Death Valley XV Motorcycle Run by Greg Williams Walneck’s Magazine 2002, photos by Greg Williams

A story written about the now legendary Death Valley vintage motorcycle run. I attended in Oct., 2001, and this article ran in Walneck’s Classic Cycle Trader.

MAX BUBECK’S DEATH VALLEY XV RUN

Max Bubeck — legendary Indian motorcycle rider — has hosted his California Death Valley Run for 15 years. He started this now infamous antique and vintage motorcycle tour in 1986 and except for 1987, Bubeck and his unique run have visited the Valley every year.
And at the invitation of Gary Breylinger, now of Montana and one of the riders at Death Valley II in 1988, I welcomed the opportunity to be a part of the Death Valley Run XV held in early October, 2001.
There were 78 registered participants at D.V. XV, with out-of-state plates from Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.
The D.V. Run now boasts international recognition and motorcyclists from Canada, England and Germany enjoyed Bubeck’s hospitality, the desert, and ideal riding conditions.
At 84, Bubeck’s reputation precedes him. His adventures and misadventures could fill a tome, and he is currently compiling his most memorable experiences in book format. Highlights of Bubeck’s illustrious past will give a sense of his deserved nickname–‘Fearless Leader’.
Bubeck’s first motorcycle in 1933 was an Indian 101 Scout, which he then swapped for a 1930 Indian Four. In 1936, he purchased a new ‘upside down’ Indian Four. In 1939 he bought a new Indian Four from Floyd Clymer which he modified to suit his tastes. Bubeck still rides this motorcycle.

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Max Bubeck and his 1939 Indian Four, and the
view from Dante’s Peak at the south end of
Death Valley

Between 1937 and 1979 Bubeck rode in 32 Greenhorn Enduros, and declared, “I finished 24 of them.” He rode his 1939 Indian Four in the 1947 Greenhorn, and was the overall winner. In 1962, he again won the Greenhorn, this time riding a 1949 Indian Warrior vertical twin.
In 1955, he laid out a cross-country enduro route that included the south end of Death Valley–he called it the Jackass Enduro. Of the name, Bubeck explained, “I came across a bleached burro skull, and I strapped it onto my Indian vertical twin. That skull became the trophy for the Jackass Enduro.”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bubeck rode Hodaka trail machines in Southern California and District 37 enduro events. He was No. 1 in points from 1969 to 1972, and as he proudly pointed out, “I was 52 through to 55 years old, and I was no kid then.”
He continued, “I still have the urge to surge, and when I get so that I can’t go fast anymore–well, then I’ll slow down.”
In the summer of 2001 Bubeck rode his 1939 Indian Four from Palm Springs, CA to Springfield, MA, for Indian’s 100th birthday bash. Accompanied by two friends, Bubeck covered 450 miles a day, at 60 to 65 mph. And Bubeck was the only one to ride the total 3,554 miles aboard his motorcycle. Both Butch Baer and Tim Bresnahan completed the trip in an air-conditioned pickup, with their motorcycles relegated to a trailer.
And it was on this 1939 Indian Four–a machine which has accumulated more than 180,000 miles–that Bubeck toured his guests for Death Valley XV.
Death Valley National Park is an extraordinary desert and mountain environment, covering 3.3 million acres of eastern California. Badwater, in the south part of the Valley, is the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level.
The first stop on day one of Bubeck’s tour was the now defunct Harmony Borax Works, just north of what was home-base for the run–the Furnace Creek Ranch. This modernized facility started life as the Greenland Ranch. Originally, the ranch had date palm groves, and supplied hay for mules working at the Harmony Borax Works.

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A view of Death Valley from the Harmony
Borax Works, and Ubehebe Crater with
Leonard Miller’s 1926 Harley-Davidson JD.

