Friday, April 15, 2016


1962 - a well-off Malian couple shows off their Honda CA72 Dream.  (c.Malick Sidibé)
Malian photographer Malick Sidibé died today at 80 years old...ish - he could never remember whether he was born in 1935 or '36.  Born into a shepherding family in Soloba, he showed an early talent for art, but it wasn't until he was 10 years old that he began an education - when the family could release him from watching goats, presumably because a younger sibling could to take his place!  His home was colonial French Sudan, and by 16 he'd earned a spot at the École des Artisans Soudanaise in Bamako, the capital.  By the late 1950s, he apprenticed with society portrait photographer Gérard Guillat (in his Photo Service Boutique), bicycling between night clubs and hot spots in the evenings with a Kodak Brownie camera.  Such was his gift, by 1962 he'd set up his own photographic studio, gaining the nickname 'the eye of Bamako' for his compelling portraits of Malian hipster nightlife.  The dandies, the discos, the families with their treasured motorcycles, brimmed with life after Mali gained independence from France in 1960, and Sidibé captured the vibe.
A young couple dancing at a nightclub in Bamako, Mali, c.1962.  (c.Malick Sidibé)
His work was 'discovered' by the Anglo/European gallery and museum cabal in the late 1990s, and a flood of solo exhibitions and retrospectives quickly followed; first at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago -  1996), then the Centre d'Art Contemporain (Geneva- 2000), Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna (Rome - 2001), etc.  In the 20 years since that first Chicago exhibit, at least 9 books were published on his decades of photography, and his work can be found on postcards and Pinterest sites. The exposure doesn't detract from the magic of his work, which sympathetically captures the vibrant energy and aesthetic genius of the Malian people.  It was the mopeds, motorcycles, and scooters that caught my eye of course - "there's always a motorcycle" should be my website footer - but it's the two wheels in context that matters, with snappy young gents, courting lovers, or families posing with this important, treasured possession, the real and symbolic statement of Mobility, as Africa took over the reins to its own future.
A recent photo of Malick Sidibé.  (c.Jennifer Morgan Davis)
In 2010, Sidibé told London's Guardian that a good photographer required “talent to observe, and to know what you want,” but equally to be approachable and friendly. “I believe with my heart and soul in the power of the image, but you also have to be sociable. I’m lucky. It’s in my nature. It’s a world, someone’s face. When I capture it, I see the future of the world.”   Vale, Malick.
Three Malian 'sapeurs' (fashionable young gents) with their chic late-'50s Motobecane Mobylette mopeds, c.1962 (c.Malick Sidibé)
The fabrics!  Three youngsters with an East German Simson SR-2 'Star' 50cc motorcycle (c.Malick Sidibé)
The quality isn't great, but the bike is - because I have this exact machine!  An MZ TS250, ca.1974 (c.Malick Sidibé)
As the '60s moved into the '70s, you bet those flares got wider, and I see platform shoes peeking out...(c.Malick Sidibé)
A 1962 shot from a disco - 'Regardez-Mois?' (look at me!). (c.Malick Sidibé)
An early 1970s Vespa with a familiar backdrop of locally-produced cloth.  While these shots are in black/white, no doubt the fabric included the vibrant oranges, blues, and greens typical of Mali. (c.Malick Sidibé)
One of my favorites; traditional garb and the all-important 1980s boom box...(c.Malick Sidibé)
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Saturday, April 09, 2016


