Friday, October 21, 2016


The world's first Triton, built by Rex McCandless during WW2 - a racing Triumph Tiger 100 motor in a Norton International racing chassis.  Note headlamp mask - required during wartime blackouts. (photo courtesy Dennis Quinlan, via VMCC Library)
Back in 2008, I wrote about the McCandless brothers' invention of the first modern swingarm motorcycle frame in 1944. Norton race chief Joe Craig took note of this radical new chassis, leading Norton to purchased the rights to the McCandless design in 1949. Geoff Duke debuted the McCandless-framed Norton in 1950 housing a factory Grand Prix racer, and sweet-handling design became known as the 'Featherbed'.
A mid-30's Norton International rigid frame was the gold standard of pre-War handling
Rex McCandless and his brother Cromie were an interesting pair, devoted to motorcycle engineering and racing, and changed the motorcycle industry forever without the need for an engineering degree.  Rex famously wrote,  "I never had any formal training. I came to believe that it stops people from thinking for themselves. I read many books on technical subjects, but always regarded that as second-hand knowledge. I did my best working in my own way."  It slipped my attention then, but it seems the McCandless brothers also seem to have invented the most iconic custom motorcycle of the cafe racer era - the Triton, a Norton/Triumph hybrid.

Rex McCandless (left) and Artie Bell, both on racing Triumph Tiger 100s in 1940.  Note swanky race transport behind them!
Rex McCandless tuned and raced his own motorcycles before WW2, first turning his attention to a new twin-cylinder Triumph Triumph Tiger 100 in 1940.  His home-tuned Tiger was was faster than the factory-tuned bronze-head Tiger 100 of his friend, Artie Bell (future Norton Works racer), and Rex won the Irish 500cc Road Race and Hillclimb championships that year.  While the motor was fast, the Triumph chassis made 'unreasonable demands of its rider'.  The story goes that McCandless began experimenting with weight distribution on the Triumph, and eventually designed his own frame, which became the Featherbed.  But it seems he tried a known better-handling chassis first for his Triumph motor, and installed the Tiger engine in a racing Norton International chassis.  He'd already proven his T100 engine faster than a racing Norton, but their chassis was the gold standard for handling.   Thus the first Triton was born during WW2, as evidenced by photos in the VMCC Library, passed along to me by Dennis Quinlan.
The 'Benial', McCandless' first chassis of his own design, a full cradle, double-loop, all-welded swingarm frame, with vertical rear dampers from a Citroen car
Thankfully for us, the Norton also didn't live up to McCandless' idea of what a frame could be!  He carried on experimenting;  "I had noticed that when I removed weight in the shape of a heavy steel mudguard and a headlight, that the bike steered a lot better. It made me think about things which swiveled when steering. I was in an area about which I knew nothing, but set-to to find out. It seemed obvious to me that the rigidity of the frame was of paramount importance. That the wheels would stay in line, in the direction the rider pointed the bicycle, regardless of whether it was cranked over for a corner, and to resist the bumps on the road attempting to deflect it. Of equal importance was that the wheels would stay in contact with the road. That may seem obvious, but fast motor cycles then bounced all over the place. I decided that soft springing, properly and consistently damped, was required."
Geoff Duke winning the first of many races on the Norton 'Featherbed' factory Manx racer, in 1950, on a frame hand-built by Rex McCandless

