Saturday, January 03, 2009


My friend James Johnson died last night, after a riding accident on his favorite, a 1924 Sunbeam Model 5. James has been featured many times on these pages, as he was a true Vintagent, and had honed his Sunbeam from a neglected but cosmetically-passable old bike, into a comfortable and useful touring motorcycle. As he was not a mechanic by trade (but a building contractor), his mechanicing skills were hard earned through sheer cussedness - all of his friends were amused by the great number of piston seizures and 'dnf's' on rides he joined on his Sunbeam, rigid Velocette MAC, Ariel Red Hunter, Royal Enfield Model J, or BSA Sloper, almost always in the company of his wife, Kumi, who rode close by. He spent most of his time recently on the Sunbeam, which had eventually become a reliable bike on which he would tour distances incomprehensible for a 1920's machine, even to those dedicated to Old Motorcycles.

Indeed, when we recently compared our Vintage Sunbeams side by side, (see the 'Sunbeam Shootout' and 'Sunbeam Redux' posts), I was impressed at just how easy his machine had become - while my Longstroke was still many, many hours of toil away from this state of utility. I asked if he would spend countless hours on my bike as well, so I could enjoy it in the same manner; he repliced wit
h a laugh and a curse - getting a motorcycle 'sorted' is no easy task.

James had organized a 'run what you brung - illegal p.o.s.' ride for New Year's Day on Thursday, to explore the excellent riding roads north of San Francisco, in Marin County. The day was passably fine and dry, although quite a bit of mist was encountered at 3000' on Mt. Tamalpais - this cleared up at the coastal Sea Level of the legendarily beautiful Hwy 1.

The other legendary aspect of our California Highways is two decade's worth of neglected maintenance - our roads are in mediocre-to-appalling condition; apparently safety comes second to keeping our taxes low. The group of riders all experienced a sharp road rift on a stretch just north of the invisible town of Bolinas (they keep removing the signs to keep tourists out). While the bikes all took a wallop, James' bike had a fatal weakness.

James took two risks with his riding; he chose to wear a 'pudding basin' helmet, and he retained the 'clincher' tires on his Sunbeam, as he (like me) is a fan of 'period' correctness. These old tires were superseded in 1928 by the 'modern' wired-edge type (still in use); 'clinchers' were considered unsafe even then. As they rely on air pressure to keep the tire on the rim, a sudden loss of air through puncture or compression-blowout will rapidly have the tire wrapped around the wheel like a rubber band.

Thus, after hitting this sharp rift on Hwy 1, James' tire wrapped around the front wheel, and he rode/skidded on the rim for quite a ways - it is estimated he was moving at around 55mph at the time. When he inevitably hit the ground, he hit his head, and although the Davida helmet he wore was fairly new, this design has not been certified as safe for road use since the 1960's. It gave no protection, and he cracked his skull. A one-two punch of bad luck and risky equipment, and James was down.

As they were on an isolated and no-cell range spot of the coast, it took nearly an hour for a helicopter to lift him to the nearest hospital, and while the surgeons did their best, it was clear that even if he survived, the damage to his brain meant that James-as-James was gone.

His wife Kumi, who had been following on her '48 Velocette MAC, shortly came upon the scene, and was inconsolable. James' mother arrived from Texas, and in concert with the assembled friends, we agreed that James would not wish to have his body survive his mind, and decided to 'pull the plug' last night. As James had a rare blood type, his organs will extend the lives of several more fortunate people.

I'm sorry if going into such detail is disturbing, but I feel it's important to sit with the consequences of some of James' decisions about his motorcycling, which are decisions that each of us make when we choose to ride older machines. All motorcycles are dangerous, granted, but we can certainly mitigate some of the danger by choosing a bit of safety over style. I'm certainly not pointing fingers, as just like James, I have been known to ride with an ancient pudding bowl helmet, on a Sunbeam with clincher tires. Very suddenly, a rather mundane solo accident became a major tragedy, which impacts many, many people. I'm not going into 'what ifs', just what happened.

