Saturday, October 18, 2014

'THE VINTAGENT' ON NPR

The 'wet plate' photo I shot of the 'Captain America' chopper last May
The upcoming sale of Michael Eisenberg's 'Captain America' chopper (later today) prompted quite a bit of interest in the film, the bike, and the back story of the bikes used in Easy Rider.  As I'd just researched this very subject for my book 'The Chopper; the Real Story' (Gestalten), and have what I believe is a fairly complete picture of the origins and build of 'Captain America', I guess I've become an expert on the subject!  National Public Radio producer Tom Dreisbach assembled the story, and I was interviewed in the studios of KQED in San Francisco, which was a novel experience for me.  I'm regularly interviewed on radio and for podcasts, but have never before been on All Things Considered!
The 'wet plate' portrait of Cliff 'Soney' Vaughs I shot at a reunion of man and machine last May in LA, for 'The Chopper: the Real Story'
The story is available on a podcast at the NPR site, and the text of the story is on the same page.  It's not the complete story - you'll have to buy my book to read that, as it's complicated and long.  I had the pleasure, by coincidence the same day as the NPR broadcast, of meeting Larry Marcus in Oregon last week; Larry is a professional mechanic, and actually built the 'B' bikes for Easy Rider, in the backyard of the home he shared with Cliff Vaughs in 1967/8.  The spot he chose to meet (and Indian Casino) was, by greater coincidence, having a small chopper show at the time, which included a pair of replicas of the Easy Rider choppers.  Strange and stranger, but there you go - the life of the Vintagent is never without surprises.
Larry Marcus with a Captain America replica...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THE DICTATOR'S 'KNUCKLEHEAD'

A recent publication from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC explored the history of one of their motorcycles (yes, they have many, including Sylvester Roper's 'first ever motorcycle' of 1867, and the Curtiss V-8 record-breaker of 1906, which clocked 136.3mph at Ormonde Beach, FL). Their intern Christine Miranda did a little investigating, and came up with this story - it seemed perfect for The Vintagent (and thanks to David Blasco for the nudge!):

Jorge Ubico, president of Guatemala from 1931-44, the 'Little Napoleon of the Tropics', tearing through the countryside on his 1942 Harley-Davidson EL 'Knucklehead'

"In museums, it's common for a single artifact to tell many diverse stories, far beyond the scope of any one exhibition. Christine Miranda, who interned with our Program in Latino History and Culture, explores this idea when she encounters a motorcycle used in Guatemala and digs further.

Our America on the Move exhibition on the history of U.S. transportation is designed to transport you around the United States. As visitors explore all 26,000 square feet of our Hall of Transportation, they "travel across America," entering a variety of carefully curated historical moments. One of the exhibition's later segments, "Suburban Strip," immerses museumgoers into the life of the "car-owning middle class" in Portland, Oregon, 1949. The display, complete with a replica road, features an array of vehicles typical of the time and place: a pickup truck, a Greyhound bus, a motor scooter, and even a genuine Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Despite the bike's 1949 Oregon license plate, it was never actually ridden in the Pacific Northwest.

Where was it really used? The roadways and landscapes of Guatemala. What's more, the customized motorcycle was owned for several years by the Central American country's president, Jorge Ubico.
I discovered the object's mysterious past while searching the item catalogues for traces of hidden Latino history at the museum. I guess you could say I hit the jackpot. Though a Guatemalan ruler's motorcycle may seem like an odd choice for the collections at the National Museum of American History, its inclusion in fact sheds light on the global impact of U.S. transportation industries and broadens our understanding of who, what, and where "America" includes.

On the left, the museum's 1942 Harley-Davidson motorcycle as it appears in "America on the Move", designed to fit mid-century Portland, Oregon. On the right, the motorcycle parked in a driveway with a license plate that reads "Guatemala 1979-1983." 
Jorge Ubico, a well-educated lawyer and politician from his nation's capital city, ascended to the Guatemalan presidency in 1931. He would then stay in that post for 13 years and become the self-proclaimed "little Napoleon of the tropics." Besides his flair for the ostentatious and suppression of political dissent, Ubico is best remembered for his aggressive pursuit of foreign investment and close economic alliance with the United States. Notably, Ubico strongly supported the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company (UFCO), the corporate giant nicknamed el pulpo ("the octopus") for its wide-reaching influence throughout 20th century Central America.

