Joe Cooper and Cooper Smithing Co. — HAND MADE IN AMERICA

Back in early  2011 I was assigned to write a story about a Sportster for American Iron Magazine. I got a name and a phone number.

The builder’s name was Joe Cooper of Cooper Smithing Co., and we had a great conversation about bike-building and metal-shaping. Joe’s attitude was refreshing, and he was clearly a talented craftsman. Along with many other pieces he created for the Sportster, he hand formed the rear fender and the gas tank —  it’s clear he was honing his skills.

Today, Joe is turning out some very high-quality hand-crafted Made in America fenders, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on many new custom builds.

Thought I’d take this opportunity to post up the AIM story. Take a look at Joe’s newly-launched website, and watch the video. An artisan at work.


Joe Cooper’s custom 1999 Sportster belongs to Scott Weinmann, photo courtesy Joe Cooper.

The most important tools at Joe Cooper’s disposal are his hands.

With them, he has built other tools, ones necessary to fabricate exquisitely detailed motorcycles. But even those other tools are simple. Take the hollowed out stump he uses as a sheet metal form.

In this humble piece of wood, a remnant of a tree felled on his Pacific Northwest property, Joe hammered out both the fuel tank and the rear fender seen on this featured 1999 Harley-Davidson XL.

“I had a half-hollowed out stump, a piece of sheet metal, and a hammer to smack it with,” Joe says of his process. All of the forming occurred in that stump, and Joe simply smoothed up the metal pieces later with a planishing hammer and an English wheel – tools he again built for himself.

Joe was born and raised in one of the smallest towns in Oregon, with just one paved road leading out of it. When he was young the thought of hitting that one road out of Crane, Oregon aboard a motorcycle appealed to his rebellious nature. Plus, motorcycles are machines that, as he puts it, only take a twist of the throttle to make the world behind you disappear.

And that’s what he did. His motorcycle took him to Seattle, where he learned to TIG weld while making airplane components. Still in Seattle Joe found himself working in a custom motorcycle shop, where he lent his hand to over a dozen builds. More interested in t-shirts than motorcycles, though, the business was in jeopardy.

It was then that he took control of his future, and set out on his own to open Cooper Smithing Co., a home based shop in Buckley, Washington dedicated to nothing but metal fabrication. While working on several smaller projects Joe began his first full bike build under Cooper Smithing Co. when a blacksmith friend donated a wrecked 1999 Harley-Davidson Sportster. “He said, ‘Here, why don’t you try to make something out of this bike’,” Joe recalls.

Starting with the damaged and bent frame, Joe cut away all of the Harley-Davidson tubes, leaving just the engine in the factory cradle. Next, Joe found a use for the 16” Harley rims he had been given in part trade for some of his metal work. These rims were laced up to the original Sportster hubs, and Coker reproduction Firestone tires fitted.

Joe placed the wheels and the engine on his frame-building table, a stout piece of equipment he bought as surplus from a Boeing airplane factory. With its 4’ by 8’ almost perfectly flat steel top and holes drilled every 6”, the table turned out to be the ideal platform for his frame jig.

Using his lathe Joe machined up a neck, and proceeded to bend and weld tubes around the engine and wheels. “I connected the dots,” he says. The rigid rear features 3/8” axle dropouts that Joe machined and fit into notches in the chainstays, the tubes of which are also internally gusseted. “They’re not just a plate welded to the tubes,” Joe says, and adds that it was important to him to make the chassis as strong as he possibly could.

Joe next turned his attention to the fork, an item he created using beefy, gusseted tubes and forgings built by his blacksmith friend who had donated the Harley. Atop the springer fork is a handlebar Joe created, and a Korean War-era signal lamp was repurposed to function as a headlight. Hand forged by Joe, the single headlight mount was bent to match the line of the handlebar, an item that is adorned with Sportster hand controls.

In fact, several other pieces of the donor Sportster were implemented. While he could have built one-off parts such as foot controls, Joe says the bike didn’t seem to want them. The slightly worn rubber footpeg rubbers suited the organic feel of the custom. Joe also used the Sportster’s brakes, mounting the front caliper to a custom made bracket.

Joe fashioned a metal seat pan, over which he slipped and stitched an old leather cover from another saddle he had in the shop. While Joe crafted the fuel tank and rear fender using the tree stump, the oil tank is an old helicopter engine cylinder. With its cast fins, the cylinder based oil tank was mounted in front of the engine where it would hit the majority of cooling air.

When it came time to rebuild the engine Joe tore down the powerplant and checked the Harley-Davidson manual to insure all of the tolerances were within spec. There weren’t many miles on the mill, as all that was required was a light hone to the cylinders. But all bearings, seals, gaskets and rings were replaced before the unit came back together, topped off with heads that only needed the valves lapped and the carbon deposits removed.

The stock carb was left in place and the air filter cover is the sump cover from a Yamaha XS850. A two-into-one header ends with another remnant of a Boeing surplus auction, this a hollowed out cable spool for an airplane wing flap.

Finishes are simple, too. The frame and the back legs of the fork are painted black, while many other objects, including the front fork legs, handlebar, headlight mount, oil tank and sprocket cover are copper plated. Wheel rims were the only parts treated to powder coating. The gas tank, rear fender, headlight and exhaust are nickel plated, and that led the bike to be nicknamed The Jefferson, as that’s the president on our American nickel.

Joe says he didn’t build The Jefferson as a show bike, but after completing the machine he did truck it out to the 2010 AMD World Championship in Sturgis. Here, he entered the motorcycle in the modified stock class, and returned home with a second place trophy. Since then, The Jefferson has been sold to Scott Weinmann of Ateliers Velocette, a New York based high-end motorcycle rental company, where machines can either be used for riding, or in a movie or fashion shoot.

If anyone rents The Jefferson to ride, Joe says: “They’ll have a hard time riding around on it without a smile on their face – it’s got an old-timey feel to it, and it sounds great.”

Here are the build details:

Owner:         Scott Weinmann

Builder: Joe Cooper, Cooper Smithing Co., Buckley, WA

Year/model: 1999 Harley-Davidson XL

Time to build: 5 weeks

Chromer: American Plating, Centralia, WA

Polisher: American Plating

Powder coater: Kens Powder Coating – Spanaway, WA

Painter: None

Color:         black and nickel


Engine, year/model: 1999 XL

Builder: Harley-Davidson

Displacement:         74”

Horsepower:         stock

Cases:         stock

Flywheels (make & stroke):         stock

Balancing:         stock

Connecting rods:         stock

Cylinders (make & bore):          stock

Pistons (make & comp. ratio):         stock

Heads:         stock

Cam (make & lift):         stock

Valves:         stock

Rockers:         stock

Lifters:         stock

Pushrods:         stock

Carb:                  stock

Air cleaner: Cooper Smithing Co.

Exhaust: Cooper Smithing Co.

Ignition:         stock

Coils:         stock

Wires:         stock

Charging system:         stock

Regulator:         stock

Oil pump:         stock

Cam cover:         stock

Primary cover:         stock

Transmission, year/model:         1999 XL

Case: stock

Gears:         stock

Mods:         stock

Clutch:         stock

Primary drive (belt/chain):         stock

Final drive (sprocket/pulley manufacturer):         stock


Frame (year, model):          2010 Cooper Smithing Co.

Rake: 34°

Stretch: stock

Front forks: Cooper Smithing Co.


Swingarm: rigid

Front wheel (size and make): XL hub w/16-3” rim

Rear wheel (size and make):         XL hub w/16-3” rim

Front brake (make/# piston caliper):         stock

Rear brake (make/# piston caliper):         stock

Front tire (size and make):         Coker/Firestone 500-16”

Rear tire (size and make):         Coker/Firestone 500-16”

Front fender:         N/A

Rear fender: Cooper Smithing Co.

Fender struts:         N/A


Headlight:         Korean War era signal light

Taillight: Cooper Smithing Co.

Fuel tank: Cooper Smithing Co.

Oil tank: Cooper Smithing Co.

Handlebars: Cooper Smithing Co.

Risers:         Cooper Smithing Co.

Seat: Cooper Smithing Co.

Pegs:                  stock

Chain guard: Cooper Smithing Co.

Speedo:         N/A

Dash:         N/A

License bracket: Cooper Smithing Co.