The first test-bed for Rex's ideas, built in 1944, was named the 'Benial' (Irish for 'beast'). It looked much like the double-loop, lugless frame used on the Gilera-Rondine watercooled dohc 4-cyl racer of the 1930's, but it had a proper swingarm at the back with vertical hydraulic shock absorbers (from a Citroen car). "The Benial was the best-handling bicycle I ever made." Using the ideas garnered from his experiments, McCandless first designed a bolt-on rear suspension kit for rigid-frame motorcycles,  which was tested publicly by the Irish grass-track racing team at Brands Hatch in 1946. Prior to the race, other riders looked askance at the rear suspension kits, but after the race, they clamored for them. Rex had no ambition to go into manufacturing, and sold the rights to the kit to Feridax, a well-known accessory maker.
A McCandless swingarm conversion on a 1937 Velocette Mk7 KTT - new life for an old racer!
McCandless knew his Benial had the best-handling frame in the industry, and approached Norton with a challenge, and the intention to sell his design. Norton's 'plunger' Garden Gate frame had a tendency to break, and handled like a camel.  Joe Craig made the frames heavier, to stop the breakages, but in McCandless' view, this showed an insufficient understanding of the stresses involved on the chassis, "...all they did was to fix together bits of tube and some lugs.." In 1949, he told Gilbert Smith, the Managing Director of Norton, "You are not Unapproachable, and you are not the World's Best Roadholder. I have a bicycle which is miles better!" The Norton brass set up a test on the Isle of Man, where a relative of Cromie McCandless' wife was Chief of Police. They closed the roads, "Artie Bell was on my bike, ultimately christened the Featherbed by Harold Daniell. Geoff Duke was on a Garden Gate and both had Works engines. Gilbert Smith, Joe Craig and I stood on the outside of the corner at Kate's Cottage. We could hear them coming from about the 33rd [milestone]. When Geoff came through Kate's he was needing all the road. Artie rode around the outside of him on full bore, miles an hour faster, and in total control. That night Gilbert Smith and I had a good skinful."
The prototype Featherbed Manx, built in late 1949, still with vertical rear shocks, likely sourced from an automobile
Further testing took place at Montlhery, with four riders (Artie Bell, Geoff Duke, Harold Daniell, and Johnny Lockett) going flat-out for two days. "We went through two engines, then the snow came on. The frame hadn't broken so we all went home." The debut of the new frame came at Blandford Camp, Dorset, in April 1950, with Geoff Duke aboard (below, winning that race). The string of successes which followed gave a new lease on life to a 20-year-old engine design, and Norton won 1-2-3 in the Senior and Junior TT's that year. Norton didn't have the facility to produce the Featherbed frame themselves, nor could Reynolds (the tubing manufacturer), so Rex brought his own jigs over from Ireland, and personally built the Works Norton frames from 1950-53.  The original jigs still exist - what a historic piece of scrap iron!
The immortal Rex McCandless

Sunday, October 16, 2016


As seen currently on

The New Café Racer Paradigm
Revival Cycles’ Rickman-Velocette
Paul d'Orleans 2016

