Showing posts with label Moto Guzzi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Moto Guzzi. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


George Disteel late in his life, using 'duct tape' as an eyepatch to help him see despite cataracts
An old friend forwarded a pair of newspaper clippings from a 1978 auction, held by Butterfield+Butterfield auctioneers of San Francisco (now absorbed into Bonhams), of the various contents from the estate of noted Bay Area eccentric 'Crazy' George Disteel.  I've written previously about Disteel, but hadn't seen the prices fetched by his motorcycles at the auction -it makes fascinating reading, and sheds light on how the priorities of the motorcycle collector market have shifted in the 35 years.
The San Francisco Chronicle article of Jan 26, 1978, with a story of George Disteel's estate auction...
If I were to ask a savvy classic motorcycle fan today, which was the more valuable, a Vincent Black Shadow, a Norton International, or a Moto Guzzi Falcone?  The answer would likely be in that order, that 'of course' a Shadow is among the most coveted of vintage motorcycles, and anyone who's been reading the classic press the past 30 years could explain exactly why - the speed records, the exploits of Marty Dickerson and Rollie Free and George Brown, the Phil Irving connection, all of which seems correct and natural today.  But history is a mutually agreed-upon construction (or disagreed upon!), a narrative which suits the needs of the present.  And at present, we apparently need the Vincent Black Shadow as top dog, with consequent demand and bidding wars at auction pushing prices over $120k for decent examples.
The Butterfield+Butterfield auction list and results for George Disteel's estate
In 1978, though, collectors felt the three machines - Vincent, Norton, and Guzzi - were of equal value - $1550 - at least in that California auction room.  As someone who entered the 'classic bike' scene just a few years later, I concur that in the early '80s, a Moto Guzzi Falcone was a rare exotic in the USA, highly esteemed for the quality of its build and innovative design.  Moto Guzzi, the only factory of the 3 still in business at that date (Norton was limping along in limbo, and Vincent gone since 1955) had a far better reputation for the quality of their castings and machine work than either British brand, and Norton OHC singles bathed in the glory of decades of racing success of their racing brother, the Manx.  I can confirm that both an Inter and a Falcone were every bit as desirable as a Shadow until the current generation.
The 1965 Cycle World road test of a Vincent Black Lightning - 'an evil-handling beast'
Vincent twins had a reputation in the USA for excellent top speed potential, but frightening handling, the legacy of a profoundly negative Cycle World road test of a Black Lightning in their Sept.1965 issue.  In fact, the tester said, "The Vincent motorcycle may be fast, but it is an evil-handling beast, with simply awful brakes. It is the most dangerous motorcycle ever to come our way, and we are not sorry in the least that it is no longer being made." Which is a far cry from their current reputation!  (By contrast, I've road tested a 1950 Vincent Black Lightning, and found it absolutely fantastic, with excellent handling, and a thrill to ride).

Using an 'inflation calculator', $1550 in 1978 dollars equals around $5800 in 2014, a 275% inflation over 36 years.  What would can we expect to pay today for these machines?  While I can't account for the condition of Disteel's bikes (they're still around of course, I know of several in the SF Bay Area still), here's what you'll have to pay for really good examples of each machine:

- H+H sold a 1950 Norton Model 30 International for $33,900 in April 3013 (courtesy

35 years later, the Vincent is valued by collectors at 4 times the value of the Norton and Moto Guzzi, a situation which would have puzzled collectors in 1978, who would have pooh-poohed the notion of the flawed Vincent twin having more value than the race-bred Norton and high-quality Moto Guzzi.  Food for thought; today's values are exactly that, and not an indication of tomorrow's values...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

'STANLEY WOODS: The World's First Motorcycle Superstar'

