After ten years of near-continuous monthly service, Motohistory is taking a break. This web site will remain active, but new material will not be added on a regular basis until further notice. Thanks to our readers and contributors for a decade of loyal support.
– Ed Youngblood
Sometimes you win
In celebration of Motohistory’s 10th year, last month I started MotoMojo, a column where I might write about whatever I please, whether or not it has anything to do with motorcycles or motohistory. Last month I wrote about running for the State Senate in Maine. After the story went through the usual Facebook abbreviation and obfuscation process, some people actually believed it. C’mon, folks. Don’t believe anything you read under the MotoMojo heading, unless I tell you to. Then you’ll just have to trust me.
This month’s mojo is a true story, for real, about a motohistorian photographer and his wife (above right) that many of you may know. Dan Mahony was born in Los Angeles, the son of Hall of Famer Walt Mahony, a man who haunted the SoCal race tracks with his camera for 40 years. Walt took more than 435,000 photographs and produced more than a million prints for fans, racers, and the media. And mind you, folks, this was in the day when you loaded film, souped the film, and made prints in a dark room, one at a time.
Walt was one of the greatest – some would say “the greatest”—chroniclers of American motorcycle racing of the mid-20th century. Rightfully, he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. Now, Walt is also going to be inducted into the Trailblazer’s Hall of Fame, a prestigious West Coast club composed of leading lights in American motorcycle racing, still living and gone before us.
Son Dan, born in 1950, followed in Walt’s footsteps, lugging cameras to the race track to shoot both cars and motorcycles. He and his wife Vickie now live in the open air of the Missouri Ozarks, where Dan continued to chase images at the dirt tracks of rural Missouri while Vickie set up a dog grooming business (lots of burs and briars in them Missouri hills). They are retired now, but Dan remains busy with his motohistorical work, but more about that later.
Dan “I never win anything” Mahony has just won a prize in a radio contest that any old rocker would kill for. He will receive airfare for two, hotel accommodations, a new Gibson guitar, and VIP tickets to see Eric Clapton’s retirement concert (http://www.crossroadsguitarfestival.com) in the Big Apple. Dan and Vickie were already planning to go to Los Angeles for his father’s Trailblazers Hall of Fame induction, so it is their plan to drive to LA, then fly from LA to NYC and back. The concert will feature not just Clapton, but 30 of the greatest guitar players still pickin’. Mahony says, “I’m going to try to get that Gibson signed by anyone important I can.
”This, in my opinion, is a deserved treat, because it’s not been easy for Dan. A few years ago he and a stock car conducted an experiment in simultaneous time and space at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, and the car won, perhaps by virtue of its greater speed and mass. The chance meeting broke Dan’s shoulder into enough pieces that the doctors quit counting, and there was nerve and muscle damage in his right arm that left him unable hoist an eight-pound camera and strobe package to his eye a few hundred times an evening. But Dan decided to make an effort, and the first car on the first corner of the 2011 season shot a rock right into Mahony’s forehead. A message? Maybe.
Mahony said to himself, “You know, 45 years is a pretty good run in any business,” and he turned and walked to his car and hasn’t seen a race track since. He adds, “That is, other than falling asleep to NASCAR on television.”
But by no means does this mean Mahony is out of the game. There are two lifetimes of work – his and his father’s – to be scanned and cataloged. He explains, “I’m sitting at the computer twelve hours a day, scanning old negatives before lifetimes of work fade away into nothingness.” He’s planning to set up a web site soon where fans and motojournalists can access the hundreds of thousands of images produced by the Mahonys.
I’m really happy to know this. For both my “Heroes of Harley-Davidson” and “Mann of His Time” books, Dan’s archives provided some wonderful photohistorical documents, and it is comforting to know they will be available for the motohistorians of the future.
And I am really happy to know that Dan and Vickie are going to fly to New York to see Clapton for what may be his last time in concert.
Sometimes you win.
NOTE:Reach Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Damn these pesky linx!
We’ve had trouble at Motohistory this month. For reasons I have not yet figured out, I’m not able to install links to other sites. Each time I’ve tried, the editing software has crashed. It’s a nuisance that—at deadline—caused me to abandon our “From the Web” section, which I regard one of the fun aspects of our monthly update. In some stories I have included some URLs with the hope you can use them, but for the most part this month we are linkless. Hope we can figure this out soon.
Bruce Williams is not a professional museum curator, nor is he educated in environmental design. But, with a lifetime of motorcycle experience, he has parlayed his knowledge of construction, his unflagging enthusiasm, and his interpersonal skills into a decades-long project that has exposed antique motorcycles to tens of thousands of people and in the process transformed one of the nation’s leading automobile museums.
Williams (pictured right), born in Warren, Ohio in 1948, built his first motorcycle at the age of 11. He recalls, “I bought this rolling chassis that consisted of a water pipe frame with wheelbarrow-sized tires for $10. Then I found a Reo engine for $10, and put them together.” Williams had dreamed of owning his own motorcycle since the age of five when, while playing in a mud puddle, he saw his uncle roll in on a new Harley-Davidson.” He remembers, “He told me, ‘Don’t touch it. It’s hot.’” Williams adds, “It was blue. I can still see it today, just as if I were looking at it now.”
Later, Williams gained experience on and off the road aboard a Honda 250 Scrambler owned by a friend. “It burned my leg,” he says, recounting the experience that was shared by a million teens from his generation. His first real motorcycle was a 1968 Kawasaki Bushwhacker, first borrowed then bought from a friend.
After graduating high school on the ominous date of 6/6/66, Williams registered at Youngstown University the next fall and bought a Triumph TR3 automobile for transportation. There he met his wife, Bonnie. “I sold the Triumph,” he relates, “to buy a wedding ring, and I quit night school to get a plumber’s apprenticeship,” which he earned in 1970. Four years later he was certified as a Master Plumber and set up his own business.
In 1973, Williams sold his Bushwhacker to scrape together the money to build a house, and when his tax return came later that year, he used it to buy a 250 Husqvarna. Later, in 1976, he bought a 1969 BMW R69US, which he still owns. These helped establish his interest in European motorcycles, and as an all-around rider on and off the road, he developed a circle of friends that are buddies still today.
Williams went to his first antique motorcycle event in 1978, a picnic hosted by the Lake Erie Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. He joined, realizing that the AMCA and the LEC could be a great resource to seek out parts for his aging BMW. When the Ohio Valley BSA Owners Club was founded in 1980, Bruce joined to become Member #33. He is still active in both organizations. He says, “I bought mostly junk that nobody else wanted, and began restoration projects.” He adds, “I’ve bought and sold hundreds of bikes.” His restoration projects have included a BMW R17 Sport (only 408 were built), a KJ Henderson, a 1948 Chief with sidecar, and a 1950 Horex works race (the one remaining of only two built). He says, “The Horex was in a pile that I got for $235. It contained enough parts to complete the restoration of three Horexes, including the rare works machine.”
