Driving down a country road, a flash of chrome catches your eye as you pass an old farmstead. Next time you roll by, you slow down and focus on a shed behind the house. Could that be? Yep, it's a vintage Triumph Bonneville peering forlornly from beneath a tattered cover. You've just begun the journey that fuels the dreams of every motorcycle collector: the long-forgotten machine, re-discovered. The Harley in the Barn (Motorbooks, 2012) offers 40-plus tales of lost Nortons, hidden Hondas, dormant Indians, and busted BSAs, all squirreled away from prying eyes but found by lucky collectors just like you. Author Tom Cotter is not only a barn-find master, he's also master of discovering the collectors with the best stories and the most outlandish finds. In this excerpt from chapter 2, “Strange Places,” a picker finds two vintage motorcycle frames entwined with an old maple tree.
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Collectors like to brag about the histories—the “provenance”—of their motorcycles. Some were owned by royalty or movie stars; others were used as engineering mules by their manufacturers. Mike Terry’s 1911 Thor once belonged to a mature maple tree.
David White is a self-described picker from Lena, Illinois, who was searching a town in the northern part of his state for unwanted treasures in 2010 when he came across a collection of vintage bike parts with a twist worthy of Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
It was spring, but just barely. The woods were still nude and the snakes still hidden. White was in the area for an auction when he ran into a friend whose family farm went back three generations and was known to have a lot of scrap metal and antique farm machinery.
The original owner of the land had served in World War I—a remarkable claim for an area in which 60 native sons fought and only 16 returned. A hard post-war life taught the veteran to pinch a penny and never discard anything. His descendants continued the thrifty practice until well into the 21st century, and had just opened the property to junk men and scroungers when White arrived in town.
It was a bonanza for pickers.
“They never threw anything away,” White said. “If something wasn’t being used anymore, someone from the family hauled it into the woods and left it. There was an old Model T pickup, farm machinery, and tools everywhere. It was like a rusty museum of agriculture. I saw a century’s worth of plows and farm implements, most of it in such bad shape it was only good for scrap.”
White’s first purchase was two boxes of Native American arrowheads, which he collected whenever possible. He offered $150, but the seller—his friend—thought that was too much and only took $100.
He went to a milk shed next, where he saw a pair of tractors that looked as if they had not been run in decades. “They were Case SCs, which J.I. Case made in Racine, Wisconsin, from 1940 to 1955,” he said. “One had belonged to the grandpa; the other, the dad. He wanted $1,000 for the pair, which I gave him. Cases are not very collectible, so I ended up scrapping them. I probably paid too much.”
The shed was full from top to bottom with machinery, including old binders, hayloaders, McCormick-Deering and Massey-Harris equipment, horse-drawn one- to six-bottom plows, and pull-type combines—the likes of which no one has used in 60 years. White bought it all.
White learned that two other junkers had already been over the property and had offered no money but said they would haul everything away for scrap, making White’s cash on the barrelhead very attractive. He pulled out another $400 to claim all of the scrap iron that was scattered around the farm and in the woods. It would be hard work, but White’s loader and torch would turn the big pieces into manageable chunks of profit.
He was looking around the inside of a shed as an old lady pulled bags of winter-stored trash out. Some boys from the family had already been combing the scrap and selling anything they could physically lift onto a trailer, but the trash had obscured a small single-cylinder engine marked “Thor” that was now visible to White. “I was buying some crock jars from the lady when I noticed the engine,” he said. “All I had were $20 bills, and I was up to $50 worth of jars, so I said, ‘How about we call it even at $60 if you throw in that little engine?’
“She agreed and said I could have the other vintage motorcycle parts around back of the building for free. She told me one motorcycle had been leaning against a tree back there since before her father was born.”
A day later, when White worked his way to the location of the free vintage motorcycles, he was not as happy as one might expect. “There were two motorcycle frames, although I didn’t know what brand they were at the time,” he said. “They were not just leaning against some trees; they had been absorbed into the body of a big maple and lifted off the ground during years of growth.
“One bike wasn’t in there too bad. I was able to get it free just by cutting some branches. The other one was almost entirely encapsulated, though, and the swept-back handlebars were completely hidden by the trunk. It took me three days to get it free with my chainsaw. I went through a couple of blades getting it out, but the frame was intact and in good shape when I finally freed it.”
White now had one Thor engine and two frames. He asked if anyone knew where the other engine was, and if there might be more vintage motorcycle parts. “It turns out the other engine had been outside, so the kids grabbed it and scrapped it. They also found an Indian motorcycle, pried the emblem off as a keepsake, and sent the rest to the junkyard for crushing.
