The Find of a Lifetime, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Tomb Riders

By David Edwards, Photography by Daniel Peirce/trick Photography

Like all good stories, this one has intrigue, irony, shadowy characters, plot twists, high-stakes negotiations and, eventually, a happy ending. That it also involves a hidden cache of classic British motorcycles only makes it that much better.

Keith Martin is the owner of Big D Cycle in Dallas, Texas, a recent restart of the famous Triumph dealership and speed shop run by the late Jack Wilson: builder of the hard-working, nitro-burning 650cc Twin that pushed Stormy Mangham’s “Texas Ceegar” streamliner to 214 mph across the hard, dried-alkali surface of Utah’s ancient Great Salt Lake in 1956. That run gave Triumph its “World Fastest Motorcycle” motto and it’s most beloved model: the Bonneville.

As an authority on all things Britbike, Martin gets many strange phone calls, but none like the one he took in the autumn of 2009. A motorcycle collector had died and his bikes needed to be appraised for sale.

“Fine, can do,” said Martin. “How many machines are we talking about?”

“Eh, a lot. You better get over here,” he was told.

The first curiosity was that “here” turned out to nearby, less than 30 miles away. Odd that Martin had never heard of this recently deceased collector or seen any of his bikes. The classic-bike community in North Texas is an enthusiastic, close-knit group, yet right in the middle of the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex was a man and a cluster of motorcycles nobody knew about.

For good reason: The bikes were secreted away in a nondescript suburban storage complex. The facility’s manager remembers seeing his reclusive tenant only a handful of times over a decade or more, reckoning that most of the machines rolled in under cover of darkness. If there was any daylight activity—and that was rare—a tarp hung over the entryway to keep prying eyes at bay. Curious behavior, but the rent checks arrived on time month after month after month until 2009, when payment suddenly stopped. There was no will, and no next of kin could be found, so after the prescribed passage of time the contents of the storage room went to lien sale. Now the manager owned whatever was inside.

When the lock was cut and the door thrown open, what greeted him was an almost impregnable tangle of motorcycles and parts. Inside the 20x20-foot cubicle was a rickety assemblage of wooden shelves, groaning under the weight of all that metal. The manager feared that removing just one item would cause the whole lot to come tumbling down like something out of an old I Love Lucy episode.

The dearly departed had gone way beyond collecting and mere pack-rat status into pathological hoarding, an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. There was no restoration here. In fact, there was evidence that perfectly good motorcycles had actually been disassembled so their components could be stuffed into various cubbyholes.

Perhaps the world’s most famous hoarders were New York’s Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, who were literally killed by their affliction. In 1947, a heavy stack of bundled newspapers falling from height took out Langley. Homer, a blind invalid, succumbed to dehydration a few days later. When authorities cleared the brothers’ three-story Harlem brownstone, 130 tons of effluvia was found inside. Besides the towers of old newspapers, there were 25,000 books, baby carriages, bowling balls, human organs pickled in jars, furniture, tapestries, 14 pianos and even the chassis from an old Ford Tin Lizzie.

Thankfully, no one was killed exhuming the rolling stock from the jumbled storage space in Texas. More or less complete bikes, anything that could be pushed or dragged, were moved into an overseas shipping container so that a fuller assessment of the room’s contents could be made. That’s when Martin was called in.

“I still remember opening that door,” he says today. “I kept thinking, ‘This ain’t real! Can this be real?’ The first bike I saw was an early overhead-cam Ariel four-cylinder. I asked the guy, ‘Is that an OHC Square Four?’ He said, ‘I dunno. That’s why you’re here.’“

By David Edwards
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