performance established the Crocker legend, although there were problems with valve train wear, as the exposed valves/guides/springs were vulnerable to grit and dirt.  Crocker redesigned the cylinder heads with parallel valves and enclosed springs, and what is effectively a 'squish head' combustion chamber.  Crocker continually developed his cylinder heads, and two different 'Hemi' castings were used (even on such a short production run), with four changes to the parallel-valve casting over its 5-year run.

The 1940 'Big Tank' Crocker which sold at the Bonhams Quail Lodge Sale for $302,000 [Bonhams]
To give his Crockers an extended range, the size of the cast-aluminum fuel tanks was enlarged in 1938, making all earlier models 'Small Tanks', and later models 'Big Tanks'.  Crocker continued to develop his motorcycles through his limited production of perhaps 72 total V-twins, but eventually ran into problems with ancillary suppliers, as the US geared up for WW2.  By 1942, 'war work' restrictions meant Crocker could no longer produce motorcycles, and he chose not to resume production post-war.

The Crocker has rightly become a coveted and very expensive machine, deserving of its place on the Olympus of Motorcycles, with the Brough SS100, Vincent Series A Rapide, and Zenith Super 8; the world's first 100+mph production motorcycles.  All were big, impressive V-twin Superbikes built in small numbers for a very discerning clientele...and all are very, very expensive today.

The red 1937 'Small Tank' Crocker which sold at Bonhams, also at $302,000 [Bonhams]

Road Test: Shinya Kimura's MV Masterwork

The original 1970s MV Agusta ‘4’ is legendary for its beautiful lines, and collectors scrabble when they come up for sale.  To dare approach Count Domenica Agusta’s glamourous baby, intent on customization, is almost unheard of. In modifying a ca.1974 MV Agusta 750S, Shinya Kimura has kept the chassis intact, to the point of retaining the Count’s ‘you’ll never race this’ shaft drive, the first item every MV hotrodder in history has ditched.  Why?  ‘I really like the radial fins on the final drive, it’s very pretty’.  His attitude fits his self-described role as a coachbuilder; respect your chosen chassis, but clothe it in a bespoke suit.  MV fours, though expensive and coveted, are hardly rare, and plenty have been racerized by the likes of Arturo Magni and Albert Bold.  None look like the naked aluminum creature in these photos.

Shining like a diamond in the grit of a forge; Shinya Kimura's masterpiece of coachbuilding  [Paul d'Orléans]
Shinya didn’t study Motorcycle 101 at university, he was an insect man, with a degree in entomology.  The bug world bears eerie parallels with bike design, as a hard, shapely, and functional carapace protects the vulnerable moving parts of a mobile creature.  Insect shapes aren’t clean or uniform; when magnified, their antennae, legs, and heads are exotically imperfect and frighteningly alien.  Because humans have a bony structure on the inside, we need protection while riding - helmets and body armor, just like our insect cousins.  While never outright mimicking critter shapes, Shinya’s work has a similarly alien beauty, clearly influenced by his years peering into a microscope.  What sets him apart from makers of horrid Skeleto-bikes or Gigercycles is restraint; while his hand-wrought shapes (he prefers a hammer to an English wheel) are exotic and unique, they stay inside the lines as recognizable motorcycle parts.  That’s the tank, there’s the seat, up front is a fairing, those are side panels; if you unfocus your eyes, the silhouette is pure café racer, but open your eyes, and you’ll wonder, just which café we talkin’ about?

Looking good from every angle [Paul d'Orléans]
Before taking the MV for a blast up San Gabriel Canyon Road, Shinya mentioned it had ‘never been really ridden’ by a member of the press, they’d all done short spins around the block, fearful of marring those stunning alloy panels.  Clearly, he expected me to cane the animal, and I would comply, once comfortable with its quirks.  That took surprisingly longer than I expected; the last four-cylinder bike I’d ridden was a BMW S1000RR, an object of immense power and modern ultra-competence, ridiculously fast yet kitten-docile.  The MV chassis and beating heart are 1950s high tech, swelled to ‘70s avoirdupois and hard suspension.  Despite Shinya’s lightweight bodywork, the 750S breaks the bathroom scale at over 540lbs, and the upper-cylinder complexity of that gear-driven DOHC engine mean the center-of-gravity cross-hairs aim right at your knees.

With stock power output about 66hp at a modest (today) 8000rpm, that kind of weight won’t be setting quarter-mile records.  If the MV is to be ridden quickly, you need to employ the old single-cylinder racing trick of ‘maintaining momentum’, ie, fast into corners, hard over, don’t brake unless you’ve seriously underestimated the turn…or overestimated your gumption.  Easy on a 350lb hotrod Velocette Thruxton, not so natural on a quarter-ton Latin legend with masterpiece bodywork.  

The original MV Agusta badge set into the hand-beaten aluminum tank fits perfectly [Paul d'Orléans]
Firing up the MV is easy with its electric boot, although the starter mechanism, and subsequent whirring racket from the engine, make noises we don’t hear out of bikes anymore.  Fifties GP technology means straight-cut gear-driven twin camshafts with wide valve clearances; the whole spinning, meshing, and lashing machinery resonates through massive aluminum castings, with a high note of air-sucking open carbs and those lovely curved Arturo Magni pipes barking a macho basso profundo.

Fins in every direction! They add strength as well as cooling, and visual appeal when arranged beautifully [Paul d'Orléans]
Shinya’s Chabott Engineering test track is conveniently located just out the back door; past a few blocks of SoCal suburbs and you’re into god’s playground, a big canyon winding upwards to Crystal Lake and Angeles Crest Highway.  There’s little traffic, and after Shinya herds me in the right direction, we swap positions; it’s time to see how Count Agusta’s creation feels in proper terrain.   I’ve got every kind of machinery under my belt or in my garage, and I’m as easy on a 1915 Harley as a 2012 Diavel, but it takes time to figure out the MV.  I bypassed the four-cylinder craze of the 70s and 80s, so never learned to throw top-heavy flying bricks around swervery, but as miles and a few awkward corners pass, I begin to understand the MV’s dialect.  There’s a sweet spot around 4200rpm, when the power comes up quickly, the engine smooths out (yes, it vibrates a bit), and begins to sing a melodious, deep-throated aria.  Ok, so the fat boy can sing, but can he dance?  

Not easy to slow down long enough for a photo! The MV wanted to go, go, go. [Ayu Yamashita]
Keeping up corner speed on a bike whose physics would prefer to blast straight through the Armco is a matter of Will.  Not just ‘will it or won’t it’, because it most assuredly tracks true when cranked over, with no attitude changes on a varying throttle hand.  It’s rock solid, but getting that rock to roll over is a mind game, and the MV won’t suffer willy-nilly riders… any hesitation in corners screams ‘wimp aboard!’   That’s a painful sight; a careful MV rider looking utterly foolish, like some gawky nebbish with Sophia Loren on Dancing with the Stars.  It takes willpower, decisiveness, and a bit of force to get the best from the beast, and probably more physical effort than you’ve ever needed for a sports bike (unless you own a ‘70s Laverda).

The master himself, Shinya Kimura, with his masterpiece [Paul d'Orléans]
The reward, once you sort out who’s boss, is a beautifully smooth, almost lyrical, luke-hot canyon ride.  With enough bottle (and forgetting you’re on a unique work of art), the MV can be cranked right over with the throttle open, and rocked to the opposite sidewall smoothly before the next corner, with grace and little effort, once you find the sweet spot in both power and weight slinging.  Just stay off the brakes, as it takes a while for the mighty MV to build up speed.  When needed, that big 4-leading shoe Yamaha TZ brake doesn’t grab, and quickly throws out anchors to stop the big boat.  I never noticed any ‘shaft drive’ torque effects as one might on a hard-driven BMW, probably due to the transverse power plant and lack of mass rotating around the direction of travel – there’s just the mass of the bevel gears and shaft, a mere breeze against this brick house.  The period-correct Ceriani road race forks aren’t as hard as we used to think best ‘in the day’ (I once even tried 20-50W in mine!), and the Marzocchi shocks never announced themselves; overall it was a solid but not jarring ride, all fillings and kidneys intact after 50 fast miles on the eternally maintenance-deferred Cali backroads.

Out on the road, a thing of beauty streaking along, and a moment of rest, to ponder the beast [Paul d'Orléans]
To be honest I could ride rings around this gorgeous fattie on a hot Norton Commando, but the Count didn’t make his roadsters anything like his GP bikes, which dominated the World Championships from the 50s thru 70s.  He so loved his begotten racers that MV race-neutered their road bikes with high weight, large capacity, and shaft drive; no way were his customers going to compete on the track with the factory team!  But the MV is a thoroughbred, and can be hammered through canyonland as fast as you dare.

The gorgeous aluminum landscape of the cockpit, reminiscent of an aircraft. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Chabott Engineering MV Agusta exists in its own universe, a stunning mashup of Shinya Kimura’s brilliant artistry and Count Agusta’s nearer-to-thee-oh-lord engine. In the automotive world, the best ‘coachbuilders’ - Pininfarina or Saoutchik or Fleetwood - are hailed as megabuck masterpieces, but lop two wheels off, and the best of the best will rarely fetch six figures. Fifteen years after the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibit hit the Guggenheim in NYC, and mere weeks after the death of art critic Robert Hughes, who championed custom motorcycles in Time magazine as pure expressions of ‘folk art’, bikes still occupy the lowliest of spots in the highbrow world of art collecting.  The finest hand-built expressions of two-wheeled genius metaphorically languish in the parking lot.  There’s never been a major museum show of hand-built motorcycles, but when it comes, Shinya Kimura will be crowned one of the finest moto-artisans of all time.  Best of all, these are Rembrandts you can Ride.

Happy to ride it? Hell yes! [Ayu Yamashita]
Paul d'Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

John Surtees

Written by Paul d'Orleans for Cycle World magazine, reproduced with permission.

He wasn’t a showman with movie star looks, like many World Champions; John Surtees had a sparrow’s physique, with a modest but intense demeanor, who suffered autograph hounds with a friendly noblesse oblige. No doubt he treated his rivals the same, giving very little away, his attention seemingly elsewhere…like memorizing every braking point at the Nurbrurgring or Isle of Man circuits. If you were close enough to observe his expression on the track, it meant you were about to lose your race to the most stylish and disciplined rider of the 1950s.

John Surtees on the MV Agusta 4 on which he won his World Championship in - I believe - 1958, which is owned by the Barber Museum. From the Barber's display at Pebble Beach in 2011, where I met Surtees for the first time. [Paul d'Orleans]
Norton team manager Joe Craig was notoriously hard, and squeezed several years of life from the single-cylinder, DOHC Norton Manx racers John rode. They were past their sell-by date, as sophisticated multi-cylinder machines from Italy and Germany had been flying past them on straightaways since the 1930s. During the War, a fortuitous meeting between Craig and Leo Kuzmicki, a Polish refugee with a degree in combustion theory, kept Nortons plenty fast, but foreign factories inevitably dusted off their prewar designs for post-war racing once they’d rebuilt their factories. John Surtees reached a pinnacle of British ambition in 1955 by joining the Norton team, and bit hard at the heels of Geoff Duke, who had defected to Italian machines just like his predecessor Stanley Woods had done in the ‘30s. As those men had found, a single-cylinder racer was no match for an Italian thoroughbred multi.

