True confessions of TV’s top car guy
Standing five foot ten and weighing 150 pounds dripping wet, Dennis Gage, the handlebar- mustachioed host of Speed TV’s My Classic Car, is probably the most unlikely television star you’ll ever meet. Yet for the past 10 years, he’s been lighting the old car world on fire with his passionate discourse on classic cars and the classic car scene. But these days, classic bikes are what really “move” Gage.
Gage’s first motorized interests centered on motorcycles, not cars. He got his first bike, a step-through 50cc Honda Cub, at age 12. He paid all of 90 bucks for it, and put it through hell, bounding through the fields surrounding the family farm in Illinois. “It was a clutchless three-speed, but I found that if you revved the engine holding the shift lever down, it wouldn’t engage until you let back up, and you could pop a hell of a wheelie,” Gage says. “Eventually it stopped shifting. I don’t know why.”
The hapless Cub was followed at age 14 by a Montessa 250 dirt bike (“what a piece of crap that thing was,” Gage says), after which Gage left bikes behind for cars. At 15 he bought his first car, a 1959 Ford Thunderbird. He paid $100 for it, and, he says, learned a valuable lesson: “Never buy a car at dusk. I woke up in the morning and there was this pink car out there. Flamingo Pink. So I’m 15, a farm boy, with a pink T-Bird.”
That pink T-Bird set off a love affair with cars, and it would be another 15 years before Gage would reunite himself with motorcycles. In the interim he went to college, worked as a handyman, played pedal-steel guitar with a successful country-rock band (Mad Foot), got his Ph.D. in chemistry, worked for Procter & Gamble in research and product development, and, in 1992, moved on to head up product development for nutrition giant Mead Johnson in Evansville, Ind.
It was at Mead Johnson that two important things happened: First, Gage rekindled his interest in bikes, buying a 1981 BMW R100RS (which he still has, see sidebar, next page), and second, he met Brad Kimmel, who, although Gage didn’t know it at the time, was his partner-to-be in My Classic Car.
The set up
The pair met in 1994 when Gage, on a lark, took a bit part in a television commercial Kimmel was producing. Walking to their cars after the shoot, Kimmel told Gage how he wanted to create a show about America’s love affair with the automobile, and asked Gage if he was into classic cars. Kimmel needed a character conversant in car, and Gage fit the bill.
In February of 1995, with their interest in the concept building, Gage took a crew to interview a friend who owned a Shelby Mustang. “It was exactly what I do now,” Gage says. The pair filmed a pilot for their hoped-for series, airing it on two local television stations. Almost as an afterthought, they flashed one station’s 800 number on the screen; the phones at the station lit up, and after 300 calls they had to shut the line down.
Armed with caller data, they approached TNN, and on Jan. 3, 1996, the pilot episode of My Classic Car aired on national cable television. Viewers went wild about the show, and TNN agreed to fund 13 episodes, premiering in January 1997. To keep the pump primed, Gage and Kimmel applied for small business loans to finance production, but without a signed contract from TNN they couldn’t secure funds. Gage was still working at Mead Johnson, so he took out a second mortgage on his home to get the $80,000 they needed. It wasn’t until later, after their contract came through, that they learned it almost didn’t. “We were the last rung above the cutoff of things that got canned,” Gage says. “I would have had the world’s most expensive home movies if things hadn’t worked out.”
This was all playing pretty well for Gage, who was crossing swords with his corporate generals and was ready to move on. “I didn’t figure I could make any money with the show, but I figured I could try it,” Gage says. “I resigned, but they gave me this phenomenal package. To this day, I don’t know what I did.”
Back to bikes
Fortunately for Gage, the show was a hit. It moved from TNN to the Speed channel in 2000, and is now watched by more than a half million viewers every episode. Curiously, as the show’s success built, Gage’s interest in classic bikes mushroomed. “I’m playing with all these cars,” Gage says, “but I’m riding this Beemer I bought out of the Thrifty Nickel, and suddenly there’s this 1969 BMW R60, and then I buy a Trophy, and then this Toaster comes up, and my fascination for motorcycles is surpassing my fascination for cars.”
And it continues. Five years ago, he and Kimmel swung a deal with motorcycle accessory manufacturer Corbin to produce a series of shows called Corbin’s Ride On, with the classic bike scene central to their beat. And two years ago, he started producing his own series of motorcycle travel shows, Trippin’ on Two Wheels, with Motorcycle Classics regular Neale Bayly as co-host and, increasingly, Gage’s 18-year-old son, Sam. Ironically, with 10 years of My Classic Car behind him, America’s best-known car guy is riding more and driving less. His cars, once the centerpiece of his garage, are getting pushed to the corners as his collection of bikes, seven and growing, takes center stage.
“Old cars can be a pain in the ass,” Gage concedes. “You go to one of these cars, and it’s like there’s a preflight check list you need to go through before you take off. They’re fun, and I love the feel and look, but they’re a lot of work. It’s like Vegas; I don’t want to work that hard at having fun. And besides, if the day’s nice, wouldn’t you rather be on a bike?”