“The only reason I had an engine at all was because it was buried under trash, and the frames were saved because the tree was claiming them. I also found a Schwinn bicycle that the boys had missed.” Scouring the grounds turned up a few Thor tools in a pouch, a sprocket, and a pedal assembly.
At home with his finds, White did some research on the Thor products. He found that the Thor Moto Cycle and Bicycle Co. was founded in Aurora, Illinois, in 1903 for the purpose of building parts for the growing motorcycle industry. Its parent, the Aurora Machine and Tool Co., was the main supplier of Indian parts in 1902. Thor primarily produced engines and frames for Indian, but the 1903 Thor catalog indicated it had every component needed to construct a motorcycle. By 1908, Indian had taken its foundry work in-house, and Thor was advertising complete motorcycles for sale through a dealer network.
The 1911 model engine White found marked the first Thor produced with a free-moving engine clutch on the single-cylinder bikes. Thor’s end is a subject of some confusion, but it is safe to say the company stopped motorcycle production at some point during the years of 1918–1920.
“Thors weren’t out for a long time,” White said, “but they were part of that first Big Three, along with Indian and Harley. I didn’t realize how historic they might be when I was cutting them out of the tree. Since they were built in Aurora, it looks like these two Thors got no more than an hour and a half away before the trees got them.”
White could identify one of the frames as a Thor, but the other had no markings and was a mystery. “I put the engine and frames on eBay,” he said. “Since I couldn’t say for sure what it was, I just said the second frame was for ‘an old motorcycle.’”
That’s when collector Mike Terry of Toms River, New Jersey, first heard of White’s discovery. “I was never really interested in Thors,” Terry said. “I’ve had Flying Merkels, Popes, and Yales. I thought they were more interesting at the time.”
His stable of 25 bikes includes some unusual barn finds, although he was not personally responsible for their discovery.
His 1913 Harley-Davidson twin was found disassembled in a collapsed building by a great-nephew of the property’s owner. He had been cleaning up the wood to resell it when he found the engine and what he thought was a bicycle frame. Figuring anything that old with the name Harley-Davidson stamped on it was worth some good money, he posted it on Craigslist, where it was bought by Terry’s friend Todd Bertrang, whom Terry describes as “a motorcycle guru who has had a lot of great bikes in the last 30 years.” Terry traded Bertrang a ’54 Harley Panhead with original paint for the ’13 basket case.
Terry’s 1913 Harley single-cylinder bike was found in a porch in Iowa in 2011. Terry thinks the bike lay on its side for years, because water got into the engine, and one side of the cylinder was very rusty. The owner, whose family had it in the porch, bought it used in 1920, an event that was captured in an old photo.
Terry’s 1914 Henderson was missing its engine when it was found in a landfill in Wyoming on a 20,000-acre estate. A tractor had run over it, but after he acquired it around 1995 (in exchange for a ’47 Harley springer front fork), Terry had a fabricator straighten the tubes. It has since been restored.
Terry knew a lot about bikes from that era, but had no idea what bid to place on David White’s Thor lots on eBay. “I saw the Thor engine was up to $500 already,” Terry said. “I just figured out how bad I wanted everything and made my bids. I won all three, but I was surprised that the unmarked frame went for as high as it did.”
White gave Terry a bonus for buying all three lots—two of the Thor wrenches he discovered near the bikes.
After receiving and investigating his wins, Terry verified that the engine and the frame that had been freed from the tree were from 1911. The second, unidentified frame was either a 1913 or 1914 model—the two years were identical. One Thor enthusiast told Terry it was definitely a ’14 because of the way the handlebars are bent.
Terry has developed a fascination with Thors, and plans to do more research on the subject. He recently bought two Thor engines, a 1914 twin and a 1913 single, for his barn-find projects. “I’ll probably install the single into the tree frame,” he said, “because I like the way the singles drive.”
As for White, the picker has expanded his scope of items to look for at estate sales and in old barns. “I’ve found some old motorcycles in the past, but didn’t really know what they were worth,” he said. “Those Thors really opened my eyes. I’ve seen frames go through auction that brought $160 or $200. Looking back, I probably should have bought them.”
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This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Harley in the Barn: More Great Tales of Motorcycle Archaelogy by Tom Cotter and published by Motorbooks, 2012. Buy this book in our store: The Harley in the Barn.