Antique Motorcycle People
If there is anything more fascinating than antique motorcycles,
Success does not come from setting records, accumulating wealth,
establishing a business, or erecting monuments. People are
the name of the game. To have success you must build upon
the immortal mind with love; without prejudice or greed.
motorcycle industry in the 1970s with the Penton motorcycle.
People are a company's only sustainable competitive advantage.
In late June, 2009, Harley-Davidson patriarch and design guru Willie G. Davidson was honored with a lifetime achievement award by Eyes on Design, a professional society that promotes and recognizes outstanding achievement in vehicle design. Until now, it had been exclusively a club of car guys, but no longer once Davidson became the first motorcycle stylist to be so recognized by the organization. As a backdrop for this historic ceremony, 25 superb examples of more than a century of Harley-Davidson products were placed on display. Two of these—a 1972 XLCH Sportster (pictured below) and a 1972 XR750 dirt tracker—belonged to Jim Oldiges of Erie, Michigan. Just days before the Eyes on Design ceremony, the XR750 had earned the paramount status of “Winner's Circle” motorcycle in Antique Motorcycle Club of America judging at Rhinebeck, New York. Earning 99.75 points against a perfect score of 100, the motorcycle is unimpeachable in its quality, correctness, and attention to detail. It also won first in its class at Gilmore in 2007 and was named “most unique” at the AMCA meet at Oley in 2009. About its near-perfect score, the AMCA judge who informed Oldiges of his achievement added, “And nobody gets a hundred, don't you know!”
Jim Oldiges (pictured left and above) was born in Toldeo, Ohio in 1956 and graduated from Toledo Central High School in 1974. Prior to graduation he had already signed up for the Marines, which he served until the end of 1980, followed by another two years in the active reserves.
Oldiges is among the generation that was so profoundly influenced by the products of Soichiro Honda. When he was only five, a neighbor bought a Honda Dream and offered him a ride. Oldiges recalls, “I badgered my father until he let me do it, and with that first ride I was addicted. From that moment on, motorcycles would be an important part of my life.” In the Marines, Oldiges worked in Artillery and Transport, he did a tour of the West Pacific, then was stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms in California. There he got into the So-Cal off-road racing scene. He explains, “On the weekends we would take our dirt bikes out to the Mojave and race the civilians.”
While building up his tree trimming and landscaping business during the late-1970s, Oldiges got into building, restoring, and customizing muscle cars. Through this activity he learned the skills of metal working, painting, and attention to detail. But he continued to ride motorcycles, and eventually they displaced his interest in cars. He explains, “I finally got burned out with muscle cars. During the 1980s it became kind of a cookie cutter business, and I got bored with it.” “But I also figured out what so many others have,” he adds, “which is that you can have a lot more motorcycles than cars for the same space and with the same money.”
Oldiges' collecting gravitated toward Harley-Davidsons, which are the core of his collection still today. Over the years he has owned seven of the MX250 motocross bikes, dozens of CR, CRS, and ERS Sprints, ten XR750s, and even two or the rare RR250 Aermacchi road racers. Current builds include a 1968 XLR (#8 of only 15 built that year) (pictured above right) and a 1980 XR750 (pictured below left). About the current XR750 restoration he says, “There's a lot to work with. The engine was once installed in a hillclimbing chassis where it got very light use, so this is a nearly new motorcycle that has never seen duty on a dirt track.” Whether it will ever match his 99.75-point 1972 still remains to be seen.
Oldiges' wife Tina and teenage twin daughters, Jessica and Jennifer, are as dedicated to motorcycles as he is. Tina has her own rider—a 2001 Jade Green 883 that Jim presented her on her 40th birthday—the girls cut their teeth on a 1971 Indian mini-cycle, and extensive travel to vintage bike meets around the country is still usually a family affair. Oldiges also has his own modern rider, a 100th Anniversary XL1200 Custom Sportster. About this bike, which is maintained as well as any of his prized collectibles, Oldiges says, “I was in the Marines when the Harley Bicentennial Editions came out, and I really wanted one. It didn't work out, so I swore that one day I would get another special edition. It only took me about 25 years to fulfill that dream.”
Not surprisingly, Oldiges' meticulous restorations have not gone unnoticed by the many museums that are assembling motorcycle exhibits these days. At present, he has an authentic Terry Poovey Harley-Davidson—with engine built to full racing spec by Teddy Poovey—at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickertingon, Ohio, and his near-perfect XR750 used for Willie G's Eyes on Design ceremony is now on display in the foyer of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania (pictured right). In addition, at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee there are two Oldiges machines, a 1972 Sprint ERS and a 1974 SR100 Baja.
