Brian O'Shea: AMA Superbike Collector - Mr. Superbike Part II

Brian O'Shea's Collection Of Rare Honda V-Four Racebikes

Collector Brian O'Shea's tone is totally matter-of-fact, which doesn't exactly jibe with the obscene rarity and value of the two-wheeled objects he's telling me about. Of course, this is a guy who's put together what is arguably the world's finest collection of pedigreed AMA Superbikes. So for him the no-biggie tone is probably normal.

"I was looking at some HRC parts from one of Fred Merkel's VF750 racebikes, which was part of a large cache I got from American Honda years ago," he says. "I figured I had enough parts to build a cool Merkel-replica Interceptor and even be able to use some of Fred's original parts. It's nice to be able to pull brand-new works parts from actual HRC bins. It only took me a week to piece the bike together."

Blowing through stacks of exotic, rare and way-pricey HRC parts to build a mid-'80s AMA-spec Honda Interceptor sounds like some sort of utopian, old-school Superbike enthusiast's dream. After all, the early-'80s-when Honda jumped into AMA Superbike racing with loads of technology and what amounted to an open checkbook-were some of the most dynamic years in series history. But for 43-year-old collector Brian O'Shea, it's all in a weekend's work.

We recounted O'Shea's path from minibike-riding youngster to AMA Superbike collector in Part I of our "Mr. Superbike" series in our July 2006 issue.

Like many baby-boom enthusiasts, O'Shea got involved early and has remained hooked on two-wheelers ever since. The classic-racebike-collection bug bit him toward the end of his club-racing days as he was poking around the Loudon pits in '89. "I saw an old Honda CB900F endurance racer with some factory parts on it," he recalls. "I bought it, restored it and sold it for decent money-money that ended up paying for my first real AMA Superbike, the ex-Merkel/Shobert VFR750 Interceptor. 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 that plunge. That VFR is really special."

It is indeed, and there's a neat story behind the purchase.

"I bought the bike from Ruben McMurter in '91 at his home in Canada," O'Shea recounts. "We cut a deal over the phone, but for some reason the deal didn't include the frame. Ruben said he had to send the frame back to California [McMurter had signed a contract to return the bike after Daytona in '89], but that didn't stop me from driving up there in my '68 Ford Galaxy convertible. My idea was to convince him to include the frame or we had no deal. When I got there we headed to a strip joint to have a drink and talk. The next morning the ball was in Ruben's court. Well, the deal got made, I got the frame, we packed up the car and I headed south in a convertible jammed full of the rarest VFR in the world!"

Besides being rare, O'Shea's VFR is perhaps the most famous racing Interceptor in the world (though his current project, the first-generation VF750F that Freddie Spencer rode to victory in the '85 Superbike race at Daytona, might give it a run). In '86, Merkel had just come off two successive AMA Superbike Championships and was eager to ride the new aluminum-framed VFR. But the bikes American Honda received in early '86 for him and his teammate Wayne Rainey were nothing like the production VFRs trickling into dealerships.

"It was a true works HRC racer that came race-ready, complete with the NW6-coded engine," O'Shea says. "Honda sold kit HRC parts to privateers with an NF1 designation, but the works bikes had very rare NW6 parts. Internally, the engines were totally different from production, with a 360-degree crank (the stock VFR had a 180-degree orientation) and loads of titanium. NW6 parts included the GP-spec swingarm, billet-magnesium quick-change Showa fork, cams that ran on needle bearings and the $22,000 Keihin magnesium flat-slide carbs. The Honda works motors were like Formula 1 engines, versus the Yosh-built GSX-R production engines Kevin Schwantz and Doug Polen rode. American Honda owns the B bike to mine, and the other two were destroyed. So there are just two."

That '86 Superbike season saw an internal battle between the two Honda teams: Rainey and Rob Muzzy versus Merkel and Mike Velasco. Rainey finished second to Eddie Lawson (riding a factory Yamaha FZ750 in a one-race deal) at Daytona and won a total of six races during the year. But it was Merkel and Velasco whose consistency nabbed the title, even though they only won two races.

Surprisingly, Honda let Merkel go at the end of the '86 season. But the golden boy didn't miss a beat, heading to Europe to race Superbikes in '87 and following that up by winning the first two World Superbike Championships in '88 and '89 on a Rumi-backed Honda RC30.

"Merkel's bikes were given to Shobert for '87," says O'Shea. "This suited Rainey, as he and Shobert were friends. Shobert's dirt-track background was making him fast on the asphalt. And '87 was quite a year, with the epic Schwantz-versus-Rainey battles." Rainey won the '87 title with three victories, while Schwantz (five wins) and Shobert (one win) finished second and third.

With Rainey and Schwantz gone to the Grands Prix in '88, Shobert turned in a hugely impressive season on the bike. He had plenty of competition from fellow Texan Polen, who rode his Yoshimura Suzuki to three wins. But with Shobert's Honda wearing the coveted blue-and-yellow AMA Grand National Championship number-one plate, earned by scoring the most points in both Superbike and dirt-track the year prior, he took the '88 Superbike title by winning three of seven races.

