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

Tomb Riders

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.’“

Photographer Daniel Peirce, on hand with his cameras to capture the proceedings for Motorcyclist, was also taken aback by the range of the collection. "I saw Rudge, Ariel, Panther, Sunbeam, Velocette, Matchless, Norton and some I couldn't identify," he recalls. "The amount of parts was impressive all by itself. It felt like I was breaking into a pharaoh's tomb and standing amongst the treasure. Surely, I'm cursed now!"

The manager’s plan was to ascertain the inventory’s worth, then approach either an auction house or a certain well-known, well-heeled bike collector down the road in Austin. Martin had other ideas: “You know, he’s not the only guy in Texas with money,” he told the manager.

Martin had recently come into a tidy sum. Starting as a mechanic at Big D in ’86, he had risen to become Jack Wilson’s right-hand man and a minority partner in the operation. After the two had a falling out, Martin struck out on his own, eventually founding RPM Cycle, the Dallas-area Hinckley Triumph franchise. It was a successful dealership—one of the few in the country that catered to both old and new Triumphs—and soon became a million-dollar-per-year business. Martin’s restoration skills were thrust into the international spotlight when he spearheaded the rebuild of the poor old Texas Ceegar, a meltdown victim in Britain’s National Motorcycle Museum fire of ’03. And just as Wilson did at Big D, Martin involved RPM in racing, fielding land-speed efforts and a T140 roadracer that would bring home an AHRMA 750cc Sportsman Championship, shop employee Ryan Ambrose up. Martin himself is an accomplished racer, most recently gunning a modified T140 up Pikes Peak in Colorado.

One byproduct of RPM’s success and notoriety was a persistent suitor who wanted to acquire the new-bike side of the business. Martin parried offers until the money was too good to turn down. He unloaded the Triumph franchise in ’07—just before the worldwide motorcycle market took a massive nosedive. Timing really is everything.

Martin and Wilson had reconciled before the latter's death in 2000, and the Big D trade name was available. Martin resurrected the shop (www.bigdcycle.com) in '08, specializing in restoration and repair of classic old Britbikes. Now he wanted this unearthed trove spread out before him. "I saw it as job security for the shop," he says. "As Jack used to say, 'You can't sell from an empty wagon.'"

After talking with his wife (conveniently, an accountant), Martin made an offer. He won’t disclose the exact amount but it was a number with five zeros trailing behind, sufficient enough that the secret stockpile of bikes-‘n’-bits became his.

What a haul! The late Mr. OCD may have been long since gone off the deep end, but there are worse things to obsess about than blue-chip British motorcycles. There was a Brough Superior SS80 in the mix; three Vincents, including a chrome-framed hot-rod Black Shadow with local drag-racing history; several cammy Nortons; a raft of later Square Fours in addition to the 1936 overhead-cam model; a first-year Triumph Speed Twin; and one each Matchless Silver Hawk, Calthorpe Ivory Major, Douglas Aero, Rudge Special, Excelsior Manxman 350, New Imperial, J.A.P.-motored Zenith 1000, AJW Flying Fox, OK-Supreme and SOS liquid-cooled, two-stroke 350. This guy was not collecting junk.

A total of 50 motorcycles were cataloged, from runners to rusty basket cases. And that doesn’t count the parts that could be “married” into non-matching-numbers restoration projects. For instance, among the array of AJS/Matchless items are 20 engines and 13 frames.

And the individual parts go on forever, now occupying shelf after shelf in Big D’s warehouse. Where once there was disorder, now all the gas tanks and fenders and forks and wheels have been segregated into appropriate groupings. Likewise, there are tubs of carbs, magnetos, generators, etc., including one for the as-now unknowns, cryptically labeled “WTF?!”

“I still just stand around, look at the pile and think, ‘Man that is cool stuff,’” says Martin. “The stash has been a life-saver. I haven’t quite made my money back yet but we’re close. We’ve sold all the Gold Stars and all the bikes with J.A.P. motors. We’re restoring the HRD Comet, the Series C Comet, the Black Shadow hot-rod and the Silver Hawk for customers. We plan to do the Brough, five Square Fours, we’re still digging on the Norton OHC bikes and we still have all the Velocettes and Ariel singles to go through.”

There have been unexpected side benefits. “The best part about the stash has been the involvement of my son Jerrett,” says Martin. “He is great with computers, and has really stepped up, taking over the sorting and selling. We had the typical hard teenage years—since he acts a lot like me—but all that seems gone now, which makes me very glad. He now spends more time at the shop than I do!”

So what was once one man’s secret obsession is now out in the open, being dispersed around the world so the bikes can make noise as they should. Parts are being used to get other machines up and running again. And factor in a little father-and-son reunion to cap things off.

Don’t you just love happy endings?

Method to the madness: Shorn of forks and tin ware, these chassis could then be stacked against a wall. Was the reclusive hoarder merely obsessed, or was he hiding all this from someone; perhaps his wife?
In addition to a chrome-framed hot-rod Black Shadow with local drag-racing history, two Vincent singles were unearthed, an early HRD and a later Comet. All have since undergone restoration.
Just to gain useable access to the storage space, all of this had to be transferred to a rented 40-foot shipping container parked across the way. These bikes and parts alone would have been a find!
One of the stars of the collection is this 1936 Ariel Square Four sporting 600cc and an overhead cam. Not a bad debut design for the young Edward Turner, who went on to do great things for Triumph.
One of 20 bikes already sold off from the collection, this radiator-equipped SOS 350 was the brainchild of the irascible and hard-riding Len Vale-Onslow, who grew tired of his air-cooled motors seizing.
Even without its bodywork, Frank Willoughby Cotton’s telltale triangulated, straight-tube frame design gives away this Britbike’s identity. Single-cylinder engine is a 600cc J.A.P.
Looking decidedly incapable of meeting its factory guaranteed 80 mph, this Brough Superior SS80 is one of several storage-space finds slated for a full restoration. It should fetch a tidy sum.
Big-fin BSA Gold Stars may have been born in England, but they found a home in America, used for many different racing disciplines. The collection’s 1962 Goldie quickly found a new home.
Dusty Douglas gas tank sits atop a stack of God knows- what. Parts like this were stuffed into every nook and cranny of the storage space, saved for some future purpose only the late owner knew.
Back at Big D Cycle, owner Keith Martin and crew sorted the treasure and stacked it on shelves. A year after buying the collection, he says, “There’s at least five years’ worth of work here.”
CS1 was among the many cammy Nortons in the secret storage-space cache. This restorer’s dream is complete save for its muffler; it would look proper with a Brooklands-style can. Just add elbow grease...