Mirrors:         N/A

Hand controls:         stock

Foot controls:         stock

Levers:         stock



Moto Ceccato and Ted Galelli

Gotta’ love writing about motorcycles. More interesting than the machines, though, are the stories that emerge about the people who ride them. Five years ago I was researching an article for Motorcycle Classics magazine about photographer Guy Webster’s 1955 Moto Ceccato 75cc Grand Prix. Webster is passionate about his Italian motorcycles, and the little DOHC Ceccato is a rare machine. In talking to Webster I learned about Ted Galelli, an ex-racer of Ceccato motorcycles. I’ll get to Galelli again in a moment, but here’s some background on Ceccato and the DOHC 75cc engine.


The DOHC 75cc Ceccato engine in Guy Webster’s machine —  a very rare motor! Image courtesy Motorcycle Classics magazine.

The machine Webster owns is believed to be the only survivor of five produced in Pietro Ceccato’s factory on the outskirts of Vicenza, Italy, a small city about 38 miles west of Venice. Pietro Ceccato was the son of an aristocratic family and his parents wanted him to become a pharmacist. He did, but was never truly happy in this occupation. Always fascinated by things mechanical Ceccato opened a manufacturing facility that focused on building industrial equipment including burners for bakery ovens, air compressors and gas station hardware.

Ceccato took a look at the transportation industry of post Second World War Italy and decided to build and market a clip on motor for bicycles. Lightweight motorcycles were not far behind, and this is where the story gets interesting. There’s a connection between Ceccato and Fabio Taglioni, one of Italy’s best-known motorcycle designers who worked for many years with Ducati. Before Taglioni pioneered his desmodromic valve train in Ducati singles, and before engineering the L-twin engine design of the Ducati 750 GT he drew up a tiny jewel of a double overhead cam engine. In 1949 he sketched a twin cam 75cc engine as a design exercise while studying to get his doctorate at the University of Bologna. He sold the resulting engine plans to Ceccato before working for two years with Italian maker Mondial, and then finally joining Ducati in 1954.

In Ceccato’s hands the 75cc twin cam engine was improved upon with the addition of gear drive for the cams as opposed to chain drive as originally envisioned by Taglioni. It is thought that only five of the twin cam 75cc engines were constructed, and these limited production motors went into Ceccato factory racing machines circa 1954 and 1955. And it is one of these five motorcycles Guy Webster now owns.

Ceccato’s twin cam powerplant is all alloy, and is built in unit construction with a gear drive primary transferring power pulses to the four-speed gearbox. Valve springs are exposed. Installed in a double-downtube frame with swingarm rear suspension and hydraulic forks up front the overall package weighed approximately 200 lbs. Depending on the type of racing the machine was going to see either an 18mm, 20mm or 22mm Dell’Orto remote float carburetor was bolted to the integral intake manifold.

Changes were made to the engine when the twin cam arrangement became a single cam. In one printed interview Taglioni has said the twin cam was too heavy to effectively compete in the Giro d’Italia. Ceccato fairly dominated the races they entered with machines powered by both the twin and single cam 75cc engines. A long list of race victories, including the first nine of 10 positions at the Giro d’Italia in 1956 helped put Ceccato’s name in the record books. Unfortunately, Pietro Ceccato died an early death and while the company continued to construct motorcycles further development of a 125cc world championship machine ended.

Ceccato continued to produce both street motorcycles and off road machines until the early 1960s, and the company still exists today as a manufacturer of high-tech car wash equipment and compressors.


A young Ted Galelli aboard one of his first motorcycles, a workaday Jawa. There was nothing plain about his next machine, however…

Now, back to Ted Galelli. Born in Italy, Galelli moved to South America with his family when he was 14. He raced  Ceccato motorcycles, and in 1959 finished first in the Argentinian 75cc road racing championship aboard a single cam Ceccato. “I used to have a 1,000cc Vincent to ride on the streets,” Galelli says. “Getting on the Ceccato was like getting on a bicycle in comparison.”


…as it was a 1949 Vincent Rapide fitted with dull chrome fenders scuffed to look like aluminum. The leopard-print saddle cover was made to Galelli’s specifications by a local upholsterer. “It looked good to me,” he says, and we’d have to agree. Galelli was 21 when he bought the Vincent, and he doesn’t know how he managed to buy it. “I had an angel on my shoulder, I think.”

There was a connection between the Zanella motorcycle factory in Argentina and the Ceccato factory in Italy. Zanella produced some Italian designed machines, including Ceccato, under license. To the Zanella factory Ceccato sent race-prepared machines.

“The Ceccatos were used race motorcycles, but they came with lots of spare parts,” Galelli says. During part of 1958 and all of 1959 Galelli raced Ceccato motorcycles in either the 75cc or 100cc classes.


Ted Galelli is No. 151 aboard a 75cc Ceccato single cam. Note the helmet decoration — Galelli says it was just a decal he applied, and immediately after winning the race someone walked off with his headgear!


Great fins on the drum brakes of Galelli’s Ceccato race machine.

“Racing the 75cc was about as exciting as racing a 250cc might be today,” Galelli says. “The tires on the Ceccato 75cc were like a balloon-bicycle tire. The Ceccato had an 11,000 r.p.m. limit, and the handling was no problem at all. The Ceccato had a very long first gear, and you had to slip the clutch for a few seconds in order not to stall the motor. I never had a breakdown.”

Although he remembers his 75cc single cam Ceccato racer as being very reliable he did on one occasion hole a piston when simply warming up the motor.

Galelli’s interest in Ceccato never waned, and now living in California, he maintains a modest collection of rare Italian machines. He’ll be at the 2014 La Jolla Concours d’Elegance in two weeks to show his 1955 Gilera 150 Sport.


Galelli’s 1959 Ceccato 100 2-stroke, 3-speed…


…and Galelli’s 1956 Ceccato 125cc, 4-stroke, 4-speed, followed by…


…Galelli himself and the 1955 Gilera 150 Sport he plans to display at the 2014 La Jolla Concours d’Elegance.


Ariel Square Four in retrospect

This column first appeared in The Antique Motorcycle magazine, the newsletter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. What follows is a discussion of the Ariel Square Four motorcycle with information gleaned from a collection of period brochures. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Ariel got its start in 1869 when James Starley, an engineer with the Coventry Sewing Machine Company of Birmingham, England, thought two-wheeled transportation held some promise. In 1870 together with his partner William Hillman the pair built their first Ariel high-wheel bicycle, and selected the name of their company based on a flying spirit from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

Those two founders could not have imagined the Ariel name would, some 60 years later, become associated with a four-cylinder motorcycle that defied conventions of the day. In the earlier column I introduced the Ariel Square Four, however this time I’d like to investigate the model more fully, focusing narrowly on its 1931 to 1959 production run.

Ariel wasn’t the first to market with a four-cylinder motorcycle. Early North American makers of fours include Ace, Cleveland, Gerhart, Henderson, Indian, Militaire and Pierce. Each of these ran an inline-four cylinder powerplant, meaning the engine was placed longitudinally in the frame. There were also several other makers of fours, and European creators were FN (I-four) and Nimbus, also an inline four.

Aside from Ariel in Britain there was Brough-Superior (flat-four), Matchless (V-four), Vauxhall (I-four), Wilkinson (I-four) and Wooler (flat-four). Of all the British concerns, only Ariel’s Square Four met with any real success. The Brough-Superior four was a prototype machine that never entered production, and Matchless built its expensive V-four, the Silver Hawk, in limited numbers only between 1931 and 1935.

Indian quit four-cylinder production in 1942, and apart from Ariel’s Square Four no other maker built a four in full-scale production until Honda rewrote the books in 1969 with the CB750 multi.

Forty years earlier, in 1929 Ariel’s Charles Sangster employed Edward Turner, who was hired expressly for his ideas about four-cylinder engine construction. Previously, Turner managed a motorcycle shop in Peckham, England, and had built a single-cylinder motorcycle engine while working there. However, he’d drawn plans for an engine that held four pistons in a square layout, with fore and aft crankshafts geared together.