During his regime, UFCO became the largest landowner in Guatemala and enjoyed exemption from taxes and import duties. Via the International Railways of Central America (IRCA), UFCO also owned and operated the nation's rail network, which facilitated its own international trade. Interestingly, when visitors first enter our America on the Move exhibition, they encounter the giant steam locomotive Jupiter, ostensibly at home in Santa Cruz, California. Though the train did originate there in 1876, Jupiter actually spent the better part of its career transporting bananas along the IRCA in Guatemala!
The locomotive Jupiter, a freight and passenger train used from 1876 through the 1960s, reveals that Ubico's motorcycle is not the only object in "America on the Move" with hidden Guatemalan history. In fact, Jupiter underscores the connection between domestic and foreign industrial development during the 20th century.
Like Jupiter, Ubico spent many years traversing Guatemala with the help of American transportation technology. His flashy motorcycle, a 1942 Harley-Davidson Model 74 OHV (Overhead Valve) Twin, was infamous. As described by American journalist Chapin Hall in his Los Angeles Times column:
"When President Ubico, of Guatemala, starts on a tour of inspection, which he does several times a year, he doesn't order out the guard and a special train, but hops on a motorcycle, shouts 'c'mon boys,' and leads a squadron of two-wheelers, each one manned by a government department head."
Despite the almost comical image conjured by Hall's description of Ubico aboard his blue and chrome motorcycle, his "inspections" were the mark of his harsh, militaristic rule. Ubico's Harley-Davidson enabled him to travel to rural communities, where he personally settled local disputes and "imposed his own brand of justice," according to the same Los Angeles Times column. 
Jorge Ubico in his younger days
As president of Guatemala, Jorge Ubico repressed democratic practice and political dissent. His pro-U.S. economic policy worsened the plight of the middle and lower classes, while his labor laws (designed to facilitate the development of public works, like roads) utilized indigenous labor. The image of Ubico atop his motorcycle, shown here, reveals the reality of justice under his rule: "the president might appear suddenly, almost out of nowhere, on his fancy, powerful machine to render judgment". (Quote is from "I Ask for Justice: Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898-1944" by David Carey.) Image courtesy of Alvaro Aparicio.

To my surprise, Ubico was far from the first to use a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for military purposes. Already used domestically by American police departments as early as 1908, Harley-Davidsons were ridden by General John J. Pershing's men in their unsuccessful nine-month pursuit of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Harley-Davidson would go on to supply 20,000 military motorcycles during World War I and 80,000 during World War II. In fact, according to Paul F. Johnston, a curator here in the Division of Work and Industry, Harley-Davidson motorcycles were manufactured almost exclusively for the U.S. war effort in the 1940s, with Ubico's bike being a rare exception.
This 1942 Harley-Davidson brochure, saved in the curatorial file for Ubico's motorcycle, emphasizes the company's role in military and law enforcement.
After the war, Harley-Davidson and other American corporations enjoyed a surge in the motorcycle's recreational popularity, with returning veterans bringing their experience and interest in riding back home with them. This is where Ubico's bike enters the story in America on the Move. Stylized with an Oregon license plate, the motorcycle helps recreate Sandy Boulevard, a burgeoning commercial area in the suburbs of Portland during the 1940s and 50s. By bringing to life this history of midcentury suburbanization, Ubico's motorcycle functions as a 1942 Harley-Davidson, not a symbolic set of wheels.
[Guatemala's political scene didn't improve much after Ubico; here's a Diego Rivera mural, 'Glorious Victory', which features CIA director Allen Dulles (who sat on the board of the United Fruit Co.) just after the US-orchestrated coup of 1954. - pd'o]
In tandem, the motorcycle's two histories can help expand upon the themes of America on the Move and create important, interdisciplinary connections. Transportation history is industrial history is political history, and Ubico's acquisition and use of an American motor vehicle has everything to do with the economic relationship between the United States and Central America during the age of UFCO's prominence. When the tide turned for Ubico in 1944 and nationwide disapproval forced him to resign, Ubico sought refuge in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he lived in exile for two years before his death. Maybe it is ironic that his iconic Harley-Davidson followed him and found a final resting place in the Smithsonian.
Jorge Ubico's chrome-tank 1942 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead at the Smithsonian
Since its donation in 1981, the bike has been on almost continuous display, first in the Road Transportation Hall and now, of course, in America on the Move. Chameleonic, it continues to serve various purposes. Millions of museum visitors enjoy it as a classic American artifact, oftentimes recalling their own stories and experiences with motorcycle history and culture. I look at Ubico's bike and see that. I also see the overlapping social, military, and industrial functions of U.S. transportation, at home and abroad; the story of the man behind the motorcycle; and the multiple layers of history encapsulated by the most unexpected of museum objects. Perhaps, now you can too.