A quick tour of the decaying remains of the Works, and it was back on the motorcycles to ride 75 miles north to Scotty’s Castle.
Death Valley is a rider’s paradise for several reasons. The first advantage I noted as I rode Breylinger’s 1967 Harley Davidson Sportster was the absence of large trucks–they aren’t allowed within the park. Second, it is so warm in early October that a T-shirt and jeans, together with a helmet–California is a helmet-law state–were adequate apparel for this D.V. rookie. Temperatures can reach 105 degrees in October, but during D.V. XV, participants were blessed with 90 to 95 degree days.
From the Harmony Works, the road north to Scotty’s Castle gently rises from the valley floor to an elevation of 3,000 feet. A guided tour of the Castle is a must, and as our hostess explained, Scotty’s Castle wasn’t really prospector Walter Scott’s home, but a desert retreat for Chicago insurance executive Albert Johnson and his wife Bessie.
Scott and Johnson had formed a partnership in 1904 and together the pair searched for gold in Death Valley. Although Johnson never found gold, he did find the desert climate agreeable. He and Scott would camp in Grapevine Canyon at the north end of Death Valley and he began to realize that this Canyon was an ideal site for a retreat.
Construction began on the Spanish-style villa in 1922, but it didn’t take shape until 1925. And while the Johnson’s called their villa Death Valley Ranch, newspapers and visitors came to call it Scotty’s Castle. Even though the estate was built with Johnson’s money, he allowed Scott the limelight, and defended Scott’s claims that the villa was his ‘shack.’
The Scotty’s Castle stop offered fuel and food, and the next rendezvous was six miles west at Ubehebe Crater, a 1/2 mile wide, 770 foot deep pock mark created more than 2,000 years ago by volcanic activity.
While at the Crater, I caught up with Leonard Miller of Sacramento, CA. Miller rides an original and unrestored 1926 Harley-Davidson JD, which is rich with patina.
“I bought it looking exactly the way it looks today,” Miller said. “I was at a swap meet, and this machine, with a sidecar, came in on the back of a trailer. I offered $5,500 for the rig 14 years ago, and apart from removing the sidecar I have not touched it, and I have never washed it.”
Miller’s JD made the trek back from Ubehebe Crater to Furnace Creek Ranch without incident. Roy Burke of Oregon also made it back, but encountered two small problems–his motorcycle was wet sumping, and a tire developed a slow leak.
I had caught sight of Burke and his impressive single-cylinder 1914 ‘Roy Burke Special’ Indian prior to leaving in the morning. Burke’s special is based on a 1914 single-cylinder Indian engine, but just about everything else is hand-made, including his own overhead valve conversion. Moving the valves over the piston dramatically increases the horsepower from a meager 3 1/2 or 4 to an astonishing 15 or 20.

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Roy Burke and his 1914 Roy Burke Special

“These old single-cylinder Indians used to go 30 or 40 mph–now this one goes 75 or 80,” Burke remarked early in the morning. He created his own frame, and appropriated a set of Japanese forks to suspend the front.
“We’ve been playing with these singles for about 20 years, and we’ve broken everything that can be broken–rods, crankcases, crankpins–but this engine has all Indian Chief parts inside it now.”
Sadly, Burke’s Indian was retired to the trailer, and wasn’t running for day two of Death Valley.
Bubeck rallied the riders on day two and led his guests to Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater and Artist’s Drive. My ride had been Breylinger’s ride the first day, a 1947 Royal Enfield J2.
Light and shadow create a variety of hues on the mountains and the flats that make up Death Valley. No where is this more apparent than on Artist’s Drive, a short paved circuit off the main road that loops through wind and water worn rock. While riding along the one-way road, the landscape changes from shades of purple to brilliant white.
A brief lunch stop back at Furnace Creek Ranch, and the vintage iron was again prodded to life for the last leg of Bubeck’s Death Valley tour. Zabriskie Point, 20 Mule Team Canyon, and then the final stop–Dante’s View.
I had been told that the road to Dante’s View was unlike any other. Much like the highway north to Scotty’s Castle, the pavement to Dante’s View slowly rises from the south end of Death Valley. And the road has everything, twists, straights, hairpins, and finally a 14 per cent grade for the last 1/4 mile.
Riders who reached the top first parked their machines, and watched the other motorcyclists make their way up the grade, through the hairpin, and grind up the final stretch in low gear.
At the top, I met Pat Owens of Temple City, California. Owens was riding a 1970 Triumph T120RT Bonneville.

