Thursday, April 02, 2015


Star of the show; the 1939 Vincent-HRD Series A Rapide, which was rescued from the junk man! 
The twice-yearly Stafford auction by Bonhams is the European counterpoint to the January Las Vegas sales, providing a barometer of collectible motorcycle market worldwide, as well as the primary source of cool old bikes for those on the hunt.   The April 26th sale promises to raise a few eyebrows along with the prices for a few ultra-desirable machines, most notably the one-of-70odd 1939 Vincent-HRD Series A Rapide.  The pre-war Rapide vies with the Black Lightning as the most coveted of all Vincents, and they have similar production numbers (curiously, about the same as their price-mate Crocker motorcycles...what is it with '70-odd' hot-rods?).   The previous sale of a Series A twin fetched $366,000...I'll be curious if the recent EJ Cole sale will encourage buyers to break previous top sales for this 'king of the road'?
George Cohen Custom style...
Other great machines coming up: one of George Cohen's 'special' Norton customs, this an original 1926 Model 18 racer, done up in a grey-on-grey paint scheme, very similar to the machine featured in Conrad Leach's portrait of George, at speed on his beloved flat-tanker.  George has built a few of these flat-tank customs, both for Dunhill showrooms and private customers, and his work is top notch. If anyone knows their Nortons, it's George!
1930 Scott Sprint Special...
There are several variations on the Scott two-stroke theme, including a 1930 Sprint Special, which is simply exquisite in its pared-down functionality (and eccentricity), and a genuine 1926 Scott factory TT Racer, which looks astonishingly correct and with a nice worn-in patina, being an older restoration, with a few miles under its belt (road-registered - as old race bikes should be!).

The hot rod Silk, with a 500cc short-stroke, piston-ported racing engine
Another ultra-rare Scott based machine is this 1977 Silk 700S Mk2, one of George Silk's homage/updates to his beloved Scott marque.  Silk created an engine based closely on the Scott, with updates for speed and power, but he retained the Scott 'deflector piston' system, which gives great low-end power, but not so great top end power.  While other 700cc mid-'70s two-strokes were popping wheelies and scaring the crap out of their owners in corners, the Silk is eminently civilized, smooth and quick, with a racing chassis by Spondon, which means it can be ridden in the real world every bit as quickly as its rivals, except at the stoplight drag race.  This machine is extra special, as Silk experimented with a modern piston-port design on a few racing machines of 500cc, which were indeed as fast as their contemporaries.   This bike is one of 2 roadsters fitted with such a motor, and even though it's 200cc down on the standard product, no doubt it's 20mph faster on the top end.  This is one machine I'd have liked to find in a private sale, but it will be entertaining to watch the Silk fanatics duke it out in the auction.
The 1926 ex-Works Scott TT racer
What else?  A few Brough Superiors, four American four-cylinder machines (Cleveland, Excelsior, Indian, and Ace), and pair of Coventry-Eagle Flying 8s from the estate of an old pal of mine...bikes I tried to buy many years ago but couldn't quite finish the deal.  Now someone will have to pay 10x what I offered 10 years ago - these are very cool bikes.  It's my understanding (from the late owner) the OHV Flying 8 engine is a later addition; the bike originally had a 4-cam JAP sidevalve motor, which is included in the SV Flying 8 package sold separately (which has a single-cam engine included too). The 'real' OHV Flying 8 has a chassis with a larger diameter top tube than the SV - it's relatively easy to compare if you do a little homework.  The former owner rode this machine extensively, and it's a real beauty.
Red-fronted beauty, the Coventry-Eagle Flying 8 with JAP KTOR 1000cc motor.  
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Wednesday, April 01, 2015


Our new AMG Sprinter - the 180mph mobile darkroom.
As announced this morning on our new Instagram account (@wetplatevan), my photographic partner Susan McLaughlin and I have embarked on a 3-year world tour in our new Sprinter, a gift from our sponsor Mercedes-Benz.  They've generously loaned us their latest model, the AMG Sprinter with a turbocharged V8 engine (developing 503hp), which will make short work of the long-distance touring we've got planned.   And when the going gets rough, it's got adjustable ride-height air shocks and 4WD, so mountain passes in the Andes or Himalayas won't be a bother.

