Saturday, December 13, 2014


Herb Harris' 1956 sectioned BSA Gold Star...which I reckon might go for more than a restored Goldie!
The world's biggest vintage motorcycle auctions are less than a month away; it's time to make arrangements!  The Las Vegas auctions by Bonhams and Mecum have become a staple of the global old-bike scene, with nearly 1000 motorcycles for sale, plus tons of parts and memorabilia, plus the opportunity to meet people from around the world. I'll provide some 'color commentary' on Saturday at the Mecum auction for an NBC project, but will definitely start bidding by 10am Thursday at the Bonhams auction at Bally's Hotel.  Their lineup is impressive, and as usual, their automobilia sale in the morning is the best in the business.  This year features the cutaway engine collection of Herb Harris (along with quite a few of his un-cut Vincent beauties), which are motorcycle sculptures par excellence, and includes his complete Earl's Court Show cutaway BSA Gold Star!  Perhaps the only whole motorcycle one can without guilt or argument permanently install in one's living room.  It's a beautiful thing, and comes complete with original signage.
The Ulysse Nardin - Von Dutch mashup...
If you're a Von Dutch fan, or uber-fan, consider this Ulysse Nardin watch, formerly owned by Pete Petersen, who bought it in Korea in 1954.  He and Von Dutch were friends, and one day Dutch spotted the watch, had an idea, and demanded Pete remove it from his wrist! Pete resisted, saying 'it's an expensive watch', but VD would not be deterred, and quickly disassembled it and painted the face with dancing figures and a tiny 'flying eyeball' on the second hand sweep.  Cool stuff!
1 of 29 cast, one of Jeff Decker's most famous pieces.  It's big!  Almost 3' long...
How about an original Jeff Decker sculpture?  One of my favorites is his 'Flat Out' sculpture of Rollie Free's epic, and immortal, ride at 150mph on a Vincent Black Shadow in 1950 on the Bonneville Salt Flats.  Decker used the actual motorcycle as his model for the sculpture, when it was in possession of Herb Harris (it's now in a private collection in California).
The iconic Geo Ham depiction of the '29 AJS V-twin supercharged record-breaker
Prefer 2-d art?  Here's a cool lithograph by Geo Ham, perhaps the most famous motoring/motorcycling artist in the world, whose work in the 1920s and 30s pretty much defines sporting art for the era.  I actually have a copy of this litho in brilliant orange, which was produced by the Moto Club de France for various uses; while mine is devoid of text, this one supports Sport and Tourism with the Club, and depicts a very sporting motorcycle indeed, the V-twin OHC AJS supercharged record-breaker of 1929, which wasn't as fast as it needed to be, but was far more beautiful than its rivals.  The bike still exists, as do copies of the great poster.
'Big Daddy' Ed Roth originals
For a walk on the wild side, there's are 2 batches of original pencial-and-ink drawings, and hand-altered reproductions by 'Big Daddy' Ed Roth, which are pretty rare at auction.  They're accompanied by 2 lots of Robert Williams' artwork (he got his start with Roth), and of course a few Von Dutch originals - paintings, motorcycles, and that watch.  Kustom Kulture mania lives!
One of Philip Vincent's original concept drawings of his patented cantilever rear suspension.  I'm actually not certain how different Vincent's concept was from other triangulated swingarm systems, which date back as far as 1906 on motorcycles!
Finally, in the ne plus ultra stakes, a pair of original concept drawings by Philip Vincent from 1928, depicting his patented ideas for a cantilever rear suspension, which all Vincent enthusiasts will recognize. Vincent would have been 20 years old, full of enthusiasm, and about to buy the bankrupt HRD marque from OK Supreme, who had purchased Davies' factory mainly for the real estate. Vincent purchased the name and goodwill of HRD for £450; amazingly, the actual bill of sale from OK Supreme to Philip Vincent is also up for sale at Bonhams!  While it will fetch a bundle, those drawings of Vincent's, while simple and perhaps 'young', are nonetheless amazingly rare and coveted, and expected to fetch around $200k.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


