Sunday, November 11, 2007


Kenneth Howard, aka 'Von Dutch', became a legend in California hotrod circles as the originator of the modern style of pinstripe decoration. I think he can also be credited with the creation of the logo t-shirt, and probably the logo trucker hat as well, for better or worse. Since his death, the cars and motorcycles which he owned or decorated have exploded in value, and to take advantage of this situation, Bonham's auction house held a sale of his motorcycles and related memorabilia at the Peterson Museum. Most items were from the collection of Stan Betz (who was also famous in hotrod circles, and supplied V.D. with his paint). Betz was a master paint mixer/matcher for show cars and motorcycles.
Von Dutch had Hollywood friends as well, including Steve McQueen, and the auction included a few items which had this double-whammy provenance, including a lowly Kawasaki 100cc dirtbike, and a Scott two-speeder (pictured below). Both machines sold for many, many times what a normal example would fetch.
Top pic is my favorite item from the auction - a sign from Von Dutch's shop in Tempe, Arizona (he moved back and forth from LA over the decades). This sold for $16k, and frankly, I regret not having stepped up for it. I don't consider the man a tremendous artist, but he did some very nice work at times, and is an important figure in the now-huge world of 'kustom kulture'. It's about 4' in diameter, and an impressive piece of folk art.

Next two photos show a '53 BMW R51/3 - not a bike you would expect Von Dutch to customize, and he's noted the fact on several locations - the tank logo says in very small letters 'would you believe its a' , then a normal size "BMW?". The tank is from a Ducati single, although a similarly painted Hoske tank was included. I like the detail shot from the rear of the tank - "Von Dutch is still alive! '66", perhaps indicating that his popularity was waning at the time, due to changes in youth culture post-British Invasion, and the advent of the psychedelic era, which repudiated the macho image of hotrodders and Boozefighters. Speaking of whom, the Friday night reception at the Peterson Auto Museum was filled with a neo-Boozefighters club, so I presume someone has resuscitated the name. Who were they originally? If you've seen 'The Wild One', that's who they were; a SoCal bike gang made up primarily of demobbed WW2 soldiers, roaming around the state, and eventually morphing into the Hell's Angels.

What was Von Dutch's motorcycle pinstriping like? Here's a '55 Moto Guzzi Falcone which he personally owned. If you squint, I think you can see the seed of the Modern Primitive movement on this Guzzi - picture all the young hipsters you've seen who have tattoos just like this.

This young lady, who shall remain nameless, chose to provide the sexual drama she felt necessary to spice up the auction preview party on Friday night. She's standing behind 'Ringadingdoo!', which was Steve McQueen's 1970 Kawasaki 100cc G31M Centurion, which Von Dutch decorated, as apparently McQueen didn't like the original Kawi green. The Ringading bit refers to the sound of a two-stroke dirt bike... some of the foreign auction attendees didn't get the reference, so I'll explain it to the world. It sold for $45,000, plus auction fees and tax, which totals out at $57,125.25... Kaching-adingdoo is more like it! By the way, the dapper fellow on the far right of the photo is Andrew Reilly, who works at Bonhams in SF, in the motoring division.

Next pic is your selection of Triumphs for the day, sir. Is it good marketing to line up 12 nearly identical bikes? Well, it looked cool anyway, and there were some very nice machines on offer, including a '59 Bonneville which sold for around $25k.

These two women were considering the prospect of owning a piece of history, but I don't think they bought anything on the day.


Here we have three photos of a 1912 Indian Board Track Racer; the first shows what appears to be a lovely, patinated, racing machine. Detail shot #1 shows the conjunction of the frame, seat, fuel tank, and oil tank. Note the different colors for each of these items.
I've learned a few things rubbing elbows with restorers and other concours judges at events over the years, and a most useful skill is spotting when a motorcycle (or part of one) has been updated, replaced, or faked up to appear 'original'. This Indian was advertised as being in 'complete, unrestored, and original condition'. So, here we see that the frame is a darker color in the photo than either of the tanks, or the wheel rim. Logic would indicate that they would all oxidize at the same rate, given that they were painted at the same time and with the same material. So why should the tanks and wheel rims be brighter? They've clearly been repainted at the very least, more likely replaced, and might be brand new in fact - there's almost no way to tell within the time confines of the auction.

