Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Special to TheVintagent.com by Francois-Marie Dumas:
A nice display!  A 'Roman Holiday' poster with the early Vespa 98, ca 1946.  As timeless as the film...


For its 40th birthday this year, Rétromobile, which has presented some fantastic exhibitions in the past, seems to have forgotten about motorcycles completely, with only a few examples hidden between the cars.  As late as 2011, terrific motorcycle displays dotted this enormous show, and made the trip worthwhile for hardcore vintage riders.  There are still a few bikes on display in the stalls, and plenty of moto-mobilia (posters, parts, etc), but don't come expecting much of a two-wheel show. The cars are, of course, fantastic.
A well-lubricated display...
While I love Velocette MACs and Kawasaki H1s, I'm sure the organizers at Retromobile can do better than this?  What happened the curated displays by Bernard Salvat?
Lovely old Velocette Model H3 from 1925 on display - original paint, nice!
Posters for every moto-fixation.  I'm sure you've forgotten this motorcycle film...translated as 'Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man'...
If you're looking for posters, it's hard to beat the selection from vendors at Retromobile.  This 1922 poster celebrates Leon Vanderstuyft's 125km/hr speed while drafting an old-fashioned motorcycle pacer, likely an Anzani.  The current paced bicycle record is 167mph!  By Fred Rompelberg in 1995...
The grand old days, when the Grand Palais was used for the Paris Motorcycle Show, here in the 1930s
Bonhams Grand Palais sale:
The Bimota HB1, their first Honda collab, a super-hot cafe racer with with full road gear hidden away.  Love those lines!
The contrast with Retromobile could not be more stark; the motorcycle has returned to its origins at the Grand Palais! Among the first-ever exhibits at this magnificent Art Nouveau masterpiece was a car and motorcycle show back in 1901.  There were actually two shows that first year, and the second one gathered 556 cars, 21 three-wheelers and 81 motorcycles, with 190,000 visitors passing under those glazed arches.
The 750cc Benelli Sei pre-production machine  under the arching glass roof
The big Paris Auto Show was held at the Grand Palais from 1901 until 1961, and until 1950 for the Motorcycle Show, followed by decades of little use for the building, as the car shows moved to the outskirts of town, into large purpose-built exhibition halls. Which are pretty uninspiring architecturally.  Thanks to Bonhams, both cars and bikes are back at the Grand Palais for the past three years, under that astounding glass roof once again, for the annual Bonhams auction of exceptional cars, motorcycles and ephemera. 
Bonhams' head of motorcycling, Ben Walker, with the assembled machinery in the Grand Palais
This year 48 motorcycles were presented, the oldest being a French Griffon 2hp from 1907, but the most interesting machines included the seriously exclusive 1974 Bimota 750 HB1 (serial #3), and the almost unique prototype of the Benelli 750 Sei, which was exhibited at the famous “Art of the motorcycle” exhibition at Bilbao Guggenheim museum.
The super-cool Nor-Vel with dustbin fairing sold for a mere $10,470, including fees.
Mark Upham, CEO of Brough Superior, inspects the new 'Black Alpine' Brough Superior SS101, on display in the Grand Palais...which will hopefully appear on the streets in late Spring.  I've been promised a ride, anyway...