About his unlikely sojourn into the world of museums, Williams relates, “My friend Darryl Timko visited the National Packard Museum
(http://packardmuseum.org/) one day, to see the motorcycle and bicycle exhibit, and asked its executive director – Maryanne Porinchak – why they didn’t have more motorcycles on display.” According to Williams, Porinchak explained that they had gone to a local Harley-Davidson dealer to ask where to acquire some antique motorcycles for display, and were told that in northern Ohio they were not to be had. Thus the museum abandoned the idea.
Timko and Williams were both amused and appalled by this news, returned to Porinchak with the offer to get her all the antique motorcycle she needed, and furthermore to curate and assemble an exhibit for her. Williams recalls, “We delivered an exhibit containing 20 motorcycles. It ran six weeks during the winter, and was so popular that the Museum asked us if we could create a three-month exhibit of 30 machines in 2001, which we did.” Once established as a popular annual fixture, the motorcycle exhibits at The National Packard Museum were extended through May so they could attract groups at the beginning of the spring riding season.
Williams explains, “Darryl and I co-curated for about five years, then he stepped back a bit due to the a time consuming Packard restoration and spending time with two teenage sons. I have been the lead curator ever since, with his help.” By the third year, the museum realized that the winter motorcycle exhibit was one of its most popular displays. Williams reports, “Back in 1999, the Museum Board was giving consideration to shuttering the facility during the winter months. There was just no traffic, and they did not have the money to keep it open.
Not only did antique motorcycles keep the doors open, but they turned the winter into some of the highest attendance months.” He adds, “We did this with practically no resources. Buddies I had been riding with since the 1960s and members of the Lake Erie AMCA Chapter just pitched in and did it on a voluntary basis.” In addition to building the exhibits, Williams and his fellow antique motorcycle experts have provided an annual educational series of workshops and lectures.
In 2004, Williams was asked to join the Board of the National Packard Museum. As a director, he continued to deliver an annual motorcycle exhibit and took on supervision of a project to expand the facility from 8,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet. He relates, “I assisted with developing a 92-page grant proposal, then once the money was secured, I supervised planning and construction.”
Williams was term-limited off the NPM Board in 2011, but the institution was not ready to give up his knowledge and talent. In 2013, he was offered a part-time job as facility manager, and while keeping the place running, he continued to curate exhibits. In addition to continuing the series of motorcycle exhibits, he has curated two wildly popular micro-car exhibits.
In the mean time, in addition to maintaining hearth and home with Bonnie and two kids, Williams has continued to develop his own collection of rare and unusual. It includes a 1909 554cc two-speed Neckersulm, an original paint 1915 Austro Omega v-twin (above right), a 1936 NSU OSL (second and third pictures from top), a 1946 Indian Chief built from parts, the 1950 Horex works racer (below left), a 1953 all-original Husqvarna, and seven BMWs (below right and left), including a 1978 R100S Motorsport and two ISDT replicas.
About the relationship between the National Packard Museum and the AMCA Lake Erie Chapter, Williams asserts, “Any motorcycle club that has the possibility of partnering with a local museum and is not doing it, is squandering a huge opportunity. In addition to creating exciting annual exhibits, keeping the museum’s doors open, and generating more than a quarter-million dollars in revenue over the past dozen years, the good will we have created for antique motorcycling is simply immeasurable.” He adds, “And, the Lake Erie Chapter has doubled in size. I doubt that this outstanding growth has not been stimulated by the publicity and beneficial relationship with the National Packard Museum.”
Williams concludes, “Despite each exhibit requiring more than a thousand hours of volunteer effort, the process has become easier over time. We are now two years out in our planning, and we have a list of so many motorcycles for loan that we have to turn people down every year.” Then he pauses and laughs, “And all this in an area where the local motorcycle dealer said antique motorcycles didn’t exist.”
There seems to be a message here. If antique motorcycle enthusiasts feel unnoticed, unloved, misunderstood, or taken for granted, perhaps it is because they are not shining their own light or telling their story. Partnering with a nearby museum can bring fame and fortune to both parties. Bruce Williams and his colleagues of the LEC have proven it.
Motorcycle exhibit among series of awards
won by National Packard Museum
The National Packard Museum has received accolades, including a First Place for its 2012 motorcycle exhibit, at the National Association of Automobile Museums Annual Conference held March 20 through 22 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The museum won three Awards of Excellence for their entries in Collateral Materials, Interpretive Exhibits, and Films and Videos. Entries were judged by professionals within each field of competition for achievement, professionalism, and creativity. The awards are designed to further promote professionalism in automotive museum managerial, curatorial, educational, and promotional work.
The National Packard Museum, competed in Division I against other institutions with budgets less than $300,000 and was awarded with the following honors: First Place in the Interpretive Exhibits Category for the museum's 2012 Annual Antique Motorcycle Exhibit, "Motorcycles Around the World." The annual motorcycle exhibit was conceived, designed and fabricated by an all- volunteer committee chaired by former Board Member Bruce Williams. It featured over 30 different motorcycles manufactured in 12 different countries. First Place in the Collateral Material category for the museum's promotional rack card designed by Museum staff. Second Place in the Films and Videos category for a short documentary film produced for the museum's special exhibit, entitled "Packards Abroad." This award winning film was written by museum staff and produced by Museum Board Member Dave Metzendorf, and his son James Metzendorf.
Museum staff members Mary Ann Porinchak, Charles Ohlin, and Christine Bobco attended the conference in Nebraska and accepted the awards on behalf of the Museum. "We are thrilled to receive national recognition for the many hours of planning, work and dedication that go into the events and activities undertaken here at the museum and we are especially proud of our volunteers who have embraced the Vision and make it possible to maintain the level of excellence that is expected from our institution, " said Executive Director Mary Ann Porinchak. "To be acknowledged by independent professionals who judged the various categories and have the recognition of our peers, is a great honor," said Director of Operations Charlie Ohlin.
The National Association of Automobile Museums is comprised of more than 100 member museums throughout the United States. The mission of the National Association of Automobile Museums (NAAM) is to be a professional center of excellence for the support, promotion, and education of automobile museums and affiliated organizations. The National Packard Museum has been an active member of NAAM since 1999.
Shown celebrating the motorcycle exhibit award in the accompanying photo are from left to right: Rick Porinchak, Charlie Ohlin, Ron Otte, Al Navecky, Terry Baxter, Bruce Williams, Kevin Hillyard, Steve Szewczyk, Ron Craig, Ron Neil, and Christine Bobco.
The National Packard Museum is open Tues. – Sat. 12:00-5:00 pm and Sun. 1-5 pm. Admission is $8.00 for adults, $5.00 for seniors (65 and older) and $5.00 for children (7 – 12), children under 7 are free. Cameras and flash photography are welcome. For more information visit www.packardmuseum.org or call 330-394-1899.
S’no good for racing
Late March usually brings Spring to the Isle of Man. This year, however, the Island experienced its worst snowfall in 50 years.