Revival Cycles' Rickman-Velocette - best of the genre?
The Rickman brothers made their name in the late 1950s by embarrassing the British motorcycle industry in motocross. They ditched the heavy lug-and-tube frames of the barely modified roadsters that passed for competition machines at the time, and built their own brazed-up lightweight chrome-moly frames, which they nickel plated for show, and also to reveal cracks from hard use. Rickman collaborated with Doug Michenall of Avon fairings for the fiberglass bodywork on their Rickman frames, which made them among the best looking motorcycles anywhere when they began selling chassis kits to the public in 1961.
The compact and sleek aluminum fairing built by Andy James
Only a few years later, they took their idea road racing, with a lighter, narrower, and stiffer chassis than the industry-standard Norton featherbed, into which mostly Triumph engines were slotted, although they also made frames for Norton, Matchless, and Velocette motors—or anything else by special order. At first these were strictly road racers, but their real popularity was on the street, where a Rickman-anything was a glittering attraction wherever parked. By the 1970s, four-cylinder engines from Honda and Kawasaki were housed in wider Rickman frames, and the company survives today, ready to frame up whatever you’ve got.
Stunning details, and simplicity
A Rickman chassis, like a Triton or BSA Gold Star, has a silhouette enshrined in the Pantheon of classic café racers, although like its hallowed kin, the quality of the built machine varies greatly. Tipping the sad end of the scale was this Rickman-Velocette as it was delivered to Austin’s Revival Cycles a little over a year ago. With a three-bend exhaust pipe, a chopper-worthy kicked-up Velo fishtail muffler, tossed-spaghetti wiring, and wonky bodywork, the impact was pure Greyhound—as in bus. Revival’s Alan Stulberg says, “It wasn’t cohesive.” He’s just being diplomatic. “Okay, it was pretty ugly. I took it on to show the difference between an off-the-shelf custom and what we do, which is a coherent design from first principles. Now it’s a completely different motorcycle. You don’t have to start with a factory bike to make a good custom bike.”
As purchased - a mess
The best part of any Rickman is of course that nickel-plated chrome-moly frame, which also holds the engine oil to save weight. Rickman made frames with lugs specifically for Velocette engine/gearbox combos, which are extremely narrow compared to a Triumph twin, for example.
While this Velo frame was beautiful, Revival still chopped the seat loop, installing a shorter one and re-plating the frame. The alloy fuel tank was stretched and reshaped with a hollow at the back, so the alloy bump-stop seat unit could slide underneath, making a continuous bodyline. The fork was swapped for Ceriani road race unit (with custom triple clamps), and a magnesium Fontana four-leading-shoe brake installed, paired with a Norton Manx conical rear hub.
Not an illusion!  An observation deck at COTA in Austin
While an LED lamp was integrated into the seat bump (with modern battery and electronics hidden beneath), the headlamp was sourced from a 6-volt Miller bicycle kit! The headlamp rim barely protrudes from Andy James’ lovely aluminum bodywork—not everyone loves the lamp’s small scale, but it’s totally sufficient with a retrofitted LED bulb, powered by an Alton 12-volt alternator. The Velocette Venom motor is built from replica cases, mated to a standard close-ratio four-speed gearbox, and exhales through Revival’s continuous-taper megaphone exhaust, which follows the line of the frame exactly, just as it should. Mr. James also fabricated the delicate/elegant stainless-wire bracketry for the abbreviated alloy fenders, and exhaust, and everything else. The workmanship throughout is perfect, far better than any off-the-shelf race parts available in the 1960s or ‘70s, and in fact, better than the Rickman brothers could afford to provide their customers, not than anyone expected such artisanship in the period.
The 'off side' - interesting to see the primary drive resolution, which is surprisingly standard
The intervening decades have allowed a re-think of legendary designs, especially as a new generation of custom builders aren’t steeped in the period’s rules. “The best part of me not knowing how ‘it was done’ was I didn’t know what was untouchable. At first when we spoke with the customer, he specified traditional parts, but eventually we convinced him it would be better if we did our own thing.” Stulberg was familiar with the Rickman-Velo in its previous incarnation, when it was for sale online: “I’d seen it some time ago—it was this illusion of a well-built bike. I thought, ‘I’d really like to fix this thing.’ A year later I got a call from the buyer, and when we agreed to rebuild it, he had it sent to us before he even saw it in person. He still hasn’t! But he’s pretty happy, especially after it crossed over the podium at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering.”
The machine in question on the lawn at the Quail
In full disclosure, I presented the bike with the Design and Style Award at the Quail for the custom motorcycle I’d most like to take home. You’d be hard pressed to find a more beautifully integrated Rickman chassis, and the understated BRG paint tones down the bling of all that naked alloy and nickel plating. It’s a gorgeous machine, with enough road-race grit in its soul to compel a good hammering down a twisty road, expense be damned. Revival’s recent customs masterfully evoke this visceral, speed-horny response from a café racer’s soul, and their “silver machines” are excellent inheritors of the Rickman mantle.
A laying of hands, and a benediction!  Awarding the Rickman-Velo the Custom&Style Award at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


[Martin Squires is an illustrator extraordinaire whose work appears regularly in Classic Motorcycle magazine.  He provides a slightly different view on the old bike scene through his art, and this is the second of his 'Motorcycle Specials' series for The Vintagent.]

In Janurary 2015 I sketched Ossie Neal’s Scott Hill Climb outfit, over the following months I sketched two more of Ossie’s motorcycles which are now championed by his daughter Sheelagh.