Surtees on a 250cc MV Agusta Bialbero in 1957, at a Crystal Palace meeting. [From the book 'John Surtees: World Champion' - 1991]
Duke’s elegant, lightning fast, and good-handling Gilera Quattro was designed by Piero Remor, and had won six 500cc World Championship between 1950-57, and for good measure held the World Land Speed Record in supercharged form before WW2.John Surtees’ father Jack was a south London motorcycle dealer, with strong connections to the Vincent factory. John’s very first race, as the monkey in his father’s Rapide sidecar outfit, was duly won, but as he was only 14, they were afterwards disqualified. It was better publicity than the win, and John’s canny father pushed his talented son into the spotlight early and often, sponsoring him in grass track races from age 15.

Surtees with his first Vincent Grey Flash racer, which made the media notice his riding style for the first time, as he'd really pushed Geoff Duke on the factory Norton! [From the book 'John Surtees: World Champion' - 1991]
John took his apprenticeship at the Vincent factory at 16, which gave him access to race shop, and the opportunity to race a Vincent Grey Flash 500cc single to good effect. By 17 he was harassing World Champion Geoff Duke on British circuits, and making headlines while riding a variety of interesting machines, including an NSU 250cc Sportmax, and the inevitable Norton Manx in the 350cc and 500cc classes. In 1954, for Unlimited class racing, he slotted a 1000cc Vincent Black Lightning motor into a Norton Manx chassis, which could have been a world-beater, but he was tapped to join the Norton factory race team before his creation was anything but the world’s first NorVin.

1960, Bickley, Kent, England, UK --- Motorcyclist Surtees With His Bike --- [© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS]
Count Domenico Agusta had watched Surtees take his Manx to the limit in pursuit of Duke, and admired his style. He offered an astronomical sum (by Norton standards) to jump the British ship, and join the MV Agusta team for 1956. Agusta’s business was primarily aeronautic, but he loved motorcycles, and no doubt expended all the profits from his street motorcycle manufacture into making his race them the best in the world. He’d already secured the 125cc World Championship in 1952, but wanted the big prize, so had lured Piero Remor away from Gilera to design a new DOHC 4-cylinder racer. The MV four still needed development, and Surtees struggled against the better-handling Gilera Quattros in ’55, taking 3rd in the World Championship. In 1956, Geoff Duke was punished by the FIM for supporting a riders’ strike against dangerous conditions (and more start money) that year, halving his season, and Surtees snatched his first World Championship.

The Ferrari 158 in which Surtees became World Champion on four wheels in 1964 [From the book 'John Surtees: World Champion' - 1991]
At the end of the 1957 season, on another ‘day the music died’, Gilera, MV Agusta, Moto Guzzi, BMW, NSU, and Mondial all bowed out of GP racing, citing increasing expense and falling motorcycle sales. Count Agusta, the sly fox, changed his mind when he realized the benefit of greatly diminished competition; MV Agusta racked up a string of 37 World Championships, until formerly obscure Japanese companies like Honda and Yamaha demonstrated what a corporate budget and a simple two-stroke engine (respectively), could do.

Surtees demonstrating how to bump start an MV Agusta - a slightly easier affair than a Manx Norton, due to its 125cc pistons! [From the pamphlet 'John Surtees On Racing', Illife & Sons, 1960]
John Surtees won his 7 World Championships in 4 years with MV Agusta between 1956-1960, in both 350cc and 500cc categories. The Italians loved his riding style, naming him ‘ figlio del vento, - son of the wind. He was eel-slippery and one with his machine in the years before ‘hanging off’ was the norm, and simply tucked in behind his screen, making it all look natural. During a Sportsman of the Year banquet in 1959 he met F1 legend Mike Hawthorne, who suggested Surtees ‘try a car sometime; they stand up easier.’ He did try a car, in spite of the fact he’d never even seen an F1 race or watched one on TV! His natural talent was instantly recognized by Lotus boss Colin Chapman after a few practice laps, and in his first F1 race (the 1960 Monaco GP) he caused quite a stir. On his second F1 race, at the British Grand Prix, he came 2nd, and nearly won his third race at Estoril. Another Italian racing legend, Enzo Ferrari, noticed his talent, and offered a spot on his team. It proved a prescient move, and he won the World F1 Championship for Ferrari in 1964. While Surtees was cool, he also spoke his mind, and his relationship with the Ferrari team was never easy. Tensions with team manager Eugenio Dragoni blew up in 1966, while Surtees was en route to a second World Championship; he quit Ferrari, and refused even Enzo’s entreaties to return.

Fantastic photos of John with his parents at his first motorcycle dealership in 1958, in West Wickham. Note the two MV Agusta racers, and an AJS Porcupine! [From the book 'John Surtees: World Champion' - 1991]
He carried on F1 racing through 1972, but his 1964 championship remained his, and the world’s, only World Championship Formula 1 title from a motorcycle World Champion. In the 1980s, Surtees inspired a new generation of riders, restorers, and builders with the revival of his interest in the track for vintage racing. He rebuilt his old Vincent Grey Flash, and put that 1955 Black Lightning-based NorVin back together, with remarkably gorgeous brutality. He also collected the crème de la crème of vintage racing machinery, and was happy to demonstrate George Meier’s 1938 TT-winning BMW RS255 kompressor, or Ray Amm’s Norton streamliner, at events across Europe.

John Surtees at Pebble Beach in 2011 with George Barber, who owns Surtees' winning machines, including this 1964 Ferrari Type 158 in which he won his first World Championship on four wheels. [Paul d'Orleans]
He encouraged his son Henry in the racing game as well, until tragically he was killed in an F2 race in 2009, when a competitor’s tire struck him. In remembrance, he established the Henry Surtees foundation to help people with brain injuries. I was lucky enough to meet John Surtees at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2011, where his World Championship Ferrari and MV Agusta were on display, and he obliged a few photographs on his old ‘Gallarate fire engine’. His heyday was over before I could watch him race in anger, but one needn’t have seen it to understand the monumental talent it took to assume the World Champion mantle in two very different sports. It’s unlikely we’ll see that achievement matched anytime soon, and we will never see his like again.


Paul d'Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

Jay Leno and the White Collection

It's not typical to auction a major classic vehicle auction for charity, but that's what the late Robert White stipulated in his will.  Jay Leno purchased his collection of 17 Brough Superiors last year, with the funds headed entirely to the hospital Mr. White wanted to support; a cancer treatment center in an area of Britain not well served.   Jay's video is a testament to a friend, and a plug for the upcoming Bonhams auction of the remainder of Robert White's motorcycles, cars, Leicas, etc.  It's worth a look!

The variety of machines is impressive, including this 1920 1220cc Ace four in beautiful condition. Eligible for the 2020 Cannonball!


What looks like an entirely original 1974 Ducati 750SS, with known history from at least 1985...


...and a gorgeous 1953 MV Agusta monoalbero 125cc raeer, which I looked over at the Banbury Run this year. An amazing, drool-worthy machine.

Rara Avis: The Unique Lynton Racer

Colin Lyster isn’t a household name, unless you’re a hardcore café racer fan, in which case, he’s a demigod on par with Dave Degens and the Rickman brothers. A former Rhodesian road racer, Lyster moved to Britain in the early 1960s, and set about re-framing Triumphs and Hondas to reduce weight and improve chassis stiffness.  His frames were ultra-rigid and half as heavy as comparable Norton item; he typically discarded the lower frame rails, using the engine as a stressed member, and thinwall tubing of smaller diameter than considered prudent for a street machine.

The halved Hillman motor, with Lynton's own DOHC, 8-valve cylinder head and geometric sump.  (From Cycle World)

Still, hotshot riders can’t resist a road racer with lights, and a few Lyster-framed roadsters can be found in books on the café racer craze.  Lyster’s frame output was low, but his impact on the industry was outsized.  He developed the first triple-hydraulic disc braking systems for motorcycle racing teams in the mid-1960s, using specially adapted Ceriani road race forks and his own fabricated swingarms, with his own cast iron discs.  Triple juice discs became a must-have item on winning road racers; Lyster began selling kits to the public in 1971.  After failing to interest the British motorcycle industry in his product, he sold his patents to AP Lockheed.  Ironically, it was Honda who first used hydraulic discs on production motorcycles, in 1968.  Still, it was Lyster’s patent, and he changed motorcycling forever.

Paul Brothers and Colin Lyster, whose partnership created the Lynton racer.  The pair display their ultralight frame and Hillman Imp-based motor in 1968

By the mid-1960s, the British motorcycle industry had given up on Grand Prix racing, but enterprising builders hadn’t.  Colin Lyster thought a reasonably-priced, competitive engine could be built from automotive parts, and he cut a water-cooled 1000cc Hillman Imp 4-cylinder car motor in half, and built a DOHC, 8-valve cylinder head for it.  Interestingly, the Imp motor was designed by Leo Kuzmicki, the Polish ‘janitor’ who was ‘discovered’ by Joe Craig, race chief of Norton, as having been a research scientist in combustion theory before becoming a WW2 refugee.  It was Kuzmicki who kept the Norton Manx engine competitive a decade after its sell-by date, extracting ever more power from the aging single-cylinder design. After leaving Norton, he moved to the Rootes Group, and designed the extremely reliable and very fast Imp motor.

The chain-driven DOHC cylinder head, with central spark plugs and 4 valves per cylinder (Cycle World)

As reported in Cycle World in July 1968, Lyster’s Imp-engined ‘Lynton’ racer was a collaboration with Paul Brothers, and used an ultralight Lyster full-cradle frame, with his own triple disc setup. The cylinder head is a chunk, and the side-draft Weber DCOE carb doesn’t inspire confidence that the watercooled engine is light.  The builders claimed 60hp from the motor, which used a 180-degree crankshaft, a modified Hillman part, as were the rods.  Slipper pistons from Mahle and cams by Tom Somerton painted a picture of speed, and the projected price of £300 undercut a Matchless G50 single-cylinder SOHC motor by £75.  Orders were not forthcoming, though, as the project needed more development, and it remained yet another British ‘what if?’  It seems only the prototype motorcycle was built, although Lynton offered a full four-cylinder version of its special cylinder head to Imp rally drivers; a few of these are floating around, including rumors on one cut in half for a motorcycle!

1971 magazine ad for Colin Lyster's double-disc front brake kit

Britain’s H&H Auctions turned up the sole Lynton racing motorcycle; it’s an uncompromised beast with a pur sang pedigree, and a lot of near-forgotten stories surrounding its build.  Colin Lyster moved to the USA in the early ‘70s, and worked with Canadian national champion road racer Ed Labelle to build Lyster-Labelle racers, using Triumph Bonneville motors in lowboy frames with triple discs. Only a few were built before Lyster moved on to New Zealand, where he carried on with other projects until his death in 2003.

The sole surviving Lynton racer; note the Weber DCOE side-draft carb, racing AMC gearbox, and triple discs - in 1968!


A man full of ideas!  This wing was an air brake for a racing motorcycle!  It proved, as you can imagine, frighteningly destabilizing


The cafe racers' dream; a Kennedy-Lyster, with a Norton Atlas motor in a Lyster frame, with a double-disc front end.  I reckon this is pre-1970...what a beauty!



Road Test: the New Brough Superior SS100

The Vintagent Road Tests come straight from the saddle of the world's rarest motorcycles. Catch the Road Test series here.

Want to get bikers up in arms?  Revive a hallowed brand.  Established manufacturers get a pass when producing ugly or ill-considered motorcycles, and nobody questions their right to exist, but a new manufacturer using an old name fights steep resistance, no matter how committed it is to the old name.  Brough Superior owner Mark Upham is doing his best to honor the spirit of the late George Brough, which is probably impossible in the 21st Century, because Brough invented a genre – the luxury motorcycle – that was bombed out of existence in World War II.