Will we be in your town?  We'll try!  Bring out your bike!
Follow our MotoTintype World Tour on,, and on our Instagram feed (@thevintagent, @suzieheartbreak, @wetplatevan); we started this morning in San Francisco, and had passed Tijuana by noon!  'Haulin' ass for photographs'.  Check our route map to see if we're passing through your town; maybe we'll shoot you!
Wet Plates make even Fat-tire choppers look cool.
We're happy to make action shots too, if you can keep your bike still for 3 seconds...
Wet Plates: making middle-aged men look like heroes since 1850.
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Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Stefan Knittel, author, and director of the Concorso di Moto at Villa d'Este, has a new book about BMW racers
Author Stefan Knittel has literally 'written the book' on BMWs (among other marques), and has developed a close relationship with that factory's archive. No-one is better placed to assemble a book of historic BMW motorcycle racing photographs from the factory's own files, and for BMW's 90th anniversary, Schneider Media UK Ltd commissioned a book documenting the full history of BMW on and off-road racing machines.
A BMW R37 in 1925, with a confident rider.  A beautiful machine... 
'BMW Motorrad-Rennsport: 1929-2013' has over 600 photos, many of which you've never seen before, and most of which are simply friggen' awesome. I think it's fair to say that BMW has supported more types of motorcycle racing over a longer period than any other brand in history, from the GP circuits of Europe on two and 3 wheels, the record-breaking autobahns of Germany, the muddy trials courses of the ISDT, and the sands of Africa in the grueling Paris-Dakar races.  They were pioneers of supercharging in the late 1920s, and photos of all the blown bikes are included here, from the first pushrod 750s to the last national-championship OHC machines of 1950, when BMW was banned from international racing, so kept using their RS Kompressor racers, because they could (supercharged racers were used in off-road competition too, pre-War).
An R100RS in 1977 modified for a 24-hour world speed record in Italy, at the Nardo test course
While competing in so many fields, BMW built dozens of wickedly cool one-off bikes; dirt bikes, streamliners, road racers, concept machines, sidecars, etc.   All of them are idiosyncratic, devastatingly functional, and stylistically unique, and usually quite beautiful.  The book is crammed with rare images of these amazing machines, including later-era stuff we vintagents didn't even know existed!
BMW's first supercharged pushrod 750 of 1929, before they integrated the blower into the crankcase design, and merely sat it atop the gearbox.  Clunky but oh so cool...
OK, the bad news, it's in German only at this point.  But you really only wanted the pictures, right?   Order here from Schneider Media, it's 49 euros plus shipping.  Totally worth it.

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Monday, March 23, 2015


Star of the show: Steve McQueen's 1915 Cyclone - an $842,000 engine in a $10,000 Indian chassis...a new world record, now at the top of my 'Most Expensive Motorcycles' list
Two Vegas auctions in a year?  Apparently so, at least under extraordinary circumstances, and the sale of the legendary EJ Cole collection from Texas was indeed worth the trip.  With an approximately $13.5Million total sale (including fees) from 220 bikes, it was the highest-grossing motorcycle auction ever, and broke world records for the highest price ever paid at auction ($852,500) for a 1915 Cyclone engine in an Indian chassis, formerly owned by Steve McQueen, and the highest price ever paid for a Harley-Davidson ($715,000) for an incredible, original-paint 1907 'strap tank' model, perhaps the best early H-D in the world.
The 1907 H-D 'strap tank', from the 3rd year of H-D production, and in beautiful original condition, sold for $715,000, a world record for a Harley-Davidson, and now #2 on my 'Most Expensive Motorcycles' list...
Who is EJ Cole and how did this collection come about?  According to the man himself, he purchased 13 antique American motorcycles from a Seattle collector in 1979, along with a huge pile of spares, for $75,000, which was a lot of money for a bunch of old bikes at that date.  He had been advised by his nephew, Lonnie Isam Sr, to purchase this estate in order to 'flip' it at a profit.  Isam took possession of the collection with the intention of selling, but after a few days of no action, EJ Cole reconsidered the wisdom of a quick buck, and had the bikes delivered to his home in Texas. Cole felt that such rare machines would inevitably rise in value, and set about creating a very large collection of rare, early American bikes, under the tutelage of Isam and other old-bike brokers such as RL Jones.  How right his intuition proved to be.
Mecum's Ron Christensen with the man himself, EJ Cole
Cole collected well, and while 1/3 of his machines were 'ordinary' postwar Harley-Davidson twins (Knucklehead, Panhead, Shovelhead), the bulk of the collection was at least very interesting, and at best some of the most remarkable early American motorcycles anywhere.  He had been pestered to sell the collection for many years, and every auction house and wealthy collector made inquiries and offers, although the action heated up last year between several parties interested.  EJ Cole was the obstacle, asking unrealistic and variable prices, and vexing all suitors.  Finally, he succeeded in driving everyone away, but ultimately had a change of heart, perhaps due to a combination of pressure from his heirs, his own advancing age (89), and the lure of many millions of dollars.
The 1911 Flying Merkel original-paint board tracker, which sold for $423,500
Mecum Auctions, via Ron Christenson, claim that 'no deal' and 'no guarantees' were made to EJ Cole in selling the collection, most of which was sold at no reserve last weekend.  Prices on the whole were 'retail', ie, what one would expect, although quite a few deals were had in the margins, like an lovely old-paint WW2 Indian Scout for $13k, and an OHV Reading Standard racer, which might have been a fantasy OHV, or a bitsa, but was certainly a bargain at $25k. 
Subject to a bidding fight between Australia's Peter Arundel (whose Indian 8-Valve was the subject of Machine Files #3) and board track expert Daniel Statnekov, who wanted it just a little more...
Behind the podium - I provided 'color' commentary on the bikes, while the auctioneers kept up the blistering pace, and Dana Mecum a close eye on the crowd...