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Kenji Ekuan, industrial designer, and head of GK Design Group
As a child, he wandered the streets of his native Hiroshima just after the nuclear devastation, and spoke of hearing the voices of 'mangled streetcars, bicycles and other objects', lamenting they could no longer be used.  After his father died from radiation poisoning, Kenji Ekuan became a monk, but changed course to become the most celebrated industrial designer in Japan. He graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1955, and set up his own design business in 1957. Regarding 'futuristic' design, Ekuan stated, "When we think of the future of design, we might imagine a world where robots are everywhere, but that's not it.  The ultimate design is little different from the natural world."
Perhaps the GK Design Group's most famous design for Yamaha; the VMax
Ekuan's GK Design Group went on to work with Yamaha, and the VMax is one of Ekuan's most famous motorcycle designs. Far more famous is his ubiquitous red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle of 1961, which was inspired by watching his mother struggle with transferring a large bottle of soy sauce into a smaller container for the table.  The GK group also designed Japan's Bullet Train, corporate logos, and musical equipment.  Kenji Ekuan was awarded the 'Golden Compass' award in Italy for his lifetime of brilliant design.  Ekuan was born on Sep.11th 1929 in Tokyo, and died yesterday.
Ubiquitous: no higher accolade for a man's work
According to Yamaha, GK Design Group was responsible for nearly all of their motorcycle designs until very recently. In 1989, a separate division within GK Design Group was formed specially to deal with vehicle design, GK Dynamics, which also contracted with Toyota.  It wasn't until 2014(!) that Yamaha formed an in-house design team, headed by Akihiro 'Dezi' Nagaya.
The GK Dynamics design for the Bullet Train
I've been familiar with the unorthodox design philosophy of GK Dynamics since 1989, when they published 'Man-Machine-Soul-Energy: the Spirit of Yamaha Motorcycle Design'...which I've always referred to as the 'Yamaha Sex Tract', as it is the first published motorcycle design document which explores the erotic and sometimes explicitly sexual nature of our relationship of "the second most intimate machine" (my quote - the first most intimate is, of course, the vibrator).

I recommend reading the book if you're a student of design, or would like to explore how differently the Japanese designers in Kenji Ekuan's firm thought about and discussed their work - it's a fascinating glimpse into a wide-open mind and industrial design philosophy, and I doubt any such discussion was ever held at Harley-Davidson or BMW!  And I reckon few industrial designers working for major corporations have publicly acknowledged the debt of modern design to DADAist artist Marcel Duchamp.  It's remarkable stuff.
Atsushi Ishiyama, author of the remarkable 'Man-Machine-Soul-Energy: Spirit of Yamaha Motorcycle Design'
Here's a sample from the book, written by current GK Dynamics President Atsushi Ishiyama:

"When I first came into contact with the motorcycle as an object to be designed, my first impression was that it is extremely sexy, even considered in terms of pure shape, the single cylinder engine is truly phallic...the part where the engine connects to the frame is thick, giving it the very shape of a sex symbol.  The muffler also has the unique glow of metal, making it look just like internal organs.  The tank has a richly feminine curve, and the metal frame bites tightly into the engine like a whip.  I am certain the the designers did not have this aspect in mind, but it is quite a shock to anybody who suddenly comes into contact with it for the first time.  The mechanical parts of the engine, the suspension...as well as all other structural parts give the impression of a sexual analogy.  The first time I saw one, I felt like I had come into contact with a very abnormal world.
Marcel Duchamps' 'Nude Descending a Staircase No.2'
I feel that such works as 'Nude Descending a Staircase' and 'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors' by the father of modern art Marcel Duchamp were the first artistic expressions of eroticism through mechanism....Duchamp's fresh approach is seen in his use of mechanism as his means of expression.  The motorcycle is also created upon the basis of a thoroughgoing desire to create a loveable artifical life through a mechanical assembly of the mechanism of human sensitivities."
Marcel Duchamps' 'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even'
No matter your taste regarding the VMax or other Yamaha products, designers Ekuan and Ishiyama have created design for the ages, and have long been an inspiration of mine.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015


