MOTORCYCLE MEMORIES 1948 - 2010
1948 Cushman like mine, but mine was blue.
I guess my love affair with motorcycles started when I was 13 - in 1947. I had a Miami Daily News route. All the paperboys delivered their papers using bicycles. Me too. But one guy, a little older than the rest, had a Servicycle. It was something like a motorcycle, but not as big. Anyway, I thought that was really neat (We used to say neat instead of cool).
When I moved on to a Miami Herald route there was a guy named Fred Hurlburt who had a Cushman (a motor scooter). That was even neater than the Servicycle. I decided I had to have one. But one Sunday morning Fred let me ride his Cushman to wake another Herald carrier up - and I crashed it! Went up into a gas station and through a rolled out window.
That was an ominous beginning to my riding career, and it set my savings account back a few months before I could get my own scooter. But, despite the unfortunate beginning, I was still determined I had to have one. My mom was dead set against it. She was convinced I would get killed on one. But my dad stepped up for me and signed so I could get the loan to get my 1948 Cushman. He probably wouldn’t have if he had known the truth about my crash - but I lied about it.
So I got my first “bike”, a Cushman motor scooter. I was a bit of a big wheel at the junior high school where I went. Only one or two other boys had scooters, and none as neat as mine. And nights were great, hanging out on a street corner with a bunch of kids, none of whom had a scooter. I felt like a hero. I wasn’t an athlete or a brain, but I had a scooter. Pretty big deal when you are 14.
MY FIRST BIG RIDE
After a while, I took my buddy Duke Reeves as a passenger and we set off on a trip to Lake Whales, a little more than 200 miles from Miami. On the way, a Florida Highway Patrol officer stopped us. He wanted to know what a couple of kids were doing on a motor scooter a long way from anywhere. I burned the Cushman up trying to keep up with him when he told me to follow him to the nearest town. We had to ship it home and go back on a Greyhound bus.
Then after I had the scooter about a year, it was stolen. Another ominous beginning. I didn’t have enough money to buy another Cushman, so I bought a Whizzer motorbike.
I didn’t like it as much as the Cushman. There was no room to let a girl ride behind me. Still, it was fun. Except when it rained, which was often in Miami. Then the belt would slip on the pulley, making it hard to start (by pedaling).
I needed to move away from bikes and into cars. It was time for high school and my folks did not own a car that I could use for dating. So, there was a period of about five or six years when I could not afford a car and a motorcycle, so the bike had to go. But I still yearned. I knew it was only a matter of time till I was back in the saddle. Meanwhile, I admired a couple of guys in high school who did have bikes. One was a tall redhead who had a Norton, and, interestingly, his name was Donald Norton. No relation, he assured us. The other guy was Kenny Lewis, who had an Indian. It was a little one, about 440cc as I remember, and it was probably made by Royal Enfield but marketed as an Indian. Whatever, if was totally neat - I mean cool.
IN THE NAVY
In 1955 I was in the Navy, stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. I bought my first real motorcycle then, a 650cc 1950 Triumph Thunderbird. The soldier that sold it to me gave me instructions on how to ride it for about a half hour. After that, I was on my own. I stalled it a couple of times, but quickly got the hang of it.
I met a few other bikers there to ride with. Some were U.S. military, like me, stationed there. Others were “Zonites” - civilians who lived there, mostly sons of parents who worked their for the government. We used to ride at night from the Pacific side to the Atlantic side - on moonlight nights with our lights off. It was only about 100 miles and there was no traffic. It was then that I had my first spill. We had pulled into a canteen for a little libation. The parking lot was gravel and when I grabbed the front brake I dropped it. The only thing I hurt was my dignity. But I guess that is how we learn.
I always remembered a guy named Hackett who was from California. He wore engineer boots - like we all did - and he had taps on the soles or heels. He used to drag his feet around the curves, making sparks. That was the ultimate in coolness.
But alas, my first motorcycle ended up the same as my first scooter - stolen. I had signed it over to a fellow sailor I was stationed with. He had my address and was supposed to send me money, but he never did. I wrote him and asked about payments but I never got any answers back.
