Friday, November 20, 2015


Shinya Kimura with the 'Spike', his much-modified Harley-Davidson '47 EL Knucklhead
The romance of the place is captured in the name, redolent of the invisible goals of speed.  El Mirage is nominally a town in the SoCal desert, nearest Palmdale, which is itself nearly nowhere, even though inhabited by many thousands.  Its raison d'etre is a dry lake bed, now bounded by the El Mirage Off-Highway-Vehicle Recreation Area, under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management.
Willy with a breed unique to the SCTA - the Belly Tank Lakester.  Built from a discarded aircraft fuel tank, this is a genre unique to dry lakes racing in SoCal.  This one used a Ford flathead V8 motor, and sounded amazing.
The lake bed is very nearly flat, with a cracked mud surface occasionally pockmarked by potholes, but with nothing of the inches-tall cracqueleure of Bonneville, nor its corrosive salt crust.  El Mirage lacks Bonneville's pristinely bizarre beauty, and its relative cleanliness - as vehicles pound the miles of dried dirt to reach the SCTA timing camp, clouds of sepia dust trail them, as it does the high speed vehicles racing across its surface.   The effect is dramatic and beautiful, but layers everything and everyone nearby with an ultrafine grit.  While some vehicles used air cleaners while racing, others take their chances gulping in the powder, and never need worry about bedding in their piston rings.
Alp Sungurtekin, who exceeded 175mph on his home-built pre-unit Triumph, featured previously on TheVintagent.
November 13th, 2015, became an infamous day for more nefarious reasons, but it was my first visit to the place, and I reveled in its spare beauty, and the fantastic characters who temporarily populate its puzzle-cracked earth. The goal was to explore, and take a few wet plate photos, which was accomplished.  As the racing is over a weekend, not a week as in Bonneville, there's no 'village' feeling, and the layout of disparate camps is chaotic, making introductions difficult.  Everyone is busy racing, and while very friendly, its hardly a relaxed place to take photos.  Thanks to the several people who took time for my work, I hope you enjoy the results. See more at
The full view of Willy's Lakester - a vision of a past Future, painted an unusual shade of mauve, supposedly a works Bugatti racing color
George Callaway, the 'Mayor of El Mirage', at his fantastic junkyard beside the dry lake.
Coming soon to Intersection magazine; a few shots of the Vintagent at work at El Mirage, thanks to photographer Gilles, captured here at George's junkyard, beside a familiar Renault
Alp's crew chief, Jalika, who betrays her former career as a fashion model
Shinya Kimura's Spike entier
Woody and his Aermacchi racer, emerging from chemical shadows... the Wet Plate process is unpredictable!

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Wednesday, November 04, 2015