Perched on the Corniche, on the Cote Basque, between Biarritz France, and San Sebastien, Spain. [Bill Phelps]
First-generation Brough Superiors were built between 1919 and 1940, and immediately earned a reputation for quality, innovation, handling, speed, and beauty. They were the most expensive and fastest motorcycles in the world, and their lustrous finish earned them the nickname ‘The Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles.”and Rolls didn’t object.  Above all, George Brough was a PR genius, crafting an image via selected competitions (ones he was likely to win), flamboyant personal style, a gift for turning a phrase, and the regular patronage of celebrities like T.E. Lawrence, other wise known as Lawrence of Arabia. It isn’t likely for a motorcycle to be all those things today, as “fastest” seems irrelevant, most expensive is a matter of adding zeros, and today’s heroes are tomorrow’s targets for scandal.   Just imagine a T.E. Lawrence cell phone hack, with his leather bedsheets and masochistic inclinations…

A thoroughly modern machine with antique visual cues. [Bill Phelps]
Since we live in a different world today, what remains to link old Brough and new is aesthetics, innovation, and quality; the 2016 Brough Superior SS100 makes a strong pitch for all these. One of George’s innovations, and a hallmark of the brand, was the industry’s first saddle tank, which was nickeled up and shapely, with a rounded nose and pleasing proportions.

Brough Superiors were built between 1919 and 1940, and immediately earned a reputation for quality, innovation, handling, speed, and beauty.

The new Brough Superior lifts its tank design directly from a 1920s Pendine racing model, which used triple straps to bind tank to frame; it’s the visual DNA of a Brough Superior, and a feature Mark Upham insisted on.  Underneath that old-school tank (built in polished aluminum) we leave the past behind and enter the 21st Century, with a unique motor and innovative chassis.

The Brough was ridden to the ArtRide exhibition in San Sebastien, Spain, where it attracted considerable attention, as did my crazy one-off suit embroidered by Cody McElroy of Dirty Needle Embroidery. [Bill Phelps]
The heart of the beast is a V-twin of course, but set at 88-degrees, which provides perfect balance a lá Ducati and Moto Guzzi, but looks wide to a traditionalist.  It’s a bespoke motor from the firm Boxer Design of Toulouse, France, a water-cooled, 8-valve DOHC unit of 997cc, produces 120 horsepower.  That wide vee concurs with one of George’s last experimental Broughs, using an AMC-built (Matchless / AJS) 90-degree V-twin OHV engine, which was never serially produced.  It thus bears a thread of a connection with the past, which turns out to have both lovely castings and contemporary performance, and most importantly isn’t an H-D clone.  The Boxer Design engine is built and developed by Akira Engineering of Bayonne, which certainly has the chops – its Kawasaki ZX-10R engines currently dominate WSB racing.

The Brough was right at home in the swervery, and could be pushed as hard as one liked. Fast and fun! [Bill Phelps]
The chassis is both innovative and expensive, with a mix of titanium, aluminum and magnesium for the frame and swingarm, carbon-fiber wheels, aluminum bodywork, and a double-wishbone front fork.  Front and rear suspension use Öhlins units, and that fork is a gift from Claude Fior, who never patented his design from the 1980s.  It’s still avant-garde, but very well developed, with lots of track time; BMW’s Duolever fork is also Fior-based. While blade-type forks normally have zero brake dive, the Brough’s fork has a small amount engineered in to feel “normal” when the anchors are out.  The small-diameter Behringer brakes, sourced from the aircraft industry, are incredibly powerful, with quad rotors on the front wheel; we featured them in Cycle World when Uwe Ehinger used a pair on his Kraftrad Speedster. Actual braking ability is the most radical departure from old Broughs, whose stopping power never equaled their 100mph potential, in the days when traffic was sparse.

Posey-poseur… but if you can’t pose on a Brough Superior… [Bill Phelps]
The specifications of the new Brough Superior have been discussed before, since the debut of the prototypes four years ago, but few road reports have made it to American shores, principally because Brough won’t be marketed here for a year or so (testing + regulations = $$$), and none are currently in the US.  We’re a low priority, but that didn’t stop Boxer Design principal Thierry Henriette, the man who’s building the new Broughs, from allowing a test ride last June at the Wheels and Waves festival in Biarritz.  The Pyrenees are legendary for motorcycling, with lightly-traveled mountain roads and 1000-year-old stone villages for scenery.  My test was over the slightly more traveled coastal roads of the Corniche, which attracts a few tourists eager to photograph the Cote Basque, and get off ubiquitous toll highways.  Luckily, access to this fantastic stretch of road between France and Spain is very poorly marked, so risky passing maneuvers were minimal.

The Brough looks good even in an industrial void. This is the rapidly gentrifying former fish processing area of San Sebastien, Spain. [Bill Phelps]
The SS100 is probably the lightest-looking liter bike on the market, with lots of empty space around the engine and beneath the saddle.  The dry weight is just under 400 lb., excellent for a 120-hp machine, and throwing the bike around corners is easy-breezy.  It’s not razor sharp like a racer; it feels like a fast street machine, and real-world handling is totally intuitive.  I stepped off a 1974 Norton Commando, and onto the SS100, and the feeling was familiar at all speeds, except flat-out.  At speeds over 100mph, the Brough was still charging hard, and pushing the bike through the Corniche’s bends felt completely stable, predictable, and modern.  The power is yeehaw-level good, but not insane – let’s just say passing traffic wasn’t even a thought, and clear roads offered breathtakingly fun motorcycling, with super secure handling, a great noise, and the stunning looks of the bike. Even a good squeeze on those crazy Behringer brakes in mid-corner felt perfectly safe; there’s no ABS yet, so it’s best to keep your right hand supple.  An hour’s ride back and forth on the coast road left me with a big smile, and a desire to own an SS100 – the “cheap” one that is.  At £45,000 (about $60,000), the new SS100 is 10 percent the price of a 1920s model, and therefore a bargain!  Well, any other bike is cheap by that metric.

Drawing a crowd everywhere it lands, the SS100 is a stunner. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Boxer engine is a bit reminiscent in feel of a mid-1920s JAP 990cc OHV racing motor, which was the heart of the original SS100.  It wasn’t meant for the street, and had a nervous disposition, which the new motor shares.  There’s a slight harshness to the primary and camshaft drive of the Boxer motor; you can feel the sharp edges of gears whirring around, with not much cushioning effect present.  It isn’t bad, and it runs dead smooth, but that slight harshness is the sort of thing a few years’ development will probably eliminate. For a small producer’s wholly new engine, it’s something of a miracle it works so damn well. The gear change is firm and accurate, the clutch is progressive and strong, and the Öhlins suspension does its job unobtrusively.   And the looks; love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re distinctive, and telegraph the quality of the machine’s construction.  My favorite model is all black, but my well used test bike harvested eyeballs everywhere it went – I haven’t attracted this much attention on two wheels since testing a Confederate Wraith. Everyone wants to know what it is, and non-bikers seem to love the design.

Ready for a blast down the B-roads…[Bill Phelps]
I’ve spent more saddle time on vintage Brough Superiors than new sportbikes, having ridden both a 1925 Brough Superior SS100 and a 1933 Brough Superior 11.50 across the States in the Motorcycle Cannonball.. I’ve also been a B-S owner’s club member since the 1980s, having owned four models, back when they were semi-affordable to 99 percenters. Therefore, I’m the most likely candidate to make mouth-frothing accusations of “blasphemy!” for use of the Brough name, but I’ve known Mark Upham for years, and he’s also an arch enthusiast of the marque.  That doesn’t mean he’ll make a decent new motorcycle, but when journalist Alan Cathcart introduced Upham to Boxer boss Thierry Henriette, he landed in the right hands.  Henriette was excited by the project’s challenges, and has made an intriguing motorcycle that is totally up to date with terrific performance, a retro, classy vibe, and a totally unique look.  It actually fills the vacant niche of the Gentleman’s Motorcycle. Would George have approved?  I do believe he would.

Photography Credit to Bill Phelps


Paul d'Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

The First 'Triton' - A Prewar Cafe Racer

Back in 2008, I wrote about the McCandless brothers' invention of the first modern swingarm motorcycle frame in 1944. Norton race chief Joe Craig took note of this radical new chassis, leading Norton to purchase the rights to the McCandless design in 1949. Geoff Duke debuted the McCandless-framed Norton in 1950 housing a factory Grand Prix racer, and sweet-handling design became known as the 'Featherbed'.

The world's first Triton, built by Rex McCandless during WW2 - a racing Triumph Tiger 100 motor in a Norton International racing chassis. Note headlamp mask - required during wartime blackouts. (photo courtesy Dennis Quinlan, via VMCC Library)

Rex McCandless and his brother Cromie were an interesting pair, devoted to motorcycle engineering and racing, and changed the motorcycle industry forever without the need for an engineering degree.  Rex famously wrote,  "I never had any formal training. I came to believe that it stops people from thinking for themselves. I read many books on technical subjects, but always regarded that as second-hand knowledge. I did my best working in my own way."  It slipped my attention then, but it seems the McCandless brothers also seem to have invented the most iconic custom motorcycle of the cafe racer era - the Triton, a Norton/Triumph hybrid.

Rex McCandless (left) and Artie Bell, both on racing Triumph Tiger 100s in 1940. Note swanky race transport behind them!

Rex McCandless tuned and raced his own motorcycles before WW2, first turning his attention to a new twin-cylinder Triumph Triumph Tiger 100 in 1940.  His home-tuned Tiger was was faster than the factory-tuned bronze-head Tiger 100 of his friend, Artie Bell (future Norton Works racer), and Rex won the Irish 500cc Road Race and Hillclimb championships that year.  While the motor was fast, the Triumph chassis made 'unreasonable demands of its rider'.  The story goes that McCandless began experimenting with weight distribution on the Triumph, and eventually designed his own frame, which became the Featherbed.  But it seems he tried a known better-handling chassis first for his Triumph motor, and installed the Tiger engine in a racing Norton International chassis.  He'd already proven his T100 engine faster than a racing Norton, but their chassis was the gold standard for handling.   Thus the first Triton was born during WW2, as evidenced by photos in the VMCC Library, passed along to me by Dennis Quinlan.

The 'Benial', McCandless' first chassis of his own design, a full cradle, double-loop, all-welded swingarm frame, with vertical rear dampers from a Citroen car

Thankfully for us, the Norton also didn't live up to McCandless' idea of what a frame could be!  He carried on experimenting;  "I had noticed that when I removed weight in the shape of a heavy steel mudguard and a headlight, that the bike steered a lot better. It made me think about things which swiveled when steering. I was in an area about which I knew nothing, but set-to to find out. It seemed obvious to me that the rigidity of the frame was of paramount importance. That the wheels would stay in line, in the direction the rider pointed the bicycle, regardless of whether it was cranked over for a corner, and to resist the bumps on the road attempting to deflect it. Of equal importance was that the wheels would stay in contact with the road. That may seem obvious, but fast motor cycles then bounced all over the place. I decided that soft springing, properly and consistently damped, was required."