According to Roy Bacon in his book, Ariel: The Postwar Years, the square four layout “…offered the same good balance as the in-line (four-cylinder engine) plus very compact dimensions, while the four small even power pulses of the cylinders was far less destructive than the one thump of a single.”“As originally schemed by Turner,” Bacon wrote, “the Square 4 engine was undoubtedly light and compact, being made more so by the use of a three-speed gearbox built in unit with the engine. He coupled the two crankshafts together by cutting gear teeth on the central flywheel each had, and the rear one drove the gearbox. So small and light was the assembly that it could, and did, fit into the 250 frame (Ariel’s 250cc Colt that was fitted with a forward-canted cylinder and head, which fit between widely splayed front frame downtubes) giving a very light motorcycle.”

However, what finally entered production wasn’t Turner’s initial vision. Inadequate cylinder head finning resulted in cooling problems, and the unit-construction layout, Bacon notes, would have been too costly for full-scale production. Ariel instead built a 498cc four-cylinder engine with chain-driven overhead camshaft and separate gearbox. The four’s crankcase fit neatly between the splayed downtubes of the firm’s 500cc sloper rigid frame, which meant something of a weight penalty. Ancillary components, including fuel tank, girder fork, wheels and brakes were shared between the two models. Shown on the stand late in 1930 at the Olympia Motorcycle show in London was the brand new Square Four for the 1931 model year.

The Square Four met with some early success, including placing first in the London to Land’s End Trial, but to give better sidecar-hauling capability in 1932 capacity was increased to 601cc. Ariel sold both the 500 and 600 Square Fours until 1933, when only the 600 was available for purchase. The earliest Ariel brochure I have in my collection is an incomplete 1935 edition, which is missing the specification page for the Square Four.

On an introductory page, though, Ariel’s text states: “The Power Unit of the SQUARE FOUR. Tested and found well-nigh perfect by thousands of satisfied owners, the most successful multi-cylinder Motor Cycle of all time remains, except for detail improvements, unchanged for 1935. On the Square Four you can tour in silence or you can indulge in road speed in excess of 80 m.p.h., with complete absence of vibration or noise at all engine speeds.”


Scan of the 1936 Ariel brochure shows the OHC Square Four.

Next, in the 1936 Ariel full-range brochure in the collection, nothing has changed on the Square Four Model 4F. Ad copy states: “ENGINE – 56 x 61 mm (597 c.c.). Four cylinders cast “en bloc” in square formation. Detachable cylinder head with integral radial induction manifold. Totally enclosed valves operated by overhead camshaft. The overhead camshaft and the magdyno are driven by automatically tensioned roller chains. 14 mm. sparking plugs. The twin crankshafts are mounted in large diameter ball bearings and are coupled by hardened and ground gears immersed in oil in a separate compartment within the crankcase. Roller bearing big-ends. Special aluminium alloy pistons.”

In my 1937 brochure, Ariel claims to be one of the most highly advanced motorcycle engineering firms. “This enviable position has only been attained by years of painstaking efforts on the part of our Technicians and Craftsmen,” the copy states, “to produce not merely a good motor cycle but a machine which for outstanding design and excellence of material cannot be surpassed. Substantiation of this statement is to be found in the introduction, five years ago, of the first Square Four power unit, acclaimed by Automobile Engineers and practical Motor Cyclists throughout the world as the greatest advance in the evolution of the Motor Cycle.

Ariel copywriters continued: “During the intervening period, experience and research have enabled us to carry out considerable improvements to this unit, so that the 1937 editions of the 600 c.c. and 1000 c.c. Square Fours are undoubtedly the most outstanding Motor Cycles of all time.”

Quite a mantle Ariel has bestowed on their big multi, and it was indeed the top of their range. But Ariel’s big change for 1937 was the redesign of the powerplant, enlarged to 1,000cc on the Model 4G, and remaining at 600cc on the Model 4F. The units disposed of the overhead camshafts, and the valves were now operated by short pushrods acting on a centrally located cam in the center of the crankcase, while the forward-facing carburetor moved to the back of the engine.


Scan from the 1938 Ariel full-line brochure shows the Model 4G 1000cc Square Four.

By 1938 Ariel has dropped the 600cc Model 4F, and only the 1,000cc Model 4G remains, which is unchanged with rigid frame and girder fork. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1939, Ariel lists the Square Four De Luxe 1000cc Model 4G together with a Square Four Standard 1000cc Model 4H and, once again, the smaller 600cc 4F. Differences between the De Luxe and Standard models seem limited to valanced fenders for the previous and regular open fenders for the latter. The De Luxe was also equipped with a prop, or side stand. New for 1939 was Ariel’s spring frame, essentially a plunger-style rear suspension that could be ordered, at extra cost, to fit any of the Square Four models.

Ariel quit civilian production during the war years, focusing on building stout singles for military use. They were quick to return to motorcycle manufacturing, however mostly for overseas markets, in 1945. According to Bacon’s book, the Square Four appeared again but only in the 1,000cc size looking much as it had in 1939, with rigid frame and fully valanced fenders. Telescopic forks and standard rear suspension appeared on the Square Four in 1946.

Attempting to shed some weight Ariel updated the Four’s powerplant in 1949, replacing the cast iron cylinder block and head with all-alloy components in what became known as the Mark I Square Four. The Lucas magdyno unit was ditched in favor of coil ignition and 70-watt dynamo with a car-type distributor driven by skew gear. Timing cover inscription changed from ‘1000’ to read ‘Square Four’. In 1950 the speedometer was relocated from its traditional tank-top instrument panel to the top fork, and in 1951 the instrument panel was gone in its entirety. Speedo was now housed in an alloy casting that doubled us the upper fork crown.


From 1952, an artist’s rendering of the Model 4G 1000cc Square Four with new fork and alloy block and cylinder head.

My next Ariel brochure is dated 1952 and the Four is shown with its new fork top and tidy looking close-pitch finned all alloy cylinder block and head. Changes occurred again in 1953, though, and this ushered in the Mark II Square Four and its engine, instantly recognizable by four separate exhaust headers.


From 1954, the Mark II Square Four with easily recognizable four-pipe exhaust.

Both the Mark I and Mark II models sold side by side in 1953, but by the time of my 1954 brochure only the Mark II was left. Gone was the sprung solo saddle, replaced by a long bench-type seat. Remaining was Ariel’s plunger rear suspension, and the motorcycle with its taller seat took on an ungainly stature.


Now in 1955, the Model 4G Square Four — unsure the models would entice anyone to buy.

Little changed in 1955 but the addition of a fork lock. Ariel updated the 1956 Square Four with a hooded headlight and fork cover featuring a top panel with speedo, ammeter and light switch. At the lower end of the fork was a new full-width light alloy hub. Rear suspension was still provided by the plunger frame, and that remained until the end of the line in the 1959 model. By that time Ariel had built a prototype Square Four with swingarm rear suspension, but the firm was phasing out all four-stroke production, focusing instead on two-strokes.


Ariel’s Square Four in 1956 shows the new headlight shroud, but little else in the way of updates, and again below in 1957.


Redditch-based brothers George and Tim Healey became Square Four specialists in the mid 1960s, and by the early 1970s were building complete Healey 1000/4 motorcycles with the Square Four Mark II engine hanging from an Egli-style spine frame, in something of a café racer pose. “50 bhp at 6000 rpm,” claims the Healey brochure, “ten more than the old Ariel “Square Four”, and 80 lbs less in weight. It all adds up to performance.”

It continues: “The spine frame, race developed. No curved tubes, amazingly good road-holding, and an oil reservoir in its backbone. A bike for riding. For the long distance men, whether basking in the bliss of coastal roads in high summer sun, or needing the security and faith of a trustworthy machine in mountain blizzards. The 1000/4 has it.”

The first 1000/4 was built in 1971, and the Healey’s ceased production in 1976. By that time, as Bacon notes, “In its final form it (the Healey 1000/4) was not too far removed from Turner’s original concept – light, lively and exhilarating to ride.”


Not a Honda CB750-beater, the Healey 1000/4.


Chevrolet in the family


There’s a new addition to the vehicle family around here.

Having wanted a big-fendered car from the early 1950s for many years, one is now sitting in the driveway.

It’s an all-original 1954 Chevrolet sedan. It’s not the desirable coupe, nor is it an upscale Bel Air. No, it’s just a plain old humble four door, with a 235 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder engine and three on the tree column shift.

I’d watched Kijiji for months, always looking for Chevs or Pontiacs between the years 1949 and 1954. Sometimes I think the searching was more fun than the buying.

