by Brad Stevens
is about more than loud and over-priced Harley-Davidsons manned by
warriors garbed in two thousand bucks worth of custom-fitted
It is about more than the chainsaw scream of moto-cross or enduro
While these are fun for many, there's a branch of the addiction
comes with a sweet nostalgia -- vintage motorcycles.
Any bike older than 20 years is
classed as "vintage".
This classification now includes Japanese marques that are gaining in
because reasonably-priced, and available, parts make restoration
much easier. Still, the genuine article remains the British,
and certain American-made motorcycles of the 1970's and earlier.
Some of the manufacturer's names are familiar, many
more likely not so. The most popular, currently, are the British
bikes such as BSA, Norton,
Triumph. (They were good sellers in the 50's and 60's, so more of
them have survived.) But, do a little research and you come up
names unfamiliar to most people -- names like Matchless, DKW, Brough
and much sought-after Vincent Black Shadow. Even lesser
and certainly more rare are the long-extinct machines made by
Scott, Excelsior, New Imperial, Nimbus and Rudge, among literally
Motorcycles made their first
appearance in the very late
1800's. (Shown, 1914
Cyclone) The industry has evolved in a dozen
directions since then. What's constant about it seems to be
Bianchi and Raleigh were former manufacturers of motorcycles, though
now make bicycles. BMW made aircraft engines during wartime, though
people familiar with their beautiful, smooth machines don't know
Royal Enfield motorcycles, the bikes you see in any film about 20th
England, were originally made in Britain, but are now
exclusively in India. (The Raj on two wheels.)
In the sixties, Harley-Davidson
contracted the Italian
company Aermacchi to build smaller enduro and street scooters for
It was an attempt to compete with Honda's near takeover of the market.
There is a rich and colorful lore to
Speak to anyone who's been around these bikes for any length of time,
you'll hear stories and learn technical information not available in
"Ascoting," for example, comes
from "Ascot cut,"
a term used to describe a cutting away of rubber from the tires for
racing. This alteration of the tire gave an extra bite to the
tread for a better grip on dirt, clay, and gravel. Nearly an art
form, a good cutter with a single-edged razor blade could do pretty
on the racing circuit. The term originated from the Ascot Raceway
in Gardena, California, once a West Coast hotbed for motorcycle racing
until the track's demise in 1990. (Tire technology has
improved dramatically since the 60's, when the premier tire at the
time was the Pirelli MT53--there were few others available for racing
Some riders attach bells to the front
of their motorcycles.
Now primarily ornamental, it began in the early days of motorcycling
roads were not much more than a path through fields and forests.
Fences also weren't as prevalent, so a bell was tied to the motorcycle
to warn cattle and other livestock out of the way.
The term "carburetor" comes from a light source,
originally. Water was slowly drip-fed onto carbon, producing a
gas-this was a ridiculously weak source of light, but the mechanism
initiated the term's use to describe the drip-fed fuel systems on early
1900's motorcycles, and has been with us ever since.
There are many larger-than-life
characters in vintage
motorcycling, as well. Jay Leno has a large collection.
McQueen was a big fan of BSAs and often went riding all over the
One of Oregon's own, Cliff
Majors, is famed
(notorious) among vintage bike restorers for his temperamental behavior
and inconsistent pricing. He's known as the Sandy Bandit and
proud of it. His shop is on Sandy Boulevard. You can
figure out the rest. Of the stories surrounding him, one has it
a customer came to Cliff seeking a hard-to-find BSA
Cliff brought one to him. The piece was in perfect
the customer was jubilant, then asked the price. Cliff
an exorbitant sum and the customer, now outraged, tried to work
price down. Cliff pulled out a hammer and smashed it,
"Now you'll never find one-get out!"
And true enough, part of owning
an old bike is finding
parts for it
The cost of a vintage bike,
un-restored, can be almost
reasonable, roughly one or two thousand dollars, depending upon the
of bike and its condition. Obviously, rarity and popularity of a
certain model drive the price up, so it's smart to research
Go to Langlitz Leathers in N.E. Portland and buy one (or all) of the
Buyer's Guides and read them before you buy. Join a club such as
The Oregon Vintage Motorcycle
for advice, contacts, and loads of lore and information from club
Old scooters (ED: another term for
often altered throughout their lives and you may think you're buying a
Triumph Trident only to find it has a Honda front end, a Harley gas
and a Ceriani swing-arm. This is more common than most people
Once you have your bike, though there are various online
resources and a few shops scattered throughout the country, you're
going to have to search. Be prepared to pay for not only parts,
also necessary tools and services such as valve jobs, re-boring of the
cylinder(s), paint jobs, and often re-chroming of parts.
This can become a consuming
passion. Most vintage
fans own several old bikes. One is seldom enough. For some,
this begins as a remembrance or recapturing of their own history.
Perhaps they owned a now-old bike back when they were new -- or had
wanted to. Others are moved by the possession of a piece of
and all the lore surrounding it. Still others simply enjoy the
maintenance, and riding of old bikes because the machines themselves
beautiful, and each one a personality unto itself.
Whatever the reason, for the
there are few things as satisfying as laboring to restore a vintage
It can be a tough, frustrating experience. But when you at last
that old motor to fire into life and head down a country road on your
left-braked, flat-seated, strangely-sprung and unique-sounding bit of
-- well, it is the essence of coolness.