COLLEGE – AND MY SECOND TRIUMPH
When I got out of the Navy in 1956 I enrolled at The University of Miami and bought another Triumph. This one was a 500cc Tiger. Once, on the corner by my house, I leaned it over too far in some gravel on the road and went down. I suffered a little “road rash”. That was one of the very few times in over 55 years of riding that I went down.
Helmets didn’t exist in those days. I used to ride out to the beach at Key Biscayne every Sunday in just a bathing suit and moccasins. And once, at night, going across the McArthur Causeway to Miami Beach, I rode between two cars - very close - to grin at the girls in the car on my left and ignore the guys in the car on my right who were trying to talk to them. Maybe God was my copilot in those days.
Once, I rode that Triumph from Miami to Daytona Beach to see the Daytona 200. It was the last year they raced on the beach and on the road. After the race, with dark starting, it was time to ride back to Miami. But when I fired the bike up the clutch cable broke. Well, I’m no mechanic and I was alone, so I rode all the way back to Miami, about 250 miles down U.S. 1 through all the towns, with no clutch. I had to time red lights to hit them green. I didn’t always succeed and when I didn’t I had to put the bike in neutral, then, when the light changed, push it, jump on and kick it into second gear. I was lucky because I made it home without incident.
I transferred to the University of Florida. Once, I had 3 big guys behind me while I straddled the gas tank and we rode over to the girl’s dprm. One of my roommates, Bob Haviland, had a new Ariel Square Four. What a great bike it was. Nothing sounded as good. Bob was a wild and crazy rider who loved to spin the bike when the road was wet, and who delighted in racing, especially against a guy named Dexter who had a big reputation with his Harley Sportster.
I don’t remember what happened to that Triumph, but I remember I had an AJS with no footpegs, a real junker. Bob and I and our other roommate, Cliff Smith, rode to Daytona Beach for speed week. Somehow, that old AJS survived the trip.
ON TO CALIFORNIA
I seemed to have had a proclivity for changing bikes a lot. I don’t know why. I think the grass always looked greener somewhere else. At any rate, I have owned about 45 motorcycles in my time. So, in 1960, a year after I graduated from college, I found myself with an Indian Tomahawk. It was a 500cc twin that was really made by Royal Enfield (I don’t remember what happened to the Triumph). I managed to take it apart enough to squeeze it into the trunk of the Buick I drove when I moved to California - along with all my other possessions. That was no small feat for me because I have less than zero mechanical ability.
I had only been in Los Angeles a couple of months when I decided to go see a famous desert event, The Greenhorn Enduro. It was very cold and I didn’t own gloves. So I put socks on my hands. The event started way out on the desert, around Lucerne Valley if memory serves correctly. By the time I got to San Bernardino from my rooming house in the mid Wilshire district, I was shivering violently. I went into a restaurant to warm up, but that slowed me up, and when I got to the start line the riders had all just left. I saw nothing, just their vans and trucks and departing crews.
THE CYCLE KNIGHTS
My next experience turned out better. They used to hold scrambles in the Santa Monica Mountains in an area called The Crater Bowl. I found it, and met a group of riders in a club called The Cycle Knights. The races were great – up and down some big hills, and, more importantly, I had new guys I could ride with.
The leader was “Big John” Rowland, and the weekly meetings were at his house in Echo Park, which wasn’t too far from the boarding house next to the Ambassador Hotel where I was living. He had two dogs, boxers, that seemed to crap where they shouldn’t have, but otherwise it was an agreeable group. I met a few friends there that I still have. I still ride with one, Mike Radner. And Jerry, a truck driver, now retired and living in Arizona. That’s where I met Monty, a muscular BMW rider who took meticulous care of his bikes – which kind of made him a misfit with most of the others. He later married another member, Mary, and they long ago moved to Montana.