We've lost a good friend, the world has lost a Vintagent, and our prayers are with Kumi.

A selection of photos of James doing what he loved best can be found here.

Photos of the wake can be found here.


s.a. said...

How tragic. I never new James in person but often saw Him and his wife at many of the vintage Bay Area bike meets.

All my best thought to his family and his wife.

Charles said...


If it helps any, there is no other way I'd want to go, than in the saddle, pursuing my passion, motorcycles, doing something I enjoyed, riding.

I've spent all day running errands and doing regular stuff, but a ride's been in the back of my mind since I woke up. I'm about to go kick my Enfield, take a buzz over to Ken Armann's to check on my P-11 progress, then a run 'er up bear creek to Alice's, just to see the scenery and flog those pushrods.

I'll put a black armband on for your pal.

Godspeed James, Godspeed

Anonymous said...

Paul, That is the saddest thing I've heard in a while. I have rode with them both before. Last on the 49 mile ride. I to rode on clinchers for many years and was lucky. 45 years in the saddle and every time I leave the house I know it could be my last but for the life of me and can not give it up. It has become to me life it's self. Prayer to the family, Rich (Doc)

David Blasco said...

A very moving tribute with a message as a bonus. The Vintagent blog never disappoints. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry for our whole community and especially all of those who knew and loved James. What a sobering start to the New Year. Remember what James loved in life and ride as safely as you can.

C-ya, Jer


I am immensly sorry about the loss of a great motorcyclist of the vintage world, may God give us all strenght while going thru this moments of grief. SMILEY. SFMC Member since 2002

Anonymous said...

I was really sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. When I read about people who put on rides (or write blogs) for vintage motorcycles I feel a bigger kinship. People like that are the back bones that make the hobby survive by pushing people into having fun. I spend a lot of time telling people that ought to go out and have some fun on their bikes. I put on a ride every year.Actually it is a rally.Since I don't want to get caught up in the BS of event insurance I just tell people that I'm going to be at such and such Inn.You want to come,you make your own reservation,you pay for your own meal and here are a few good roads to go on.I'm going this way....
I call it the "UNRALLY".
Anyway,years ago I lost an old friend.He was 70.He was a WWII Ace. He pulled out to pass and went right into the front of a car coming over the hill.He died instantly. His wife later made a profound statement which has always been with me."He was in good health,he was doing what he loved and he went quick with no pain".We should all be so fortunate. I guess we can all see the positive side to something like that in that I've seen other the extremes of leaving this world.
It is good that he has enabled others to enjoy a fuller life.
I'm sorry for your loss.
Best wishes for the New Year.

Anonymous said...

I only recently became aware of your site and have become a dedicated fan. Fantastic stories and wonderful pictures as well.
The loss of your friend James is most unfortunate for his friends and family, but please know that your words will help make sense of this for others. May we all come away a little wiser.
I have added your site to the links section of my website
John Lawless

Anonymous said...

dear Paul,

very sorry to hear about your friend James. The dangers of motorcycling and unreliable old iron scare me witless very often, whenever I think about it, which is quite often, but strangely, once on a bike one tends to forget. James probably knew what he was doing and like us, enjoyed it so much that he took the risk; I'm very sorry that he was so unfortunate. My thoughts are with his friend, it must be devastating to her.

I've worn one of these Davida pudding basin helmets for years but stopped doing so when a Dutch VMCC member got killed in a similar stupid accident as your friend. I don't blame anyone, I've done 100km/h on a dirt road at Mark's without a helmet but please let's try not to kill ourselves or lose friends for the sake of a nice period look and at least wear decent jet helmets and ask our friends to do so.

take care, sincerely

Gary Inman and Ben Part said...

James Johnson (judging from your photos & story) was obviously not only a Vintage Gent, but also a Dapper Gent of the first order.