Ossie was a well known racer during the 1950s and beyond, riding well into his eighties. Before taking up the sport of motorcycling, Ossie was a real sportsman competing in boxing, speed skating and cycling. He turned to motorcycles after a knee injury. Ossie’s first bike was a Scott which he road raced, he then went on to use various other machines such as the Triumph and Velocette illustrated here. Ossie travelled the country in a converted ambulance to various hill climbs and sprints with his wife, son Pat and daughter Sheelagh. Ossie’s wife passengered for him first, then when the children were old enough they would passenger too.
Ossie Neal racing his Scott Special outfit
The Scott was converted into a sidecar outfit by Ossie, by lowering and lightening it. His bikes always sport a plethora of holes as Ossie was always drilling out unnecessary metal in order to make the machines lighter. The blue colour is a homage to the Bugatti that he could newer afford. Colours on the bikes became a bit of an Ossie trademark; the blue colour on the Triumph came about because Ossie worked for Cambridgeshire County Council as a waterworks engineer and it was the colour that was used to paint their doors. Not only did Ossie use the paint but he also used the top quality steel pipe he used for plumbing for building the sidecar frame on the Scott. Whilst working for the council a new pumping station was built to his design which coincidently included a large workshop and a long driveway.

The 250cc Triumph started as a road racer in the early 1950s, it was turned into a sprint machine later in the decade, with further modifications using BRM H16 parts in the 1960s. The bike is still campaigned by  Sheelagh where it's allowed as the exhaust emits 126 decibels which is too high for some events. It runs 14.5 second quarter miles on straight petrol as apparently it didn't like methanol. The compression is 7 - 8 to 1, and the bike doesn't have a power band it just provides straight torque all the way.
The Velocette barrel was made from two different barrels in order to give high compression. Many parts on these bikes show what an engineer Ossie Neal was, from copper exhausts on the Scott to variable screw in jets so that they didn’t have to be changed at a meeting. Ossie’s Irish heritage is apparent on the machines as he used to attach coins to various parts of the bikes for good luck. Sheelagh has been asked to identify  one of his bikes in the past and when she saw a coin on the machine she had no doubt it was one of his.                                                                                                                                                  
Seeing these specials out of the workshop and being used by Sheelagh makes me so happy and I’m sure it would make Ossie happy too. These bikes are built for a purpose and that is racing. Many machines like this that are not used and I tend to agree with Sheelagh when she says that if the bike goes ‘bang’ then at least it was doing what it was built to do when it does. [The VMCC holds an Ossie Neal Memorial Sprint - check here]