All we can say to that is, amen, brother.
In the saddle with Dennis Gage
Parking my dusty, red Moto Guzzi Griso, some 15 hours after climbing in the saddle on the other side of Sicily, I’m flogged. A plate of food, a hot shower and eight hours of shuteye are calling, but so is Dennis.
We still have to film our nightly interviews for the motorcycle series we’re working on, and somehow I have to sit in front of a camera and relay intelligent remarks about an incredible day riding around the base of Mount Etna.
Thankfully, Dennis is up first, and as I chug a can of Coke to try and restore consciousness, he starts his soliloquy: It’s as if someone flicked a light switch. Dennis performs for the camera, dissecting our day, and from his feelings about riding with his son, Sam, to a minor tip-over on the cobblestones outside a 16th century Duomo, he leaves nothing out. And after working the camera with all the charisma he’s famous for on My Classic Car, he puts me in the hot seat.
An hour later, over plates stuffed with hot, steaming pizza, Dennis makes sure our small crew is properly fed and watered before taking off to bed. The man’s energy level is unreal.
A few weeks later and we’re back in the States. Dennis has just bought a Moto Guzzi Breva in my hometown of Charlotte, N.C., and I agree to ride it to his home in Indiana.
I arrive at Dennis’ production facility to the sound of a booming V-twin blasting across the parking lot. With his signature handlebar mustache horizontal in the wind, Dennis pulls up on a rain and mud splattered 1967 Moto Guzzi V-7. Leaping off to exchange greetings, he is quickly on the Breva (meaning I get the pleasure of riding the V-7) and we are tearing along country lanes heading to his house, winding through the Indiana countryside under thick canopies of trees.
Pulling into the garage at Gage central, I notice his bikes all have battery tenders in place and appear ready to roll. As a pretty good indicator of Dennis’ personality, they are an eclectic mix of modern and older European marques, and are all ridden. “My cars and bikes are all really 20 footers” he says. “I have a great appreciation for museum quality pieces, but I like reliable daily drivers. I could ride any of my bikes to California today.”
Following Dennis around his garage, it’s nice to see the 1981 R100RS, his first road bike, is still in the fold. He’s put over 30,000 miles on it over the past 15 years, and apart from a Corbin seat — of course — it’s basically stock.
His black 1969 BMW R60US was the second bike he brought home, and like the RS, he found it in the local classifieds. Except for a large solo seat and chrome valve covers it’s mostly original. It’s a functional, practical machine that personifies Dennis’ 20-foot rule. Get close and you’ll see battery acid stains on the muffler, road grime and oil stains. But all the important stuff, like tires, cables and seals, is in perfect shape. “I don’t spend a lot of time polishing; I like to be out riding,” he says.
Dennis likes the reaction he gets with the R60: “It’s the bike I ride when I want to draw attention. We live in Harley land, and the Beemer looks like something out of the 1940s.”
And of course there’s the V-7. It’s not a perfect restoration, but Dennis could care less. It runs like a train, and with its reverse, right foot shifting, throaty aftermarket mufflers and totally cool starter that operates by turning the key, I am hooked. It has a few dings and dents, but these aren’t issues for Dennis, who is obviously more interested in riding it.
As we talk about the Guzzi, I have a feeling it might be Dennis’ new favorite bike, edging out the 1973 BMW R75/5 that was once his daily rider of choice. Another classifieds purchase, the R75 is unrestored, and like the V-7, Dennis isn’t afraid to ride it.
“For bombing to work, this has been my dream bike. It’s light, nimble and loads of fun. And it’s quiet, so it doesn’t upset the neighbors,” Dennis says. He’s put some 20,000 miles on it, and hasn’t touched it other than keeping up on regular maintenance. “It’s what I love about BMWs. You can really work on them yourself and they are so reliable.”
When I ask Dennis how he sees himself in the motorcycle world, he says he’s “just an average rider who enjoys how the motorcycle allows me to experience being in the moment.”
For our last ride Dennis hops on the RS, and over lunch we talk some more about his life in television. My Classic Car is really a mirror of Dennis: Quirky, funny, filled with real people, real cars and loads of enthusiasm. Yet as father time ticks relentlessly on, Dennis finds himself looking more toward the two-wheeled world.
Shouldn’t that be the other way around? Not for Dennis, who reasons the bikes take up less space and allow him to spend quality time with his son, Sam, who’s a budding motorcycle enthusiast himself. “The only thing that really matters to me is time. It’s the only thing of real value.”
As a television personality who counts people like Jay Leno as a personal friend, who is contracted just to sign autographs at events, it is refreshing to know that Dennis Gage is the real deal. Deeply involved in motorcycles, totally dedicated to his upcoming motorcycle series, television’s most famous car guy is just as crazy about classic motorcycles as the rest of us. — Neale Bayly