100 Years of Montlhéry: VRM 2024

Rumors have swirled for years that the Centenary of the Montlhéry autodrome, organized by Vincent Chamon and his team at Vintage Revival Montlhéry (VRM), would be the last.  Those who know the magic of this august racing circuit, a bowl filled with the ghosts of racing past, quickly submitted eligible pre-1940 racing cars and motorcycles, with priority given to vehicles that had raced at the track in its heyday of racing and record-breaking.  And so they came: a bumper crop of incredibly rare and storied vehicles, many only read about in magazines and books.  Plenty of applicants were turned away to make space for the best of the best, whose owners had taken pains to bring over 500 of their machines not for show, but for go.

While Brough Superiors rarely raced at Montlhéry, they broke plenty of speed records just a few kilometers down the road at Arpajon, which has a nice straight highway into town. This is Howard Wilcox's SS100 in its original paint, which he rode to the event from England. The autodrome's banking and tunnel track entrance can be seen in the background. [Paul d'Orléans]
Everyone knows concrete race tracks of a certain age are bumpy, and get worse with time, as the expansion joints between poured or cast sections shift and widen.  Brooklands was the worst of the lot, according to those who rode/drove there, built when the technology for pouring banked racetracks with concrete was new.  Montlhéry was a close second in the bumpy stakes, regardless that the engineering of a giant concrete tracks had evolved from a humped earth mound like Brooklands to an engineered steel-and-concrete construction by 1924. While Brooklands is a ruin today, Montlhéry is still in regular use, although it's doubtful any improvements / amendments / repairs have been made to its crumbling surface in many decades.  And still they come, for the romance of the place.

Fantastic Bugatti Type 35 with period Art Deco paint job. [Paul d'Orléans]
Montlhéry has notoriously little infrastructure for the public, which dates right back to its origins: the owner, architects, and builders had simply forgotten to include grandstands in the plans, so they were a literal afterthought. Thus there are no built-in concession stands, few toilets, and little comfort for the public.  Everything necessary must be hauled in for the weekend, and vendors secured, with the available food best described as 'better to bring your own lunch', although there was an oyster trailer hidden far down behind the car tents this year!  Whoo! And, there's an exhibition hall in the center of the track (jokingly nicknamed 'the Guggenheim') that serves a very good hot lunch, which you wouldn't have known about (I didn't) unless you'd entered a vehicle and been given a meal ticket.  These were improvements.

Maja Weber with the 1914 Harley-Davidson J racer she rode at the event. Show and go! [Paul d'Orléans]
Gone are the days, though, when you could camp in the acres of forest in the heart of the circuit, and wander around at 6am (or 2am) to climb the banking and take photos on the actual track.  Those are treasured memories from the 1990s, racing at Coupe Moto Légende before it moved to the user-friendly race circuit at Dijon. A void was left for vintage racing at Montlhéry, which was filled 15 years ago by the youthful Vincent Chamon, and his team at VRM: it's been a success since the very first event in 2011, which I was lucky to attend, vowing to return every two years to support the magic of vintage racing at this amazing venue.

Period correct aero-engine V-8 hot rod of the most delicious type. [Paul d'Orléans]
Given the lack of infrastructure and visitor comfort, one might expect a weekend event at Montlhéry to be uncomfortable and little supported - the opposite of glamorous Goodwood, with its swanky entrants, tremendous car park, quality vendors and food tents, and vibe of family fun in a noisy amusement park.  VRM is Goodwood's oily-handed sibling, too busy adjusting its carburetors to visit the champagne tent ... which is exactly why I think it's the best vintage motorsport event on the planet.  It's dirty, inconvenient, hard to access, you're likely to get a spot of oil on your clothes, and must constantly be on guard to avoid being run over by a Bugatti or Koehler-Escoffier or a madman piloting an ancient cyclecar with no brakes.  But, that's how close you are at all times to some of the most important pre-war racing cars and motorcycles in the world, being used as their makers intended, sometimes in the same family hands as when they were campaigned at the pinnacle of their racing careers.

The first meeting of the 1926 Rex-Acme Blackburne Club, with members from across Europe! [Paul d'Orléans]
This Centenary year saw a bumper crop of over 500 cars and motorcycles, more than ever before - by a long shot in the case of bikes.  There was support from museums and factories, who brought their treasure out to play, a gesture much appreciated by the crowd.  This year that included Audi Tradition, who brought a string of legends including the awesome V16 Auto Union Grand Prix, and The Originals Renault, who brought historic record-breaking cars from the 1920s, and an incredible racing plane!  The list of entrants is too long (you can see them all here), but to summarize, included were 37 Bugatti Grand Prix racers, 20 racing Morgan three-wheelers, plus numerous Alfa-Romeos and Amilcars to Peugeots, Tatras, and two Wanderers from Audi Tradition - a '34 W22 coupé and '38 W25K streamliner.  There were over 160 motorcycles on the track, plus plenty of display vehicles to ogle on two, three, and four wheels, plus wings.  And a well-supported autojumble for moments of contemplation, and temptation.

Got steering wheel? Well, the autojumble do. [Paul d'Orléans]
As an homage to upcoming Paris Olympics (and I'm so glad that's NEXT month!), the deDion-Bouton Club held a re-run of the Paris-Toulouse-Paris motor race held during the second modern Olympic games of 1900.  Team Jarrott, named for the foundational racing driver Charles Jarrott, who raced a deDion in the world's first official motor vehicle race held in 1897, brought 20 1890s trikes to Montlhéry for special circuits of the track, the likes of which you're unlikely to see anywhere else.  These folks are deliriously nuts, and hold regular trike races in the UK...reaching heady speeds of 60km/h and leaning into corners like sidecarrists.

Two of the more than 20 DeDion trikes come for a different Centenary, of the Olympics. [Paul d'Orléans]
The highlight of my visit was an invitation from Dr. Robin Tuluie, whom I've known since the 1980s in our Roadholders MC days, to passenger in his remarkable home-built racing special, the 1929 Menasco Pirate.  The chassis is Riley, but the resemblance stops there, as Rob sourced one of Albert Menasco's racing Pirate aero engines from California - a 4-cylinder air-cooled 6 liter beast with 230hp - and clad it in a lightweight aluminum racing body, with an all up weight of just over 1500lbs.  I wrote up Rob's back story, and some about the Pirate, in a previous article, but suffice to say he's won Daytona four times on motorcycles of his own construction (including the notorious Tul-Aris), and taken four Formula 1 Grand Prix World Championships as the chassis designer for Renault and Mercedes-Benz teams.  Rob's antics on the track had spectators cheering and corner workers giving thumbs-up, as he four-wheel drifted and slithered through the chicanes, and thundered past the Bugattis and Alfas on the banking and the straights.  Rob likes to win, even when there's nothing to win.

With Dr Robin Tuluie and the Menasco Pirate, ready to hit the track. [Paul d'Orléans]
A borrowed helmet and gloves was good enough for tech - these are 'demonstration' laps after all - and I knew it would be a wild ride, even if Rob promised to 'take it easy'.  As if he could!  The narrow cockpit required an arm around Rob's shoulder on the track, but no squeezing in fear as the man had to haul the steering wheel, and it was my job to keep the hell out of the way as he flew around the track. Exhilarating is hardly the word; you haven't lived until you've circulated a racetrack in fear of your safety, or your life!  I've ridden the banking myself on motorcycles fast (Velocette KTT Mk8) and slow (Ner-a-Car!), and passengered in insane cars (the late George Cohen's no-brakes, chain-drive aero-engined Brazier, and in the rally car used as 'sweep' after each stage), but to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with an old friend in a demonstration of masterful, fast, prewar driving skills, was one of my life's treasured moments.

Rob making a quick pre-run oiling session for the exposed OHV gear on the four-cylinder air-cooled Menasco engine. The keen-eyed noted a few interesting parts, like the 3D printed Menasco float bowl chamber caps, but couldn't see a few 3D printed ex-F1 suspension parts, or the metal-sprayed linings for the home-made brake drums. [Paul d'Orléans]
Not many Americans (North or South) attend VRM, which is a shame, but understandable.  I traveled in full economy mode this year, re-discovering the joys of a 50 euro hotel room in Paris and microbox rental car, to splurge on the rich experience of the ancient racetrack, the 500 historic racers, and the fantastic friendly spirit of Vintage Revival.  Enjoy the photos!

A wonderful Windhoff oil-cooled Four at the Yesterdays display. See our Road Test here! [Paul d'Orléans]
The man of the hour, VRM founder Vincent Chamon. "I will not organize another VRM, but that does not mean there will not be another. I'm talking with a few event promotors..." Best of luck, and fingers crossed. [Paul d'Orléans]
Ridden not hidden...to the circuit. A lovely Velocette Endurance. [Paul d'Orléans]
Streamlining made simple, for bicycles. The unusual, and historic, Velo Torpille. [Paul d'Orléans]
Late in the day on Sunday, the clouds opened for a dramatic close to this Centenary event. [Paul d'Orléans]
Well dressed in period style! Suggested, not required. [Paul d'Orléans]
Motorcycles are dwarfed by the sheer scale of the concrete banking at Montlhéry. [Paul d'Orléans]
From the passenger seat: about to pass the lot of them on the banking. [Paul d'Orléans]
Several lucky kids drove around in micro-cars like the BMW 328, avoiding the perils of much bigger cars heading to the circuit. [Paul d'Orléans]
It's better with three! After hours with the gang on their Terrot sidevalver. [Paul d'Orléans]
A pale blue Talbot racer awaits the inevitable rainstorm. [Paul d'Orléans]
Proper tail! The rear end of Kim II, the very special and historic G.N. racer once owned by Charles Sgonina. [Paul d'Orléans]
At the tent of The Automobile Magazine, a last bastion of good writing about historic vehicles (which I write for occasionally). At dinner with their entourage, someone asked what car I drove in Mexico. When I answered 'a 2018 Subaru Outback with a 3" lift kit', this gent said 'Oh, I designed that car.' Meet Peter Stevens, who also designed the McLaren F1. [Paul d'Orléans]
The control tower for the autodrome, a charming Modernist design, with announcer Igor Biétry highest. [Paul d'Orléans]
Sebastien Chirpaz, founder of the superb clothing line A Piece of Chic, who is perhaps his own best model. [Paul d'Orléans]
Scott Barrett, who took over as Editor of The Automobile Magazine this year, as Jonathan Rishton took over as Publisher. Wishing them all success! [Paul d'Orléans]
The engine room of a lovely 1926 Rex-Acme Blackburne racer. [Paul d'Orléans]
It might bite! The engine room of the 1926 Renault 40CV record-breaker, in the factory display. [Paul d'Orléans]
Best in red! The 1907 Fiat F2 6 130HP Grand Prix car, and a matching spectator. [Paul d'Orléans]
Parallel twins before Triumph (1): the 1921 Peugeot M2 500cc OHC parallel twin Grand Prix racer. [Paul d'Orléans]
Parallel twins before Triumph (2): a 1920 Blériot 500cc twin with rear springing and hand controls. Made by the same company who built pioneering aircraft. [Paul d'Orléans]
Lots of Velocette KTTs hit the track, including this 1932 KTT Mk3 converted to Mk4 spec, ridden by Guy de Vleeschouwer. [Paul d'Orléans]
A very historic 1925 Norton Model 25 racer, that took many long-distance records at the track. It was the first Norton with an integral oil pump and recirculating oiling; note the square lump on the crankcase below the timing chaincase. Proper. [Paul d'Orléans]
One of a very few 1926 Indian A45 OHV racers sent to Europe. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Deutsched Motorrad Museum Neckarsulm brought this rare Husqvarna 500 Grand Prix racer, with its superb looks and crackling sound. [Paul d'Orléans]
Graeme Hardy makes everything more fun, with his impersonations of Tazio Nuvolari and other characters of the 1920s. [Paul d'Orléans]
Narrow conditions! The working room of a G.N. racer with V-twin engine. [Paul d'Orléans]
Funky Flames: even a Ford Model A is welcome! This machine was driven from England, towing a very special trailer built of period race car parts, and hauling several cool motorcycles. [Paul d'Orléans]
This DKW SS350 was repatriated from the Soviet Union, after being hauled away for study during WW2. [Paul d'Orléans]
The engine room of a supercharged Bugatti T35: all business. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Beast of Turin was a special guest star, as seen on Instagram videos everywhere. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Audi Tradition display was not popular due to these barriers - not the spirit of the event, and the only display to keep the curious at bay. [Paul d'Orléans]
Need a bike? Head to the autojumble, there were plenty, from Moto Guzzi Falcones to Norton Internationals. Did I ask? Yes... [Paul d'Orléans]
 

 

 

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

 

 

 


The Quail: A Watersports Gathering

We'd avoided it for 14 years, but finally the rain came, and made up for all those sunny Saturdays (and Fridays for the Quail Ride) by dumping an inch and a half of water in two hours onto the motorcycles at The Quail: a Motorcycle Gathering, to use its official name.  Readers from anywhere but California will roll their eyes, as events get rained on in most of the world regardless of the season, but recent climatic changes mean we no longer get 'rain' here; we get 'atmospheric rivers' that dump with tropical fervor.  As some wag once said, 'motorcycles don't melt in the rain', and well over a hundred enthusiasts parked their precious survivors on the lawn regardless the forecast, and stuck around for the duration.

Best in Show winner Vic World's 1968 Honda CB750 one-of-one prototype, the oldest surviving example. I'm praising the machine while Chief Judge Somer Hooker ponders his choice, and Vic World looks pleased. [Quail Events]
We'd had a fantastic Quail Ride the previous day under a perfect bluebird sky, with an interesting selection of bikes...but not enough vintage iron (but of course I'd say that) with about 35 of the 100 machines built before 1990.  Included were a couple of Vincent twins - one of which swelled its front brake linings (?) and was the only hors de combat entrant - several lovely Triumphs and Earles fork BMWs, all years of Moto Guzzis, a few vintage and modern two-strokes, Norton Commando, and even a Bimota Tesi for visual interest.  I do understand, of course, riding a new machine, especially if you've ridden it to the event, but I'd like to encourage next year's riders to bring out yer oldies, as the ride supports and is related the Concours, no?  Ride your Concours entry next year and prove your restoration is more than skin deep?

Not a restoration: a rare and totally original Bultaco Metralla with full factory race kit was as-last-raced: the owner also brought a Parilla Gran Sport and Wildcat in similar condition - fantastic! [Paul d'Orléans]
I rode my '59 Moto Guzzi Falcone Sport on Friday, after a very quick turnaround from Mexico the day before, and no time to attend the machine since its sterling performance on the Melo Velo Rally last October.  She ran beautifully, although the fishtail tried to swim away, and the points closed up, suddenly halting progress twice.  Luckily, our Legend of the Sport for this year, four-time AMA National Champion Ricky Johnson, had given me his business card at the morning's coffee pit stop.  Came in very handy for cleaning and resetting the points, and the bike went faster, I swear!  I wrung the poor thing's neck around Laguna Seca, but the breeding showed through, and even descending the Corkscrew felt safe as houses, with the flat single's center of gravity slightly below axle level.

Laguna Seca at a 'brisk pace' during the Quail Ride: a true highlight of the calendar year. Look at those blue skies! They returned on Sunday... [Paul d'Orléans]
Ricky Johnson, besides being a rare champion of both two- and four-wheeled off-road racing, turned out to be an eloquent and very quotable speaker.  "Motorcycles have never let me down.  If I'm feeling down, I get on a motorcycle, and I feel better.  If I want to go have fun, I get on a motorcycle, and I have fun."   And, "When I was a kid, I pictured myself as an adult on a motorcycle, winning races.  Now that I'm older, and really did those things, I still feel like a kid on a motorcycle.  Motorcycles make a kid feel like a man, and a man feel like a kid."  He also, more humorously, called out the participants in the Quail Ride for passing by a Vincent rider whose bike was having trouble; "Don't you guys usually stop for a rider in trouble?  You're a bunch of savages."

Wayne Rainey, Ricky Johnson, and Gordon McCall having a deep and funny conversation, with real insight into the experience of racing, winning, and crashing. [Paul d'Orléans]
The morning of the Concours started out dry but grey, and word from the Quail had spread: bring your pop-up tent.  And many did, though it didn't help much by noon, when the deluge began.  I'd done my rounds early to grab a glance at the superb machinery on display and say my hellos, so photography was done early.  The rain didn't really start until noon, while event founder Gordon McCall was interviewing Ricky Johnson and World Champion Wayne Rainey (ha!) under, yes, a tent over the podium main stage.  Thankfully the Quail had set up a second very large tent in front of the stage, which was packed with folks who wanted to hear a conversation between legends, and as noted above, it was delightful.  And then, it started raining horizontally, the conversants got very wet regardless the awning, and quite a few folks decamped into the Lodge proper for lunch and conversation - it was packed!

Rody Rodenburg's 1940 Daytona Triumph Tiger 100 with bronze head and original condition sat inside a Ford Thames van - nice double display. [Paul d'Orléans]
Featured classes this year included the 30th Anniversary of the Ducati 916, 25th Anniversary of the Suzuki Hayabusa, 100th Anniversary of the American Motorcyclist Association, and 78 years of the Vespa (JK, it was just 'A celebration of Vespa' - I wrote an essay for the event brochure on the history of Piaggio and the Vespa, which you can read here).   There are a dozen other classes and categories, and a small army of judges led by Somer Hooker to look them all over very carefully, but very quickly this year, as we had a feeling the schedule would necessarily be compressed by rain.  Shout out to the intrepid judges who volunteer from early morning, and don't get to schmooze all day like the rest of attendees.  Bring A Trailer set up a large tent outside the Quail with bikes currently on their site, plus a couple of dozen brought by owners of machinery purchased in their auctions.  That's a growing cadre, as at any given moment BaT has about 70 bikes on sale, and somehow fetches prices far above what the traditional auction houses are managing.  Perhaps the deep descriptions and community commentary make for more confident purchasers?  Something other auction houses might consider...

Famous authors love bikes too! Rachel Kushner (Flamethrowers, The Hard Crowd, Mars Room) reached out a while back for advice on restoring her father's Series D Vincent, and the job was done beautifully (by Ziggy Dee - check out our MotoTintype on his home page). We'd only corresponded by email, but she accompanied the finished bike to the Quail: she's always working motorcycles into her novels! [Paul d'Orléans]
Unfortunately the Quail's PA does not extend inside the Lodge, so when I announced after the Ricky/Wayne/Gordon interview that our prizegiving ceremony would begin forthwith, and not involve folks pushing their bikes across the stage, many didn't hear.  We did want the Best in Show bike and the Spirit of the Quail winners on stage for photos, and as emcee I figured it was my task to ensure they damn well arrived!  It took a moment to convince Vic World to push his gleaming, one-of-one pre-production 1968 Honda CB750 prototype across a wet lawn in a driving rain a couple of hundred yards to the stage, although whispering he'd won Best of Show changed that to a happy task.  His Honda is extraordinary, as the earliest example extant of one of the top five most important motorcycle designs in the world (The others?  Great idea for a story).  A worthy winner.

Jason Momoa (Aquaman! maybe it's his fault) brought a trio of JAP-powered beauties: two Brough Superior SS100s and Max Hazan's amazing supercharged JAP 8/80 custom. As usual, it's a devastatingly beautiful machine, and works! [Paul d'Orléans]
The Spirit of the Quail award went to the team of Johnny Green and Evan Wilcox, who built an Art Deco-inspired Seeley-Norton Commando.  The customer - Barry Weiss - wanted 'a Raymond Loewy Art Deco toaster with speed whiskers', according to Evan (a legendary metalsmith), so that's what he got.  It's a wild machine, and not to everyone's taste, but no on can deny the extraordinary workmanship by these standouts in the old bike world - kudos!  And, they didn't mind it getting wet either, despite the carburetor bellmouths poking skyward like baby birds.