[This is my current Cycle World column; this issue (May/June 2016) features the first ever hand-painted cover of the magazine, without a motorcycle photo!  It's an historic issue, and the cover looks great, by Ornamental Conifer - the 'Hand Built Issue'. It will definitely sell out, so find a copy!]
Cycle World editor-in-chief Mark Hoyer and myself at the Handbuilt Show, with the hot-off-the-press new issue.
"When Sylvester H. Roper attached a small steam engine to an iron-frame ‘boneshaker’ near Boston in the late 1860s, he had no idea Louis-GuillamePerreaux was fitting a micro-steamer to a pedal-velocipede at the same time, in Paris.  Kevin Cameron and I disagree on their species; he calls them ‘steam cycles’, but I think any motorized two-wheeler that delivers yeehaw is a motorcycle.  That’s a scientific measure; the all-important Y factor.  It’s what got both you and me and everyone else into bikes, even in the 1860s. Roper regularly rode his ‘self propellers’ around Boston, scorching the road between his home in Roxbury to the Boston Yacht Club, where he’d refuel and (presumably) have a beer. On June 1st, 1896, Roper was invited to demonstrate his steamer at the Charles River Speedway, a banked cement velodrome in Cambridge.  He out-paced a peloton of bicyclists, then steamed away from a top pro racer. Track officials urged him to unleash the hissing beast, and after a few scorching laps timed at over 40mph, Roper wobbled, shut down, and collapsed. He was 72 years old, and had a fatal heart attack during a major yeehaw moment; he was the fastest cyclist in the world, and felt it keenly.
'Did Joy kill him?'  Sylvester H. Roper's obituary in the June 2, 1896 Boston Globe
SylvesterRoper invented motorcycling; he was its first speed demon, and its first martyr. He’s our patron saint, and died for the same sin that stains 21st Century bikers - the lust for speed. His steam cycle of 1869 sits in the Smithsonian – their oldest powered vehicle, which they call a motorcycle – and the bike he died on sold for 500grand two years ago.  He’s pretty important to the history of our second favorite pastime, and a hero of mine.  So while visiting Boston last year, I was keen to follow the Roper trail, and asked Dave Roper (the first American to win an Isle of Man TT, and a distant relative) if he knew the address of his namesake?  He recalled 294 Eustis St in Roxbury, but a visit in the company of photographer Bill Burke revealed a parking lot.  I hit the Boston State Library, and found we were darn close – he lived at 299 Eustis St, and the house still stands.  I told every Bostonian I met about this exciting discovery, and admit to crazy fantasies of buying the place, because Roper!  If he’d created a cure for smallpox, or invented the automobile, or written famous novels in his day, you’d find a plaque by the front door, with the house listed in tourist guidebooks.  But this is motorcycles, still a dirty word to some, so the house remains uncelebrated and overlooked, except now you know about it, too.
The Google Earth snapshot of 299 Eustis St, Roxbury MA, the former home of the inventor of Motorcycling.

There’s little published on Roper, certainly no proper biography, just a few columns in 1800s magazines, and a lot of ‘web conjecture. The first motorcycle books weren’t published until the early 1900s, and all were ‘how to’ until Victor Pagé wrotea history of motorcycles in 1914.  That might sound like the dawn of the industry, but ‘Early Motorcyclesand Sidecars’, which is still in print, was published 45 years after Roper and Perraux pioneered motoring on two wheels.  Many thousands of books about motorcycles were published in the next 100 years, from ADV travel in the late ‘Teens (it was all adventure then), to tell-alls about 1%er club misadventures, to hundreds of histories of long-dead makes, from Aermacchi to Yamaha.  But there are still big holes in the literature, and a lot of important stuff is missing from moto-history.  I’ve been approached to write books on two brands this year – Zenith and Motosacoche – which in their day held World Land Speed records, won championships, and made a dent in their world.   Researching those stories is hard work, but it feels good, like cementing the foundation of the House of Motorcycles.  Put a plaque on it!"

Friday, April 01, 2016


Still the only individual to install a motorcycle in the British Museum, Grayson Perry is the role model for The Vintavagenta.
Starting today, in support of poly-gendered riders globally, TheVintavagenta claims its space as the only bias-free moto-culture website in the world. There's a side of us we've been ignoring, so it's time to get exploring, and let the Vintavagenta magenta flag fly!  As your cis-gendered scribe, my job this year is digging out bias from the previous 900 articles on, and each corrected piece will be featured first on my Facebook and Instagram accounts, so stay tuned!
There's 100 years of gender-neutral history yet to explore on The Vintavagenta!
But the basic idea is to have fun!

Click here to see more April's Foolery at! 