I doubt very much had he had only a scare due to his choice of equipment, not a tragic accident, that he would logically be modernising before his next spin. He would have rather have taken the bus.

Call me; a Davida wearer - or James, a fool for our style, but it's also about sensation & as much a statement about freedom, as the fact that he organised 'illegal' runs in the first place.

We all take & know the risks ( I hope its not out of order to say here, that that is part of the fun). & James was no Johnny tiptoe lightly.

Condolences to friends & family.

Tally Ho! Johnson!


Jeff Stracco said...


How absolutely tragic. There are not other words for it. My prayers go out to you, Kumi and his surviving family.

I am an avid reader of your blog, and can only guess how difficult this was to write.

While I hope this piece does not deter anyone from their love of old bikes, it is nonetheless a profound reminder of that basic motorcycling rule: Ride within your limits...and the limits of your machine.

Keep riding, writing, and where a helmet guys.

Eric said...

My sincere condolances to you Paul and all those who knew James. Quite disturbing to read how following ones passion with the an eye for detail can untimately be fatal. I really hope that people realise that we really shouldn't compromise too much when it comes to safety. Not for us ourselves, but for those who would stay behind. I suppose in the end we all decide ourselves how much our hobbies mean to us. As long as it's well thought over.


Pete said...

Kim and I have been thinking a lot about James and Kumi. We've remembered just how lucky everybody has been to know James.

He knew better than most folks about the issues with old bikes and old gear, yet he made the great choice to live and ride how he wanted to. Everybody in the local old bike community knew of him, in part due to his style. Of course we also knew how great of a guy he was: How he shared his company truck (and his employee drivers) to sweep up on group rides, or how he gave away some small parts and wouldn't take any money for them, or when he loaned Kim a bike for two days after her KSS motor blew up in Santa Rosa back in 2004. I recall how he decided to wind his own magneto armatures, to see how well it could be done.

Remember, "being safe" is relative. A better helmet may or may not have saved James; same with drop center rims. To be really safe, a person wouldn't ride an old motorbike, or a new motorbike, or walk down a flight of stairs, or get out of bed. We all take our chances every day.

I have found slight comfort in knowing the James died on his favorite bike, riding on his favorite roads, with his wife and friends at his side.

I hope to see you all on the road, riding your old iron as it was made to be ridden.


Anonymous said...

So sorry to hear of your friend, James Johnson. I lurk occasionally on your blog but this story touched me, as most motorcycle mishaps do. But what I wanted you to know, is that your detailed write up has a good point and must confess, I ride antique Harleys with an original 1950 HD hemet...a US version of the puddingbowl. Thanks for the message, it hit home.

Again, so sorry to hear of this avoidable tragety and I hope more are reached by the message. My condolences to you, James's family, especially his wife. Take care.

James Franco
Seattle, Washington

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul
I just read the vintagent and I am completely shattered by the news of the death of your friend James

Your writing is beyond the meaningful and your mind among the finest I have encountered

I have lost my left hip & femur in a bike crash in february 2004 saving my life only thanks to my integral helmet and other protections

please offer my condolences to Kumi Johnson


Anonymous said...

I was very saddened to hear the news about James. I too had a front tire blowout with clincher rims on my vintage Harley going around the same speed. I know one thing for a fact. With clinchers, the tire goes flat in a matter of seconds. Then the tire comes off the rim. Then you go down. I was lucky to have been only banged up.

Another fact that I'm sure of is that James was having adventure and living his life like one should. My sincere thoughts and sadness go out to his family.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

....I am very, very sad about the death of James. I don´t find the right English words, sorry.

I love this guy. We have a lot of fun during my stays in San Francisco.

Nice evenings in the workshop from Harley Welch and Jeff Wu

I am really shocked. And this is my 3rd friend who died with this
bad kind of helmet - the third!!

best wishes


Anonymous said...

