Red, rough — and ready to run
Neslted in a pre-World War II Triumph rigid frame, the 1939 Crocker engine looks surprisingly at home.
True rarities, Crocker motorcycles have culled a dedicated following.
Here I was, perched precariously atop a multi-story parking lot in Torrance, Calif., as the heavens opened and poured upon us in apocalyptic volumes. This was not supposed to be happening, not at the 2007 El Camino Motorcycle Show and Swap Meet.
What gods had we offended? Thor, Vulcan? Their namesake bikes sat a few feet away in the event’s vintage bike show area, drenched to their alloy rims. Rarely-seen Southern California rain clouds, dark and stormy, dropped buckets of water on our little group, crowded like sardines under the blue pop-up vinyl tents beloved by swap meet vendors. But there was a silver lining, for beneath that 8-foot square of dryness huddled some of the rarest of bike collectors. Not bikes, bike collectors. The bikes were outside being treated to the ultimate car wash, whether they liked it or not.
Four guys, virtually indistinguishable from the hundreds of other T-shirt and blue-jean wearing bike fans attending the 32nd annual event, had a very particular shared interest. They’re all members of a club whose membership is more exclusive than the Skull & Bones fraternity. They don’t rule corporations or point their finger at the world and make it spin to their personal agenda. They’re investors, not in demon oil but in precious metals, yet neither gold nor uranium is their forte. Instead, it’s another unobtainium by the name of Crocker. Between their few numbers, they own perhaps a dozen examples of an American motorcycle of which only 50-60 are known to exist, with several still missing in action.
This select band of Crocker brothers had come to the El Camino show to see not one, but two examples of the fabled marque — one a beautiful specimen (“The Black Bike”) recently unearthed after a long absence from its homeland, and the second, rougher cycle (“The Red Bike”) accrued a half a century MIA. It’s the latter bike that draws our particular interest here, but it can’t be appreciated without understanding its unique relationship to the former.
Crocker motorcycles found
“The Black Bike,” as it’s called by owner/rescuer Glenn Bator, is a 1939 Crocker 61-cubic-inch V-twin that has been treated to the finest of care and attention, with Old World Italian craftsmen attending lovingly to its ground-up restoration while its engine was entrusted into the hands of one of the world’s leading Crocker experts, the late Ernie Skelton of La Mirada, Calif. The engine and chassis were eventually reunited in Milan, after which the motorcycle was housed in conditions that would have been approved by the Medicis. And there, after a reported last kiss by its owner, it fell into the deep sleep of hibernation, where it languished from all eyes for some 20 years.
Back beneath the rain-swept canopy, the discussion turned to Crocker motorcycles and, specifically, to one of the bike’s most ardent fans/supporters/collectors, a certain Randy Wiggins, who was keeping dry with the rest of us. I have known Randy for more than 25 years, when we were members of a merry bunch of Brit bike riders who called ourselves the Grimey Limeys. While riding hither and yon on our Snortin’ Nortons, Beezers and Trumpets, back then it was Vincent Black Shadows that stirred our hormones into a frenzy, or perhaps a Brough-Superior if we had a few beers and imagined ourselves in the boots of Lawrence of Arabia. But then Randy went his separate way — way into the arcane world of the Crocker.
Today he owns three examples: a single-cylinder racer and two Big Twins, including the very first Crocker sold to the public, no. 4. As to the fanatical loyalty of Crockerophiles, Randy sums it up: “Al Crocker wanted to produce, in limited quantity, the most opulent, the fastest, best handling motorcycle in the world, the premier roadster. And he did. They are absolutely the Holy Grail of motorcycles. A Crocker is a Crocker. Nothing comes close.”
The rain abated, at least for the moment, and we stuck our hands out to test the skies. Then, braving a fine drizzle, the compact mass of Crocker motorcycle fans left the safety of the canopy and moved toward The Black Bike, serial no. 107. With its leather seat protected by a less-than-elegant plastic bag, the rain drops splattering its resplendent gas tank, bejeweled with instrumentation, only enhanced its mystique. But reflected in its polished metalwork gleamed something malevolently red, and a rusty red at that.
Next to the tuxedo black Crocker motorcycle lurked its other-side-of-the-tracks sibling, aka “The Red Bike.” Its checkerboard lineage lacks the panache of the Milan Crocker and its glistening appearance. In a word, this Crocker is crusty. It obviously has led a less than pampered life. In fact it is at best a hybrid, at worst, dare we say it, a mongrel. But like all good mongrels it has mojo working for it. It has attitude. It has moxy. It has, well, character.
A mongrel, indeed, for someone shoehorned a 1939 Crocker V-twin into a Triumph hardtail frame. Dressed in faded red paint that appears to have been brushed on half a century ago, its engine streaked with a patina of gritty time, this Crocker grew up quite differently than its more affluent sibling. The Black Bike stood on a pedestal like a Czar’s Fabergé egg. The Red Bike oozed deviled egg. Randy, eyeing The Red Bike, finally comments, “I don’t know anything about this bike, nothing at all. But it has the heart of the beast, so that means something.”