Geoff Duke winning the first of many races on the Norton 'Featherbed' factory Manx racer, in 1950, on a frame hand-built by Rex McCandless. [Photo from 'In Pursuit of Perfection', Geoff Duke's wonderful moto-biography!]
The first test-bed for Rex's ideas, built in 1944, was named the 'Benial' (Irish for 'beast'). It looked much like the double-loop, lugless frame used on the Gilera-Rondine watercooled dohc 4-cyl racer of the 1930's, but it had a proper swingarm at the back with vertical hydraulic shock absorbers (from a Citroen car). "The Benial was the best-handling bicycle I ever made." Using the ideas garnered from his experiments, McCandless first designed a bolt-on rear suspension kit for rigid-frame motorcycles,  which was tested publicly by the Irish grass-track racing team at Brands Hatch in 1946. Prior to the race, other riders looked askance at the rear suspension kits, but after the race, they clamored for them. Rex had no ambition to go into manufacturing, and sold the rights to the kit to Feridax, a well-known accessory maker.

A McCandless swingarm conversion on a 1937 Velocette Mk7 KTT - new life for an old racer!

McCandless knew his Benial had the best-handling frame in the industry, and approached Norton with a challenge, and the intention to sell his design. Norton's 'plunger' Garden Gate frame had a tendency to break, and handled like a camel.  Joe Craig made the frames heavier, to stop the breakages, but in McCandless' view, this showed an insufficient understanding of the stresses involved on the chassis, "...all they did was to fix together bits of tube and some lugs.." In 1949, he told Gilbert Smith, the Managing Director of Norton, "You are not Unapproachable, and you are not the World's Best Roadholder. I have a bicycle which is miles better!" The Norton brass set up a test on the Isle of Man, where a relative of Cromie McCandless' wife was Chief of Police. They closed the roads, "Artie Bell was on my bike, ultimately christened the Featherbed by Harold Daniell. Geoff Duke was on a Garden Gate and both had Works engines. Gilbert Smith, Joe Craig and I stood on the outside of the corner at Kate's Cottage. We could hear them coming from about the 33rd [milestone]. When Geoff came through Kate's he was needing all the road. Artie rode around the outside of him on full bore, miles an hour faster, and in total control. That night Gilbert Smith and I had a good skinful."

The prototype Featherbed Manx, built in late 1949, still with vertical rear shocks, likely sourced from an automobile

Further testing took place at Montlhery, with four riders (Artie Bell, Geoff Duke, Harold Daniell, and Johnny Lockett) going flat-out for two days. "We went through two engines, then the snow came on. The frame hadn't broken so we all went home." The debut of the new frame came at Blandford Camp, Dorset, in April 1950, with Geoff Duke aboard (below, winning that race). The string of successes which followed gave a new lease on life to a 20-year-old engine design, and Norton won 1-2-3 in the Senior and Junior TT's that year. Norton didn't have the facility to produce the Featherbed frame themselves, nor could Reynolds (the tubing manufacturer), so Rex brought his own jigs over from Ireland, and personally built the Works Norton frames from 1950-53.  The original jigs still exist - what a historic piece of scrap iron!

A mid-30's Norton International rigid frame was the gold standard of pre-War handling
The immortal Rex McCandless

Cannonballs Deep: In The Thick Of It

After the debacle of Day 1, a reckoning was made by quite a few riders.  If their machine had failed so utterly, or burned to a crisp, was there a point in carrying on?   Normal humans have jobs and responsibilities, and blocking out 3 weeks of motorcycle time requires considerable planning.  If your motorcycle went bust, is the remainder of the event a ride of shame, a holiday spent watching your friends achieve glory, or an opportunity for an unexpected holiday?  Folks took each path, some trucking their broken bikes home, spending a week on a different vacation, and returning to meet us at the finish.  Some simply disappeared.  A few were already part of a team, and carried on as support for those still rolling.

Don't try this at home! John Pfeifer's 1916 Harley-Davidson, with the leaky fuel tank. Could he fix it as a patina ride?  No.

There's also the expense: in addition to 3 weeks of hotels etc, the Cannonball has skewed prices for pre-1917 motorcycles, in total contrast to the automotive market.  A year ago, when this 'century ride' was announced, it was intended to be both a motorcycle AND automotive event, with a staggered start for the cars, the bikes following a day behind, and a shared day off in Dodge City, Kansas.  With almost no publicity, there were a dozen entries for the automotive class within a week, and both Lonnie Isam Jr and Jason Sims, the Cannonball organizers, purchased c.1916 Dodge sedans in excellent condition, each costing roughly $15,000.  For even the humblest of Cannonball motorcycle entries (say, the 1914 Shaw motor bicycle), you'd double that price, and for most, you'd need an extra zero.  That's because there are plenty of old American cars sitting idle, and zero demand for them.  There's hardly any events in which to use them.  In the end, it was decided the Cannonball would remain all-bike.  And the auction companies had a field day: Mecum auctions is now a major sponsor of the Cannonball, and Jason Sims mentioned they were pressing him to reveal the cutoff year for the 2018 Cannonball, so they could cultivate a new herd of eligible bikes for the big Las Vegas auctions.

The road as big as the sky

Day 2, September 11th, was my 54th birthday; it was my 3rd birthday on the road with the Cannonball, and the best so far.  York PA is not far from Gettysburg National Military Park, and I'd never been to a Civil War battlefield.  The town is charming, and when we discovered the best donut in the world (Treat Yo' Self), we asked which direction was the battlefield, to be told 'you're in it.'  True enough, war is messy, to be cleaned up later by historians and those with an agenda.   We were lucky to encounter a group of gents whose hobby was period correct camping, comprising a regiment of blue-coated regulars in a field with their tents - the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  They were delighted to work with us, posing for wet plate photographs - they'd done so previously, but never on the scale Susan and I attempted. The resulting wet plate images are real time-benders, in the very spot which stuck the wet plate photograph in the world's consciousness, via the work of Matthew Brady, who posed his corpses and cannonballs as keenly as we did our living subjects.

Posing our regiment in Gettysburg.  Thanks boys!

My birthday dinner was our 2nd excellent meal of our 21-day adventure, at Tin 202 in Morgantown, West Virginia.  Thus encouraged, we had high hopes for a trail of good meals, but the next 3-star dinner was 2400 miles away.

I asked for it as a birthday present, but this lovely '46 Indian Chief and sidecar needed to be ridden home that morning... Shiloh, Pennsylvania

Day 3 on the relentless schedule West found us at lunch in Williamstown, WV, at SandP Harley-Davidson.  All but 3 of our scheduled lunches were hosted at Harley dealerships, and our organizers must have sent out a memo for 'no pulled pork', as that was the ubiquitous fare in 2014.  Cannonball rules stipulate you MUST stay at a hosted lunch or dinner stop, as the quid pro quo for a meal - the venues advertise a display of our old bikes, and draw healthy crowds. Not so painful, unless you're a vegetarian, or prefer a different sort of lunch experience than foldup plastic tables in a charmless and makeshift storage room at a bike dealer.  We're thankful for the food, of course, but I much preferred when the local Elks clubs made us lunch in a city park - that seemed more an act of generosity and goodwill than the commercial opportunity afforded by our presence at a place of business.  Your mileage may vary.  Susan and I were busy jumping in and out of our wet plate van, taking photos at the lunch stops, and didn't explore the food until the riders had thundered off, and we were starving. 75% of the time we simply turned around to find a local, non-chain diner, which was work in itself. Susan's daily goal was a good grilled cheese sandwich, something not offered by Subway or MickeyD.

Does a Henderson handle? See for yourself - a looong wheelbase and decently rigid chassis equals a stable ride.  Near Clarksville, Ohio

And then there are the hotels, motels, Holiday Inns.  The quality of accommodation was way up over 2012, but the succession of Quality, Hampton, Comfort and Fairfield Inns became a blur.  We'd learned from 2012 that excellent coffee sets the tone for our day, so a French press, a few pounds of our favorite grand, and a teakettle are essential for our mood.  I pity other addicts who suffered through hotel coffee for 3 weeks.  Susan takes hers black (she's tough like that), but I carried cream in our cooler, preferring 'kitty coffee', as a balm for the assaults of the coming day.

Zika eradication squad! Architect Ryan Allen smokes away on his 1916 Indian Powerplus in Williamstown, West Virginia

Which came mostly in the form of rain; after the muggy heat of our first 1200 miles, relief came in torrents from the sky, and we were pissed upon suddenly and relentlessly.  The timing was treacherous, as in a twisted bit of humor, we undertook a series of unmarked rural roads to cross the 'Cannonball Bridge' near Vincennes, Indiana.  Its construction was unique in my experience, being a converted railway bridge with the usual gapped sleepers, with a pair of tire paths made from lengthwise boards of various thickness, laid down like a threat before the riders.  It felt pretty damn wonky in my truck, but was hellishly slippery for the riders crossing in a downpour.  Cannonball bridge indeed.

A foggy morning in Dodge City.  We all ride alone.

As our caravan of 300 souls and all their support vehicles sped relentlessly Westward, we passed through Chillicothe Ohio, Bloomington Indiana, Cape Girardeau and Springfield Missouri, and Wichita Kansas.  Just outside Wichita, in the suburb of Augusta, fellow Cannonballer Kelly Modlin has recently opened the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum, with a terrific display of restored and original-paint motorcycles, most of which could have been on one or more Cannonballs.  It's a terrific display, and Kelly's family put on a welcome meal under the framework of the museum's next expansion, which will double its size already, within a year of its opening.   We all got too many bikes, and not enough willing asses for their saddles!

Rick Salisbury on his 1915 Excelsior

Saturday September 17th we arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, grateful for our day off on Sunday, where riders could wash clothes and catch up on maintenance and rest.  For Susan and I, that meant double the work, as riders were available all day for portrait sessions, and we set to, taking a record 24 tintypes on Sunday in a variety of spots, including at the site of old Dodge City board track, where H-D Museum archivist Bill Rodencal was determined to get a tintype of his machine.  His 1915 Harley-Davidson racer had won Dodge City a century before, and he wore period gear to be immortalized on the very spot, which we were honored to do.   The photos came out great, including one Bill caught of us!

Thanks Bill Rodencal for working the lens cap of our 4x5" camera!  Bill's 1915 Harley-Davidson racer...
...which he rode over 2300 miles.  The bike has NO suspension at all, an uncompromising riding position, and a single speed!  'America is my Board Track'
Michael Norwood and his 1916 Harley-Davidson at the big train on Boot Hill, Dodge City, KS
The solitary Reading-Standard to attempt the Cannonball, a single-cylinder belt drive model, with Norm Nelson piloting.  1744 miles covered.
Niimi!  On his shared Team 80 1915 Indian, with Shinya Kimura.  Caught in the rain in Ohio.
Kelly Modlin with his grandson at his Twisted Oz Museum in Augusta, Kansas
Team 80 takes a gander at the Hillclimber selection at Twisted Oz
Dawn and Doc, and the 1916 Harley-Davidson with wicker sidecar with which they covered every single mile of the Cannonball - a truly impressive achievement.
A one-block town with one brick building, and a nice red frame for the 1916 Indian Powerplus of Kevin Naser.  Neodesha, Kansas...pronounced 'Nay oh du Shay', we were instructed
Halfway already?  Halfway drowned too; the second half of the day's ride, after a sponsored lunch stop, was cancelled, although a few riders did every mile anyway, to ensure they could claim they did.  Jasper, Kansas.
Storm's a brewin in Kansas...
Kevin Naser stopped in Grant, Missouri, for a change of gear.
Brent Hansen and his 1914 Shaw, popping along the plains of America's vast middle
Quonset huts are rare today, but tailor made for a retro cafe, as in Springfield Missouri
What becomes Europe's largest Harley-Davidson dealer best? Americana ink.
Miss Route 66, Sara Vega, poses with Alex Trepanier and his 1912 Indian single.  Alex covered nearly every mile of the United States, an epic achievement.
The future rolls out before you on the Missouri/Kansas border
The Powerplus team of the Rinker family, father Steve (here) and twin sons Justin and Jared
A small-town radio station in Cabool, Missouri
The heartland is full of great motorcycles; this is Powderkeg Harley-Davidson in Mason, Ohio
Powderkeg H-D was named for a nearby gunpowder factory, now being converted to condos.  Swords to plowshares?
South African Hans Coertse, on the only Matchless to compete in the Cannonball to date, a robust 1914 t-twin
With so many Centurions on the road, it was easy to overlook the everyday cool bikes which tagged along, including this neat BMW R60/2 that also crossed the country
As Team 80 is unlikely to attempt a 5th Cannonball in 2018, I regret not witnessing the nighttime poetry of their plein-air workshop, conducted in silence, with hand-held lights.