As for how Oldiges affords his hobby, consider the fact that at age 53 he commands a good fee because he is still an active tree climber in a trade where skill and courage have been almost entirely replaced by trucks and buckets. So who says motorcycles don't keep you young at heart?
Szalay (pictured right) was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in February, 1963. Frank, his father, ran a small engine repair business, sold lawn mowers, and had a franchise as a Bronco minibike dealer. Szalay says, “I was one of six children, and we were aboard Broncos from the age of 6 or 7. I learned about mechanical things in dad’s shop, including an appreciation for small engines.” This learning would serve Jon well in later years, but it was not the most powerful influence in the formation of his career. He explains, “One of the big events in my life was reading Eric Sloane’s “A Reverence for Wood.” Written in 1965 and now out of print, Sloane’s book fired in Szalay a passion for wood working and a love of early American furniture and wooden artifacts. By the age of 12, he was restoring furniture, professionally. Szalay relates, “I loved this work, and I was very motivated. I knew it is what I wanted to do to earn my living.”
When the Szalays moved from Perth Amboy to South Jersey, Jon found himself in an area that thrived on tourism. He developed a good business of restoring and repairing furniture for dozens of local antique shops, and building cabinetry for the kiosks on the board walk. He recalls, “Some of my high school teachers were my best customers. When school was out for the summer, many of them were involved in small businesses catering to the tourist trade. I built a complete set of showcases for math teacher.”
By 17, Jon had earned enough to buy his own building, an abandoned bank (below left) that had been built circa 1915 in Barnegat, on the South Jersey shore. Szalay explains, “This bank had been abandoned a long time, and one day it came up for auction. My dad and I decided to check it out, and I ended up buying it for $37,000!” He adds, “I couldn’t even sign the papers. Dad had to do that for me, but I paid for it and it was all mine.” The interior was a wreck, and Jon set about making it habitable. He relates, “We turned the president’s office upstairs into a living area. It even had a fireplace. There was a lower level that I turned into my shop, and the lobby became a showroom for my work.” Jon wasn’t even out of high school when he moved into the bank. He jokes, “I finished high school in 1981, then the only other classes I ever attended were at the University of Hard Knocks.”
Szalay got more involved with antique motorcycles in the 1980s. “Dad dragged me to a flea market,” he relates, “and I really liked some of the bikes there. But I didn’t feel I could afford a big Harley or an Indian.” Rather, Jon was drawn to small, rare, and early engines. He says, “In the early years, when a motorcycle fell apart, the farmers kept the engines. That’s what survived. For the really old stuff, the late 19th century stuff, usually the engine was the only thing left.”
Jon began to use his fabricating skills to recreate accurate motorcycles around such engines. One example, a gorgeous 1901 Thomas (Pictured right), was selected for one of the Guggenheim The Art of the Motorcycle Exhibitions. He has restored several Thomas’s and currently has a 1912 Thor, a 1912 Emblem twin, a 1909 Colorado—the only one known to exist—and two pre-1915 Indians as works in progress.
From his restoration of these early machines, Szalay has spun off yet another specialty business . . . carburetors (below left). “Missing or irreparable carburetors are often what stands in the way of finishing one of these machines. So I started making early and functioning replica carburetors.” To build carburetors, Jon had to develop his own sand-mold and casting process. “I will only start with an authentic, original carburetor to make my molds. I can do aluminum and bronze, but I am still trying to learn to do cast iron.” His production includes racing carbs for eight-valve Indians, and Orient and Curtiss carbs, in addition to the aftermarket Pokorney carb used by Thomas and other early brands.
As much as Jon loves early Americana, including motorcycles, he does not regard himself a bigtime collector. “I am a restorer,” he says. “I restore other people’s property, and if it is mine I will eventually sell it.” This is the perfect mentality for the kind of professional who has become known as – thanks to a hit television show – a “picker.” In fact, Jon Szalay and television picker celebrity Mike Wolfe have been friends for more than ten years, long before Wolfe became famous and “picking” became a household term. Jon says, “He’s a great friend. When he is working on the East Coast, he sleeps on my couch. And when I go out west for the Davenport meet, he and I would go picking up and down the Mississippi River.”
Playing on the fact that he built his business in a defunct bank, Szalay calls it First National Antique Restorations. However, over the ensuing three decades, he has become so skilled and well-regarded that his clientele is indeed national. He holds membership in the leading professional guilds, and is currently doing work for clients as far west as Minneapolis. He says, “The bad economy has slowed things down a bit, but I still need about four of me to keep up with my commitments.”
