Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Gestalten has done its usual excellent job in creating the promotional video for my new book 'The Chopper: the Real Story'. Enjoy!
The Story of the Chopper—As Told by the Vintagent from Gestalten on Vimeo.

Monday, September 29, 2014


The cover of 'The Chopper: The Real Story'
After what seemed like an eternity during the process, my latest book is finally available for preview and pre-order.  'The Chopper: the Real Story' is published by Gestalten, with whom I worked on the best-seller 'The Ride' (with Chris Hunter, Gary Inman, and David Edwards).  Gestalten is known as a high-quality publisher of contemporary art/design books, and the success of 'The Ride' encouraged them to probe a little deeper into the design history of motorcycles; after much discussion, they asked me to write the history of choppers, which proved challenging for both of us.  I think the result will stand the test of time, although some of my research will likely prove controversial.
Yes, Marlon makes an appearance, but it's Chino I write about...
It took many months of interviews and research to document the history and development of chopper, as while everyone 'knows' what a chopper is, and lots of books have been published about them, nobody until now has attempted to document the history of this quintessentially American folk-art form.  After having done so, I understand why nobody has tried!  It was a very difficult process, and I was denied access to plenty of information and useful photographic archives, and even verbally threatened at times for simply asking questions about motorcycles.  I steered clear of gang culture, as that story has been told many times; my research solely concerned who did what when to the motorcycles, from 1920s 'Cut-downs' and 1930s 'Bob-jobs', to the first ape-hangers and crazy chrome jobs, to the first show choppers and extended forks, to the present day revival of old-school bikes.
Yep, we got the rights to a few Danny Lyons photos...a very satisfying feeling!
At about 60,000 words, I joked many times that it was too bad I hadn't done my research under the auspices of a University, as 'Chopper' would have earned a doctorate!  The print quality will be to Gestalten's usual excellent standard, which means the book won't be cheap, just big and beautiful. Kind of like the subject.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014


The iconic image of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in 'Easy Rider'
It's the most famous motorcycle in the world - everyone knows the bike, even if they know nothing about motorcycles or '60s counterculture. Many times more people recognize the 'Captain America' chopper than ever saw 'Easy Rider', and movie posters of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding their choppers across America still adorn the walls of college dorms around the world.  It's an enduring image, a romantic touchstone from an era when Freedom seemed possible via a cool motorcycle and a groovy outfit.
A screen capture in the film, with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson horsing around on their choppers
The 'Captain America' and 'Billy' bikes were the brainchild of 'Easy Rider' Associate Producer Cliff Vaughs, and the first pair (the 'hero' or 'A' bikes) were built by Ben Hardy in LA, while a second pair (the substitute or 'B' bikes) were built by mechanic Larry Marcus at his and Cliff Vaugh's house in Santa Monica.  The full story of the origin of these remarkable motorcycle will appear in October in my book 'The Chopper: the Real Story' (published by Gestalten, who also published 'The Ride'), and it's a long, complicated, and controversial saga.

That story isn't quite over, as what's claimed as an authentic survivor 'Captain America' is coming up for auction October 18th at the Profiles in History auction house.  Owner Michael Eisenberg purchased the chopper from the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa earlier this year, and has decided to sell the machine,  "It was with much deliberation and trepidation that I decided to sell it...When I came to the realization of what I actually had just sitting in my warehouse I felt it would be better served if it could once again be on public display. I also decided that a portion of the proceeds should benefit some charities, the American Humane Association and the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa Iowa so that they can continue to educate the public on the history of the motorcycle."
This is my 'wet plate' photograph of the very machine at auction, from an hour I spent at a roadside parking lot on Mulholland Drive in LA taking photos of the machine in company with its creator, Cliff Vaughs.  [Visit MotoTintype.com
for more images.]
The machine at auction was apparently built from the remains of the 'B' Captain America bike by Dan Haggerty, who was the 'chopper handler' for 'Easy Rider' after Associate Producer Cliff Vaughs, along with most of the initial crew on the film (including this bike's builder, Larry Marcus), was fired as Columbia Pictures took control of the film's budget and production.  The 'B' bike was partially destroyed at the end of the film, and Haggerty apparently kept the parts.  The remaining 3 film bikes were stolen before the end of production, and never recovered, although pieces of these bikes have circulated through the bike collector crowd (and the rumor mill) in the 46 years since the film was made.