When Shobert went off to the GPs himself the following season (tragically ending his career at Laguna Seca in a freak, post-race collision with Kevin Magee), McMurter got the Merkel/Shobert dual-championship winner for a one-race deal at Daytona-and never gave it back.

After retiring from American Honda some years ago, ex-race team manager Gary Mathers told me a story about those VFR racebikes. "We used to put a wet towel on the fuel tank prior to the start of the race and bunch it up near the front to cover up the steering-head area, which had been modified extensively to alter the bike's geometry; they wouldn't turn with stock geometry! No one noticed until one particular rain race, when we still had the towels in place [there ostensibly to keep the tank cool] despite the cool temperatures." Seems the rule-bending of the mid-'70s and early-'80s was alive and well even in the late-'80s.

Although not available in the U.S. until '90, Honda's RC30-also known as the VFR750R-was introduced to Europe and Canada in '88 and quickly became the racebike to have, at least for those with a) $15,000 to buy the bike and b) the addi-tional money to equip it with the right HRC parts. "The RCs had aluminum fuel tanks, single-sided swingarms and were very cool," O'Shea says. "If you could afford one, you had something special.

"The ex-Spencer RC30 I have was found in Roadracing World's want ads. This is serial #12, bought in Canada by Craig Erion. This was one of Freddie's comeback bikes for the '90 season. You could get 132 rear-wheel horsepower using the HRC kit pieces, but getting 140 bhp forced you to buy the works NLOB parts. My bike has the NLOB motor with all the goodies and, of course, Two Brothers Racing's famous paint scheme."

Neither of the Interceptors ran well during our day at Barber Motorsports Park in 2005, so O'Shea and I only got a few laps on each. But the RC30 was a peach, running fast and strong all day long. Compared to today's 160-horse R1s and GSX-R1000s, the RC wasn't a stunner power-wise, but it did have that magically solid, feedback-intensive feel at speed that all good racebikes have. I hated getting off the thing!

Where the Superbike class of the mid- to late-'70s was, as I wrote in Part I of this story, "young, raw and romantic," by '83 all that had changed. Just a few years after getting back into Superbike racing with its ferocious, 1025cc inline-fours, Big Red's roadrace effort truly became the Team Honda behemoth we all remember, with actual megabucks backing up a new-generation bike featuring a liquid-cooled 750cc V-four, perimeter frame and GP-spec 16-inch front wheel.

Honda's unabashed goal for '83 was to win the AMA Superbike title to launch its tech-packed V45 Interceptor. The team went to the Daytona season opener loaded for bear, with a handful of factory machines on the grid. Spencer, who would win the 500cc world title later that year, won the race, and Honda riders won the majority of races that season. But it was a young Rainey riding a two-valve, air-cooled, Muzzy-tuned Kawasaki GPz750 who came away with the championship over Mike Baldwin and Merkel. Still, there was no doubting the Interceptor's potential or the direction Superbike racing was headed.

Merkel would prove this without a doubt the following year when he won the '84 title going away with 10 wins. It was a similar story in '85, the blonde Californian winning six races on his way to the championship.

"Although the Merkel replica I pieced together from that parts cache I got from Honda isn't the exact bike Merkel rode, it's the real deal, and some of the parts did come from Fred's actual racebike," O'Shea says. "The frame is an HRC unit, while the engine is the rare NW6-spec-a works motor that Merkel or Spencer would have had access to, with plenty of magnesium and titanium inside."

Asked about the parts cache he'd mentioned several times, O'Shea replies, "Over the years I developed a good relationship with Team Honda-Brian Uchida especially. They knew the bikes I'd gotten were in good hands, that I'd treat them with respect. So I'm talking to Uchida on the phone one day and he says, 'We'd like to get rid of all our surplus HRC parts-VF and VFR stuff, everything we've got.' So I ask him about a price, and he asks me, 'What do you think it's all worth?' I ask him what's there, and he says there's so much he couldn't even begin to inventory it all: 'Eight or 10 pallets worth,' he says. He said Honda didn't want to be nickeled and dimed to death.

"So we come up with a price: $12,500, delivered. I didn't have the money, and almost passed, but I ended up borrowing it. A week or two later, eight pallets show up at my buddy's machine shop. I see this and think, "Holy shit! There are wheels and engines and frames and titanium engine parts, a little of everything. So I call Uchida and say, 'Well, the eagle has landed,' and he says, 'Nope, another eight pallets just left here.' Whoa! I ended up with mountains of stuff: boxes with 'Spencer forks' written on them, HRC engines, radiators... It was crazy; a gift, really. And to think I almost passed on it!"

Asked what's happened to the parts, he says, "I've gotten rid of a lot of it. I've helped people restore their Honda racebikes, traded for parts or bikes I wanted, etc. The wild thing is that it's never gonna happen again. That was a special time, but it's gone now."

Uchida echoes O'Shea's sentiment: "Yep, no one will ever have access to those types of parts again. Now, everything goes back to Japan. What Brian's got is really rare and really special."

Whether he's talking about the parts or O'Shea himself, we couldn't agree more.

Look for Parts III and IV of the "Mr. Superbike" story in upcoming issues.