Cannonballs Deep: The Beginning

It was history to be made, and 94 riders grasped the gauntlet; to be the first 100-year old vehicles of any sort to cross the United States.  Cars, planes, bicycles, rollers skates, whatever - the 2016 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Rally, this year called the Race of the Century, would the be the first attempt to my knowledge for any Centurion vehicle to cross the country.

Shinya Kimura on his 1915 Indian twin, on a test run before its 4th Cannonball, as seen from the back of our 'wet plate van', my Sprinter with red 'safety' film on the window for our mobile darkroom.

That claim was staked at the starter's banquet in the Golden Nugget hotel on September 9th in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during an oppressively hot and muggy late Summer week - 95 degrees and 90% humidity - the hotel having chiseled off it's 'Trump' name some years ago during a bankruptcy proceeding.

Trying to get a decent shot of the assembled 94 motorcycles on the Atlantic City boardwalk, just before the 10am start of the Cannonball.

The Motorcycle Cannonball was initiated by Lonnie Isam Jr, as both an homage to the achievement of Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker's cross-country record breaking sprees in the early part of the 20th Century, and a challenge to the many owners of early motorcycles who didn't ride them all that much. Lonnie believed early machines were just as capable of crossing the country today - on paved roads rather than dirt tracks - as they were when new, and the first Cannonball was held in 2010, with a small cadre of riders on pre-1916 machines accepting the challenge.  That first year was notoriously difficult, and an admirably bonding experience.

...and the shot I was able to take, from the opposite direction from the official panorama of the start.

Nobody had tried such an incredibly long ride - 3500 miles - on such old machinery, and nobody really knew what to expect, or how the bikes would hold up to riding and average 250 miles/day on a rigorous schedule.It wasn't the only evidence of Trump, or bankruptcy, we'd encounter on our third trip over backroads America.  Three Cannonballs, this one likely to be my last, and for once totally bikeless, as my partner (with the bike) couldn't take the 3 weeks off this year.   My artistic and life partner Susan, after a crisis huddle, decided our MotoTintype project was too important to abandon, so we chose to follow the Cannonball as photographers, taking as many 'wet plate' photos as we could, and round out the hundreds of images we'd already shot on the prior 2 events, in order to make a book of the best images. Susan's brother Scott drove my Sprinter to NYC, and thus began another epic road trip.

Kurt Klokkenga, one of the 'motorcycle sweep' staff of the Cannonball, who were allowed to help repair machines en route without penalty. I'm sure many stranded riders were grateful of their help! Love his patina Panhead.

Not surprisingly, the tales of woe and late nights spent making repairs, every single night, made that 2010 event legendary.  Most of the original 45 riders vowed never to do it again, and kept their promise!  Some returned in 2012 though, especially as the rules were relaxed to include bikes up to 1930.  That allowed me to naively enter the 2012 Cannonball with my 1928-framed Velocette Mk4 KTT.  'The Mule' had been my reliable rally machine for 12 years, taking in 7 week-long Velocette rallies, covering 250-mile days with aplomb.  I'd already effectively double the Cannonball mileage on a similar daily schedule, so it seemed a plausible effort.

Beauty among the beasts! Alyson DeCosa and Buck Carson of Carson Classic Motors was happy to pose on the 1913 Warwick delivery tricycle ridden by his father Mike.

With no motorbike to concern us this year, Susan and I had an all-Sprinter Cannonball rally, and embraced the experience.  Following the same route as the riders, we were blessed with the endlessly beautiful and fascinating landscape of the United States.  The natural beauty of the East Coast forests, with their winding hills and hollows, lovely climbs were perfect motorcycle roads, dotted regularly with podunk villages and oddball eateries, brought a mix of awe at Nature and concern at Nurture.   Signs supporting a blustering demagogue were inevitably mixed with Confederate flags in Pennsylvania, a clear repudiation of both the policies and race of our current president, in parts of the country left far behind the technology-based prosperity of my native California.

German engineering! Thomas Trapp and Paul Jung found the front fender of this 1915 Harley-Davidson too long, and fouling the front wheel at speed, so they bobbed it! Thomas is Europe's largest H-D dealer, from Frankfurt.

September 10th was a short ride of 158 miles through an endless series of New Jersey stoplights. The heat, and the constant stop-start, took a heavy toll on machinery and riders, and by the end of the day in York, Pennsylvania, 23 machines were hors de combat.  Some refused to start in the heat, some broke parts, some seized, and one burned to the ground. John Pfeifer had built an extra-capacity fuel tank for his 1916 Harley-Davidson, and the weight of a full tank pressed down onto the rear cylinder's rocker arm (atop the cylinder head on an F-head motor).  It only took 80 miles or so for the rocker to wear through the metal, fuel to spill onto the magneto, and a great ball of flame to erupt.  John watched his machine burn for 20 minutes before a fire truck arrived with a decent extinguisher.  The first day was the worst day overall, culling the field quickly, and serving notice this wasn't going to be an easy run.

We had plenty of visitor and day-trippers along for the ride, including Cannonball veteran and publisher Buzz Kanter of American Iron mag.

On a bright note, Susan and I had a terrific meal at the Left Bank in York, the first of 3 excellent meals on our 17-day trip.  We tried our hardest to eat well, searching daily for the 'best restaurant in X', and finding lists online which invariably included chains like Jack in the Box. It's not difficult to draw conclusions about rural American culinary habits from this, and you'd be correct - America grows food for the world, but eats poorly in the very regions that food is grown.  But we'd discovered that a couple of times already, and brought a sufficient stock of coffee and wine from home!

Our 'wet plate' photo of 'Round the World' Doug Wothke's 1917 Douglas twin, brought along for spares, since it was too new for the Cannonball.

Readers of my2012 Cannonball reports on know I had terrible problems with two replacement camshafts I installed, the first lasting about 20 miles total, and the second, installed after many hours modification at a machine shop, lasted only a further 1000 miles.  Those were blissful miles over the Rockies, I'll confess, but the truth was, the Cannonball defeated my preparation.  The Mule remains the only overhead-camshaft motorcycle to run the Cannonball, and several H-D riders suggested that a machine which couldn't be fixed with a hammer had no place on a run like the Cannonball.  Perhaps they're correct.

Cris Sommer Simmons has ridden 'Effie', her 1915 Harley-Davidson, on 2 Cannonballs now, and it acquitted itself very well.
In 2014, I partnered with Revival Cycles to ride Bryan Bossier's 1933 Brough Superior 1150, which proved an absolutely remarkable machine, showing its heels daily to every other Cannonball machine, and cruising at a steady 65-70mph, even ridden two-up, with Susan on the back.  Our only 'competition' was the 1936 H-D Knuckleheads squeaking into the pre-1937 rules, but a day-long ride on a Knuck over the 11,000' Independence Pass in Colorado, with its endless hairpin turns, revealed there was no comparison between the pride of American engineering, and a cobbled-up masterpiece of British engineering.  Sorry dudes. (Read my 2014 ride report here)The start of this year's rally was hot and oppressive, with daily 95deg temps and 90% humidity.  Jumping in an out of the Sprinter to develop photographs was an experience in hydration management, a subject which became increasingly critical as the days rolled forward, regardless of our 'ride nurse' Vicki 'Spitfire' Sanfelipo handing out electrolite tablets like candy.  Make friends with Gatorade, she said, so we did, and wrung out our sweat-soaked clothing at night (I'll cover our wet plate adventure in a separate post).
Our wet plate of Brent Hansen and his 1913 Shaw motor bicycle, with a very long road before him.
A visit from the locals! Atlantic city crew - the neighborhood '12 O'Clock Boys', although they sheepishly admitted they were 1 or 2 O'Clockers in reality, as a fully vertical wheelie is hard!
Rural Pennsylvania is a lovely place to ride through. We stopped in Collinsville, PA, for some ice cream
Day 1: carnage. The cylinder head on Dave Volnek's 1915 Indian blew out, but he had spares, and the bike was back on the road the next day.
Part of a strong German contingent, Andreas Kaindl rode his 1915 Henderson single-speeder, which he purchased from the Hockenheim Museum, and added a convincing faux-patina paint job. This was Andy's 3rd Cannonball.
Frank Westfall on his 1912 Henderson, and Buck Carson on his 1914 BSA single belt-driver.
A gentleman's mount! Kevin Waters has 'Beamed across America twice now, having ridden a '33 Sunbeam Model 9 the full distance in 2014. His 1915 Sunbeam single was a lovely, and very early, example of the marque.
Trouble begins before the beginning! The 1913 Douglas of Steve Alexander gets a flat in the first 6 miles, at the staging area...
Doug Feinsod, a Cannonball veteran, and one of the 'Thor Losers', a 5-rider team of rare Thor v-twins
Many kind words and thoughts were directed to our friend Bill Buckingham, who was tragically killed 2 weeks before the Cannonball. His usual #40 number plate was carried by a string of other riders, and '40' stickers adorned many bikes. Godspeed, Bill

Wheels & Waves Cayucos

[A co-production of the Southsiders MC and]


The Southsiders MC have been organizing rides in Biarritz/the Pyrenees/Spain since 2009, when we made up a baker's dozen for a few days riding on vintage machines.  I'd met Vincent Prat at the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours in Half Moon Bay in 2008, and he'd invited me to come ride with his friends in France. With exceptional riding roads, little traffic, and terrific Basque food, our merry band of vintagents had found a perfect combination of company and environment. 

Brian Bent and his magnificent Hot Rod Church of Sinners mascot car...

The event was repeated the next year, and the next, growing with each iteration; by 2011, the Southsiders added a party in Toulouse to the ride, with an art exhibit and music, which was the prototype for Wheels&Waves, which began in June 2012 in Biarritz.  That little ride with a dozen of us is now an event with 15,000 attendees, still with the ride in the mountains, and other fun in the region, like the Punk's Peak hillclimb/sprint, and now a flattrack race in Spain, along with the ArtRide exhibit, and music at the central 'village' at the Cité de l'Ocean in Biarritz.  It's a terrific mix of moto-centric fun, and a unique mix of the vintage, custom, chopper, surf, race, and skate scenes.

Go Takamine's Indian Chout - a Chief motor in a Scout chassis.  He said it took him 4 months of 'no sleep' to built it...

What does this have to do with The Vintagent?  It's a strategy: one-make vintage motorcycle clubs, and groups like the VMCC and AMCA, have an aging membership, and their members/boards lament and fret on how to interest younger riders in old machines.  Younger riders are in fact already interested in old machines - alt.custom sites like Pipeburn and BikeExif feature plenty - but aren't interested in hanging around a boring bike club.    A mix of old an new machines is happening organically at events like the BikeShed and Wheels&Waves; what better place to fan the interest of younger riders than to bring old bikes, and ride them in the mix at cool events?