Press releases about the 'Captain America' sale are quoting estimates of $1Million, which seems cheap when one considers the astronomical price of far less famous Ferraris, and the rumored $1.1M sale price of the Rollie Free/'bathing suit' Vincent 3 years ago, which is also among the most famous machines in history, along with TE Lawrence's 'fatal' Brough Superior SS100 - which was offered for £2M several years ago.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014


Don't rough it - Brough it!  A rolling advertisement for the pleasures of obsolete machinery, still giving pleasure long after their working days are done.
First, the Rules.  For this year's Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, the motorcycle must be built (or appear to be built) before 1937.  Teams of mechanics and even tractor-trailers pulling mobile machine shops are allowed, as there's no limit on the amount of support for the event, BUT during the day's ride, your team, if you have one, isn't allowed anywhere near your bike, not even on the same road.  To prevent conflicts, the support teams have their own set of maps and instructions, and the riders are only given their next day's map when they check in at the end of their day's ride.  Thus, we don't know where we're riding beforehand, just our destination hotel, which helps a bit to keep the roads clear of hangers-on with new bikes, although quite a few have appeared anyway.
And at the other end of the scale, this Neracar...being ridden by Bob Addis with a smile at 30mph through the hills of Georgia
Riders have specific start times in the morning, according to their class; Class 1 - bikes up to 750cc, Class II - 750cc-1000cc, and Class III, the big boys, who generally start between 7:30 and 9am, depending on the days' mileage.  Our rally maps are excellent, and the day's ride is calculated to the speed limit of each section, limited to 50mph on open highway, which is where the 'extra' time in the day is found, to stop and take photos, or work on the machine if required. And many do require...the attrition rate is about the same as the 2012 ride, with perhaps 25 machines out of contention already, requiring total rebuilds or wholly new motors, at least one of which was airmailed a hotel!  Clearly, some of the Cannonballers can afford to fly a spare VL motor from home.
Among the parts needing replacement...this Harley JD engine threw a rod, becoming a de facto 'sectioned engine'.  A replacement bottom end was flown in from a specialist...
Which brings up the cost of the rally.  I'll post my totals at the end, but a few of our riders, especially those from abroad who flew their bikes from Italy or France or Uruguay or Spain, will be tens of thousands of dollars deep into this rally by the end.  My total cost for 2012 was around $14k, and I ran a pretty cheap rally.  This year the entry fee alone was $2500, which doesn't cover your bike, any repairs or transport or spares, hotels, food, or your support vehicle/team.  This year almost every evening features a hosted dinner at whatever museum or motorcycle shop is willing to feed 250+ bikers, so that saves money...if you care to eat a hamburger or pulled pork sandwich every night for 3 weeks.  I've enjoyed the adventure of finding the best food in every small town for lunch and dinner, but Yelp is only as reliable as its reviewers, and more than once McDonalds was #1 on the list of 'best restaurant' in a town.  Horrors.
Carry a fire extinguisher if your carb is anywhere near your ignition source.  One of our Cannonball riders was surprisingly sanguine about losing his Harley on Thursday morning...
Our Team #38 Brough Superior squad (the Revival Cycles/Vintagent/Sinless Cycles gumbo combo) has enjoyed a good run thus far, with the '33 11-50 running better every day, as it slowly wakes up from a long slumber, and Chris our mechanic dials in the details.  Our biggest bugaboo has been the clutch, which has alternately slipped or dragged at times - never to the point of unrideability, but not quite right for a Brough.  While the '50hp' engine rating is pure BS (it's more like 33hp), the old Sturmey-Archer clutch struggles a bit to keep up with the torque of the beast, especially two-up.  Still, she'll thunder along at 60-65mph all day long.
After a few days' being hors de combat, Doug Wothke's bumblebee VL is back on the road...
The countryside is the reward of all this, with day-long cinemas of gorgeous Americana, from the swamplands of Florida, the rolling lushness of Georgia, the exceptional country roads of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the open hilly countryside of Missouri and Kansas.  The weather until yesterday (Sep 11th) has been generally warm and muggy, although a cold front moved into Kansas, and we were chilled at 50 degrees with a heavy mist coming down, so had to bulk up our at a Walmart, and put some dry stuff under and over our wet leather.  Never trust the weatherman! Once sorted, we loved purring over hill and dale, and meeting great characters beside the road while taking photos.
Dave Kafton does a little impromptu maintenance
Tomorrow we enter the West, making our way to Colorado, the Rockies, and beyond.  We'll cross a 12,000' pass on Monday en route to Leadville, and it's snowing today...but scheduled to warm up significantly by tomorrow.  Fingers crossed - c'mon sun!
Doug Feinsod and his Excelsior-Henderson
A fairground in Missouri
Our first few miles in Florida, through picturesque swampland and lots of Spanish moss...
The Moto Guzzi Normale running strong in Kentucky
Ron's Indian Chief captured in the magic circle...
Another Indian gets a little love
An evening still life with 1915 Indian parts
Team Shinya working - again - on the pistons of their 1915 Indian
Brough not in clover, but sorghum - Kansas
At the end of the day, riders check in and grab the next day's route map
The Missouri landscape...
A friendly member of the Outlaws MC posed for a wet plate, and a few other pix
A Harley JD gets a little love
A rural airport in Kansas had a lineup of great vintage planes, still in use
Where's PauldO?
Susan at the county fair...matches her helmet!
Sean Duggan's '36 Knucklehead chopper - attracting attention everywhere, and good on them for getting the kids interested in the Cannonball...
The workshop of the Cyclemos Museum
Where's PauldO?
A tobacco drying barn in Kentucky