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Pat Owens with his 1970 Triumph T120RT Bonneville

Owens and his wife Donna have more than 450,000 documented miles aboard the blue and silver Triumph, having ridden it twice to Alaska, and as far as Guatemala and Quebec.
“I’ve had this bike since 1970, and I am the one and only owner,” Owens said. “This bike has its original crankcase and crankshaft, and all of the gears except one in the transmission are original. I use half STP oil and half 140 weight gear oil, and I call the bike the ‘STP special’.”
The hill down from Dante’s View affords an opportunity to mount a coasting race. Halfway down the hill, motorcycle engines are cut, transmissions are placed in neutral, and they’re off–rolling down the grade to see who will glide the farthest. Dee Cameron of California picked up the long-distance coasting award aboard his Velocette.
At the banquet that evening, Bubeck presented an award to everyone who rode, each one specific to the recipient in some way. And the next three days were spent driving the return 1,500 miles to home–plenty of time to mull over the sights and sounds of Death Valley Run XV.

Calgary Motorcycle Show–Trillion Industries One-Off Custom Motorcycle by Greg Williams

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It’s been a few years since I last touched base with Derek Pauletto. I first met Pauletto when he was working at Aero-Tech, a Calgary based welding and fabrication firm. Pauletto is a specialized welder, and helped rescue a few pieces of broken aluminum motorcycle parts, including the exhaust manifold on the Whizzer.

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Pauletto has an interest in motorcycles and a creative passion for all things metal, and I’d always asked when he was going to strike out and start his own welding and fabrication shop. That’s just what he’s done. Trillion Industries is open for business here in Calgary, and Pauletto has now had a hand in creating some very interesting projects. In fact, he welded the titanium tubes of the Better Made Wheelchair in which I’m currently riding. However, the machine pictured above is the first motorcycle he’s constructed from start to finish. It’s all hand-built, with a unique fork and headstock design. The frame is one piece, and the 124″ S&S engine is a stressed member. More details to follow.

Check Pauletto’s website…

Calgary Herald, Italy is Coming to the Calgary Motorcycle Show by Greg Williams

Moto Guzzi and Vespa are two of the most famous names in Italian motorcycles and scooters.
Importer Canadian Scooter Corp. is bringing some interesting 2007 models to Canada, including the Moto Guzzi California Vintage and the Vespa GT60.
Moto Guzzi has been around since 1921 when Carlo Guzzi and Giorgio Parodi built their first motorcycle on the eastern shore of Lake Como in Italy. The manufacturer developed numerous four-stroke single cylinder machines and became famous for some of their racing exploits. But the company is perhaps best known for their 90-degree v-twin engines developed primarily for police and military motorcycle use in the early 1960s. The v-twin engine went on in various configurations to power many different civilian motorcycle models.
Read the rest of the column, On the Road…

Calgary Herald, Calgary Motorcycle Show by Greg Williams

Alberta?s love affair with toys continues unabated.
While other provinces have seen a decrease in the sales of motorcycles and ATVs the numbers in Alberta tell a different story.
?Most provinces have had a decrease in sales,? says Laurie Paetz. ?But in Alberta motorcycle sales have risen 25 per cent and ATVs by 23 per cent.?
Paetz is show manager of the 2007 Calgary Motorcycle Show that runs Jan. 5 to 7 at the Roundup Centre at Stampede Park (www.motorcycleshows.ca).
?The economy is strong, and when people have disposable income it seems to go to toys first. And Albertans seem to be seeking out new adventures?the increase of scooter sales is a reflection of that.?
Read the rest of the column, On the Road…

1952 Whizzer on Sunshine Bicycle

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Apart from restoring the 1966 Honda Superhawk (see previous posts), I usually like to keep my motorcycles and bicycles in original, as-found condition. Patina is hard to acquire, and this stuff is only original once. Such is the case with this Whizzer 300-series motor mounted on a Canadian-built Sunshine bicycle. The bicycle and engine was found in several pieces at the bottom of a grain bin just outside of Edmonton, Alberta. I cleaned up all of the pieces, repaired the cycle parts that required fixing, and lubed all of the bearings upon reassembly. The Whizzer motor was complete, had compression and didn’t seem too loose. I had the coil rebuilt, and the carburetor needed a bit of attention. But after that, and with the motor in the frame and the belts adjusted, it fired right up. It runs like a top.