David Wright, our IOM correspondent, sends us these photos showing the approach to Rhencullen on the outskirts of Kirk Michael, some 15 miles into the 37.75-mile course. The snow scene was taken on March 23. The accompanying photo depicts what the corner will look like less than two months hence.
Eastern Museum of Motor Racing
will explore motocross
An exhibit exploring the history of motocross racing in the the United States will open at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing in York Springs, PA, on Saturday, April 6, and will continue through October 2013.
The exhibit has been organized by the Potomac Vintage Riders, the region's largest vintage motorcycle club. The exhibit explores the evolution of motocross bikes, from early European models - often converted from street-worthy motorcycles - to the purpose-built machines of the early 1980s. Other vintage off-road motorcycles, including enduro, flat track, and observed trials machines, also will be displayed. All of the motorcycles on display have been actively campaigned in vintage racing events.
The featured bikes include a 1960 Velocette Scrambler, a 1958 BSA Gold Star, a 1965 Ducati Scrambler, a 1974 Honda CR 125 Elsinore, a 1971 AJS Stormer, and a 1981 Maico Wheelsmith 490. The exhibit also will feature a 1975 Kawasaki flat track bike that currently competes at Shippensburg Speedway in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.
The Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, dedicated to the preservation of Northeastern racing history, is located at 100 Baltimore Road in York Springs, Pennsylvania. The museum is open 10 to 4 Friday through Sunday, and admission is free. To learn more, go to www.emmr.org.
The Potomac Vintage Riders is an enthusiasts' club with members throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. PVR sponsors vintage motocross, cross country, trials, and road events throughout the year. The club also sponsors an annual vintage motorcycle swap meet, auction, and show, held in January at the York Expo Center in York, Pennsylvania. For more information, go to www.potomacvintageriders.com.
The Richard Küchen display
at Retro Classics, Stuttgart
By Ralf Kruger
The Retro Classics, a show in Stuttgart, Germany, is originally a display primarily of old cars. However, the AMSC motorcycle club of Leonberg has used the venue to organize an exhibit about legendary designer Richard Küchen. For this reason, I attended to learn more about Küchen and his outstanding influence on the engine designs of several German motorcycle brands; an influence that prevailed from the 1920s into the 1950s.
On display were some very rare motorcycles, such as the Kadi (below right) and the WMR, featuring the third version of Küchen's famous "K-engine." The first version was the only modern four-stroke single built in Germany since the early '20s with a desmo valve-train. The third version on display no longer had positive valve actuation, but had an overhead three-valve configuration. This engine was sold to multiple German motorcycle brands and accounted for up to half of the 350, 500, and 600cc singles on the market.
Many Zündapps from the 30s bore witness to Küchen's extraordinary work, represented by the K500 boxer flat twin (left) and the K800 flat four. Of course, a KS750 Military model with driven sidecar was also on display.
Very seldom does one see the Motosacoche with Opti engine, designed by Küchen in 1952 for zipper-manufacturer Opti, which built motorcycles as a secondary business. The Opti engine is a very interesting 250cc ohc four-stroke twin, which in many ways superseded the Honda 250 twin of the 1960s. Only about 300 engine were delivered to Motosacoche, Swizerland (right) and even fewer were installed in completed motorcycles. The engine was originally allotted for Tornax, UT, and other motorcycle brands in Germany, but only a few prototypes ever appeared. It proved to be troublesome and should have been updated, but such an improved engine never materialized due to a shortage of money among the involved motorcycle brands.
One of the sweetest of Kuchen's designs was the flat twin used in the well-known Hoffmann Gouverneur 250 (left).Of course, this little gem was very expensive to produce and because an up-dated version had to follow the original 1951 design, which would eliminate many weak engine components, the costs for Hoffmann piled up. Still, before manufacturing could achieve some momentum, the German motorcycle market began to shrink at an alarming rate from 1954 through 1955. As a result, only 3,500 Hoffmann motorcycles in three series were built. Today, only about 110 are known to exist.
Just as amazingly beautiful was the Victoria Bergmeister, a 350 V-twin with shaft drive to the rear wheel. It was another masterpiece by Küchen. Similar to the Hoffmann, its technical layout was afflicted by short-comings that were updated slowly or not adequately addressed. Without adequate financial backing by Victoria, this promising motorcycle was never developed to its full potential. Its extreme elegancy was not reached in German motorcycle manufacturing again for a long time, perhaps with the exception of some BMWs and Zündapps.
Another highlight, even if unnoticed by many visitors because of its low profile, was the little 125cc racing four-stroke single that Küchen designed for Tornax (left). Only two engines have survived, and one was on display. The only other racing engine that Küchen designed was a V8 automobile engine. The motorcycle engine, as nice as it is, did not offer sufficient power out of the box and, as so often with Küchen's designs, was not altered for more. Instead, it was laid aside, awaiting better days I presume, but was largely forgotten.
Küchen was also at home with two-stokes. He designed a "twingle" for the Belgian FN and German Express factories, as well as for Rabeneick and others (below right). Another motor heavily influenced by him was the "NZ" DKW engine series which could be seen on display. This engine was instantly recognizable for its "streamlined" cases.
I can only thank the organizers of this exemplary display, which many motorcyclists attended. It is exciting to see that Richard Küchen is not forgotten. To reinforce memory of his work, the annual "R.Küchen Gedächnisfahrt" (R.Küchen memorial ride) will take place for the 28th time on May 4, 2013 in Bad Bergzabern, Germany. For more information about this ride, go to www.richard-kuechen-fahrt.de.
Lessons in customer retention
By Ralf Kruger
On Saturday, March 8th, I visited the Retro Classics Exhibit in Stuttgart. After my study of the Richard Küchen display, I had plenty of time to take a look-around in the world of old cars. I was impressed, not only by the beautiful cars, but even more by the concept of this huge event. Spread over six big halls, there was no shortage of exciting, antique automobiles. But what was really special and quite unique was the presence of the many organizations involved in restoring, preserving, and enjoyment old cars.
First, there were the old-timer history divisions of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, the various national car clubs, and a lot of specialized coachbuilders promoting their service. So, suppose you were searching not only for parts but for some history about your distinct car. you would not find a better place for research. In short, there was more information about historical automobiles from A to Z that I have ever seen in one place. This is something I have never seen at any motorcycle display.
Even if we consider that MB and Porsche were in their home town in Stuttgart, the presentation remains nothing less than impressive. It seems to me the big German car makers have not only invested in huge museums in the last 20 years, but firms like BMW and Audi have created "mobile tradition" sections (for motorcycles, also) which not only process their own history by the most notable historians and by publishing additional books on their findings, but they also support owners with an impressive array of spare parts. Even BOSCH has recognized this trend and offers old magnetos and other electrical devices that are so essential to correct restoration.
For people who are interested in DKW's or BMW's motorcycle history, they commissioned external historians to write books. So, notable motorcycle historian Andy Schwietzer has recently published "DKW Siegesserien" ("DKW's string of victories"), which would not have been possible without access to the Audi archives.