A non-sale; 'Captain America' is withdrawn from the World's Most Expensive Motorcycles
The auction world is abuzz over the recent 'sale' of the 'Captain America' chopper at the Profiles in History auction house last October, claimed at $1.62M, making it the most expensive motorcycle ever to sell at auction, and likely the most expensive motorcycle of all (regardless of rumors of the $1.1M sale of the ex-Rollie Free 'bathing suit' Vincent).
Another much-touted 'sale' which wasn't - Buddy Holly's Ariel Cyclone was NOT, contrary to their press releases, sold for $470k.  
Weeks later, it turns out there was no sale; the anonymous 'buyer' backed out after Peter Fonda, who had previously endorsed the machine, sent Tweets the day of the auction casting doubts on the bike's authenticity. The seller, Michael Eisenberg, went to great lengths to bolster the authenticity of 'Captain America', hiring a forensic investigator and even subjecting Dan Haggerty, who restored the bike, to 3 polygraph tests (which he passed). Of course, what was certified by Haggerty as genuine would be the frame, used in the 'B' (or stunt) 'Captain America' built by Larry Marcus and Ben Hardy, as documented in my book 'The Chopper; the Real Story'. The rest of Haggerty's restoration was a reproduction of the 'A' (or hero) bike, long ago stolen and dispersed.
Another non-auction sale; this Winchester was claimed in the press to have sold at auction for $580k, but it wasn't.
Another significant false sale report was Buddy Holly's Ariel Cyclone, widely reported as sold for  $470k, but since 're-designated' as a no-sale. Such behavior from auction houses flabberghasts me - what on earth do they think they're up to?   The upshot of all this: 'Captain America' is NOT #1; it's off my list of the 'World's Most Expensive Motorcycles'. Activity like this Profiles in History sale, and earlier this year, the sham 'sale' of a 1910 Winchester at Worldwide Auctioneers, cast doubt on the reliability of auction houses and their press releases, or at least, releases from THESE auction houses.
The 1929 Brough Superior SS100, sold today by Bonhams for $494,580
By contrast, Bonhams auctions (a sponsor of is looking more like 'old reliable' every year.  Suspicious machines (or sellers) generate considerable anxiety with the Bonhams staff, as I experienced recently, when an important racing motorcycle (formerly owned by myself) was offered to Bonhams.  Doubt had been cast on it, which is akin to a virus in the auction world (as seen with 'Captain America') - ultimately it was withdrawn.
The JAP KTOR powerplant of the early SS100; a racing engine repurposed for the road; the fastest road bike in the world at the time
Today, Bonhams really did sell a gorgeous 1929 Brough Superior SS100 'Alpine Grand Sports' for £315,000 ($494,580), and my quote about this bike can be seen on the BBC website.  This Brough now sits on the #2 Most Expensive spot, just behind the 1915 Cyclone with a Harley frame, sold way back in 2008.  The rapidly increasing price of good pre-1930 SS100s means the #1 spot is within reach...until a better Cyclone is sold, anyway.  Which will happen next Spring; watch this space.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014