You’ll note two of these record-setting machines still bore their manufacturer’s paint scheme, and the motorcycle market is far ahead of the collector’s car scene in recognizing the value of unmolested originality.  In common with the art and antiques markets, the old-bike world prefers its machinery to be ‘real’…perhaps because so many excellent replicas are scattered across the globe, with sheepish owners crossing fingers behind their backs, displaying their ‘racers’ with pride.  Nowadays you need a forensic scientist to sort if that Indian was built in 1912 or 2012; how many of its parts actually emerged from Springfield, or were merely created while watching The Simpsons?
Ready to push an original-paint 1925 Excelsior-Henderson across the ramp...
Trends?  Obviously, prices for blue-chip bikes are going up with no end in sight, but let's be clear - there are VERY FEW such machines on the planet.  There are a couple of hundred JAP-engined Brough Superior SS100s, 70-odd Crockers and Vincent Series A twins, a dozen Cyclones, and very few original-paint board track racers. A few exotic GP bikes and supercharged pre-WW2 racers should be added to the list, but by my reckoning that's still only 500ish really top-rank motorcycles in the world which are likely to fetch more than $250k at auction today.  The EJ Cole auction was an extraordinary collection, but most of the bikes on offer - even very rare, early American collectibles - sold for less than $50k.  
First year of production 1912 Henderson, sold for $225,500
Prices for old motorcycles are basically flat, as they have been for years.  I see no general trend for escalating prices, except select cases (notably Indian 4s at the Cole auction) which seem to be on the rise.  Motorcycles which were produced in the thousands are far more numerous than riders willing to use them, and as most collectors have ten or more motorcycles, it's clear demand for old machines is not high.  Which means we need to ride them a whole lot more.
Bargains?  Yes, this original 1943 Indian Scout went for $13k, and Roland Sands will no doubt do something fun with it...
'Riders not hiders' occupied a good number of seats at the auction, and probably 10 of the bikes sold will participate in the 2016 Motorcycle Cannonball across-America rally. Cannonball veterans had a post-auction banquet which, like most things Cannonball, sold out early; 64 seats filled (and a dozen sadly turned away) by folks who'd ridden their old machines 4100 miles on a rally.  That was the most heartening statistic of all. 
A few of the many Cannonballers who showed up to buy, or merely enjoy the company