Calgary Herald, Stars and Cars by Greg Williams

A story about Overhaulin’s Adrienne Janic written for the Calgary Herald’s Driving section, originally published in Feb./06
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Californian Adrienne Janic is the 27 year-old co-host of the popular Overhaulin? TV show. Janic (also known as A.J.) gets to work with one of the brightest lights in the custom vehicle industry?Chip Foose.
OverHaulin? is the show where the owner of a car is tricked into believing his/her vehicle has been stolen, or somehow misplaced. The vehicle is in fact being tricked out over a seven-day period by hot rod genius Foose and a team of enthusiastic car builders.
We caught up with Janic on one of her rare days off?we chatted while she was stuck in Los Angeles traffic running her errands before starting to film another seven day Overhaulin? shoot.

What was your first car?
My first car was a 1990 Toyota Corolla. It was a demo model, one that had been used for other people to test drive. People had probably beat it up before I got it. You know how people treat a car when they are test-driving it; they slam on the brakes really hard and push it hard to see how it handles. The Corolla was all we could afford, but it did its job?I drove it for over 100,000 miles.

Do you drive/own a car now?
Right now drive I?m driving a Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 coupe–I just love two-door cars. Chip got a hold of it and gave it a mini-overhaul. It has Foose wheels, he lowered it a bit and tinted the windows.
I think he did it to welcome me to the show, and to make me feel like I?m part of the team.

Do you have a favourite car, and if you could have any car you wanted what would it be?
Having been on the show for the past six months I?ve really grown to appreciate muscle cars and hot rods. I?m eyeing the 1969 Camaro, and I also like Mopars, such as the 1969 Dodge Charger. I like the muscle cars from 1969?that was such a great year for vehicle design.
The one car I?d really like to have is a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda–it?s just mean looking and screams get out of my way.

Prior to co-hosting Overhaulin? you say you knew nothing about cars?but after six months what have you learned?
That would have to be metal work. We do so much rust repair and panel replacement on the cars we overhaul. The guys don?t have to baby-sit me anymore, I can grind panels and I?ve been taught how to weld. I?m basically given the work the crew doesn?t really want to do. Sure it?s grunt work, but if I work from the bottom of the ladder up I?m okay with that. They?re very patient with me and are teaching me all they can.
Before the show, the most I knew how to do was check my tire air pressure. I literally came into the show cold?I was pushed into the deep end to see if I would sink or swim.

What?s the best prank you?ve ever played on the show?
That was when I played the auto shop owner?s wife, and I was wearing the miniskirt and stilettos and had an exceptionally loud mouth.
We were overhauling a Chevy Tahoe?that was the show where the mark had donated his kidney to his best friend. He thought the work on his truck was being done for free, and I told him we needed to charge him 1500 bucks. I called him a charity case and it just went downhill from there. The mark was calling me every nasty name in the book, and he was yelling so much spit was flying everywhere.
That prank (this was one of Janic?s first appearances on Overhaulin?) got me back onto the show. Chris (Jacobs, Overhaulin? co-host) called me later and told me I had hit that one out of the ballpark, he loved it and the director loved it.

What?s your favourite Overhaulin? episode?
One that stands out is the 1956 Chevy Nomad we did with Jay Leno. That car came out absolutely stunning. When the Nomad came in I thought we had our work cut out for us–it really needed a lot of metal work.
But when it was done the Nomad looked like we?d opened up a package to reveal a Hot Wheels car, it was so beautiful.
The mark, David, is one of Jay Leno?s mechanics, and he couldn?t have been more grateful, he cried and he was so gracious about how much work went into his car.
That?s all we want. It can be disappointing when someone has been overhauled and all they can say is that?s cool, but everybody does react differently.
And, of course, it was such an honour to work with Leno.

Do you have a favourite road trip?
I get a little impatient in a car; I?m one of those people who has to stop every hour. I?d say going to Vegas from L.A. would be my favourite road trip–it?s four to five hours if you drive the speed limit, and only three if you push it.