Open bellmouths on the Deco Commando creation of Johnny Green and Evan Wilcox, winner of the Spirit of the Quail award. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Quail team, led by the velveteen hammer Courtney Ferrante, is always cheerful and competent, and gets it all done with efficiency and aplomb, even when it's all going south and plans have to be changed very quickly.  As Gordon texted afterwards, "I've never had to implement a 'Plan D' before, but now I know that is possible!"  We were interviewed for Jason Momoa's TV series after the event, and Gordon's takeaway statement on the difference between car and bike people was "If this was a car show, it would have been cancelled!" As a man who's put on important car shows, and essentially created Car Week around Pebble Beach when he started The Quail: a Motorsports Gathering (as well as the McCall Motorworks Revival, or 'jet center party'), he would know!

A Honda Z50 Monkey modified by Von Dutch for Steve McQueen to use during filming of 'The Reivers'. [Paul d'Orléans]
As proof, despite the Biblical level rain, the motorcyclists remained cheerful, and knew the 2024 Quail would be remembered as the one where the real enthusiasts showed up despite the forecast.  They pressed on regardless, and had a great time after all.

Oh, to be a kid again! This Malanca Sports was the dream machine of European 15 year olds as a learner-legal hotrod. [Paul d'Orléans]
The blower intake on Max Hazan's amazing hand-built machine. [Paul d'Orléans]
A trio of Honda 77s, C and CB. [Paul d'Orléans]
A custom Harley-Davidson homage to the board track era, with a very cool OHV motor in a 1941 chassis. [Paul d'Orléans]
Evan McGreevy's 1955 Velocette MSS was heavily modified by Velo Club legend Cary 'McSquid'. I purchased the bike from his estate, and sold it to Evan's father many years ago. [Paul d'Orléans]
Jason Momoa's original-paint Brough Superior SS100, purchased I believe from Vintagent sponsor Bryan Bossier / Sinless Cycles. It ran a treat! [Paul d'Orléans]
Bring your perfect bike hauler too! Love this Studebaker pickup. [Paul d'Orléans]
A 1974 Suzuki GT750 waiting to take on Laguna Seca. Remember, when they took your two-strokes, they took part of your joy. [Paul d'Orléans]
Super Sweet pre-unit Triumph TR6SC. [Paul d'Orléans]
The aching beauty of a 1926 Moto Guzzi C2V, the racing OHV model built just before the OHC 4-valve C4V. [Paul d'Orleans]
A star of the show; one of the Featured Marques was Vespa, and you won't find one older than this 1946 Model 98. [Paul d'Orléans
 

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

 


The Motorcycle Portraits: Gordon McCall

The Motorcycle Portraits is a project by photographer/filmmaker David Goldman, who travels the world making documentaries, and takes time out to interview interesting people in the motorcycle scene, wherever he might be.  The result is a single exemplary photo, a geolocation of his subject, and a transcribed interview.  The audio of his interviews can be found on The Motorcycle Portraits website.

The following is a portrait session with Gordon McCall, the founder of The Quail, a Motorcycle Gathering, the McCall Motorworks Revival, and the The Quail, a Motorsports Gathering.  Gordon is brilliant at hosing a vehicle show that feels like a party.  Gordon basically created Monterey Car Week, after decades of working with the Pebble Beach Concours, then branching out on his own to create something more fun. David Goldman caught up with Gordon in Carmel Valley on January 21, 2022, and asked him a few questions about motorcycling: the following are his responses:

Gordon McCall photographed in his office in Carmel Valley CA. [David Goldman]
Please introduce yourself:

My name is Gordon McCall, we're here in Monterey, California, where I'm a lifelong resident of the Monterey Peninsula. I'm CEO of McCall Events Incorporated, I'm the co-founder of the Quail, a Motorsports Gathering, as well as the Quail, a Motorcycle Gathering, which takes place annually at Quail Lodge and Golf Club. And I'm also responsible for McCall's Motorworks Revival at the Monterey Jet Center, held each August.

Gordon with his first motorcycle, a Honda CL90. [Angela Decenzo, courtesy of Gordon McCall]
How did you get started with motorcycles?

How I got started with motorcycles is really simple for me to describe. It happened at a really early age: Cycle World magazine was a big influence on me, and when I turned 14, I saw an ad for a Honda CL90 in the local newspaper, and I thought, you know, I need to sell my 10-speed and buy a motorcycle. Never ridden one, didn't know what they were like to ride, but I knew I had to have one.

That Honda CL90 that I bought when I was 14 lit the fuse for me with motorcycles. As far as I'm concerned, I mean, I think of that bike every day, I get to look at it every day, I still own it. I'm in my 60s now, so it's been a while, but that motorcycle taught me everything. It taught me how to work on motorcycles, how to ride motorcycles, how not to get in trouble, how to push the envelope and the rules a little bit.

My parents didn't know I had it. I couldn't get in trouble, or else the gig was over. So it turns out it's a pretty common problem, or story, I should say.  That motorcycle has led to, gosh, I don't know how many motorcycles I've owned in my life, but I can't get enough of them, and I ride, not every day, but I ride today like I did when I was 14.

A 'wet plate' portrait of Gordon McCall by the MotoTintype team of Paul d'Orléans and Susan McLaughlin, from 2018. [MotoTintype.com]
Share a great story or experience that could only have happened thanks to motorcycles.

Motorcycling has led to so many adventures in my life, and has enabled me to meet people that I know for a fact I would have never have met without an interest in motorcycling. It's such a common denominator on so many different levels. It's such a personal thing, you know, you can't fake it on a motorcycle.

You either know how to ride, or you don't. There's no posing, for lack of a better description. It's authentic people with authentic passions that are into it for, basically, we're all into it for the same reason, the independence, the freedom. Again, it's something that I share with the people that I've met. I just feel grateful that I have such an interest in two wheels, and have had the opportunity to meet other people with the same. It's pretty remarkable.

Gordon McCall, with Mark Hoyer giving the Cycle World award to Shinya Kimura at the 2014 Quail Motorcycle Gathering. See our Road Test of Shinya's remarkable MV Agusta here. [The Quail Events]
What does motorcycling mean or represent to you?

Well, motorcycling means absolutely everything to me. By profession, I'm technically in the car world, but motorcycles have been a big part of my life, long before cars were, at a very early age, earlier than when I had a driver's license. What motorcycles have taught me is priceless in my book. Not only the people I've met, but also the skills I've acquired, and the determination I've required. There's nothing more frustrating than being on a motorcycle that has a mechanical issue, and you're out in the middle of nowhere. You better figure it out, or else you're not going to get to there. I credit all of that back to motorcycles.

Typical Quail Motorcycle Gathering vibe, with Gordon McCall interviewing GP World Champions Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson, with AMA Grand National Champion Bubba Shobert, in 2023. [Quail Events]
Again, if I wasn't exposed to that, I don't know if these other things that have come to me in my life would have happened. The motorcycle is the DNA that has triggered the switch every single time. Continues to, to this day, whether it's putting on shows, buying, trading, selling motorcycles. I've met some of the most interesting people through motorcycle transactions. It's amazing. There's so many people that are into bikes that people don't even know they're into bikes. You know, it's kind of a closet thing for a lot of folks. A lot of other people wear it on their sleeve. It's a complete, wide range of diversity that I feel honored to be a part of.

 

David Goldman is photographer and filmmaker who has traveled the world on projects documenting human trafficking, maternal health and marginalized people. He also interviews and photographs motorcyclists in this travels for his series The Motorcycle Portraits. You can follow his website here, his IG here, and his FB here. Explore all his stories for The Vintagent here.

 


Road Test: Sunbeam Shoot-Out!

1924 Model 5 vs. 1925 Model 6 Longstroke Sports

[Mar 24, 2008]

Sunbeam motorcycles were built by John Marston Ltd. starting in 1912 in Wolverhampton, England, as an outgrowth of Marston's highly successful Sunbeam bicycle business.  Marston began his career in 1851, manufacturing 'japanware'; glossy enameled home accessories and furniture with a luxurious black or red finish and gold leaf accents, modeled after traditional Japanese lacquer ware.  Japanware was all the rage in the late 1800s, and in 1887 Marston took the advice of his wife Helen and expanded his business into the booming bicycle trade.  With over 30 years of experience in top quality paint and gold leaf, Marston's Sunbeam bicycles were renowned for the superb black and gold finish, and for the patented pressed-metal 'Little Oil Bath' chaincase that kept the rider's trousers clean.  Sunbeam bicycles were expensive, but designed to last a lifetime, and many a centegenarian+ Sunbeam bicycle still retains its original finish in perfect condition.

A Sunbeam gentleman's bicycle of 1915. [Wikipedia]
Marston began building Sunbeam cars in 1902, which were also high-quality vehicles, and expensive, with a beautiful finish.  The car division was separated in 1905 as the Sunbeam Motor Car Company, manufactured in Blakenhall, a suburb of Wolverhampton.  The car division was successful, but a business slump spurred Marston to expand into the booming motorcycle business.  The first Sunbeam motorcycle appeared in 1912, when Marston was 76 years old: it featured a 350cc sidevalve engine (from AJS), and a 3-speed gearbox with all-chain drive and fully enclosed chaincases.  It was, as one would expect, a superb machine and worthy inheritor to the Sunbeam bicycle's reputation, and Marston dubbed it a 'gentleman's motor bicycle'.

George Dance in 1919 at the Kop Hillclimb, on his hand-made OHV conversion, using a 1913 350cc crankcase and aircraft OHV cylinder and head. The chassis of this racer is basically standard, although he would evolve his sprinters into extremely light and very fast tools. Note the utter lack of safety equipment, barring goggles. [The Vintagent Archive]
It was natural that Sunbeams were raced, and from the very first they performed extremely well in the important road trials of the era. By 1914 their development engineer John Greenwood had tuned a trio of Sunbeams for the factory's first Isle of Man TT, where they took the Team Prize.  George Dance joined the factory as their star rider, and after WW1 he would cement the factory's name in racing history, as he was virtually unbeatable on his specially-tuned racing Sprint specials.  During the war, Dance had been an aircraft mechanic, and built his first sprint racer in 1919 using an OHV cylinder head and barrel from an aircraft atop a Sunbeam crankcase, with an extremely light chassis, for an all-up weight of under 200lbs.  Dance was a gifted rider and fearless racer, and the only contemporary sprint racer of similar success and skill was George Brough...who wisely raced in events where Dance was unlikely to appear, and kept his own perfect race record, winning 53 events.

Alec Bennett in 1921 aboard his factory racing Sunbeam sidevalver: note the 'dummy rim' brakes, which are useless in wet weather. [Keig Collection]
John Marston died in 1918, and Sunbeam was sold to Nobel Industries (later ICI), who according to rumor merely wanted to acquire Sunbeam's exquisite paint technology, but they retained ownership of Sunbeam until 1937, when the brand was sold to Associated Motor Cycles (AMC).   In the mid-1920s, John Greenwood employed engine research specialist Harry Weslake to improve the performance of their motorcycles, resulting in the new OHV Models 8 (350cc) 9 (500cc) roadsters, and corresponding Models 80 and 90 racers, plus a special Sprint racing model that took advantage of George Dance's press, all appearing in the Sunbeam catalog in 1924.  When the OHV models appeared, Sunbeams won seemingly every important race and trial in the UK and Europe from 1924-30.  Sunbeam raced the last sidevalve machine to win the Isle of Man TT (1922 - Alec Bennett), and second-to-last pushrod OHV machine to win the Senior TT (1929 - Charlie Dodson).  The writing was on the wall for pushrod OHV racers by 1926, when Velocette cleaned up at the Junior TT with their new K-series 350cc OHC racers, and Norton's new CS1 OHC took the Senior TT under Stanley Woods.  Sunbeam responded with a few experimental OHC racers of their own - read our Road Test of the 1925 'Crocodile' here.

Your scribe Paul d'Orléans in 1999 with a 1923 ex-factory Sunbeam Isle of Man TT racer, one of the factory team machines, still in its original paint. "I gave it a good thrashing on the rural roads in East Sussex, and found its speed terrific, but its brakes dismal, which led to some dramatic moments. Still, a superb motorcycle." Note the straight-through exhaust pipe, racing handlebars, and André friction dampers on the Druid racing forks. [Paul d'Orléans archive]
But, the bulk of Sunbeam's racing and road trial successes had been made on their reliable and surprisingly fast sidevalve models, which were the gold standard internationally for a proper Grand Prix racing machine, until their overhead valve models began dominating races everywhere. Road tests of the era report their superb smoothness, quality of manufacture, and surprising speed, and Vintage era Sunbeams are highly coveted today for all these reasons.

What are they like to ride?

Since my 1925 Sunbeam Model 6 Longstroke arrived two weeks ago (March 2008), I've been curious to compare its character to that of James Johnson's 1924 Model 5 touring model. They're both sidevalvers from the mid-20's, with very similar running gear and mechanical configurations, from the same esteemed manufacturer; how different could they be?

My 1925 Sunbeam Model 6 Longstroke Sports on the left, James Johnson's 1923 Model 5 Touring on the right. [Paul d'Orléans]
1925 Model 6 Longstroke Sports

The Longstroke was developed from Alec Bennett's 1922 TT-winning (at 58.31mph) machine, and was initially known as the 'Model 6'. The 'Longstroke' name was added for 1925, to what would have been the 'Sports' model in that year, but was called the 'TT Replica' in 1923. How quickly things changed in those critical years between 1923-25, where the Longstroke dropped in esteem from TT Replica to a 'Sports' model in just 2 years. That's because Sunbeam added a new overhead-valve engine to its line in 1924, the Model 9 (and its variants), which sounded the death knell to the sidevalve as a racing machine.

Long, low, and lean: the drive side of the 1925 Model 6 Longstroke Sports, showing Sunbeam's fully enclosed primary drive, which covers the cork-lined clutch, which is very effective. [Paul d'Orléans]
Surprisingly, even with the real advantages of the OHV engine, racers continued to develop the sidevalve for racing at events other than the Isle of Man TT; Brooklands, European races, trials, hillclimbs, etc. In fact, although Bennett's win in '22 was the last for a sidevalver at the Island, they continued to be successful for many years in private hands. Take for example A.L. Loweth's record of 94mph on a Norton 16H at Brooklands, in 1934! Supposedly ten years after the model had become obsolete for speed work. Food for thought. I admit my own bias in thinking sidevalve machines couldn't be sporting, and would never satisfy a speed merchant such as myself. Gradually, while investigating Sunbeam and Norton racing history, I came to respect the humble flathead.  And of course, in the United States, Class C rules meant the flathead carried on racing through the 1960s, with its ultimate variant, the 750cc Harley-Davidson KRTT, recording 150mph at Daytona in 1968!

The 1925 Sunbeam Model 6 Longstroke Sports. [Paul d'Orléans]
1924 Model 5 Touring

James purchased his '24 Model 5 from British Only Austria about two years ago, and has spent considerable time in his workshop, making the 84-year old Sunbeam perfectly reliable. Now he feels confident in its mechanical soundness, and several long rides (including one 800 miler!) have borne out his conviction that his Sunbeam can be ridden as the maker intended.

A proper motorcycle: the 1923 Sunbeam Model 6 Touring, with deeper mudguards, an upright riding position, and footboards. [Paul d'Orléans]
The biggest jobs he's had to tackle were rewinding the magneto and replacing a broken steering stem; otherwise it's been a matter of getting all the details functioning smoothly (cables lubed and adjusted, clutch working properly, brakes working, etc), which is really what 'sorting it out' means. It takes time to do those hundred small jobs in your off-work hours. That his bike runs so well is a testament to James' persistence.

1923 Sunbeam Model 5 Touring, with period accessory wicker basket. [Paul d'Orléans]
By comparison, the Longstroke has just started down the road to 'sorted'. Noted in a previous blog are my efforts to replace hoses and taps, get the clutch and carb working normally, and make footrests. The bike's oiling is very curious for a total-loss setup, as there is no breather on the crankcase, but there IS an oil drain from the crankcase back to the oil pump - a semi-recirculating loop. The excess oil seems to be burned off, as the bike smokes a bit, even though the oil pump feed is turned well down.

The engine room of the Model 6 Longstroke Sports.  Note the 'square' ML magneto, later Amal carburetor, double-champer Pilgrim oil pump, and finned 'fir cone' valve cover. Also note the upper cylinder casting has straight fins; otherwise the engines are nearly identical. [Paul d'Orléans]
I haven't found its top speed yet, but I would estimate in the high 70mph range. That's going some for a bike which has very little braking power.  The front drum is essentially useless (both 'Beams can be pushed forward with the inverted lever fully squeezed), and the back brake is merely OK. James has relined his brakes, and suggests the rear brake should lock the wheel. Suspension movement from the Druid forks is minimal, and the springing is very stiff. But, for all that, it's a cracker! As it weighs only about 240lbs, it accelerates smartly, with strong engine pulses. The engine definitely has a long stroke at 105.5mm(x77mm), but it revs fairly freely, and thrives on higher rpm than might seem likely - it has plonk at low rpm, but there is a power surge at around 3500 rpm at which the engine smooths out, and she really starts to fly. The Longstroke engine feels slightly skittish and revvy, and surprisingly high strung for a 20's bike.

The Sunbeam Model 5 has an indent curve on the upper cylinder casting, and a restrictor on the carburetor intake. Also, a single-chamber Enots oil pump, 'square' ML magneto, and priming tap atop the cylinder, for pouring neat gasoline into the combustion chamber for very cold starts. [Paul d'Orléans]
The handling is very stable at speed, although when stationary, the whole bike seems very wobbly. In first gear, the front end seems to 'fall into' corners, but as speed increases (I've seen around 60mph so far), cornering feels intuitive and takes less effort. The handlebars are brazed in place and very low, with no adjustment possible, and you must lean over the bike to reach the 'bars. Clearly, you mold yourself to this motorcycle, not the other way around.

The Model 6 Longstroke has a conventional chainguard... [Paul d'Orléans]
The Model 5 has a completely different character; it's a true gentleman's machine, with a comfortable riding position and mellow traits. With footboards and high, pulled-back handlebars, you are seated in the classic British 'L' riding position. Where the gear selector on the Longstroke is stiff, the Model 5 shifts softly and easily (especially as the clutch releases fully). The power band is consistent and gradual, building speed with less drama than the Longstroke, yet never feeling sluggish, just mannerly. The engine is almost 'square' at 85x88mm, but the heavy flywheels keep it from feeling like a short-stroke. One might think it retrograde to add 20mm to the stroke for a racing machine, but as they won the TT with this new long-stroke engine, they knew what they were doing.

...unlike the Model 5, which has Sunbeam's 'little oil bath' fully enclosed rear chain - they used this on their bicycles too. Also, this machine has footboards. [Paul d'Orléans]
The handling on the '24 feels consistently smooth, with no change in feel from low to high speed; I wonder if the riding position has something to do with this? On the Lonstroke, my weight - which is only 50lbs less than the motorcycle - is much further forward, shifting the bike's center of gravity towards the front wheel. The Druid forks have softer springs, for a more comfortable ride. The engines have a slightly different head/barrel casting (seen in the photos), and I of the would surmise that the Longstroke manages a higher compression ratio (6:1?) than the Model 5 (5:1?). Carb size is the same on both, with a choke of 1". The earlier machine came fully equipped with acetylene lights front and rear (which work!), and a 'little oil bath' rear chaincase, a fully valanced front mudguard, a wider rear mudguard, and a luggage rack. James' bike is probably 20lbs heavier than mine, but I'm probably 10lbs heavier than James, so the weight difference is a wash.

