We originally planned to cover Brian O'Shea's bikes in a single installment. But after considering the breadth of his collection, the bikes' significance and the heft Superbike racing has added to motorcycling's history since the series' inauspicious beginnings in the mid-1970s, we decided multiple stories would better allow us to dig more deeply into each bike's history and technical accoutrements.
We begin in the latter half of the 1970s, just as the streetbike-based class-called Superbike Production when it was introduced at Laguna Seca in '74-was evolving from one dominated by European twins (mostly BMWs and Ducatis) to one controlled by Japanese inline-fours (primarily from Kawasaki and Suzuki). Consider this, then, our opening salvo of a three-part series. Enjoy. - Ed.
These days, motorcycle collectors seem as common as re-formed '70s rock bands, the bikes they collect as varied as Elton John concert regalia from the same era. You've got your turn-of-the-century collectors, your boardtrack guys, your pre- and post-war Britbike folks, your Japanese-, Italian- and German-bike fans, your racebike, dirtbike and old-Vespa gatherers, and a whole lot more. And that's great; the more caretakers of two-wheeled history, the better.
But Brian O'Shea is different. O'Shea, see, collects Superbike racers. Not generic Superbikes, replica Superbikes, or even ones from the '90s and beyond, but the racing hardware baby boomers everywhere-especially here at Motorcyclist-watched, read about in the magazines and dreamed of when the class was becoming American roadracing's Big Show: the actual legendary Superbikes of the '70s and '80s.
In the early days, the Superbike class wasn't the polished, big-buck affair it is today. There were no glossy transporters, no seven-figure salaries, no PR people sucking the personality out of the show. Then, Superbike was young, raw and a bit romantic, with even the larger teams usually only consisting of a rider, a bike or two and a T-shirted mechanic, all working out of a box van. Superbike fit halfway between club racing and what was then American roadracing's main event-Kenny Roberts, Rich Schlacter, Steve Baker and others on their howling two-strokes.
But it was mind-alteringly exciting. Superbike had the newest, fastest street-legal motorcycles going at it hot and heavy on America's most revered racetracks-Laguna, Daytona, Loudon, Sears Point, Riverside-with engine and chassis technology changing month to month. Creative rule interpretation-cheating-was taken to new heights, partying was rampant for many riders and crew, and the on-track action was superb. When the factories-most notably Honda in 1980-got involved with Big Money support, things got turned up, as Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel would say, to 11.
This is the colorful, circus-like scene that hooked a young, impressionable Brian O'Shea during the early '80s. "I was the kid in the back of the class with a motorcycle magazine slipped between the pages of my history book," he says with a grin. "I couldn't get enough of that stuff!" O'Shea, 43, started in motorcycling like a lot of baby boomers: His cousin let him ride his Honda Z50, O'Shea got "hooked badly," and it was all downhill from there. Even a bad head-on off-road crash a few years later on his XR75 didn't derail him. "I had a bone sticking out of my thigh, was bleeding from the ears, and was in traction for six weeks," he says, a bit more seriously. "But two weeks into it I was back to reading the magazines, thinking of my next bike!"
O'Shea's two-wheel passion eventually took him to club racing on the East Coast, where he won assorted modified-production and endurance titles in the mid- to late '80s. Fittingly, endurance racing led him to the business of collecting classic racebikes. "I was poking around the pits after a race at Loudon in '89," he says, "and spotted an old Honda CB900F endurance racer, which turned out to be an ex-Ontario Moto Tech/Kaz Yoshima racebike. The cool thing was, it had a couple of neat parts on it: an AHM [American Honda Motor] Special Projects aluminum engine cover and a hand-bent Mike Velasco exhaust. So I bought it, restored it and sold it for decent money-money that ended up paying for my first real Superbike, the ex-Merkel/Shobert VFR750F Interceptor I still have. That one cost me 10 grand, a lot of money back then. Hey, I'm a blue-collar union guy, so I'm not rich. But I'm glad I took the plunge. That VFR is really special."
Indeed it is.
O'Shea's initial purchases helped him develop pedigreed racebike contacts around the world, which he slowly but surely used to buy, sell and horse-trade for the bikes he wanted. "In the early '90s a lot of these special American Superbikes just started popping up," he says. "I must have written hundreds of letters to people, made hundreds of phone calls, in the U.S., Canada, Europe and even Japan. I was leery about spending big bucks on some of them, but by buying and selling stuff smartly I was able to get the bikes I really wanted."
Two of the bikes O'Shea most wanted are the bikes featured in this opening piece-the Vetter-sponsored KZ1000 Reg Pridmore used to win the '78 Superbike title, and the Yoshimura GS1000 Wes Cooley rode to the '80 title. Noted fairing designer Craig Vetter had acquired both in the early '80s, but ended up selling them to O'Shea in 1993.
When we first met O'Shea a few years ago and asked about meeting him at a racetrack to ride and photograph his collection, he agreed instantly; the guy believes strongly in the living museum concept, as do the folks at Barber Motorsports Park. It's fitting, then, we would eventually meet up with O'Shea at George Barber's fabulous facility to check out what's very likely the most scintillating collection of U.S.-spec "glory days" Superbikes in existence.