Regardless, it seems anything that was local (as in, Alberta), was either an expensive rusted out field find, or a car that had been over-restored or hotrodded to within an inch of its life.

Then, the 1954 popped up in Leduc, just outside of Edmonton. Apparently, it had been in the family since new. The car had been recently inspected, insured and registered, and was a solid runner.

Going by photos alone is always risky, but I couldn’t travel to view the Chev. Instead, I talked to the seller on the phone, and made a deal. His brother would drive the car down to Calgary in mid-October.

Safely delivered having made its more than 25-kilometre journey, the next step was insuring the Chevrolet.

There are many providers of vintage vehicle insurance; a simple Google search turns up several options.

However, in 2010 Hagerty collector vehicle insurance became available in Canada. The seller of the Chev had used their services, and I decided to do the same.

I visited their online quote provider ( and a few minutes later, albeit with a quick follow-up phone call, the car was insured.

Hagerty Classic Car Insurance started operating in 1983 when Frank and Louise Hagerty couldn’t find appropriate insurance for their vintage wooden boats. They started an ‘agreed value’ policy for vintage boat owners, and soon managed almost half of the collector boat insurance business in the U.S.

They followed that in 1991 with coverage for collector vehicles, and, as the website says: “Hagerty has grown from a small agency headquartered in the Hagerty family basement to the leading provider of collector car and boat insurance in the world.”

Check that off the ‘to-do’ list.

Next up was registration.

A visit to the main branch of the Alberta Motor Association with proof of insurance and bill of sale in hand, I soon learned that an ‘antique’ plate wasn’t quite what I’d expected.

My adviser told me an antique plate wouldn’t allow the vehicle to be driven to, say, the grocery store or the local coffee shop – something we’d likely do with the Chev. According to Alberta Regulation 320/2002, Traffic Safety Act, Operator Licensing and Vehicle Control Regulation, Section 57.3,  “A person shall not use a motor vehicle registered as an antique motor vehicle as general transportation.”

And further, Section 57.4 states: “An antique motor vehicle may only be

(a) used as a collector’s item for transportation to and from and for use in exhibitions, club activities, parades or similar events, or (b) driven to and from a garage or service station for repairs or servicing.”

Section (a) seems like a pretty grey area, and open for interpretation. I know a few folks with vehicles registered as antiques, and they always tell me if they got pulled over they’d simply say they’d been on a club run.

I registered the Chev with a regular plate, just for my own peace of mind.

So far the car’s gone to the gas station and back, and I’ve filled the tank with fresh fuel and fuel stabilizer. Tomorrow, it’s an oil and filter change, and another, longer drive.

What’s next for the car? Should the 6-volt generator be replaced with a 12-volt alternator, allowing an electronic ignition system? Should it be left stock, and simply tuned with new points in the distributor?

The old car sits quite high, and I’m also dreaming of dropped spindles up front and 2” lowering blocks out back. Worth the expense and effort, or just leave it alone?

We’ll see. It’s going to be a long winter, and there’s a 1939 Triumph T100 motorcycle project in the shop that needs some money first.

The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry: in review


As the title suggests,  Steve Koerner’s book shines more light on the plight of the English makers.

When Argentina shut its doors to British motor imports, the bell tolled louder for the English motorcycle industry.

In 1948 the South American country imposed strict import quotas and significantly higher tariffs. Losing this single important market helped cause Vincent, the English manufacturer of sporting v-twins, to misfire, and ultimately end in 1955 with the final motorcycle to roll from the Stevenage factory.

Such facts are discovered in a new book written by Vancouver Island historian Steve Koerner. The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry, published by Crucible Books, documents the downfall of the Brit-bike industry.

Why another book about English cycle makers? Several already investigate the topic, including Bert Hopwood’s Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry? and Hughie Hancox’s Tales of Triumph Motorcycles and the Meriden Factory. Most recently, Abe Aamidor tried tackling the subject in Shooting Star: The Rise & Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry.

Koerner attended University of Warwick in England, graduating with a PhD in Social History. Enthusiastic about things British, Koerner’s thesis investigated the history of the nation’s motorcycle industry. Rewritten for a broader audience, his thesis became the book, which is comprehensible and not an academic treatise.

Steve Koerner visiting the  Triumph Meriden factory, June 1979.

Photo copyright Steve Koerner. This photo was taken in June 1979 when Koerner was invited to tour the Meriden factory by its Workers’ Coop owners.

What Koerner accessed that nobody else seems to have are the annals of the Motor Cycle Industry Association in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick library. “This is an amazing archive of information,” Koerner says of his original research, conducted in the 1990s. “It took me two years to get through it all. It contains materials about the industry and trade federation representing most of the manufacturing companies.”

Based in Coventry, the association was founded in the late 1800s, and archived information includes minutes, attendance books, guard-books, copies of telegrams, membership lists, periodicals, press cuttings, show catalogues and photographs.

Koerner mined more than just the association archive, also consulting surviving company papers of B.S.A. and Triumph, trade journals including the Cycle and Motor Cycle Trader magazine and a raft of documents kept at the British National Archives.  “I don’t think any other historian of the British motorcycle industry is aware of these sources, never mind used them in a book on the subject,” Koerner says. Indeed, 67 pages of the total 350 in The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry include detailed notes and references.

“I haven’t spent a day of my life working in a factory or motorcycle retail environment,” Koerner says. “But I think I bring a different perspective to the (British motorcycle industry). It’s a business history when you get right down to it.”

Steve Koerner and his 1977 Triumph Bonneville, somewhere in the Kootenays, circa June 1978

Photo copyright Steve Koerner. In the B.C. Kootenays with his 1977 Triumph Bonneville sometime in 1978.

In Koerner’s ideal transportation world everyone would drive an Austin Cambridge or ride a Matchless G80, and he remains a devout fan of British motor products. That’s because Vancouver Island in the 1950s and 1960s was a different place. Ties to old Britannia were evident, and the corridor between Victoria and Cowichan Valley teemed with British motor products.

Born into this Canadian microcosm of British culture, Koerner became immersed in English vehicles. Apart from a couple of Chevrolets, his parents drove mainly British cars, including a Hillman Minx, a Humber Super Snipe and a Jaguar XJ6.  “British vehicles have always been a part of the family, and remain so to this day,” he says.

An avid motorcyclist, Koerner rode a 1970 B.S.A. Thunderbolt around Vancouver from 1976 to 1978. “It was a vile beast,” he recalls, but that experience didn’t prevent him from owning a string of Brit-bikes, including a new 1977 Triumph Bonneville. He shipped the Triumph to England, riding to the TT races and visiting the Meriden Triumph factory in 1979.


Photo by  Jurgen Pokrandt. Of his ride, Koerner says: “My Norton originally came out of the factory as a 1974 Roadster model with a red-coloured tank.  Several years ago I changed it over to an Interstate model with a used tank (metal and factory original) and seat (both of which I found via the Norton Owners’ Club in Britain) along with new side-panels which come from Fair-Spares in Burnt Bridge near Birmingham.  The tank is painted traditional Norton silver-grey.  No, I realise the paint scheme is not correct for 1974 but I think it looks pretty good, despite, no doubt, objections from the purists.”

He currently owns a 1974 Norton Commando Mk. IIA Roadster, which he’s converted to Interstate specification. There’s also a 1958 Matchless G80 in the shed. However, the bike he now rides most is a Harley-Davidson Road King.

Koerner is as much a British motorcycle enthusiast as he is an academic, but he doesn’t wax nostalgic about the industry. He is critical in hindsight, and although players in the trade aren’t identified as heroes or villains, it’s fairly obvious who they are.

Steve Koerner in front of old Norton factory, Bracebridge St., B'ham, circa autumn 1992

Courtesy Steve Koerner. This is the same Norton seen in the previous photo, and was taken at the Bracebridge Street factory in the early 1990s.

Managing director of Ariel and Triumph and later chairman of BSA, Jack Sangster, is a hero. “He was competent and successful,” Koerner says of Sangster. “I think he came out of the womb on a motorcycle, and he was effectively a talent scout, hiring Edward Turner and Val Page.”

Bernard Docker, chairman and managing director of B.S.A. from the late 1940s to 1956, is a villain. Koerner describes him as ‘inept and scandal-prone’.