James Johnson with his 1923 Sunbeam Model 5 Touring. [Paul d'Orléans]
In the end, both Sunbeams have tremendous charm, and are full of the appeal for which Sunbeams are famous, as quality products that led the world in sporting events in the 1920s.  They both function amazingly well as motorcycle today,

Our Road Test bikes, plus my 1928 Sunbeam TT90, a revolutionary upgrade with a super-sports OHV engine. [Paul d'Orléans]
At the end of our test ride (or 'shootout' in moto-press speak), I rolled out my 1928 TT90 Sunbeam for James to try, for a REAL contrast. The 3 years between my Longstroke and the '90' are a lightyear in performance- with the later bike feeling, as James noted, 'planted' and stable, with about twice the power of the earlier bike, and a four-speed gearbox to boot. 'We are probably the only people in North America to ride three Vintage Sunbeams in a day', said James, and he's probably right.

 

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

 


The Motorcycle Portraits: Anne-France Dautheville

The Motorcycle Portraits is a project by photographer/filmmaker David Goldman, who travels the world making documentaries, and takes time out to interview interesting people in the motorcycle scene, wherever he might be.  The result is a single exemplary photo, a geolocation of his subject, and a transcribed interview.  The audio of his interviews can be found on The Motorcycle Portraits website.

The following portrait session is with Anne-France Dautheville, the first woman to ride a motorcycle solo around the world.  David Goldman caught up with Anne-France on September 1 2023 in Paris.  David asked Anne-France a few questions about motorcycling: here are her responses.

Please introduce yourself:

My name is Anne-France Dautheville. We are in Paris, in a little restaurant which is called Á la Ville d'Epinal, next to the Gare de l'Est, which is the railway east station, and it is the place where I give all my appointments, where I have my lunches, and it's my place in Paris. I'm an old lady now, going to be 80, and I have got an incredible life.

Anne-France Dautheville photographed September 1, 2023 Paris, France. [David Goldman]

In fact, because I rode a motorcycle, and with this motorcycle I rode around the world, around Australia, around South America, and so many different places, traveling by myself, which is my happiness, considering I drive exactly like a shit, because I'm not a good driver, I'm not a sport woman, I just survive on a motorcycle. I started my life as a copywriter in advertisement agencies, and in 1968 we got huge strikes, even a revolution in Paris, and I had to walk. There were no metros, there were no buses anymore.

What was your first introduction to motorcycles?

So when the peace came back, I decided that I should be on my own, even if there was another revolution. I had no driving license of any sort, so I bought myself the only thing with an engine you could afford, which was a CB50. The first minute I sat on it, I said I made the biggest mistake in my life, and the second minute, anybody who would touch my 50cc would be dead.

Anne-France in 1972 during the Orion Raid from Paris to Iran, riding a borrowed Moto Guzzi. [Anne-France Dautheville]

And during my holidays, which I took always in September, I decided to go and see the Mediterranean Sea, which was something like 700 kilometers from Paris, and everybody in the agency said, “you're crazy, you go by yourself?”, yes, yes, yes, but it's dangerous, can't you go? And I made the best trip of my life, came back, and back through Alsace, which is the northeast of France, came back to Paris, and so during my years in advertisement, every weekend I used to jump on my motorcycle and ride to a place with a nice hotel, with good food, good wine, etc. And during this month of September, I used to drive around, and after a few years, I began to say that I'm very, very happy during 11 months of the year, and I'm so perfectly happy the 12th, so when I die, I will have only one twelfth of my life, which will be perfect, and I left everything, jumped on the motorcycle, and began traveling around the world, because I love traveling, I’m built for the travel, and writing, because travel without writing is only half of the problem.

Share a great story or experience that could have only happened thanks to motorcycles?

Which story for me, oh, it was a good one.

An unexpected wardrobe change with the 1973 Kawasaki 175 which was her mount around the world in 1973. [Anne-France Dautheville]

Let's go to 1975, the north of Australia, there is a gravel road which goes to Normanton, from Georgetown to Normanton in Queensland, I'm riding a 750cc BMW, it's my first gravel road, I didn't know how to drive this big motorcycle on the dirt road, so I start at the end of the afternoon, so there was a city in Georgetown, but no, there was no city, it was just a ring for car races twice) a year, but on the map it was like, okay, so I go to Normanton, something like 150 kilometers of gravel road, and the sun goes down, down, and when the light is not so hard, suddenly I see a huge brown frog jumping from my right, so I bump my horn, and the huge brown beast stops, and it was a kangaroo, and I stopped in front of the kangaroo, and I looked at him and said in French, you crazy man, and he looked at me and said, oh motorcycle that's talking, and in fact I learned that day, that when the kangaroo jumps in front of you, if you bump your horn, it stops to know where the noise comes from, so that was a very good lesson in my life.

Anne-France on her Kawasaki 125 in 1973 during her round-the-world adventure. [Anne-France Dautheville]

What do motorcycles mean or represent to you?

What do motorcycle represents to me?, it's a machine, it's just an assembly of things that make it roll, it doesn't talk, it doesn't think, it's just a machine, but that machine allows me to go around the world, to go into places, and in fact it is the link between the nature and me, I mean when I am on a motorcycle, I have all the perfumes of the earth that grows from my nose, I didn't ride very noisy motorcycles, so I can hear sometimes hard crying birds, or things like this, if I go near the wood, I have that sort of freshness of the air, because of the trees, when I'm on a road, every little pebble on the ground makes a sort of a movement in the front wheel, and goes through my arms, so my whole body is alive, when I'm on a motorcycle, if I'm in a car, I'm just like a fish in a can, you know, motorcycle is a way to have a permanent discussion, exchange with the nature around you, and the fact, all my life I will remember the first shot of lavender I got when I was on my little 50cc in the south of France, I was on top of the mountain, and suddenly the wind brought me that huge perfect smell of lavender, it's still there, I wouldn't believe that, so perfectly, if I were on foot, because I go slow, with the motorcycle, I can pile lots, lots, lots of sensations, and this is happiness.

[Please read our previous story about Anne-France on The Vintagent: The Unstoppable Anne-France Dautheville]

 

 

David Goldman is photographer and filmmaker who has traveled the world on projects documenting human trafficking, maternal health and marginalized people. He also interviews and photographs motorcyclists in this travels for his series The Motorcycle Portraits. You can follow his website here, his IG here, and his FB here. Explore all his stories for The Vintagent here.

Art of Ride - Bernard Testemale

The wet plate/collodion photographic process was invented in 1850 by Frederick Scott Archer, only 11 years after the first fixed photographs were publicized using the Daguerreotype (Nicephore Niépce - who also invented the internal combustion engine) and Calotype (Henry Fox Talbot) methods.  While these pioneering and technically difficult methods continue to be used by artists and enthusiasts today, the wet plate process proved far easier to master with more reliable results, and became the photographic standard for half a century.   For astronomical photography, wet plate or 'dry plate' glass negatives continued to be used deep into the 20th Century, as the silver particles suspended in collodion or liquid gelatin are 1000x finer than is possible with 'film'.  As a medium for artists, the wet plate technique was lost in the latter half of the 20th Century, until a few DIY die-hards dug into old books, ordered the basic chemistry (collodion, ether, grain alcohol, iodine and bromine salts, silver nitrate crystals, sodium hyposulfate, ferric nitrate, acetic acid, etc.), and re-learned what every photographer in the 19th Century knew by heart.  Hats off to them.

Wet plate photography has been a peculiar fascination of mine since I saw an exhibit of 200 original 'Nadar' portraits in France, back in 2010.   The Jeu de Paume photography museum had recently taken over the Château de Tours, and its walls were covered by 8x10" albumen prints of the most interesting characters in Bohemian France in the second half of the 1800s. These included writer Victor Hugo (Lés Miserables), actress Sarah Bernhardt, composer Franz Liszt, painter Gustave Courbet, writer Alexandre Dumas (Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Christo, etc), poet Charles Baudelaire, anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Piotr Kropotkin, futurist Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, etc), sculptor Auguste Rodin, writer/feminist George Sand, explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (whom I wrote about here)...basically anyone who was scandalous and brilliant in Paris from 1854-1910, when a Nadar studio portrait was simply necessary.

Bernard Testemale shot this portrait at the Art Ride exhibit in Biarritz in 2014, on a 'borrowed' BMW WR750. [Bernard Testemale]
At the time of the exhibit, I had just begun dating Suzie Heartbreak, who had been studying the wet plate/collodion process for a couple of years.  Our shared interest the medium led to our MotoTintype collaboration, commenced in earnest while using our Sprinter van as a mobile darkroom and backup vehicle in the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball.  Our results were mixed, technically; we had a lot to learn about shooting outdoors using natural light, in constantly varying temperature, humidity, elevation, time of day, and cloud cover.  Shooting portraits or landscapes outdoors is an art in itself, and we've improved a lot since 2012.

A portrait of Paul Simonon, bassist for The Clash, relaxing at the Art Ride exhibit in 2015. (Read my Cycle World profile of Paul here) [Bernard Testemale]
Today, there are many hundreds of photographers using wet plate as their primary photo medium (barring their iphones - to share their results), most of whom take studio portraits indoors, using a flash system.  You've seen them; they make great souvenirs.  It's far more difficult to create a successful body of work shot entirely outdoors; these number perhaps in the dozens.  I'm always excited to meet another caminando on the difficult path, especially one whose work I respect.

Jeff Decker's amazing custom Crocker. [Bernard Testemale]
I met Bernard Testemale at the Art Ride exhibit during the 2014 Wheels & Waves event in Biarritz, France.  Suzie and I were exhibiting our photos, and Bernard was taking portraits and motorcycle shots at the event.  The portrait he took of me is below, sitting on the genuine 1930 World Land Speed Record BMW WR750...yep, priceless.  We've kept in touch, and when Bernard asked me to write an Introduction for a book collecting his wet plates of old vehicles and their owners, I happily supplied my thoughts.  The book (Art of Ride) is a meditation on character, the notion of obsolescence, and the connection between folks who love old cars and motorcycles, and folks who take wet plate photos.  They are basically the same people, really; eccentrics devoted to difficult, old, wonderful things.

Musician, surfer, hot rodder Brian Bent at one of his 'hot rod garage sales'. [Bernard Testemale]
Below is Bernard's essay exploring why he compiled these photos into a book called Art of Ride, and what it's all about.  He's currently raising funds to publish a hardcover edition, and you can help by supporting his Ulule crowdfunding page here.

From Bernard Testemale:

"Art of Ride is the culmination of 10 years of photographic work: a voyage along the paths traced by pioneers of the artistic expression of wet plate photography, such as Gustave le Gray and Felix Tournachon, known as 'Nadar'.

In the world of photography, as in that of antique vehicles, some are vintage and others are modern. For years I have been fascinated by 19th-century photographic techniques, and I use the original wet collodion process: a technique that has enabled me to produce extremely fine images. These black-and-white shots, with their infinite nuances, provoke an immediate flashback to the past, releasing an emotional charge that is as unique as it is unpredictable.

Boys with exquisite toys: a c.1928 Bugatti Type 35. [Bernard Testemale]
This collection is entirely produced using this complex photographic technique. My pictures are produced on metal plates (tintypes) or glass plates (ambrotypes), creating a timeless piece of great intensity with an engine or a character as the subject.  It is a challenge that has become a passion – the work is at the crossroads between painting, sculpture and photography. Each photograph requires time and patience on the part of both photographer and model. From these hours of painstaking work, the photographer has no guarantee of success. Imperfections and the sometimes unpredictable results of collodion plates are part of the charm of these unique works of art.

A surfer with an impressive quiver, and a cool Cadillac to carry them. [Bernard Testemale]
In this project, each photographic plate tells a story, and is meant to be shared. This is the power of photography. Not just to record, but to remember the people we've met, the people we've loved, the moments we've shared. I love cars and motorcycles with character, and those who build them from individual parts like jigsaw puzzles are truly works of art. Beyond the logistical challenge, the diverse body of work I've created using this primary technique underlines the intangible link between my subjects and the ephemeral nature of the moment."

Support Bernard Testemale's Art of Ride here.

 

 

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

 


Vintage Revival Montlhéry 2013

It is hands-down the best combined car/bike event I've ever attended, whether static or track, concours show or oily-rag festival, because it includes all of that, in the most compelling venue possible, the only original autodrome still in use from the early days of motorsport.  The Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry, to give its full name, is situated only 40 minutes south of Paris, yet feels of another world and another time.  Currently owned and used by a consortium of car manufacturers (for testing), the 2.4km oval was originally designed to handle racing cars of 2200lbs, moving at 140mph; having traveled over 130mph (in a modern rally car) on the banking, I can assure you the track is in no danger from such abuse, only the car itself, and its madly bouncing passengers.  While not as bumpy as Brooklands, Montlhéry is still a concrete track with expansion joints and decades of shifting movement, and the faster you travel, the harder the hammering.

The romance of 1920s racing returns for a few days in a Paris suburb. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Vintage-Revival caters exclusively to pre-1940 cars and motorcycles, their owners and friends, a few pressmen and caterers, and that's about it! While the attendees are expected to wear period clothing, it's nothing like the Goodwood Revival, as there aren't 50,000 spectators milling around in a mad time-warp circus.  Nor are there cordoned-off 'rich folks only' paddocks or seating areas; once you're in, the whole fantastic gearhead playground is yours.  If you're really serious about Vintage vehicles being Used, the two day event at Montlhéry is exactly what you need, especially if you want to see something a little out of the ordinary on two, three, or four wheels.  Enjoy the photos!

Vincent Prat of the Southsiders MC gets a shove on his c.1938 Norton M30 'International'. [Paul d'Orléans]
The 1904 Slavia CCCC, newly created by Pavel Malanik, a replica of the Czech Laurin-Klement 4-cylinder machine, their last motorcycle design before moving to car production (Laurin-Klement became part of Skoda). [Paul d'Orleans]
The 'early motorcycles' class on the banking; a few of these pre-1918 machines had a serious turn of speed, and took advantage of the removal of the chicane from mid-banking to really fly! [Paul d'Orléans]
I dub thee, 'Eu-Rod'. A recent, nativist movement in Europe towards the creation of European Hot Rods, using original period components in combinations which never existed, but perhaps should have. No Ford bits here, the trick is to source an ancient Curtiss or Hispano-Suiza aero engine, install it in original Brasier or Talbot or even Bugatti chassis, and build a car with a mix of autojumble-sourced tanks, radiators, instruments, steering wheels, lamps, wheels, etc, plus new bodywork, brush-painted, oxidized, and meant to look old. Most are insanely cool, like this example, built by Oliver Way, a leading light in the trend. [Paul d'Orléans]
A wink and a smile, with teeth. The water-cooled, V8 OHV aero engine (Curtiss or a derivative) powering the Oliver Way 'Mors Aero GP' special. [Paul d'Orléans]
My favorite BMW, hands-down: an ex-Works R63 750cc OHV racer, with an extra fuel tank strapped atop the flat tank, and twin carbs for more 'go'. I used to own an R63, but it didn't go like this one! From the Hockenheim Museum collection. [Paul d'Orléans]
The very special BMW R63 racer from Hockenheim Museum, with many deviations from standard, like 6-stud cylinder fixing and an extra-deep sump. A unique machine. [Paul d'Orléans]
A 175cc Terrot OHV sports racer in action. Terrot, a very old French brand, was a force to be reckoned with in European racing, and built many advanced machines for privateers. [Paul d'Orléans]
The business office of the Amilcar C6 of 1927, with a supercharged straight-6 DOHC motor. Several bits from anAmilcar like this, that was wrecked in Argentina, ended up on my old 1925 Zenith 'Super Kim' supercharged V-twin land speed racer. Check out that story here. [Paul d'Orléans]
The lovely little 250cc Benelli 4TN OHC racer of 1938. Benelli sold OHC singles to the public as roadsters and privateer racer, as they embarked on a factory design program of very sophisticated multi-cylinder Grand Prix racers. It's a shame that in the USA we only got news of Benelli in the 1960s, when they were badge-engineered Motobis and dumbed-down OHV singles sold by Montgomery-Ward. In their heyday, they were a force: check out our story on their racing team here. [Paul d'Orléans]
The original ABC design of 1913, a fore-and-aft flat twin with OHV and a good turn of speed - this machine has Brooklands history. After WW1 (1919), the factory teamed wtih Sopwith to build flat twins across the frame, with full suspension, OHV, and semi-unit engine construction. BMW was 'inspired by' the design when producing their first motorcycle engine in 1921. [Paul d'Orléans]
David Borras of El Solitario MC worships at the altar of French engineering....with the unique Koehler-Escoffier 'Monneret', a 1928 design taken to its limit by French national champion Georges Monneret, and raced into the 1950s with success. The engine is OHC with twin carbs, and continuously developed for two decades. [Paul d'Orléans]
If you've been campaigning your awesome Blower Bentley on the track all day, you might as well stuff the family in the back for the drive home... [Paul d'Orléans]

My favorite madman; George Cohen in his aero-engine 'Brasier', with a 1908 and Hispano-Suiza OHC V8 aero engine with 300hp. No front brakes, nominal rear brakes, two speed chain drive, no seat belts or rollbars, what could possibly go wrong?  Yours truly was his 'will I die?' passenger. Terrifying fun on the banking.  George is very much missed.

The Coste family, lifelong competitors on two and three wheels (and parents of Jérome and Dimitri Coste) ready for the track in their Morgan, in groovy Ruby 'Shibuya' helmets! [Paul d'Orléans]
A pair of Unicorns; the 1904 Laurin-Klement 'Slavia' and the 1909 Torpedo '4', both built from scratch using period photographs, by Pavel Malanik in the Czech Republic, an area traditionally rife with clever engineers. They both run well, and quickly. [Paul d'Orléans]
If you're going to build a non-extant engine, make it a good one; the Torpedo was built from period photographs, and goes like stink! [Paul d'Orléans]
From the Brooklands Museum collection, the Titch Allen-built replica of the supercharged Triumph Speed Twin which terrorized Brooklands in the late 1930s. [Paul d'Orléans]
From far away they came, bearing gifts for the eye... the Torpedo and Slavia, ready for a blast around the track. [Paul d'Orléans]
Unique! The Sevitame military-spec prototype, with a twin-cylinder two-stroke engine under all that alloy finning. Note the leaf-springs above the handlebars; these aren't 'Gazda' sprung 'bars, but the springs for the front fork, which has a central rod sliding through the steering head to connect the girder forks with the spring. Clever. [Paul d'Orléans]
Built by Simca, the Sevitame has an 'inverted' engine, and is meant to be semi-amphibious, using a propeller extension drive out the back; it could power a small boat, with all electrics, carb, etc safely tucked or shielded from a possible dunking. [Paul d'Orléans]
Owned and ridden by Francois-Marie Dumas (co-author of 'A Century of Japanese Motorcycles', author of 'Unusual Motorcycles' - and this one qualifies!) and , here speaking with fellow motorcycle author Jean Bourdache (read his blog 'Z'Humoriste' here). [Paul d'Orléans]
The 1919 Leyat Hélica in all its mad splendor.  An 'airplane on wheels', powered by a Scorpion aero engine, with a lightweight plywood body weighing only 550lbs.  One was tested at Monthéry in 1927 at 106mph...[Paul d'Orléans]
Attending the Amilcar gods...the 1927 C6 racer of Mr Kawamoto, former chief of Honda, who flew the car from Japan to France for the occasion. [Paul d'Orléans]

An impromptu 'Road Test' of a 1921 Ner-A-Car on Montlhéry's banking.  The most successful hub-center steered motorcycle in history is remarkably stable: I did several laps hands-free, taking photographs.  Top speed perhaps 35mph...check out the Road Test here.