A 1915 program for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, showing the Tower of Jewels, set with 102,000 'novagems' of Czech crystal, lit by 50 arc lamps.  Behind is the Rainbow Scintillator, the first use of searchlights for entertainment, as a cadre of Marines swung multi-colored lights in coordinated patterns at night.  Spectacle!
100 years ago, San Francisco was a new city. As with most cities, it was built atop older cities, and the terrific shaking and subsequent fire of 1906 was, while dramatic, merely the latest in a string of disastrous fires destroying the city, ever since the the former Spanish Mission outpost became a burgeoning port servicing the Gold Rush of 1849 (which is when my own family arrived).  The city was built not only over the ashes of its former self, but also the very ships which delivered thousands to the maw of Gold Fever.  Entire crews jumped ship to try their luck at mining, and the harbor grew a forest of masts from abandoned ships, an ironic contrast to the recently deforested hills and islands around the Bay.  Today, every new hi-rise downtown schedules a few months for archeologists to clear out the Clipper ship carcasses used as landfill for what was to become our downtown.
The PPIE almost finished - note no Golden Gate Bridge - that didn't go up for another 20 years. The bottom left of the photo shows The Zone, and clearly shows the scale of the open-topped Race for Life motordrome - huge!  The Tower of Jewels is at the top left...
The '06 Quake was different from previous disasters, as the city had an opportunity to establish building codes for earthquake safety, and reinvent itself as it saw fit.  My great-grandfather was a developer on the Van Ness corridor, the new artery from the Bay to City Hall, and built a few of the impressive reinforced-concrete auto dealerships which still stand, although few still sell cars.  Our family legacy included the first Ford dealership on the west coast, a lovely 4-storey concrete building with floor-to-ceiling industrial glazing, which I longed to inhabit in my post-college days.  But that's another tale.
The PPIE from the other direction, showing the color-coordinated exteriors of the buildings, a pink faux travertine made of a new plaster/marble mix.  Bernard Maybecks' Palace of Fine Arts is at right, and the only building still standing from the PPIE.
2015 is the Centennial year for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), and lots of attention has been focused on the Expo in local museums and books.  The enormous Exposition was built over the Harbor View neighborhood (now called the Marina), which was a squatter's tent camp on swampy marshland, just past the grazing pastures of Cow Hollow.  City fathers - notably our incredibly corrupt mayor 'Sunny Jim' Rolph - devised the genius plan to fortify the soil of Harbor View, and build an Expo on the site to celebrate the 1913 opening of the Panama Canal. Of course the Expo really celebrated San Francisco itself, and developers subsequently got rich on the land beneath the Expo, after it was torn down in 1916.  Hence the Marina district today, which swells with a tech-yuppie influx and is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town, regardless of its vulnerability to future earthquakes, due to its landfill foundation.
The start of it all - a postcard showing Joe Hall circulating on a 1913 Excelsior 7C-based board tracker, at the 90degree mark in the Race for Life at the 1915 PPIE
While researching an article for The Automobile magazine on two auto races at the PPIE ('Race Around the Rainbow Scintillator', which I'll publish on in December), I came across Laura Ackley's excellent book 'Jewel City', which contains a postcard of Joe Hill circulating a Wall of Death on an Excelsior racer  - which was news to me!  Here was photographic evidence of a a very early Wall right in my home town, in the middle of the PPIE.  Time to hit the library...
The exterior of the Race for Life concession in the middle of The Zone at the PPIE - quite a thrill for $0.10.  Note the plaster racers at the top of the facade, and the mural showing the cars at vertical.  One of the racers stands outside.  (Courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library)
Outside the central fantasy village of the PPIE - the 'Jewel City' of travertine and sparkling lights - was a funfair called The Zone, with dozens of concessions, rides, and attractions.  Within The Zone was the Race for Life, which according to fairground plans was a 40' diameter wooden 'two stage' bowl track, over which both cars and motorcycles sped.  Photographs show the wooden walls banking in 4 stages, the two widest sections at 78degrees an a fully vertical 90degrees, just below the spectator railing. While the Excelsior postcard is colorized and shows little detail, a never-published photo shows an Indian racer near the top of the Wall...the photo had been mis-labeled as a 'bicycle going at 90 degrees', and hadn't yet been digitized in their archives.  No wonder the image hadn't been discovered by the 'Net hounds; it pays to do a little footwork, and there are enormous photo archives at libraries and universities worldwide, waiting to be scanned.
A lovely c.1914 Indian board track racer with all chain drive, a 3-speed gearbox, and no starter pedals, here with its rider, and what looks like a 1913 Stutz 'white squadron' racer on a turntable outside the Race for Life concession. 
San Francisco Public Library archives also revealed the facade of the Race for Life, and a rough scale drawing of the layout.  Two postcards gave examples of the motorcycles used - an Excelsior ridden by Joe Hall, and an Indian, both ca.1914 machines, and both full-on board track racers.  The cars used appear to be c.1913/14 Stutz racers, and advertisements painted around the entry claimed the vehicles hit '100mph! Time it!'...which was of course nearly impossible with a stopwatch. There's no doubt the vehicles used in the Race for Life were capable of such speeds, being 'last year's racers', even though ~30mph is enough to keep a vehicle perpendicular.  Still, the thrill a genuine racing car or motorcycle speeding just beneath your feet feels like 'the ton' even today!  And counts for the enduring appeal of Walls worldwide.
From the grand plan of the PPIE, giving the scale of the Race for Life within The Zone at the PPIE.  The track looks to be 40' diameter, with a canvas roof in case of rain.  (Courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library)
The Wall of Death phenomenon is an outgrowth of board tracks used by bicycles, motorcycles, and cars, although it was cyclists who started canting their tracks to increasingly steep angles in the 1890s, as tracks went indoors to smaller venues, and banking was required.  Truly vertical bicycle tracks appeared by around 1900 - these were no longer for competition, and were strictly fairground attractions.  Fairground motordromes with cars and motorcycles appeared around 1910, and their tracks grew increasingly steep, with vehicles circulating at 60-70degree banking as a kind of miniature board track race, with coordinated tricks and choreographed 'races'.  1915 is generally cited as the origin date for a truly vertical, motorized Wall of Death, as such an attraction opened on Coney Island that year.
Likely the very same Indian racer as seen above, in circulation.  A lovely shot from 1915...
But not much happens on Coney Island in February, in fact the boardwalk and funfair are seasonal, opening in Spring, while over in California we enjoy mild weather and year-round the Race for Life, which opened on February 20th.  It seems likely the Race for Life predates the Coney Island attraction, and the documentation I've found from PPIE archives is more extensive than any other Wall of Death evidence from the era.  The Race for Life could well predate the Wall of Death, and be the true origin of today's legacy of excellent, traveling Walls, which still thrill spectators at shows around the world.
Inside the Palace of Machinery; a display of Excelsior bicycles and motorcycles...which must have had something to do with the Excelsior later seen on the Race of Life!
It wasn't just what was inside the fair, but who came.  This is Effie Hotchkiss and her mother Avis, who rode their 3-speed Harley-Davidson Model 11-F across the USA to see the PPIE, the first women to cross the country on a motorcycle.
Another of the motorcycles at the PPIE - a Dayton outfit.Subscribe here to in your email!