Christine Miranda was an intern in the Program in Latino History and Culture. She recently blogged about eight ways to experience Latino history at the museum."

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

2014 CANNONBALL: INTO THE WEST


Michael Lichter caught my Cannonball partner Alan Stulberg of Revival Cycles riding the Brough through Glenwood Canyon, Colorado
While there’s complication in keeping an 80-year old motorcycle running all day during the Cannonball, the landscape of America provides a calming counterbalance, as it's absorbed in slow motion from one coast to the other. For the Cannonball riders, every mile held fascination and variety, as the landscape shifted from the Florida swamps, to the Georgia farms, the Tennessee and Kentucky woodlands, the Missouri and Kansas prairies, the enormous mountains of Colorado, the red canyons of Utah, Nevada’s harsh and treeless desert, Idaho’s rolling hills and hidden canyons, and Washington’s vineyards and volcanoes. 
Following the 'chopper dudes' on their 1936 Knucklehead choppers, through the red rock canyons of Utah, which looks to be their natural habitat
An examination of our country at such a pace allows for a full range of celebration and indictment, for while there was never a mile of nature I would have missed - even the long stretches of Nevada’s forbidding dryness - the footprint of America’s inhabitants varies from placid farmlands and charming small towns, to ugly and identical strip malls, a constant refrain of Wal-Marts, boring suburbs, and the shocking blight of near-abandoned cities like Cairo Missouri. We were given bottled water at one hotel, and warned the tap water was unsafe to drink because of nitrates from farming; in other towns, chemical residue from fracking had poisoned the water, and I wondered if the seemingly innocent pleasure of riding an 80+ year old bike across the country was actually a costly luxury. 
The Brough in a picturesque location on an Indian reservation in northern Idaho
Make of it all what you will, but we’ve seen a 4000-mile swath of the country, in all its mixed glory. The pockets of inane suburbia were dwarfed by the enormity of the country’s natural beauty, which only grew as we chugged westward, into the great, uninhabited swaths of Colorado and beyond. I was unfamiliar with landscapes further eastward, the tobacco barns, humid wetlands, and sugary lilt of waitresses in the South, and the beautiful geometric Amish barn-murals as far west as Kansas. Each rider yearned to spend more time in some charming spot or other, to hang around a bit longer on two wheels, but we all suffered the Cannonball Curse: a 17-day parade of interesting places, with no time to explore. 
Grain silos in Kansas, near the Colorado border, in an area with tainted water supplies, near Goodland
My 2014 Cannonball was the opposite of my 2012 ride, which was a sandwich of struggle and heartbreak, with a glorious 1000-mile ride on my Velocette KTT in the middle. This year, I’d arranged a partnership with Alan Stulberg of Revival Cycles of Austin, who took care of prepping our borrowed 1933 Brough Superior 11-50 (many thanks to Bryan Bossier of Sinless Cycles for the loan), plus cross-country transport and support, in the form of mechanic Chris Davis. Thus, I was relieved of mechanicking to concentrate on riding the Brough responsibly, an onerous task given its capabilities. Whatever reputation British motorcycles may have acquired for unreliability and fragility simply didn’t apply to the Brough, which was a rock. George Brough blew a lot of smoke, but there’s fire in his handiwork, and the consensus among Cannonballers was surprised respect; it was clearly the most all-around capable machine on the rally. 
1916 Harley-Davidson kit.  Thomas Trapp sorts out some minor issues...
Which isn’t to denigrate the seven 1936 Harley EL Knuckleheads on the Cannonball, none of which experienced significant trouble, and most of which received perfect scores by Tacoma. I was offered a 240-mile ride over the Rockies on Matt McManus’ lovely blue/white Knuck, and it traversed the two 11,000’+ passes with aplomb, roaring across them at 60mph. The handling wasn’t as sure-footed as the Brough, but it was difficult to parse the square tires from the quality of the chassis. It took determination to heel the beast around hard bends, and is the only bike I’ve ever had to wrestle the bars in a steering – as opposed to counter-steering – manner. I came away impressed that Matt rides his machine so quickly through the bends, as even this corner-scratcher would be more circumspect. The engine, though, was willing and smooth, revving freely and feeling perfectly modern. 
