Their names ring out from the past, sounding like medieval swords wielded by knights-errant. Thor, Excelsior, York—these are the motorcycles your grandfather's grandfather rode, long, skinny-wheeled flat-tankers built from steel, copper, and brass.
Exposed valve trains articulate in the cool breeze, while a leather belt serves as both the transmission and clutch. The riveted clip clicks three times during each revolution, as the belt circles the tensioner and drive-pulleys, but I can't hear these things. My swords were forged in Japan, under the guidance of W. Edwards Deming.
Unlike modern motorcycles that keep their mechanical secrets concealed, antique motorcycle complexity is wholly external. Anything not essential to converting gasoline explosions into forward motion is omitted. There are no mysterious black boxes full of foil and ash, no garishly decaled plastic panels covering jumbled multi-pin connectors, no infallible corporate sheen. See the oil pump, hear the oil pump, be the oil pump. It's just that simple.
Such simplicity sometimes diminishes antique motorcycles: They seem like little more than glorified bicycles to our jaded, 150-hp sensibilities. What can they possibly offer today's motorcyclist? We walk past the doddering antiques without a glance.
The oldest antique motorcycles are mostly curated objects now, having passed through stages from daily rider to collectable curiosity to a kind of three-dimensional art limbo many inhabit today. Owners often enjoy rare objects solely for being rare. There is little room for passion and fury when it comes to investment-grade motorcycles.
Next time you're at a motorcycle show, push your way through the crowds milling around the Knuckleheads and Nortons, past the 750 Hondas, RD350s, and H2s, all the way to the back wall where you'll find the antique bikes: keen, ice-cold, and lonely. The riders who desired these motorcycles are aging out. Nobody lives forever—not even knights-errant.
Wait around and catch a glimpse of that desire: eyes washed pale, skin paper thin. He once was tall; now he's gravity-stooped and spindly but stands proud in a suit that fit much better 35 years ago. The places he went on that pioneer motorcycle, the adventures on primitive roads—man, it must have been like flying!
Look at his hands. Elasticity gone, their normal resting position now is folded over with tendons gripping tight. Sixty years ago those hands fettled and coaxed those motorized bicycles to life. There was no thought of investment-grade objet d'art back then; just fire and wind and youth, streaking down a bumpy road faster than anything had ever gone before.
Truth be told, his breath smells as if parts of him are already dead. He's sort of deaf and confused and stubborn—just plain hard to talk to, so I didn't. He just stands alongside his antique motorcycles, studying delicate gold pinstriping so elegantly surrounding baroque script. Where would you even buy carbide for the lamps today? Does he long for someone to share his wonder for these machines?
Our knights-errant are rapidly disappearing; mine died before I made time to ask. In a few more years, our last living connection to the birth of motorcycling will be severed. If the price of admission is not too high, you might be lucky enough to meet a real, live knight-errant. Ask the old man a question for me: How did they handle on the dirt roads? What was the fastest he's gone? Did he ever crash? Ask him because I was too busy with nothing important.
Wind still blows cold, rain is still wet, and the ground is still hard. Nothing essential surrounding the act of riding a motorcycle has changed in the last 100 years, no matter how much the bikes have changed. But just imagine the honor: You might be the last person on earth to hear first-hand how it was when motorcycling was born. Ask him so that when you're an old Samurai looking out through your own cloudy eyes you'll be able to pass his story on. Secondhand, of course, along with a few new ones of your own.