Thurston, the tobacco farmer, who explained the different types of tobacco, and different processes required for smoking, chewing, and snuff products.  This batch was for chew, and let off a pungent aroma as it dried.  Tobacco is labor-intensive, being cultivated and hung up by hand - Thruston hires workers from Mexico for 6 months/year for the process, as 'they're the only ones willing to do the work'.

The leaves are 5' long, and most of the drying barns throughout Kentucky look like they're about to collapse

Tobacco fields in the background

Susan chats with Thurston

While Thurston's property is covered with tobacco and soybeans (he leases out acreage for the soybeans), his workers plant corn, beans, and vegetables for their own use.  Like many people we've met along the road, he has a son working in the tech industry near San Francisco, the new hub of gainful employment.
Claudia on her Frera, plonking along - they're doing well!

Chatting at a rest stop in Georgia

In the parking lot of the Cyclemos museum in Kentucky; the middle of nowhere, but also in the middle of some excellent riding roads

Peter Reeves from the UK on his '29 JD Harley, keeping calm, carrying on...

Free ice cream at the local DQ; even Doobie Brothers' member Pat Simmons has a Flurry, with Fred Lange still deciding.

Susan in front of a picturesque, abandoned garage in Georgia

Frank Westfall shows the stability of his 1917 Henderson, the fourth oldest machine on the Cannonball, after Victor's 1914 Harley, Shinya's 1915 Indian, and Thomas Trapp's 1916 Harley.
A rare pair of Freras; the Class I machines are running much better this year than previous years, and half of them are still on perfect points: The OHV Moto Guzzi Sport 15, the Sunbeam Model 9, two BMWs, an Indian Scout, and a Rudge.  The Freras have both experienced gremlins, but are still running strong.

An unusual 1940 Indian Sport Scout with factory original '39 tinware...

Indian racers at the Cyclemos museum

The Brough in a Kentucky park, with some of the most beautiful riding roads we've seen yet.

Shinya Kimura chugging along on his '15 Indian.  At the very moment this photo was taken, a cylinder head nut exited the scene, and he lost compression.  A pair of vice grips solved the problem, and he carried on....

Tattoo artist Craig Jackman showing off his handiwork...

The Cyclemos parking lot, with an Aermacchi/Harley single and Cushman delivery truck in modest decay

Road work in Missouri

Wes at the Cyclemos

John Landstrom with his BMW
Susan with one of the many Amish decorative panels seen on barns throughout the South