Do you have other projects or what?s next?
I did a couple of feature films before I landed the Overhaulin? co-host role. I?m in National Lampoon?s Cattle Call, and I?ve got the role of the weirdo or the freak.
I will also appear in All-In, which is a poker movie and I have the role of an entertainment reporter.
Right now, I really only have time for Overhaulin?. We shoot one a week, and it?s a grueling and time-consuming schedule. I only get a day or two off between shoots, and all I do now is sleep or run errands on those days off.

Be sure to read my weekly Driving column, On the Road

1946 Velocette MAC 350 by Greg Williams

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My 1946 Velocette MAC, a 350 c.c. single cylinder motorcycle made in England. This was a pile of parts in boxes when I bought it, and it took two years to collect the missing parts and finish the restoration.

Read the story…originally published in Walneck’s magazine in 2004.

VELOCETTE MAC RESTORATION

When it comes to finding a motorcycle to restore the possibilities are endless.
There’s the basket case project, with boxes of bits and pieces that might belong to what the seller has told you he is selling.
There’s the complete but crusty motorcycle which requires a full rebuild.
And there’s the ‘as last used’ machine, proudly wearing a little bit of patina, which can be cleaned up and made to go again.
I like to find motorcycles that fall into the last category–they’re only original once. Often tucked away and forgotten about, usually all these bikes need is a thorough cleaning, inspection and service to be made a runner once more.
But it was a different story when I located the 350 c.c. 1946 Velocette MAC. It was an abandoned restoration project, and a great deal of money had already been spent on parts and an engine rebuild. But once the engine had been mounted in the frame, the rebuild stopped. The project was actually halted for want of a front wheel, or even a hub, that would fit the Webb girder forks.
So, why did the proverbial basket case Velocette catch my attention?
It was a single-cylinder motorcycle, and I’d been looking for an old single. I also knew it would be an interesting machine when it was restored, as a Velocette is a bit more esoteric than the average British motorcycle. Sure, I thought, there would probably be difficulties finding some parts, but since this was ‘my’ restoration project I wasn’t too worried about the machine being 100 per cent authentic. I never agreed to buy the Velo with the intention of it being a concours restoration. I wanted to build it to ride.
After money changed hands in October, 2002 the Velo project rode home in the back seat of my wife’s Volvo. The frame and engine sat on the seat, while boxes of components filled the rest of the space.
Once ensconced in the home workshop, I set the frame and engine on a simple stand and started to inventory the parts that came in the boxes. Luckily, a parts book was included in the transaction, and I made photocopies of this important document which was to become my constant reader for the next year.

After emptying the boxes and spreading the Velo parts on the counter, I realized the basket was very full. I had several of the hard to find items such as the Miller 6 1/2 inch headlight and lens, the D-shaped tool box, the Smiths speedometer, and a brand new exhaust pipe and fishtail muffler.
That said, there were some missing pieces. The AWOL items included the front wheel/hub, Miller generator and front fender and stays. Several of the items I did have would require work, such as the oil tank, fuel tank, rear wheel/hub and the rear fender.
Ah well, nothing to do but get after it. Apart from photocopying the parts book and locating a Velocette owner’s manual, the next step I made was to join the Velocette Owner’s Club of North America (VOCNA). With my ‘wish list’ I contacted several Velo owners, and quickly learned the front wheel/hub was going to be very difficult to find.
Ed Gillkison operates Velocette Service–Spares, Repairs and Accessories for Proper Motor-Cycles in Lakebay, WA (http://velogb.tripod.com). He advised that an original front hub, if located, would be very expensive. So he suggested I contact Bob Strode, another Washington Velocette enthusiast who has been known to turn a front hub from a mid-1970s Honda XL350 into a Velo-style hub.
I visited TJ’s Cycle in Calgary–a local motorcycle wrecking yard–and bought a 1976 XL350 front wheel, took it apart and sent the hub to Strode. He turned the hub around in less than a month, modifying the brake plate, shaving off the ribs and machining up an axle.
Now for front and rear rims. I contacted Central Wheel Components (CWC) in England, and samples of the spokes and specified front and rear hub dimensions were sent overseas. Although the Honda wheel was originally a 21 inch item, I required a 19 inch rim–which CWC supplied–but they sent me back spokes as though I were lacing a 21 inch rim. Oops, spokes sent back to CWC where they were shortened and returned.
Now that I had wheels I felt we were getting somewhere, and I continued to bolt various parts to the frame in a ‘dry assembly’ procedure to ensure everything fit. Although the engine was rebuilt as purchased, I dismantled the gearbox and installed new bearings and shifter selector rods.

