Sunday, February 08, 2009


A little over one year ago, an Englishman named Pete Sandford saw the film 'The Motorcycle Diaries', and had a sudden, inexplicable desire to retrace Ernesto 'Ché' Guevara and Alberto Granado's trek through South America, on a motorcycle of course. Pete was familiar with bikes, and considered using a Kawasaki or BMW for the trip, as a rational person might, but somehow the song of the Norton entered his head, and wouldn't go away. Not that he had much experience finding, maintaining, or riding such an old motorcycle... especially for such a long distance. In fact, it's been quite a while since anyone rode a 1939 Norton Model 18 for 4,000 miles in one trip... even Ernesto and Alberto had their problems when the bike was relatively new. But, he enlisted the help of his pal Steve Holmes, and are in the middle of planned 8-week journey.

Ernesto's diaries of the legendary trip, which began in December 1951, are held in the Ché Guevara Studies Center of Havana, Cuba, and were first published in English in 1993, as 'The Motorcycle Diaries' (the film of the same name is mostly based on Granado's book 'Con el Ché por Sudamerica'). He had never intended them for publication, but did amend his notes in later years, adding insights and commentary (Guevara published many other books, about politics, guerilla warfare, and his failed campaigns in Congo and Bolivia). At 23, Ernesto was still in medical school in 1951, and took a year's hiatus with his friend Alberto, 29, a biochemist specializing in Leprosy studies, to trek from Buenos Aires, down the Atlantic coast of Argentina, across the pampas, through the Andes and into Chile, north to Peru and Colombia, ending in Caracas - an 8,000 mile journey, which took 9 months. As they were travelling nearly broke and unknown, their local hosts were invariably poor, and exploited by Political and Economic forces at play in South America at the time. Guevara was moved by the local's situation; their stories fermented within him, and with a dash of Marxist political analysis added to the mix, was born 'Ché' (slang for 'dude') the Revolutionary.

This wasn't Ernesto's first long trek though - it's little known that he had already made a 2,800mile trip around the north of Argentina on a motorized bicycle in 1948 (see pic below), from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, where Alberto Granado ran a medical dispensary for the Leper colony - this brilliant asthmatic was bitten hard by the motorcycle bug.

Famously, the motorcycle used for the 1951-2 trip was La Poderosa II ('the mighty one'), a rather unreliable beast, which bore the two young men plus their gear over the rough South American roads of the day.

They experienced numerous breakdowns and troubles, which of course meant lots of contact with the locals (as anyone who's ridden long-distance and found trouble can attest).

Near Santiago, Chile, the front brake cable lost it's ferrule when sorely needed on a downhill slope, and the Norton was damaged beyond repair. The travelers hitchhiked, boated, rafted (see pic below), rode horses, and walked their way to Venzuela, where Alberto was slated to work at a Leper colony. Ernesto continued his travels north to Miami, then returned to Argentina to finish his medical studies in 1954, and the rest of his life as Ché can be found on a t-shirt near you.

Given the, shall we say, less than glorious example of the original 'Motorcycle Diaries' as regards the Norton, it's a purely romantic gesture that Pete and Steve have chosen to retrace the same route, but they're taking two identical Norton Model 18s, which is kind of cheating, but sensible. It took months to actually find the Nortons they were looking for - the blog entries are amusing as they discover the difficulty of finding a very particular old bike; once they'd found one, the other appeared immediately. Which fits with my Theory of Vintage Relativity - "after purchasing a long-sought motorcycle, you will be offered another one within 30 days". Of course, the corrolary is, "the likelihood of buying the second one is 80%." In the meantime, as they wanted the original 'look' of the Guevara bike, they sought to change telescopic forks for girders etc, as one of the machines was a 1950 model with plungers, and encountered ebay scammers, plus other entertaining hurdles. Such as this day (July 18, 2008):

"What is it with these old Nortons. Every time you want to go anywhere you seem to have to get the spanners out before you can get on your way! Today I was just planning on a quick joyride round the Island. As I kicked the bike over it backfired a couple of times but didn't start. After that it refused to even try to start. As I looked down to find the 'tickler' on the carb, I realised the whole carb had disappeared!"

All of this fun preparing and planning took nearly a year, which isn't bad considering the task at hand.

They have been in South America for the past few weeks, and posting their own 'motorcycle diary', which is of course a blog, Revolution-Road. They are also keeping a website ( with photos from the journey, and a progress map to keep track of the trip. Pete has this to say:
"We have already fared better than Che and Alberto as they rode their bike to Los Angeles, Che then moved it on a truck to Santiago, after which, Alberto's brother collected it, took it back to Argentina, broke it for parts and sent the proceeds on to Alberto in Venezuela.
We are now more than 2000km north of Los Angeles and still going strong despite my bike being 63 years old whereas Alberto's was just 13!!
Having put some of the toughest parts of the trip behind us, we're now very hopeful that we just may manage to coax our old bikes all the way to Caracas."
Good luck fellas!


Anonymous said...


Saw your site and enjoyed it. Our musuem:
Kingsbury, Texas

We are currently restoring a 1910 Thor IV, have a 1918 Indian that was restored ca. 1990 and we are bringing back to life after it saw disuse due to the fuel tanks failing (we have now built new tanks), and also have a 1921 Triumph coming from the UK (traded original fuselage hardware for a Tommy Morse WWI Scout fighter plane).

We have found some good Thor IV info, fortunately found a gentleman who restored one in the 1990's and he was incredibly generous with his information.

We have some Model T's running as well as a 1917 Nash Quad and we hope to have the three motorcycles running this year. The Triumph is purported to be in running condition and it is being shipped this month. The running we do is very minimal, once a month on site just to keep our vehicles "exercised". We have semi-annual fly ins where where try to operate everything we have. We will be Youtubing our motorcycles as soon as they are running. We build and fly aircraft of the Great War and golden age of aviation.

I am into living history and also am interested in proper clothing for these motorcycles. I have a 1916 US Army Uniform I wear but am interested in civilian clothing also. I am also interested into developing our facility into a early vehicle friendly place with an appropriate rural road.

Just wanted to touch base.


Anonymous said...

You mean you're chasing his rascal !

vintagent said...

Now THAT would be a million-Peso motorcycle! After it was wrecked in Caracas, it was trucked back to Alberto's brother in Argentina, and he sold the parts off and sent the money to Alberto in Venezuela. BUT, someone knows the Registration number, and I bet you dollars to donuts that stuff is still out there... it could be reassembled, but will more likely be faked up at some point; I'm really surprised 'Che's bike' hasn't already surfaced.

smitty said...

My plan after finishing my dumb lap round the world (1965 Ducati 250) is to ride a girder Norton from Alaska to Argentina. Not as much as Che worship but just because it seems like a good idea -- my brain that can't tell the difference between "good idea" and "stupid idea". It's already taken me forever and I've hardly been anywhere and am saving up for Round 3 which should finish the lap. I'm glad someone else beat me to it but I still plan on doing it. Thanks for the link! I'm surprised I haven't heard about this before. Old and slow!


smitty said...

Any other shots of his motorized bicycle? Any idea what it is?

vintagent said...

I've never seen another shot of this bike - he wasn't famous yet! Ernesto added a clip-on engine to his racing bicycle; it isn't a commercial moped. Clever fellow.
Again, find THAT bike and you're a million pesos richer!

Anonymous said...

Mad dogs and Englishman out in the noonday sun. We all wish them well as we follow their exploits.

C-ya, Jerrykap