Saturday, March 12, 2016


[Reprinted from my monthly column for Classic Bike Guide, March 2016 issue]
A still from Akira Kurosawa's beautifully shot 'High and Low', a huge influence on cinematographers in subsequent decades
One of my favorite early Akira Kurosawa films is a B&W scandal called ‘High and Low’.  The Japanese Economic Miracle was in full swing in the 1950s, and before he rode off into the Samurai sunset, Kurosawa explored the deep hypocrisy characterizing that period of extraordinary growth. Enormous fortunes were fertilized by a government so bent on economic progress it happily shielded the obvious corruption and environmental damage, accompanied by stagnation of the working classes.  Today he could make the same film in China.
Hanging out with a miniature Indian Board Track racer...which supposedly works!  Adorable, and it beat the full-scale replicas is price!  Go thisaway, replicators...
I’ve camped out in Las Vegas every January for many years, watching with vested interest the classic motorcycle auctions.  It’s my fetish to keep track of oldbike price fluctuations, which has not been inexorably upward.  I’ve watched major price drops of bellweather machines (say, Vincent twins) after the real estate crash of ’89, the dot com bust of 2000, and the Great Recession of 2008.  The price of a good Black Shadow has plummeted from $100k to $30k before, and it can happen again.  Regardless, the general trend is upwards, which might seem a ‘natural’ fact, or a product of inflation, but placing financial value on items with no functional value is anything but natural. Looking at the trends in other collectibles markets, there’s no reason to believe the bike you paid x for this year, will guaranteed be worth x++ in 10 years.  It’s a reasonable gamble, but when I start seeing books like ‘Investing in Collector Cars’ on trade stands at Rétromobile (the PreWarCarbooth no less!), I catch a whiff of 2007, a heady if slightly rotten perfume.
Buddies Andy and Jean-Michel collaborated in the late 1980s; both their work has skyrocketed in value, becoming safe havens for cash in 'bonded warehouse' storage facilities.  Will top-tier motorcycles see the same fate?
Looking at the fine art market, you’d think anyone with a few million to stash would scour the land for spare Warhols and Basquiats, since there are so many, and they fetch so very much.  But dropping one’s binoculars to look at the broader art scene, it’s clear only a tiny slice of that pie is thriving (the ‘smart buys’), while the rest of the market grows stale.  It’s an all-or-nothing gamble in the money game, if that’s why you’re buying or making art... the very worst reason to buy or make it, of course.   The antiques business is seeing a similar shrink/swell of different eras.  It’s well known the old American furniture market, once reliable and considered a safe investment, has seen values drop shockingly in the past 10 years, by as much as 80%.  Friends at Christie's note with something like despair the prospect of their specialty being merged with more successful groups, or dropped entirely.  At Bonhams, the car and motorcycle departments are going gangbusters, keeping the whole company buoyant, while the art, antiques, and jewelry sales are more lackluster, barring a few stars.  It’s the same story at other auction houses, and retail establishments.
A reception for Conrad Leach's exhibit 'Paradise Lost' at the Gauntlett Gallery in London
My friend Richard used to run a fantastic man-cave of a shop selling cool old gear – automotive prototype models, 1930s cocktail sets meant for us while driving, great paintings of Spitfires and Nortons.  He’s shuttered the shop, complaining ‘there’s no middle anymore’; either clients wanted the $100k thing, or the $1k thing, with almost no sales between.  Since he needed that middle to survive, he was sunk, but his sanguine opinion was the business simply reflected the loss of a prosperous middle class; his customers were either ‘making it’ big time, or watching their coins carefully while saddled with a mortgage etc.  Other dealers have much the same experience today, and so it was in Las Vegas this January. 
The 1950 Vincent 'White Shadow' in Chinese Red, which fetched $345k at Bonhams in Las Vegas, January 2016.  Tie a string to it and float away...

With over 1000 old motorcycles on offer, there was something for everyone; from a MTT Y2k jet bike to a lineup of nicely unrestored British twins.  But ‘everyone’ fell into one of two camps; those with $50k and up to spend (repeatedly), and those looking for a bargain to take home.  Many of the high rollers were dealers, buying for wealthy clients or hoping for a quick resale.   It was clear the same small group of bidder numbers dominated the proceedings, peppered by a miscellany of one-shot bidders - the ones who looked genuinely excited when they won a bike, usually for well under $30k.  It was, to quote Kurosawa, a High and Low affair; individual collectors with money to buy a nice bike, and a cadre (1% anyone?) of deep-pockets bidders.  This is a new development of an old story (called Capitalism), but it’s important to note the old bike market was never like this before, being a fairly level playing field of genuine enthusiasts in the past.  I suppose investors are enthusiasts too, if only for more money, which is the worst reason to buy old motorcycles.  I’ve said it before; bikes make lousy sculptures, as the magic is the riding.  Keeping a bike static misses the whole point.  

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The World's Fastest...Single!

Dennis Quinlan was kind enough to forward an email from Stuart Hooper, the arch Velocette enthusiast who's been tweaking his 650cc Velo-based motor, and this year added a supercharger! The Reilly's were spectacular, as you'll read below: 

Email from Stuart Hooper....