Years ago I discussed this with Mike Smith, who's since passed away; Mike restored and sold early American machines. As I have extensive experience with faux finish painting, we dissected the techniques he used to 'patinate' a new part for an 'original paint' motorcycle, in order not to disturb the visual continuity of the machine. He was quite frank about doing this, not wanting to deceive, but to harmonize. But of course, a later purchaser might not be so clear when re-selling the machine, which muddies the whole picture.
The third photo shows the nickel-plated handlebars; close inspection showed the nickel in perfect condition, but with an interesting overlay of what looks like a liquid chemical antiquing agent, to make it appear old. Caveat Emptor.

Enough school, time for TV! The Bat Cycle, from the original Batman TV series... the Peterson Museum has quite a lot of retired movie and television props on display, from Laurel and Hardy trick cars to a full-scale working Mach 5 from the Speed Racer cartoon. The Bat Cycle turns out to be...a Yamaha Big Bear 305... how disappointing. With all that fiberglass, PLUS Robin in the sidecar (which you can barely see), there's no way Batman would be catching criminals in any hurry.

Sitting in the parking garage is an icon of my youth, the Green Monster, a land speed record machine which used a Pratt&Whitney jet engine from a B52! I think my youthful priapism was stimulated by the nose cone. And yes, it used to be green, but the original builder sold it along and someone else risked his life breaking records for a few more years.

There are quite a few motorcycles in the Peterson, and this section was entirely ex-Otis Chandler, former owner of the LA Times and a big motorcycle and car collector.

Most beautiful bike on sale at the auction was this '56 Matchless G45, which came complete with its original crate and a bunch of spares which came in the box. Discovered in South Africa, the restoration was very high quality, as apparently the bike was totally correct and complete when found. I've always thought the G45 one of the best looking machines ever; it wasn't especially successful as a racer, having been developed from their G9 roadster (and thus a humble pushrod parallel twin 500cc).

Coolest bike on offer was this Crocker-engined special, with the big v-twin shoehorned into a badly abused Triumph rigid frame and forks, and topped by an Ariel tank. This machine was clearly a barn find, and always had a diaper underneath as the oil was still oozing out.

Best surplus part on offer was this Crocker racing engine, a unique prototype 500cc chain-driven ohc item, clearly inspired by the AJS K10/R10 series. Al Crocker made this up as his ultimate Speedway motor (which is what he was known for until that time), but soon decided to embark on his high performance v-twin motorcycles which bore his name. Thus this engine is unique...if you had shown up with $100k last Saturday, you could have taken it home and built it into a real giant slayer.

Here's the other McQueen/Von Dutch machine; Pete Gagan's '23 Scott two-speeder. I've ridden this machine through the hills of NorCal, and enjoyed it, once I'd gotten the hang of the two-speeds and keeping up momentum. If speed was maintained at 30-40mph over the hills and through the corners, it would go up any incline with no problem. Cornering hard to keep up the pace was a breeze as well, as the frame is excellent. The water in the radiator tended to boil off after a while though, and Pete cautioned that if it suddenly seemed to lose 20% of its power, it needed water! His reason for selling; given the intere$t in McQueen/Von Dutch, he could sell this machine, buy another Scott, and pocket the balance. As the bike went under the hammer at $38,000, I'd say he was quite right...

There was a Clark Gable Harley for sale, and a collection of Charles Bronson dirt bikes too. Then, 'Along Came Zaugg'; Jared that is, founder (with Brooke) of the Legends concours, who wanted a piece of Hollywood history too, and bought this '72 Honda XL250, complete with Bronson's tools, registration, and old gum packets in the tool bag, for the princely sum of $800, which is probably what it would sell for on ebay w/out the Bronson connection. Auctions are funny things.


ek said...

$800? I think it'd go for double that on Ebay even without the Bronson connection. Great deal.

Nik Levy said...

Bob Gatien Owned the Scott for a while. I assume it was he who sold it to Peter Gagan. I remember the bike distinctly.
Hindsight note to self: "Shoulda bought it from Bob"

The Vintagent said...

Nik, yes indeed, you should have, because that same 'Von Dutch' Scott sold for $260,000 in 2008 at a watch auction in NYC...

Nik L said...

I think I heard a hairspring valve in my heart just go snap.

Nik L said...

"hairpin valve spring in my heart went snap"