A mounting tab for the oil tank was fabricated, as at some point the original had been lopped off. Going by photographs alone, I cut and drilled the tab in preparation for welding. By gosh, there’s a skill I wish I had–and I rely on a very talented local welder/machinist who works out of his own shop and charges minimally for the odd jobs I bring him.
Parts continued to be refurbished and bolted on, but the time had come to do something about mudguards. The two-piece rear fender was a mess, with huge rust holes in the top of the front half and a mismatched rear half. Again, my local welder/machinist had a plan. He cut the front half from the original, welded it to a reproduction ribbed item, and presto a rear mudguard.
Yes, it was more involved than that, but the end result was very satisfying. A generic aftermarket front fender blade was crimped to clear the girder forks, and stays were fabricated for that item.
With the bike fully assembled in a mock-up state I took several photographs so I would have visual reminders of how everything went back together. As I proceeded to take it all apart again, I kept extensive disassembly notes in a coilbound book.
Every metal component was stripped of its finish, whether rust or paint, in my glass bead cabinet. The frame and front fork blades were sandblasted. It took about a month to prepare and clean everything, including the fasteners.
All frame, fork and associated items were powder coated Vulcan black, a semi-gloss hue that doesn’t give an ‘over-restored’ appearance. Luckily, very few items on the Velo required chroming, but the headlight rim, kickstart lever and gear change lever were all cleaned up and dipped. I did take the time to file nicks out of the nuts and bolts and then cleaned them up in the glass bead cabinet prior to having them cadmium plated at an industrial plating facility.
Front and rear fenders, fuel tank, oil tank, headlight bucket and licence plate bracket were painted and decaled by Craig Cooksley of Bentley’s Moto Sicle Pain’ Tin, a central Alberta vintage enthusiast who paints nothing but motorcycles.

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1946 Velocette MAC 350, Greg Williams owner, photo by Mike Stahl

Despite my care and attention, there were a few hitches putting everything back together. On the Velocette MAC the bolt which holds the generator strap to the motor can only be accessed with the motor out of the frame. I didn’t realize the generator strap was incorrect until it was too late. Out came the motor while a proper strap came all the way from Australia.

The Miller generator came from a California VOCNA member, and was professionally rebuilt by Douglas Wood of Pennsylvania (dougwood@netzero.net). He did a tremendous job and guarantees his work for two years. A Podtronics sold-state regulator handles the current the Miller produces, and I made the wiring harness using wire and components sourced from British Wiring Inc. (www.britishwiring.com).
By May of this year (2004) my Velocette had come together. And it does run. Of course, teething problems were real and required much focused attention until they were finally under control. I’ve only been able to log 96 miles to date, but am pleased with the performance and handling of this British motorcycle.
For the purists who cringe at the thought of a Honda front hub and brake, I can only say it makes the Velo stop that much better. And at least those bits and pieces are out of the boxes and reassembled to get one more 1946 Velocette MAC back on the road.
SIDEBAR
I’m no restoration expert, but here are a few tips that helped me give this 1946 Velocette MAC a new lease on life.
–Study parts books and owner’s manuals, and make a detailed list of missing items.
–Determine if parts on hand will be salvageable, or if replacements are necessary.
–Make contacts through a marque-specific owner’s club, browse swap meets, and peruse the ads in Walneck’s.
–If a certain skill is required, locate someone who is a professional. (I’m always willing to learn, and while several items such as the horn bracket, rear brake rod, rear brake steady, head light brackets and some small spacers turned up on a bench metal lathe were my handiwork, the fabrication of a rear mudguard for the Velo was beyond my limitations.)
–Perform a dry assembly, but still expect the unexpected. The dynamo mounting strap is a prime example (see story).
–Photograph everything before leaving items for powder coating, chroming or painting. A visual record is an easy way to ensure all pieces are returned.
–Take your time during reassembly, have fun, and above all, enjoy the fruits of your labors.