Ernst Henne, the ultimate pre-war speed demon, and the supercharged BMW WR750 which was so devastatingly fast
The Golden Age of supercharged racers was a brief but glorious moment, when competing factories built ultra-exotic machines which laid the foundations of modern motorcycling.  By pushing the boundaries of engine and chassis technology, new designs were adapted out of necessity, like perimeter frames, front and rear hydraulic suspension, wind-tunnel tested fairings, etc.  The power discovered through forcing an air/fuel mix into an engine - a 40% gain in HP, at best - revealed problems with high-speed stability and wind-cheating which are still being addressed by ever-faster sport bikes.
Joe Wright aboard the OEC-Temple-JAP on which he took Henne's record at Arpajon in 1930.
The  German and Italian factories were the first to embrace supercharging as a race policy, and integrated blowers with their racing engines from as early as 1925.  By the mid-1930s, all companies competing in the Grand Prix series were at least experimenting with blowers and multi-cylinder engines, barring Norton, who remained true to their naturally aspirated single-cylinder racers.  While AJS had a blown V-four, and Velocette a blown vertical twin (the 'Roarer'), these machines were underdeveloped compared to their competition from BMW, DKW, NSU, Moto Guzzi, and Gilera, whose racers dominated the high-speed stakes in every racing capacity - 250cc and 350cc for the Guzzi flat-single and DKW two-stroke racers, 500cc for the BMW flat twins, NSU vertical twins, and Gilera 4s.
Click on this image to see a video of Joe Wright at Cork, Ireland, in 1930, aboard the OEC-Temple-JAP and Zenith-JAP on which he took the World Speed Record at 150mph
The World Speed Record was the sole property of supercharged motorcycles from September 19 1929 onwards, when Ernst Henne took the first of his many records on a blown WR750, with a pushrod 750cc motor based on the BMW R63, on the straightaway at Schleissheim, Germany, at 134.68mph.   Henne's record was challenged the following summer by Austrian Brough Superior importer Eddy Meyer, who added a supercharger to his SS100, and a new JAP 8/50 racing motor, but French customs officers refused to import his special racing fuel, and he never reached the speeds he intended.
Piero Taruffi and the wingless aircraft which hid the Gilera Rondine; good enough for 170mph in 1937 
It took Joe Wright on a supercharged OEC-Temple-JAP to beat the BMW's speed, which he barely pipped at 137.32mph down the straightaway at Arpajon, France, just outside the gates of the Montlhéry speed bowl, on Aug 31, 1930.  Less than a month later, Henne squeezed another mph from the BMW, and recorded 137.66mph at Ingolstadt, Germany, on Sep 21st. The remainder of the 1930s was a ding-dong battle between a clubby pack of English speed-demons and the might of the BMW factory, interrupted only by the  Gilera Rondine snatching glory for a moment in 1937, when Piero Taruffi recorded 170.37mph on the Brescia-Bergamo autostrada.  The Brit club included George Brough, Freddie Barnes, and Claude Temple as builder/mentors, and Eric Fernihough and Joe Wright at the brave riders.  These gents worked in glorified sheds, squeezing power out of the obsolete (by comparison) JAP pushrod V-twin engine, which they housed in their own chassis (Brough Superior, Zenith, and OEC respectively), and ultimately succeeded in retaining glory, until it was clear 'the competition' would shortly involve guns.  The motorcycles they built are magnificent bitsas, masterpieces of handwork and inspiration, cobbled together by men of tremendous passion. Amazingly, almost all of these supercharged record-breakers survive.

[Below is a fantastic '5 minutes' with Piero Taruffi and the Gilera Rondine]

The BMW factory, by contrast, worked from a fresh sheet of paper, ultimately designing the RS255 engine for modern racing, integrating a blower to the engine castings, and developing this OHC flat-twin 500cc racer to win both the Isle of Man TT by 1939, and take the ultimate pre-war World Speed Record by 1937, at 173.68mph, which stood for 14 years.  The BMW had half the engine capacity of its rivals from England (although the same capacity as the Gilera, which was only 3mph slower), but had the advantage of a modern factory and a team of talented engineers to build this superb machine from scratch.  The BMW record-breakers were equally the product of passionate engineers, and are equally masterpieces of speed-inspired design.  Amazingly, the BMW and Gilera record-breakers also survive, and all can be enjoyed in person, if you're lucky enough to encounter them.  In the past two years, for example the Joe Wright blown Zenith-JAP and OEC-Temple-JAP could be seen at the Vintage Revival Montlhéry, as well as the Concorso di Villa d'Este, where one could also see the BMW WR750 and Gilera Rondine in original condition, and a rebuilt RS255 streamliner ('Henne's Egg'). These machines are reason enough to attend such events, as they leave a lasting impression as the pinnacle of the Golden Age of Supercharging.

