Thursday, January 21, 2010

Old loves...

While in Vermont this last summer, we visited the Shelburne Museum. Among the standard displays there (well worth a visit in themselves) they had two special attractions going on as well. There was a Tiffany exhibition (more later) and a motorcycle show, with not only some Arlen Ness "dream" bikes, but some of the loves of my youth.



I was lucky enough 36 years ago to meet an old gentleman in San Diego who was supplementing his retirement by selling basket case motorcycles he had spent his lifetime acquiring. He had been a machinist, a tool and die man in the aircraft industry; he used to say he never married because his job was so critical he wasn't allowed to enlist during WW2. He was the lead inspector at Rohr Aircraft; they were building engine nacelles and other things related to the war effort. He said that during the war all the girls wanted a hero; right after the war they wanted a returning one and then, suddenly, he was too old for anyone to want.

He was the first "Anglophile" I ever knew; his mechanical loves in this world were Triumph and Ariel motorcycles & British motorcars. Born in 1910, he had attended machinist school at Ryan in San Diego the year after they built the "Spirit of St. Louis".



In 1936 he bought his first motorcycle, a Royal Enfield. It had it's share of mechanical deficiencies and in '37 he sold it and bought a new Triumph Speed Twin. He was still riding that Speed Twin when I knew him, though he had pulled the original girder front end ("two sheets of paper with an axle bolted between them" was his description) in favor of a later set of hydraulic forks, and bolted a sidecar on it. He used it as his parts chaser and it was ridden almost daily, up until the day he died.

During the war he acquired an Ariel "one-lunger", a 500cc single cylinder bike for the economy during rationing. They became his second love and he had 3 different models of the singles while I knew him, along with two of the "Square Fours" that have gone by in the photos thus far. I was lucky enough, having worked for him a bit to earn parts, to have him let me ride his '56 Square Four to a show for him one day when he was taking the Speed Twin. It was a treat I've not forgotten!

After the war as everyone traded their "rigid" Triumphs for swingarm ones, he bought them; as the "non-unit" bikes were traded for "unit" construction ones, he bought them as well. He did machine work "on the side" and did some race tuning along with a lot of riding, including some with a group of "desert rats" that included Keenan Wynn and Steve McQueen back when you rode the same bikes off road you rode on the street. I have an accessory "oil bath" he made that was intended to keep sand from getting into the motors; apparently he made a good little fortune selling them. Later, after he retired he also was doing Smiths speedo and tach work and rebuilding magnetos and generators, as well as assembling engines and transmissions.





Though he really didn't approve, a lot of the knowledge I acquired from him was applied to BSA's and a few Norton's I ran across through the years. He had no use for Harleys at all- "tractor engine in a cultivator frame" was his description of them.

I bought three basket case Triumphs from him. Mine was a stocker, a 1958 TR-6 4-speed. The one I bought to put together for my wife was also a '58 and looked stock, but had later model 750 internals and a 5-speed (some of that machine work he was so good at was involved in relieving the engine and transmission cases). The 3rd was a '47 500 rigid. To this day I regret parting with them during a long lay-off from GM when my boys were small...

So with all the fond memories the Ariel above brought me, for me the Crown Jewels of that display were:



(a World War Two flathead Triumph messenger bike)

and



(a 1952 Trophy model racer)

We had always talked of buying a bike again once the kids were grown and gone (and every now and then I can't help but go price a new Triumph) but the reality is that with her hip and knee replacements she'll never dare get on one again and so I can't really bring myself to be selfish enough to ride when she can't...

After we had moved here, in the early 80's I got a phone call from someone I had introduced to my friend as they were looking for Triumph parts. During one of those awful Santa Ana days his emphysema had finally gotten the better of him and someone found him in his shop.

I was told his nephew was going to sell the parts off along with the machinery and keep the technical stuff for those he knew to use as an open library. I hope he did; there was far too much knowledge there for it to end up in a landfill somewhere!

Dwight Dean, it was an honor to know you and to call you friend!

I hope you and Lou Kaiser and Jimmy Phillips and Wynn and McQueen are all out somewhere having a helluva good time!

May the week be kind to each of you (especially if you made it all the way down here)!

alan

(a click on each photo will enlarge it. They have pretty good detail for handheld 1/8th and 1/15th exposures at 200 ASA setting...wanted to go back the next day with a tripod, but there wasn't time!)

12 comments:

Dru Marland said...

There was often a ragbag of odd bikes outside the pub I used in Portsmouth, including a Squariel (thoughg a rattier one than the one in your picture). Talking 'basket case' Triumphs, a tech on a Gulf survey boat that had found its way over to the North Sea (most of whose crew proclaimed their allegiance to Harley Davidson on most of the clothes they wore) who brought his first bike home in a supermarket trolley; it was a Triumph Trident. I thought that was quite classy, as was the Honda 400/4 he'd brought over on the helideck to 'do' Europe...

alan said...

Dean's '54 was a "rider" not a "show" bike, but the show we were taking those to was a Horseless Carriage Club of America affair with an "unrestored" category.

I had figured to move up from my '71 Yamaha to a Sportster (ala "The Came Bronson" from my youth) until I got a deal to good to pass up on that basket; after I cornered it the first time, my soul was sold!

At the time I weighed (shudder) about 130 pounds; my '58 would pull 45 in low, 65 in 2nd, 85 in 3rd, and if I was lying on the tank with my head out by the headlight she'd chirp the back tire going into 4th at 85. About 115 was flat out. Used to annoy Z-1 Kawasaki's no end because if I was rolling fast enough to keep my feet up on the pegs at a light, I could beat them to the next light every time.

alan

ryssee said...

Gorgeous pics and a great post. I love a great looking machine.

breathethenexhale said...

Those are some seriously hot bikes! Thanks for sharing your memories. I have to say this but I cant help but think how cute my PapaPug would look in that little sidecar!

Shayne said...

你不能決定生命的長度,但你可以控制它的寬度 ..................................................

Sassy said...

Very cool!

Jo said...

I know nothing about bikes Alan, but that one at the top looks really gorgeous :-)

Anji said...

My dad was really into Harley Davidsons and Bonnavilles(?). Like you he sold them when we were small so I don't remember them in detail.

Beautiful bikes. Remember 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'?

Hawaiianmark said...

Very,very cool.

chrissie said...

Very nice, Alan.....

I have a love for old British bikes, while at the same time, resenting the amount of maintenance they required.

BTW, the Ariel Square Four was a good sidecar hauler, but over-heated badly on the two rear cylinders.

A lot of those bikes were more popular in the uS than over here, as American riders usually had the money to spend to improve them.

Having had the joy of using a 1950's designed Enfield 500 Bullet to commute to work on for a year, I can say it was a true relief when I eventually bought a little Honda C90 Cub as a ride-to-work bike. :-)

Hugs
chrissie
xxxxxx

Green tea said...

Boys and their toys :)

GirlWhoShould said...

Not into bikes, I must admit but they looked like beautiful machines.
Lucy x