Sonny Angel Motorcycles

Sonny Angel and the era of the mom-and-pop motorcycle shop

| March/April 2007

Motorcycle shops used to be small, friendly, family-owned affairs. These days, a lot of motorcycle shops are located in warehouse-sized buildings. Like Costco and Walmart, they’re Big Box stores, pushing volume and marking unit sales. And the old mom-and-pop stores, once the mainstay of the industry, are fast becoming as rare as carburetors.

Against this backdrop is Sonny Angel Motorcycles, a reminder of another time and a shop that’s been at the same location at 34 E. 18th St. in National City, Calif., for 53 years — and counting. There have been some additions to the place over the years, but Sonny’s shop has retained the same look and feel since it opened in the middle of the last century. So how does Sonny Angel Motorcycles survive and prosper in a Big Box world? The answer is Sonny Angel himself and his absolute passion for life and motorcycles.
Travelin’ man
Sonny grew up, well, all over. His dad was a cook, who for a time worked aboard a United Fruit Company ship. The family moved around, living in Tennessee, Florida, California, Nevada and Oregon, but it was in Pensacola, Fla., when he was 14 that he first swung a leg over a bike. That first encounter set the stage, and he bought his first bike, a 1931 74ci Harley (he still remembers the engine number: VL4036) in 1940, when he turned 15. A few months later, with the help of “inventive papers,” he joined the Navy. With World War II looming, military service was inevitable, and, as Sonny says, “I didn’t want to be a soldier or a Marine.”

He spent the next six years soaking up the world from the deck of a Navy tanker, including a stint in the Philippines where he rode a Rikuo, the Japanese Harley (see Motorcycle Classics, January/February 2007). By 1946 Sonny was out of the Navy and in San Francisco, where he bought a 1937 Harley EL. A few months later he rode to San Diego, where he traded the EL for his first new bike, a 1946 74ci Harley.

He bummed around San Diego for a bit, but Jessie Foxworth, the owner of the Pensacola Harley dealership, had promised Sonny a job when he got out of the Navy. So in February of 1947 he jumped on his bike and headed back to Pensacola. “It was damn cold across Texas,” Sonny recalls.

He settled in at the shop, and one day a guy pulled in on a Vincent. “I’d never seen one in person, but I looked out the window and said, ‘ohh, a Comet.’ The owner told me it was a Rapide, but he said I was the first American to recognize it. It was a 1947 Series B.”

Sonny welded up a leak in the Vincent’s gas tank, and as they finished their business Sonny asked if he could take the Vincent for a spin. The owner turned him down, but not before telling him “if you’re ever in Toronto, I’ll take you for a ride.”

As it turned, life at the Harley shop spiraled downhill; Sonny says the owner “could chase off more customers in a month then I could engender in a year.” So with the simple promise of a ride on a Vincent, he quit and went up to Toronto. Surprised to see him, the Vincent owner made good on his promise. “He took me pillion passenger,” Sonny recalls, “and it scared the hell out of me.”

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