Scotty Topnik's Shovelhead chopper at the Cayucos Skate Park; a natural combination, give how many recent chopper converts are/were serious skaters...

To support this concept, TheVintagent partnered with the Southsiders MC last month to host Wheels&Waves Cayucos, a low-key flag-planting on American soil of a great event.  A few friends were invited to the Swallow Creek Ranch for 2 days of riding through the Central Coast hills, and an opportunity to hang out without distraction.  Our mascot for the event was Richard Vincent, who raced Velocettes and Triumphs in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s, and surfed in the area too.  Richard brought his vintage surfboards, Velocette dirt racers, and a bunch of photographs from his racing/surfing days.  Susan and I shot MotoTintypes with our Wet Plate Van, and portraits of a few friends, which I'm sharing here, along with a few of my iPhone shots.  Stay tuned for next year's event!

The 'Hardley' from Revival Cycles beside an astounding grain elevator in Templeton, built entirely of stacked 2x6" boards!
Jalika and Alp Sungurtekin relax with their pup.  Alp brought his 172mph pre-unit Triumph land speed record bike
Jeanette Mekdara and her Triumph Bonneville
A few of the ladies chill out by Swallow Creek barn
Yours truly with my 1960 Velocette Clubman, and the very brave Suzie Heartbreak
Revival Cycle's fantastic Velocette-Rickman custom
Photographer Polo Garat, a Southsider over from France, on a borrowed Velo...
Choppers play nice with the customs and vintage bikes…
Wayne Dyer brought his funky hotrod
Ana Llorente rode her Honda CB450 Black Bomber  (MotoTintype)
Birds of prey circled the skies...even a rare Falcon was sighted.  It was great to see Ian Barry on the road again.  (MotoTintype)
Dean Micetich  of DiCE Magazine making it all look easy on his Panhead chopper  (MotoTintype)
Conrad Leach and (the late and much lamented) Matt Davis hanging around Brian Bent's hot rod... (MotoTintype)
Roland Sands brought his cool Servi-Car based flat track racer  (MotoTintype)
The ladies of the Southsiders MC are not to be messed with  (MotoTintype)
Photographer Travis Shinn with Roland's H-D.  (MotoTintype)
There were waves, there were wheels.  These vintage surfboards belong to Richard Vincent, who displayed them along with his racing Velocettes, and photos from his racing/surfing days in the early 1960s.   The Southsiders MC - Julien Azé, Jérome Allé, and Vincent Prat - were happy to pose with them...  (MotoTintype)

The Old School at Bonneville

Digging through the bins at my local flea market, I unearthed a gem; a 1952 copy of Cycle magazine.  The cover photo was tremendous; Blackie Bernal's Triumph Thunderbird record-breaker, ready to be foot-shoved off the starting line at the Bonneville Salt Flats.  The pusher's foot sneaks into the photo, but most dramatically, Blackie is wearing nothing that might be called safety equipment, barring a 1930s era 'pudding basin' helmet.  As Rollie Free proved in his 1950 Vincent 150mph 'bathing suit' speed record, less clothing means less drag, and no doubt less heat under the Utah sun.  While the Salt Flats sit at 4200', and temperatures are rarely above 90degrees, the blinding white salt and utter lack of shade on the dry lake bed can be punishing.

Blackie Bernal on his reverse-head Triumph Thunderbird, which averaged 144mph at Bonneville in 1952.  Blackie is wearing long underwear, hi-top tennis shoes, gloves, a helmet, and nothing else!

Blackie Bernal is best known for his use of a 'reverse head' on his Triumph, with the carburetors facing forwards, presumably in the interest of free 'supercharging' of the incoming fuel/air mix.  To this end, he fitted huge metal funnels to his carbs to focus the incoming wind, which presumably included a measure of salt spray as well! He ran and re-ran the black-line course for a full 8 days to reach his goal. While the engineering philosophy behind his work is questionable, there's no doubt his machine was very fast; he averaged 144.338mph over two runs, giving him the 40 cubic" Class A American speed record.

Note the large intake funnels - free supercharging?  Also note the significant ding in the tank - that was courtesy Tommy Smith, which led to skin grafts.

That speed was purchased at the expense of a considerable swath of skin from Bernal's rider, Tommy Smith of Turlock, CA.  He'd come off at over 140mph, and according to Cycle, "had a spellbinding spill. When he had finally stopped grinding bodily across the salt, Tommy arose and waved to the crowd that he was all right, before sinking back to the ground."  Racing on the salt was then suspended for 4 hours, while the ambulance was away with Smith, who required several skin grafts.  One shudders to think of a near-naked bodysurf across the surprisingly rough surface of the salt flats - rubbing salt into the wound indeed!

Blackie Bernal being 'footed' by another rider to start his Triumph Thunderbird, at the starter's scaffold.

The fastest time of the meet in 1952 according to the organizers the Southern California Timing Association (then only 3 years old!) was 168mph, achieved by the 80 cubic" Harley-Davidson Knucklehead of CB Clausen and Bud Hood.   The Knuck had no fairing and no supercharger, but probably ran special fuel - a respectable speed in any era!

Lloyd Bulmer is a legendary figure in Velocette circles – he managed a one-way top speed of 125mph from his 350cc KSS…

Cliff Vaughs – Rest Easy

Cliff Vaughs, best known for his creation of the ‘Easy Rider’ choppers, sailed away from this world quietly on July 2nd from his home in Templeton, CA. Had it not been for Jesse James’ ‘History of the Chopper’ TV series, Vaughs would have likely vanished from history, but the question ‘who built the most famous motorcycles in the world?’ needed an answer. That led Jesse to a sailboat in Panama, where he found Cliff, who’d left the USA in 1974. Why he lived alone on a sailboat in the Caribbean, instead of soaking up praise for his work on ‘Easy Rider’, and his filmmaking , photography, and civil rights work, is a long story. I told some of that story in my book ‘The Chopper; the Real Story’, but Cliff’s life was too big to fit into one chapter of a book, and he dismissed 'Easy Rider' as "Three weeks of my life". 

Cliff Vaughs at the Motorcycle Film Festival panel discussion, which I moderated - a film of his visit to NYC is being edited as we speak (photo courtesy the Motorcycle Film Festival).

Cliff Vaughs was born in Boston on April 16th, 1937, to a single mother, and showed great promise as a student. He graduated from Boston Latin School and Boston University, then earned his MA at the University of Mexico in Mexico City – driving from Boston in his Triumph TR2. Moving to LA in 1961, he encountered the budding chopper scene, and soon had a green Knucklehead ‘chopped Hog’, as he called it; that’s where he befriended motorcycle customizer Ben Hardy in Watts, who became his mentor. Cliff was recruited to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, and brought his chopper to Arkansas and Alabama, where he drag-raced white policemen, and visited sharecropper farms “looking like slavery had never ended.” He added, “I may have been naïve thinking I could be an example to the black folks who were living in the South, but that’s why I rode my chopper in Alabama. I was never sure if the white landowners would chase me off with a shotgun. But I wanted to be a visible example to them; a free black man on my motorcycle.”

Danny Lyon's photo of Cliff Vaughs at a sit-in in Maryland, 1964.  This photo is currently on exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NYC in Danny Lyon's career retrospective 'Message to the Future.'

Cliff’s chopper adventures in the SNCC was a story never told – he was too radical, too provocative, too free for the group. Casey Hayden (activist/politician Tom Hayden’s first wife) remembered Cliff as “a West Coast motorcyclist, a lot of leather and no shirts. Hip before anyone else was hip. A little scary, and reckless.” Cliff’s ex-wife Wendy Vance added “He was a true adventurer. ... There was just some sort of fearlessness in all situations. It did not occur to him that he was a moving target on this motorcycle. At a march in Selma, the civil rights leader John Lewis refused to stand next to him. ‘You are crazy,’ Lewis said, ‘I will not march next to you.’ The fear was that, somehow, Cliff would make himself a target.” 

Cliff ‘Soney’ Vaughs on his chopper on Malibu beach, 1973, courtesy photographer Eliot Gold.

Cliff was indeed a target of many failed shootings, and his tales of riding his chopper in the South were incorporated into ‘Easy Rider', after he returned to LA in 1965 to make films like 'What Will the Harvest Be?', which explored the nascent Black Power movement. Cliff was Associate Producer on 'Easy Rider', and oversaw the creation of the Captain America and Billy choppers, which became the most famous motorcycles in the world. He didn’t get the recognition he deserved for those bikes, partly because the whole crew was fired when Columbia Pictures took over production, and Cliff’s payout/signoff included a clause keeping him off the film’s credits. Publications like Ed Roth’s ‘Choppers Magazine’ explored Cliff’s role in ‘Easy Rider’ from 1968 onwards, but both Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper at various times claimed credit for building those bikes, and Dan Haggerty took credit too. Hopper acknowledged in his last year the seminal role Cliff Vaughs played, as did Peter Fonda, in 2015. Cliff went on to produce ‘Not So Easy’, a motorcycle safety film, in 1974, but left the US to live on a sailboat in the Caribbean the next 40 years.  He was brought back to the US in 2014, as appreciation spread for his contribution to motorcycle history, and he was celebrated at the Motorcycle Film Festival in Brooklyn last year; a documentary from his time in NYC is being edited as this moment. Godspeed, Cliff.

Cliff on Mulholland Drive in 2014, after he’d flown from Slovenia to reunite (briefly) with ‘Captain America’, shot by me on wet plate (

For my first discovery of the lost black history of 'Easy Rider', click here.

For Cliff's story on his role in 'Easy Rider', click here.

For Peter Fonda's acknowledgement of Cliff's role in 'Easy Rider', click here.

- For the NPR story on Captain America, click here.

- For copies of 'The Chopper; the Real Story', click here.

Gearhead Valhalla

[Text/photos by Paul d'Orléans.  Originally published in The Automobile - the best old-car mag on the planet] 

Lake Como’s leafy sentinel towers over the Villa d’Este’s grand gravel terrace, but the hoary Sycamore is chopped further back every year, its once expansive canopy shrinking to a leafy fat spire, providing shade no longer, yet still the axis of the party. The villa’s Renaissance gardens and pebbled grottoes are intact these 500 years; swapping an elderly companion for younger model may be the habit of the Concorso’s wealthy entrants, but the tide of History demands respect for the old tree, as it does for the automobiles and motorcycles celebrated within the grounds.

Best in Show!  The 1928 Grindlay-Peerless 'Hundred Model' ex-'Boy' Tubb Brooklands racer

Anxiety over the Sycamore’s fate defines the beginning and the end of troubles at the Concorso d’Eleganza di Villa d’Este; as lucky guests and journalists float on the music of clinking glass flutes, the poor tree plays Cassandra for the real world’s troubles - vanishingly absent from the scene otherwise. Burbling Rivas deliver the happily elegant to the hotel’s shores, not the desperate, so we may rightfully celebrate the fabulous treasures of our world on the weekend, and return to reality on Monday.

For BMW's centenary (it was established in 1916, making airplanes), this early BMW-powered monoplane was moved (not flown) from villa to villa.  When fired up, an LED display on the prop made the BMW logo - nifty.