B.S.A. was a massive company, with several divisions including Daimler – a low-production luxury limousine maker. Docker wanted the firm to break into the far more competitive middle class car sector, which in the 1950s was largely dominated by Humber, Jaguar and Rover. Moving Daimler downscale was a high-risk strategy, poorly conceived and executed with millions of pounds wasted. The results almost destroyed both Daimler and its parent B.S.A.

“If only a small amount of money had gone into motorcycles instead of cars,” Koerner says. “B.S.A. never recovered from drowning in red ink, and when Sangster took over he had to sell off assets to keep the company liquid.”

Koerner investigates many facets of the British industry, which seems to have built itself into a corner after the Second World War as it supplied mainly sporting motorcycles to a young, male dominated crowd. But the industry had tried post-1918 to design and market an ‘Everyman’ motorcycle, one that would appeal to a broader audience, including women. The scooter was the answer.

Many of these new products were either designed or built by the aviation industry (after the First World War, airplane manufacturers were looking to expand their markets and utilize their manufacturing capabilities). Vehicles such as the Skootamota and the Reynolds Runabout, and even the Ner-A-Car, which was engineered by an American but first built in Britain, couldn’t find traction.

Of the machines produced, Koerner says, “(I think) these British scooters failed because, although often innovative in concept, they were undermined by poor design work and engineering. I suspect the companies which made them just didn’t have enough experience in making motorcycles/scooters to make a success of it.”

Bike on assembly line, Meriden July 1979, 1

Photo copyright Steve Koerner. This assembly line image was taken in June 1979.

Crippled by the early 1970s there is no easy answer regarding the downfall of the British industry, but Koerner’s book is one of the better attempts at an in-depth exploration. “Life is complicated,” Koerner says. “And there aren’t simple explanations. It wasn’t all Bernard Docker’s fault, nor was it German or Japanese manufacturers, or the attitude of management. It’s simply not that simple to explain.”

Barn Find: 1970 Chevelle SS 454

Pettit 002_A_WM

Photos courtesy Bill Knecht.

Car collectors know hidden gems are out there.

Tucked in garages, dusty and forgotten, tires flat, engine likely stuck, sits a sought after vintage vehicle. All one has to do is smoke them out.

In autumn 2012 Don Pettit, general sales manager at Woody’s RV in Calgary, struck up a conversation with service writer Lynn Kiddie. Pouring a coffee, the last thing he was thinking about was locating an old car.

“We were up in the lunchroom, and Lynn asked me what my plans were for the weekend,” Pettit recalls. “I told her I was planning on working on my old cars.”

Pettit tinkers with a 1971 Dodge Dart Swinger and a 1973 Chevrolet Camaro Z28.

“She said her (common-law) husband had an old car sitting in his mother’s garage, and that he bought it brand new when he was a younger man,” Pettit says. “That got my attention, and when I asked what kind of car it was she said it was a Chevelle.”

Pettit’s interest really piqued when Kiddie told him the car had two big black racing stripes on the hood and trunk lid.

“I knew if those stripes were original to the car, then the Chevelle was an SS model,” Pettit says.

Pettit began asking questions. Did it have a 396 or a 454 cubic inch engine, was it manual or automatic? Kiddie didn’t know, but that evening at home she talked to partner Ray McKay about the car. She wrote down the information, relaying it to Pettit the next day. The car was a 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS5, with a column shift automatic transmission and a bench front seat.

It wasn’t until a couple of months later at the Woody’s RV Christmas party that Pettit and McKay met. As the two discussed their backgrounds – both are born and raised Calgarians, and both were avid speed enthusiasts in their younger days – it became apparent they shared common interests. However, McKay told Pettit he wasn’t thinking of selling the car.

“I told Don that I was going to put it back on the road, but never got around to it,” McKay says. “Don said he’d get it back into shape if I’d sell it to him.

“The more we talked, the more I figured that if I ever was going to sell the car then he would be the gentleman I’d want to sell it to.”

In 1965 McKay was living in the family home on Scotsman’s Hill when he got a job at Safeway. He was 16, and his mother, Tina, told him if he was working, he was ready to start paying rent.

During high school McKay was fooling around with a pair of 1957 Chevys, tuning and racing them. But his mother was tired of him always working on the cars, and in early 1970, when he was 21, she told him to go buy a new car.

“I told her, ‘I’ve got no money’, ” McKay says. “And she said, ‘You’ve got money. I’ve been saving all of your rent, and there’s $4,200 in the bank’.”

McKay went to Jack Carter and looked at the 10 or 12 Chevelles they had on the lot. He also went to GSL, but the only Chevelle they had was equipped with a 396, and McKay really wanted a 454 c.i. engine.

Pettit 009_A

“I went back to Carter’s, and in the showroom I bumped into a fellow I’d gone to school with,” McKay says. “He was selling cars, and we went for a test drive in one of the Chevelles. We drove it up to the house, and I showed it to my mom – she said I could do what I wanted with the money, and we went back to Jack Carters and signed the papers.”

McKay’s Chevelle is a rare car, one of only 20 454 c.i. LS5s built by GM with the bench seat and column shift, and without power steering, tachometer or air conditioning. McKay paid $3,900 ‘and change’ and says he, “Promptly drove the car the way it was meant to be driven. I had to put new rear tires on it three days after I bought it.

“I didn’t treat it gently, and we went out to Shephard Raceway where Gene McMahon allowed us to bracket race. A group of us formed the Calgary Street Racers Club, and I would drive the Chevelle to the track, race it, and drive the car the rest of the week back and forth to work.”

McKay modified the Chevelle with a Holley carburetor, headers, shift kit, dual point distributor and racing gears in the rear end, and the racing lasted all of 1971 and 1972. His best run down the quarter mile was 13.5 seconds with a speed of 102 mph.

In 1977 McKay joined the Calgary Fire Department, and he and several other firefighters spent much time at Mara Lake in B.C. with their powerboats, and in McKay’s case, his 1974 GMC van. And the Chevelle, which he last drove in 1985, was tucked away in his mom’s garage. The next thing McKay knew, more than 25 years had passed.

Many others had offered to buy the car, and McKay’s response was always a flat-out no. But when Pettit entered the picture, McKay reflected on just what he was ever going to do with the car.

“I talked to my mom, who’s 91 now and in assisted living in Okotoks, and she said if you’re not going to do anything with it, and someone else will, follow your heart and do what you think is best,” McKay says.

With tears in their eyes, Pettit and McKay shook hands on May 16, 2013, and with help from Bill Knecht the dusty car rolled into the light on May 21.

Now, with the Chevelle in his garage, Pettit says he plans to put the car back the way it left the factory; McKay saved all of the original components he’d removed.

And, Pettit says McKay will be included in every step of the car’s resurrection. But one thing Pettit will never do is paint the Chevelle — he knows that a good portion of the car’s value is in its originality.

The car will get driven — on the bill of sale Pettit signed, it’s stipulated when the Chevelle is roadworthy, McKay gets to borrow the keys.

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Cross-Canada adventure in a freshly restored 1951 Ford


Bill Paul’s 1951 Ford at the first border sign, crossing from Alberta into Saskatchewan.

Story first published in the Calgary Herald Driving section. All photos courtesy Bill Paul. I took a particular interest in this story because Paul didn’t build his car to be a show-only specimen; he actually used the car as it was meant to be driven. No trailer queen this one.

Realizing a dream can take time.

Case in point: Calgarian Bill Paul and his 1951 Ford Two Door Custom – it took him more than 20 years to restore the car.

Completing the restoration was just the first part of the dream. In 2012 the semi-retired carpenter and his wife Vivian drove the Ford across Canada to their hometown of Brookfield, Nova Scotia. There, the Ford carried them in a parade that was part of the Coming Home to Brookfield festivities. Check that one off the bucket list.

In 1988 Paul bought the rusted-out car from a farmer near Langdon. At the time, he was renting a house in Calgary and had use of the garage.

“I’d become involved with the Nifty Fifty’s Ford Club in 1986 (that was the year the club got started), and I didn’t have an old Ford,” Paul recounts. “So, I went on the hunt and found this one.”

After taking the car to pieces, he spent a year or two working on various parts until the landlord sold the house. The next place he rented didn’t have a garage, so the project went to a property owned by a Nifty Fifty’s club member, where it was stored for the next few years.

As the couple moved from house to house the Ford sometimes went along, other times staying in storage. In 1993 when the Pauls bought a home in Riverbend and put up a garage the Ford came home for good.