The last two books by author Stefan Knittel, one of the most comprehensive motorcycle experts in Germany, has published a biography "Georg `Schorsch´ Meier" in 2011 and co-authored "Historische BMW Gespanne" (Historic BMW Sidecars) in 2013. Again, these books would not have been possible without the friendly help of the BMW archives.
The next day, Sunday, my friend Rene came by to pick up the piston pins I had altered for him, which he will use in hop-up project on his modern motorcycle. Rene is a master mechanic in the local Suzuki store, and after a short while a discussion came up about the number of customers, or better said, the lack thereof.
Rene did not complain, but wondered where and why all his former motorcyclist customers had disappeared. A bad economy is one reason, for sure, but I responded: "Since the motorcyclists' community as a whole does not lack riders in Germany, can it be that the Suzuki customer base eroded so badly because they can't find help with keeping their motorcycles on the road?
See, if you visit one of the main old-timer motorcycle events in Germany, you will see droves of 1970s motorcycles from European motorcycle brands. During my last visit to the Schottenring event in 2012, every Z1, CB750, GS1000, or RD350 in the parking lot was outnumbered 20 to one by Laverda 3Cs, Moto Guzzi Le Mans, and 900SS Ducatis. Shouldn't the rate be just the other way around, taking into account the sales rates in the 1970s. And I have not even mentioned BMWs, yet….
Rene answered, “Okay, all the motorcycles you mentioned are legends by themselves. They are not ordinary, like Suzukis, so it is little wonder that the owners care and ride.” This, I thought, was a very uninformed comment.
“Please stop the bullshit,” I replied. “What is ‘ordinary’ in any Japanese motorcycle? Think of the Suzuki T20, the fastest and most reliable two-stroke motorcycle in the 250 class in 1970 and ‘71. It went like stink, and the German importer should have been able to sell as many as the factory could make.”
“What about the ‘Water-buffalo,’" I continued. “It was the most civilized two-stroke ever produced. It was no legend? And don’t you remember the fast GS750 and GS1000 on which hero Wes Cooley rode to American Superbike fame, and which set the new standard in road holding for Japanese bikes? Why did we buy all these well engineered Japanese motorcycles? Because they were so good, of course!” I maintained.
"So where was the Suzuki tent in Schotten? When did you last hear about a Barry Sheene Memorial in Germany? Even DKW motorcycles filled a large tent at Schotten, and Audi, as the legal successor, hasn’t even produced motorcycles for more than 50 years! But they are committed to their history, and they show it!"
Just as important, how many Suzuki Katanas, which were nearly indestructible, sit idle in the basements and garages of their owners because minor repairs are impossible or too expensive to fix due to the absence of reproduced parts?
As long as Suzuki does not provide more help and make its own history accessible for the customer, they will have to rely on new customers, which are, I will admit, fewer than we were used to. I understand that even for the Japanese brands the world is turning forward, and new motorcycle sales are vitally important. But I maintain that brands that show no interest in their history and traditions, and fail to help their most enthusiastic and loyal customers – the old-timer enthusiasts – will lost them to other and easier pursuits. And this is about where we began our discussion.
A weekend and much more
with the Chairman
By Bob Jackson
It's 1976, and of a mid-April day I'm opening mail when I come to an envelope from Forbes, Inc. Thinking it a solicitation, I find, instead, an invitation to join Malcolm Forbes for a weekend celebrating the fifth anniversary of his co-ownership of Schlegers-Forbes, a BMW motorcycle dealership in New Jersey. Malcolm is, indeed, a very avid motorcyclist, avid enough that his considerable influence has re-opened a large section of the Jersey Turnpike which had been closed to the two-wheelers for a considerable amount of time.
The invitation is typical of the many you receive as a journalist in the motorcycle industry, until you get to the bottom, where Malcolm says that, by the way, he'll be picking up the tab for airfare, to and from, as well as Big Apple lodging, to boot. Also, by the way, the invitation includes dinner at this home, on a Friday night, an open house at the dealership, followed by a Saturday night cruise around the Island of Manhattan on the Highlander, the Forbes yacht. Suddenly, my interest is piqued to the degree that I hastily "clear my calendar" for the opportunity to partake.
Sure enough, we're flown to Newark, arriving late on Friday afternoon, then vanned to Malcolm's home, in Far Hills, New Jersey. On arrival, we find a township which requires that each resident have at least 10 acres of property. Those of us from the west coast kid that you could easily stuff 400 beach condos onto such property. The front lawn of the Forbes manse is covered with a variety of hot air balloon gondolas, as Malcolm is as avid a balloonist as he is a motorcyclist. The garage is filled with motorcycles that journalists have, to this point, been able to enjoy only in their wildest dreams.
Dinner tables are spread throughout the house, and with absolutely no preamble or chain of command, Malcolm table-hops with the dexterity of a Barishnikov, the intelligence of a Kissinger, along with the grace and humor with which the former was born, and the latter could only wish. After dinner, we repair to a basement theater where we're treated to a film detailing Malcolm's attempt to be the first balloonist to circle the globe, thusly transported; a trip to which he, kiddingly, refers as Mankind's "most expensive," while being "its shortest, and, least successful."
The flight is to start in Southern California, and actually consists of 10 balloons attached to an aluminum sphere. For some reason, one of the balloons breaks away prematurely, dragging the sphere across the pavement in a shower of sparks. The crew chief, fearful of a fire, cuts all the balloons free. The sphere has moved a distance of some 25 yards, at the cost of roughly one million dollars. Now, in 1976, one million dollars is a lot of cabbage, indeed.
Malcolm also talks about an aborted political campaign that was intended to make him governor of the great state of New Jersey, a bid he say fails because of a "landslide of voter apathy." But, later, I'm to read of what might have been another considerable factor, in that he is the target of one of the earliest of what are now called political "dirty tricks.
It seems that he, and incumbent Governor Robert Meyner, have taken out one hour of television time, on election eve, to make a final pitch to voters. Meyner has taken his time from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., with Malcolm scheduled from 11 p.m. until midnight.
Now in those days, television channels went off, for the night, at midnight, preceded by the showing of a waving American flag, and the playing of the National Anthem. So, Governor Meyner, at the end of his time, shows a waving American flag, accompanied by the playing the National Anthem, causing a considerable number of potential gubernatorial voters to think the channel is going off for the night, and to switch off their sets, leaving Malcolm pretty much "to his lonesome."
We're than transported into the city, with very nice digs at the New York Hilton, one of the cities, finest, in the day. With some free time before heading to the dealership, on my first trip to NYC, I insist on seeking out the Stage Deli, which I've heard so much about. Having been in love with Damon Runyon's work from the first day I could read, upon entering the Stage Deli, I think I've been transported back in time, along with dying and having gone directly to Heaven.
Last night, there was an Ali fight in nearby Maryland. Today is Kentucky Derby day, and I find myself surrounded by what looks pretty much like every wise guy gambler on the Eastern Seaboard. Put it like this: I'd not have been the least bit surprised to see Nathan Detroit walk in the door alongside Sky Masterson, at any minute.
