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Calgary hot rod history

A little bit of Calgary, Alberta hot rod history to share. One of the greatest names in drag racing came from a humble north hill neighbourhood — and Dale Armstrong went on to build and tune some fast engines. Read my column at

In researching the story, I met with Dave Meyer. He shared some of his memorabilia from the era of go-fast cars in Calgary circa 1958 to 1963. Enjoy.


Cards from the various car clubs and specialists that populated Calgary.  More to follow.


DAVE_MEYER_RODS_5aNo comment necessary here. Good looking car …



…and finally, a scene from a Calgary back alley. Does anybody recognize these rebels? Dave Meyer would like to know who they are.

Girder Forks and Jake Robbins Vintage Engineering


Jake Robbins (right) with son William and their Brough Superior exact replica made in England fork. All images courtesy Jake Robbins.

When manufacturers in the 1940s replaced what was the industry standard girder fork with the hydraulically damped telescopic unit motorcycles stepped into the modern age.

So absolute was the adoption of the new technology that owners of motorcycles from the 1930s were buying telescopic units and binning their girder forks. Shame, really, because the girder was a better system, especially in the early days of the telescopic. It was stronger, wouldn’t dive under braking, and was less prone to stiction. It did lack an appreciable amount of travel, but properly set up a girder provided a light, lithe, and sporty ride.

Maybe that’s why the girder might just be due for a comeback. Witness some of the modern examples of the technology, including BMW’s Telelever. BMW’s system doesn’t differ too much from traditional girder theory, but the hardware has been updated. Telelever uses an A-arm swingarm that pivots from the engine with a single monoshock attached to the A-arm and the motorcycle frame. The visible fork tubes do not provide suspension, rather they hold the front wheel in place and provide steering inputs.

Race icon John Britten experimented, successfully, with a girder design on his V1000. Instead of steel tubes, Britten’s girder was constructed of lightweight carbon fibre and Kevlar components, all suspended by a single Ohlins shock.

And, Yamaha licenced the rights to James Parker’s RADD (Rationally Advanced Design Development) front end in 1990, and built the GTS1000 from 1993 to 1996 around the alternative suspension system. Unlike Britten’s front end, which does resemble a girder, RADD is completely different. With hub-centre steering, the system is essentially two swing arms on the left side of the front wheel. Affixed to the front of a C-shape main frame, one arm is for suspension, and the other for braking and steering. RADD proved to be too much technology, and one that motorcyclists simply didn’t buy.

The girder fork, whether of a simple or more intricate design, was the most common front suspension system found on pre-Second World War motorcycles.

By the mid teens most motorcycles were fitted with a girder, and manufacturers included Brampton, Castle, Druid and Webb. Some motorcycle makers, Velocette, for example, bought in Webb forks to fit their range of machines. Other concerns, such as B.S.A. and Triumph, made their own and these designs closely resemble the Webb model.

Webb forks feature rigid sections of triangulated tubes (one on each side, commonly called a ‘blade’) that make up the main girder. This pivots on four points – two on the girder itself, one at the lower steering tube and one at the top crown. The whole arrangement is kept together with side links and adjustable spindles, and a single spring between the fork and the top crown provides a limited range of suspension travel.

Damping to affect compression and rebound is obtained through a friction system acting on the lower links. Friction damping is often adjusted using a knurled knob or large, intricate looking wing nut — ideally something turned easily with a gloved hand.

Thanks to the triangulated tube side blade construction, the girder is remarkably strong. In fact, that’s why many custom chopper builders in the late 1960s and 1970s preferred them to a telescopic front end. A girder could feature plenty of length, without suffering much of the flexing in extended telescopic fork tubes.

Regardless of make or model – from basic to exotic – original examples of vintage motorcycle girder forks in any type of condition are today quite a rare find. Anyone currently working on a basket case machine that is absent the girders, such as an Ariel or Triumph built in the 1930s, can attest to how scarce these forks really are.


Jake Robbins at work with gas torch.