Thursday, October 22, 2015


A drying barn mimics the bold finning of the Windhoff's 750cc oil-cooled OHC 4-cylinder motor
The creations of Hans Windhoff began in Berlin with radiator production for cars, trucks, and aircraft. In 1924, he entered the burgeoning motorcycle market with water-cooled two-stroke machine of 125cc - an excellent although expensive creation, with the engine built under license from a design by Hugo Ruppe, whose ladepumpe (an extra piston used as a supercharger to compress the fuel/air mix) design was used most successfully by DKW in their GP bikes.
From Tragatsch's 'Illustrated Encyclopedia of Motorcycles' - the bible! And as full of omissions, but it has a ton of great information, and is still the best general reference on old bikes.
Windhoff had much racing success with these smaller two-strokes, although enlarged racers of 493cc and 517cc were less reliable. By 1926, a totally new machine was offered; the 746cc overhead camshaft, oil-cooled 4-cylinder. Only Granville Bradshaw (creator of the ABC) had successfully used an 'oil boiler' engine in a motorcycle, and the new Windhoff was a technical tour de force.
The engine, designed by Ing. Dauben (later to join Mercedes to work on their legendary W194 - 196 racers) had no external 'plumbing', using only internal oilways to keep everything cool, with the engine finning acting as a giant radiator, and recirculating oil the cooling agent.
A period drawing of a Windhoff engine and gearbox, showing the valve cover removed, and the OHC mechanism clear.  The low-overlap camshaft lobes are also visible - not race tuned! 
With all major castings in aluminum (barring the iron cylinder head), the massive engine is impressive and aesthetically pleasing, with an advanced single camshaft up top, very much like the best automobile practice of the day. No other 4-cylinder production motorcycle of the period had an overhead camshaft. The 63x60mm short-stroke engine produced 22hp at 4,000rpm, which gave an 80mph+ top speed. This engine performance is on par for other 750cc V- or flat-twin machines, and about the same as American 1000cc or 1200cc F-head 4s.  An engine came up for sale in Las Vegas back in 2010, which I wrote about here.

The Windhoff chassis is as radical as its motor, with no ‘frame’ to speak of, and no need for one, as the massive engine casting is far stronger than bent or lugged tubing.  It predates the Vincent in this concept by nearly 20 years, but the Windhoff is a true 'frameless' machine, as the forks and rear subframe (4 parallel tubes) bolt directly to the engine/gearbox unit. The trailing-link forks use double leaf springs for damping, and there’s no rear suspension; the rear frame tubes emerge straight out of the gearbox casting, and hold the final drive housing for the shaft drive, and rear hub and brake. Despite its massive appearance, the total weight of the machine is only 440lbs. The price when new was 1,750DM, a bit more than the 1,600DM of a BMW R63. A bit expensive, a bit unconventional, and a bit slow on sales, nonetheless the machine ranks as a landmark of vision and development, and is understandably very sought after these days.