“I began to putter with it a little more than I had before,” he says, and adds, “but it wasn’t until 2006 or 2007 that I really started to put my heart and soul into it.

“The guys in the club kept asking me if I was ever going to get the car together, and I thought, OK, enough fooling around.”

He had the body media blasted, and discovered more rust than expected, especially in the floor. Rusted metal was cut away, and new panels welded in – including floor, quarter and rocker panels.

Paul used a drill-mounted wire brush to clean up frame rails and applied a rust neutralizer before having the chassis painted black.

To lessen the pain on his pocketbook Paul would take two or three items a year, over the years, to be chrome plated.

“I did it piece by piece, a little at a time,” Paul says, “so I didn’t wind up with one big, expensive chrome plating bill.”

New nuts and bolts were used to put the car back together. Also new were many mechanical components, including brake drums, shoes and lines, shocks and front end parts.

Paul restored the car to original specifications with the 6-volt electrical system. He kept drum brakes all around, the three-on-the-tree manual shift transmission and manual steering. He added some custom touches, including the Continental spare tire kit, sunvisor and dual exhaust.

The engine in his car had a hole in the block, something he couldn’t see when he first bought the Ford. So Paul purchased a running 239 c.i. flathead Ford V-8 from a club member, and installed this engine in his finished car.

“It ran, but I thought it sounded noisy,” Paul says. “It had always been my intention to finish the car and drive it back home, and when I learned about the Brookfield homecoming, I bought a freshly rebuilt flathead and put it in the car.”

Ensuring the Ford was topped up with fluids, the Pauls left Calgary at 8 a.m. on July 14, 2012, and headed east on the Trans Canada.

“I probably had about 300 or 400 miles on it by then,” Paul says.


Crossing from Saskatchewan into Manitoba. The rebuilt flathead was running hot.

And that’s when the adventures began. In Saskatchewan Paul says he noticed the engine was starting to overheat, but it wasn’t until he was just outside Winnipeg that he really got concerned.

They made it to his brother in law’s house, and Paul spent some time locating a new radiator cap, which he replaced. But as they were leaving Winnipeg the driveshaft fell out of the car.

The rear yoke had a hairline fracture, and it had finally given up. At the Winnipeg garage there was nothing the mechanic could do without a replacement, so Paul phoned one of his Nifty Fifty’s friends.

“I have a bunch of parts stored there, and he got a yoke out and sent it overnight to Winnipeg,” Paul says.

Driveshaft back in the car, and now well into Ontario, the Ford began overheating again. Paul would periodically stop by the side of Lake Superior, fill a jug with lake water, and add it to the radiator.


From Manitoba into Ontario, driveshaft fixed, cooling problem getting worse.

In Sault St. Marie Paul located a new thermostat at NAPA, had it installed at the Firestone garage, and continued on.

“The car wasn’t boiling the water out, but we were just losing water,” he says. He continued to stop, topping off the radiator, for the rest of the journey.


Stopped by the marker denoting entry into Quebec.

The Pauls arrived in Nova Scotia on July 20 at 8:45 p.m., the night before the day of the parade, with a car that was overheating. Insult to injury, the generator had also quit.

Paul figured they’d come too far to miss the parade.

He phoned a few of his Nova Scotia car friends that evening, and at 8 a.m. Saturday morning a replacement generator had been found and borrowed. Paul got it in the car and narrowly made the 10:30 parade lineup, with five minutes to spare.

The Ford made it through the parade, and Paul then spent several days pulling off the heads to track down the overheating issue. One head was bowed, and after it was planed Paul noticed it was also cracked.

A replacement head was located in Truro, and it was planed and installed. The generator and starter were rebuilt at Al Roland Auto Electric in Truro, and Barry Weatherby, also of Truro, tuned up the car and gave it a once over. He noticed the front-end alignment was out some 20mm.


Entering New Brunswick (above) before finally arriving in Nova Scotia (below) at 8:45 in the evening, car overheating and now not generating current.


“I didn’t think the car had been handling that well, but it had been professionally aligned before we left Calgary,” Paul explains.

They left Nova Scotia on Aug. 14 for the return trip, and made it into northern Ontario when a valve guide clip let go, leaving the valve useless. There was no cell phone service, so Paul decided to nurse the car into Winnipeg.

With the mangled clip removed and replaced with one sourced from a Winnipeg flathead enthusiast, the Pauls were back on their way to Calgary.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, but the car was still overheating after 10,621 kilometres.

Paul has since had replacement heads inspected for cracks and planed flat. With new gaskets, he hopes the overheating issue will be a thing of the past.

Here’s hoping  the completion of his next dream, the restoration of a 1956 Ford convertible, will be finished soon.


Pete Young of Occhio Lungo: Revealed


I penned my most recent Cycle Canada New Old Stock column about Pete Young, proprietor of the Occhio Lungo blog. His site is dedicated to everything old motorcycle, leaning heavily towards the veteran era (but not always!).  Plenty of interesting posts on Occhio Lungo.

In preparation for the column I drafted a list of questions, and Pete more than generously answered each one of them, in detail. I could use only a very small portion of our exchange in my 750-word column, but his answers are simply too good to waste. Here is the full dissertation.

All images are courtesy Pete Young and Occhio Lungo.

1. How did you first get interested in motorcycles, and what was your first machine?

I grew up in the desert of Eastern Washington, and my dad bought me a Honda ATC 110 for my tenth Christmas.  I’ve been riding bikes ever since.  I’m 42 now, so that is 32 years on bikes.  The first bike that I bought with my own money was a 1972 CL 350.  My friends and I wanted to make café racer bikes, but Tritons and BSA’s were too expensive.  I know that resonates with a lot of guys today, but this was in the 1980s!  Then, as now, 70’s Japanese bikes were an affordable way to play around.

veloce exh nut 6

2. Where did you learn to be so self-sufficient with tools? Did you have a mentor, or are you self-taught?

In the old days (ha!) kids like me took metalshop class in ninth grade.  I loved that class, and learned the basics of running a Bridgeport mill, a lathe, stick welding, etc.  My dad had taught me how to spin wrenches already, as we restored a 67 Camaro as a father and son thing.  He was very self-sufficient, and taught me about plumbing, wiring, how to swing a framing hammer, how to lay sod, and many other things like that. When I went to college to learn engineering, I took a part time job as a machinist helper / engineering technician at a supplier to Boeing.  I was responsible for some very basic design tasks, and to fabricate some parts from my drawings or from those of the staff engineers.  The shop foreman was a kind and patient man, and he let me burn a lot of hours doing setups and scrapping a few parts before I got one that passed inspection.


3. How does your engineering background inform your motorcycle hobby?

I’m lucky in that I get paid to do something that I would do just for fun.  Bearings, linkages, and castings occupy my thoughts all day, whether I’m on the clock for a client or thinking about a motorbike or car.   My background in engineering design has shown me a lot about manufacturing processes.  Not just the typical machine shop stuff, but also waterjet or laser cutting, rapid prototyping, sheetmetal tooling and other fun stuff.  And I’ve worked with some great shops and vendors across America and a few in Asia too.  All of that has helped me to understand that restoring a bike, or building a bike from scratch is not as hard as it appears to be.  Men did this work 100 years ago with tools that are primitive compared to what we have today.  They did it without carbide tools, or TIG welding or alloy steels and often without a high school education.  Surely we can try to emulate, or maybe equal, their efforts?


4. When did you get your first Velocette, and what drew you to that particular make?

During the 1990s I began to look further back into the past, beyond the 1970s bikes that had excited me until then.  The pre WWII Velocettes were striking, painted black with gold trim and bright chrome fishtail mufflers.  The girder forks and rigid frames looked very purposeful, and the racing pedigree of the KTT and Thruxton bikes was impressive.  But since I began studying the Veloce company and their bikes, I’ve grown to like them more for their engineering and inventions.  They created so many things that we use on bikes today: positive stop foot shifters, the dual seat, adjustable rear suspension, etc.  They are good riding bikes, and their owners tend to use them.  In 15+ years, we’ve ridden our MSS for thousands of miles, and my wife Kim has also ridden her 1930 KSS (350cc OHC) all over the western USA and Canada.   Older and older bikes grab my eye each year and now I’m finishing up the restoration of a 1913 Veloce now, which has been a big two year project.