There exists in the U.K. a man who has taken it upon himself to be a girder fork guru. Jake Robbins of Jake Robbins Vintage Engineering started with motorcycles when he was 12 years old, and with no money, had to learn to fix them himself. By the time he was 16 he’d left school and was working for local bike shops in East Sussex. Then, in 1992 he met and began working with Steve Burniston of ELK Engineering. Burniston was just starting to offer his specialties as a girder fork repairman, and under his tutelage, Robbins learned the engineering and welding skills required for this line of work.

“It also gave me a passion for bikes built pre-War,” Robbins said to me in an email. “Designers (of the era) had an eye for aesthetics, and sometimes to their detriment it was form over function. The bikes and the type of manufacture (available at) this time is a testament to the skills of the engineers, casting industry and tubesmiths.”


Extensively renovated chassis of a 1908 Anglian by Jake Robbins Vintage Engineering.

Burniston died in 2002 leaving the girder repairs in Robbins’ hands, and for years his business was mostly re-tubing and re-bushing tired forks. Now operating simply as Jake Robbins Vintage Engineering (he had to drop ELK Engineering, as there was another company operating under the same name), Robbins has begun casting various girder fork components, and is also building complete sets of forks. Robbins also does frame repairs, and has been commissioned to fabricate some rather intricate replica components.

As of 2011, he completed 10 sets of Castle girders, as fitted to Brough Superior motorcycles, and also finished a run of heavyweight Triumph girder forks.


Above, Triumph heavyweight girder fork castings for Jake Robbins Vintage Engineering. These were cast in the UK. And, below, Robbins’ exact replica Triumph 5T heavyweight girder forks.


Now, Robbins has moved into a new workshop, and he’s taken on oldest son William — now 19. William has been put to work turning, screw cutting, milling and working in the fabrication side of Robbins’ business.


William Robbins cutting 20 tpi threads on replacement girder fork spindles.

“He has taken off,” Robbins says of his son. “He’s built a Yamaha SR 250 into a fine cafe racer and has worked along side me with the design of the pre unit custom Triumph I’m building.”


Robbins and son William are currently constructing this special using a 500cc all-alloy Triumph pre unit engine and gearbox in an Ariel frame. Forks are, of course, by Jake Robbins Vintage Engineering.

But, Robbins notes, he’s also suffered some setbacks due to personal injury and water damage from fire crews attempting to knock down a blaze in an adjoining workshop.

“It burned to the ground, it took 40 fire fighters and 10 fire engines to put the fire out. There was an excessive amount of water and caustic foam pumped into my workshop. My space was knee deep in toxic black soot water, there was no power, and I wasn’t able to trade.”

Family and friends rallied around and helped Robbins rebuild, and now, the shop is back up and running. Good thing, too, as Robbins has turned his attention to the custom motorcycle market, having developed a set of budget girder forks (based on the heavyweight design of the Triumph Speed Twin girder). He has also taken on complete motorcycle builds, and more ambitious projects including work on film, stage art and even medical fabrications — all to back up the motorcycle side of the business.

Below, just a small sample of Robbins’ work, including newly created rear frame drop out, and a freshly machined lower yoke for a Norton girder fork.


Bike EXIF, The Ride and a Q&A with Chris Hunter

In preparation for a Cycle Canada story about The Ride, I drafted a number of questions for BikeEXIF curator Chris Hunter. He responded. However, I wasn’t able to use more than a couple of lines from the email interview. Because his comments prove insightful, I’ve posted them here. Thanks again Chris!theride_pressphoto_sideA

The Ride, published by Gestalten. Image courtesy of the publisher. Book was edited by Chris Hunter and Robert Klanten. The book is worth the price of admission.

Q. In your introduction to The Ride, you give a great deal of credit to Deus for reigniting a passion for bare bones, stripped down motorcycling – and their influence goes back to Japan. Was Japan always a hotbed for customizing, or how did they become responsible for the ‘new’ customizing ethos?