BS Allen with his Brough Superior 'Old Bill' replica, with twin-cam JAP 980cc SV engine, and little else!
I recently posted a compelling photo of 'BS Allen' from 1923 (on my Facebook site), beside a replica of George Brough's infamous sprinter 'Old Bill'.  I hadn't realized Brough Superior had built replicas of George's personal testbed/winning sprinter, but of course, GB would sell a bike to anyone willing to pay, in any specification they chose! 
BS Allen as Royal Flying Corps pilot in WW1
Dave Clark of the Brough Superior Club saw my post, and filled in a few details:  "Brian Seamer Allen to be precise, was a real speed nut, and was formerly a Royal Flying Corps pilot in WW1 on the Western front, flying an SE5a.  After the war Allen opened a motorcycle dealership as a partner of a Mr Bennett, trading as Allen-Bennett motorcycles in Croydon, selling Brough Superiors among many others.
A fitting prelude to Brough Superior ownership; an SE5a biplane...
Allen-Bennett sold T. E. Lawrence some of his seven Broughs, and ocasionally BS Allen rode out with Lawrence on very early morning rides around Croydon... a 'bat out of hell' job I think.  The 1923 photo here was taken during the London to Lands End Trial, with Allen on a standard 1923  Brough Superior SS80 with single-cam JAP sidevalve 980cc engine.  The registration number is BY 9587.
The 1923 London-Land's End Trial, with BS Allen on his single-cam SS80
The next photo shows the same machine, re-engined and beautiful, with a very shiny chair, at a hillclimb  in mid- to late-1923.
A gorgeous improvement!  The SS80 now with twin-cam JAP racing engine and aluminum 'zeppelin' sidecar
The BS Allen mystery deepens a bit, as he was pictured in the 1924 Brough Superior catalogue with an exceedingly special-framed SS80 JAP sprinter. This was of course the same time as the birth of George Brough's 'Old Bill' with its engine specially tuned by Bert Le Vack.   
BS Allen as he appears in the 1924 Brough Superior catalogue
Brough Superior built another Old Bill replica for Pilot Officer Beaumont, who advertised the bike for sale in December 1923.  I reckon Brian, being a former RFC pilot, brokered the deal with George Brough to build Beaumont's replica, a deal which included a very special Le Vack engine for Allen himself, after he realized how good this special-framed sprinter.  Allen first installed this special two-cam racing engine in his old chassis, now the re-engined BY 9587.  Note the magneto chain drive cover, which is the same style on the various photos.
The 1924 advert for PO Beaumont's 'Old Bill' replica
When Allen-Bennet folded in the late 1920s, Brian subsequently returned to his other love - flying, setting up shop as Brian Allen Aviation, and dealing with light aircraft, including the Belgian E.O.Tipps, and the American Stinson.
Worth a second view - the zeppelin 'sports' sidecar offered by Brough Superior 
Brian and his wife Kathleen were killed by a blast from a German flying bomb in WW2."
Probably a plane inside...the truck of Brian Allen Aviation Ltd.
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Friday, February 06, 2015