We've enjoyed a nice lunch, and tour of the dealership, arriving back in the City just in time to board the yacht for the tour of Manhattan. At almost the precise time our feet are touching the deck of the Forbes yacht, several hundred miles to the southwest of the City, a three-year-old colt with the eerily appropriate name of Bold Forbes happens to sneak his sleek snout under the finishing wire at Churchill Downs far enough ahead of those of his competitors to be named 1976 winner of the Kentucky Derby! I mean, what are the odds of a horse thus named winning the 'Derby, on this day, on this trip? Many of the Forbes employees who'll be accompanying us had placed "hunch bets" on Bold Forbes, guaranteeing that tonight's "Voyage" would be the "Bon" of all Bons.
We find the engine room of the yacht festooned with Titanic posters and news clips, a Malcolm Forbes nautical sense of humor with which the crew is not particularly "on board."
Dinner has not been catered. It has been prepared for thirty-some, by the Forbes chef, in a galley not much larger than a couple of today's lap tops, placed end to end. This, a culinary feat easily as impressive as the equine feat the Bold one pulled off this afternoon, in Louisville.
Malcolm, again, moves from group to group, enjoying, while being enjoyed.
His sense of humor surfaces, again, as he presents all on board with copies of his new book, entitled "Fact and Fiction," coincidentally, the title of his magazine's editorial. The very first paragraph of the foreword starts out with something like "Through much hard work and determination, and that's spelled 'I-n-h-e-r-i-t-a-n-c-e', I've been able to... Malcolm goes on to talk about his captaincy of the Forbes "flagship," claiming his favorite "perk" to be the fact that he cannot be "edited out" of the magazine. In fact, he's being much too modest, as it is shortly after this that his then-editor Jim Michaels is voted business magazine "Editor of the Year," by Advertising Age magazine.
In an interview, Michaels gives great credit to Malcolm for the magazine's success, saying it would have been very easy for him to decide to open a tin mine, or get into other diversifications that had foolishly driven under other publishers. But knowing his strength being the publication, he "plowed back" every dime into its evolution.
Now, it's December of 1976, and in my post office box I find what is to be a 10-year, or so, tradition: a Christmas card from Malcolm Forbes. Every year, the card is similar: a picture of the entire Forbes family either on the lawn of the manse, or its interior, depending on 'Jersey weather. Being very catholic, and totally "buying into" the faith's proclamation to "procreate," Malcolm's two sons and a daughter seem to provide a new face annually; to the degree that you fear that those 10 acres might be reduced to postage stamp proportions, soon. One of the sons, Steve, will, in the future, run for President, not just of Forbes, Inc., but of the entire U.S. of A.
Now, for six of these 10 years, I'm freelancing. And anyone who's decided to "ply" the "profession" of freelance photojournalist knows that he/she has enrolled in a diet plan whose effectiveness makes Jenny Craig absolutely green with envy. For more than a couple of those years, if I did not have $39.95 on my person, my lights, or phone, or both, were subject to being disconnected that very day. I would hustle down to my post office box, praying for a check from "Contributor Land" only to find a Christmas card from a mega-millionaire who's "clout" with the phone, or power company would not have been strong enough with which to knock a sparrow from atop a cake of ice.
Fast forward some 20 years. On an assignment in the Cincinnati, as is my habit on such trips, I make time to rent a car and drive south to Lexington and Louisville, to tour the many thoroughbred farms in the area, while visiting The Kentucky Horse Park. This is just north of Lexington, and includes every form of equestrian you can imagine: show rings, a polo field, an oval track, and lots of horses with which to spend time. Just inside the main gate is a small pasture reserved for a "horse of note," and guess who that horse is, at this particular time?
I mean, what are the odds, on this day, on this trip, that it's none other than Bold Forbes?
Now the ripe equine age of 22, he looks like he could run the Derby distance on this day, with ease. It's not unusual for a racing thoroughbred to pack on several pounds, once his racing days are over, but Bold Forbes looks as sleek as the day he won The Run for the Roses.
I ask a nearby groom about that, and he says that he still loves to run, and that they put the tack on him and run him daily. The only imperfection I can detect is that his coat appears matted and motley, something I attribute to his age, until I remember that we've just had one of the "instant downpours" for which the Midwest is famed, and that he has just had a nice relaxing "roll in the mud" for himself.
Too suddenly, it's 1989. I'm working on a piece, for our magazine, regarding the motorcyclists' "image" and think "who better to contribute his views on the subject" than Malcolm Forbes. He happily accedes to my request for a phone interview. Wanting to get him most precisely, I tape our interview. Conscious of the importance of his time, I'm "hearing" him, but not really "listening" to him, wanting to "hustle it along,” knowing that the recorder is capturing his thoughts.
Alas, when I begin to transcribe the tape, I instantly panic. So excited did he get, he would break off in the midst of a sentence, racing on to the next, leaving me to wonder just precisely how he'd have finished it. At one point, he gave me about five minutes of something I hadn't even asked about, and I had to make up a couple of new questions so I could include it. I called his public relations guy and said, "Listen, I'm not only having to finish sentences for him, but entire paragraphs." He just laughed, as if he'd heard it before. But somehow, it all came together, successfully.
Some months later, Malcolm passed from us, leaving behind a lot of friends, and memories.
Fast forward, again, to 2011. I'm attending the California Governor Women's Conference, conducted by Maria Shiver, and I spy a young woman with a badge identifying her as representing Forbes magazine. I mention my relationship with Malcolm, to which she replies, "I think I've heard of him." Kids!
Then, year before last, I read that Bold Forbes has run his final furlong at The Kentucky Horse Park, and I think, "Bold Forbes and Malcolm Forbes, two stakes-quality thoroughbreds if ever there were."
I can also hear Damon Runyon saying, "Now, there is a pair with whom to draw!"
Veloce has published another of its handy and useful Essential Buyer’s Guides, in this case about the Kawasaki Z1 and Z900, covering models for the years 1972 through 1976. Written by Dave Orritt, the book contains information one needs to consider in searching for and buying a collectible example of the early big Z-bikes. It covers how to determine if the Kawasaki is a bike for you, what it will cost to maintain, the relative values between the various Z-models, how to inspect and complete a 15-minute evaluation of a prospective bike, how to conduct a more extensive evaluation if it looks like a likely prospect, and the problems you will confront if you undertake restoration. The pithy text is peppered with dozens of clear, color photos. There are also chapters on vital statistics and the Z-bike owners community, including clubs and restoration/maintenance experts in both the United States and Great Britain. The book is intended for rough use while you are on the search for such a bike. It has a heavy card stock binding and is a small format, suitable for slipping in your jacket or hip pocket. The cover price is $19.95 in the US and £9.99 in the UK. Order it from Velcoe Publishing at www.velocebooks.com.