Among the first: the Bert LeVack designed DOHC JAP 350cc engine of 1923, from the Hockenheim Museum, one of a half-dozen such machines built. LeVack was an Olympian figure of early motorcycling, from the era of the designer/builder/racer, of which he was a prime example, along with the Collier brothers of Matchless. His contemporary George Brough was more a stylist/builder/racer (not being an engineer, or making his own engines), but LeVack pushed innovation in his engine designs, which moved all of Motorcycling forward technically. These futuristic little JAP gems with their shaft-and-bevel double-overhead-camshaft motors were also installed in Zenith and Coventry Eagle chassis, at a time when a simple pushrod overhead-valve motor was considered radical, and Norton, Sunbeam, and Douglas were just entering production with 'super sports'/racing OHV machines. LeVack worked with JAP and Motosacoche as engine designer, after a successful career tuning motors and racing at Brooklands. He was never a road racer, more a 'speedman', although he did pay attention to chassis development as power from his engine experiments began to rise. Long Live LeVack. [Paul d'Orléans]
Three men, three wheels, two cylinders with this 1927 Morgan-JAP Aero Super Sports. [Paul d'Orléans]
Montlhéry's concrete banking looms behind the proceedings like a fixed wave, waiting to be surfed. [Paul d'Orléans]
Moto-porn if ever there was. The 1935 Koehler-Escoffier 'Monneret', so named because Georges Monneret rode it successfully for decades. Georges organized the Velocette 24hr/100mph run at Montlhéry in 1961 - read the story here. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Big Guns...the engine dep't of the awesome Koehler-Escoffier 'Monneret'. [Paul d'Orléans]
English powerhouse: the 1927 McEvoy 1000cc racer with a pushrod, two-valve Anzani engine... [Paul d'Orléans]
...and its forbear, a 1924 McEvoy with a British Anzani 8-Valve, twin pipe engine; both from the Hockenheim Museum, which brought 6 magnificent machines. [Paul d'Orléans]
A tale of two Magnat-Debons...one a simple pushrod racer, the LCMP 175cc of 1934, and behind, a 500cc machine transformed to DOHC by Nougiér. [Paul d'Orléans]
The little Magnat-Debon LMCP, with a gem of a 175cc racing motor. [Paul d'Orléans]
The unique dashboard of a Majestic, among the most distinctive motorcycles ever built. Note the 'crackle' or alligator paint finish; while this machine is restored (and the owner taught himself how to paint it!), such a paint finish was originally offered, hand-painted by artisans. Trés chic! [Paul d'Orléans]
Handsome, unusual, and impressive from any angle. They handle beautifully with their hub-center steering and sliding-pillar front suspension. Read my road test here. [Paul d'Orléans]
The red 1930 Majestic with 350cc Chaise engine...underpowered for such a strong chassis. Read my Road Test of a 1930 Majestic here. [Paul d'Orléans]
Les Atelier Ruby's designer Jérome Coste modeling his family '35 Norton ES2 racer, and his El Solitario coveralls...en peu Orange Mecanique! [Paul d'Orléans]
More fantasies! This cyclecar was built by Tim Gunn of the Old Bicycle Showroom in London, using mostly bicycle components, with a JAP sidevalve engine. The steering arms are made from bike pedal crank arms, the axles are bike cranks, the steering hubs are bicycle headstocks, etc. All very simple, clever, and it works! A good look at cyclecars makes me wonder why more people don't build them just for fun...dangerous fun its true, but hey, we're bikers! [Paul d'Orléans]
Stylish young gents in period attire! [Paul d'Orléans]
Fastest by a lap: Frank Chatokhine and his super-quick Triumph racer. [Paul d'Orléans]
Rare bird! A ca.1925 Moto Guzzi C2V, a pushrod-OHV production racer, one step down from their immortal C4V with four valves / OHC. [Paul d'Orléans]
A late 1930s Norton Inter/Manx, with a large square-fin Manx Grand Prix-type cylinder head in a pre-war International chassis. [Paul d'Orléans]
Related by color only - a 1934 MG KN monoposto racer with an equally blue Bugatti twin-seater. [Paul d'Orléans]
A pair of sweet Velocette KTT production racers: a rare c.1935 MkV and a c.1931 MkI, both OHC, with the MkI especially successful in European racing. [Paul d'Orléans]
The psychedelic Art Deco grandeur of a Voisin 'Lumineuse' interior, with fabric designed by the great couturier Paul Poiret. His geometric design is loomed, not printed on the fabric, meaning its a very expensive interior to replace on your Voisin, and nothing else will suffice, as its such a feature of the car. The fabric also came in red! [Paul d'Orléans]
Another grand Voisin 'Lumineuse' tourer, from the esteemed maker of cars and airplanes. More than 10,000 Voisins were built at their factory near Paris, yet less than 200 exist today (at least until every barn in scoured!). After decades in obscurity, they're having a day in the sun, recently winning the Pebble Beach and Villa d'Este Concours d'Elegance. With their elegant lines, Voisins were popular with wealthy artists of the day; both Man Ray and Le Courbusier drove them. Corbusier famously worked with Gabriel Voisin to re-design Paris with a 'modern' plan, boldly taking challenging the Baron Hausmann redesign of that city from the early 1800s. The Plan Voisin for Paris is a nightmare of well-intentioned hubris; unfortunately, Corbusier created very compelling images of a tall-towered city, surrounded by characterless parklands...which were unfortunately built in many cities as 'public housing', and are now crime-addled guard-less prisons, or at best, horrifically ugly. [Paul d'Orléans]
The crew who made it all happen...sine quo nihil (without whom, nothing). [Paul d'Orléans]
All hats off to Vincent Chamon, the organizer of Vintage-Revival Montlhéry, for another fantastic event! [Paul d'Orléans]
 

 

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

 

 

 


A Visit to Lewis Leathers (2013)

On a recent (Spring of 2013) whirlwind trip to London and Paris, I had a chance to catch up with Derek Harris, proprietor of Lewis Leathers, the oldest motorcycle-clothing business in the world - founded in 1892. Derek is a breath of fresh air as proprietor of an internationally recognized 'brand', and the very opposite of today's capitalist-opportunist-vultures who snag a dead name, creating Franken-brands stitched up from skins of the 'cool' dead, in the feverish pursuit of money money money. (Ask me how I really feel).

Derek Harris, who came to own Lewis Leathers in a most peculiar way. [Paul d'Orléans]
Harris is the reluctant proprietor of this iconic name in moto-gear, and never intended to own the company, yet had a curious relationship with Lewis Leathers before he ever worked there. He spent years researching - independently - lost patterns and designs from LL and its sometimes confusing web of related sub-brands (D.Lewis, Aviakit, Highwayman, S.Lewis), working as a mediator between super-hip Japanese clothing importers and various British brands, to satisfy a peculiarly Japanese hunger for English heritage clothing, and rocker gear in particular, during the late 1980s and 90s. [I played a small part in this story as well in 1989, modeling Rocker gear and bikes - my Velocette Thruxton - for 'Nicole Club', a Japanese company producing super-retro biker fashion gear]. Lewis Leathers had no 'heritage' division at the time, and was busy producing 'non-iconic' designs from the 1970s/80s at the time Harris approached them to begin remaking their older styles. As LL had no patterns for their older jackets, Harris conducted his own research, purchasing old Lewis Leathers and D.Lewis jackets and pants, and created new patterns for clothing made from the 1930s - 60s... all this while a non-employee, starting in 1991.

The Lewis Leathers archive goes deep...and includes Steve McQueen, who visited London before his participation in the 1964 ISDT. [Lewis Leathers archive]
Richard Lyon had owned Lewis Leathers since 1986, and was ready to sell the business in 2003, having larger interests elsewhere which required attention, and informed Derek not only that he was finished with LL, but had already sourced a buyer. Harris feared the loss of the company and the history he'd worked hard to preserve, and asked with sinking heart who the new owner would be...only to hear, "You." With the help of friends and loans, Harris did indeed buy the company, and continues to develop and research the brand and its long history, while producing both an exceptional range of traditional riding gear, as well as cool contemporary designs, including a range of sneakers.

Discerning customers choose Lewis Leathers, the oldest motorcycle clothing shop in the world. [Paul d'Orléans]
The shop is something of a museum of artifacts from Harris' years of collecting vintage Lewis Leathers riding and racing gear, and related paraphernalia. Harris has a rack of vintage leather, and the walls of the shop are festooned with old Rocker jackets. Several of these original jackets will be displayed at the Ton Up! exhibition I'm curating with photographer Michael Lichter at his gallery in Sturgis. The full story of Lewis Leathers and their relation to café racer culture will be explored in my book called Cafe Racers: Speed, Style, and Ton-Up Culture (Motorbooks 2014), based on the exhibition. If you're in Sturgis this summer for Bike Week (2013), definitely stop in to see the show, and if you're in London, you must stop by Lewis Leathers, which is just off Oxford Street, and stick around for a cup of tea. Just don't ask to buy the vintage jackets!  [The subject was explored even more deeply in my 2020 book Ton Up! A Century of Cafe Racer Style and Speed - you can buy a signed copy from our Shop here.]

If the boots fit...trying on an all-Lewis vintage racing setup - jacket and pants from the late 1930s, boots from the 1940s, outside the Whitfield St. shop. Photo by Marcus Ross, from his London magazine Jocks And Nerds. [Marcus Ross]
One of Harris' many vintage, original 'rocker' leather jackets on display; this one celebrating Rockabilly king Eddie Cochran. [Paul d'Orléans]
"We dice with Death." Naming the un-nameable as a brash taunt and talisman of bravery. [Paul d'Orléans]
A 1920s catalog page for a full kit for Dirt Track racing, the most popular motorsport in the world in the late 1920s. [Lewis Leathers archive]
Harris collects vintage ephemera to research old Lewis Leathers ads and the riders who wore them; here is the late Father Bill Shergold, head of the 59 Club, on the very first issue of 'Link', the 59 Club magazine. Father Bill is wearing the classis Lewis Leathers 'Bronx' jacket. [Lewis Leathers archive]
 

 

 

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

 


Top Ten Bikes at Mecum 2024

Motorcycles, how do we love thee?  Well, thousands of us are willing to sit in an indoor rodeo arena in Las Vegas for days, listening to the drone of a professional cattle auctioneer's callout as hundreds of motorcycles pass under the hammer every day.  2024 is another banner year for Mecum's Las Vegas mega-auction, with over 1400 motorcycles ready to roll across the auction podium at the South Point Hotel and Casino, with the action commencing at 9am Wed Jan 24, and running till about 4pm on Saturday Jan 27.  The amazing variety of motorcycles on offer come from individual sellers, professional restorers, and this year from a record 18 special collections, ranging from John Goldman's superb Museo Moto Italia collection to the Classic Motorcycles Austria collection to the Bud Ekins Family Trust.

The Vintagent team has selected their Mecum Top Ten for 2024 from the rabbit hole that is the entirety of Mecum's four-day list.  We invite you to have a look for yourself, and if there's anything we missed that you think should be included, feel free to add it to the comments below, along with why it floats your boat.  The following bikes float our boat, filling a variety of different neurotransmitter receptors, from funky and original, to awesomely historic, to groovy one-offs.  Enjoy!

1957 F.B. Mondial 250 Bialbero

Among the most beautiful Grand Prix racers of the 1950s, this Mondial very likely was Provini's 2nd place winner in the World Championship in 1957. [Mecum]
If you were looking for the ultimate collector motorcycle, look no further, as this extraordinary 1957 Mondial 250cc Bialbero Grand Prix has it all: amazing good looks, apex technical sophistication and innovation, and World Championship podium status.  It is extraordinarily rare and probably unique, as part of the Mondial factory collection that was dispersed following their closure in 1977.  F.B. Mondial won a trifecta of World Championships from 1949-51 in the 125cc class, then officially took a break from Grand Prix competition to concentrate on developing their road motorcycle business.  The factory still sold Monoalbero racers to selected clients, and quietly developed them while biding their time to return to GP racing with a new model.  In late 1956 they revealed an entirely new DOHC single-cylinder racer with a 6-speed gearbox, using a shaft-and-bevel drive for the cams rather than their usual train of gears.  With engine number 250-1, this machine is most likely the very first of these factory racers, built in 1956 and raced exclusively by factory rider Tarquinio Provini during the 1957 season.  This is most likely the very machine Provini raced to 2nd place in the 1957 World Grand Prix Championship, and on which he won the 1957 Italian National Championship.  During 1957, the factory revised the engine for their 250 DOHC racers, returning to a tower of gears driving the camshafts, which Provini did not race. Of the both types of 250 Grand Prix racers from 1956/7, it is believed only seven machines total were built, and this is the only shaft-and-bevel 250 Mondial racer in the world.

The wind-cheating bodywork added to the top speed of this machine, and is designed to wrap around the rider. [Mecum]
This exquisite machine deservedly won Best of Show at the 2017 Quail Motorcycle Gathering, and was included in the 2023 Taschen reference book ‘Ultimate Collector Motorcycles’, by Charlotte and Peter Fiell.   And this factory 1957 Mondial 250cc Bialbero Grand Prix certainly qualifies, being unique, storied, and devastatingly beautiful.

1938 Brough Superior SS100 with Sidecar

Hello George! A 1938 SS100 in unmolested condition. [Mecum]
Barn find SS100s are incredibly rare these days, so this 1938 MX-engined SS100 is exciting: it's a known machine in the Brough club, was last registered in England in 1967, and looks to be in original paint condition, with enough patina to suggest it is unmolested and original.  Plus, it comes with a a rare Launch sidecar from the Brough Superior catalog, with the famous 'petrol tube' chassis George Brough invented.

Crap photos, amazing bike: enlarging the images reveals this machine is totally correct in its details. [Mecum]
George Brough earned eternal fame with his Brough Superiors, especially the SS100 model, which was his masterpiece.  When introduced in 1924, the ‘Hundred’ was the most beautiful, most expensive, fastest, and most coveted motorcycle in the world, and so it remains to this day.  While George was a master of PR, he was also a master stylist, and every motorcycle to emerge from his small Nottingham workshop was guaranteed to be as gorgeous as it was eminently functional.  His machines worked; they were built for fast touring (and racing, if you ordered it so) with ‘special for Brough’ extra-durable materials inside their engines and gearboxes, which he famously strong-armed out of his suppliers, who it must be acknowledged benefitted equally from the association.  In the mid-1930s, George Brough sourced his SS80 and SS100 engines from AMC, with their ‘MX’ sidevalve and overhead valve engines. The MX-engine secured the Brough Superior SS100’s status as the world’s premier luxury motorcycle on its introduction in 1934, having become an ultra-sophisticated grand tourer of peerless styling and a first-class finish, a money-no-object motorcycle for the very rich. Which perfectly defines the SS100’s place in motorcycling today, and while the cost of ownership has grown exponentially, the description when new remains the same.  Broughs never languished as inexpensive or disposable, and their coveted status among collectors means a high percentage of the 3048 Brough Superiors built have survived.

1922 Tavener Twin

A unique, advanced home-built special: the 1922 Tavener. [Mecum]
You like rare?  How about unique!  This fascinating special has a known history as one man's vision of the perfect motorcycle, and in truth it's pretty cool. In the ‘Teens and Twenties, discussion raged in the motorcycling press regarding ‘the ideal motorcycle’.  Ernest Tavener, a 19-year old apprentice in the Rolls Royce aircraft division, put the metal where his mouth was in 1921, making his own ideal motorcycle, which he naturally dubbed the Tavener.  The specification was intriguing, and included an M.A.G. (Motosacoche) 1000cc V-twin engine paired with a single-speed belt drive and clutch.  The Motosacoche engine was considered the finest-built motorcycle engine one could buy off the shelf, with typical Swiss characteristics: perfect castings and build quality, solid specification with a sporting edge: not the fastest motor available but much less nervous than a comparable sporting J.A.P. V-twin.  So far so good: where the Tavener gets interesting is the chassis, which is clearly what Ernest had ideas about.   The frame is built entirely of straight tubing for maximum strength, and bolted together without welds or heavy cast lugs.  The steering head is a piece of stout large-diameter tubing, to which all forward frame tubes are bolted.  The engine and gearbox are mounted in flat plats and flat straps, also bolted together.  The rear frame section runs wide of the rear wheel, which is actually carried in an independent, leaf-sprung subframe built of sheet steel.  The front forks are the most elaborate part of the chassis, with a triple girder fork mounting the front wheel on a leading-link axle, which moves via a lever to a flat leaf spring mounted alongside the deeply valanced front fender.  The rear fender is similarly deeply valanced, 20 years before Briggs Weaver redesigned the Indian motocycle lineup along similar lines.

Leaf spring suspension front and rear, plus a sophisticated Motosacoche V-twin motor; the Taverner was very advanced for 1922. [Mecum]
In 1926 the Tavener was modified to include a 3-speed Sturmey-Archer gearbox and clutch.  In the 1980s the Taverner was restored for the road, which is the state in which it sits today as an older restoration of a fascinating and unique motorcycle with excellent lines and innovative chassis design.  With a stout frame, leaf springing front and rear, and attractive bodywork, the Tavener remains a remarkably appealing motorcycle.

1941 Gilera LTE

As military motorcycles go, the Gilera LTE is hardly a dullard. [Mecum]
If you're a military motorcycle buff, you've seen all the WLAs, M20s, and R75Ms you need in your life, but you've probably never seen a Gilera LTE in full military spec before.   And it's a beauty, with full suspension front and rear in typical 1930s Italian style, and exquisite castings and build quality.  Gilera was the sharp edge of future racing technology in the 30s with their supercharged DOHC four-cyliner Rondine racer, but they also offered more humble but beautifully made motorcycles for the public, like the Saturno hotrod single, and the LTE, with its 500cc sidevalve engine.

The castings are beautiful, the chassis fascinating, and the overall design charming, hardly what you'd expect of a bike for the army. [Mecum]
The LTE was characterized by an unusual rear suspension system provided by a triangulated tubular swingarm connected to horizontal spring boxes mounted high in the frame, with a hand-adjustable friction damper.  The forks were standard girders, and the gearbox a 4-speed with hand shifter.  With its 500cc sidevalve motor, the LTE was a lovely machine, and was lighter and more sophisticated than its rivals.  This 1941 Gilera LTE is a very rare machine, and in superb, fully operational condition.

1953 Harley-Davidson Model KK

Suave and cool, the original hotrod Sport Twin from Harley-Davidson. [Mecum]

This ultra-rare, low-mileage 1953 Harley-Davidson Model KK is a one-year-only model and a factory Hot Rod. The odometer reads a believable 6,500 miles, and as a first-generation K model has a 45 CI (750cc) sidevalve V-twin motor that was revolutionary in the Harley-Davidson lineup. It was the first Harley-Davidson with both hydraulic telescopic forks and hydraulic shock rear suspension and was their first unit-construction V-twin.