Szalay reports that it is not unusual to put in 16-hour days, which is too easy to do when your job is just through a doorway from your home. “But,” he says, “I love it and I am still very motivated.” He continues, “You walk into the shop in the morning and see five or six different projects. There’s a stain that you put on a desk the night before, and you can’t wait to see how it has turned out. Or a carburetor casting to break out of the mold. Or a piece of furniture you have glued that are ready for the next step (pictured left). You can just go from one fascinating project to the next, and it never gets old.”
But you would be wrong if you conclude that Jon Szalay is nothing but work. Late in 2010, for example, he managed to break away long enough to participate in the famous pre-1916 Cannonball Motorcycle Rally with a 1911 Harley-Davidson. Expecting that the odds were against a 1911 completing the 3,000-mile route (the motorcycle of choice was the two-speed 1915 Harley), Szalay outfitted his van with a mini machine shop, including a lathe. It proved a smart plan, because he spent many sleepless nights making parts for his bike—he broke two rods—and the bikes of other contestants. Szalay explains, “I was out of spare rods, but I found a fork lift rod that was exactly the right length, but everything else was wrong about it. It was a big, beefy thing that I had to shave down, and I had to make a bushing to down-size its lower end.” He continues, “I made it all the way to Santa Monica, but I don’t think I got a night’s sleep during the whole run. Usually you were up all night just trying to make the bike run all of the next day.” He concludes, “It was the most grueling yet exhilarating experience I have ever had.”
Szalay’s description of the Cannonball sounds more like a nightmare, but a true devotee of early Americana like Jon considers it a dream. He asserts, “The dream’s not over! I’m getting ready for the next cannonball. The bike I plan to ride is in my shop right now.” Then, with a smile, he adds, “Well, its only a frame right now. Actually, its still half a frame.” While Szalay continues long days to preserve other people’s memories, today he has at least begun to find time to make some of his own.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published at Motohistory.net on January 30, 2012.
Jon Szalay story posted March 20, 2012
The wild world of Don Bradley
Quality graphics contribute to the prestige of any corporation or special event. A logo, an image, a mascot that captures the imagination and speaks of creativity and style certainly infers those qualities on the entity it promotes. Take for example the Riding Into History Concours d'Elegance, an event at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida, begun in 2001 that has become one of the most prestigious and well-attended motorcycle concours in the eastern United States. Yes, it's in a classy setting, and it is organized by people who pay great attention to detail, but there is no doubt that its reputation has been incalculably enhanced by the work of graphic artist Don Bradley (pictured above), whose beautiful poster art is like nothing seen before at a gathering for cars or motorcycles.
Don Bradley, born in 1939, grew up in Winter Garden, Florida. His father died of cancer when he was just four, so he was raised only by his mother. He recalls, “We were poor. My mother had to work, so I spent a lot of time alone, but she always had plenty of paper, pencils, and paint for me to entertain myself with.” Bradley adds, “I drew for hours on end, and it became a way for me to bring my fantasy world into reality.” However, as a teenager, Bradley discovered motorcycles, which temporarily pushed his art aside. “I always liked mechanical things,” he explains, “and at about 14 I abandoned the drawing board and really got into motorcycles. I loved riding and wrenching, and I did a little racing, mostly with BSA Gold Stars.”
After high school, Bradley went to college and returned to his art. He landed a job as an illustrator and went on to become an art director. When the company where he worked went out of business seven years later, he went to RCA where he became a technical illustrator. He kept his hand in his creative work by freelancing, but by 1980 he was burned out on drawing. He found a ragged old 1952 Vincent Black Shadow, and he was bitten again by the motorcycle bug. He recalls, “I immersed myself in motorcycles. I worked as a salesman and then the sales manager at a thriving Honda dealership, and when a competing Honda dealership came up for sale, I bought it.” In the late 1980s, Bradley sold the business to turn his attention to motorcycle restoration, and again to his art. He explains, “Restoration combined my two loves. For me, creating a painting and restoring an old motorcycles are both works of art. They are just different media.”
A whole new period in Bradley's work opened when he did some motorcycle t-shirt art for his grandchildren. People reacted positively to the t-shirt, so he began to design others. His designs featured an accurately rendered vintage motorcycle with a cartoon creature onboard—a tiger on a Triumph (above left) or a Manx cat on a Norton Manx (right)—and they had a touch of the crazed quality of Ed Roth's hot rod art of the 1960s, except they were far more refined and impeccably executed. But the t-shirt art evolved from cartoon fantasy into a strange and otherworldly mythology featuring strikingly beautiful women aboard motorcycles. The change came with a wild Vincent-riding woman (pictured below), originally created as t-shirt art, that took on a whole new significance when it was selected as the promotional graphic for the Riding Into History Concours in 2004.