Stanley Woods aboard a Cotton-Blackburne in 1923.  Hew won the Junior TT that year by steady riding, but got excited when he learned his was in the lead, and ended up in someone's door, bending his forks, which can be seen clearly here.  Only the retirement of leader Bert LeVack on a New Imperial paved the way for his victory, in only his second season of racing.
When the greatest motorcycle racers of all time are discussed, among them must always be Stanley Woods, the Irish racer whose career peaked in the 1930s with a phenomenal record of ten Isle of Man TT wins, and a long list of 'fastest laps' on an amazing variety of machinery.  Woods began his racing career with a chutzpa move, sending letters to various manufacturers, claiming to the 350cc makers that he had secured a ride with 500cc makers, and vice versa, and directing their 'who in blazes is he?' queries to the Dublin+District M/C Club, and the Dublin dealer of Indian motocycles....with the replies dictated by Stanley himself! 
Stanley Woods pushing off on a Norton Model 25 racer in the 1926 Senior TT, his first TT win on a Norton.  The Model 25 was a tuned and strengthened version of the Model 18, with a proper recirculating oil pump.
The new book 'Stanley Woods: The World's First Motorcycle Superstar' by David Crawford (Lily books) is rich with period detail and photographs, as Stanley kept diaries and careful notes of his activities, as well as his own camera, and of course the press of the day loved to photograph a champion.  Stanley also had a keen memory, remaining sharp as a tack until his death at 90; author Crawford was a friend of the great man, and had plenty of time to familiarize himself with his long and complicated racing history, as well as Woods' opinions and recollections.
Stanley with his personal New Imperial-JAP outfit, which New Imp agreed to build specially for him from components Stanley sourced from other suppliers like JAP and Sturmey-Archer.  He raced it on the road and on sand, and eventually built an OHV version with a KTOR JAP engine!
'Stanley Woods' has some real gems in the text, including descriptions of the Isle of Man 'race track' in the early 1920s, which sounds much more like a trials or scrambles course. "The first section of the TT course from the start at Douglas to Ramsey was a bumpy and water-bound road.  On dry days...the clouds of dust made overtaking a hazardous business.  It was also full of pot-holes (the section between Sulby and Ramsey being the worst of all) giving riders a hard physical ride on their rigid-framed bikes.  The mountain road out of Ramsey was mostly soft sand and loose stone up as far as the Bungalow, with ruts from cart wheels and grass growing between the ruts."  We picture the Isle of Man as a fast race course today, with speeds over 200mph in sections, but 100 years ago it was another test or rider and machine entirely.  
It's good to be the king!  HRH Prince George (later King) shakes hands with Stanley Woods at the start of the 1932 Senior TT, with a new Norton OHC factory racer at his side.  He won both the Junior and Senior TTs that year, the first man to do so.
Luckily, Stanley Woods was already an experience trials rider, and knew how to cope with rugged turf.  He was also quite pleased that the ruse employed to find a 1922 TT machine hit paydirt with Cotton, who agreed to supply him with a Blackburne-engined machine, in fact, one with the highest HP rating of all the 350cc engines supplied for racing that June. He was not so pleased when the Cotton was delivered, for all the Cotton TT racers had been ridden by Cotton employees from Gloucester to the ferry at Liverpool, and their transport duties had become an impromptu street race!  And who can blame them, having suddenly been let loose on pukka racers on the road...but the net result was Harold Brockbank, the Cotton factory foreman, informing Stanley on their introduction that his racer was in no way fit to race, and needed work before even practice could begin.  An exhaust rocker had seized, and the inertia of the Blackburne's external flywheel had sheared off its woodruff key on the crank, and welded itself to the shaft.  1922 was early days for an overhead-valve motor, and Stanley had never touched one before, but set to work, worrying all the while and in his sleep whether it would work. He was 18 years old.