Thursday, March 19, 2015


The new Ducati Scrambler: perhaps the most obvious example of how alt.customs are influencing corporate motorcycles
Sideburn magazine's Gary Inman, a friend of mine, wrote a thought-provoking piece on (a multi-motor blogazine) called 'Custom Bikes and Trophy Wives'.  I'll quote a few bits here, but if you're at all involved with the alt.custom scene, it's worth a read, and I'd love to hear your opinion.  I confess to be deeply embedded in this world professionally, while never having been an owner/rider/builder of alt.customs themselves. Still, I count many of the most important players in this business as personal friends, so am well-placed to write about their world.  Hence my 'Custom and Style' editorship at Cycle World...
Gary credits the Wrenchmonkees of Denmark for an explosion of a particular style, which is becoming cliché with various imitators.  Of course, plenty of alt.custom builders do things very differently...
Some thoughts from Gary: "The annexation of the most vibrant motorcycle sub-culture in decades didn’t take long...For marketing departments, desperate to find any growth in Northern hemisphere biking, it’s an easy sell. It’s all smart haircuts and expensive denim, an appreciation of art, architecture and photography, a willingness and the means to travel. The holy-bleeding-grail of target audience if you’re trying to shift ‘lifestyle’ products. And the bike manufacturers didn’t have to lift a finger for the scene to become so large they could no longer ignore its potential. What was an exciting niche is now a cliché. Inevitably. But – another question that only time has the answer to – is it a bad thing for ‘the scene’?..."

On that note, it might be worth re-reading my 'Instafamous/Instabroke' essay from Classic Bike Guide (republished on BikeExif)  or my very similar thoughts on the Industry poking fingers into the Custom scene, called 'Awake, Leviathan', also in CBG (read it here).

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015


One of the first Crocker 'big twins', serial #8 from 1936, a 'small tank' model, to be raffled off.  The Crocker was a limited-production factory hot-rod, and equalled the HRD Series A Rapide twin, introduced the same year, as the fastest production motorcycles in the world.  Curiously, both machines had about the same production figures - 'around 75' - and both are obscenely expensive today
Just in time for the EJ Cole auction in Las Vegas (I'll be your 'color man' on the podium), in which a Crocker will be sold among many other very rare American machines, comes news of the Megabike Raffle.  The basic premise is simple; as a fundraiser for the Amelia Island Foundation, Dale Walksler of the Wheels Through Time Museum has put up one of his Crockers (#8, an original 'hemi-head' model) as the grand prize in a raffle.  There will be a limit of 5000 tickets sold, and each ticket is $1000, although there's a discounted rate for buying multiple tickets.
Dale Walksler with the engine that started the ball rolling...
Dale found the engine of #8 from a fax image of the serial number (36-61-8), and managed to secure this super-rare early hemi-head Crocker motor from the estate of Jack Reddeman of Fresno.  Reddeman had collected some famous Crocker machines, including the Sam Parriott land speed record racer, which used twin carbs.  The whole machines were long gone, but an engine remained from the pile - #8.  (Read more about Crocker history here)
David Uhl's painting 'The Discovery', part of the grand prize
The Crocker isn't the only prize - the winner also gets and original David Uhl oil painting 'The Discovery' (of Dale uncovering the bike in a barn), plus $100k in cash.  Yow.  Every ticket included a lifetime membership at the Wheels Through Time Museum, and a print of the David Uhl painting.  Check out more here; somebody is going to win a Crocker. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015


