Saturday, December 04, 2010


George Disteel towards the end of his life, with a gaffer's tape eyepatch to help him work around his cataracts
It was a rumor which floated around the San Francisco 'old bike' community for years - the crazy old guy whose son had been killed on a Vincent Black Shadow, went crazy, and spent the rest of his life hunting down Vincents, which he squirreled away in chicken shacks on his property.
The rumor was, as far as anyone can tell, based on the real life of George Disteel. 
George was an avid motorcyclist, a fan of Vincent motorcycles, owning a Black Shadow named 'Sad Sack', and apparently a rider of some skill.  Born in 1904, he discovered Marin county in the 1940s after serving in the military - a motorcyclist paradise, full of empty, twising roads and year-round mild weather.  No one today knows what machines George owned before the Vincent, but he seems to have purchased his Shadow brand new, and created an impression in the local motorcycling community, not only for his riding ability and choice of the World's Fastest Production Motorcycle (as it said in the Vincent advertising), but of his increasingly erratic behavior, and appearance.
The late Alex McLean, a motorcycle dealer north of San Francisco, with one of Disteel's bikes, a Vincent Black Knight, still bearing its English registration plate.  Note the BSA Gold Star muffler, and luggage rack on the back.
A man of great personal discipline, George walked or bicycled many miles per day, and kept up a rigorous exercise routine.  He was also fond of wearing little clothing, quite possible in sunny Marin, and his ever growing beard usually served as his only upper-torso modesty.   Sometime in the late 1950s, his behavior became erratic, and he confided in an apprentice (Disteel was a master carpenter) the story of his 'son', who was tragically killed riding a Vincent at 20 years old.  George was never married, although he did have a few liasons earlier in his life, but no-one seems able to corroborate whether he had a son, or a paternal relationship with a young man. 
Alex McLean again, with a c.1947 Velocette KSS 'bob job', in typical American late '40s style
In a sense, it doesn't matter, as this story became his justification for bizarre actions, such as stuffing every nook and cranny of his home and jobsites with paper and old cloth, and searching northern California for fast motorcycles, especially Vincents, to buy and hide away, preventing the death of another unsuspecting youth.
Testing compression on a Royal Enfield Interceptor
George eventually amassed something like 18 Vincents, two KSS Velocettes, a Norton International, two Moto Guzzi Falcones, an R51/3 BMW, Sunbeams, DKWs, Royal Enfields, plus a lot of rifles, clocks, oddments, antiques, etc, all of which he paid for by canny investments in real estate, making him quite rich.  He didn't appear rich at all though, with his near-nakedness, lack of bathing, and odd behavior.  Although he owned 23 properties in Marin county, he lived for a while in a '52 Hudson car filled with trash.  Eviction from the car meant moving to a Tenderloin residence hotel in San Francisco, after taking a sledgehammer to the car and having it towed.   Towards the end of his days, with cataracts making reading difficult and driving impossible, he wore a pirate's eyepatch made of gaffer's tape, switching from side to side in order to see better.
The local TV station (KRON channel 4) covered the auction at Butterfield+Butterfield
He collapsed on the street in SF in 1978, aged 74, and a keen-eyed coroner realized he was no indigent, which began a chain of discovery of the man's multiple homes, lands, sheds, hidden caches of motorcycles, storage units, etc.  As no heirs could be found, the motorcycles were sold at Butterfields auction house in San Francisco, where the Vincents fetched from $800 - $1500... Some of these motorcycles were brand new or nearly so, and many merely needed a good clean after their years packed in rags within sealed toolsheds.  A few of my friends own these bikes, so I'm fairly sure the story is least, the Vincent-in-a-chicken-coop part.
The Moto Guzzi Stornello (?) 


toyduc said...

Very interesting story.Love it! I can only wish Vincent's were that readily available with such a price. Sf is still full of interesting people.

Anonymous said...

