Cook Neilson was born in Glen Cove, New York in August, 1943, and raised in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. His first two-wheeled vehicle was a Vespa. His second was a Harley-Davidson Sportster, pictured below with a dual carburetor kit which Neilson confesses did nothing to improve performance. But over time he learned a great deal about hopping up engines, and eventually his Sportster evolved into a drag bike, and even earned speed records at Bonneville in 1966 and 1969.
It did not take Neilson long to start hopping up
his first bike, a Harley-Davidson Sportster.
It is seen here with a dual carb kit,
a fixture that the owner confesses did not
make much difference.
Neilson was educated at Princeton, and appeared headed for a career on Wall Street until an opportunity arose to work for Ziff-Davis Publications, which at that time published both Cycle and Car&Driver out of its offices in New York City. Learning his trade from the legendary Gordon Jennings, Neilson became Associate Editor of Cycle in November, 1967, then Editor in November, 1969. He recruited Phil Schilling to his staff, then relocated Cycle to California where it would be easier to test and write about motorcycles. Neilson, with Schilling, brought a different slant to motorcycle journalism. Rather than maintain the cozy business-to-business editorial approach that Floyd Clymer had developed prior to his sale of the magazine to Ziff-Davis, the new Cycle began to write to its readers, the rank-and-file subscribers who paid retail price for their motorcycles. As part of this process, Neilson initiated multi-brand comparison tests, modeled after what he had seen in Car&Driver. This approach often displeased the manufacturers, but today Neilson is convinced that serial production motorcycles became better and safer because of it.
When he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in October, 2006, Larry Lawrence, who introduced him, declared that through Neilson’s leadership Cycle became the gold standard for American motorcycle journalism, and he read a passage that illustrates beautifully the writing style that contributed so much to the magazine’s popularity and its ability to connect with readers. Describing the Laverda 1000, Neilson wrote:
you want a faithful servant, get yourself a Honda. But if what
you want in a motorcycle is the mechanical equivalent of a good
drinking buddy, one who’ll lead you into temptation and
punch you in the eye for letting life go to your head, a buddy
who’ll mess with your women, probably plunder your wallet,
and make your days glow with raffish excitement, the Laverda is
the bike for you.
Neilson quickly turned his Harley-Davidson Sportster
to a state-of-the-art drag bike, seen here at
Atco, New Jersey in 1968.
It was this kind of descriptive articulation of an emotional attachment to motorcycles that helped Ziff-Davis push Cycle’s circulation to nearly a half-million readers and its ad sales well beyond that of its competitors.
Neilson and Schilling were not only aces on the editorial desk. They also became a legendary team on the race track, campaigning a Ducati named “Old Blue,” tuned by Schilling and ridden by Neilson to victory in the Superbike class at Daytona in 1977.
Then suddenly, just when he appeared to be at the top of his game, Cook Neilson resigned from Cycle, took leave of the motorcycle industry, and moved back East to start a commercial photography business. His final editorial, published in September, 1979 said a lot about what was important to Neilson. He did not rhapsodize about the growth and success of Cycle during his watch (which might have been entirely appropriate), he did not wax profound about what he had seen come and go in motorcycling, and he did not make wise and portentous predictions about its future. He simply said:
it is time for me to take my leave from the Editorship of this
magazine. I would like to thank all those people who have
shed warmth and light on motorcycling as I have known it these
past 16 years, those who have uplifted the sport with common decency,
and those who have been great sources of personal assistance and
encouragement . . .
Teaming up with Charlie Kowchak
in the 1960s,
Neilson took his Sportster to Bonneville,
setting records in 1966 and 1969.
Then he opened his Rolodex and consumed the rest of his editorial space by listing the names of 321 individuals who had been important to him during his service at Cycle. For Cook Neilson, people were more important than personal accomplishments.
After his abrupt announcement, Neilson and his wife Stepper moved to Vermont, seeming to leave the motorcycle industry behind for good. But in his time at the helm of Cycle Magazine, Neilson left too much of a legacy to be forgotten. Recently, his past has come back to haunt him, though in a positive way. Cycle World has called upon both Neilson and Schilling to pen historical or nostalgic features that only they have the true depth and authority to write. During 2006, both were inducted into the Ducati Racing Hall of Fame, and Neilson was inducted into the prestigious U.S. Motorcycle Hall of Fame. And Ducati has introduced, with much fanfare, “New Blue,” a state-of-the-art racing motorcycle that Neilson characterizes as what Old Blue might have become with 30 more years of technical development.
In November, 1967, Cook Neilson's name first appeared
on the masthead of Cycle Magazine as its new Associate
Cook Neilson might have been happy to live out his days away from the limelight, but his friends and fans seem unwilling to let that happen. He is a significant person in American motorcycle history, and he deserves to be celebrated as such, whether he likes it or not. We contacted Neilson late in February, 2007, just before he was about to depart chilly Vermont for the warmer clime at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama to put New Blue through its paces on the race course, and we asked if he would share some time with the readers of Motohistory. He readily agreed, so read on as Cook Neilson remembers.
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