Monday, March 31, 2008
Less in this post about the Indian bikes this time and more about the men that made great bikes great. A motorcycle is a machine, an assemblage of parts, perhaps beautiful, but often it does not become a legend without a living, breathing, wizard of a motorcycle rider to push them beyond what was expected.
At the Del Mar Concours back about 1990-something they did a "Gathering of the Legends" with Dave Dispain as host. Out amongst the old bikes there was just a basic platform, a few flags, a mic, and some of the greatest racers of all time gathered around. I'd come to see bikes and while I hold profressional racers in the highest regard I've not been much into hero worship or autograph collecting. When I was young and skinny and had all my hair the nearest I came to having a hero or two was multi-time motocross racer, Belgium's Joel Robert. In my heart of nineteen year old weekend racer hearts I knew I could be as good as Joel was...all I lacked was the factory ride and superhuman riding talent.
At Del Mar that year I was stunned to see so very many great and even legendary riders from so many different types of racing. Part way through the introductions and interviews with Despain, three old geezers got up and Despain introduced Ernie Beckman, Bill Tuman, and Bobby Hill. I looked at my brother and said "Holy cow! That's the Indian Wrecking Crew!!! Dad used to talk about seeing them race and that no one could beat them, especially not the Harley guys." My brother, much younger than I and never really into racing bike history just shrugged and saw three old geezers who used to race motorcycles. I forgave my bro his ignorance, he wasn't even born until well after the Wrecking Crew had won their last races. I was barely born when they were racing but somehow the stories I heard later on resonated with me.
I was enthralled to see living legends. As is often the case, we might know all about someone famous, think they are grand, have opinions about them, but never really expect to cross paths with them. For you young road racer types, it would be akin to bumping into Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, and Casey Stoner at a weekend bike meet long after their careers wound down. You'd be older too and still as awed as if you meet them now, maybe more.
The Indian Wrecking Crew besides being some of the great dirt track racers America ever produced, represent the last heroic gasps of the real Indian Motorcycle Company. Indian was all but dead by 1950 - 51 and yet three guys on Indians whomped on the best that H-D or anyone else had to offer and judging by the old movie footage, made it look easy.
I grabbed a Del Mar event poster and sought out Hill, Tuman, and Beckman out for autographs after the interview. Like I said, I'm not much of an autograph guy, I'm has happy to shake a person's hand and say "honored to meet you" but that was too golden an opportunity to shake hands with three of the best American dirt track racers ever and take away a still treasured memento. All three were gracious, smiling, and seemed slightly surprised that fifty years on after their racing careers were over, that they were still known to many and people would gather around to shake their hands and ask for autographs just as if it was 1950 all over again.
Now the best news: A production company is in the process of making a movie about the Indian Wrecking Crew. Lots of interviews have been made, historical footage rounded up, and Jay Leno secured to handle the narration. The premier date is still over one year away but I'm excited already. You can visit the movie website here. Mark your calendars, get ready to order the DVD or whatever, and learn a little more about when men were men and nice guys finest first.
And a tip '0 the helmet to Ed Youngblood over at MotoHistory.net for the link to the movie site.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Several years ago while visiting my father in California we went over to his best buddy's house and there in the garage with the Packards and other classic cars was another unrestored Indian Four. Johnny said somewhere along the way he'd picked it up for $600. I quickly offered him the golden opportunity to double his money by selling it to me for $1200. He politely declined even when I raised the offer to $1800, triple what he'd paid for the bike. Hard to imagine what he was thinking when he declined my generous offer...
One of the special joys at a vintage event is when someone takes the time and trouble to fire up a show bike. At the recent vintage and antique motorcycle show the owner of a beautifully restored 1941 Indian 441 Indian Four fired up the bike for spectators. I quickly flipped my digital still camera to movie mode and grab a few seconds of the wonderful sound. Lots of people have heard OF the Indian Four, many have seen one, but fewer have actually heard one running. Imagine it's 1941 and the vast majority of bikes are rigidly mounted, blatting V-twins and popping, bone shaking singles. The sound of the Indian must have seemed as exotic as the Ducati Desmodici does to us today. There were other four cylinder bikes before the Indian but none seem to have ever attained the absolute legendary status of the Indian 441 . 65+ years later the big Indian still draws a crowd. To ride this bike in America in 1941 was to be king of the road:
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
For a small show the range of bikes on display was very good going from the obscure (1957 Zundapp flat twin) to the slightly odd (Suzuki's mid-70s Wankle rotary engined bike, the RE5) to the truly elegant and sublime in the form of a Brough Superior SS80 and a 1913 Indian board track racer.
If you are not familiar with the "board track era" in American motorcycle racing do a little Google work and read up on it. Imagine a race track a mile around with the highly banked surface made up of 2x4 lumber turned up on edge and nailed or bolted together. No rocks or gravel thrown up by the bikes, just splitters of wood hurled upwards at 100 mph. Some years ago I had the privilege to speak with Jim Davis who raced for Indian Motorcycles in 1916 and he told stories of pulling off the track with splinters pierced through the leather of his lace up racing boots.
Pristine restorations are rightly prized and look great but there is a growing interest in preserving bikes as they are found, especially when the bike has been bestowed with a great deal of character by it's former owner. Look closely at the photos of the original Indian bobber that was been thoroughly decked out to make it truly unique. The windscreen is covered with the old style travel decals from as far away as Havana, Cuba and the highway pegs were made from a couple of old pistol frames. I don't know the story on the bike; truly, my biggest mistake of the day was spending too much time taking pictures and not enough talking to people like the current owner of the bobber.
Other highlights that were great fun to see: The "Grumph" Greeves/Triumph hybrid, the odds 'n ends at the small swap meet around the back of the building, and also meeting a couple of on-line motorcycle buddies in person for the first time.
The rest of the pictures, 100+, are on my Webshots page.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Friday, March 07, 2008
March 16th with be the 24th edition of the Arizona Antique and Classic Motorcycle Enthusiast's annual show in Phoenix. I've attended it many time over the years it's generally be a great time and great people.
The number and quality of bikes has varied from year to year but the last few the quality the bikes present has been excellent if not huge in number. I'll be there bright and early snapping pictures and shooting the breeze with assorted people. I believe that local events like this are really at the heart of motorcycling, much more so than the huge commercial shows or "bikeweek" type wretched excess events. I recommend riding in to the show, look around, take pictures, listen to a few stories, and then head out for a ride. Should be a fine day of motorcycling that way. Basic info below, more on the club website:
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I decided to put out a few more photos from the vintage bike show while I slog through the bulk of them. Here's one of my favorite bik...
"When my mood gets too hot and I find myself wandering beyond control I pull out my motor-bike and hurl it top-speed through these unfit roads for hour after hour." - T.E. Lawrence
An Important reminder from the past:
"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." - James Madison