A c.1910 Thor-engined Minneapolis board track racer
The brothers Jack, Walter, Anton and Paul Michaelson, while not the first pioneers of American motorcycling, still managed with their small Minnesota company to introduce significant innovations to motorcycling, all of which were later adopted by the industry. Innovation doesn't always equal success, though, and while their 'Minneapolis' and 'Michaelson' brand motorcycles are very rare today, they deserve a place in the motorcycle history as important contributor to the progress of technology.
Company founder and chief engineer Joe (Jack) Michaelson c.1910, on a Thor-engined single-speed board track racer with a reduction gear on the crankshaft
The Michaelson brothers joined the small ranks of Minnesota motorcycle manufacturers in 1908, when they built a brick factory at 526-530 Fifth Street South in Minneapolis, across the Mississippi river from the Thiem Manufacturing Co. (in the 'twinned' city of St. Paul). Thiem, who'd been attaching small engines to bicycle frames since 1900, provided the Michaelson's first engines, which were the ubiquitous 316cc single-cylinder F-heads with ‘atmospheric’ inlet valves.  They called their motorcycle 'Minneapolis' after their home city.   According to Anton's gradson Ky 'Rocketman' Michaelson, Jack was president and treasurer, Walter the vice president, superintendent, and machinist, and A.L.Kirk was secretary.
A.L. Kirk, secretary of the Minneapolis Motorcycle Co, photographed by the Indianapolis Star newspaper while tooling around the Indy track at the very first race, which a Minneapolis machine won on Aug  15, 1909.  Kirk's machine is clearly not a racer, but it seems the factory was present to provide support for its riders.
The Michaelson brothers also purchased V-twin engines from the Aurora Automatic Machinery Co. (Thor), another bedrock of the American motorcycle industry.  Aurora had been building Oscar Hedstrom's Indian engine design since 1901, since his partner George Hendee, who'd been building bicycles since 1889, didn't have the general engineering facilities required to cast and machine motors.  Hendee had all the facilities to build the heavy-duty bicycle chassis, but Aurora built their engines through 1907, after which Indian took over all its own production.  Part of Aurora's deal with Indian was licensed production of the Hedstrom motor, an F-head (inlet over exhaust) with 'atmospheric' intake valves, in single and twin-cylinder form, which they sold as their own 'Thor' brand, and also found their way into Merkel, Racycle, Reading Standard, and many other makes, each of which contributed to Indian's (and Aurora's) profits.
R.S. Porter on another Thor-engined twin-cylinder racer in 1910
As racing was always the best advertisement, the Michaelson brothers threw their hat into the ring by 1909, participating in various local hillclimbs and track races with single and twin-cylinder Minneapolis racers, both types using the distinctive F-head Thor engines. They won a 5-mile handicap at the very first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on August 15, 1909, one of four motorcycle events that day...although it took another 100 years for motorcycles to return.  
The original Indianapolis Motor Speedway poster from 1909 - note the dates on the poster are different than the actual races - rain stopped play, and they were postponed...the event was roundly considered a disaster with accidents and disgruntled riders, who threatened to go on strike due to the rough track surface.  No wonder bikers were never invited back...
Paul Koutowski won that Indy race on a Minneapolis v-twin with Thor engine, which used a two-speed rear hub - a truly historic occasion, although motorcycle racing at Indy is largely forgotten today: the motorcycle races preceded automobile racing on the track by a year, and the rough original surface led to two crashes in the two-wheel race (one of whom was Jake DeRosier), and two fatalities in the first car race.  The surface was repaved with bricks in 1911, and the 'Brickyard' was born...with no more bikes until 2009, when world champ Nicky Hayden pottered around on a vintage Indian.
Winner of the first (and last, for a Century) motorcycle race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of four held that day
By 1910 Thor had a totally new v-twin engine of more modern design, and their racing development was overseen by William 'Bill' Ottoway, who would lead them to some success...enough anyway for Harley-Davidson to hire Ottoway away from Thor around 1913, to head their new racing department, which debuted under his direction in 1914.
William Ottoway's racing influence is clear with these Thor-engined Minneapolis single- and twin-cylinder racers
The photographs of Joe Michaelson racing a single and twin-cylinder Minneapolis, in what appears to be a factory racing team in 1910, are from Ky Michaelson's website, but documentation on this period of Minneapolis racing is scarce.  It seems they were successful and won the Riverside Hillclimb, of which the Minneapolis Motorcycle Club (the town or the factory?) was a sponsor.  R.S. Porter was the winner on a twin-cylinder, Thor-engined Minneapolis.
The first Michaelson-designed motor, a sidevalve of 600cc, was among the first to use this configuration in the industry.  Note the leading-link forks, which were also a Michaelson Bros design