Bike rides in those days usually resulted in somebody breaking down. Motorcycles in those days were not as reliable, and none of us could afford new ones. Mike Radner and I used to go to a Triumph shop in Glendale on Saturdays to wash our bikes. Electrics being what they were back then, we’d get water on the points (or whatever) and then the bikes wouldn’t start. We’d have to use carbon tetrachloride to get them going again. And, of course, everyone’s bike leaked oil. That’s just the way it was then.
Very few guys – and no women – rode motorcycles in those days. Consequently, we went out of our way to recruit members – especially, Bob W, who used to chase down other riders when he saw them, even on a freeway, to pull them over and invite them to a club meeting.
We had a few characters in the Cycle Knights. One guy, “Peanuts” once cut between a car pulling another one and got caught up in the chain he hadn’t seen. Miraculously, he wasn’t badly hurt. Then there was a little guy, about five feet three or so, who liked to dress like a cop. And, of course he rode a black and white Harley. Once, on a group ride, he got confused when the group took a road he thought wouldn’t take us where we were going, and another road he thought would. He couldn’t decide which way to go and instead went between them and crashed right into a large billboard. He got busted up some, but not that bad. To continue his policeman fetish, he later started and successfully operated a motorcycle escort service where he and his employees looked like real officers as they led funerals to cemeteries.
Once, riding into the driveway for a meeting, we were greeted by L.A. policemen pointing shotguns at us. It seems that Bob W was suspected of a burglary. He was innocent, but it was a bit of a scare for us.
I bought a BSA from a guy who was around the club a very short time. His name was Eddie, and I thought I would be smart and make sure the bike wasn’t burning oil. So I had him rev it up while I put a white rag behind the exhaust. When the bike didn’t smoke and no oil came out on the rag, I figured it didn’t burn oil. Some mistake that was – it didn’t smoke because there was no oil in it.
Another member, Glenn, an ex cop from St Louis, took pity on me and worked on the bike many nights in his back yard. But we made the mistake of using a hammer inside the tank to beat out a dent. That loosened up shale – or whatever – in the tank. So when I rode it, the bike would start sputtering and cutting out. I could control this by reaching down and pulling out a petcock. But I did this once by Griffith Park and had to ride back to the boarding house on Wilshire Boulevard with one hand, holding my thumb over the hole where the petcock had been. I guess it came out too far – al the way – when I pulled it out to get gas flowing freely.
RIDING THE HONDA 305 SUPERHAWK TO FLORIDA
It wasn’t long before that BSA turned in to a basket case again. (Guys used to say BSA stands for Bastard Stalled Again”). So I traded it in for a Honda 305cc Superhawk. That was a new bike on the market, the biggest thing Honda had built to date. It was unproven, but Monty had one and I respected his judgment. I was out of work then, in 1962, so I loaded that little Honda up with gear stacked on the back fender –it had no luggage rack – and took off for Miami. Since I have always had less than zero mechanical aptitude that was pretty daring. But I figured, what the hell, it’s a brand new bike, what could go wrong?
The ride to Florida was exciting, memorable, but too long too describe here. But there is a tale to tell about the return trip to California. It was raining all over the Southeast when I was ready to come back. In those days people advertised in the newspapers for people to drive their cars across the country. I found such a deal and managed to take the Honda apart and stuff it in the car’s trunk – the same way I had brought my Indian out two years earlier.
But the car was only going half way across the country – to Austin, Texas. When I got there and found somebody to put the bike back together it looked like more rain was coming. I’d been avoiding riding in the rain but it looked like I was still going to have to do it before I was through.
I was riding through New Mexico when I ran out of gas. Shame on me – that little Honda got great mileage. While I was stopped along the highway a Harley rider came along, driving a truck, and offered to take me into town to get gas and then to bring me back. He was a lifesaver. But we didn’t want to just leave the bike, loaded with all my gear, sitting unguarded on the shoulder of the road. So we pushed it off about 20 yards into the desert, then left a pile of rocks on the road to mark the spot.