While technically and aesthetically the Windhoff is extremely advanced, the overall engine design suffers from a lack of development which would have made it the smooth, quiet, and powerful sports tourer it deserved to be. Sadly, it suffered the fate of a launch at the worst possible moment, when world economic calamity sent incomes spiraling downward, and global motorcycle sales into the ditch. Like most other manufacturers of the late 1920s, Windhoff gave up the ghost, but their legacy is yet fantastic and speaks to a a visionary designer with an excellent idea. On price alone, the Windhoff was considered a luxury sport-touring machine, a category of motorcycling which no longer exists, as anachronistic as wearing a necktie in a Grand Prix race.
The camshaft drive chain enclosure is up front, and a timed breather alongside.  The single, rather anemic carb restricts performance, but it goes well for the period. The bolted-on gearbox is clearly seen, as is the depth of those footboards! 
But therein lies its attraction today; a cutting-edge machine with its gorgeous styling born equally of an engineer’s and designer’s eye. The stack of horizontal engine finning is the centerpiece of the motorcycle, and the paired steel bars stretching to the rear hub continue the theme. There’s very little tinware for shape, the machine is almost all mechanical business, barring a shapely fuel tank capping the motor, and the rearward sweep of the handlebars. All else is practical, even ordinary; the fenders are simple C-section with no valence, and the ancillary components are bought-in from the usual suppliers like Bosch.
Smooth handling from the leaf-sprung front forks of short-trailing-link design
The magnificence of the engine, and the strong lines of the rear frame tubes, are key to the Windhoff’s visual success; it’s a stunning motorcycle, among the finest designs of the 1920s. Four cylinders of 187cc make for an easy kickover, and a slightly ‘gear-y’ kick brings the bike to a surprisingly sporty exhaust note. The 2-into-1 exhaust has little baffling, so the power is delivered freely, and the engine revs free too. The 3-speed hand shifter lies about at knee level, and a lack of a shift gate isn’t a problem as the internal indexing of the gears is apparent by feel. The clutch works easily on the left hand inverse lever, and getting off in gear is a simple matter of balancing the revs on the right handlebar throttle lever with a gentle clutch release. There’s plenty of urge from the motor, which sends the rider singing along quickly, accompanied by an audible engine gear symphony, not all of which is sweet music.
Hans Windhoff
The engine feels rougher than might be imagined, and it’s clear – confirmed by the experts – that the Windhoff could use more development to become the machine it wants to be. Canting the machine through bends is easy, and the handling is solid, inspiring confidence…too much confidence it seems, as the footboards are enormous hollow castings meant to hold the tool roll, and aren’t sprung or flexible. I was thoroughly enjoying the bends of the Schwabian countryside, and approaching a tighter corner I looked forward to feeling the chassis challenged a bit. But the bike would have none of it, grinding away valuable footboard aluminum before I rapidly modified my riding position to ‘hang off’ and keep the bike more vertical, taking it a little easier on the remaining bends. I know what I’d change, if the bike were mine!
I've been acquainted with the road test bike for many years; this was a first encounter in 2010
The Windhoff is elegant and sporty to ride, with a glorious aircraft-like bark from the exhaust, and a bit of gear noise between your legs.  There’s no forgetting you’re aboard a real machine with lots of moving parts inside, and riding the bike is a machinist’s erotic joy.  It’s my understanding that long-term riding ownership means keeping after the motor, but nobody’s putting a big mileage on such a rare beast today.  In fact, it’s entirely possible the machine I test rode is the only Windhoff actually in use in the world, the others being fixed into mausoleums and static collections.  More’s the pity, as everyone who sees the Windhoff is curious, and enthusiastic about its amazing appearance.  Would that more people could sample its riding pleasures.
What Windhoff tried after the 750cc 4; a big sidevalve flat twin of more conventional construction in 1929.  In the end, they made a few more small two-strokes with Villiers-licensed motors, then vanished. 
A Windhoff at the Bonhams Quail Lodge sale in 2013
Rear end detail; a massive aluminum casting keep the rear frame tubes in line.
...and the final drive casting, with a lug for a sidecar fitment.  Never seen a chair with a Windhoff, though.
The inside of the 4-cylinder 750cc Windhoff motor; a 3-main bearing crankshaft, with a wet sump and oil pump on the left. 
The cylincer head top and bottom, showing the passages through which oil circulates, and the flat combustion chamber tops, as per automotive practice. The two large holes at bottom are the exhaust passages; the inlet manifold bolted on.  This and the photo above are from the book 'Pluricilindriche' by Ing. Stefano Milani.  A remarkable, and unobtainable book.
At the end of their tether, the Villers-licensed engine produced for other German manufacturers.  From 'Motorräder Aus Berlin', by Karl Reese.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015