A. Japan is an isolated nation—isolated by language and geography. It’s also an insular society that usually frowns on self-promotion. Custom cars and bikes have been huge in Japan for decades, but their own culture has only recently reached the mainstream in the West. Today, sites like EXIF help to spread the word. I used to run quite a lot of Japanese ‘Brat style’ bikes, named after one of the leading Japanese builders. But Deus got there first, before EXIF existed. Deus’ founder Dare Jennings took a huge leap of faith and transplanted Japanese bike culture into the West, via Australia.

Q. My dad always used to tell me that by customizing something, you were taking away function that had been especially engineered into the device – bicycle, motorcycle, car or truck. In the world of custom bikes, is form more important than function?

A. I think the pendulum swings more towards form than function, yes. But in most cases, that’s okay. An emphasis on function can often be misdirected and overcomplicated. Most people use bikes for short trips around town, and a sporty SR400 café racer is better for that than a BMW R1200 GS or Honda Gold Wing.

 I reckon the emphasis on function has been responsible for the famous decline of new motorcycle sales in Europe and North America. Who needs a bike that can traverse Africa, or do 100 kph in first gear? It gives road testers something to write about, but it’s irrelevant to the average person. The Japanese big four lost sight of this some time in the 1990s: They idolized their engineers instead of their product planners.

 An analogy: I have an expensive Leatherman multi-tool that’s a staggering feat of engineering and packaging. But I love (and use) my classic French Opinel pocketknife far more. It’s a simple, good-looking design that has remained unchanged for decades. The Opinel does less, but is more useful. That’s the lesson for today’s motorcycle marketers.

Q. Some builders from the past, including Von Dutch, are today celebrated as artists by those who aren’t necessarily interested in motorcycles. Are there any current customizers (Shinya Kimura, Chicara Nagata) building machines that the non-motorcycling public would consider art?

A. I would put Shinya, El Solitario and Christopher Flechtner of Speed Shop Design in the ‘art’ category, building bikes that laser the eyeballs. Kurt Walter of Icon Motosport also builds some incredibly creative machines. But even run-of-the-mill new wave customs tend to attract the eye of the general public. I don’t know about Canada, but in London, Sydney and Paris, I’ve seen good retro-style customs parked on the side of the street getting waaaay more attention than any $25,000 sportbike.

Q. You credit builders such as Deus, Wrenchmonkees and Café Racer Dreams for helping restore the soul to motorcycling. I would argue Bike EXIF has played an even larger role. In spreading the gospel, the site has helped make motorcycling cool again. Any idea how many people who before being introduced to EXIF were not motorcyclists? Do you ever hear any stories about folks buying bikes because they tuned into EXIF?

A. Quite a few of our readers don’t have a bike—yet. They visit the site because they like the bikes we show—they’re sharp and funky and soulful, which most showroom bikes are not. They like the stories about the builds and the culture we portray. And they’ve realized that not all bikers are asshats wearing Maltese crosses, or priapic teenagers on Gixxers, or burly blokes in leather chaps.

 In that way, EXIF inspires a lot of people to get onto two wheels. I was working with a film director at the Wheels & Waves festival in Biarritz in June, shooting bikes that would appear in the book. By the end of the weekend he was lusting after a bike himself. He’s now going to learn to ride, because he’s finally discovered a style of motorcycle that flips his switch. There are hundreds more like him.

Q. What was your original intention with EXIF? (When it started, was there more emphasis on the photos and the cameras used to shoot them?) Over the four years it’s been online, have your expectations for the site been met? Has the site changed since its inception? What is the site’s largest demographic? Are they older or younger, male or female?

A. The images were a key point. In late 2008, most motorcycle sites looked messy, with bad photography and design. So I decided to focus on great images of great bikes. Hence the name Bike EXIF—‘EXIF’ is an acronym for the file format used by digital cameras. But the site is no longer just pretty pictures, it embodies an exciting new culture.