Frank Westfall riding in the rain in northern Nevada, just south of the Idaho border
Quite a few bikes made all the miles, 32 in total, which included four ‘Class I’ bikes of 500cc, from the ’24 Indian Junior Scout of Hans Coertse (from South Africa, and the eventual Grand Prize winner), to a ’31 Moto Guzzi Sport (Giuseppe Savoretti from Italy), a 1932 Sunbeam Model 9 (ridden by Kevin Waters, with an engine built by Chris Odling of Scotland), and the BMW R52 owned by Jack Wells and ridden by Norm Nelson. Other Class I bikes struggled with the enormity of America, and gave bother, including a marque one might assume a cake-walk; early BMW’s have never had an easy run with the ‘Ball, and two retired completely before the first week had passed, while others found creative ways to lose mile points. The middle category, Class II, was dominated by Harley J series machines, which made up the bulk of the Cannonball entry. A litany of complaints prevented them swamping the leaderboard, as broken conrods and melted pistons, even a catastrophic fire, took a toll on their numbers.
Darryl Richman explains his gearbox woes to Doug Wothke; a temporary repair with set screws to a bearing housing 'only' held for 3000 miles, and we still had 984 miles to go!  Darryl got it sorted the next day...
The four-cylinder brigade of Hendersons, Excelsior-Hendersons, and Indians did well, and all were still running by the end. The big boys, Class III, generally did well, and had an easier time of the rally, being faster and more comfortable than the 1920s-era machines, yet cruised with their 1920s brethren at 50mph out of self-preservation. Riders of slower machines experienced a different rally, being unable to pass vehicles up big hills, and suffering the wake of large trucks as they hammered past; a slow ride is a patient ride, and vulnerable, but faster traffic (not that we encountered a density of cars) proved ultimately safe.
Team #38 chief mechanic Chris Davis from Revival Cycles at 6:30am, without a wrench in hand.  Why?  That was his day to ride from Springville Utah to Elko, Nevada, which might be the reason he looks a bit excited.
 As our Rally Master, John Classen, was unable to make the final banquet, I was asked to emcee the prizegiving ceremony, in which all rivalries were set aside for noisy celebration. As mentioned, Hans Coertse won the big prize with his pretty ‘24 Indian Junior Scout, which he described as having two speeds – 35mph or 45mph, and that’s how he crossed the country. Perhaps the most significant prize, regardless of points or mileage, went to the Japanese team of Shinya Kimura, Yoshimasa Niimi, and Ayu Yamakita, the only team using the same machine in all 3 Cannonballs, their 1915 Indian, which has become a rolling accretion of unusual mechanical compromises and artful fixes, changing daily as the next 100 year old part broke or vanished beside the highway. For all their persistence, they received a standing ovation, and the Sprit of the Cannonball award. Well deserved.
Spirit of the Cannonball winners!  Shinya Kimura, Ayu Yamakita, and Yoshima Niimi
Ron Roberts with his '36 Indian Chief he found in a basement
The sole Rudge this year; four valves, four speeds, but a real challenge over the vastness of America
With a cruising speed of around 45mph, Stu Surr had plenty of time to watch the scenery on his 1924 Rudge
A salt flat; pushing Ziggy's '36 Indian Chief with a flat tire into the panoramic photo session on very mushy salt at Bonneville - no records set today!
Half the panorama; Michael Lichter set up two full-group shots - first on Daytona Beach, then Bonneville, but the latter shot had only 73 bikes, 35 less than Daytona...
Scotland?  No, Nevada, in Wild Horse Canyon; an oasis of good riding roads in the midst of a very large desert.
Scott Byrd on his JD bob-job north of Elko, Nevada
Shinya Kimura on his 1915 Indian, the only 3-time Cannonball machine
Shinya contemplating maintenance
More grain silos; corn and soybeans fill up America's Middle
Yes, quite so.  Running sweet and smooth, no problems, less worries as the days droned on... 
Francisco Tirado of Spain on his cheater Indian Chief, a '36 rolling chassis with '47 engine...but he made it!
Team #38: Susan McLaughlin, Paul d'Orleans, Alan Stulberg, Chris Davis, at the finish line in Tacoma
The Brough didn't mind a few extra-curricular miles of exploring
Thomas Trapp (Germany) and Marcin Grela (Poland) stop to admire the Nevada desert
It's difficult to express the vastness of the America landscape in photos, but this gives a clue 
At times, any flat spot helps when trouble strikes.  At least it wasn't raining on Terry Richardson and his '32 Harley VL.  Built in the thick of the Depression, this bike comes from a very limited run that year...