When we got back and put the gas in the bike and fired it up, my benefactor asked if I was now okay. I said I was fine. He left and I got on the bike, revved it up, let out the clutch and dug a huge hole in the sand. If I couldn’t get the bike out of there I would have been up that dry creek without a paddle. But the bike was a real lightweight and after I took all my gear off I was able to drag it, with the help of the engine, out to the highway.
Then, in Arizona, where they only get about seven or eight inches of rain a year, it rained all the way across the state. Oh well, as they say nowadays, “Shit happens”.
When I got back the club began to change. The weird ones, like Peanuts, dropped out and we started getting a better bunch of guys – Bart, Ted, Dutch, Wayne, Pat. The bikes got better, more reliable, too. We started taking longer, overnight trips. A favorite spot was in the Sequoia National Forest at a campground called Peppermint Creek, where Monty used to wash in the ice-cold stream in the mornings. Those were great times, sitting around the campfire at night telling stories – and probably a few lies.
We still had a few characters, though. One guy, Bert, was very short and very round. Once, camped on a school ground yard, he came back 3 sheets to the wind, stopped, but forgot to put his foot down and fell over. Of course, he was too wasted to be hurt, or even embarrassed.
Another time, this guy, Howard, rode his wife, who was so pregnant it looked like the kid would come any minute, on the back fender of his beat up rickety old Harley, with no seat, only a blanket for padding. And this was a round trip to Yosemite, about 250 miles from home. He even forded a creek with her on the back. I sometimes wonder if maybe the kid came out with his brains scrambled.
On that same ride was “Nutty Chuck”, who slept so close to the fire that the sleeping bag he had wrapped around him caught fire. The next day, as we were riding out, stuffing from the bag was trailing out behind him.
Somewhere about this time I started getting interested in off road riding. In those days, nobody had a true dirt bike. Everyone rode stripped down English “lightweights”, mostly Triumphs and BSAs. So I entered a desert race on my BSA. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember my next attempt at desert racing. I was on a 500cc Velocette that was miserable to kick start if you didn’t remember the drill with the compression release, spark retard, top dead center crank, etc. Anyway, the shift was on the opposite foot from the one on my street bike – in those days it was not standard practice to have the gearshift on the left foot.
I got to the top of a hill and in front of me on the trail was a sidehack rig. The hill was steep and the passenger (“the monkey”) was out in front trying to hold the rig back as they lowered it down the hill. I stopped to wait for them and stepped on the rear brake – except I hit the gearshift and went right off the steep hill – off the trail and through a field of large rocks. I hung on almost to the bottom, but then I went over the handlebars.
The guy I was riding with – I forget now who it was – took a look at the bump on my collar bone and assured me it was nothing, that everyone has a bump there. But it turned out to be a broken collarbone. That was the most serious injury I have ever had on a motorcycle. And it wasn’t that painful. In fact, I stayed there after the race was over to help search for a missing 4-year-old boy who had wandered away from his campsite. We were there till after dark. Sadly, they found the boy a few days later, dead.
In those days you could pretty much ride off road anyplace. There were no restrictions and the “posey sniffers” weren’t organized enough to give us a hard time. The Cycle Knights had an area we would go to where we had set up our own “race course”, about five miles around. We rode it one guy at a time and clocked each one to see who was fastest. It was never me. One time when we were there, it was very cold, so Bob W decided to build a fire inside his van. Not a good move. The van didn’t burn up, but the inside was pretty much destroyed.
Another time five of us got lost in Death Valley. We rode up there two or three times on the highways, but a couple of times we took a dirt road across the valley for about 80 miles – riding street bikes. I was on a BMW. The last time we did it, against the strong advice of the forest ranger, with me leading, we got lost. We didn’t find our way out until after dark, when we were almost our of gas and the waiting wives were getting frantic.
GOING TO WORK FOR YAMAHA
I got lucky in 1964. Up until then I had only had deadend jobs. So I wrote letters to Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki asking for a job. Yamaha hired me. I became Assistant Director of Advertising and Public Relations. It was great! We advertised in big national magazines including Playboy. I got to travel around the country to dealer meetings, go to trade shows, and had a pass to Ascot Park, where I went many Friday nights to watch the half mile races. Sammy Tanner, “The Flying Flea” was the frequent winner.