 Our core readership is 25-44. It drops off quite a bit on either side of that. Nearly half the readers are in North America, with the UK, Australia, and western European countries being strong too. Our readership is younger than the wider motorcycling public, and probably more ‘urban’ too. A term that used to be bandied around in the comments is ‘hipster’…

Q. What has surprised you the most about Bike EXIF?

A. How big it has become, with around two million page views a month. And how time-consuming it is. I’ve tried to keep the site looking clean and simple, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Dealing with the tech stuff, the constant code development, schedules, invoicing, and feeding the social media monster. And emails … I get around 350 emails a day on average.

Q. Do you feel EXIF drives some trends, or simply records their progression?

A. That’s really hard to say. There are certain styles of bikes that are always popular: café or Brat (Japanese-style) bikes with flat seats, cool paint and no fenders. Those are usually the big hits in terms of page views. On the other hand, I try to push things with bikes that I know won’t have such instant or widespread appeal, but show original thinking or a new style. I think you have to mix it up. Right now we’re seeing tracker-style bikes becoming more popular, with off-road or scrambler influences, and that’s something I was starting to push a long time ago. But really, it starts with the builders. I don’t make this stuff up—they do.

Q. How often are you surprised in either extreme with the reaction a machine garners from your viewers? Any examples of motorcycles that got the opposite reaction you thought they would (and are any of them in The Ride)?

A. I take the reactions on the site with a big pinch of salt. For every intelligent, reasoned commenter with something interesting to add, there’s a narrow-minded person with an axe to grind. With some builders, you have no idea which way the wind is going to blow—El Solitario is an obvious example. The first reaction often sets the tone: if the first person who leaves a comment is positive, it bodes well for the rest, and vice versa.

 Some of the bikes in the book have had mixed reactions on the site, but not from a traffic point of view—they’re all hits in terms of audience numbers. The silent majority, if you like!

Q. Do people spend too much time in front of their devices – or has/does the Internet and social media help fuel the passion for custom motorcycle creativity?

A. I’m a Luddite at heart. I drive a 1970 Land Rover Series IIa and listen to music via a valve amp. So I’d say yes, we all spend too much time looking at screens. We should really be out there, riding. But on the other hand, the internet spreads the message incredibly fast. It provides inspiration and information, not just through sites like EXIF, but also forums where builders can get help from others. So I’m disinclined to knock the internet too much. People have always thrown their hands up in horror when new forms of communication have become popular, from ‘Penny Dreadful’ novels to television and now the web.

Q. If you could see five years down the road what do think you would see for custom motorcycles?

A. I’ve no idea! Personally, I’d be happy to see the back of pipewrapped exhausts.

 My biggest concern is encroaching legislation that affects all bikes. Motorcycling doesn’t have many friends in high places, and most politicians merely tolerate motorcycles. We live in an increasingly sanitised and regulated world and bikes are an easy target. In some countries, notably Germany in Europe and Taiwan in Asia, it is difficult to register a modified bike for the road. Their compliance systems are draconian. That sort of attitude makes it harder to customize a bike, and it worries me—will legislation stifle the freedom and creativity of builders?


The Ride, published by Gestalten. Image courtesy of the publisher.

Updated Ace-Hy Motorcycle Club Calgary Items

A couple of new pieces to add to the Ace-Hy Motorcycle Club portfolio, thanks to Calgary’s Brian Lawrence. Be sure to click the link and see the other post about one of Calgary’s original motorcycle clubs, dedicated to to fun and sport.

Ace Hy MC Water transfer_A

First is the club’s crest on a waterslide transfer. Up next…

Ace Hy Members List_A

…the Ace-Hy membership roster, circa the late 1930s or early to mid-1940s. On that list are the names of Walt Healy and Frank Tucker. Healy, of course, is well-known as an Indian retailer, and later, after 1964, as a Yamaha dealer. Tucker loved his Indians, and he looks good here on his Indian 4.

Ace Hy MC Frank Tucker_A

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.

Pettit 010_A