The May/June issue of IronWorks reminds us that if you have an old bike that can’t be restored, on possibility is to build a custom. For example, in this issue are wild customs built from a ’69 Shovel and a ’78 XL. There is also coverage of the January Las Vegas auction hosted by Mid-America Auctions. Margie Siegal’s “Seasoned Citizens” feature this issue is about Dennis Craig’s 1938 Indian Chief, which has appeared in the Guggenheim’s “The Art of the Motorcycle Exhibition,” and with which he won Best of Show recently in the IronWorks-sponsored Art and Wheels Classic and Custom Motorcycle Show. My Motohistory in Print column is about the short lived Indian/Vincent relationship in the early 1950s when two Vincent-powered prototypes were built that might have placed Indian back on par with Harley-Davidson for engineering and performance. One was a 100-mph “Vindian” Chief that to compete with the FLs, and the other was pavement-scorching street rod that could have outrun XLs, which were then several years from being introduced. But rather than revitalize Indian, the deal went south for financial reasons and became a factor in the demise of both America’s and England’s most legendary brands. To subscribe to IronWorks, go to www.ironworksmag.com.
The May issue of American Iron Magazine contains an interesting feature about Mike Tomas’ H-D board track racer. In this case, “H-D” stands for “Hendee Deviant,” since the machine is composed of a Harley-Davidson rolling chassis, and an “Indian” engine. In fact, while the engine looks like an Indian, it is in fact a product of Tomas’ company, Kiwi Indian MotorCycle Company, based in Riverside, California. “Kiwi” comes from the fact that Tomas is a native New Zealander who has become a mainstay for Americans who restore and maintain old Indians. There is also a story about the recent Las Vegas auction that proved that the collectible bike market is impervious to recession – at least for the high rollers who want the rarest and the best. One example is the 1912 Pierce belt-drive single that sold for $133,000. Publisher Buzz Kanter starts a new restoration series in this issue, featuring a 1936 Harley VLH. Jim Babchak’s “American Iron Classic” feature this month is on a 1913 original paint Flying Merkel. We are also happy to give a promotional pop to AIM’s Kickstart Classic Ride that will begin on May 14. To subscribe, go to www.AIMag.com.
The May issue of Racer X Illustrated contains two stories of interest to the student of motocross history. One is a 12-page feature summarizing Kevin windham’s career in photographs, from his Loretta Lynn’s days in the 1990s to the present. The photos are large and outstanding, and captions are written by K-Dub hizzelf. The other feature of interest is “The Legend of Captain Cobalt,” the story of Motorcycle Hall of Famer Jimmy Ellis, the winner of the 1975 Superbowl of Motocross, an event that forever altered motocross in America. To subscribe to Racer X Illustrated, go to www.racerxonline.com.
Retrospective: Year Two
By Ed Youngblood
Now in its second year – its first full year – Motohistory had developed extensive content, sometimes reaching 9,000 words a month. Unlike our current look, photos were few and small. For example, January’s update had 34 stories, but only 11 photos.
In January, we kicked off the year with an editorial entitled “Motorcycles, the Media, and the Message,” which reviewed how and why the public perception of motorcyclists had changed from unfavorable to fashionable. We ended the month with a “then-and-now” analysis, pointing out that Harley-Davidson’s 14 year sales run had surpassed Indian’s 13-years of success at the beginning of the 20th century. Both of these features are republished below.
January 2004 also contained our first Motohistory Quiz. It featured the ill-fated Ariel 3 that was regarded a laughing-stock when it appeared in 1970.
In March, we made our first of many visits to the new Barber Museum, and I confessed to being “overwhelmed by the size, scope, and style of the project.” This story is republished below.
In June, we published “The Hurricane Dialogue,” a special feature about the Triumph Hurricane based on a dialogue between designer Craig Vetter and Don Brown, who commissioned Vetter to undertake the project. Because it was far too long to include in the monthly update, we created a separate posting specially designed by Matt Scheben, and linked to it. You’ll find it here: http://www.motohistory.net/featuredstory/vetter-story1.html.
We expanded our practice of presenting features about significant personalities from American motorcycle history. Those presented in 2004 included motocrosser and Husqvarna sales pioneer Lars Larsson, sculptor Jeff Decker, aftermarket and suspension pioneer Tom White, entrepreneur Jack McCormack, Roper steam expert Bob Jorgensen (now deceased), and museum owner Jim Kersting. Later, Jeff Decker told me he thought our story was the best that had been written about him. So, we will republish it below. Go to the 2004 archives to check out some of the others.
Motorcycles, the Media,
and the Message
How the social status of motorcycling in America has changed over the last 50 years might make a good case study in the impact of visual media, not just for their opinion-forming power, but how changes in the media have been concurrent with a change in the message.
While motorcycling has been viewed as a rebellious counterculture since it came on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century, in the United States a truly negative image emerged only after the Second World War. Newspapers and magazines reported (some say "over-reported") the so-called Hollister riots of 1947, but fear and loathing of the rampaging motorcycle outlaw did not become widespread until Stanley Kramer splashed it across the big screen with "The Wild One" in 1953. (For more on the movie, click here) This film prompted a decade of sensationalistic, low-budget movies that thrived on the growth in popularity of drive-in theaters across America. Can it be that many a young girl's first groping and unsatisfactory sexual experience was played out against the violent images of a rowdy, ridiculous biker flick showcasing the acting skills of John Cassavetes? Whatever psychology may have been involved, it seems that these lousy films had far more cultural impact than they should have, and that the whole next generation of American mothers despised motorcycles.
This depiction of motorcycling played on until 1969 with the release of "Easy Rider," which, quite inexplicably, brought an end to the genre and helped transform the image of motorcycling in America. (For more on the movie, click here) Neither "The Wild One" nor "Easy Rider" were especially good movies, and Captain America was even more reprehensible than the shiftless Johnny, in that the former was selling and transporting hard drugs, but over time the movie was declared an icon and a dramatic documentary for the age.
The 1960s were a time of change and confusion in America's collective psyche for what constituted patriotism, social responsibility, and moral leadership. Gray-suited men with neat haircuts fell into disrepute – thanks to a large extent to Robert McNamara, Spiro Agnew, and Richard Nixon – and rebellion, defiance, and dishevelment became associated with patriotism by an under-30 America. Motorcycle outlaws mixed with hippies in Golden Gate Park, creating odd images of a widespread cultural phalanx of people who had little in common except their hatred of how "The Man" – their parents – had abused power and privilege. I would submit that "Easy Rider" became iconic not for anything it had to say, but solely on the subliminal power of that image of a freaked-out chopper painted like an American flag. Throughout the next decade, the widely-publicized rambles of Malcolm Forbes and his Wall Street set began to give motorcycles an air of respectability, and this too culminated in a patriotic adventure when Forbes and his entourage became the first Americans to ride motorcycles across the Soviet Union, subtly flaunting the superiority of capitalism and the American Way.
