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 the following excerpt from chapter 3, “Real Character,” a vintage bike collector comes across his dream bike, a 1970 Triumph Trophy.
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For Tom Heffron, the bike bug bit early. “When I was a kid, there was a guy up the street—this was probably in 1975—who had a Harley Sportster, and the next year he bought a Norton Commando, and I think I remember a 1969 Triumph Bonneville before those,” Heffron said.
Heffron got his first motorcycle in 1979, and five years later moved up to what he considered his dream ride—his own Sportster. “I always wanted a Sportster,” he said. “In 1984 I bought an ’82 that had been sitting on the showroom floor for two years.” The Sportster became his daily rider and also was used for long-distance touring in the upper Midwest, where Heffron was an art director for a Twin Cities–area book publisher.
But then another bike bug bit Heffron. “The vintage bike bug,” he said.
In 1989, a friend of Heffron’s bought a ’69 Bonneville and converted it to a chopper-style ride. Heffron became intrigued by the thought of a vintage bike, but his goal wasn’t to customize or to modernize such a ride, but to either keep it or to return it to its original specification. He even knew which bike he wanted.
In the mid-1980s, Heffron enjoyed a record album by the British group Prefab Sprout. The group’s second album was sold in the United States under the title “Two Wheels Good.” The original release name in England had been “Steve McQueen,” but the family of the late actor and car, and motorcycle racer wouldn’t let his name be used that way in the United States, even though the band had named its album in tribute to McQueen, and had posed on the album cover with a mid-1960s Triumph.
“I’d become enamored by that bike,” Heffron said. So in 1990, he set out to buy such a bike. He didn’t have to wait long.
“In April, a buddy and I went to a bike auction, and I jumped the gun and bought a ’73 Bonneville,” Heffron said, who discovered when he got the bike home that it really wasn’t what he thought it was; it had been cobbled together from several bikes.
Stunned but undaunted, Heffron set out again and found another vintage bike. It was only $600, but again, it wasn’t the bike he was pursuing. “I got those two bikes, but I kept thinking that they’re fine, but there was something about them that was not capturing the bike I had in mind,” Heffron said.
Although the bikes didn’t meet his expectations, he decided he needed to get them registered so he could ride them. “I called the local police department in the village of North Hudson,” said Heffron, who lived east of the Twin Cities in the small Wisconsin village on the bluff above the picturesque St. Croix River. At the time, the registration process for a used vehicle began with a visit from a local deputy, to verify the vehicle’s identification numbers.
“A deputy pulled up, came to the garage, and looked at the bikes and was jotting down the numbers and she says, ‘Ah, a Triumph, that’s interesting,’” Heffron recalled.
“Why’s that?” he asked.
“My husband has one in the garage,” she responded. “I’m trying to get him to sell it. Any chance you might be interested in another one?”
Heffron said he’d like to see the bike. He jumped onto his Sportster and followed the squad car to the officer’s house, just five blocks from Heffron’s home. “She pulled into the driveway and I can see the garage door going up,” Heffron said. “She had not described the bike in any way. She didn’t know what model it was. But the first thing I saw as the door lifted was the high pipe, which looked just like the bike on the record cover. I just flipped.”
The bike was a 1970 Triumph Trophy T100C, a 500cc Scrambler with side pipe.
“Are you interested?” the deputy asked.
“Absolutely!” Heffron said.
The deputy’s husband was out of town and wouldn’t be back for several days. Heffron took the phone number, waited until he returned home, and called.
“Oh, there’s another guy interested,” Heffron was told, “but he wants to make a hill-climber out of it and I don’t want to see it get hacked up.”
“I bet I hadn’t seen such a stock Triumph in 15 to 20 years,” Heffron said. “It was all original and all there, the original high pipes, the perfect seat cover, the Jacaranda Purple paint. There was honest wear, but not bad for a 20-year-old Triumph.”
“There’s no way I’m going to hack it up,” Heffron told the deputy’s husband. “I’m going to leave it bone stock.” The deputy’s husband also wanted the bike to remain unchanged, admitted “there’s a small wiring problem,” and finally asked for $700.
“I could do $700,” Heffron said.
He got the bike and within half an hour had it running—the electrical problem was nothing more than a broken wire.
The next day, Heffron’s phone rang. It was the deputy, and she sounded excited.
“She said, ‘We have something for you, for your bike, and you have to come over and get it!’” Heffron wondered what it could be—the bike seemed complete. Even the original tool box and owner’s manual had come with it.
He rode to the deputy’s house, where the couple presented him with a small threaded plastic knob that held the tool box to one of the bike’s side covers but at some point had been removed and become separated from the bike. She’d found the knob in her kitchen junk drawer. It wasn’t much, but it added to the completeness of the bike, made it more whole.
Two Wheels Good. Third Time Charm.
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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.