The Vintage Motorcycles 'Collector Gene'

| 12/10/2012 8:24:25 AM

I am not a collector. Although I like to blame my disinterest in collecting on terminally shallow pockets, the reality is that I lack the Collector Gene, the essential biological component that drives people to fill Butler buildings and barns full of vintage motorcycles.

It’s not that I don’t want a bunch of bikes — I do — I’m just not driven to make it happen like some people I know. The other day I received a text with a photo of yet another cool old bike (a Yamaha RZ350, if I remember) that my buddy Frank had just restored. A lifelong motor head, Frank has in the last few years discovered his true calling in life: collecting vintage motorcycles. In a short period of time, he’s gone from owning a couple of bikes to something like 40, many of them following a theme (2-strokes, dirt bikes) and all of them grounded in his living memory, bikes he wanted when they were new and can now afford. Frank has the Collector Gene.

Frank’s hardly alone, and compared to some he’s almost a piker. Forty bikes? Hell, that’s nothing. There are hundreds of vintage bike fans with collections approaching 100 machines, and I’ve met more than a few who claim to have 200-plus vintage bikes to their credit. I will, it’s become clear to me, never be one of them.

For one thing, true collectors approach their task seriously, strategically identifying particular machines or themes to help define their pursuit. Vintage car and motorcycle collector Joe Bortz likes to go for one-of-each sets (6-cylinder motorcycles, turbo-charged motorcycles), RetroTours’ Joel Samick focuses on big twins from the Seventies, and Wheels Through Time proprietor Dale Walksler focuses on prewar vintage American iron. Me? I apparently hone in on whatever crosses my path.

That’s about the only thing that explains the bikes currently sitting in my hovel. I’ll admit that I’d wanted a Laverda RGS since first laying eyes on one back in the 1980s, but I’ll qualify my ownership by noting that only blind luck led me to my bike. I didn’t set out to find it; it found me. Likewise, I didn’t set out to own my 16-valve BMW K100RS. I was just looking for a good commuter/fast touring bike to have for those days when the Laverda is up on blocks. The BMW fit the bill perfectly, plus it was available and cheap, a critical ingredient in my world.

Cheap would also explain the other bikes corralled in my shed, and they don’t come any cheaper than the 1974 Yamaha TX500 my son, Charlie, and I are slowly coaxing back to life — it was free — or the 1971 Honda CB350 I keep swearing I’m going to transform from a near wreck to a cool little city bike for my daughter, Madeline — also free. Then there’s the pair of Honda Express mopeds, part of a small horde bought for $100 (that’s almost free, isn’t it?) that ultimately netted two complete running machines, with plenty of spare parts left over.

Those machines constitute my motorcycle “collection,” which apparently is less the byproduct of a yen for collecting than the result of a pack rat mentality. How else to explain the ratted out 1964 Chevy Corvair I’m slowly nursing to life? Or the 1963 17-foot fiberglass Hydrodyne powerboat complete with period 75hp Evinrude V4 languishing in my backyard?

I might have a lot of stuff, but unlike a collector, there’s no strategy to what I own. It crossed my path. I liked it. Now I have it. And it was usually free, or as close as I could come to free. There are days I wish I had the Collector Gene. Thankfully, there are people like Frank, Joe, Joel and Dale to do the collecting for me. — Richard Backus 

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