The Model K engine is so clean, and clearly the progenitor of the XL Sportster, with a surprisingly powerful sidevalve engine. [Mecum]

The K model was Harley-Davidson’s answer to the British motorcycle invasion postwar, being significantly lighter and smaller than their Big Twin Panhead model, and intended to take over in Class C racing from the WR sidevalve model. The K model used the same bore/stroke as the old W series (2-3/4” x 3 13/16”), with a 6.5:1 compression ratio, with heavily finned aluminum cylinder heads to aid cooling. With a unit-construction crankcase, the K model saved space and weight and had a modern look, years before the British twins adopted the same idea. The standard K model Sports Twin produced 30 HP and weighed 400lbs, but the KK was a hotted-up model with a factory-installed ‘speed kit’ that included roller bearings and roller valve tappets, larger valves, ported and polished cylinders, and matching heads for better gas flow, including hot camshafts. By no coincidence, Harley-Davidson also introduced the KR model in 1953 as the factory Class C racer, and the expertise gained in tuning the new K model for racing was adapted in a slightly less fierce form to this roadster model KK: racing improves the breed, as they say.The KK Sport Twin produced 34 HP and was good for over 90 MPH, with very good handling and a modest weight making for a very sporting twin indeed.

1963 Yamaha Ascot Scrambler

Never heard of one? Among the earliest of specialized Japanese dirt racers, the 1963 Yamaha Ascot. [Mecum]

Yamaha's Ascot Scrambler is a fascinating machine, a combination of the YDS-2 street bike and the TD1 production racer, with its own unique bits that make parts sourcing for this bike basically impossible. Yamahas were the 250cc engine of choice for Amateur class racers, as they were limited to that engine capacity for their first year of AMA racing, and Yamaha was the fastest engine available.  Tuners and racers commonly put TD1 engines into special frames by Trackmaster, Redline, et al, which put Yamaha on the podium at tracks like Ascot Park, without the factory even trying.

Lots of parts on the Ascot cross over to the TD1 production road racer. [Mecum]

Yamaha had sense enough to make their own dirt racer, and the Ascot Scrambler was result: a 250cc twin-cylinder two stroke with 35hp.  The Ascot, introduced in 1962, used the aluminum cylinder barrels of the TD1 with slightly smaller intakes (24mm Mikuni carbs were used), combined with expansion chambers and wheels from the TD1, and its own frame.  Production lasted from 1962 to 1967, and while it was a popular seller for racers, very few survive intact, and not many are in such good original condition like this bike.

1964 Bianchi Falco GLS 50

Just in case the tank didn't look long enough, it was emphasized with a fat white flash. So very groovy! [Mecum]

Tiny cafe racers, like kittens and puppies, provoke the same response in all motorcyclists: they SO CUTE!  And this Bianchi Falco is extra super cute, and seriously badass at the same time.  With its elongated gas tank looking like Alien's motorchild, the clip-ons and humped seat, the blue metalflake paint job, and its rarity, make this Bianchi the micro etceterini cafe racer to have.  It's got a single-cylinder 50cc two-stroke motor, and isn't a moped as it doesn't have pedals: it's a small motorcycle, and exquisitely designed.

A miniature cafe racer, but make it gorgeous, as only the Italians can. [Mecum]

I've seen this bike installed in the home of its owner, John Goldman, and immediately coveted it...and all the other crazy cool Italian Grand Prix racers and cafe racers in his collection.  Much of that hoard is on sale in Vegas this January as the 'Museo Moto Italia Collection', which includes the largest private sale of F.B. Mondial motorcycles ever.

1947 Supercharged Zundapp KS600 Oskar Pillenstein racer

Winner of the 1948 German National Chammpionship, this supercharged 1947 Zundapp sidecar rig is an amazing piece of history. [Mecum]

After WW2, Germany was banned from the Grand Prix circuit, but they still held motorcycle races, and their own German National Championship.  Also, not being part of the FIM meant they could use superchargers, which were banned everywhere else.  This remarkable blown Zundapp KS600 racer was originally built by Oskar Pillenstein with help from Zundapp's head of design, Richard Kuchen. Pillenstein promptly won the 1948 German Motorcycle Championship with it, setting a class record of 103kmh.

What makes it special: a blow added atop the crankcases. Serious boom. [Mecum]

The KS600 was the continuation of Zundapp’s prewar engine, and the basis for the legendary Green Elephant KS601 to come.  Its 600cc OHV motor normally put out 28hp at 4,800rpm, but the addition of a supercharger definitely gave a power bump. There are tons of factory racing bits inside and out, as this is a unique motorcycle, and basically a factory racing Zundapp.  It was restored in 1987, and was on display at a museum for almost 30 years, but is now available to you.

1928 Indian-Ace Model 401

Basically an Ace Four with Indian badging, the Indian-Ace is rare and coveted as the first of the Indian Fours. [Mecum]

The first of the legendary Indian fours were basically rebadged Aces, as Indian acquired that brand in 1927, and sold them as the Indian Ace Series 401, with a 77ci (1265cc) inline 4-cylinder engine.  Initially the Indian-ACE was a parts-bin special, using up remaining ACE stocks, but the Four was changed over time to become a fully Indian machine.  In the first half of 1928, the engine got lighter alloy pistons, pressurized oiling, and a new cam, giving it more power and reliability, and by August of 1928, Indian had redesigned the 4-cylinder to harmonize with the rest of its model lineup.  Only the first-year Indian-Ace Fours used the leading-link front fork and frame seen here, which are pure Ace items.   These early Indian-Ace Fours are coveted for their rarity and unique style, and clear connection to the father of the American Four-cylinder, William Henderson.

The long, sleek lines of this first-gen Indian Four would evolve into something more bulbous over time, although Indian Fours were always gorgeous. [Mecum]
Henderson began producing his self-named four in 1912, but was forced to sell his design to Schwinn in 1915. The resulting Excelsior-Henderson was a superb machine, but Henderson had other ideas, and designed a wholly new motorcycle that infringed none of his earlier patents, which he called the Ace.  It was the fastest production motorcycle in the world when the prototype was built in 1919, but American four-cylinder motorcycles were always loss leaders, and when Henderson was killed while testing an Ace in 1921, things went downhill.  The Ace name was sold twice before being purchased by Indian in 1927, and the first Indian-Ace models were built in early 1928.

1972 Kawasaki H2R 750 

Mean and green racing machine, the reputation of the H2R was simply wicked. [Mecum]

I've known Ken Seavy for decades: he arranged the purchase of my Velocette Thruxton in 1989, after his boss at Good Olde Days got busted with 6 tons of amphetamines, and had to liquidate his amazing motorcycle collection.  I've long known Ken was racing legend Art Bauman's nephew, and that he owned Art's old Kawasaki H2R 750, among other very rare bikes, but he never invited me to see his collection.  In the 1980s and early 90s, the Kawasaki was at the nadir of its value, but Ken knew what he had. Finally, that mean green racing machine has come to light, and it's a beauty, with a presale estimate of $180-220k.

The air-cooled 750cc two-stroke moment was brief, for good reason! Seizures were common due to cylinder distortion, and riders kept their hand on the clutch lever at all times! [Mecum]
The H2R 750 was a fabulously bad idea, as Kawasaki was forced to use their air-cooled H2 MkIV 750cc triple road engine, and stuffed it in the H1R frame intended for a 250cc engine. The result was a wicked two-stroke with 110hp that ran too hot and didn't handle well, but was still very impressive. The H2R 750 was only built for 3 years, before rule changes meant Kawasaki could switch to watercooling its racing engine, and the KR750 supplanted it in 1975. 

 

 

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

 


First Moto Cycle in Australia: 1896

The motorcycle is an old concept.  The first recorded image of a two-wheeled vehicle with an engine dates back to 1818, and the first known functional motorcycle, Sylvester H. Roper's 'steam velocipede', dates back to 1869.  Several other steam-powered motorcycles were built in France and the USA in the 1870s and 1880s, but the first motorcycle to be built on an industrial scale was the Motorrad built by Hildebrand and Wolfmüller from 1894-1897.   Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand were steam engineers, and the initial (1889) prototype of their Motorrad was steam-powered, but they teamed up with Alois Wolfmüller to produce a gasoline-powered version in 1894.  One look at the construction of the Motorrad reveals its steam heritage, and makes it unlike any other motorcycle: the engine's cylinders have exposed connecting rods that act directly on the rear wheel hub, in the same manner as a steam train, making the rear wheel effectively the flywheel of the motor.   A rubber strap helped rotate the rear wheel on the 'return' stroke, and can be seen laying on the ground in the illustration below. With no clutch possible in such a direct drive, the Motorrad is a push and go starter, with no bicycle pedals as with other early gasoline motorcycles, as the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller chassis had nothing whatever to do with traditional bicycle design.

Technical details of the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller Motorrad from 1894. [Wikipedia]
Moto-historian Dennis Quinlan sent this charming account of the first motorcycle witnessed in Australia, on March 26 1896.  While not mentioned, the accompanying photograph clearly shows a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller Motorrad.  Other 'moto cycles' may have been made in Australia prior to this event, but we have no record.  Interestingly, the first motorcycle documented in Japan was also a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller: the company made around 2000 over three years, and they clearly made their way around the world.   Enjoy this account from Down Under:

The Moto Cycle: A Wonderful Invention

Sydney Daily Telegraph, March 26 1896

Yesterday afternoon the Cycle Austral Agency gave a public exhibition in George Street of the motocycle, which is causing such a great deal of public interest throughout the world.  Since the advent of this machine in England, France, America, Germany, and other countries, it has caused an enormous amount of newspaper controversy. The machine has been attached to carriages and different kinds of vehicles, and many of the London and provincial papers have published illustrations purporting to show that in the course of a few years, carriages drawn by horses would be rarely seen. Already races have been held, for a few months ago a race took place from Paris to Bordeaux and back for motocycle, or horseless carriages, as some choose to call them, and it proved to be very successful. Fully 100,000 people witnessed it. A race has also been held in America. The Prince of Wales has had several rides in one of them, and the mail which arrived in Sydney on Tuesday brought word that His Royal Highness had ordered one, so that it is likely to become very popular.

The illustration atop the article clearly shows a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller. The illustration was likely provided by the importing Austral Cycle Agency for publicity, as this bicycle importer branched out to motorcycles. [Sydney Daily Telegraph]
The motorcycle yesterday was a complete success. Long before the time fixed for the exhibition, people began to congregate round the Austral Cycle Agency in George Street, and when the machine was brought out at 4 o’clock there must have been fully 5000 people present. In fact George Street was completely blocked, and it took the services of a number of police to clear enough of the road to allow the buses to pass. Mr. H Knight Eton, belonging to the agency, had charge of the machine, and he rode it down the George Street to the Circular Quay and back. Mr. WJC Elliott led the way to clear the track, and Messrs. Lewis and Davis on a tandem followed, but they were unable to pace it, so fast did the machine travel. The machine is driven by benzol, and will run at a speed of 40 miles an hour on good roads. Mr. Eaton has ridden it at 32 miles an hour, and when at full speed the engine develops a 3-horse power. The weight of the machine is 250 lbs, and the machine itself is on the same lines as the bicycle, except that there are no pedals. The benzol gas mixed with air is carried to the cylinders from a tank fitted above the engine, near where the sprocket wheel is on a bicycle.  It is then compressed into hollow nickel tubes fitted into the base of the cylinders and these are kept heated by a benzol lamp specially made for the purpose.  Gas is exploded in the nickel tube supplying the power to the engines. Both cylinders are single-acting, and as one is filling the other is driving.  The filling of the cylinders is regulated by valve gearing specially constructed, which is worked by an eccentric running on the driving wheel of the machine, which of course is the back wheel. The exploded gases are carried away under the machine so that there is no smell or annoyance to the rider.  The machine is controlled by a lever fitted with a cone screw attached to the right of the right handle bar, and by this the speed is regulated.  Two gallons of benzol will run the machine 200 miles, and Mr. Eaton has already travelled many hundreds of miles.

The machine is to be exhibited at the Agricultural Show, and Mr. Henslow, on behalf of the league, last night concluded arrangements with Mr. Elliott, the manager of the Austral Cycle Agency, to give an exhibition of pace on the Agricultural Ground on April 25th, at the race meeting which is to be given to Mssrs. Lewis and Megson prior to their proceeding to England. The machine will pace probably Lewis or Megson a mile, and then will run 5 miles at its top speed, under the care of Mr. H Knight Eaton.

A Hildebrand and Wolfmüller was also the first motorcycle seen in Japan, in 1896. [Iwatate]
Back in 2009 I encountered an original, unrestored 1895 Hildebrand and Wolfmüller at the Deutsches Zweirad Museum Neckarsulm, which was 'in between engagements' in a storage attic [the museum would like to note that they have totally changed their layout, storage facilites, and curatorial standards since this video was taken!]. It was a rare opportunity to examine a historic machine that had not been molested or restored, and represented 1890s handiwork.  A remarkable machine!  Enjoy this vide of my hosts demonstrating how it works: the then-curator of the museum, Peter Kuhn, with Wolfgang Schneider translating:

A few more photos with interesting details:

As first seen: a picture full of intrigue. What is this incredible thing doing here? [Paul d'Orléans]
The rear wheel is the crankshaft and flywheel of the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller, just as with a steam train.  The connecting rod at bottom works on an eccentric crank attached directly to the axle, with a rubber band 'return spring'.  The wheel is held in place by three frame struts bolted to the rear hub housing. [Paul d'Orléans]
A view from the top of the fuel tank, showing the air vents, and just the top of the motor. Note that the engine has overhead valves in a semi-lateral configuration. [Paul d'Orléans]
 

 

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

 


Egli Motorcycles Workshop To Close

The motorcycle business has never been easy, and even a famous name cannot ensure a future for a small factory.  Alexander and Felicitas Frei purchased Egli Motorradtechnik AG from Fritz Egli in 2015, with high hopes to carry on with his legacy of building amazing high-performance cafe racers.  This week, the Freis put out a press release stating they are shuttering the famous house of Egli:

Alexander Frei and Fritz W. Egli, from the website of Egli Motorcycles.

There's a time for everything...

More than 9 years ago, Fritz W. Egli was looking for a successor for his Egli Motorradtechnik AG and finally found it in 2015. When we stepped in to continue the company at its location in Bettwil, our aim was not just to keep the workshop as it was at the time and to continue importing brands. We wanted to raise Egli to a higher level as a Swiss Motorcycle brand and also to build up a classic department which, in addition to the Egli range, would carefully restore vintage and classic motorcycles by hand.Our re-entry into the racing scene with our involvement in the IOM Classic TT was intended to be a further step towards revitalizing the brand. At the same time, we tried to bring the Egli-Vincent trademark back to its place of origin. Unfortunately in vain - the Vincent and Egli-Vincent brands were sold to a group in India [actually, the names were licensed by their owner many years ago - ed.].

After the presentation of the new Egli "Fritz W." in 2017, the idea of an Egli Motorcycle developed and manufactured entirely in Switzerland - including its own engine with road approval - became more and more concrete, until the starting signal for the new project was given in 2018 with a team of young engineers and qualified employees. The new Egli with a 1400 cc V2 engine is running, has already passed the first noise and exhaust measurements and has covered a considerable distance on closed roads. We have come a long way, but we are still too far away from road homologation and it will take a lot of time and additional financial commitment to overcome the final hurdles in the „forest“ of standards and regulations.

The world has changed rapidly in recent years - economically, politically and environmentally - and the requirements on motorized traffic are changing at the same pace. We too have now reached retirement age and have therefore decided to step back from daily business.

Over the past 9 years, we have had many great moments with customers, employees, business partners and friends. We were able to celebrate successes and also had to deal with setbacks - everything that is part of an exciting motorcycle life. We would like to thank you all very much for this. Without your support, many things would not have been possible. But everything has its time and so we will cease business operations at the Bettwil on November 30, 2023 and put the company into an orderly liquidation.
We are pleased and grateful that all employees have already found a new job or have decided to become self-employed.
We wish you all the best for the future!
- Alexander & Felicitas Frei

For your additional interest: the following is an exclusive interview for The Vintagent with Alexander Frei, after his purchased the Egli name outright from Fritz W. Egli.  Paul has long known Alexander's cousin, John Frei of San Francisco, via a long association with the Velocette Owners Club.  John Frei’s grandfather was brother to Alexander's grandfather, and was watchmaker in Switzerland who emigrated to US.

The start of it all: Fritz W. Egli in 1960, with the Horex cafe racer he modified himself, after buying the remaining Horex spares from the factory. [Egli Archive]
Paul d'Orleans (PDO):  What's your story with motorcycles?

Alexander Frei (AF): Motorcycles take over your life.

I started my professional career in the watchmaking industry; starting the traditional way with an apprenticeship as a micromechanic, then earned a microengineering diploma.  When I met my wife Felicitas, her father owned a medical implant company, so I joined the business.  When her father died his businesses were sold, with the last in 2000.  Then I started a career in car racing, as more or less a hobby.  At the beginning I raced Lamborghinis, then was a factory driver for Courage Competition, a French endurance racing team in the Le Mans series. I raced LeMans four times with the LMP1, and three times with and LMP2.  Kevin Schwantz was racing the same LeMans team as mine, and Mario Andretti too, but a few years before me.  Mario Andretti was old but still a good endurance driver – the cars were fast, but the materials were not always first class as they were short of money.  You’d be going fast them boom, you waste time in the pits.  I’m not as good a motorcyclist as car driver, but I’ve always had motorcycles, since I was 19 or 20.  In 1982 my family went to Laguna Seca with my cousins, and saw Randy Mamola in Battle of the Twins racing, against Norton, Triumph etc.  Kenny Roberts was still racing.

From 1970: several finished Egli-Hondas outside of the Egli workshop. [Egli Archive]
PDO: How did this lead you to buy Egli?

AF: One of my sons is 32 years old, he started as a car mechanic, then became a motorcycle mechanic.  He worked for Harley-Davidson, and one said he’d like to open his own workshop.  We discussed this, and he was looking for motorcycle brands to open his own dealership.  One of the names was Norton, the other Royal Enfield, and the Swiss distributor was Fritz Egli, and they had a meeting.  Of course I knew his name, I'd read about him, but didn’t go to this meeting.  My son told me he’s selling his company, I said ok let’s have a look!  I was fascinated about the whole thing. I realized of course for 25 or 30 years they hadn't built any motorcycles: they built frames and parts, and strange things like Yamaha Vmax tuning, but not real Eglis anymore.  I started discussing with my son how he might start his dealership: I could buy Egli to restart some kind of motorcycle manufacturing, and also a restoration business.  This was the initial idea, in the summer of  2014.  I bought the Egli business on Jan 1 2015.  I never thought I’d start a business again, certainly not in motorcycles.  But when I saw the Egli company with such great history and bikes, I thought 'let’s try it, it can only break'.  Otherwise the name is gone!  I’ve seen this in the Swiss watchmaking industry many times, smaller shops breaking down, then a revival with external investors, but it's really difficult to do this.

David Lancaster road testing a Godet-Egli-Vincent. [David Lancaster]
There were many people interested in the Egli name only, to produce parts or bikes elsewhere, but I thought we could do it in Switzerland, right there in his old workshop.  I was able to hire his best welder, from when they did all the Kawasaki and Honda frames, and the racing frames.  He'd gone over to the aero industry and learned a lot there, so we started the business with him, and built up everything.  We don’t have CNC, we don’t have computer engineering, that’s why we sought a suitable engine to build a bike around, just like 30 years ago.  We are really a workshop and not computer simulators.  Egli is really handmade.  For a contemporary road motorcycle, we had to pass the homologation for road use; they put our frame in a hydro-pulser for frequency testing, between 120-220 cycles under load, simulating 100,000km on the road - there must be no cracks etc.  We passed this test with no calculating, just know-how.  No computers.