For 2016’s iteration of the most coveted spot in the show-car/show-bike calendar, Nature offered a 3-day gap between torrents; tourist-brochure perfect days, suitable for the otherworldly perfection of 50 cars and 40 motorbikes gleaming with elbow-grease, from helper-hands conjuring prize-granting djinns via yellow microfiber cloths. And that, readers, is serious work, conducted by an unsung and invisible army, never thanked from the podium by the Jereboam-armed, ribbon-draped swells who paid their salaries. The Little People, as tactless Oscar winners once at least acknowledged, whose labors transformed the inert cash of connoisseurs into an invitation to this truly incredible party beside Italy’s most beautiful lake. As tax-haven oligarchs stage dramatic, black Amex duels at fine auctions houses, sending car (and now moto) values to the lofty heights inhabited by the finest of arts – the realm of the gods - rolling sculpture has become the last publicly visible evidence of real wealth, as great art disappears into freeport bunkers, and nested shell companies obscure ownership of part-time mansions. 

This original-paint 1939 Triumph Tiger 100 was originally owned by BMW! They bought it for testing/comparison, and soon blew it up.  It lay undisturbed for years, and was recommissioned recently, with its patina intact.  Fantastic.

Temporary membership to this sunshiney, sweet-smelling tableau grants one – e.g. me – a few days’ overlap with wildly different Venn circles; it only hurts when the bubble protecting wealth and beauty floats off, and the sweaty tang of real work and deadlines returns. My nominal job at the Concorso di Moto (judging the assembled treasures) is difficult only in the weighing, discussing, and choosing, which can only be counted a pleasure in such company as the since-1949 Motociclismo fixture Carlo Perelli, the director of Prague’s Technical Museum – Arnost Nemeskal, the chief of BMW’s motorrad design - Edgar Heinrich, French moto-institution Francois-Marie Dumas, and, god bless our host country, the editor of Italian Cosmopolitan, Sara Fiandri, who scatters Milan’s pedestrians like leaves aboard her racy Honda. 

Fellow moto-judge Sara Fiandri in the driver's seat of the 1911 Magnet Selbstfahrer, a remarkable machine, used as a taxi in Berlin originally!

It must be equally true for our automotive counterparts that Choosing is a profession of thick-skinned devils, as subcurrents of politics, aesthetics, nationality, status, and history swirl around every vehicle, while judges argue – oh yes we do – their views on such matters. We have a day to observe, discuss, ponder, and reassemble before the prizegiving ceremony on Sunday, overseen in the case of motorbikes by the affable and poly-tongued Roberto Rasia dal Polo, while the four-wheeled crowd suffers the inconceivably smooth Simon Kidston, whose puns and light verbal pokes reveal his intimate familiarity with the assembly. 

Yours truly aboard the BMW R5 Hommage concept bike, which used original 1935 R5 engine and gearbox castings, with everything else new.  The grotto behind me is original toVilla d'Este from the 1500s.

BMW, owner of the Concorso, litters the grounds of Villa d’Este with new Rolls Royces and prototypes, while neighboring Villa Erba, which hosts the Concorso di Moto, is saddled with drudgeries like a ‘Teens BMW monoplane, a terrific display of concept cars/bikes beside the machines which inspired them, and the public, which has free range on the expansive grasslands of the park. This year’s overall theme was ‘Back to the Future’, which translates from German as ‘retro’ – the concept car unveiled at Friday’s swanky cocktail party claimed parentage from the 40 year old BMW 2002 (though it was hard to see resemblance, it was a sharp effort by Adrian van Hooydonk), while the concept motorcycle was an industry first – no factory to my knowledge has ever used a vintage motor as the basis of a show vehicle. 

A terrific display of rally cars on the grounds, ready to spit some gravel skyward.  A 1972 Ford Escort 1600RS, 1973 Renault Alpine A110, and 1975 Lancia Stratos

The ‘R5 Hommage’ ridden in noisily by Edgar Heinrich (beside designer Ola Stenegard on an original 1936 R5) used the castings of an 80-year old engine as its heart, although the vintage 500cc OHV motor sported a new supercharger, disc brakes, and a discreet swingarm. While seemingly odd for a technophilic team like BMW to dig around its museum for the actual building blocks of a prototype, ‘heritage’ is the most potent design tool in the moto industry today, and the smooth castings of the old flat-twin motor just might point to an upcoming engine redesign? Back to the future, indeed. 

What it looks like in the jury room - not eleganza! But we're in the conference center at Villa Erba, near the motorcycles

Picking winners in the physical context of Lake Como and a pair of grand Villas seems almost gauche – if you’re there, you’ve won, as has your vehicle. But everyone loves the tension of a contest, and so the list: the under-16 public referendum went rightfully to a 1974 Lancia Stratos rally car, while the drinking-agers chose a bottlefly green ’71 Lamborghini Miura P400SV, which only proves the crowd was Italian, and excitable. The gentry strolling the closed party at Villa d’Este preferred a streamlined ’33 Lancia Astura Serie II, while the judges appointed an exquisite ’54 Maserati A6GCS as Best in Show, a title having much to do, I have learned, with what might look best on the cover of next year’s catalog. This was actually discussed amongst the motorcycle jury, and with vehicles of near-equal money-no-object perfect restorations, what Should tip the scales?

Epic; a 1937 HRD-Vincent Rapide 998cc V-twin

But, we are reminded annually that ours is a Concorso di Moto, not an Eleganza, and thus chose the charismatic and oh-so-English 1929 Grindlay-Peerless-JAP ‘Hundred Model’ with illustrious competition heritage from new, multiple Gold Stars from Brooklands, and a fantastically mechanical, and poster unfriendly, all-nickel finish. What bridged a chasm of disagreement among jurors between suavity and pugnacity was a special Jury Award to the very most elegant ’37 Gnome et Rhone Model X with tailfinned Bernardet sidecar, lovely awash in cream and burgundy, which pretty much describes lunch. Wish you were there.

The motorcyclists tour the lake on Saturday, finishing up with a burble across the grounds at Villa d'Este for the entertainment of the hoi polloi.  Several two-stroke bikes guaranteed a Zika-free zone.
Lago di Como


Drama, with a 1937 Bugatti 57C Atalante and 1933 Lancia Astura Serie II
At the far end of Villa d'Este, a Bizzarini, Lamborghini Miura S, and early Countach lurk
All bubbly; 1961 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato and '68 Bizarrini GT Europa
Pushing all that 1925 Böhmerland Reisemodell to the display
The Concorso di Villa d'Este has the best (hardback) event programs in the industry.
Puzzling out the relative simplicity of an early Ferrari V-12 engine
Instructions for Concorso losers
Happiness is Jürg Schmid on his 1938 Gilera VTGS Saturno
Some of the elaborate nickel-ness of the Grindlay-Peerless 'Hundred Model'
The Grindlay-Peerless logo is famously mis-spelled on this tank, and shows up in many books on vintage racers.  When I asked the owner if he'd change it, he said, 'the mistake is too famous now!'
Alberto Soiatti and his peerless restoration of his 1968 Hercules GS
Special Jury Award for the magnificent 1937 Gnome-Rhone Model X- Bernardet outfit of Jean-Claude Conchard
1980 Lamborghini Athon, with body by Bertone - deliciously understated
Timeless design - the Miura is eternal. Bottlefly green, however, comes and goes.
Lovely BMW display of concept vehicles with the originals that inspired them.
Strike a pose, there's nothing to it. Vogue. But dig the pebble mosaic work on this 1500s grotto
Serial #1 'Black Pig', the 1967 MV Agusta 600 of Tobias Aichele


Head of BMW's motorcycle design team, Ola Stenegard, aboard an original 1935 BMW R5
Caught mid-flight, borrowing Sebastien Gutsch's BMW R5 racer around the grounds of Villa Erba
A proper view of the R5 Hommage - the rear end is a 'softail', with a vertical monoshock at rear.  Only the engine and gearbox castings are from the '30s, all else was built by Unique Custom Cycles of Sweden
Not all the beauties at Villa d’Este have wheels…although Katerina Kyvalova has several sets as a driver with the Bentley Belles
A study in abstraction courtesy Ferdinand Porsche
Time makes all things possible, like a Rokon on the grounds of Villa Erba.

Additional benefits of Best in Show – hugs from The Vintagent!


Paul d'Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

‘Norton’ George Cohen

One of my favorite characters in the old bike scene has left the saddle, and the world is poorer for his absence. Dr. George Cohen, otherwise known as 'Norton George' for his devotion to single-cylinder Nortons (plus a certain Rem Fowler's Peugeot-engined TT racer), fought well against an aggressive cancer diagnosed late last year, but knew the jig was up, that swarf had fouled his mains and blocked the oil lines.  What he leaves behind for those lucky enough to have called him friend, is a ton of wry memories, and his distinctive voice echoing through our heads, with some crack about our terrible workshops, ill-prepared machinery, or silly ideas.  He was mad as a hatter for sure, but a hell of a lot of fun to be around.

Dr. George Cohen at the Brooklands Centenary in 2007 – ever the stylish figure

George was also a devotee of using his vintage machinery to the hilt, blasting his favorite 1927 Model 18 Norton racer on the Isle of Man, and the roads around his 'Somerset Shed'.  Arriving by train for a visit to George's sprawling country estate was an exercise in bravery, as he'd likely pick you up in his 1926 Norton Model 44 racer with alloy 'zeppelin' sidecar. Strapping your luggage on the back, and no helmet required, meant you experienced the full terror of an ancient, poorly braked but surprisingly quick big single in flight along the ultra-narrow, deeply dug-in Roman roads of the area. The mighty Bonk of the Norton's empty Brooklands 'can' reverberated along the 8' deep earthen walls, as we tore around blind corners of these unique Somerset roads like Mr Toad and Co., headed for home the fastest way possible.  Unforgettable!

A favorite image of George Cohen blasting along on his 1927 Norton Model 18 TT racer on the Isle of Man

George visited the USA a few times, and we were fellow judges at the Legends of the Motorcycle Concours in 2008, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay.  I'd brought two bikes for us to swap on the Sunday morning Legends Ride - neither a Norton, although I had a 1925 Model 18 racer at the time (it was hors de combat from my own relentless flogging).   So George got to experience a vintage Sunbeam for the first time, as the photos show, which he quite liked ('My Norton is faster', of course he said), but preferred a spin on 'The Mule', my 1933 Velocette KTT mk4, which shared his favorite Norton's camshaft up top.  Well actually it was the other way 'round, as Norton copied the Velocette design!  Which he grudgingly admitted with a half-smile as he hand-rolled another cig.

George and myself in 2008, with my Velocette KTT and Sunbeam TT90 - sorry no Nortons that day!

A few days prior, we'd picked up a pair of racing Nortons from California collector Paul Adams, which were entered into the Concours, and it would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar characters, who both loved Nortons with passion.  Paul Adams is an ex-Navy pilot of many years' experience, with the unflappable reserve of a military man, and George, well, flapped.  Those two were chalk and cheese, and barely kept from breaking into open argument! Still, George later admitted Paul had a very nice collection, and that his workshop was really clean.

George on his only Sunbeam outing, in 2008, on the Legend of the Motorcycle ride

Something else he left behind; his incredible self-published love poem to Norton, created from his personal archive of early factory press materials, photos, and documents - 'Flat Tank Norton'. If you're a fan of early Nortons, it's essential reading, and an entertaining mix - some of the early photos of James Landsdowne Norton himself can be found nowhere else.  'Flat Tank Norton' is the kind of book only a devoted enthusiast can produce, as a publisher would have squeezed out the quirks to increase 'general interest', but they would have taken out the George factor, which is what give the book its tremendous charm.  It needs a reprint, as copies run on Amazon for nearly $1000!