Illustration and Words by Martin Squires

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Flying the flag!  Mike Wild and his belt-drive Triumph Model H, chuffing across America's expansive heartland. Buckskin township, Ohio.
After the debacle of Day 1, a reckoning was made by quite a few riders.  If their machine had failed so utterly, or burned to a crisp, was there a point in carrying on?   Normal humans have jobs and responsibilities, and blocking out 3 weeks of motorcycle time requires considerable planning.  If your motorcycle went bust, is the remainder of the event a ride of shame, a holiday spent watching your friends achieve glory, or an opportunity for an unexpected holiday?  Folks took each path, some trucking their broken bikes home, spending a week on a different vacation, and returning to meet us at the finish.  Some simply disappeared.  A few were already part of a team, and carried on as support for those still rolling.
Don't try this at home! John Pfeifer's 1916 Harley-Davidson, with the leaky fuel tank. Could he fix it as a patina ride?  No.
There's also the expense: in addition to 3 weeks of hotels etc, the Cannonball has skewed prices for pre-1917 motorcycles, in total contrast to the automotive market.  A year ago, when this 'century ride' was announced, it was intended to be both a motorcycle AND automotive event, with a staggered start for the cars, the bikes following a day behind, and a shared day off in Dodge City, Kansas.  With almost no publicity, there were a dozen entries for the automotive class within a week, and both Lonnie Isam Jr and Jason Sims, the Cannonball organizers, purchased c.1916 Dodge sedans in excellent condition, each costing roughly $15,000.  For even the humblest of Cannonball motorcycle entries (say, the 1914 Shaw motor bicycle), you'd double that price, and for most, you'd need an extra zero.  That's because there are plenty of old American cars sitting idle, and zero demand for them.  There's hardly any events in which to use them.  In the end, it was decided the Cannonball would remain all-bike.  And the auction companies had a field day: Mecum auctions is now a major sponsor of the Cannonball, and Jason Sims mentioned they were pressing him to reveal the cutoff year for the 2018 Cannonball, so they could cultivate a new herd of eligible bikes for the big Las Vegas auctions.
The road as big as the sky
Day 2, September 11th, was my 54th birthday; it was my 3rd birthday on the road with the Cannonball, and the best so far.  York PA is not far from Gettysburg National Military Park, and I'd never been to a Civil War battlefield.  The town is charming, and when we discovered the best donut in the world (Treat Yo' Self), we asked which direction was the battlefield, to be told 'you're in it.'  True enough, war is messy, to be cleaned up later by historians and those with an agenda.   We were lucky to encounter a group of gents whose hobby was period correct camping, comprising a regiment of blue-coated regulars in a field with their tents - the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  They were delighted to work with us, posing for wet plate photographs - they'd done so previously, but never on the scale Susan and I attempted. The resulting wet plate images are real time-benders, in the very spot which stuck the wet plate photograph in the world's consciousness, via the work of Matthew Brady, who posed his corpses and cannonballs as keenly as we did our living subjects.
Posing our regiment in Gettysburg.  Thanks boys!
My birthday dinner was our 2nd excellent meal of our 21-day adventure, at Tin 202 in Morgantown, West Virginia.  Thus encouraged, we had high hopes for a trail of good meals, but the next 3-star dinner was 2400 miles away.
I asked for it as a birthday present, but this lovely '46 Indian Chief and sidecar needed to be ridden home that morning... Shiloh, Pennsylvania
Day 3 on the relentless schedule West found us at lunch in Williamstown, WV, at SandP Harley-Davidson.  All but 3 of our scheduled lunches were hosted at Harley dealerships, and our organizers must have sent out a memo for 'no pulled pork', as that was the ubiquitous fare in 2014.  Cannonball rules stipulate you MUST stay at a hosted lunch or dinner stop, as the quid pro quo for a meal - the venues advertise a display of our old bikes, and draw healthy crowds. Not so painful, unless you're a vegetarian, or prefer a different sort of lunch experience than foldup plastic tables in a charmless and makeshift storage room at a bike dealer.  We're thankful for the food, of course, but I much preferred when the local Elks clubs made us lunch in a city park - that seemed more an act of generosity and goodwill than the commercial opportunity afforded by our presence at a place of business.  Your mileage may vary.  Susan and I were busy jumping in and out of our wet plate van, taking photos at the lunch stops, and didn't explore the food until the riders had thundered off, and we were starving. 75% of the time we simply turned around to find a local, non-chain diner, which was work in itself. Susan's daily goal was a good grilled cheese sandwich, something not offered by Subway or MickeyD.
Does a Henderson handle? See for yourself - a looong wheelbase and decently rigid chassis equals a stable ride.  Near Clarksville, Ohio