One of the most remarkable Egli projects: the MRD1 land speed racer, with bodywork designed by Luigi Colani. [Private Collection]
Our bikes are road registered.  Because of Euro3 testing, this was short timing, the hurdle between Euro4 was short, so we had to decide to use an existing engine, or start fresh, but there was no time.  The authorities agreed we could build 6 bikes under Euro3.  They didn’t look at the engine, just the chassis, which we certified.  We had to hurry with the inline 4 engine, as we thought it was the last chance with an inline 4 for homologation - it’s getting too difficult to pass testing with an air-cooled engine.  Only the Honda CB1100 is left, Yamaha has already stopped. We looked at V-twins but it would have to be a modern Vtwin, which means watercooling etc, so we’ll build another project, and some manufacturers are interested in talking with us.  Those 6 approved bikes are  being finished in the next 2-3 weeks (2017), then we’ll focus on a new project.

The magnificent Egli-Honda EH10-C, built around a CBX motor. Note new Brough Superiors in the background. [Egli Archive]
PDO: Can you explain to our readers the differences between Euro3 and Euro4?

AF: Euro3 vs Euro4 means much less noise, and pollution is much stricter, these are the two main factors, plus ABS and OBD now.  The petrol tank must breathe through an active carbon filter, etc, which makes construction much more complicated.  I’m a afraid instead of two wheels and an engine, there will be a lot more gimmicks to hide, which is no longer simple.  In Switzerland we are still allowed to sell Euro3 bikes, but I think the rest of Europe cannot.  For example in Germany, lots of bikes had a fire sale as they couldn’t pass Euro4.  In Europe we can still sell Euro3 bikes now, all that were imported or built before 2016. So Egli is more or less in the last minutes… but we are so limited in production.  They inspected the bikes before the end of the last year, and we were not allowed to build more than 6, but for me it’s ok.  Everything we do in the future must pass Euro4, and in 2020 will be Euro5, and it’s not clear what will change – definitely more regulation; less noise, less pollution, and so on.

An Egli-Ducati 900SS from 1976. [Private Collection]
PDO: What are your plans when Euro5 comes in?

AF:  I don’t know, maybe we have to look at electric bikes.

It's not possible to use older engines for manufacturing.  For example, the Godet-Egli-Vincents have to match Euro3 too, so he can’t use a newly manufactured Vincent engine, it's only possible for an old bike restoration: you cannot start new production with an old engine.  You’d have to design a new Vincent motor, and even Fritz tried - I saw the plans, he looked for financing, the approached bankers, but couldn’t raise the money.  It must have been in the 1980s, a Vtwin. We will have to tackle the Euro4 regulations, from the structural side the bike is not a problem, but the ABS is not so easy to get.  I was in discussion with motorcycle companies who were willing to sell us an engine, but the problem is with Bosch who has the patents for ABS, but they don't sell a full package with all the electronics.  And that's very costly to develop; we would have to pay them to develop the software for our bikes, and with only 6 or 12 bikes its not workable.  Thierry Henriette had the same experience with the new Brough Superior; ABS makes everything more complicated and expensive.  Fritz Egli was in the workshop many times saying how difficult it is now, and how easy it was then!

From the Egli Motorcycles web page: a tasty selection of frames and full builds. [Egli Archive]
There is only one possibility for small manufacturing: if you have a niche market, you can be much more expensive.  We’ve sold all 6 of our bikes already, but kept one for us as a demo.  It's pretty good!  We also have in our workshop quite a lot of restorations; people are starting to restore Eglis, two years ago it was only Vincents, but now MV, Honda, Kawasaki are being restored. We either restore them, or source them and restore them for customers.  For the Egli company and its history this is very nice, I’d like to keep this activity.  It helps with the mechanics as they can make a restoration, and also build new bikes.  In the winter you have time for restoration.

The 2018 Egli-Honda EVH 750, as seen at the Concorso Villa d'Este. [Egli Archive]
PDO: Are you involved with any racing?

AF:  If one of our customers wants to race our 6 new bikes, we have tuning kits, exhausts etc, but of course that's not street legal. We’re a bit into classic racing, we race a Godet 500 Vincent at the Classic TT, with Horst Zeigel riding for us, and we’ll go back this year.  I think we’ll do another bike like Egli did in the past, in Switzerland we have one or two classic races, and there are 500 Honda motors available.  For now that’s enough to put in a foot, but not jump wholly into classic racing.   Plus, we've decided to show a 750 Honda Egli at the 2018 Concorso Villa d’Este, so see you there!

[All of us at The Vintagent lament the closure of Egli Motorcycles, and wish all parties the very best in future projects.  The Egli name will surely live as long as motorcycles are remembered.]

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

 


Do Cafe Racers Dream of Electric Starts?

By Scott Rook

Being a child of the 1980s, I never knew a time when fast bikes on the showroom floor didn’t mimic the factory's race bikes. Kawasaki had the Ninja and Honda had the Hurricane. [Shameless plug: read our history of the cafe racer, 'Ton Up!'] The bikes appeared on magazine covers in the school library that all my friends drooled over in study hall.  When I got interested in vintage bikes in the 1990s, the idea of an old street bike that was kitted out in race trim took hold: a cafe racer.  The Honda CR750 was the bike that did it for me. Cycle World ran a story about Dick Mann and his Daytona-winning Honda CR750 from 1970: someone built a replica and was racing it at Daytona in the AHRMA series.  The factory CR750 racer looked nothing like the old CB750 that I'd owned. The Honda had been replaced by a 1979 Triumph Bonneville, but when I saw the CR750 in the magazine I thought, I could build that and ride it on the street.  After all it was just a CB750 underneath that root beer colored fairing, and CB750s could be found cheap in the early 1990s. This was my cafe racer dream. I started making spreadsheets of parts and searching the internet with my dial-up Internet connection. I perused the newspaper looking for any old cheap CB750. I found one; a non-running K1 for $250. My girlfriend (who would later become my wife) went with me to check it out. We stopped at U-Haul on the way and picked up a motorcycle trailer just in case. The bike was rough. The cases were cracked but most of it was there, and it had a title. The 1971 CB750 came home with me that day and has been with me ever since.

Dick Mann on the Honda CR750 on his way to winning the Daytona 200 in 1970. [Cycle World]
I guess there were a bunch of people who saw that CR750 in Cycle World and had the same idea, as CR750 replicas were being built all over the country. I had stripped my bike down and sold off or thrown out all the stock bits; there was no room for chromed steel fenders on my cafe racer.  But I had a lot going on in the late 1990s: I went back to college, got married, quit my current job, bought a house and became a teacher. The old CB750 sat for years in my mother’s basement. It 'graduated' from her garage when she complained about all the junk and parts everywhere. I was doing other things, but I never lost the desire to build that CR750 Dick Mann replica and ride it on the street. The problem was that by the early 2000s, building a Dick Mann replica CR750 was easy. There were 2 or 3 places that sold everything required, and there was even a guy selling completed bikes on consignment. That wasn’t my cafe racer dream. I wanted to build something that was difficult to source parts for, something that could only be completed by going on a quest. I didn’t want to just max out a credit card and order a CR750. Along the way, I came across all kinds of quirky cafe racer specials that used the CB750 as a base motorcycle. There were Rickman CRs, Seeleys, Dresdas and Moto Martins that replaced the frame with better handling, stiffer, nickel-plated chromoly versions. There were also Japautos, Read Titans, and Dunstalls that used the original CB750 frame, but added rearsets, fiberglass fairings and exhaust systems - it was these quirky specials that I gravitated towards, the Paul Dunstall in particular. I knew of Dunstall’s success with Norton but never knew they produced parts for the Honda CB750. The Dunstall 'CR750' was a complete package with rearsets, exhaust, fiberglass tank, seat and full fairing. The Dunstall Honda was angular and had boxy lines, and I loved the look of it. I was going to build a Dunstall with my CB750. This was no credit card ordering frenzy: this was a cafe racer quest!
The $250 1971 CB750 K1 as found in the early 1990s. [Scott Rook]
It took over 9 years to source the complete Dunstall kit and build the bike.  For some parts it was better off getting new replicas made, like the gas tank. The original tanks couldn’t be used with modern fuel or they would melt. Some parts were just not available anywhere. I had to have the fairing lowers made as well. Original Dunstall Decibel silencers show up pretty regularly but most of them are used and abused, so I opted for British-made copies. Everything else was either NOS or used Dunstall parts. I found an original seat, exhaust, rearsets and 3⁄4 fairing. Once I had all the parts the bike went together rather quickly, but I added to my quest by looking for original Lester cast-aluminum mag wheels. Gathering all of this old stuff was part of my build process, as I couldn’t afford to just build the bike all at once, but finding old parts along the way and supplementing them with new bearings, springs, shocks, brake pads and other consumable parts made the quest worthwhile. I knew some day the bike would be built and I would ride my cafe racer on the street, and by the summer of 2010 the bike was assembled and rideable. It would take another year for the paint and finishing touches, but the cafe racer dream had been realized. The bike wasn’t as radical as the CR750 that Dick Mann rode; my Dunstall Honda had lights and an electric start. While dreaming of the bike, I had visions of it being more of a sport tourer rather than a full-on race bike, but my first ride dispelled any touring myths. After about 20 minutes my forearms were on fire and my neck hurt. After an hour I had to stop and get off the thing for fear that I would permanently cramp up and just fall over once I came to a stop. Once off the bike I couldn’t help but stare at it because it looked so striking in its yellow paint and black wheels. But I was dreading having to get back on and ride it home. The cafe racer dream was much different than the cafe racer reality.
The Cover of the 1974 Dunstall Catalog featuring the CR750 Cafe Racer Kit. [The Vintagent Archive]

I had loved the process of building my Dunstall Honda: it was full of the anticipation of riding a bike that belonged in a different era. The Dunstall Honda was something different, like a lost treasure that the world had forgotten.  And I brought my cafe racer dream to life in my garage. The realization was exhilarating, but the ride was terrible. I remembered my old CB750 and how it did literally everything: I rode it on grass while learning to ride a motorcycle, I rode it to school and took it on camping trips with my friend on the back. That old CB750 took me and my high school girlfriend everywhere. The Dunstall Honda did nothing well other than go fast and look great. I couldn’t take it anywhere without experiencing pain. Maybe that is how beautiful strange things from a different era are supposed to be. They have to extract a toll from their owners for their existence. Not just a financial cost, but actual pain when used as intended. I wanted to like riding the bike, and gave it my best, but never really enjoyed it.  So I changed clip-ons and played with different hand grips, and tried to make it even more cafe racer by adding a boxed swingarm and rear Hurst Airheart disk brake conversion. I changed the wheels to the even more rare Henry Abe mags, all in an effort to love the bike I had built. None of it worked. I rode the bike once or twice a summer for many years. I polished the aluminum covers and waxed it. I kept it in tip top running condition hoping that someday I would love riding it.  But that never happened. The cafe racer dream had become a painful nightmare.

The first iteration of Scott's Dunstall CR750 with Lester mag wheels, in 2011. [Scott Rook]
I decided to make changes: the first part to go was the fairing, as I thought using Superbike bars the right might become bearable. It worked, kind of. The pain in my neck went away. I thought that if I replaced the Dunstall tank and seat with the stock items the riding position would be about perfect. It was, kind of. My wrists and forearms felt normal again. The rearsets were still a little behind where I wanted my feet, so I changed back to the stock footpegs. Much better but I wondered how the bike would feel with the higher stock bars. The answer was just about perfect. In stock trim my formerly unrideable Dunstall Honda became like my old CB750. It did everything and did it comfortably. Those Honda engineers must have known something Paul Dunstall never did. I found myself riding the CB750 everywhere. I rode it to work. I did errands on it. I rode it out to my campsite in Chautauqua, New York. I rode it on Sunday mornings for fun. My cafe racer dream died that summer in the form of my now-stock CB750 K1 that I couldn’t stop riding.
The last iteration of the Dunstall CR750 with Hurst Airheart rear brake and Henry Abe Wheels. [Scott Rook]
Cafe Racers as an idea are great. They look great with their slippery fairings, long tanks and short seats. They have a purposefulness that standard road bikes just don’t have. They are exciting, whether you want to feel like Dick Mann at Daytona or one the Toecutters gang in the wasteland. Paul Dunstall knew all of these things. He built stunning machines that looked like they belonged on a racetrack or a Mad Max film. The truth, which I’m sure he knew all too well, was that cafe racers as motorcycles are terrible beasts to live with. They are uncomfortable to ride more than an hour, they have limited maneuverability at anything other than high speed, and they have no practical ability to cope with heavy traffic or stop and go riding. All the performance upgrades and fiberglass tanks in the world can’t make cafe racers anything other than toys. Paul Dunstall sold his cafe racer business in the late 1970s and moved into property development. The Rickman brothers and Colin Seeley stopped producing their special framed CB750s and KZ1000s around the same time. It seems the cafe racer dream died in the late 1970s. Its revival in the late 1990s and into the 2000s suffered the same fate as many new riders were seduced by the looks of vintage cafe racers only to find out how unfriendly they actually were in the real world.
Back to stock! The same 1971 CB750 K1 Scott bought in the early 1990s for $250, now a permanent garage fixture, and comfortable to ride. [Scott Rook]

I still have a cafe racer dream, but it doesn’t involve Dick Mann or clip-ons. I want to build a bike that has the cafe racer look but keeps the standard riding position. Paul Dunstall built Sprint versions of his Norton Atlases and Commandos. These were bikes with performance upgrades and the cafe tank and seat but with regular bars and pegs. A bright red Dunstall Domiracer Sprint sounds about perfect for me. I guess I have a new cafe racer dream.  Stay tuned.

 

Scott Rook started riding motor cycles at the age of 15 in 1989. He traded some baseball and football cards for a beat up 1976 CB750 and has been hooked ever since. He's a history teacher and father to 3 teenagers in his non-motorcycle life.

The Pornography of Speed

The Detroit-built V-8 engine is as big a chunk of American identity as the flag, the cowboy hat, and the jacked pickup with tires as big as Daisy Duke’s inflatables.  American-style drag racing squeezes a nation’s worth of sex and violence into this engine’s compact lump, and within its confines, hot steel shafts push oily pistons up tightly-bored holes, mad hot with the stroking, exploding every four thrusts.  It is powergasm on asphalt for all to witness; the earth-splitting bellow of crazy-revving engines, the flaming cannonfire of exhaust stacks, the steely whine of a supercharger, the rippling deformation of tire-skin under the wrenching torque of actually unmeasurable horsepower.  The V-8 engine is nearly ubiquitous in the drag scene (and NASCAR), like the Frenchman’s bread and the Swissman’s cheese…more like the goddamn air, because V-8s are everywhere. With hundreds of millions built since the 1930s, the foundation for outrageous power is as common as mud and weeds, and about as cheap.

Stacks: beautiful, erotic, raw, dangerous. [Matthew Porter]
The ‘rail’ dragster is a pure speed machine, as delicately realized as the finest European Formula 1 racer, but much, much faster. The chassis weighs nothing; a welded-up lattice framework of lightweight tubing, connecting a pair of bicycle wheels up front with enormously fat ‘slicks’ at the rear, between which the engine and pilot sit in an uneasy few seconds’ cohabitation.  The trellis frame is designed just strong enough to prevent an inconceivably powerful V-8 from ripping itself out of its cage, and grenading in death-freedom as a pinwheel of molten metal, bleeding hot oil, and flaming ejecta.  Superchargers force an explosive nitromethane mix into every cylinder, ignited 50 times per second (x8), running the ragged edge of any metal’s ability to absorb heat without deformation or liquification, which occasionally broaches even the stoutest of engine casings.  The result is instant chaos, and in the emergency, all moving parts – pistons, valves, crankshaft, camchain – discover their own escape routes in an energetic disassembly lasting less than a second.  The consequences most urgently affect the driver sitting a mere few feet from the unfolding catastrophe, doing his/her best to stop a disintegrating land missile from cartwheeling, and doom.

Chrome won't get you home, but we aren't going home, yet. [Matthew Porter]
It takes incredibly skilled labor to transform a 140hp sedan motor into a fire-breathing, nitro-swilling, 15,000 horsepower supercharged beast, and from these hands we find the poetry lurking within the vulgarity of the drag strip, and the pornography of speed. Drained of reference, these photographs might seem like ironic commentary on American powerlust and the fuel-guzzling, make-a-big-noise type of working-class pastime. The V-8 engine taken out of context hangs like a bomb from a chain, but is more accurately a package of patient obsession, attention to minute detail, and ambition.  In the glorious circus of motorized American speed competitions, the highly-tuned engine is the heart of it all, but there’s no reward bar aesthetic for making the engine beautiful - for chroming valve covers and superchargers and intake stacks, for making the blower scoop that particular shape of badass.  Success is measured only by the clock, so more is at stake here than victory, and chrome is the clue; like the occasionally disastrous blowups which bedevil them, these unseen greasy hands broach the confines of the functional, spilling molten passion into the realm of Art.  Let us exalt these mechanics into the pantheon of artists, and nominate the drag strip as our performance space; not ironically, but as a place where life explodes, and priapic wheeled missiles hurtle into the invisible womb of Time.

Explosions per second, barely contained at the limit of destruction. [Matthew Porter]

[This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of  At Large magazine]

 

 

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

The Remarkable Mister Cox

The label ‘artist’ is tossed around lightly these days, for which we can blame Marcel Duchamp - but he had his reasons.  Anyone building an aesthetically pleasing custom motorcycle gets an A in this post-‘Art of the Motorcycle’ world, but if a good custom doesn’t deserve a museum slot, what does?  Still, the realm of aesthetics is not necessarily the realm of art, and a talented stylist with bodywork and paint doesn’t necessarily see the world through the strange prism of an artist.   That’s not a put down; the world needs good design - it makes life better. But natural born artists are weird; they do what they do because they’re compelled to. Lucky for us, some artists stick their hands in design with remarkable results; for example, Paul Cox.

The inimitable arch-craftsman and artisan extraordinaire, Paul Cox. [Franz Venzin]

And then there’s the question of fame (or notoriety); some artists get famous, most labor in obscurity.  Paul Cox hasn’t shunned the spotlight, but he certainly hasn’t had his due, which is partly due to honest humility, and partly the company he’s kept on his journey as an artist-craftsman.  Cox rose to visibility in the late 1990s beside his friend Larry DeSmedt, who burned very brightly as the consummate showman Indian Larry.  It was easy to misunderstand Paul Cox and Keino Sasaki’s role at Indian Larry Enterprises, given Larry’s charisma, and his fully reciprocated love for the camera.  But anyone who’s seen Paul Cox’s work understands his past contributions, and the incredible range of his talents, from painting on canvas, making knives from Damascus steel, tooling the finest leather seats anywhere, and building kickass NYC-style choppers.

The 'Sword of Damocles', an excellent example of a NYC chopper: short, low, stripped, fancy, and fast. [Franz Venzin]

Growing up in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Cox painted and drew as kids tend to, but not many children copy the paintings on their grandparents’ walls.  “That was my first body of work – my grandmother would buy them for a dollar, which planted the idea of making a living as an artist.”  Mid-‘70s choppers and Bicentennial graphics inspired him to create extended-fork bicycles, which soon progressed to minibikes, and making boats and hang gliders; “Basically anything I could make into a moving contraption.”  After attending VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts), Cox moved to New York City (1988).  He landed a job in commercial illustration; “I had a ton of work printed in newspapers and magazines, and was making art paintings at home.  That lasted two years, until I got sick of advertising illustration.”  He started modifying a Yamaha XS650 and a couple of Triumphs; friends soon wanted bikes built for them too.

Dig in on the deets: the craftsmanship on every Paul Cox motorcycle is out of this word, from the frame to the motor to the paint to the leather. [Franz Venzin]

For a Lower East Side biker, the center of the 1990s universe was Hugh Mackie’s 6th Street Specials.  “A lot of my bike world connections were made and grew there, with Hugh and Dimi. They were the first shop to pay me to make a seat; they’d just opened, and it was a high energy scene, really raw, and really a blast.”  Paul met Larry DeSmedt at 6th Street, and the pair clicked.  By 1992, both worked at the new Psycho Cycles, Larry fabricating and mechanicking, and Paul doing leatherwork and fabrication. “That’s when things really took off.  Steg and Frank and Larry and I made up our tight group, but it was my relationship with Larry that was truly inspirational.”