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1946 Velocette MAC 350, Greg Williams owner, photo by Mike Stahl

Inside Motorcycles, Western Perspectives by Greg Williams

This is a column I wrote in Oct. 2005, for the Christmas issue of Inside Motorcycles.

An acquaintance recently asked me if I ever wished I could walk, particularly with Christmas and all of its associated activities coming up. The simple answer is no — I’m comfortable with my new normal.
Regular readers of this magazine are probably aware that I crashed my 1978 Suzuki GT750 more than a year ago. The date, to be exact, was October 2, 2004. I spent last Christmas in the hospital, and am just looking forward to this holiday season at home.
But let me tell you about the accident.
I’d been riding two-wheelers since I was 11 years old–started out on a Briggs and Stratton-powered mini-bike, and eventually moved up to larger off-road machines, and then street bikes. I got my motorcycle license after graduating from the Canada Safety Council course when I was 20 years old, and started riding a 1972 Triumph Tiger to work and college. In all those years, nothing untoward had ever happened while riding a motorcycle.
But after the crash so many motorcycling friends have asked me what happened. It was one of those clear, crisp fall days — the perfect day for what I like to call ‘the last ride of the season’. Riding with two other friends, we headed west on the 1A Highway from Calgary towards Canmore. A gas stop in Cochrane proved to be the last time that I would ever walk.
About 40 kilometres after the fuel stop the bikes entered a long, sweeping corner that headed downhill. I wasn’t racing. I wasn’t stunting. I was simply traveling about 80 km/h when I took my eyes off the road for the briefest of moments, and the next thing I knew the front wheel was off the pavement. With the corner tightening up there wasn’t time to react.
I’m sure there are more experienced riders who could analyze the situation and suggest ways that the outcome might have been different. But I think it was just one of those things.
I went down into the ditch hoping that I could ride it out. No luck there. According to the RCMP officer who attended the scene the front wheel hit what looked to be an old embedded fence post, twisting the handlebars and flipping me up and over. I landed flat on by back, with a rock no larger than the size of my fist just between and below my shoulder blades.
Lying there, I knew it was serious. I wanted to get up and check the bike, see how much damage I’d done. But I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t feel my feet, legs, or anything else for that matter. My friends witnessed all of this, and actually had to ride past and return to the scene. It was another motorcyclist, following further behind, who stopped and called 911. He sat beside me, making sure I wouldn’t move.
People kept talking to me — I don’t remember what was said — but I was conscious the entire time. The highway was closed while the STARS air ambulance landed. I was cut out of my riding gear (which didn’t include a spine protector — naturally) and was strapped to a stabilizing board. If I’d really wanted a ride in a helicopter there were other and better ways that I could have arranged for that.
Airlifted to the Foothills Hospital, and MRIs and X-rays completed, the doctor gave my wife Linda the news. His prognosis? I’d never walk again. I’d broken my back at the T-6 level, severely damaging the spinal cord.
Linda took the news and immediately decided there was nothing to do but ‘go forward’, a phrase which has recently been adopted as the motto for the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
I can only imagine what was going through everybody else’s minds. I was just focused on getting through the next minute, the next hour — and all I wanted was a drink of water. Surgery was scheduled for Sunday morning. I don’t remember the surgery, just waking up afterward and not being able to move my right arm. That wasn’t supposed to happen! My arm had been bent in such a position during the 12-hour surgery that nerves were pinched, and my arm was slow in returning to strength.
It was after the steel rods and clips had been installed in my back, and I was lying in my intensive care bed that I understood what I now was. The doctors and nurses kept coming in, asking me to wiggle my toes. Try as I might, they wouldn’t move.
‘This must mean I’m a paraplegic,’ I thought. ‘I can move my arms, and that’s it.’
Of course, all of the professionals in the world can you tell you what’s happened, but actually living the new life isn’t quite as easy. I stayed in intensive care for about 10 days.
From there the nurses rolled me over to the opposite side of the unit, a less intensive care side. While there, I was weaned back onto some real food, and I couldn’t get enough water. A brace was fitted (without which I was not allowed to sit up at more than 45 degrees), and the nursing team was pretty quick in using an electric lift to hoist me up into a clunker of a used wheelchair.
Physiotherapy wasn’t far behind. In fact, the physiotherapist had me down in the gym two weeks after the accident. She rolled me into the gym and sat me in front of a full-length mirror. I think she should have prepared me for what I saw — I hadn’t seen my reflection for days, and there I was propped up in a wheelchair — looking like hell.
Not long after I was moved over to a rehabilitation unit. From mid-October, right through November, December (Christmastime) and January, a kind and dedicated group of people taught me how to live without the use of my lower body.
Linda, by the first week in October, had bought an accessible low-level bungalow, and moved in on December 17. I don’t even really remember Christmas 2004 — Christmas was cancelled.
So, back to whether I wish I could walk at this time of year — Christmas.
I find myself wishing for even lesser things, like some abdominal muscles so I could sit up straighter in my wheelchair.
Nope, this Christmas, I’m just happy to be spending the holiday with Linda in our new house.
Merry Christmas to all — and just remember to count the blessings you do have — and always go forward.