The front half of the streamlining of the Indian 'Arrow' in 1937 at Bonneville
While Burt Munro's 'world's fastest Indian' is the most famous record-breaker to use Springfield iron as its base, it certainly wasn't the only Indian used in land speed record attempts.  Let's not forget that the first-ever certified absolute motorcycle world speed record was set by Gene Walker on his 994cc Indian, at Daytona Beach in 1920.  While he 'only' recorded a 2-way average of 104.21mph (167.56kph), this was faster than anyone else had done under the watchful eyes of a neutral (ish) sanctioning body - the FIM - who still oversee international records.  Glenn Curtiss was timed one-way back in 1906 at over 136mph on the same stretch of beach, but it was an unsanctioned record, and not repeated in a return run.  
In 1936, Oakland Indian dealer Hap Alzina supervised the construction of a streamliner shell for another attempt to take the absolute honors for Indian. Alzina had secured a rare factory 8-valve 1000cc  racing engine from 1924, one of a dozen built by Charles Franklin.  These engines were capable of 120+mph speeds, running on alcohol, and it is supposed Alzina's engine was used to set the American speed record in 1926, with Johnny Seymour blistering along at 132mph. It seemed to Alzina that a bit of streamlining, as clad other world record machines (BMW, DKW, and Brough Superior specifically by 1936), could send the Indian name ot the top, especially as Joe Petrali had recently taken the American record on his modified 'Knucklehead' at 136.183mph - on a streamlined machine which had its body removed after it was found to be unstable.  The last-generation 8-Valve  engine was at least as fast as any unsupercharged motor then in existence, so in theory they had a chance.
The aircraft techniques used to build the streamliner included lightweight balsa wood 'stringers' and plywood bulkheads, all very light - uneccesarily so.
Knowing streamlining was  tricky business, Alzina hired an aircraft engineer (William 'Bill' Myers) to draw up and construct the very plane-ish body, which was constructed of balsa wood strips over plywood bulkheads, covered in canvas, and sealed with 'dope', just like a biplane.  A chassis was constructed around the engine from a variety of Indian racing parts, with 1920 forks, a recent frame, and an older rear section, all of which was very light, as per their usual racing practice.  The tank was from a '101' Scout, and the naked machine looked surprisingly coherent for a cobbled-up special.
To economize on the timekeeping expenses, three machines were taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats for record-breaking: a Sport Scout, a Chief which had been stripped down to Class C rules, and Alzina's 'Arrow'.  All 3 machines were in fact heavily 'breathed on' for the records, and the Scout became the fastest 750cc in the USA at 115.226mph, while the Chief managed an impressive 120.747mph, both Class C American records.

At Bonneville in 1937, with diminutive rider Fred Ludlow, who just fit into the shell
Fred Ludlow piloted the 'Arrow' in tests, and the ultra-light weight and racing chassis geometry of the bike did the attempt no favors.  That the streamline shell was untested, and also very light, was also bad news, and while the bike was very fast indeed, it proved unstable above 145mph, weaving and tank-slapping until it was blown off course, and realizing the shell was unsuitable, the attempt was scrapped.  It's easy in hindsight to diagnose the flaws of their machine, but Alzina was a private dealer with a little factory help, and not a well-funded, factory-backed racing effort.  It was clear the project needed a lot more work, but he'd spent a bundle on the machine already, and ultimately decided to shelve the project and concentrate on Class C racing, hillclimbs, and selling motorcycles.

The Indian 'Arrow', with streamlining, at the Harrah's collection in the 1980s.
The 'Arrow' languished in Hap Alzina's back room for decades, and it was eventually purchased by the Harrah's collection in the 1970s.  It certainly exists today, and photographs show a compelling motorcycle, almost a 'resto-mod' with those early loop-spring forks, and one which every Indian fan wishes they owned!

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Fat chance finding the Kenny Howard Indian he modified in 1946, the grand-daddy of all choppers...but we can ask!
I'm working with Mark Mederski and John Parham at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa, to curate an exhibit illustrating the development of early American custom motorcycles, up to and including the chopper itself.  The exhibition is based on my new book 'The Chopper; the Real Story' (Gestalten), to set the story straight on the history of American custom motorcycles.

We're looking for ORIGINAL, built in the period examples of:
1920s/30s Cut-Downs
1930s/40s Bob-Jobs
1940s/50s/60s Show Bikes and flashy Bob-Jobs
Choppers of the 1960s and '70s
Cool as they are, we're not using later recreations or inspirations - we need the real deal, period-built customs, the core bikes which established the American custom style.

Do you have a bike which fits the description above, which you'd be willing to loan to the National Motorcycle Museum starting in late May of 2015?  Let us know!  It will be an amazing, never-before exhibit.

Here's the National Motorcycle Museum press release:

History of the Chopper: Bikes Wanted!

The first comprehensive history of a century of American customs has just been released - ‘The Chopper: the Real Story’ – and museum staff are working with author/curator Paul d’Orleans to create a new exhibit based on his research. Paul is a well-known writer (‘The Ride’, ‘Café Racers’, plus TheVintagent.com) and curator (most recently the Sturgis exhibits with Michael Lichter), and contributes monthly to magazines in 6 languages.