The Big Velo has come through another speed week with flying colours. After an initial sighting run of 177 mph which appeared ok until we discovered a nearly empty fuel tank........ Almost 10 litres of fuel used is a bit much even for its insatiable thirst.  On the next run this fuel consumption became problematical with fluctuating cylinder head temps and eventually drowning the engine which at least allowed us to identify a very unusual fuel flow problem related to our specific installation.  For the third run we upped the supercharger drive ratio and the engine ran like a clock resulting in a 188 mph average ,however the Velo was not happy with major stability issues requiring me to roll of the throttle three times through the timed miles to keep her on the track. This run however put the Velo firmly in the record books as the Worlds Fastest Single Cylinder Motorcycle . A bit of head scratching over the errant handling led to a few minor suspension changes and we were off again, this was a dream run using only half throttle and 5000rpm she passed 150 mph in a mile and then it was tuck in and twist the throttle to the stop, this time she ran straight as an arrow and the revs just kept building to 6800 at the end of the measured miles, in fact I kept the throttle wide for another untimed mile just for the hell of it and saw another 100 rpm or about 2 to 3 mph on the old Chronometric tachometer. ... Five miles absolutely flat out .... 193.061 mph. ......  The next day looked like we might crack the magic 200 mark and the officials kindly offered us an extra timed mile, but alas it was not to be. Upon close inspection the oil was discolored and coming from the breather and the crank and cush drive was suffering badly so the nitro was left unopened, a Nitro engine failure at 200mph is not high on my bucket list !     