[Below is a nice montage of BMW speed records of the 1930s]

Saturday, November 08, 2014


Putt Mossman being pulled on the dirt of Empire Speedway in Sydney, behind his c.1930 Indian Model 402 4-cylinder 
A video of the legendary1920s/30s motorcycle acrobat and showman Putt Mossman has recently surfaced in Australia, where he was practicing for a show on the Empire Speedway in Sydney in 1936.  The footage is spectacular even today, and shows what all the fuss was about!  I published a story on Mossman back in 2009 (read the story here), and a Google search for information by the film's owners led them to  Here's the note:

"Hi Paul, 
Mark from the YouTube Channel Super100MPH here. We are an Australian motor racing site and we were recently given some vhs tapes, one of which included this amazing footage of Putt Mossman practicing for Empire Speedways in 1936. We didn't know anything about Putt, being mainly a car channel. We found your blog and a story from 2009 and we thought you and your readers may enjoy this rare footage.
All the best, Mark and Tim from Super100MPH"

More importantly, here's the film!

Friday, November 07, 2014


I flew Cliff Vaughs to LA last May for a photo and interview session for 'The Chopper: the Real Story' - this was the first moment Cliff had seen this bike since 1968...
File this one under 'better late than never': in a recent letter to Cliff 'Soney' Vaughs, actor Peter Fonda finally gives credit to Vaughs and Ben Hardy for their until-recently unknown contribution to motorcycle history - creating the 'Captain America' and 'Billy' bikes for Easy Rider.  The massive wave of publicity around the sale of the claimed last extant chopper from the film (which made $1.62M at auction - the most expensive motorcycle ever sold), also seems to have inspired Fonda to properly acknowledge for the first time 'who' created the most famous motorcycles in the world.
I managed to capture 'Captain America' by wet plate in our brief session with the bike...
Here's the letter:
"Hi Cliff,
I wanted to first let you know how grateful I and others are that you knew where to go to buy the LAPD bikes at auction. Dennis and I had no idea. You magically bought 4 bikes at $500. a piece! You again amazed us when you designed and built the bikes for approximately $1250.00 per bike. We were all in awe of yours and Ben Hardy's abilities. You built two Billy Bikes and two Captain America bikes. I remember you and your girlfriend coming to our Pando office to talk about what we were going to shoot in New Orleans.
Unfortunately,the bikes weren't ready when we began filming in New Orleans and there was no way they could have been ready based on what was involved in their design.
A decision was made by Dennis Hooper, Paul Lewis, and Bert Schneider to fire you. Unfortunately, they blamed you for not having the bikes ready after The Mardi Gras parade. Hell, we didn't even have the script ready. This decision was a very bad decision, one of which was beyond my control and I found out about it after the fact. I am very sorry. Neither did I decide to drop the sequence of the black biker gang from the script. Again Dennis's decision not mine. Money was a factor I believe.
 This is a Facebook entry of mine in late September 2014: The final design of the Easy Rider bikes started with this man, Mr. Cliff Vaughs. I gave Cliff a sketch that I had drawn in Toronto Canada on September 27th 1967. It was a rough sketch of the teardrop gas tank, the high sissy bar, the big automobile rear tire, and the same rake that I had on the motorcycle from the Wild Angels. Cliff refined it with the outrageous heavily raked front forks!!! It was a bitch to ride but it looked incredible!!! Thank you Cliff!!!!
It is not too late to give you and Ben Hardy the praise you deserve in designing the iconic bikes in Easy Rider...
All the Best,
Peter Fonda"

Not too late indeed, as Cliff is still alive, but Ben Hardy never got the credit he deserved for his exceptional work, nor for his enormous contribution to chopper history, before his death in 1994. Vaughs and Hardy are at last acknowledged in print with my latest book, 'The Chopper: the Real Story.'  The book is on the ground in Europe already, and will be distributed in the US within a few weeks (when they arrive from Germany).  Feedback on the book from bike enthusiasts is excellent, and I'm proud of the hard work which went into the book, and how Gestalten laid it out.  