Yes what is it about SF I very good friend who moved out west from are small midwest town in the mid 80's an avid vintage motorcycle rider and Mechanic befriended a gentleman or rather crazy old bloke with a fantastic old racing austin martin.He Let my buddy rebuild the engine to drive it to southern california to visit some friends. years later as the man lost his health he didnt want anybody to have this said austin martin and had it buried in the backyard?? crazy SF nutters. :)

Anonymous said...

where exactly is this backyard?

Sleeping Dog said...

The world would be a much duller place if it were not for eccentrics. Perhaps a bit more than a standard deviation outside "normal", much would be lost or not discovered without them.

Anonymous said...

Especially -

"We provide meaning to the metal ..."

I haven't written you a fan letter before, but I really enjoy your site - and insight. I have more friends who are PHDs than friends who actually own bikes, so it's lovely to read prose that is quite a few steps above the average biker blather.

Thanks for the fascinating content. You dig up a such rich histories.

phil ford

minneapolis, mn (17° and light snow. Perfect web-surfing weather)

Jerry Smith said...

I was the last person to sell George Disteel a motorcycle.

I was working at Marin Motorsports in San Rafael, California, when Disteel--who was known locally as Crazy George, and sometimes Mr. Natural--walked in one day and began looking at a Kawasaki Z1.

He was an occasional visitor to the shop, but largely ignored, like a stray cat. I'd say hello to him whenever he dropped by, but we'd never exchanged more than a few words.

There were no other customers in the shop at the time, and so even though George looked like a poor prospect for a bike sale, I started chatting with him.

He seemed a bit out of it, which wasn't unusual in those days and in that area, and was dressed in shabby, dirty clothes, but he knew motorcycles. He asked me a lot of questions about the Kawasaki and eventually said he wanted to buy it.

I gave him the price, thinking that would be the last I saw of him, but he said he would be back with a deposit. He returned the next day or the day after with a check, so I had him fill out the paperwork, then I rolled the bike around back until he came in with the rest of the money.

He never picked up the bike. A few days later word went around that he'd died.

By the way, I believe the man in the pic with the Velo KSS is Alex McLean, who owned Motorcycles Unlimited in Corte Madera, near San Rafael, but I'm not positive. He looks familiar, anyway.

Darmah_Bum said...

By the way, I believe the man in the pic with the Velo KSS is Alex McLean, who owned Motorcycles Unlimited in Corte Madera, near San Rafael, but I'm not positive. He looks familiar, anyway.

Yes you are correct - that is definitely (a young) Alex McLean of Motorcycles Unlimited in those pics.

mark said...

I read a story about George in an old motorcycle magazine. I recognize the lead photo in this article from that story.

Interesting look on a unique character in a much different time! Makes me wonder what people will say about me when I'm gone!

stephen carson said...

The last Vincent across the block was Lot 661 that 28th day Jan 1978 at the Crazy George Disteel Butterfields auction being a 1952 Vincent Black Shadow had a lot of holes drilled in it and was bought by Arlen Ness of Custom chopper fame for a little under $2000. Another source states $1450 tend to believe later source as condition rated at fair. It’s featured in the book Vincent’s in a Barn and a photo on page 140. It was meant to have been restored in early 80’s by famous Vincent restorer Dick Busby. It was then sold to long time Vincent enthusiast Mark Allen who kept it in his workshop until sold to Stephen Carson in Dec 2010, on examining the internals doubt it was restored by Dick as his signature stamp was not found. It was only restored as a static display as was not run. The bike was completely stripped by VOC Member & Restorer Greg Brillus in Worengary Qld Australia and undergoing a full restoration.

guy holman said...

I just read the Dec. 04 article about "Crazy George Disteel" A very good article. I was his "adopted" son and lived 1/2 mile from him in Mill Valley, Ca. He sponsored me in bicycle races. I probably know more about his life than anyone else you might find. I might like to write a short story about what I know. Including a bit about the 13 Vincents he owned. If anyone is interested let me know. But the story is more about him than the Vincents.