Proof of the engine part of imagining a Paul Cox bike: these Harley-Davidson cylinder heads have exposed, custom-made rockers on heavily modified alloy cylinder heads. A mechanical work of art. [Franz Venzin]

The 1990s chopper scene was volatile and hand-to-mouth, and when Psycho Cycles closed around ’98, Larry built bikes in a little garage below his apartment; “He was totally thrilled doing that, no strings attached, he could walk downstairs in his flip flops and underwear, it was perfect for him.” Hugh Mackie offered Cox space inside 6th St Specials for his leather and fabrication. “I owe so much to Hugh in so many different ways.  He’s just a humble soft spoken guy, and it’s easy to pass him over because he’s so laid back, but how much he meant to me coming up in this scene gets glossed over, because there are so many other colorful characters.”

Paul Cox also paints, and makes custom knives for chefs and collectors from raw Damascus steel and various handle materials, from bone to wood to metal. [Franz Venzin]

Indian Larry was primary among those; in 2000, he, Paul and other artisans leased a 5000 sq/ft warehouse on North 14th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “That’s the space everybody knows, it was one-stop shopping,” laughs Cox.  With Keino Sasaki as a mechanic, the shop was re-branded Indian Larry Enterprises. Bobby and Elisa Seeger came on board to manage branding and merchandising and help run the show.  The world spun faster when Jesse James invited Larry on his Motorcycle Mania TV show, which brought Indian Larry into the mainstream.  “We’d done a lot of film work previously as ‘biker gang guys’ - you’d show up and get $100. Larry really dug that, and did it whenever he could. Motorcycle Mania was right up his alley.  Like Ed Roth, Indian Larry was his own finest work of art; he created himself, and wanted to be a showman.” Before the Internet, TV exposure was gold, and people were floored by Indian Larry’s charisma. “He was a real guy, times 10.  The world connected with him.  It was all going well in 2002/3/4, and Bobby and Elisa really worked with him to keep things on track.”

Another amazing Paul Cox creation, showing clearly the NYC chopper style, which was always different from West Coast styles, primarily because of the riding environment of New York City. [Franz Venzin]

When Larry left this world on August 30th 2004, the outpouring of emotion convinced Paul, Keino, Bobby, and Elisa to change the shop to Indian Larry Legacy. “We thought we had to carry on what we’d started together, what Larry had built, all that momentum, and not turn it off overnight. The industry was really amazing and accepting.  We kept building bikes like we had, but kept moving forward in design ideas in the same niche NYC chopper style - that little hotrod Harley we’d always done, which I still do today.  The style is based on where I ride, what I ride, and what inspires me.”

Man at work: even his welding mask is flamed. [Franz Venzin]

In 2007, Cox decided to branch out. “It was a delicate time, but whatever I was doing creatively, I wanted to do professionally.  That’s why my shop is Paul Cox Industries, not Paul Cox Choppers - it’s more about a creative lifestyle. I might look at architecture or furniture, and bring those ideas into leather or knives or bikes. I’m coming full circle to painting again, getting into a kind of pure art instead of only the ‘high performance art’, as I call my chopper work. Painting gets me excited, and influences my other work, and it all plays against each other. For me, painting, leather, and metalwork are always happening at the same time.  My shop is set up in zones; there are people who are interested in certain aspects of what I do, who may not know the other things I do!”

[This article originally appeared in the inaugural issue of 1903 magazine, in 2016]

 

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

 


Is This Motorcycle Cursed? A BSA B50 Story

Story and Photos by new Contributor Scott Rook

I had wanted a BSA B50 for many years. They were the final distillation of BSA’s unit singles that won World MX Grand Prix championships with Jeff Smith in the 1960s and were the last competitive factory four stroke MX bikes in the early 1970s. CCM and Cheney built special framed purpose-built racers around the B50 engine that kept them competitive into the mid and late 1970s. The B50 also had the weirdest and one of the most beautifully shaped alloy gas tanks ever conceived for a motorcycle. It wasn’t exactly round but it wasn’t rectangular either. It was dubbed the lozenge. Triumphs had Pear shaped tanks and Harley had Tear Dropped tanks, BSA came out with a cough-drop shaped tank. The B50 was also recognized as one of the last great British singles in a long line of bikes that stretched back to the early teens and twenties. British singles won Grand Prix Championships with great riders like Geoff Duke and John Surtees. Names like Comet, Manx, Goldstar, Venom, Thruxton and Victor were all great British singles. The B50 also performed admirably in road racing and endurance racing, often bettering larger displacement bikes. I wanted a piece of that heritage.

The BSA D/R Kit turned a stock B25 or B50 into a Dick Mann approved dirt racer. Not that Dick ever rode one professionally... [Scott Rook collection]
BSA offered the B50 in three different flavors, the SS or street scrambler version, the T or Victor Trail for light off-road duty, and the bare bones MX for serious off-road use only. There were traits that I liked of each version of the B50. The SS model had the larger 8-inch front Conical drum brake. The T had a 2-gallon polished alloy tank compared to the SS’ steel one. The MX had the single seat and polished stainless fenders. Later MX bikes had a one into two exhaust on the right side of the machine that looked like the desert sleds of On Any Sunday. The various B50s also had some warts. The road going bikes had an ugly electrical box under the gas tank meant to be easily disconnected for off road use. They also had a huge rectangular shaped muffler that dominated the right side of the machine as well as the hideous Lucas headlight and taillight that BSA / Triumph used in 1971-72. The B50 I wanted was something that BSA called the D/R kit. This was a kit that dealers could buy to turn an SS or T version into a serious off roader. It had alloy levers, an MCM spark arrestor muffler that looked more like the 60s Victors had, an MX single seat and a capacitor to replace your heavy battery. BSA claimed that Dick “Bugsy” Mann approved of the D/R kit. If it was good enough for Bugs then it was certainly good enough for me.

The BSA B50 as discovered and purchased in the Fall of 2017 by Scott Rook. Not very nice, but affordable, with good bones. [Scott Rook]
B50s hardly ever come up for sale in western New York. There was the odd B25 for sale on craigslist over the years, but I wanted the big bike. There happened to be a B50 for sale about 3 hours drive from my house at a time when I had some extra money to not only buy the bike, but do it like I wanted. I made the trip with enough money to buy it at full price but negotiated it down to a reasonable amount. My son came with me, and we listened to the Led Zeppelin box set for the 6 hour round trip. I trailered it home and christened the bike “Hammer of the Gods” in honor of our journey to go get it. I had visions of riding the bike on the road to the nearest dirt trail and then effortlessly transitioning into woods riding. A huge smile on my face the entire time. The bike was brown, and I probably should have called it the rolling turd instead.

The rebuild started immediately. The night I brought it home, I took it for a quick run around the block and then started taking off all the stuff that had been done to it over the years. Within a few days the engine was out and the frame was getting stripped for powder coat. We have long winters in western New York which becomes rebuild season. The goal was to have my Dick Mann approved BSA B50 D/R ready for spring. I sent the engine to the foremost rebuilder of B50s in the U.S. Ed Valiket of EV Engineering. Everything else I would rebuild myself. Rebuild season is a time of hope and optimism. All the parts you have gathered start to come together to form this thing that has only existed in your brain for years. Winter turned to spring and then summer. The B50 wasn’t ready. The engine was still in another state as was the alloy gas tank that I had sent out to have the dents removed. By August everything had arrived and the drive to complete the bike was in full swing. I took it out for its maiden voyage on August 2, 2018. The bike wasn’t finished but the only things left to do were more cosmetic than functional.

Bummer. The curse begins in the Summer of 2018 with a flat tire on the first shakedown ride in Eden, NY. [Scott Rook]

Restorations are never complete when all the parts are done, and the motorcycle is back together. Restorations are really complete after all the running issues have been cleared up and the tuning has been completed which usually takes some weeks and miles. My B50 showed some issues on its first run outside of my neighborhood. The gearbox was giving false neutrals and I couldn’t get it into 4th gear without it popping back out. I thought the gearbox might have some wearing in to do or maybe the clutch needed attention. The other problem was a flat rear tire about 20 miles from my house. The tube stem had been ripped out. I had decided against running a rim lock on the rear tire. My mistake. Clearly this bike needed some more attention. The dirt trails would have to wait. It was August already and I had other bikes to ride that didn’t give false neutrals. The late summer and fall would give way to winter soon and if I wanted to maximize my riding time left then I would take the Triumph or the Dunstall CB750. The B50 got put away until rebuild season started again.

Looks can be deceiving; The only ride of 2019 with the gas tank painted, nos MX exhaust & Malcolm Smith tool bag fitted in Elma, NY. [Scott Rook]
That winter I completely tore down the gearbox and found a broken 4th gear. I also rebuilt the clutch again with all new plates, rubbers, rollers and thrust washers. I was leaving nothing to chance this time. I had also gotten my hands on an nos one into two MX exhaust system and upgraded the rear shocks and front springs. I tried my hand at painting and painted a beautiful black cross on the tank like original and pinstriped it in red. My B50 was going to carry me to those trails this summer and I was going to make Dick Mann proud! I rode it once that year. It was a fall ride in the country. About halfway through the bike started to stutter at anything under 2,000 rpm. I had a feeling it was a bad condenser since that was the only thing I didn’t replace on the ignition system. I made it home and ordered up a new condenser. The riding season was almost over and I had a CB750 to ride that I recently un-cafed, so the B50 got parked. During that rebuild season I tried to address some of the oil leaks and replaced several gaskets and hoses in preparation for the summer of 2020. This was going to be my year.
The nail in the coffin? The curse is real. The first ride of 2020 and another flat tire. [Scott Rook]
On a sunny Sunday morning in late May 2020, I took all three bikes for a ride to the gas station that sells ethanol free gas for the annual start of my riding season. They all ran great as a bike tends to after you haven’t ridden it for months. I couldn’t believe how much fun the B50 was when riding it back-to-back with my Triumph Bonneville and CB750. The B50 did everything the Bonneville did but it was about 100 pounds lighter. It felt great to finally have a relatively smooth shifting and tuned B50 that didn’t cut out at anything below 2,000 rpm. Those trails were going to feel the thump of the Hammer of the Gods. The next day I noticed the rear tire was flat on the B50. Upon closer inspection there was a huge nail in the tire and the rear rim had a hairline crack running across it. This wasn’t just some rough running and a little oil leakage. This was a disaster waiting to happen. I finally said to myself “this bike is cursed”.  I ordered up a new rim and vowed to sell the thing before it killed me.
Danger Danger! A crack in the alloy rim, and a crack in Scott's confidence. Is it time to sell this thing? [Scott Rook]
I listed the B50 for sale on a few websites and craigslist. I got many responses about what a beautiful bike it was but no serious offers or even any tire kickers. I didn’t ride the bike at all in 2021. I didn’t even wash it or start it up. There was a reason the B50 never sold like the Triumph Bonneville or the Norton Commando. They were simply troublesome machines. The B50's good looks and the appeal of taking it off-road probably sold thousands for BSA, but once the owner experienced oil leakage and a gearbox with a mind of its own, that appeal quickly faded. I had other bikes to ride and a newly restored Honda CB750 that was taking my time and energy. In the Spring of 2022, I again gave a halfhearted effort to sell the cursed bike and listed it on a few message boards. No takers. I was stuck with this cursed bike. Any dreams of riding to a trail and then going off road had vanished like the B50s oil over the winter. Wet sumped just like my enthusiasm for the rolling turd. Maybe Dick Mann had been wrong. Of course, he never actually used the B50 in competition. He would use a B25 racer for short tracks and then the triple or twin for road races and flat tracks. He didn’t even use the B50 for TTs. I think he knew. Since the bike wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to actually try and ride it. My phone was charged just in case I had to call the wife to come get me. Which she loves by the way. After replacing the battery andchanging the exhaust for the third time it was time for a ride. At first it felt all wrong. I wasn’t used to shifting on the right and braking on the left. The carb slide was set too low, and the bike wouldn’t idle. I pulled into a parking lot and set the idle and air mixture. Then I set off for a ride in the country. The goal was to try and get lost.
The curse reversed: The B50 after the first ride without anything going wrong in the Summer of 2022. [Scott Rook]

It worked, kind of. I still would get a false neutral once in a while, but I think it was down to the shift lever not being in the ideal position and not getting a good purchase on the lever. The new old MCM Spark Arrestor sounded great, but it would pop and sometimes really POP on deceleration. Probably an exhaust leak. The bike ran great after about 15 minutes of me panicking that I would downshift rather than brake. There were no flat tires, it ran great below 2,000 rpm, and the rear rim is in one piece as far as I know. There are still some things to be done. When I got home there was a noticeable oil leak which is down to the frame being overfilled. I added oil after it wet sumped. My mistake. And the exhaust has to be sealed. I think the cursed bike might actually not be cursed anymore. I didn’t manage to actually get lost, but I rode some roads that I had never been on before. This bike needs further miles. Remember all restorations are only finished after they have been tuned and all the issues worked out. This bike took 4 years after its restoration before it was actually finished. It might not be, but it kind of feels like it for now. I might make Dick Mann proud yet and finally ride to one of those trails that don’t really exist in my part of the world (unless you trespass on county land). The Hammer may still live up to its name and thump once more.

Scott Rook started riding motor cycles at the age of 15 in 1989. He traded some baseball and football cards for a beat up 1976 CB750 and has been hooked ever since. He's a history teacher and father to 3 teenagers in his non-motorcycle life.

Sinclair C5 - the Personal Electric Vehicle

The concept of 'personal electric mobility' has been around for almost 150 years.  In fact, the very first patent for a motorcycle (1871) specified an electric motor, from an era when both motors and the batteries to power them had to be built by hand, and were hardly reliable. Give a read to our History of Electric Motorcycles article for some background.  While the legacy of electric vehicles in mass transport and industrial use is a century of success (think electric buses, trollies, trains, forklifts, etc), the mass-production of personal electric vehicles has a far spottier and more problematic story.  Only in the past ten years has the electric vehicle become truly popular for personal use, but that doesn't mean clever folks haven't tried.

The original electric trike...which was the first known electric vehicle. Gustave Trouvé’s 1881 electric tricycle, the first electric vehicle demonstrated to the world, on April 19th, using a Starley tricycle with Trouvé’s own batteries and electric motor attached. The future had arrived. [from Physique et Chimie Popularies, Vol. 2: 1881-83 (Alexix Clerc, 1883)]
One such forward-thinking fellow was Sir Clive Sinclair, who gained fame as a personal computing pioneer in the 1960s and '70s.  Since his teenage years Sinclair had pondered small, inexpensive electric personal vehicles, while he built up a reputation as an electronics genius, and developed the first 'slimline' pocket calculators.  The automobile seemed to him extremely wasteful and expensive for 90% of its daily uses - local transport, errands, short pleasure trips.  Sinclair had a clever knack for using very cheap electronic components for new purposes, by altering how their power was supplied or creatively masking printed circuit boards to greatly improve their performance.  His company, Sinclair Radionics, was thus never a manufacturer per se, but used bought-in components to create new designs.  Reliance on outside contractors led to supply problems after Sinclair's products grew wildly popular (as with his wristwatch calculator of 1977).  Quality control was difficult with mass-produced, inexpensive componentry, and Sinclair soon developed a 'no questions asked' replacement policy...as none needed to be asked. Sill, Sinclair-designed electronic devices gained a reputation for tremendous innovation, and he was knighted in 1985 for his contributions to British industry.

Sir Clive Sinclair: visionary computer pioneer, EV pioneer, inventor of the flat screen TV, and more. [BBC]
The success of his electronics company kept development of Sinclair's personal transport dream on the back burner, but his company was continually testing batteries and electric motors, with Chris Curry (later founder of Acorn computers) doing the advance work.  Their first experiment in the early 1970s used a very slim electric motor installed on a stand-up scooter, that was operated by a button -  a precursor to today's wildly popular electric stand-ups.  Sinclair believed that new electric vehicles needed to be designed from the ground up, and not be adapted from ideas developed around internal-combustion engines.  His first prototype electric vehicle, the C1 of 1979, was a small electric car using existing lead-acid battery technology, with a 30-mile range and intended for a single user in urban areas, weighing 300lbs and with a modest price. Sinclair contracted Ogle Design to style the car, but was concerned that their efforts were too focused on aerodynamics, and not enough on economy.  Development proved expensive, and in Spring of 1983 Sinclair decided to drop the C1 project.

The Sinclair C5: the most successful EV of the 1980s, and most-produced EV until the 2000s. It was considered a commercial failure as 'only' 14,000 were built, as opposed to anticipated demand in the hundreds of thousands. Today the C5 is highly collectible. [National Motor Museum]
Still, Sinclair's intention was to mass-produce electric vehicles, so he sold a chunk of his own stock to form a new company, Sinclair Vehicles, and hired Barrie Willis, a former Delorean executive, as Managing Director.  While the idea of an electric car was clearly ahead of its time, British legislation supported electric vehicles, with taxes abolished for EVs in 1980, and a new law in 1983 stipulating that vehicles with a top speed under 15mph could be ridden by 14-year olds, without a helmet or driver's license.  Sinclair felt he'd found a niche they could fill.

Removing half the bodywork of a C5 reveals its secret skeleton as a recumbent tricycle. The battery is clearly visible, as is the motor, which drives only one rear wheel. [Wikipedia]
Sinclair's new concept was a small, inexpensive, one-person electric 3-wheel vehicle that included 'light pedal assistance' (a nod to the origins of the motorcycle industry circa 1900).  Sinclair once again hired Ogle Design for the initial concept: their Bond Minicar trike had been a great success, so a smaller 3-wheeler seemed within their wheelhouse.  The Ogle prototype was handed over to exotic car manufacturer Lotus Cars Ltd to design the chassis and handling details.

The original press photos for the Sinclair C5 show its futuristic styling and appeal to youth. [The Vintagent Archive]
The design was still not right, so Sinclair set up a Metalab for deep-future projects, and handed its first employee, 23-year old industrial designer Gus Desbarats, to finish the project.  What the micro-vehicle had become was a futuristic mini-missile with an injection-molded plastic body that looked like a prop from Logan's Run.  The lines were sleek, with a sloping opaque screen covering the rider's knees, an integral, non-adjustable seat back, and disc-covered wheels.  The riding position was recumbent, and the rider had pedals to assist starting or when the battery went flat, and steering was controlled with handlebars beneath the rider's legs, which sounds strange but in reality was very simple, and 'the controls fell naturally to one's hands', as the old British motorcycle magazines used to say. While the body was plastic, underneath was a steel tube spine chassis, although there was no suspension.  The whole concept was for a vehicle that was cheap to produce and easy to use. Desbarats added a tall visibility flag as standard equipment, as the Sinclair C5 was so small and low to the ground, drivers simply could not see it, and there was no safety equipment or mirrors.  As Desbarats described it, his job was to "convert an ugly pointless device into a prettier, safer, and more usable pointless device".  There had been only one round of focus group testing for the design, and no safety tests or other development considerations taking into account feedback from the C5 testers/users outside Sinclair Vehicles: everything was pushed forward and paid for by Sir Clive Sinclair.

The Sinclair C5 was assembled from major components by different contractors: the plastic body by Linpac, the chassis and gearbox by Lotus, a Phillips motor, Oldham lead-acid battery, etc.  A deal was negotiated with a Hoover washing machine facility in Wales to assemble and test the C5, with production slated for 200,000 units/year.  Before the January 1985 launch of the C5, 2500 had already been built to deal with anticipated demand.