The 1926 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports basket case which fetched $400k at the Bonhams Stafford sale
Two Brough Superior SS100 basket cases sold for big money at the Bonhams Stafford sale last weekend - one for $400k, the other for $365k.  Both have landed high on my 'World's Most Expensive Motorcycles' list, which had no less than four additions from Stafford (a Series A Rapide with replica frame, and an Indian 402 with sidecar also qualified). The purchase price makes financial sense, on the assumption there's still money left to fabricate a bunch of missing pieces, and make a full restoration from a pile of parts.  But paying $400k for a basket case 1927 Brough Superior SS100 is still wacky; one imagines a future when three scraps of metal with engine/frame/gearbox numbers stamped on them fetching the same as a fully restored machine. This was exactly the situation with vintage Bugattis, when whole machines were parted out to make 3 new ones, since the owner's club would authenticate a machine as 'real' with any one of these 3 parts present. At least Mike Leatherdale, machine registrar of the Brough Superior Club, has no truck with such foolishness.
This 1927 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports basket case fetched $365k at Bonhams
These Broughs were from an estate of an Australian gent, who never got around to finishing a few restorations; a situation many of us - including myself - are guilty of.  But good on his family for reaping the benefit of his long-time vision, and unwillingness to ever sell anything.  Vale, Gary.
Half price HRD?  This 1938 HRD-Vincent Series A Rapide with a replica frame took $196k at Bonhams.  More typical for an intact model is $350-420k...
Looking at the numbers; the highest price paid at auction for an SS100 (intact) is $494k, with two more sold nearer the $450k mark.  Presumably, that means there's up to $100k left to finish up the basket cases in question, which seems a reasonable figure.  You can fabricate a whole motorcycle for that price, and while you're at it, you might as well make 10.   It's been done with Broughs many times...(and for a road test of one click here).
Top price paid at auction for an SS100 to date...
In the car world, people drive, race, crash, and rebuild multimillion dollar vehicles without too much fuss; let's hope motorcyclists who own such treasures will keep them alive by riding them now and then.  After all, you can't ride a Rembrandt...but you can ride a Brough.

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Monday, October 05, 2015


One of two Brough Superior SS100 'kits'; this one a 1927 Alpine Grand Sports
I've been as guilty as the next 'good intentions' collector of hauling boxes of rare motorcycle bits from home to home over the decades, intending to restore them when I had time.  In truth, a lot of interesting motorcycles were preserved by pulling them to pieces, and are waiting for skilled hands to put them back together.  One benefit from the serious uptick in the price of rare machines is it makes financial sense, at least, to give a machine a first-class restoration, even if it's missing parts or is an absolute wreck.  Several 'kit' Brough Superiors and a Matchless V-4, plus the odd rough Vincent Series A single and some old GP racers in need of serious love are coming up for sale at the Bonhams Stafford sale Oct 17/18th.
A former kit, now complete: a 1938 Vincent-HRD Series A Rapide, built from parts with a replica frame.  Perhaps the last 'bargain' Series A twin?  A repro frame hardly matters when you're hammering down the road...
I believe this is the biggest Stafford sale on record, with around 350 machines to be sold over two days.  The Saturday auction is reserved exclusively for the Lonati collection of early American machines, which rivals the EJ Cole sale last Spring as a blockbuster of collecting.  Lots of very early Harley-Davidsons, including several 'Teens models, plus a few '20s JDH hotrods, and Indians, several Excelsior-Henderson 4s, Pierces, Reading-Standards, etc, make for a really interesting lineup.
GH Tyrell-Smith's ex-Works 1932 TT Rudge 350, in need of some attention, but with solid gold provenance, as shown aviating over Ballagh bridge in the Isle of Man in 1932
Sunday's sale is has, as mentioned, several amazing 'kits', including two Brough Superior SS100s from the 1920s JAP era, plus complete Broughs, a bunch of Mondial GP and Rumi flat twins, and Bonhams' usual range of bikes from the 'Noughts through the '70s, with a lot of barn find and incomplete machines to tempt tinkerers.  Take a look at the online catalog for the Saturday Lonati and Sunday sales; I'm already trying to decide what I need to bid on!  Too much cool stuff...
American Royalty; a 1910 Pierce 4 of 688cc, beautifully restored
Speed Demon; a 1916 Henderson 4-cylinder, the 'Deusenberg of Motorcycles'.  Take that, George!

Your eyes do not deceive you; this bike is wrong, and gloriously weird.  Part of a grand American tradition of stretching 4-cylinder motorcycles with two extras, just for good measure.  The builder/provenance is unknown on this 1924 Excelsior-Henderson 6, but it took a lot of work to make it! 

1926 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports project.  Yes please. 

All the parts, plus rare spares, needed to build up a Matchless Silver Hawk V4 

The mucked-about state of the '27 Brough Superior SS100, fitted with a twin-cam SS80 motor at some point in Australia.  All Brough, and now it's all being sorted out...

Yet another Brough kit; a 1931 680 OHV 'Black Alpine' model