 Another memorable moment with George came not on a bike, but in one of his select few cars, at the 2013 Vintage Revival Montlhéry meeting.  He'd brought his c.1908 Brasier Voiture de Course after breaking down somewhere in France, while driving the all-chain drive monster all the way from his Somerset home.  He'd sorted the brakeless beast, and was enjoying flying laps around the banking, and offered me a ride, which I accepted with something like fear.  George drove like he rode, and the Brasier had no seat belts, roll bars, suspension to speak of, or front brakes, but it did have an enormous 12 Liter Hispano-Suiza V-8 OHC aeroplane engine with 220hp on tap!  I put myself in the hands of Fate, and George.  I climbed aboard, clinging to the scuttle, and filmed the ordeal with one hand, laughing 100% of the time, as he slid the rear end on the short corners, and got as high up the banking as he could, while the behemoth shuddered, roared, bucked, and squealed.  Unforgettable, just like the man.

George with one of his many 'specials' built for customers like Dunhill.
George with the re-created Rem Fowler Norton, winner of the very first Isle of Man TT in 1907.  He rebuilt the machine entirely after the disastrous National Motorcycle Museum fire.
Thumbs up George!  I hate to say it, but goodbye friend.

'Ton Up!' Exhibit In Cyril Huze Post

This has been an incredibly busy summer for The Vintagent: writing a big chunk of the BikeExif/Gestalten book 'The Ride', organizing the 'Ton Up!' exhibit for Sturgis Bike Week, and writing the 'Ton Up!' book for Motorbooks.  Cyril Huze stopped by the 'Ton Up!' Michael Lichter exhibition hall at the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, and filed the following report on his mega-popular Cyril Huze Post on Aug. 6th, 2013.  It's worth a click-back to his site, to read the comments attached, which are always an entertaining mix on CHP...

From the Cyril Huze Post, Aug 6 2013:


Robert Carter's 'Cafe Racers' sign, exhibit along with the work of over 20 artists at 'Ton Up!' Sturgis. [Cyril Huze]
An exhibition focusing on the origins of the Cafe Racer movement is certain to draw huge crowds. Especially it is organized by internationally renowned photographer Michael Lichter. Mike’s 2013 Sturgis Buffalo Chip exhibition to celebrate motorcycles as art is called “Ton Up – Speed, Style and Cafe Racer Culture.”

Co-curators of the 'Ton Up!' exhibition of cafe racer history at the Michael Lichter Gallery within the Buffalo Chip, at Sturgis. [Cyril Huze]
Co-curators Michael Lichter and historian Paul d’Orléans have assembled a comprehensive display of 35 machines from 12 makes and 6 decades. Included in the show are original or modified machines by BMW, BSA, Ducati, Honda, Harley Davidson, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Rickman, Triumph, Vincent and Yamaha.

The amazing Godet-Egli-Vincent of Mars Webster. [Cyril Huze]
In addition the exhibition features never-published photography from the original café racing scene in 1960s England to the present, paintings by Triumph ‘resident artist’ Conrad Leach, images from the Ace Café Collection, vintage leather ‘Rocker’ jackets from the Lewis Leathers archive, the “One-Show” 21-helmets display of custom painted helmets, paintings by Andrea Chiaravalli and photography by Erick Runyon with other artists to be announced.

The Clock Werks modified Triumph Thunderbird Storm. [Cyril Huze]
Each year, the “Motorcycles as Art” exhibition garners tremendous media coverage from around the globe and last Sunday 4th, a record breaking of over 1000 members of the industry attended a media reception offered by Michael, Paul and their sponsors – Hot Leathers and Keyboard Motorcycle Shipping. This not-to-be missed exhibition is now open for the public to view free of charge until Saturday August 10th at the legendary Sturgis Buffalo Chip.

The Harley-Davidson based 'Sporty TT' by Ford stylist Brad Richards. [Cyril Huze]
This year’s exhibition will get even more recognition as it will live on in the coffee-table book “Ton Up – Speed, Style and Cafe Racer Culture,” published by Motorbooks International. Michael Lichter will photograph all the motorcycles in his Sturgis studio for the book, which will also include the jackets, artwork, and photographs from the exhibit.

Cyril Huze with an exhausted Paul d'Orléans, who oversaw the installation of the exhibition [Cyril Huze]
Paul d’Orléans is writing a comprehensive history of the Café Racer movement for the book; from its deep origins in speed-modified road bikes from the ‘Teens, to the ‘classic’ period in England in the 1950s/60s, through its various resurrections in the 1970s, 80s, and especially, with the advent of Internet motorcycle blogs, TV shows, and ‘Café Racer’ magazines, the explosive popularity of the style in the 21st Century.

Willie G. Davidson loaned his #1 XLCR, and related drawings. [Cyril Huze]
Among the featured builders: Herb Harris (Harris Vincent Gallery), Yoshi Kosaka (Garage Co), Mark Mederski (National Motorcycle Museum), Gordon McCall (Quail Motorsports Gathering), plus Willie G Davidson’s #0001 1977 XLCR, and machines from Alain Bernard, Arlen Ness, Bryan Fuller, Brian Klock, Dustin Kott, Greg Hageman, Jason Michaels, Jay Hart, Jay LaRossa, Kevin Dunworth, Ray Drea (Harley-Davidson design director), Roland Sands, Skeeter Todd, Steve “Brew Dude” Garn, Steve “Carpy” Carpenter, Thor Drake, and Zach Ness. Included in the show are original or modified machines by BMW, BSA, Ducati, Honda, Harley Davidson, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Rickman, Triumph, Vincent and Yamaha."

Champions Moto 'Brighton' Triumph Bonneville [Cyril Huze]
Bryan Fuller of Fuller Motors, who is branching out to motorcycle customization after years in the hot rod scene. [Cyril Huze]

The Best Bike BMW Never Made?

The 1934 BMW ‘R7’ prototype is one of the most talked-about and best-loved motorcycles of the 1930s, yet it never left the factory, and was known only through a single, mysterious photo for over 70 years. The life story of this graceful machine is an untold tale of aesthetic movements, internal factory politics, and harsh commercial realities, in which this lovely motorcycle remained a ghostly ‘might have been’.

First conceived in 1933, the R7 began with a simple brief; create a wholly new motorcycle as ‘range leader’ to replace the R16, introduced in late 1928. The R16 used a chassis built from stamped-steel pressings (sometimes called the ‘Star’ frame), a cost reducer which eliminated the skilled labor necessary to weld or hearth-braze a tube frame. Previous BMW frames had a Bauhaus simplicity, while the pressed-steel ‘Star’ gained a shapely Art Deco flair. The new look begged an aesthetic question too compelling to ignore, given the general industrial trend towards Streamlined shapes on cars, airplanes, trains, and toasters. If the R16 whispered Art Deco, what would a total embrace look like?

The responsibility for this new machine likely fell to Alfred Böning, the designer of BMW motorcycle chassis from the 1930s onwards. While no names were attached to the curved frame and swooping mudguards of the R7, “it is perfectly clear the hand of an artist was involved”, according to Stefan Knittel, author of several books on BMWs. The prototype R7 is elegant, simple, and perfectly balanced – did Böning unleash a hidden flair for styling, or were BMW automotive ‘fender men’ called in for a bit of curvaceous appeal? In the early 1930s, individual designers were rarely celebrated, although a few ‘stars’ in the industrial design world were rising, like Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes. BMW first gave kudos to their ‘pencils’ with the 1940 Mille Miglia streamlined racing cars…in the 1980s! No surprise then that so little remains of the R7’s genesis.

While the styling was obviously radical for BMW, the engine and gearbox were equally innovative, a fact discovered only during restoration of the dismantled R7, in 2005. Likely drawn up by Leonhard Ischinger, BMW’s ‘engine man’ in the 1930s-50s, the engine bears a superficial resemblance to the rest of BMW range, but the crankcase and gearbox castings are one-offs, as are their internals. The cylinder heads and barrels are a single casting, as per aero-engine practice at the time; one less joint to leak. The unique crankcase was shaped to seamlessly fit the monococque chassis from which it hangs. The front forks are a BMW first in being fully telescopic, leading the rest of the motorcycle industry by several years. Internally, the camshaft is placed atop the crankshaft, and the gearbox uses a primary shaft separate from the gear cluster, which slows down the gear speed and helps reduce the notorious shaft-drive ‘clunk’ when shifting. These last two ideas appeared in BMW bikes in the 1950s, when Böning was finally able to incorporate them on production machines.

The R7 weighed in at 165kg (5kg lighter than the R16) with engine capacity 793cc, producing 35hp @ 5000rpm (2hp more than the R16), breathing through Amal-Fischer carburetors with accelerator pumps (!) and swill-pots to cure any fuel starvation while cornering. Thus the experimental model had seriously hot performance, being capable of over 90mph while looking sensational. Superbike, anyone?

When completed in 1934, the R7 wasn’t exhibited or press-released; it appears to have been shelved immediately.The first the world knew of the ‘Art Deco’ BMW was a magazine article on the new R5 model in 1936, which included a retouched side-view photo captioned “what could have been”. That solitary photo launched decades of mystique around the R7, giving rise to the Question: why on earth didn’t BMW manufacture this beautiful machine?

Complicated forces worked against the R7. While the prototype is a hand-fabricated one-off, actual production would require huge investment in tooling for the metal pressings, new castings for the engine, gearbox, and cylinders, plus setup for all the unique internal parts. With only a few hundred of their excellent R16 sold, recovering the tooling investment was unlikely. Also, BMW were aware that motorcyclists are very conservative consumers, and bikes which read as ‘design exercises’ in sheet metal were never successful: the Mars (Germany), the Ascot-Pullin (England), and the Majestic (France) all trod a similar path to the R7, being ‘ideal’ designs of innovation and great style, yet doomed to commercial failure. Motorcyclists of the Vintage period, dedicated gearheads all, wanted the fiery beating hearts of their mounts visible in all their complication; this remains our enduring delight.

Internal factory politics certainly played a hand as well. Rudolf Schleicher, chief of motorcycling at BMW, was convinced the ‘range leader’ should be a sporting motorcycle, not a luxury machine, and factory notes indicate his plan for a supercharged motorcycle for the public! The prototype of his blown roadster was seen in the BMW ISDT team of 1935, but such an ‘ultimate motorcycle’ was seriously impractical; “Every owner would need his own specialist mechanic, and BMW didn’t want private competition for their factory racing team,” notes Stefan Knittel. As it was, neither Blown nor Deco was produced, but the telescopic forks and curvaceous mudguards of the R7 did find their way onto the R17 model.

The R7 was dismantled, but never destroyed; it remained at the factory, strapped to a wooden palette in the factory basement, well known to BMW employees. It must have been dear to Alfred Böning’s heart, as he kept it close at hand until his retirement in the 1970s. By this time, BMW was re-collecting its history, with their famous ‘bowl’ museum opening in Munich for the 1972 Olympics. While a clamor arose in the 1980s to revive the R7, it wasn’t until 2005 the task was handed to two legendary restorers; Armin Frey undertook the mechanicals, while Hans Keckeisen massaged the sheet metal. The results are sensational.

The 1934 R7 prototype is an unquestioned design success - a graceful and beautiful study of flowing lines, curves, and feminine masses. Almost to a person, especially to non-motorcyclists, it is considered one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever made. As good as it is, the R7 is a total philosophical departure from what is best about BMW during its first 60 years; restraint. The extravagance expressed by the R7 is shockingly French - more Delahaye than Bauhaus.That the R7 was never serially produced makes complete sense, but 75 years on, she’s still a heartbreaker.

This article was written for the 2011 Amelia Island Concours catalog.  Copies of the catalog may be available. Many thanks to Stefan Knittel for his insights and information.


Paul d'Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.