I also went to the TT or steeplechase races on occasional Sundays at Ascot. They were usually a duel between Eddie Mulder and “The Flying Dutchman”, national number 59, Skip Van Leeuwen, a guy I still see at British bike meets. In fact, when Yamaha brought the prototype of their snowmobile to this country Skip was the guy we hired to be our first “test pilot”. I, and some of my colleagues, had a ball with Skip trying them out at Mammoth. Skip and I learned to ski together when we were there.
We were running ads in Cycle Guide and the publisher, Bill Quinn was frequently in our Montebello office. One day I told him I would like to write for him –and he gave me the chance. That is how my monthly column called OVER THE HANDLEBARS was born. It ran for seven years, and the editor, Bob Braverman always ran what I submitted.
When my boss, Jimmy Jingu, a great guy, died, I became Director of Advertising. That was by far the best job I ever had. I still kick myself almost daily for ever quitting it. I left because I wanted to work for an advertising agency, where the creative process takes place. Six months after the agency lured me away from Yamaha, they fired me. But that’s another story.
I worked for Bates Industries for a year. They made leathers, exhaust pipes, fairings, saddlebags and more. Good products, and they let me write their ads. But it was a stifling place to work. You were almost chained to your desk except when the lunch wagon came.
After Bates I got involved with the distributor for Puch and DKW motorcycles. I opened my own agency and my client was their distributor, Ted L , a good guy. I did some creative things for him. I had a few clients from the motorcycle industry but I was never a big success and eventually got away from the motorcycle industry all together.
But there were a couple of other things. I started CYCLE SHIRT SHOP. I had drawings made up and silk screened them on T-shirts. That was long before anybody had anything on their shirts, nothing like now. I was ahead of my time. I advertised in motorcycle magazines and most of my business was mail order. But I also went to local motorcycle races and set up a stand to sell shirts. My friend Mary, the one from the Cycle Knights, who married Monty, used to come to my house and print shirts in my garage. But I never made a lot of money at it. It was just a sideline that I eventually tired of and dropped.
A few years later, I had another idea. I would start a motorcycle tour company. There were none at that time. I was again, ahead of my time. I laid out a thousand mile route that would include Yosemite and Big Sur. I even had places lined up for my customers to stay. I put together a brochure and ran ads, but no customers. I had plenty of inquiries, but everyone wanted to rent a motorcycle and I could not find a company that would offer me insurance. So, CALIFORNIA MOTORCYCLE TOURS, never got off the ground. Too bad – today touring companies are big business.
Once, I had my closest call to a bad accident. I was riding slowly through Santa Paula when a Mustang was headed straight at me. I went for the gutter, right up against the curb. The driver, who had been eating a sandwich and not paying attention when the road curved, hit me and destroyed the saddlebag on the left of my rear fender. There was a lady I was dating sitting right behind me. She had never been on a motorcycle before, and, fortunately, had been looking the other way when we were hit. She didn’t even realize what had happened.
It turned out the driver was the wife of a Harley rider and was most contrite. I told her to pay for the saddlebag and I would forget it. But she came within inches of hitting Trish’s leg. The way she shattered that saddlebag, I hate to think what would have happened to the leg if she had hit less than a foot further back.
I did a lot of desert racing in the ‘70s. I entered hare scrambles, hare ‘n hounds, European Scrambles and a couple of enduros. I usually went out to the race early on Sundays. I was always nervous until the race started. Then adrenalin took over. I always had the runs when I arrived. Not a good way to prepare for a race. The guys that were more serious about it came out on Saturdays and practiced. They didn’t let you run the course, but you could get used to the territory, to the traction, the lay of the land.