5. What machines grace your garage?

We have just over a half-dozen machines in total, mostly Brit single cylinder bikes from the 19teens, 20’s and 30’s.  I also play around with one American bike, a 1916 Excelsior twin.  The 1938 MSS has remained our most “modern” bike for the last 20 years or so.


6. You’re not a collector who hoards your machines – together with your wife and children, you ride them. Those experiences set you and your family apart – does it also bring your family closer together?

Machines are for riding, it is as simple as that, just as ovens are for baking, and boots are made for walking.  Static machines in a museum are nice to see, but they really come alive when filled with fluids and fired up to make noises and cut a good line on a curvy road.

Kim and I rode together for years before we had children, and decided that we didn’t want to stop once they arrived.  So I found a Dusting sidecar for the Velo MSS when she was still pregnant, and fitted it to my Velo and waited for the baby to arrive.  (Kim made me wait until each kid was about 8-9 months old before they could ride in the chair…).  What was the question?  Oh yeah, family.  We love riding together, seeing the backroads, stopping for ice cream, pointing at the deer or hawks that we spot from the bike.  It can be a great educational experience too, stopping to see and explore caves, or learning about the Gold Rush and the mines, the geology of places like Glacier Natl. Park or Mt. Lassen.  The kids are still relatively small, aged 8 and 10, so they tire of riding on the back of rigid bikes after several hours.  Frequent stops and some pep talks help us to keep going on the 5 day rallies.


7. Do you encourage your kids to help out in the shop?

I do, but at their age it is still hard for them.  Welding and grinding doesn’t excite them as much as dolls and video games.  But I try not to force it, and ask them to do some fun things like painting or assembling the newly plated parts.  They have been more excited lately as I’ve gotten their help to set up pillion seats footpegs on some of the bikes for them to enjoy.

8. Your shop; is it a standard double car, or single, or? What kind of tools do you have in there?

Years ago we found a dilapidated old Victorian home that featured a three car garage and some space for a workshop.  It was love at first sight.  The shop has a lot of the typical tools for our hobby like a good lathe, welders, grinders, etc.  A table top mill has been very helpful, and a lot of random things like a tubing bender, hydraulic press and an assortment of hammers.


9. You took part in the first Cannonball run – were you prepared for the challenge?

Ha!  That’s a good question.  It seemed that I was, but the C’ball is a tough event.  I prepped for a year, and brought my 1913 Premier and also my Excelsior as a backup.  (We didn’t realize how strict the rules were going to be until we arrived at the start, and the X wasn’t allowed).  In addition to prepping two bikes, I took up jogging 4 days a week and tried to eat healthy.  Anyway, I had ridden the Premier for several years before the C’ball, and it was in good shape.  But the crankpin broke on the first day.  It took a lot of effort to tear down the bike, find a shop at midnight, make new parts, install them and get back on the road.  I missed a day and a half of the Cannonball due to that, and several other half days for breakages like the V belt pulley.  98 year old steel can and does fail due to fatigue, but I cannot complain.  That’s just the nature of the old bike game.  I was stubbornly determined to ride the bike across the USA and to the finish, and that is exactly what I did.  On the last day, the motor seized after the oil sump drain let the oil escape.  There was still about 100 miles left in the day, so I poured a quart of oil into the spark plug hole, rocked the bike back and forth and freed up the piston.  Then I rode it carefully to the pier in Santa Monica and drank a very cold beer.  It was the best beer I’d had in a very long time.


10. The Veloce that you’ve most recently finished, I believe, is intended to be ridden in the 2013 Pioneer Run in the U.K. What encouraged you to enter?

Knowing that the bike was to be 100 years old, Dave Masters invited me to join him on the Pioneer Run from London to Brighton.  Dave is a Velo fellow and plans to ride his own 1912 i.o.e. Velo.  So we made plans for me to finish the bike, and ship it to England.  We’ll celebrate the bike’s 100th birthday with cake and ice cream at the finish in Brighton.  It is terribly silly and expensive, but that is what credit cards were made for.  Besides, I won’t be here for the bike’s 200th birthday. (Update: the cylinder base on the Veloce cracked while break-in miles were being added, scuppering the plans to attend the Pioneer Run. Ironically, the 2013 Pioneer Run was cancelled due to snow …)

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11. Why did you decide to start blogging about vintage motorcycles and the technology (or technologies) that were first being tried? You’re shining a light on the fact that most of what we’re seeing on today’s machines has, at one time or another, already been tried.

Thanks, I’m glad that you like reading Occhio Lungo.  It is exciting to see how engineers and designers solved the same set of problems 100+ years ago:  How to carry a person on a motorized bicycle or car.  Each designer tried their best, but of course there were many possible solutions and many of them didn’t work as well as others.  But as you mentioned, there were great things done before WWI, such as disc brakes, water-cooled two strokes, electric, steam, gasoline power and also hybrids, mono shock rear suspensions, telescoping front forks, transverse four cylinder motors, shaft drive, OHC, etc.  The marques that failed often had the most innovation.  It all fascinates me, and I wanted to share my fun with readers from around the world.  I never expected more than a dozen people to read it, but it has surprisingly found an audience of hundreds of people per day.   The message is supposed to be about the fun of studying old technology, coupled with the joy of riding early machines, and the How To articles that show repairs and fabrication in the workshop.


12. How much has the computer and social media changed your perspective on vintage motorcycles and the hobby in general?

Over the past three years, I’ve become friends with people from places like Tasmania, the Czech Republic, Latvia, quiet corners of Ireland, Spain and France and so many other places.  Email, Facebook and blogs/websites have opened up the communication to so many far flung locales.  There are only a few people in San Francisco who don’t get bored talking about veteran and pioneer machines.  But across the globe there are plenty of guys who want to chat, share tuning tips, trade parts, etc.  And as a research tool, the internet is better than any library that I can find.  When searching for documentation on a specific model of machine from 100 years ago, sometimes only one person or library has a manufacturer’s brochure.  But scanning it and posting it to a web page, or emailing it around the world has become so very simple.  After looking around for a year via the computer, I had contacted people in clubs and accessed private libraries, and had amassed more information about 1913 Veloce motorcycles than anybody had possessed since 1913.  (That sounds like a lot, but it is really just some old adverts and a few period photos).  Still, that information allowed me to know what the bike should look like when I restored it.  That was impossible just 20 years ago.  If we do it right, our restorations today can be much more correct than those done in previous generations.

A history of Triumph’s Tiger 100

First published in the Antique Motorcycle (the magazine of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America) in my Pulp Non-Fiction column, a look at Triumph’s T100 model as seen in the literature of the day.


Triumph Twin of 1935.

Let’s take a close look at the Tiger 100, a model powered by a parallel twin engine produced by the Triumph Engineering Co. Ltd. I won’t go into detail about the start of the Triumph company, preferring to tuck into the story in the late 1920s with the introduction of two men instrumental in the evolution of the British motorcycle, Val Page and Edward Turner. Page was chief designer at Ariel when he met Turner in 1928. Ariel boss Jack Sangster had hired Turner to develop a square four engine; the basis for the long-running Ariel Square Four.

While testing his square four engine at Ariel, Turner made up a 360-degree twin crankshaft, and ran this uncoupled in the back half of his four, an arrangement otherwise known as a parallel twin. Turner said in the Ivor Davies’ book It’s a Triumph that Page paid particular attention to the characteristics of his ‘experimental’ twin. Whether Turner’s work was an influence or not, in 1932 when Page, himself a keen engineer and designer of rather striking motorcycles, left Ariel for employment at Triumph he soon had a running 650cc vertical twin motorcycle. Introduced in 1933 at the Olympia Show, the Model 6/1 was part of Triumph’s 1934 sales program.

I have a 1935 Triumph brochure, and the ad copy for the 6/1 twin states: “This modern power unit of new design has many features which are entirely original. The cylinders, while cast ‘en bloc’ are vertical, side by side, one cylinder each side of the centre of the crankcase (having a firing angle of 360 degrees), and have adequate air passages between them. They maintain the characteristics of two single cylinders, having separate detachable single port heads. The valve gear (two valves per cylinder) is operated by push rods fully enclosed and working between the two cylinder barrels.”

