Sonny Angel and the era of the mom-and-pop motorcycle shop
Sonny Angel Motorcycles today.
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.
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.”
The real surprise came as Sonny prepared to leave and the Vincent’s owner suggested a drag race. “My Harley was fast,” Sonny says, “but I got in a big wobble and got over the handlebars at about 115mph. I crashed, the bike caught on fire, and I beat the fire out with my jacket, but it burned my jacket and sleeping bag. He gave me an old leather jacket and some safety pins to hold it together, so I took that and hit the road for California.”
Back in San Diego, Sonny took a job as the parts man at Richard’s Motors, a Vincent dealer. One day a Rapide owner came in with a broken breather valve, so the shop traded him an Ariel Square Four and then sold the Vincent, a 1947 Series B Rapide, to Sonny.
But the road called again, and in 1951 he sold the Vincent and headed to Long Beach, working the shipyards before boarding a Norwegian vessel and setting off for Europe.
Before he left he had contacted Vincent, BSA and Triumph about possible work, and after bumming around Europe he ended up at Vincent (it helped that he’d met Phil Vincent at Richard’s Motors). Initially, Sonny assembled flywheels, but he must have impressed, because soon he was working on the first Vincent Lightnings. But soon enough Sonny was ready to move on, and he took a job on an oil tanker and headed out to sea.
On the tanker, he worked his way up to second engineer. He was making $1,400 a month, a lot of money back then, but after 16 months he was ready to head home, and this time for good. When Sonny arrived back in San Diego in 1953, he had enough money to buy back his Vincent and open up a motorcycle shop, and on Aug. 14, 1953, Sonny Angel Motorcycles was born.
From riding to racing
In 1954, Sonny started frequenting the Bonneville Salt Flats. His first run was on a 74ci Harley that belonged to pal Dave Owen; he was clocked at 110mph. After the run, Sonny went back to the pits and told Dave, “I can jump off that bike and run faster than that.” Dave threatened to put a supercharger on the bike, and Sonny said he’d bring his Vincent to the Salt Flats for a face off. The two friends went back to Bonneville the next year, where Dave’s blown Harley ran 138mph and Sonny’s heavily modified Vincent was recorded at 144.69mph.
Not content with simply blasting across the desert floor, in 1956 Sonny took up road racing. He started out on a Triumph but soon moved to an NSU 250 Max and then a 500cc Norton Manx. This is also when he started racing against the legendary Don Vesco at Paradise Mesa, a local drag strip outside San Diego that doubled as a road course.
Going to the TT
In 1960, Sonny convinced Yamaha (Sonny was one of the first Yamaha dealers in the country) to loan him two bikes for the Isle of Man race. The bikes were fast (110mph-plus) but fragile. As Sonny puts it, “The bikes were 100 percent reliable. They blew up every time I ran them.” In hind sight, Sonny admits he should have brought over his Norton Manx instead, but he was still glad for the chance to get a few laps in on the fabled Mountain Circuit.
Two years later, Sonny raced his Norton Manx at the Willow Springs 200. Both Mike “The Bike” Hailwood and Don Vesco were racing Manxes, and although Sonny knew he was down on horsepower compared to the champions, he had a plan. He ran the practice sessions, but just before the race he flipped his tires around. That gave him fresh rubber on the right side of the tires, and with Willow Springs’ fast right-handed sweepers, he had a considerable advantage.
Initially, Hailwood and Vesco ran away from Sonny, but as the race wore on, their tires started to give way. Sonny remembers watching the tail end of Vesco’s Manx doing the jitterbug just before he made a pass. Hailwood won the race and Sonny finished third.
By 1969, Sonny had been selling Nortons for 15 years, but he wanted to see more out of the storied company. “I went to Norton and said, ‘Hey, you need to build a four like an MV Agusta or a Gilera,’” Sonny recalls. Norton wasn’t interested, so Sonny made his own.
Power came from a 900cc Hillman Imp car engine set across a stock Norton frame, but Sonny retained most of the Norton sub-assemblies (gearbox, exhausts, carbs, stator, etc.), and he claims his four-cylinder Norton picked up only 29lb over a standard twin. Sonny tested the bike in Mexico (ironically, it was the same week that Honda introduced its revolutionary CB750 Four), and the bike’s only fault was that the smallish radiator was capable at 85mph but overwhelmed at 100.
He then rode up to Los Angeles to show the Norton folks his creation. They still weren’t interested, so with that he rode the bike across town to Motorcycle Sport Quarterly magazine. The editors were suitably impressed, and Sonny and the bike were featured in the 1970 summer edition.
Sonny continued to road race until 1974. Over Sonny’s 18 year road racing career he raced, among others, Aermacchis, Norton Manx 350s and 500s, Yamahas, MV Agustas, a Triumph 650 and a featherbed Norton with an NSU engine.
Back to the flats
With his road racing days behind him, Sonny was drawn back to the world of top speed, and in 1981 he took his Vincent back to the flats and ran 144.95mph — exactly 0.26mph faster than its previous run 28 years prior.
About this same time, Sonny started working with his old friend Max Lambky. Max had fabricated a frame for a Vincent engine and he’d designed the bike to go fast and straight. Max brought the bike to El Mirage, a dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert of California, along with a young drag racer who would act as the jockey. On the morning of the time trials one of the pistons kissed a valve. Max had a spare piston but no spare valve, so Sonny took the valve and beat it back into shape. The engine went back together and the bike made a pass at 150mph-plus, bent valve and all.
Eventually, Max started building streamliners powered by not one but two supercharged Vincent engines, and he chose Don Angel, Sonny’s little brother, as his pilot. Don’s first trip to Bonneville was less than successful, ending up with one wadded up bike and one bruised ego. To hear Sonny tell it, “Don got into the soft stuff and the chute swung it off the wheels.” As the bike started to tumble, Don remembered thinking, “Max is going to be mad at me.” Don got to relive the experience over and over as footage of the crash was shown repeatedly on SpeedTV.
Don has, however, redeemed himself. On Sept. 8, 2005, Don piloted Lambky’s Liner to a one-way top speed of 212.91mph in the new S/VPBF (Streamline/Vintage Pushrod Blown Fuel) class. They raced again in 2006, but, as Sonny puts it, “it ran crappy, although it still hit 176mph.” Not content, Max, Sonny and Don are heading back to Bonneville next Labor Day to try and grab the class record with a two-way run (For updates on their progress go to www.vincentstreamliner.com).
For all the motion in Sonny’s life, there have been a couple constants, the most important being his wife of 46 years, Christine. The most obvious constant of course is Sonny Angel Motorcycles. Walk into the shop and you will be overcome with nostalgia: This is how motorcycle shops used to look and smell. When you enter you’ll probably be greeted by Christine, and Don is usually in the back of the shop working, while Sonny might be doing any one of a thousand tasks. There are new and old motorcycles scattered about, and motorcycle artifacts everywhere you look. And on the parts counter are the personal coffee mugs of Sonny’s regular customers. The experience is so complete that Sonny has even retained the original phone number (GRidley7-8120). Costco this isn’t.
At 81 years young, Sonny’s still going strong. His passion for life and motorcycles seems endless (he celebrated New Year’s with a 130-mile ride on a new Guzzi Breva), and he sees himself as a lucky man. As he says it, “Just being here, doing pretty much the same things in my life is all I could ask for.” MC