Check out the current issue of Inside Motorcycles

Bike nights on the menu at city drive-ins by Greg Williams

Willy’s Hamburgers on Macleod Trail may be long gone, but the car and motorcycle cruise nights this old-style drive-in were known for haven’t disappeared.

“Willy’s has spawned several different events around the city, and even the surrounding area,” says hot rodder Gary Savage.

Willy’s was a central meeting spot for car and motorcycle enthusiasts. Wednesday was rod night and Thursday was bike night.

But the southwest Willy’s Hamburgers location closed in early 2005, and the drive-in is now nothing more than an empty building.

Savage has been hot rodding his entire life and is president of the Foothills Street Rod Association. Several other car events have taken the place of rod night at Willy’s, he says.

“A large percentage of the guys who used to go to Willy’s have migrated down to the A&W (at Macleod Trail and Glenmore Trail),” Savage says.

Rods and muscle cars are also welcome on Wednesday night at Angel’s Drive-In at 85th Street and 46th Avenue N.W. near Bowness Park.

Cars show up at the Southwood Corner shopping mall at Elbow Drive and Southland Drive every Thursday night. And Friday night, cars cruise out to the A&W at the Co-op Centre in Airdrie.

“These events are all offshoots from the Wednesday rod night at Willy’s,” Savage says.

The demise of the Macleod Trail Willy’s pushed Bobby Baum, vice-president of the Rocky Mountain section of the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group, to organize a new bike-related event.

“I was talking with some long-time motorcycle friends, and we decided the need existed to get a friendly bike night together,” Baum says. “We liked going to Willy’s. It was a great place to have a milkshake and hang out with other motorcyclists.”

Following the example of the rodders, the bikers moved down to the A&W at Macleod and Glenmore.

“That location is hidden from view, and while there’s plenty of drive-by traffic, no one could really see the event was happening,” Baum says. “It just seemed to wither on the vine, and it wasn’t half the event that Willy’s was.”

Just three weeks ago, Baum went searching for a new site. He wanted something central with easy access to major roads and great drive-by visibility. He came up with the A&W at 16th Avenue and 4th Street N.W.

Management at the A&W is enthusiastic about hosting the Thursday bike night. And Revoluzione Cycle Imports has become a sponsor, supplying items for door prizes.

“I’d really like to see all makes and all types of bikes,” Baum says. “I’d welcome anyone who has an interest in motorcycles or scooters every Thursday between 6:30 and 9 p.m.”

Just like the rod nights, there are other bike nights in and around the city.

The Airdrie A&W hosts a motorcycle event every Wednesday, and Hooters on Macleod Trail hosts one every Thursday.

“I hope ours turns out,” Baum says. “It would be great to see a bike night that reached Willy’s standards.”

Be sure to read my weekly Driving column, On the Road