Despite the 'helmet hair', the Brough kept thundering along; here in Meridian Idaho.
Official Cannonball photographer Michael Lichter, and the groovy fringe jacket he found en route.

Picturesque ruins in eastern Utah, before the canyonlands, but after the mountains of Colorado
Arriving at David Uhl's studio for a fantastic dinner spread under a wedding tent.
Shinya Kimura's 1915 Indian lost compression one afternoon.  Or half its compression, anyway.  He had it fixed that evening, and was on the road the next day.  

Niimi addressing the Indian
A welcome, if unusual, sight at the top of Chinook Pass in Washington: the 1923 Neracar of Robert Addis
'Morticia', the ex-wall of death '29 Indian 101 Scout, with a wheelbase shortened by 4", and her owner Ryan Allen

Riding Loveland Pass on a borrowed '36 Harley was pretty special 
Kevin Waters on his '32 Sunbeam Model 9, somewhere in eastern Washington
Testing the tires of a pair of matching Knucks, and a Brough, down Loveland Pass.  Michael Lichter photo
Another Knuck in America's grainlands, Idaho
Some of Colorado's autumn splendor, and a few Knucks to boot (plus Fred Lange's special OHV JDH)
It's a long way between canyons in the West 

John Stanley on his 1933 Harley-Davidson VLE 
It was great to see Jared Zaugg in Idaho, here with his father's swanky Daimler convertible 
Just so you won't forget our Frera riders from Italy, Claudia Ganzaroli and Sante Mazza 
Steven Rinker's '36 Indian Chief in the middle of nowheresville
Our German and Polish guests relax in the vineyards of Washington
Fashion is where you find it; while wet and very cold in Kansas, we stopped in a Wal-Mart for warmer clothes, and found some groovy camo gear too.  Every man needs a Gillie suit. 
The Brough and a grain silo
Ciro Nisi and his 1924 Moto Guzzi Sport in Utah.  Ciro had a small spot of trouble, but made most of the miles
3 weeks of helmet hair is hard on a man, so I got a haircut at Legends Motorcycles in Springville Utah, from Dayna Boshard at the Refinery.  Looks good!  I'll post Paul Ousey's haircut next time, in my Wet Plate story...
I made a detour in Pasco, Washington, for some bank business, and came across a farmer's market, with a Louisiana fish fry truck.  Best lunch of the Cannonball.
Across the finishing line with Alan Stulberg.
The riders who made it all the way.
He kept calm, he carried on. Peter Reeves from Britain, on his '29 Harley JD 
Dottie Mattern turned 70 on the ride, and her '36 Indian Scout was a sight for sore eyes.
Inside Jeff Decker's studio.  Treasures untold.
Jeff's customized Crocker and Vincent. 
Dan says it's just too easy on a Knucklehead...
Craig Jackman pleading with his hotrod twin-carb VL
The Cossacks gave us a show in Tacoma
Civilization.
Chris Davis ponders the Brough in the sage 
Used as the maker intended.  Even after it won the Born Free 6 show; Bill Buckingham's chopper.
Buzz Kanter in the vastness.  Fires in California brought smoke all the way up to Idaho
A pair of cool cafe racers greeted us in Meridian Idaho
Brough, sage, sky 
Canyonlands, off-piste, Nevada
Washington apple orchards
Brough off-piste in Utah red canyonlands
My sweet eternity

A little BMW maintenance
Speaking of which, Todd Rasmussen visited us in Kansas with his ex-Bulgarian BMW R51/2
Off-piste, Nevada canyons
Two bikes, one team; Alan Stulberg on the Brough, and me on Matt McManus' Harley Knucklehead
The final banquet; general mayhem.
Our grand prize winner with his Jeff Decker sculpture; Hans Coertse of South Africa.
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