Truly there is nothing quite like ........... A fast ride with a naked lady !!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Celebrating the odd; a selection of 'rhomboid' cars, with wheels in perpendicular axes, was a highlight of the 2016 Rétromobile show.  The 'Automodule' of 1968...
The august Parisian vintage motor show had a period of shrinkage when it changed hands a few years ago, when motorcycles virtually disappeared and it dropped to a weekend event.  The good news is Rétromobile has returned to a full 5-day exhibition of the world's most intriguing cars, and motorcycles are back, to a limited degree.  I stopped attending after my utter disappointment in the 2013 show, but returned this year as an adjunct to a research trip for my next book (hint; it's all about Zeniths). I was pleasantly surprised at the vigor, increased length, and much increased size of the show - it's grown into two enormous halls, with a unique mix of club displays, dealer booths, parts suppliers, autojumblists, factory spreads, specialist clothing booths, and art dealers.  Whether you're looking for a perfect 1890s Belle Epoque poster of a Léon Bollée trike, a pair of headlamps for the same, or the actual machine in the metal, you're likely to find it all at Rétro.
An Indian Powerplus graced my favorite poster stand, with an original 1890s Art Nouveau 'Motocycles Comiot' poster featuring a lady rider.  I wrote about this one several years ago...
The photos tell the story, almost. It's a bit overwhelming, and my 2 visits weren't quite enough to absorb everything on display, and chat with the folks I'd hoped too...there's simply too much to take in on a short visit, which isn't a bad thing. My favorites were always the unexpected oddities; an 8' long ship model for sale, a ridiculous lineup of '50s/60s F1 Ferraris, several unrestored 1920s supercars, and a repro of the Target Design MV Agusta tucked into a display, which nobody seemed interested in discussing with an American journalist!
A replica of the Target Design MV Agusta prototype, which inspired Suzuki to hire the firm.  The result was the Katana, a revolutionary styling exercise, and surprisingly, an improvement over this prototype.  I've read a series of 5 replicas will be built, using Albert Bold MV motors...
Rétro isn't quite the gearhead Disneyland of the Avignon Motor Festival, as there are no airplanes, and few heavy trucks / farm equipment / military gear, but Rétro remains a terrific show in the most romantic city in the world. Yes, the weather sucks in February, but that didn't stop a few parking lot demonstrations of the 1911 Fiat 'Beast of Turin' LSR machine - epic!
Of course, there's the rest of Paris to explore, and I caught the epic Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, as well as the Bonhams auction preview at the Grand Palais.  That's an unbeatable venue, the grandest Art Nouveau interior space on the planet, and even the grandest cars are dwarfed within in that hallowed glass-and-iron greenhouse.   Most intriguing to see were a pair of rotten Brough Superiors from the Frank Vague collection, stood on display at the center of the motorcycle lineup for the auction, for all to examine.  And all did!
The MX100 Brough Superior at the Bonhams preview, which turned over and had a free clutch!  Remarkable...
...but the hunger of rust will not be denied, it eats what is not protected.  Not chromium though...
It's not often you see the devastating effects of rust on a fine old motorcycle...they're shockingly hammered...but crazily, the engine was free to kick over on the SS100, and the clutch was free too!  Mr Vague flooded oil on the mechanical bits, but couldn't seem to protect the bodywork, which has rotted in the most picturesque way.  While I'm a fan of 'oily rag' machinery, in this case, I look forward to a full revival of all 8 bikes in the hands of skilled restorers.   A ballsy move on Bonhams' part was featuring a brand-new custom motorcycle as their feature bike. The Praëm SP3 Honda, built by brothers Sylvain and Florent Berneron (who displayed their Ducati Scrambler at Wheels+Waves), is a fantastic piece of work, but as I've noted in the past, auctions are a terrible place to sell custom bikes.  It didn't help that the reserve reflected the actual build price!  How impractical to be so practical...but the rest of the bikes sold well.
The technical expertise of the Berneron brothers was insufficient to attract an $80k euro bid for their hotrod Honda, but it might have been a publicity exercise?
Also on the auction front, you may have heard that a world record price was set by Artcurial auctions at Rétromobile, with a 1957 Ferrari 335 S Scaglietti sports racer selling for $35.7M.  Wow, I coulda bought a Rembrandt!  Then again, the Ferrari is its own sort of masterpiece.   Enjoy the photos of the event - very few Americans make it across the pond for this one, but more should.
Original paint Mercedes-Benz 300SL that dull sheen
An open cockpit gives me goosebumps.  This 1932 Aston Martin 1.5L Le Mans was left in its original appearance where possible, but the mechanicals were completely renovated, as were the seats.  Vive le Oily Rag! 
A shaft-driven DOHC Ballot motor sat beside the car it powered, a fantastic engine from the 1920s.
Ballot built motorcycles too; here's their in-bloc 175cc two-stroke
No gearhead visit to Paris is complete without a visit to the Arts et Metiers museum, housed in a former church.  It was forcibly de-consecrated by the Jacobins during the Revolution, and converted to a Church of Technology in 1794, which it remains today.  This Blériot biplane faces off with Foucault's Pendulum in the apse of the Gothic church.  
No worries about Zika virus with this mosquito nose! A big blower Bentley... 
Probably the best international selection of motoring books in one location at Retromobile, with a dozen dealers on hand to tempt the collector.  It's amazing how many titles are never translated into bookshelves have a lot of Italian, French, and German texts on rare makes.
A faux garage inside the hall...and pretty much my ideal of a motorcar.  But then I'm a Velocette guy - into eccentric/brilliant engineering. 
Yes, motorcycles at Rétro; this stand was 100% Harley-Davidson, with some interesting machines, like the aborted VR1000 road racer
Big n little toys.
Art is where you find it. This F1 Ferrari has an amazing exhaust system...I well recall it from my youth, being a Matchbox model...
A phalanx of competition Ferraris at one display, next to a whole bunch more beside, and then the'd think they were rare!  But they aren't rare inside these halls.
The monstrous 'Beast of Turin' Fiat LSR 300hp car from 1911
A hot Matchless G50 at the Coy's auction stand
Lovely original paint H-D with all ancillaries intact
A pair of kiddie-ride JLO bikes, among many such vehicles for sale
Let's not forget Lady Liberty was a gift from the French people - the original model lives in the Arts et Metiers museum
This book looks familiar...
Lovely postwar Velocette Mk8 KTT
I'm fascinated by early machinery like this 1905 Darracq V-8 racer - the very essence of motoring, and the point of connection between cars and motorcycles.
More rhomboidal cars...this one a cracked egg. 
The 8' long ship model I mentioned for sale, with its purpose-built case.  Where else does one find such a thing?
Original paint 1955 Porsche Speedster 1500S from Washington state.
The Target MV and a Magni version, amongst a sea of Porsches
Motorcycles tend to be tucked into corners of auto displays, in this case a '56 Triumph T110 keeping an Aston Martin DB2 company... 
The automobilia on offer is everything you might not be looking for...
The 1892 Millet at the Arts et Metiers museum, the first motorized vehicle to use pneumatic tires, with its fantastic rotary/radial air-cooled engine.
A c.1920 Leyat Hélica at the Arts et of my favorite vehicles of any era. Utterly impractical and totally dangerous, yet to this day road legal in France!  (Except Paris, which is about to enact a ban on pre-2000 motorcycles and cars...)
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