In 1928, at the peak of a Dirt Track craze in the UK, Stanley Woods tried his hand at the best bike available, the Douglas DT500.  He quickly mastered the art of broadsliding, and won several events, setting course records all the while.  Woods was also an expert off-road competitor, winning hundreds of trials. 
The Cotton-Blackburne ran well, but Stanley crashed at Ramsey hairpin and lost his tools, then clipped a kerb so hard he split his exhaust.  When he stopped to refuel, he didn't shut off the engine - a sloppy fill-job spilled fuel onto his leaking exhaust, and Stanley was engulfed in flames.  The fire was put out, and Stanley carried on, more badly burned on his legs than he realized in his adrenalin frenzy.    It was suggested at each instance that he retire from the race, but he doggedly kept going, and finished 5th.  Everyone thought he should win the Nesbitt Shield for 'pluck', but he didn't, and the ensuing press controversy resulted in Cotton sales increasing six-fold!  There are more ways to sell than winning, apparently.
In 1934, Stanley Woods signed with Husqvarna to ride their very fast 500cc v-twin OHV racers.  He set several lap records in the Senior TT, and was leading by 3 minutes on the last lap, when he ran out of fuel.  He rated the Husqvarna as exceptionally good-handling and faster than the Nortons.
Stanley was soon signed with Norton, which catapulted him to the top of the racing tree, and developing an absolutely professional work ethic to racing, which meant winning for his employers, and maximizing his earnings.  While the Norton team reduced his earnings by 30% in the midst of the Depression (from £350/yr in 1929 to £250/yr in 1933), Woods still collected checks from suppliers of chains, oil, saddles, tires, handgrips, etc, which amounted to many times his 'salary'.  It wasn't the money which eventually pushed him away from the Norton team - it was the expectation that Woods should ride to 'team orders', and not win so much.  Norton team manager Joe Craig's logic was that if four top-class riders on Nortons took turns winning, it would reflect better on the machine; Stanley's star status and frequent wins made it appear the wins were due to the man, not the bike...which was of course fairly true!
The 1934 500cc OHC Moto Guzzi v-twin, in Woods' first year racing with the Italians.  The following year, with full rear springing and alloy wheel rims, Woods won the Senior TT in record time.  
So in 1933 Woods left Norton, and successfully raced several other marques, which eventually included Husqvarna, Velocette, DKW, and Moto Guzzi.  His keen riding sensibilities improved the Velocette chassis tremendously in 1936, when he test-rode the new 'dog kennel' OHC Velocette works racer.  He loved the engine, but hated the handling, and suggested the engine be moved forward a few inches - thus began a collaboration with Harold Willis at Veloce, and they tested the engine placement theory initially by moving a lead block attached beneath the frame.  The new frame became the Mark VII KTT, subsequently developed into the Mark VIII KTT with full rear suspension (the first with 'shocks'), then the Venom and Thruxton swingarm bikes, which all used identical steering geometry and weight distribution.  [Next time you're enjoying the fine handling of a 1960s Velocette, remember to thank Stanley Woods!] Woods rewarded Velocette with his last TT win, in the Junior class of 1939, and a 2nd in the Senior class.  He retired from racing, and lived a full life postwar.
Woods toying with a Binks 'Mousetrap' carb in a sleeper train to the Assen TT in 1933.
Stanley Woods and Veloce's Harold Willis discuss the 1937 factory Velocette racer which Woods helped develop.  This was the first rear suspension system with 'shocks', in this case, specially-made air/oil shocks by the Oleo aircraft landing gear manufacturer.
Woods with a DKW 250 supercharged two-stroke, which handled beautifully, was very fast, and incredibly loud! It was one of the many marques Stanley rode, but this one did not give him a TT victory.