The Red Bike
So where did the badboy Red Bike come from? That story has to come from Glenn Bator, owner of it, as well as The Black Bike.
As background, Glenn runs Bator International, a California-based company that buys and sells vintage and classic motorcycles, catering to an international clientele.
Glenn is gifted with a kind of radar metal magnetism that brings him into contact with all manner of machines. His background includes a stint at Otis Chandler’s Museum in Oxnard, where he became general manager in 1994 for the collection. Chandler also wanted Glenn to restore his bikes, so for the next eight years he was involved in restoring a diverse selection of bikes ranging from a 1929 Harley-Davidson JDH Two-Cam to replicas of the Captain America and Billy Bike bikes from the movie Easy Rider.
After about 10 years of museum services, Glenn founded his own company. “As I moved away from the museum, I’ve been getting into some exotic restorations, for example a 1919 Reading-Standard Boardtrack racer along with a 1912 Excelsior single for a collector in New York,” he says. His connections, contacts and referrals occasionally lead him to the proverbial “bike in the barn.” This time it was a bike in a Ft. Collins, Colo., shed.
But it wasn’t a professional broker or agent who discovered the long lost Crocker motorcycle. As the story goes, an employee of the local utilities company, while hoofing his rounds, had over the years established a friendship with an elderly gentleman who one day showed him the contents of a shed. Inside moldering away were a bunch of motorcycles and boxes of parts.
The years went by, and one day the elderly gentleman said he was thinking of selling his bike stuff and did the meter reader have any ideas? He did and gave the man Glenn Bator’s telephone number.
Glenn continues the story: “So I get this call from Colorado, and the guy starts listing the bikes in the shed. He says there’s a box with some Ariel parts. OK, that’s one basket case. Anything else? There’s another Ariel, a four-cylinder that’s all there. OK, one Ariel Square Four. Anything else? Yes, a Harley-Davidson. It doesn’t have a chain drive but a shaft drive like a BMW. OK, that would be a WWII-era XA. OK, interesting bike. Then I hear … ‘There’s one other bike. It’s a British bike, but there’s an engine in it that says Crocker.’”
A major blip appears on Glenn’s radar screen, along with lights, bells and whistles.
He calmly asks for photos of the various bikes and then waits. And waits. The letter from Colorado arrives and Glenn, much to his chagrin, finds photos of everything but the Crocker. A phone call explains the reason: The guy’s digital camera battery failed. So Glenn asks for a reshoot. And waits.
The photos finally arrive and confirm … the Crocker is the real thing, a 1939 issue 61-cubic-inch Big Twin. It’s a very cool hot rod, and not only that, a close-up of the engine case reveals its serial number is 106 — the no. 107 Black Bike’s fraternal twin. Yes, the universe moves in strange ways, the two bikes reunited some 68 years after their production.
Coming home to roost
Crocker motorcycles are now at the center of the storm of collectible motorcycles. Two have recently been sold at auction, one at the fabled Otis Chandler Museum fade-out in Oxnard, Calif., the other at the prestigious Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. Both Crockers sold (with fees, taxes, etc.) for around $250,000. A third Crocker motorcycle thrust into the glaring light of the global marketplace on eBay has recently been won for a bid of $250,000. It is the magic number for an apparently magic motorcycle. Crocker is the bee’s knees of vintage bikes.
When The Red Bike reached Glenn in Ojai, Calif., it arrived in its original patina … crusty and rusty. Going over his new acquisition, its appeal grew on Glenn. He had a Crocker with charisma; one he figured was probably a hoot to ride, as well.
As Glenn relates the story, the original owner — who will remain anonymous — acquired the engine from California some 50 years ago and proceeded to build a hot rod, apparently with some racing in mind.
Shedding some weight in the process, he modified a pre-WWII Triumph rigid frame to accommodate the big V-twin — no easy feat as the frame had originally housed a single-cylinder engine. He also incorporated a Triumph front end and transmission, but he opted for a logo-less Ariel gas tank in place of the elegant Crocker tank embossed with its big “C.”
With only a bit of fiddling, Glenn was ready to fire it up. After a couple kicks it barked, harrumphed, spit, sputtered then roared to life. Throwing a leg over the saddle, Glenn took off on his first ride. As he rumbled back, a smoke trail likely linked to 50 years of storage followed him. And yet, Glenn reported, “It felt like it had all the power in the world.” We could hear Randy Wiggins in the middle of one of his Crocker motorcycle rhapsodies, “Power, beauty, speed. A Crocker is a Crocker. Nothing else comes close.”
Asked about plans for The Red Bike’s restoration, Glenn pauses then says, “It is what it is. I think I’ll leave it the way I found it.”
In the end, two Crockers returned home, one from the lap of luxury on foreign shores, the other unleashed from a nondescript wooden shed — and both to the very state where they were born, revealed to the public for the first time at a bike show held not far from their point of birth. MC