I wanted to write you and let you know how moved I was reading your obituary of James Johnson. I am saddened that I will never get to meet him: he must have been a fascinating person to know. I can only imagine the number of hours he spent working on his gear. And, I would have loved to see him ride that Sunbeam in full regalia! I can see myself wrenching my neck and arm pointing him out to my kids. Unfortunately, I can't often participate in events in the Bay Area, but if I can, I'd definitely like to shake your hand. Thanks again for taking the time out to honor your friend. You write extremely well and I look forward to reading your posts about motorcycle history. Sadly, I doubt I'll ever own such a vehicle, but I will carry the torch forward in my MG.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear of James Johnson's tragic accident. My condolences. I have clincher tyres on my '27 Levis Model M. The tyres on Johnson's Sunbeam appear to be recent Dunlop "Fort Twin-Stud" one which are like those on the Levis. I have found the recent production Dunlop clinchers to be quite satisfactory (they should be at $300 per tyre) but the tubes supplied by Vintage Tyre Supplies to be woefully undersized in cross-section and I used reinforced off-road tubes of 2.75 x 19 for the 2.25 x 24 size in order to get the clincher rim to work properly. And much higher pressures are needed than with modern tyres.

As to "novelty helmets" of the "pudding basin" types, all that I have seen - including the Davida - have been of far thinner outer shell and thinner cork liner than any of the 50's "pudding basin" types such as the Corker, Aviakit and Stadium, which I have in my collection of old helmets. The old Cromwell which was new in '58 when I started riding was also of substantial thickness in both the glassfibre and cork areas. Of course the suspension webbing of all these earlier designs is considerably inferior to the expanded polystyrene foam used in more modern helmets to control the shock of the brain hitting the inside of the skull.


Anonymous said...

I just finished reading about James Johnson and his passion for the vintage lifestyle. Those photos of him are so good; his bikes were beautiful. Yes, it is very sad when a life is lost under such circumstances; it resonates most strongly in all of his fellow two wheelers. It was his privilege to choose his way of living life, and no one can begrudge him that. But I could not look his wife in the eye and say that. Hopefully, she will find the strength from within to reconcile what has happened, and help from without from those of us who can appreciate men like James who lived life as some of us can but dream.

Darryl Richman said...

I was only acquainted with James. I think I met him and Kumi first when they rode down from SF to Joe Groeger's shop in Redwood City one Saturday for breakfast. I saw him last at the 49 Mile Ride this past fall.

Even so, I admired him greatly, nattily attired in period kit and riding his wonderful Sunbeam the way it was intended. I wanted to dare to ride fearlessly off on my old bike like he did. There are many photos of James here working on bikes beside the road, but I never saw him fail to make his destination.

My heart goes out to Kumi and his family and friends.

Garth said...

I'm sorry to hear about James. Thank you though for sharing, as it is important temperance. Ten years ago when I rode to work through midwest winters I wore a cheap half-helmet. This time I'll have a full-face, what with my wife and kids needing me. Most sincere condolensces.

Ted said...

I am sorry not to have ridden with him. We shared much in common. I admired him from across lights and passing through on Highway 1. I would have enjoyed calling him friend.

Frank Sider said...

Hi Paul
just thinking of you in these difficult "ride"
All our thought to you and James family
Frank from the Southsiders

Paul Grace said...

I knew James for several years as we emailed each other about our mutual love of vintage motorcycles and how to keep them working.
He was a great guy and will be very much missed.
A sad tragic accident.

Archie - in the UK

Anonymous said...

I was sad to read about James.I will never wear my Davida pudding bowl helmet on the open road again.I have found a pudding bowl DOT approved helmet.It is the HCI 50 vintage helmet and is available on the "Jafrum "website under retro helmets.I post this in the hope that we can all ride a little safer and my thoughts are with James's wife.

Michaelwroman said...

This was a very touching and eloquent piece on a wonderful character. I did not k ow James, but I wish him God Speed on his travels on the "other side."

I found this on accident while researching Davida pudding bowl helmets. I will not be buying one.

Thank you for writing this.

Michael Roman