You can be part of this exhibition project, as they’re looking for some very special motorcycles.

Americans started ‘chopping’ bikes long before ‘Easy Rider’, and the late 1920s saw the emergence of the ‘Cut-Down’, based on the Harley JD or JDH, with shortened and lowered frames. Cut-Downs were hot, high-performance bikes and are rare today. Next came the ‘Bob-Job’, stripped down Harleys and Indians and even British imports from the 1930s, built to look like the new Class C racers. From the late 1940s, a few riders began decorating their Bob-Jobs, using chrome and wild paint, adding ape hangers, upswept exhausts, and small sissy bars, which by the 1950s became the established ‘show bike’ standards at combined car/motorcycle Hot Rod shows. Dragster motorcycles also influenced street customs using drag bars and raked forks. By the late ‘50s what we’d recognize as Choppers emerged, and in the early to mid-‘60s raked steering heads, extended springer forks, wild pipes, sissy bars, sculpted tanks, and moulded frames could be found under the hippest motorcyclists in America.
'Marshmallow' and her chopped Triumph, from the EasyRider archive
The long history of choppers is a uniquely American story, akin to Rock ‘n Roll in its cultural impact and global influence. The Museum will create the first-ever exhibit documenting culture and history of the American Custom Motorcycle, the cut-downs, bob-jobs, show bikes and choppers, from the late 1920s to the mid-‘70s. The exhibit will include only period-built original bikes, plus related artwork, memorabilia and photos, plus posters showing their important film roles. As a special feature, the curators are commissioning sculptures, paintings and illustrations made especially for this new exhibit.

 Do you own an original or restored 1920s-70s custom motorcycle or related memorabilia? We’d like your help to tell this important story, or if you are a fine artist who would like to loan motorcycle artwork, please send an email to Mark Mederski: mmederski@nationalmcmuseum.org
or Paul d’Orleans: thevintagent@gmail.com

Books from curator Paul d'Orléans...

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Monday, January 26, 2015


The enormous, sweeping volumes of the Grand Palais, with its original Art Nouveau ironwork, is something to behold
Bonhams is hosting its February 5th Paris auction to coincide with the giant Rétromobile festival, an excellent reason to visit the City of Light in the winter (and it's a lovely place to be if it snows). The Grand Palais is perhaps the world's most spectacular venue for an auction, an Art Nouveau engineering masterpiece, which the city of Paris has recently put back into circulation to host regular exhibitions and events.
1958 Borgward Rennsport, an achingly lovely miniature of the Jaguar D-Type
As always, Bonhams kills it with their automobilia selection of sculptural radiator caps, original illustrations, and posters, and also as per the script, there's a fine selection of motorcycles for sale before the four-wheelers dominate the podium.  Even then, it's worth sticking around, as European auctions turn up stuff we never see Stateside...like a late-'50s Borgward 1500 Sports Racer with an aluminum body. Want!
One of many European racing posters for sale...
Other drool-worthy machines are a Norton-Velocette with dustbin fairing, and an endurance-racer Bimota HB-1, which is about the sexiest 1970s motorcycle of all.  While Triumph had their Hurricane, and MV made their heavy 4s, Bimota truly captured the sideburn-and-flares era with bikes that scream 'sex!' and 'speed!' with equal volume.  They're still reasonably priced (depending on your point of view), but I can't imagine these remaining in the low-to-mid 5-figures for much longer...
Cafe racer with a twist - a Velocette in a Norton featherbed frame, with a full dustbin fairing.  Cool!
Sadly, no Paris for me this year.  I'm busy building a photography studio, back in San Francisco.  If you go, kiss the grande dame for me, eh?
The only '70s Honda that matters...the 1974 Bimota HB-1 CM3. 