The Sinclair C5 was launched at a lavish press reception at Alexandra Palace, featuring Stirling Moss. As it was cold, most of the C5s refused to run properly, and ran out of battery very quickly.  Press testers taking the C5 out on the road were terrified when they encountered trucks, which could not see them and belched exhaust directly in their faces.  There was no weather protection, so testers froze and got wet.  In short, the launch was a disaster.  And the bad news kept coming, with magazines and newspapers expressing concern about the lack of any safety equipment, the invisibility of the C5 to many drivers, and the lack of training/licensing/helmet requirement for young riders.  The 250W electric motor was insufficient for any hill, and the battery ran flat between 6-12 miles, far below the 30-mile claimed range.

The C5 was marketed with weather protection as an extra. Stylish! [The Vintagent Archive]
All of which might have been acceptable had the C5 been marketed as a toy.  But Sir Clive was a visionary, who foresaw a total revolution in personal transportation towards EVs, and intended to be its vanguard.  Of course, the C5 was a flop, compared to its investment and anticipated sales.  It was still the most successful EV ever built, with an initial run of 5000 C5s selling in two months, including to Princes William and Harry, who fit the target demographic perfectly.  By August 1985, 14,000 C5s had been built, but Sinclair Vehicles went belly up, and remaining stocks of C5 were sold to the likes of Ellar Surplus Ltd, who paid £75 each for 9000 units.  Ellar were the smart ones, recognizing that the C5 did have a ready market as a fun vehicle: they sold every last example in stock for £700/each.  Private buyer Adam Harper bought 600 C5s still in their boxes in 1987, and sold them all in two years for £2500 each.  Their status as a cult vehicle was immediately cemented, and C5s today are highly collectable by those who appreciate their still-futuristic styling and contemporary concept.

Alan Harper with his 150mph Sinclair C5 - at one time the fastest electric vehicle in the UK. [Robot Wars Wiki]
Some have taken C5 love even further, installing more powerful batteries and motors - easy to do - for faster performance and longer range, making them perfectly suitable as daily runabouts.  Stunt driver Alan Harper modified his C5 to set a British record for any electric vehicle in 2004, hitting 150mph. The Lotus-derived handling of the C5 showed through, "Up to 100mph it's like you're running on rails, it's really stable, then at about 110 to 120mph it starts getting tricky. At that point if a tyre blew up or something happened you would be surely dead." A few brave souls have taken the concept even further, installing jet engines into their C5s for high-speed runs ... and yes there is more than one jet-powered C5 in the world. I Road Tested one in 2011 at the Avignon Motor Festival,  built by Adrian Bennet of Jet Power UK. The Air Research JFS100-13A turbojet spins at 72,000rpm, and sits just behind and below the rider, which in this case was me.  When fired up, the jet becomes a fearsome leaf blower, and makes quite a racket, which helped keep pedestrians out of my way on the crowded festival grounds.  Nobody said it was a good idea, just a necessary thing to do, when presented with the opportunity.  What was it like?  Unique!

 

 

 

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

Samuel Aboagye - A Promising Update

We'll expand on this story soon, but much has happened since we installed Samuel Aboagye's Solar Scooter and Solar Taxi in our Electric Revolutionaries exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum.  The Motor/Cycle Arts Foundation sent team members Dan Green and Greg Hatton to Accra, Ghana, to make a short documentary of Sam's world, which you can see here.  Our team was invited to present the story our relationship with Sam at a design conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, by Safir Belali, who teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.  Two of our team were able to participate in person - Greg Hatton and Nadia Amer - and Paul d'Orléans participated by Zoom.  We shared our film of Samuel, and discussed our developing relationship with him, and were then joined by Samuel himself by Zoom, who answered questions from the professional designers and students in attendance.  It turned out to be quite a moving presentation, as Samuel has basically has nothing and lives in a very poor community, but created something amazing solely from his ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Samuel Aboagye in Accra, Ghana, with his Solar Taxi and Solar Scooter [Efo Selasi]
There were several results of that conference: Samuel was awarded a one-year design scholarship at the Art Center, and was given the promise of professional mentorship to assist him through his educational process.  Both Safir Belali and Greg Hatton have provided weekly work sessions with Samuel, who is progressing well in his studies.  As an extra treat, the M.A.F. sent Samuel with his friend, YouTube producer Efo Selasi, to Marrakech for a follow-on design conference.  It was the first time Samuel had traveled outside of his home in Accra, and it truly blew his mind and expanded his boundaries. Samuel is now progressing in his studies, and we will continue to work with him, exploring how the M.A.F. can expand our educational project with the experience we've gained in this incredibly rewarding process.

Dan Green and Greg Hatton at the Petersen Museum in early 2023 for the Electric Revolutionaries exhibit, before picking up Samuel's vehicles in Accra. [Paul d'Orléans]
To bring Samuel's two vehicles back to the USA, Dan Green had to dismantle both, taking careful notes on their construction - they were not intended to be dismantlable! The two vehicles were carried back as hand luggage - it was the same price to send two filmmakers to Accra as to ship the two vehicles via DHL!
[Dan Green]
The Solar Taxi fully dismantled in Accra. [Greg Hatton]
The Solar Scooter 'kit' as returned to the USA, in the Vault of the Petersen Museum. [Dan Green]
A collection of images from the Creative Offsite Marrakesh event in February 2023, organized by Safir Belali. [Safir Belali, Greg Hatton]
 

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

 


Albert Menasco: Pirate of the Sky

If you were asked to define a swashbuckling life, what would that include?  How about motorcycle racing, wing-walking, car racing, working an international carnival circuit, piloting experimental planes, and manufacturing the winningest aero racing engines of the 1930s?  There’s only one man with such a resumé: Albert Menasco.  And yet, I’d never heard of him until Dr. Robin Tuluie (see our article 'Actually it IS Rocket Science') introduced me to the name via the 1928-ish aero-engine race car he’d built using a Menasco engine, but more on that anon. Curiosity about Menasco revealed he was a quintessentially adventurous American in the ‘Teens, a motor-showman when a cocktail of unbridled enthusiasm, innocence and technical know-how would typically end with you famous, dead, or famously dead.   Menasco somehow walked the middle way, and ended as neither, while his legacy and impact continue to this day, nearly unheralded.

Albert Menasco at age 15, on his 1912 ride from LA to San Francisco with his 1911 American: a single-cylinder F-head with 550cc and direct belt drive - a very rare machine, as the brand was only in business 1911-14. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Menasco started life as a truant and a rascal. Born in Los Angeles on 17 March 1897, his early life was troubled: he suffered a gunshot wound to his stomach while very young, and his mother was dead by age 5. His father generously responded to this trauma by sending Albert to an orphanage, where he was soon noted for his resistance to authority and dedicated truancy, doing his best to avoid elementary school altogether.  His father reeled him in after six years, to which Albert responded by running away, landing him a stint in Juvenile Hall in 1908. The following year his older brother Milton took him in, and in 1910 Albert entered Manual Arts High School, as he was already showing signs of mechanical aptitude.

A photographic composite of the various aircraft attending the first air meet in the USA, the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet held at Dominguez Field in LA. [The Vintagent Archive]
Albert grew obsessed with aviation just in time for first great air show in the USA , held right in LA: the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet. The L.A. meet was among the earliest air shows in the world, and included luminaries like Glenn H. Curtiss, Louis Paulhan, and Lincoln Beachy, who flew a dirigible but would shortly become the most famous aviator in the USA. The Wright brothers did not attend, but their lawyers did, attempting to enforce their wing-warping patent (a primitive form of aileron), and Paulhan in particular paid dearly for his attendance, in court. Albert Menasco insinuated himself as a tool boy for the flyers. In 1912 took a job as machinist at L.A. truck manufacturer F.L.Moore, while finishing his education with night classes.

Lincoln Beachy and his one-man dirigible at the 1910 air meet. The airship is powered by a Curtiss V-twin motor, and the attitude of the airship is altered by the 'pilot' moving forward and back on the railings slung beneath, while the rudder changes the direction. Brave man! The fate of Albert Menasco would be tied to Beachy's in 5 years... [The Vintagent Archive]
Menasco’s inclinations turned to motorcycles that year. His first machine was the rare ‘American’ brand, a typically Edwardian single-cylinder, single-speed machine with an inlet-over-exhaust motor and a belt drive. Menasco rode this simple machine from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1912. Not having the benefit of Roman conquest, there were no highways in the wilds of California at the time: what paths existed were for horses. For a 15-year old to ride a single-speed, clutchless 4hp motorcycle for 900 miles (assuming he made a round trip), over a trackless wilderness, and succeed, speaks volumes about both his grit and mechanical ability.

Menasco with his American motorcycle, converted for racing with an OHV top end (probably from a Pope), retaining the frame and forks but adding dropped racing handlebars. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Menasco opened a mechanic’s shop by age 16, and leaped into motorcycle racing.  He appears in 1913/14 on a home-made dirt track racer with a Pope overhead-valve cylinder head and sprung front forks cannibalized from his American.  The thrill of racing enticed him, but no mention of Menasco appeared in the winner’s lists. By 1914 he seems to have joined in the short-lived California craze of Baby Car racing. These were miniature racing cars powered by single- and twin-cylinder motorcycle engines, presented as shrunken replicas of famous Grand Prix cars of the era. Their light construction and powerful engines made them capable of terrific speeds for the era, at relatively low cost. The first Baby Car races were held in Los Angeles at the Ascot Park and Culver City tracks, there was even a Junior Car Championship that year.  And it was Baby Car racing that connected Albert Menasco with a spectacular young pilot by the name of ‘Bird Boy’ Art Smith.

'An embryo aviator'.  The young Albert Menasco circa 1915, when Art Smith taught him how to fly. Here he sits the replica Curtiss pusher aircraft that Art Smith built using a Curtiss V8 OHV motor, of the type Curtiss famously rode at Ormond/Daytona beach to a (reputed) 136mph in 1906. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Art Smith was born in 1890 in Ft Wayne Indiana, and was a born daredevil and showman. He built a tall wooden ramp in his backyard that led to a large jump over which Smith flew…on roller skates.  ‘Jumping the gap’ was an Evel Knievel stunt on very small wheels, and carnivals sought him out with offers of good pay, but his parents did not approve the ‘carny’ life.  Smith was also fascinated with aviation, amassing a library of extant literature and building three functional scale model airplanes. Amazingly, 19-year old Art convinced his parents to mortgage their home (for $1800) so he could build an airplane.  His pattern was Glenn Curtiss’ ‘Gold Bug’ pusher biplane, and Smith bought a Curtiss A4 air-cooled inline four to power it.  Smith’s cabinetmaker father, despite failing eyesight, made the plane’s wooden struts, while his mother sewed up the fabric skin. When it was finished, Smith hopped in and flew the thing, but crashed due to an imbalance in the layout.   He rebuilt his plane along the lines of Lincoln Beachy’s ‘headless’ Curtiss, the first plane modified for aerobatics.  Lincoln Beachy was the most famous pilot in the USA, earning a significant income from flying demonstrations and daredevilry, which was Smith’s goal.

The finale of Art Smith's run of demonstration stunt flights at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) in 1915, with flares attached to his wingtips, making one heck of a sight in the night sky above the temporary city in San Francisco. [The Vintagent Archive]
In 1915, all roads led to the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco. It was to be the grandest World’s Fair yet, with a glamorous Beaux Arts ‘jewel city’ constructed atop 635 acres of former beachfront. The PPIE included evening light shows, car races, airplane tricks by Lincoln Beachy, a sprawling fun fair called the Zone, and enormous halls displaying the latest in industry and culture.  Beachy demonstrated the scale of the Hall of Machinery by taking off, flying and landing within it, the first indoor flight.  The automobile racing included both a Vanderbilt Cup and a Grand Prize, with supporting races by Baby Cars for the Junior Vanderbilt and GP.  Art Smith commissioned the San Francisco Harley-Davidson dealer Dudley Perkins to build him a fleet of five cars, each with different bodywork that mimicked the Mercedes, Peugeot, Fiat, Stutz, and Marmon racers then dominating the GP circuit.  Each car cost $400, and was powered by a Harley-Davidson J-series V-twin motor. The cars were capable of over 60mph, which given their diminutive scale, probably felt like rocketry to drivers and audiences alike. Albert Menasco both raced and maintained Smith’s cars.

The Baby Car craze at the PPIE: Art Smith drives, while Al Menasco wrenches. Five cars were built to special order by San Francisco Harley-Davidson dealer Dudley Perkins, powered by J-series V-twins: each car body mimicked the most famous GP racers of the day, in miniature. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Our heroes’ fortunes changed three weeks after the opening of the PPIE, when Lincoln Beachy surpassed the wing-load of his monoplane during a dive and plunged directly into San Francisco Bay. He survived the crash but drowned anyway in the time it took to extract him from the water.  So, sans Beachey, the PPIE was left without its star attraction, until someone remembered that Art Smith, already famous as a stunt pilot, was on hand with his Baby Cars.  Whether Smith already had his plane in San Francisco isn’t noted, but he was soon wowing crowds day and night with his biplane, which had been upgraded with a 90hp Curtiss OX water-cooled V-8. Smith’s star rose dramatically at the PPIE, thrilling 18 million attendees with stunning loops, spins, and low flyovers, plus night flights with magnesium flares on his wingtips, accompanied by the colored searchlights of the Rainbow Scintillator (see our article here).

Art Smith's Baby Car équipe, with car bodies mimicking famous GP racers of the day. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
News of Smith’s prowess circled the globe leading to an invitation from Emperor Yoshihito of Japan for an Imperial audience in 1916.  This opportunity metastasized into a months-long tour of Japan, Korea, and China. Their show had an enormous impact, and their daily audience was at times 200,000 or more. Tokyo author Tayama Katai wrote in 1917: “When Smith came, and looped the loop despite the awfully windy conditions, the whole metropolis gasped in wonder. I was watching from the gate at the back of the garden. I never believed he’d be able to do anything, because of the wind. But just then the stormy sky was filled with a frightful droning. The aeroplane appeared way up high, looking so very small and leaving a trail of wispy blue smoke. ‘He’s good all right!’ I thought to myself, and just at that moment he suddenly put the aeroplane through two or three large loops and then flew right up high again. I found myself applauding.” One such gaping youth was Soichiro Honda, who stole his father’s bicycle and rode 20 miles to catch Smith’s Tokyo exhibition. He could not afford entry to the show, so watched from a tree, and in his autobiography credited Smith with igniting his passion for engineering and mechanics.

Details of the Baby Car construction: a pair of wooden frame rails supporting a Harley-Davidson J motor with full-race Schebler carburetor, minimal steering gear, and no suspension, with a two-speed chain drive via twin chains, a sliding dog engagement, and a clutch. Simple and no doubt very quick. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Albert Menasco had become, despite his parents’ wishes, a full-fledge ‘carny’ in the most spectacular traveling motor show on earth. Menasco’s notes give little impression of the joys and difficulties they encountered, but others on the same circuit put pen to hand: I highly recommend Carl Leon Terrell’s 1946 epic ‘Seven Naked Women in a Tokyo Jail’, recounting his 1920s Asian tour on a near-identical route. Terrell’s game was a Wall of Death motordrome, but his famously beautiful ‘fat lady’ wife proved the most popular attraction of all.

The end of the tour: Art Smith crashed his plane in Japan and broke a leg, without further injury except for his destroyed plane.  Note the Curtiss V8 watercooled motor. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Despite Smith ending their 1916 tour with a flourish, crashing the plane and breaking a leg, the team did it all over again in 1917. Menasco had spent enough time under Smith’s wing to become a pilot himself, and even tested a lovely Morane-Saulnier Model H in Japan.  The disaster ending their tour this time was in Europe, and in April 1917 Menasco and Smith went home to be military pilots, but were roundly rejected by the US Navy, Army Signal Corps, and even Canadian Royal Flying Corps. Menasco had a perforated eardrum, and Smith, possibly the finest living aviator, was sub-height at only 5’ 3”!  Smith ended up training pilots, while Menasco became a civilian aeronautical engineer, testing engines and training young mechanics.

The Morane-Saulnier Model H monoplane that replaced the Curtiss replica: the latest thing with wings! [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
After WW1, Smith became one of the original US Post Office airmail pilots. He met his end not performing a loop or a falling-leaf spin, but on a mail run in 1926. Menasco had returned to California after the war, taking a variety of jobs, but was pushed back into aviation after Smith’s death when he was tasked with selling the estate.  That included 250 Salmson Z-9 watercooled 230hp radials, rendered instantly obsolete by the end of the war.  Menasco felt he could upgrade the motors and sell them, so took on a financial partner, and marketed the improved Menasco-Salmson B2. He sold fifty, but in 1928 the new Approved Type Certificate (ATC) for aircraft engines required 50 hours of continuous running, and after wrecking five B2 engines, Menasco pulled them from the market.

The Menasco Motors display stand at an aero show in the early 1930s, with the all-conquering Menasco Pirate engine on display. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
The end of the B2 was the start of Menasco Motors, as Albert designed a new series of engines with an unusual inverted four-cylinder layout. The first Menasco Pirate motor (the 90hp A4) was running by 1929, and after his B2 testing fiasco, Albert would not submit his engines for ATC approval until they showed 125% of rated power for 100 hours.  Adhering to this standard, Menasco Motors sailed through seven successful ATC applications for their inverted motors, which was unprecedented.  The factory also built supercharged engines for racing, which proved to be giant-killers, and among the most successful aero racing engines of the 1930s. Still, Menasco Motors struggled through the Depression, losing money every year until 1941, when military contracts began.  They didn’t want Menasco’s motors, only their sophisticated machine shop to build hydraulic landing gear for P-38 Lightnings and other fighters. The factory eventually built 80,000 landing gear sets during the war, and carried on building them for commercial airliners afterwards. Albert Menasco retreated from management of his business in 1938, finding the constant struggle for cash too stressful, but was still alive to watch the Space Shuttle touch earth on Menasco landing gear.

Dr. Robin Tuluie, 3-time Daytona winner on home-made motorcycles, 4-time World Grand Prix Championship chassis designer, here competing in his 'hobby' car, the Menasco Pirate, named for its aero engine. [VSCC]
The most popular Menasco aero engine was the C4 Pirate with 5.9L and 125hp. That’s what Dr. Robin Tuluie found in San Diego when searching out a suitable aero engine for his vintage race car, built around a 1928 Riley chassis: as Menasco built prototypes of the C4 motor in 1928, it seemed a perfect match. The C4 has proven to be as effective a racing motor on wheels as on wings, with Tuluie garnering race wins with his home-built car, called, naturally, the Menasco Pirate.  A fitting tribute to a remarkable fellow.

What Soichiro Honda saw: the first experience of many Japanese seeing an aircraft in flight on home soil. The show that launched a motoring career! [The Vintagent Archive]
Taking a break after packing up their traveling show: 'Val, Vic, Al, & Art.' [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
1915 might as well have been 1815, or 1715. Native dress in Korea, during the extensive Asia tour of Art Smith's carnival. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Loading up a Baby Car aboard one of the many ships used to circulate Asia before WW1 broke out. Note twin chains for 2-speed drive, and no differential for maximum sliding fun. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Cruising the dirt lanes of Tokyo in a trio of racing cars, which is how they traveled from town to town! [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
 

[This article originally appeared in The Automobile magazine, the July 2021 edition.  Special thanks to the San Diego Air & Space Museum for permission to dig into the Albert Menasco archives, and reproduce many of the remarkable photos used here.]

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