I was pretty consistent. Lots of riders didn’t finish. I always did. But I was almost always DFL (dead friggin last) or close to it. My best achievement was in the famous Barstow to Vegas race. The year I ran it there were 3500 entries. I got to the finish in Las Vegas when it was getting dark. I was 14 hundred and something, and my wife, who was starting to really worry, was relieved to see me. There were hundreds of guys stranded out on the desert to spend a cold night before their friends or pit crews rescued them. At least I had done better than them. I was riding a Bultaco Pursang in that race.
When my racing days were over I started going out to California City with Herald and his son Jeff. We used to ride over the hill to Randsburg, an old mining town where they had an authentic soda fountain where you could get an ice cream soda, just like in the old days..
I quit riding the desert for a long time. But then, a few years ago, I bought a dual sport Honda and started riding fire roads near home. These are roads that are sometimes not used by anyone for maybe weeks. And I never took a tool kit (which I wouldn’t know how to use anyway) or water, or a cell phone or extra clothes. Not too smart, kind of chancey. Then I sold the Honda and bought a 250cc Kawasaki from a friend. I was nearing the end of my ride, only a mile from a paved road, when I crashed. I was able to pick the bike up and ride it home, but I had cracked a couple of ribs and took off some skin. Next to the broken collar bone I got in my second desert race, that was the worst I have ever been hurt motorcycling. Pretty good, considering I was 73 at the time. But I decided maybe it was time to give up on off road riding.
RIDING WITH TURN 2
About six or seven years ago my buddy Mike Radner invited me to ride with his club, TURN 2. I’ve ridden with them often since then. But they are mostly racers, guys that go to Willow Springs and other road race courses to practice. And, except for Mike, they are all much younger than me. And many are on hot sport bikes. I can’t keep up. I ride as fast as I dare, but I can’t keep up. They wait for me when they come to a turn off. But I don’t like riding as fast as I do, and I don’t like making them wait. So, I don’t plan to ride with them as often.
I told my wife – and myself – that when I hit 75 I was going to quit. I’ve ridden all these years without getting seriously hurt. Motorcycling is dangerous. I think my eyesight and reflexes are not what they once were. Maybe it is time to say, after some 55 years, that it’s been a great run, time to hang it up. Trouble is, now I’m 76 and I still don’t want to quit. Because I still love to ride.
MOTORCYCLES I HAVE OWNED
3 Triumph Thunderbird 650
4 Triumph Tiger 500
5 Indian Tomahawk (Royal Enfield) 500
6 BSA 650
7 Harley 45cu inch
8 ‘57 Harley Sportster
9 BSA 650
10 Triumph Cub
11 Vincent Black Shadow
13 Honda 305 Super Hawk
14 BMW (old & purple)
15 Norton Commando (1 or 2 ?)
16 Kawasaki 238cc Green Streak
17 Kawasaki 750cc 2 stroke
18 Honda 250cc Elsinore
19 Bultaco Pursang
20 DKW 125cc
21 Kawasaki 900cc 4 cylinder
22 Yamaha 400cc yellow
23 Yamaha 400cc blue IT
24 Yamaha 1100xt (brown 12 years)
25 Yamaha 1100xt sport model black (new)
26 Yamaha 1100xt sport (bought from Clutch)
27 Yamaha 600 single (bought from Dick Allen)
28 Honda 500cc single
29 Honda 50cc scooter
30 Kawasaki Concours 1200 (10,500 mile ride)
31 Kawasaki 250cc dual sport - (bought from John Freeman)
32 Kawasaki 1100 LTD (‘83)
33 Yamaha FJ 1000
34 Suzuki Bandit
35 BMW 1100 sport
36 Honda 1100ST (red - beautiful)
37 Yamaha FZ1000
If you like nostalgia, and humor, and espcially if you like motorcycles, you may enjoy my book, OVER THE HANDLEBARS. It is a collection of 24 short stories and articles, most of which were first published in motorcycle magasinze in the 1960s. It is available from Amazon.com. I also have written two other books about motorcycling availalbe from Amazon.com. You can read all 3 of them on your computer for just $2.99 each. Go to motorcyclenostalgia.com.
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