Friday, October 31, 2014


Kent and his father's Velo MAC, obscured by ?
A hot, sunny July day is an atypical setting for a creepy ghost story, and the thought never occurred to us that we'd been haunted until our work was finished.  The 'unexpected' is one of the great attractions of the 'wet plate/collodion' photographic process - we literally can't see the UV end of the light spectrum to which collodion-based photography is sensitive, and therefore, what we see in the camera while setting up a shot is not what we 'get' on the plate (glass or metal - we use black-painted aluminum).
We shot several portraits of Blaise in front of the assay office, and never could put a head on him...but you can see his eye!
Wet plate photographers concerned with perfect image quality go to great lengths to control all known variables afflicting the final image, like heat, chemical contamination, and even uncontrolled movement while pouring chemistry onto the plate.  As a result, some wet-platers are fussy creatures, - control freaks - who disdain the messy images obtained by less-careful photographers, like me.  But I was a painter before I ever picked up a camera, and random chemical effects are endlessly fascinating to me, even if my 'failure' rate is as high as 30%.  No rational wet plate technician would attempt to photograph in hostile environments like the Bonneville Salt Flats, or when the mercury hits 100degrees...which means about 120deg inside my Sprinter/darkroom, where we must immediately process our images after exposure (the plate must stay 'wet' or the image is ruined - hence the name).  It was that hot in Volcano, CA, at the end of the 2013 Velocette Summer Rally, our annual week-long ride.  My photo-partner Susan and I had been riding all week, with no chance to take photos, and grabbed the chance to take portraits on the rally's final day.
Who's that peeking above Dick's hair?
We chose an abandoned assay office as our backdrop, basically a wooden shack in this Gold Rush town, beside the St.George Hotel, where we stayed.  Every photo we took was 'ruined' by chemistry, with strange effects over the hour we shot in that location, until we gave up and moved elsewhere, when our shots were crystal-clear, with no 'fogging'.  It wasn't until we were rinsing our plates in the hotel room later that we noticed the strange images in that spot, our headless portraits and peeking ghosts, until we finally washed the portrait of Carl, and the goblin beside him.  Yes, it freaked us out too!
Carl and the visitor at his shoulder...Civil War soldier?  Goblin?  Give me the creeps either way...
We asked at the hotel about the assay office, and showed them our photos.  They weren't a bit surprised, saying that spot was well known as haunted, ever since a garrison of troops during the Civil War had died there of exposure in the winter of 1867.  Creepy stuff.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014


The 'wet plate' photo I shot of the 'Captain America' chopper last May
The upcoming sale of Michael Eisenberg's 'Captain America' chopper (later today) prompted quite a bit of interest in the film, the bike, and the back story of the bikes used in Easy Rider.  As I'd just researched this very subject for my book 'The Chopper; the Real Story' (Gestalten), and have what I believe is a fairly complete picture of the origins and build of 'Captain America', I guess I've become an expert on the subject!  National Public Radio producer Tom Dreisbach assembled the story, and I was interviewed in the studios of KQED in San Francisco, which was a novel experience for me.  I'm regularly interviewed on radio and for podcasts, but have never before been on All Things Considered!
The 'wet plate' portrait of Cliff 'Soney' Vaughs I shot at a reunion of man and machine last May in LA, for 'The Chopper: the Real Story'
The story is available on a podcast at the NPR site, and the text of the story is on the same page.  It's not the complete story - you'll have to buy my book to read that, as it's complicated and long.  I had the pleasure, by coincidence the same day as the NPR broadcast, of meeting Larry Marcus in Oregon last week; Larry is a professional mechanic, and actually built the 'B' bikes for Easy Rider, in the backyard of the home he shared with Cliff Vaughs in 1967/8.  The spot he chose to meet (and Indian Casino) was, by greater coincidence, having a small chopper show at the time, which included a pair of replicas of the Easy Rider choppers.  Strange and stranger, but there you go - the life of the Vintagent is never without surprises.
Larry Marcus with a Captain America replica...