"Easy Rider" probably had little directly to do with bringing down the curtain on crappy biker flicks. Rather, "Easy Rider" benefitted from good timing. Drive-in theaters were giving way to small screens in living rooms across America, and biker flicks – lacking any credible script or semblance of good acting -- just didn't seem to deliver the same excitement and power when played out on television. While cable organizations like Turner Classic Movies have made a good business of selling old films through television, 1960s biker flicks are not among them. What seems to sell on television is story telling, whether under the guise of the news, through the farcical plot twists of sitcoms, or as "reality TV" where we allegedly have the voyeuristic opportunity to see how others really live. While reality TV has displaced the sitcom, perhaps they really are not so different.
In regard to motorcycling, here enters the charismatic Jesse James, giving us tons of reality, including a blow-by-blow of his painful divorce and a savage killing within his pack of Pit Bulls. For all intents and purposes, this "reality documentary" was not really about motorcycles, or even about building motorcycles, but they were ever-present. So what accounts for its great popularity? Consider the possibility that James is exactly what the angry youth of the 1960s hoped Americans would become: defiant, entrepreneurial, rebellions, irreverent, and successful. Has anyone better demonstrated you don't have to act like The Man to become as rich as The Man? And, better yet, he did it building motorcycles that run against the grain of everything that government-standard-designed motorcycles have become! Though few of us can afford a one-off product from West Coast Choppers, wanting to be like Jesse James has probably driven many a fan to a local motorcycle showroom, and that has not been bad for motorcycle sales. (For more on WCC, click here)
Though he may have introduced the chopper-mania television genre, as a ratings machine James has turned out to be a piker compared to the battling Teutuls! The Discovery Channel's "American Chopper" seems to have it all. Pappa Paul and Paul, Jr. play out in their work shop a real-life version of "All in the Family," which was one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. Pappa Teutul plays a closed-minded, short-tempered, set-in-his-ways, insensitive tank-topped Archie Bunker. Paul, Jr. plays the overly-sensitive, misunderstood, under-appreciated Meathead. They rage, they shout, they interrupt, they threaten, they mutter asides to the camera about the other's defects of character. Here is the perennial generational struggle. Here is the battle of art and creativity against the emasculating, clock-watching, dollar-counting, hard-heartedness of American business. But, like "All in the Family," by the show's end, all come together in familial joy and mutual appreciation. Meathead meets his deadline, Archie lets his soft side come through, and they revel in the adoration of their fans as they unveil another outrageous product of Orange County Choppers (For more on OCC click here) .
Indeed, thanks in part to the influence of the small screen, motorcycling in America has gone beyond social acceptance. It has become chic, so don't be surprised if you next see Paris Hilton giving us a televised tour of her garage full of expensive two-wheeled wonders (Actually, I don't think Paris owns motorcycles, but if she figures out it will get her some more attention, I'm sure she'll buy a few). Even the Travel Channel has found a way to deliver shows that have everything to do about motorcycles, but little to do with travel. And speaking of which, have you seen MSNBC's feature "Ten Places to See Before You Die?" Among such exotica as Rajastan, India; Moscow, Russia; and Tobago, the Lesser Antilles, they include -- that's right, you guessed it! -- the Black Hills Motorcycle Classic at Sturgis, South Dakota. Here's what their web site says:
For one week in early August, the town of Sturgis (population 6,400) hosts America's largest motorcycle rally, now attracting well over a half-million people. Begun in 1938 by the local Jackpine Gypsies, the Black Hills Motor Classic grew over the years into a bacchanal drawing gangs of self-styled outlaws. In the late 1980s, the city partnered with the Jackpine Gypsies to civilize the event, and today law and order prevail. Baby strollers are not an uncommon sight—which is not to say that the saloons and tattoo parlors don't still do a brisk business.
Baby strollers??? If you don't believe it, click here
One could get the idea that MSNBC means Motor Sickles Now Be Chic. So we can stop this whining about how motorcyclists are so misunderstood and abused by the media. What bad stuff the big screen gave us, the small screen has taken away. Enjoy it while you can. Most industries would kill to get this kind of attention
The Best of Times
Harley-Davidson, Inc. has just completed its 18th straight year of record growth and profits. Revenue for 2003 was $4.62 billion, compared with $4.09 billion in 2002, a 13.0 percent increase. Net income for the year was $760.9 million, a 31.1 percent increase versus last year's $580.2 million. Retail sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles for the year 2003 grew 8.8 percent in the U.S., 6.7 percent in Europe, and 9.0 percent in Japan, as compared to 2002.
With 18 years of growth, it is historically and literally the best of times for any American motorcycle manufacturer. Indian, which began production in 1902, experienced eleven years of steady growth through 1913, then began a precipitous decline in 1914. At its startup, Harley-Davidson's sales increased for 16 years, from 1904 through 1920, before it turned a deficit in 1921.
According to Harley-Davidson CEO Jeff Bleustein, the current boom is not yet over. In announcing record sales and profits yet again, Bleustein said, "As we begin our 101st year, we expect to grow the business further with our proven ability to deliver a continuous stream of exciting new motorcycles, related products, and services. We have set a new goal for the Company to be able to satisfy a yearly demand of 400,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles in 2007."
Predicting the future, especially in regard to the economy and consumer behavior, is risky business. With sales of 10,000 units in 1911, the Indian Motocycle Company published a promotional poster entitled "The Evolution of the Race," which predicted a near-doubling of sales to 19,500 in 1912, another 80 percent increase to 35,000 in 1913, then another 70 percent increase to 60,000 unites in 1914. Indian almost achieved its 1913 projection with 32,000 units, but thereafter went into steady decline. We will hope that Harley-Davidson's ability to predict the future is better than that of its once-rival Indian.
For more on H-D Inc's financial report, click here
The Barber Museum
This month I finally had an opportunity to visit the new Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum near Birmingham, Alabama. I had seen it when it was under construction, along with the race track at Barber Motorsports Park, and I found it hard to grasp the scope of this enormous facility and the collection it would house. Although I had visited the old Birmingham warehouse museum several times, at that location much of the collection – by necessity – remained in storage and out of view of the public. Now, having seen the finished structure with its contents about 80 percent in place, I remain overwhelmed by the size, scope, and style of the project.
George Barber began collecting motorcycles in 1989, today owns over 800 machines, and the collection continues to grow. Six hundred of the motorcycles are now on display, and another 200 will probably be brought onto the floor before Barber and manager Jeff Ray are satisfied with the presentation. Thereafter, vehicles on display will be rotated with new acquisitions and those currently in storage. Presumably, the very rare and unusual pieces – a Morbidelli V8, a Britten, a Boehmerland, an 8-valve Harley board tracker, a Hesketh, several grand prix MV Agustas – will always remain on display and not be rotated out . . . at least we hope not!