With a positive response to the Vincent woman poster, Bradley launched a new series that brought together the fastidious attention to detail that was required as a technical illustrator at RCA with the wild and otherworldly mythical creatures living in the artist's mind. With his originals executed in one-quarter scale in acrylic on illustration board, Bradley reports that he typically spends six months on a single work. He explains, “I research and study the motorcycle in great detail; its design, its history, and its cultural significance. On the original painting you can see every nut, the threads on bolt, even cotter pins.” But the women who ride these machines are anything but realistic. They are lithe, elegant, elongated, vigorous, curvaceous, overtly sexual, and often intimidating. They are Valkyrie, banshees, temptresses, and sometimes demonic. They are women to die for and women to die from. The result is a shocking contrast between the near-perfect photo realism of the motorcycles and the creatures who ride them.
“The Seven” (pictured right) features a mid-1960s Honda RC174 six-cylinder grand prix machine. Bradley has taken the liberty of removing the fairing so that he can reveal the detail of the engine and chassis. The story in the painting is based on Japanese mythology and literature, featuring the goddess Benten (or Benzai), the only female among the Japanese seven deities. In mythology, Benten selflessly married a dragon in order to protect the Japanese people. Bradley's wild Benten, her nudity only slightly hidden by bit of Samurai armor, has mounted her RC174 to do battle with the dragon, raising her sword in battle. This work was adopted by the Riding Into History Coucours as its 2006 design.
“Time Tangle” (pictured left) depicts a 1947 Moto Guzzi Bicilindrica 500cc racer. The curvaceous woman riding the machine is leaping fearlessly into space as the cobblestones of the real world crumble away under her wheels. She is entangled in a ribbon-like time line that has on it names of great grand prix champions. “Time Tangle” appeared as poster art for the 2007 Riding Into History Concours.
“Katrina” (pictured below right) places a 1916 overhead-cam Cyclone racer before the devastating horrors of nature destroyed. Swirling behind the nearly naked woman aboard the motorcycle is the violent vortex of a hurricane, devolving into a black hole. The rear wheel of the Cyclone shatters the surface of a board track as the machine leaps into space. “Katrina” became the poster art for the 2008 Concours.
Drawing from the well-know verse from the Book of Revelation, “Behold a Pale Horse” [And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and hell followed] (not pictured here) may be Bradley's darkest work yet. Death, as a woman, is astride a 1937 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead on rocky terrain. Skulls hang from her tunic and beside her is a road marker pointing to the River Styx, which souls must cross to enter the underworld.
“Blue Angel” (not pictured here) features a beautiful woman reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, the German actress who gained international fame through her performance in the 1930 motion picture “Blue Angel.” She is astride a 1929 BMW R11, wearing only a head scarf, white gloves, white panties, and white silk stockings. A sign pointing toward “Luft Rennen” indicates she is on the way to the air races, reminding us that BMW was once a leading aircraft engine manufacturer. Above her in the sky are bird-like fantasy air racers. There are BMW and NSU logos on the wings of two of the aircraft. “Blue Angel” was featured at the 2005 Riding Into History Concours.
This year's signature art for the 2012 Riding Into History Concours—the theme of which is Japanese motorcycles--features a female Japanese archer aboard Wayne Rainey’s Superbike National Championship Kawasaki (pictured left).
Bradley has also created original art for the Cycle World Rolling Concours, and his work has appeared in major galleries, including the Norton Gallery in West Palm Beach, Florida. He counts among his influences the Russian artist Romain de Tirtoff who worked under the name Erte, the American magazine illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, and the Brandywine school of painters. Giclee prints of Bradley's motorcycle posters have been produced in limited editons of 100, and are available for $475 each, except “Black Lightning” and “Pale Horse” which are available for $375 and $275, respectively. His signed caricatures on 12x17-inch heavy stock are available for $50 each. For more information about Don Bradley's art, click here. To compare his work with images by Erte, click here. To compare images by Leyendecker, click here. To read about the Brandywine Painters, click here. For information about the Riding into History Concours, click here.
Editor's Note: Don Bradley has been featured also at the Motohistory web site in regard to his motorcycle restoration work. For over two years, Bradley and his friends restored a pair of BSAs in celebration of the 50th anniversary of BSA's remarkable five-place sweep of the Daytona 200 in 1954. Pictured here are Myles Raymond (left), Bradley, and Nick Simpson (right) with the motorcycles, which were featured in an exhibit at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in 2004, and have since been exhibited internationally. To read more about the exhibit, click here and go to News & Views 4/28/2004 and 5/21/2004. To read about the BSA restoration project in which Bradley was involved, click here.
This story was updated from a feature about Don Bradley published originally at Motohistory.net on April 30, 2009.
Don Bradley story posted January 14, 2012.
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