Page’s twin wasn’t the first for Triumph. In 1913, the company built an experimental 600cc side-valve vertical twin that featured a horizontally split crankcase. There isn’t much other information about the engine, and the war intervened in its development.

More than just the 6/1 twin, Page designed a range of Triumph singles with 250, 350 and 500cc sidevalve and overhead valve configurations. None of these Triumphs were inexpensive to produce, and by the mid 1930s the company was facing financial turmoil. Ariel boss Jack Sangster saw an opportunity to purchase the foundering Triumph works, and he moved Turner over from Ariel. Page had already jumped ship, taking his considerable design talents to rival maker BSA.

In 1936 at Triumph, Turner became chief designer and managing director. His first exercise was to take three examples of single-cylinder machines, originally designed by Page, and dress them up with a sportier image. He created the 250cc Tiger 70, 350cc Tiger 80 and 500cc Tiger 90, all with polished alloy primary cases, chrome plated gas tanks with silver-sheen painted side and top panels and purposeful high-level exhaust systems. The frames were rigid, and front suspension was supplied by a set of girder forks. These singles proved quick sellers, but Turner had something else in mind for Triumph, and it was an entirely new twin.

Turner drew a twin-cylinder engine, and dubbed it the Speed Twin. Featuring a vertically split crankcase housing a single, central flywheel, the 498cc engine became one of the most popular motorcycle power plants of all time. Crankpins are “in line”, allowing both pistons to rise and fall simultaneously. The cylinders fire alternately with power impulses spaced evenly at 360 degrees. Early Speed Twin motors are fitted with a six-stud cast iron barrel and cylinder head, with separate alloy boxes housing both the rockers and valve adjusters. Camshafts are situated high in the crankcase, gear driven through an idler gear by the right side of the crankshaft. Separate pushrod tubes run fore and aft of the cylinders.

In 1937 the twin-cylinder engine looked very similar to what would have been a conventional twin-port single-cylinder unit, without being much wider or heavier. The twin made only four more horsepower than Triumph’s 500cc single, 28 h.p. compared to 24 h.p. But the power delivery of the twin rivaled that of the single; it was much more refined, with better torque and pull from low speeds, plus it was easier to start.

Turner dropped his parallel-twin engine into the heavyweight Tiger 90 single-cylinder cycle parts sprayed in Amaranth Red and the Speed Twin was first shown in 1937. It was available to the public in 1938, and sold very well. There was some trouble with the original six-stud barrel to crankcase fixing configuration, and in 1939, eight studs were introduced. Bigger news for 1939, however, was the addition of a sporting stablemate to the Speed Twin in the form of the Tiger 100.


Triumph Tiger 100 of 1939.

Inside the 1939 Triumph brochure, the maker states: “Triumph have long held the view that for sports use the O.H.V. single of over 350 c.c. is an obsolete type, and the overwhelming endorsement of this view by the serious motor cyclist during 1938 has encouraged us to produce the multi-cylinder “TIGER 100” to replace the “TIGER 90” single. This super-tuned brother of the successful “SPEED TWIN” is a most impressive machine both in performance and appearance and will undoubtedly become a firm favourite.”

Tiger 100 motorcycles made approximately seven more horsepower than the Speed Twin, and were fitted with 8:1 high compression alloy slipper pistons, with all internal moving parts polished. Providing sparks and electrical current was a Lucas magdyno sitting on a platform behind the cylinders. A single 1” bore Amal carburetor fed fuel and air through a new manifold designed to increase flow. Stock head and barrels are of cast iron, but racing enthusiasts could order an aluminum-bronze cylinder head. Almost race-ready from the factory, the machine was equipped with mufflers of the open megaphone-type, but with quickly detachable ends that incorporated baffles and tail pipe.


Triumph Tiger 100 of 1948.

In my 1948 Triumph brochure, the Tiger 100 has been updated with telescopic forks, and the new sprung hub an extra option. Gone, however, are the sharp-looking megaphone-type mufflers, and the magdyno has changed to separate magneto at the back and dynamo at the front of the engine. Ad copy states: “The TRIUMPH “TIGER 100” is an ultra high performance sports machine with a specially tuned engine capable of completely satisfying the desires of all who wish to travel fast and far. At the same time it retains that flexibility and smoothness which make it a very pleasant motor cycle when high speeds are not desired.”

Triumph’s Tiger 100 continued in similar specification until 1951, when the motorcycle was fitted with a nacelle-style headlamp and long bench-type seat. Frame is still rigid, with a sprung hub offering the only rear springing action. The motorcycle is a cracking performer, says a 1951 Triumph booklet dubbed Tuning the 1951 Triumph Tiger 100. “(The T100) has always responded well to the efforts of amateur tuners, and has taken a successful part in competitive events in all parts of the world.”

The copy continues: “The 1951 Tiger 100 is a new model incorporating a new engine of advanced design with an aluminum alloy cylinder barrel and head, and many other features calculated to provide enhanced performance. This machine is both lighter and faster than its predecessor, and although it is supplied from the factory to roadster specification only, a special feature is the provision made in its design whereby it can, at a most reasonable cost, readily be converted by the knowledgeable owner from its standard form to racing specification.”


Triumph’s legendary Tiger 100 Racing Kit.

Enter the special Tiger 100 Racing Kit, a package of parts in its own container that could be supplied to an owner on receipt of their engine and frame numbers. The components were available separately, but the Racing Kit came complete with either 8.25:1 or 9.5:1 compression ratio pistons, racing profile camshafts, valve springs, twin Amal Type 6 carbs with remote float and dual throttle cables, Smiths 8,000 rpm tachometer, one gallon oil tank with quick release cap, exhaust pipes with megaphones, footrests, handlebar, number plate, short rear brake rod, folding kickstart lever and set of gaskets.

“Success in racing does not come by chance,” the brochure explains. “It is the result of experience and painstaking preparation both of the man and the machine.” While the T100 booklet dealt in the main with the machine, there were also a few paragraphs about the physical and mental requirements of ‘the Man.’

In a brochure published 24th October 1952 (this would be the 1953 model year) the company produced a Tiger 100 and Tiger 100C. Both still had rigid frames, and the T100C appears to have been prepared from the factory for racing, complete with the dual Amal carbs, high compression pistons and racing cams. Horsepower is rated at 42@7,000 rpm when fitted with a racing exhaust, quite an improvement over the 28 h.p. of the original Speed Twin engine.

Triumph introduced their swingarm frame in 1954, and the Tiger 100 was so fitted. In the 1955 brochure there is just the Tiger 100; no sign of a Tiger 100C (it was a one-year only offering), nor word of the Racing Kit. The T100 is listed in the 1956 brochure, and a new splayed-port twin carburetor head is offered as an extra for the speed enthusiast.


Triumph Tiger T100 of 1955.


Triumph Tiger 100 of 1957.

Triumph moved to unit engine/gearbox construction in 1959, and the Tiger 100 made the change. The last brochure I have is from 1965 and it lists the Tiger 100 and Tiger 100S/S. “A machine with a host of successes in production machine racing and gaining gold medal honours in the International Six Days’ Trial for the past four years, the Tiger 100 has more than proven itself in these tough marathon endurance tests. Produced especially for the sporting rider who demands the ultimate in performance from a 500 c.c. machine,” the copy states.


Triumph Tiger of 1965.

The Tiger 100 motorcycles eventually culminated in the Daytona 500cc machines, which ended production in 1973 – a 34 year run. The name returned to a motorcycle thanks to the new Hinckley Triumph company, which introduced a Tiger in 1993. Years of competitive successes, especially in American flat track, enduro and Daytona races, have ensconced the Tiger 100 firmly in history, and it’s all thanks to Edward Turner’s parallel twin engine.

Modern Motorcycle Mechanics and Speed Tuning (1945) Reprinted

For those who are interested in older motorcycles, this is the manual to have. Written by J.B. (Bernie) Nicholson in 1945, the treatise was the follow-up to the Fist Edition of 1942.

Plenty of information regarding early American motorcycles such as Harley-Davidson and Indian, and popular British brands of the day. The book is a snapshot of the motorcycle industry as it was set to recover from the Second World War, and also features a special chapter on training Army riders, as well as a section on Speed Tuning.

Not a word of Nicholson’s advice has changed, we’ve kept the book exactly as he wrote it. Printed with pride in Canada, where it was first published, and then sent around the globe. Visit to purchase.