And then there are the hotels, motels, Holiday Inns.  The quality of accommodation was way up over 2012, but the succession of Quality, Hampton, Comfort and Fairfield Inns became a blur.  We'd learned from 2012 that excellent coffee sets the tone for our day, so a French press, a few pounds of our favorite grand, and a teakettle are essential for our mood.  I pity other addicts who suffered through hotel coffee for 3 weeks.  Susan takes hers black (she's tough like that), but I carried cream in our cooler, preferring 'kitty coffee', as a balm for the assaults of the coming day.
Zika eradication squad! Architect Ryan Allen smokes away on his 1916 Indian Powerplus in Williamstown, West Virginia
Which came mostly in the form of rain; after the muggy heat of our first 1200 miles, relief came in torrents from the sky, and we were pissed upon suddenly and relentlessly.  The timing was treacherous, as in a twisted bit of humor, we undertook a series of unmarked rural roads to cross the 'Cannonball Bridge' near Vincennes, Indiana.  Its construction was unique in my experience, being a converted railway bridge with the usual gapped sleepers, with a pair of tire paths made from lengthwise boards of various thickness, laid down like a threat before the riders.  It felt pretty damn wonky in my truck, but was hellishly slippery for the riders crossing in a downpour.  Cannonball bridge indeed.
A foggy morning in Dodge City.  We all ride alone.
As our caravan of 300 souls and all their support vehicles sped relentlessly Westward, we passed through Chillicothe Ohio, Bloomington Indiana, Cape Girardeau and Springfield Missouri, and Wichita Kansas.  Just outside Wichita, in the suburb of Augusta, fellow Cannonballer Kelly Modlin has recently opened the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum, with a terrific display of restored and original-paint motorcycles, most of which could have been on one or more Cannonballs.  It's a terrific display, and Kelly's family put on a welcome meal under the framework of the museum's next expansion, which will double its size already, within a year of its opening.   We all got too many bikes, and not enough willing asses for their saddles!
Rick Salisbury on his 1915 Excelsior
Saturday September 17th we arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, grateful for our day off on Sunday, where riders could wash clothes and catch up on maintenance and rest.  For Susan and I, that meant double the work, as riders were available all day for portrait sessions, and we set to, taking a record 24 tintypes on Sunday in a variety of spots, including at the site of old Dodge City board track, where H-D Museum archivist Bill Rodencal was determined to get a tintype of his machine.  His 1915 Harley-Davidson racer had won Dodge City a century before, and he wore period gear to be immortalized on the very spot, which we were honored to do.   The photos came out great, including one Bill caught of us!
Thanks Bill Rodencal for working the lens cap of our 4x5" camera!  Bill's 1915 Harley-Davidson racer...
...which he rode over 2300 miles.  The bike has NO suspension at all, an uncompromising riding position, and a single speed!  'America is my Board Track'
Michael Norwood and his 1916 Harley-Davidson at the big train on Boot Hill, Dodge City, KS
The solitary Reading-Standard to attempt the Cannonball, a single-cylinder belt drive model, with Norm Nelson piloting.  1744 miles covered.
Niimi!  On his shared Team 80 1915 Indian, with Shinya Kimura.  Caught in the rain in Ohio.
Kelly Modlin with his grandson at his Twisted Oz Museum in Augusta, Kansas
Team 80 takes a gander at the Hillclimber selection at Twisted Oz
Dawn and Doc, and the 1916 Harley-Davidson with wicker sidecar with which they covered every single mile of the Cannonball - a truly impressive achievement.
A one-block town with one brick building, and a nice red frame for the 1916 Indian Powerplus of Kevin Naser.  Neodesha, Kansas...pronounced 'Nay oh du Shay', we were instructed
Halfway already?  Halfway drowned too; the second half of the day's ride, after a sponsored lunch stop, was cancelled, although a few riders did every mile anyway, to ensure they could claim they did.  Jasper, Kansas.
Storm's a brewin in Kansas...
Kevin Naser stopped in Grant, Missouri, for a change of gear.
Brent Hansen and his 1914 Shaw, popping along the plains of America's vast middle
Quonset huts are rare today, but tailor made for a retro cafe, as in Springfield Missouri
What becomes Europe's largest Harley-Davidson dealer best? Americana ink.
Miss Route 66, Sara Vega, poses with Alex Trepanier and his 1912 Indian single.  Alex covered nearly every mile of the United States, an epic achievement.
The future rolls out before you on the Missouri/Kansas border
The Powerplus team of the Rinker family, father Steve (here) and twin sons Justin and Jared
A small-town radio station in Cabool, Missouri
The heartland is full of great motorcycles; this is Powderkeg Harley-Davidson in Mason, Ohio
Powderkeg H-D was named for a nearby gunpowder factory, now being converted to condos.  Swords to plowshares?
South African Hans Coertse, on the only Matchless to compete in the Cannonball to date, a robust 1914 t-twin
With so many Centurions on the road, it was easy to overlook the everyday cool bikes which tagged along, including this neat BMW R60/2 that also crossed the country
As Team 80 is unlikely to attempt a 5th Cannonball in 2018, I regret not witnessing the nighttime poetry of their plein-air workshop, conducted in silence, with hand-held lights.