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Sunday, January 25, 2015


The Jerry Lee Lewis '59 Panhead, a gift from the factory
At Mecum's Kissimmee auction yesterday, Jerry Lee Lewis' 1959 Harley-Davidson FL 'Panhead' which he's owned for 55 years, and was a gift from the Harley-Davidson factory, sold for a remarkable $385k, including fees.  This places his Harley at lucky #13 on my 'Top 20' list of the World's Most Expensive Motorcycles; wholly appropos.   I was asked to interview 'the Killer' and provide text for the auction, which is below:

"Rock n’ Roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis has an outsize reputation as a larger-than-life character living with scant regard for public opinion. Regardless of debauched tales and extreme behavior, this electrifying showman not only climbs onto pianos, but also motorcycles…which should come as no surprise at all. In the 1950s, he seemed the most‘at risk’ performer of all, pioneering a new musical style with an aggressive, almost wild stage presence, as well as the original “sex, drugs, n’ rock n roll” lifestyle…yet he remains alive today, still performing on occasion, and still with a clutch of Harley-Davidsons in his stable.
The Panhead on delivery in 1959 from Ralph Murray of Harley Davidson Sales in Birmingham, Alabama
 Lewis bought his first motorcycle – well, a Cushman scooter – at 16 back in 1951, when he “wasn’t big enough for a real bike”, using money he earned working on his father’s farm. But ‘farm work’, and the Cushman, wouldn’t last long; his first hit record from the historic Sun Studios dropped in 1956, ‘Crazy Arms’, which sold 300,000 copies, mostly in the South. The next year, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ spread like a grassfire across the globe, and as a gift to himself, Lewis purchased a brand-new, blue 1957 Harley-Davidson FLH ‘Panhead’, with the big 74” motor. “It was a fine motorcycle, and I rode it all over the place. When I put out my first record is when I bought that bike.” 
Jerry Lee with his third (of 7!) wife (and cousin, Myra Gale Brown, aged 13) in 1957, with his first Panhead, also a '57 model
Jerry Lee Lewis was at the peak of his early career in 1958, having already sold millions of records, and established himself in the Rock ‘n Roll firmament alongside Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard. The Harley-Davidson factory, always savvy with ‘product placement’, gifted a pair of new 1959 FLH Panheads to Lewis and Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee got his first, which irked The King; “Harley-Davidson asked if I’d like to have a new bike, and they brought it down to Memphis and gave it to me at my house. Elvis got the second one, and there was a bit of personal talk about this – he couldn’t understand why he got the second one, so I asked if he wanted to trade! That was just a joke.”
Good times, when girl fans tore the clothes off his back...
Lewis really enjoyed this ’59 Panhead, “It’s a fine motorcycle, no comparison to my ’57 Panhead - the motor on that one wasn’t quite as nice. This motor is just as good as the day it was given to me.” Asked why he’s selling a precious piece of personal history he’s owned for 55 years, Lewis becomes pensive. “There was a time I wouldn’t take a zillion dollars for it, but now it’s just sitting there. You can crank that motorcycle up and she purrs like a kitten – but you have to kickstart it you know. I could probably sit on it alright today, but I wouldn’t take a chance. I’m 79 years old. This bike is like a child to me, but I’ve decided it’s time to let it go.”
 Jerry Lee Lewis’ loss is a memorabilia collector’s enormous gain, as few celebrity motorcycles have such an indelible association with a notorious and legendary owner. ‘The Killer’s ’59 Panhead, looking fresh as the day the factory gave it to him, still in his ownership after 55 years; it doesn’t get any better than that, and likely there will never be another classic Harley for sale with such solid gold provenance. If that doesn’t leave you ‘Breathless, Honey’, it’s time to check your pulse."

In the 'now it can be told' file, Lewis admitted a big reason he was selling the Panhead was to prevent a family feud after he dies, with many heirs clutching at whatever fortune he's retained after half a century.  He still has one bike, a Sportster, which he's revved up on stage in the past, and now sits in his Florida restaurant.

Here's a video of the auction sale:

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