Sitting on 740 acres near I-20 northeast of Birmingham, the five-story structure contains 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, a restoration and maintenance facility that includes a full machine shop, a research library, administrative offices, conference rooms, a theater, and a gift shop. In the center is a huge elevator capable of moving large automobiles from floor to floor. Around the elevator is a spiral ramp, rising from the basement to the fifth floor. One can exit the ramp on each floor to walk among the motorcycles. The presentation is so vast, after about two hours of exploring and photographing bikes, I suddenly found myself totally disoriented, not knowing what floor I was on or whether I was on my way up or on my way down. The collection is so rich and overwhelming, one can become numbed by it. At one point I found myself zoning out in the midst of MV Agustas, once ridden by the likes of Phil Read and John Surtees, and I had to mentally kick myself to fully appreciate the value, extraordinary rareness, and historical importance of these machines.
It would be absurd to characterize this collection as lacking, but within its grand scale, there are some historical segments that are under-represented. For example, though one of the collection's great strengths is its road racers, little has been done yet for the acquisition of motocross machines. And though both Indian and Harley 8-valve racers and many other antiques are on display, the whole field of pre-1920 machines is somewhat under-represented. Barber has instructed his staff to focus on these areas, which can easily expand the collection by several hundred more motorcycles in the coming years.
Much has already been written about this museum, but I believe that words, including my own, cannot do it justice. One must see it to appreciate the quality and enormity of the presentation. For information, including directions and visitation hours, click here .
Artist, Historian, Motorhead
As a young boy, Jeff Decker used to prowl the aisles of swap meets with his hot-rodding father, looking for vintage speed equipment: perhaps a set of Ardun heads, or a Frenzel blower. He recalls, "I have very vivid memories of holding my Dad's thick fingers, the insides covered with grease-stained calluses and black crud beneath his nails, wondering if someday I would have hands like his." Just like his father, Decker would one day learn to use his hands to build powerful racing engines and beautiful Bonneville speedsters, but of a different sort. About his formative years in the Westlake area of Los Angeles, Decker says, "I would build go-carts and contraptions, but they never turned out the way I envisioned them." Though his mechanical aptitude may not have come up to the standards of his father's, Jeff had an additional gift. He excelled in art. His drawings were praised by the adults around him, and it was probably just a matter of time and the right circumstances for Decker to discover sculpture, the perfect resolution between his artistic talent and his mechanical aspirations.
Following college in Utah, where Decker still did not find his calling, he took a job in a foundry. He explains, "It was a foundry that specialized in lost wax castings for fine art bronze. I became a mold maker and made literally hundreds of molds for every kind of fine art. The education I received there far surpassed anything I had learned in college. I was finally able to harness my love of vintage racing and use my skills as an artist. In sculpting, I again tasted what I had felt as a child when I saw my father build working machinery with his hands." Decker credits world renown automotive sculptor Stanley Wanlass – whom he met in Utah – as his catalytic inspiration. He says, "I began sculpting cars, boats, and airplanes, then I tried motorcycles. Most sculptors are intimidated by men aboard motorcycles, just because of the detail, sheer complexity, and the amount of surface area. The number of molds required is overwhelming. But that didn't stand in my way, because, after all, I was a trained mold maker." Wanlass encouraged Decker's interest in this new subject matter, stating, "Cars, boats, planes, they've been done. Motorcycles have been neglected. Focus on the motorcycle as art, it's a niche that's never been filled."
When he undertakes a sculpture, Decker does not work from photographs. He brings an actual antique racing motorcycle into his Springville, Utah studio. Working with a wide range of materials, including actual nuts and bolts, he constructs a painstakingly accurate replica, mostly out of wax, ranging from a reduced scale to full size. For the rider he puts a living model aboard the machine, dressed in authentic vintage racing gear from Decker's own collection of artifacts. Although his sculptures are accurate to the tiniest detail, he departs from reality to achieve an incredibly lifelike sense of motion. For example, the wheels have no spokes and appear to be spinning, and sometimes they are distorted into a slightly elliptical shape, imitating the time-lapse distortion often seen in vintage racing photographs. No more than 29 of any given piece has ever been produced, and – depending on complexity, size, and quantity – they will sell for an opening price of $4,000 to $75,000. The market for such fine art is not large, but all of Decker's sculptures have appreciated at a rate of 15 to 30% per year.
Decker's works include "Wrecking Crew," a 16-inch tall bust of a pre-20s racer; "Slant Artist," the imposing 75-pound, 40-inch tall sculpture of a rider fighting an Excelsior hill climber on the verge of flipping over backward, as pictured above with the artist; "Petrali Racer," an 18-inch long blue-patinaed bronze of Joe Petrali at speed aboard his 1937 Knucklehead streamliner, and "Flat Out at Bonneville," a depiction of the iconic image of Rollie Free setting a world speed record aboard his mighty Vincent. Decker's work can currently be seen at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio, and the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.
For Decker, sculpting riders aboard historic motorcycles is not just challenging, it is true Americana and it is mythological. He explains, "Early motorcyclists were simply post-industrialist cowboys. The era when the motorcycle replaced the horse is as important as the Frontier West. In fact, in terms of transportation, the motorcycle was even more important, because it was totally created by, and dependent upon those who rode it. It is an extension of ourselves. Without its rider, the motorcycle is nothing. Just a machine. And with its rider, it must be moving or it will fall down. There is nothing that embodies the urgency or our age and the modern synergy of man and machine better than a motorcycle and its rider. It is a perfect marriage of the mechanical and organic aspects of our world."
As Decker waxes eloquent about the deep meaning of the motorcycle as art, and how it ties our current era to our pre-industrial history, one cannot help but be reminded of the vast popularity of the bronze sculptures of Fredrick Remington. Undoubtedly, there was a time when the fine art community did not consider rough-and-tumble cowboys and bucking horses a fitting subject for sculpture. But art represents its time, and consider how Remington bronzes and Old-West paintings are revered today. These works are highly valued and broadly popular. Decker envisions a similar evolution for motorcycle art. "No one has yet taken the motorcycle seriously as a subject for fine art. Our art is pop art, such as tattoos and T-shirt art, but it may be time for our motorcycling culture and our history to be taken to a higher level." Indeed, the commercial driver for such a movement may have already arrived. With the Guggenheim declaring the motorcycle an art form, and people waiting in line to pay $30,000 or more for custom-built V-twins as investments and collectibles, the price of a limited edition Jeff Decker sculpture does not seem so out of reach.
Unlike the school of artists that followed Andy Warhol, Decker does not confuse himself with his art. He is not a man to promote his works by promoting himself. He wants his works to speak for themselves and not become enmeshed in a cult of personality. Significantly, his press kit for Hippodrome Studio, his workshop in Springville, contains many high-quality photographs of his sculptures, but no photos of the artist. He says, "Quite frankly, the choice between fame and fortune is simple. Give me fortune without fame, so I might continue to buy old race bikes from swap meets. Getting my name out there and selling T-shirts and trinkets is not my goal." He concludes, "My goal is simply to make others aware through my art of the importance of the early history of motorcycling." In fact, Decker declares himself a historian first, and an artist second, though his clients and fans of his work would likely disagree.
For more information on the artist and his work, click here. [This story was updated from a similar work published under the same title in Thunder Press in 2002.