By 1911, the Michaelson brothers had designed their own sidevalve engine, among the first in the motorcycle industry, which relied on the 'F-Head' design almost exclusively since Comte DeDion first designed his almost universally adopted motor back in 1889 (licensed to over 150 moto-cycle factories!). The Minneapolis engine was big for a single-cylinder, at 36cu” (590cc), with a bore of 3.5” and stroke of 3.75”, and sold for $265.  
The Minneapolis patented two-speed countershaft gearbox, incorporated in unit with the single-cylinder machines, and as a bolted-on attachment to the Spacke v-twins
This new Minneapolis was the first American motorcycle to feature a two-speed countershaft (or layshaft) gearbox, and debuted at the Chicago Automobile Show on Feb. 6, 1909.  Their two-speed transmission was housed within a unit-construction engine case, which was also a first in the US. The timing chest was one the ‘wrong’ side of the engine, and with valves on the left, the Minneapolis went counter to every other American manufacturer. This seems to be more a matter of brand identity than necessity, as the geared primary drive had an idler gear, meaning the engine and gearbox ran the same direction - unlike the later Indian Scout, which had a two-gear primary drive, and the engine ran 'backwards'.
A 1913 Minneapolis v-twin with Spacke engine and two-speed gearbox
The combined engine/gearbox was a very compact unit, with a gear-driven magneto and all-chain drive. The front forks were a novel leading-link design, very similar to the FN/Sager fork, but a little more robust in construction - later machines all seem to have leaf-sprung forks though. The Minneapolis was designed as a unique machine bristling with advanced features, some of which were not adopted by other American manufacturers until the 1950s! 
The Minneapolis was rare among all motorcycle manufacturers to feature the 'timing' side of the engine on the left.  Spacke appears to have specially cast its crankcases to suit the reversed Minneapolis engine
The range of 1912 Minneapolis motorcycles were called the ‘Big 5’, and the single was rated by the factory at 11.5hp, who promised the bike was ‘reliable – quick – efficient’.
The 1911 Minneapolis 'Big 5' single-cylinder
From the delightful 1913 Minneapolis catalog: “We Built them Right in 1912 – Then Bettered them for 1913. We set the pace for ourselves! All that we learned, all that past experience had taught us, all that we could glean from riders and the best authorities everywhere, were incorporated into the new 1913 Minneapolis. The new models are not “makeovers”.  Nor are they “leftovers”. We simply made our former sturdy models better than ever. If you knew the 1912 Minneapolis you will be more surprised with our newest models.  We have ample facilities, plenty of capital and a competent enough organization to fully guarantee the Minneapolis. As to gracefulness of outline and sturdiness of build, the Minneapolis is all the most exacting buyer could demand. But please look below the surface.  Let us tell you a few things we have done and some of the departures we stand for. We were among the first to appreciate the advantages offered by a variable speed drive and for the past four years have steadily adhered to this feature. The standard equipment is 28" wheel, but in lieu of the 2.5" tire formally used, the 1913 standard is 2.75”.  The latest type of knock-out front axle and Thor brakes have been adopted…"
It appears a Minneapolis sidevalve single was used in a round-the-world trip covering 65,000 miles in 1911, by Murry Humphries and his wife.
Beginning in 1912, to ‘satisfy all demands’, the Michaelson brothers added a v-twin to their range, with the well-known Spacke F-head. The Spacke motor was special for the Minneapolis, as the right-side crankcase half incorporated the gear drive for the Minneapolis primary case, and their 2-speed gearbox was bolted directly onto the rear of the crankcase. Thus, the Spacke engine was placed ‘backwards’ relative to the many other makes using this motor (Sears, Dayton, DeLuxe, etc), but the magneto shaft drive still faced ‘forwards’, as this crankcase casting was a mirror of that used on the Sears and Dayton. Curiously, the ‘Eagle’ motorcycle used a Spacke engine with this same magneto configuration, but with the engine placed in the ‘normal’ direction, so the mag was behind the motor. Perhaps after Spacke made the ‘custom’ crankcases for Minneapolis, they were able to sell a few to Eagle, and occasion to be at least a little different from Sears and Dayton? 
Anton Michaelson branched out into tri-car manufacture in 1913/4
By the time the US entered WW1 (late 1914), any American motorcycle manufacturer which hadn't jumped the bandwagon for military contracts found themselves struggling with rapidly escalating labor and materials costs - inflation caused by the a massive US gov't injection of cash into the economy for the war effort.  As a result, dozens of US motorcycle makers went out of business during WW1, and the range of motorcycles available shrank to just a handful post-1918, which was further knocked by a sudden availability of cheap war surplus motorcycles.   The Michaelson brothers sold the company in April 1914 to the Wilcox Motor Co., with new president Lee W. Oldfield, an automobile racing driver, but it doesn't appear to have lasted much later than 1914, despite a $50,000 injection of capital from I.A. Webb, of Deadwood, SD. 
A 1911 sidevalve Michaelson single, with separate countershaft gearbox
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