Monday, October 28, 2013


Steve Brindmore and his Featherbed Commando, leaving our warehouse in the last industrial area of San Francisco 
Pete Young and the Yerba Buena chapter of the AMCA host the annual 49-Mile Ride on the last Sunday of October, which is open to all pre-1975 motorcycles, and is regularly swarmed with over 300 bikes of all makes and configurations.  I was on the first 9 editions of the 49-Mile, but missed a few while abroad - it's always great fun to confound automotive traffic in SF, although a few times I reflected on the unfortunate 'New York Incident' while hordes of bikers maneuvered around cars; honks and fingers were occasionally exchanged, but no trouble ensued.
Chris Bonk and his original-paint 1951 MV Agusta 125cc two-stroke
The polyglot nature of the bikes present is what makes this ride special; mopeds, scooters, pre-War, military, Choppers, Cafe Racers, Britbikes, Italian 70s hotrods, Japanese 60s two-strokes, literally everything under the sun.  Everyone rides an old motorcycle, and that's good enough.
At the meeting point, the Bayview Boat Club (pointedly NOT a yacht club), a lovely ca.1978 Ducati 900SS
I discussed the 'club scene' with one attendee, who's invested much time over the years in the BSA Owner's Club.  He lamented that 95% of the bikes riding the 49-Mile Ride would not be welcome at a BSA Club ride, which I opined was an excellent way to ensure the death of one-make and Vintage clubs.  The most popular and vital vintage motorcycle scene worldwide, and the one which attracts younger riders, is the broad spectrum of Custom bikes - Cafe Racers, Bobbers, Choppers, Street Trackers, etc.  Plenty of Custom riders have 'stock' vintage bikes too, but who wants to hang around with old farts who look sideways at their cool creations?  Food for thought.
A pair of BSAs, distinctly different cousins; an A65 chopper, and a B44 Victor Special
Enjoy this stop-motion tour of San Francisco, the photos are in order from the trip to my warehouse (Motopia) and back; I'll point out touristy hightlights for those far away!
Wonderfully ratty Harley Knucklehead
A buyer's choice of redness; Benelli (Motobi), Puch Grand Prix, Moto Guzzi Falcone Tourismo
An interesting pair of Bobbers; Knucklehead and Trophy

Hanging out with Max Schaaf, vintage chopper revivalist with his blog 4Q Conditioning (Kim Young photo)
Host club Yerba Buena M/C provided the legal release forms and prepared the food!
Lots of Street Trackers, like this Triumph, and the Rickman behind
Lovely old Matchless G80
Honda CB750 in front of a Chevrolet Impala, just like the one I grew up in!
This young man has earned his imperious visage, riding a Simplex around the parking lot
Most 'CB' Hondas are now accepted into the AMCA under the 35 year rule...
We're off!!  More Hondas, this time a rare (for the US) 'Black Bomber' CB450 in original paint
Crossing the 3rd St drawbridge, right beside the Giants' baseball stadium downtown

Beside the ballpark...
Heading along the Embarcadero, towards the Bay Bridge
This youngster was excited to see all the bikes ride by, and eager to be included by the SF Piers
The old Fire Station on the Embarcadero 
The Ferry Building, which is now a shrine to fine foods
From left: Coit Tower, an 'F' Line vintage streetcar, a lovely Sunbeam with wicker sidecar, and the Piers where the America's Cup sailing races were recently centered
Max Schaaf of 4Q Conditioning and his custom Knucklehead 
Yes, SF has hills; this is the climb up Lombard St.
Mid-Lombard St descent, down a one-way brick road.  Not 'the crookedest street in SF', but picturesque
Kim Young with daughter Sirisvati on the back, heading downhill towards Alcatraz
A nice AJS Model 16 at the Marina
A Whizzer, the smallest machine on the ride, near the Golden Gate Bridge
A hot Puch Grand Prix and BSA A10 Road Rocket
Mondial 175 and Yam SR500...
The 900SS riding through the Presidio, towards Baker Beach and the Seacliff neighborhood
The BSA Road Rocket passes before the Palace of the Legion of Honor, a replica of the one in Paris
Akiko recently bought her Honda Dream after getting her license a year ago - this was her first Vintage ride!  Hope you dug it!
Paul Zell on his home-built NorVin, at the Cliff House
Beside the Cliff House, with Ocean Beach beyond
Rick Najera on his Knucklehead Bobber, in front of the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park
Heading south on the Great Highway along Ocean Beach
A Harley/Aermacchi Sprint SS350
A full-dress Moto Guzzi Ambassador in Golden Gate Park
An ex-Military Indian Chief
'Indian' Rick deCost
Guiding my Triumph Bonneville through familiar turf
Charlie Taylor and his Matchless Model X beside Laguna Honda reservoir
Atop Twin Peaks; a young lad is hooked!
Pete and Kim Young looking over SF from Twin Peaks
Blaise Descollanges on top of the world
Lovely Zundapp K700 and Nimbus outfit
Twin Peaks is ripe for a bit of scratching; no cars, nice bends
Heading down Twin Peaks towards downtown
The end of the day, back at the Bayview Boat Club, Steve Brindmore and Roland Batterscher
...and back to Bayview, with Ana and Katie at the BBQ